Two years ago this past weekend, we left Southern California
at 3 p.m. and drove straight through the night and the next day to what would
soon be our new home – The Woodlands, Texas.
Once in The Woodlands, we looked at 35 rental houses,
registered for youth soccer (even in moments of major life change, we must have
our priorities!) and enjoyed the city’s Fourth of July fireworks show – all within
less than 36 hours.
The trip was the culmination of a whirlwind week where we
traded in one incredibly flawed but doable moving plan for a more financially and
emotionally feasible one, all while the company my husband worked for since
graduating from college 17 years earlier continued limping along in bankruptcy.
I agreed to move to The Woodlands area, which is a suburb of
Houston, without ever seeing it – unless you count the slick promotional videos
the city has posted online.
But as soon as the kids and I laid eyes on the area, we knew
this was a good move for our family.
There was something about the place – and all the
circumstances that had to line up to even get us here – that just felt
incredibly right – about as right as anything we have ever done.
We appreciated this new hometown of ours for a number of
- Its many parks, pools and bike pathways –
amenities we became used to while in Southern California for just over a
- A healthier economy – The Woodlands was a far
cry from the Inland Empire area of Southern California, where many homes were
in foreclosure and more were being added by the hour. In fact, many people here
seemed uncertain there was even a recession happening – and judging by the
local economy, we understood why;
- The knowledge that we were now within a fairly
comfortable driving distance (about 8 hours) of dear family and friends,
including my mother-in-law, who was battling esophageal cancer at her home in
- A sense of safety. The Woodlands is a safe place
to raise children. Not everyone is so fortunate.
- Quality public schools. We are dedicated to keeping
our children in public schools as long as it’s even remotely feasible. And
admittedly, the decision is an easy one to make in a place like Conroe ISD,
where test scores are high and resources, even with a recent round of budget
cuts, are still plentiful by comparison;
- Less time sacrified sitting in traffic. Traffic in The Woodlands
can be frustrating at times, but it is nothing compared to the gridlock we
endured for a decade in Southern California, where a commute that should have
taken 45 minutes could easily take more than 2 hours if traffic was heavy or an
accident jammed the freeways. Eliminating these commutes contributed to a
dramatically improved quality of life — and a smoother sharing of childcare responsibilities — for all of us.
That said, it’s funny how quickly even genuine gratitude can fade.
Two years later, I still see the positives of my new hometown.
I am incredibly thankful for this place, where we have a more stable income,
health benefits that don’t appear to be going away any time soon, and a commute
of less than 15 minutes for each of us. Our community connections are growing and we have made friends we cherish somewhere along the way.
But I also am guilty of complaining about this place – not because
it is a bad place to live, but actually because, I suspect, maybe it is too good.
I joke about it being a maddeningly predictable suburban
bubble, where everything is cookie cutter perfection.
I complain that the demographics are too high, the crime rates actually too low.
That it is a place that will make me and my kids soft. And that, above all else, it is not
representative of reality.
And those just might be reasonable criticisms to consider,
particularly considering my passion for serving people from low-income
But more than anything, during this summer where we are
striving to focus on gratitude, I want to do a better job of remembering how I
felt when I first laid eyes on this place.
Because being here together really is a gift — one I should
continue to appreciate.
Today, we decided to treat ourselves with a trip to
We went through the drive-thru, ordering two kids’ hot chocolates
and a tall, skim mocha.
When we paid, we decided to foot not just our bill, but the
one for the car behind us — all part of our ongoing summer effort to think and
My 7-year-old daughter was immediately on board with this
idea, and kept craning her neck to sneak a peek at what appeared to be a mother
and her teen daughter in the white car behind us.
“They are going to be so surprised! So excited!” Hannah
said, grinning broadly.
Hunter, a rising first grader, instinctively took a more
“Wait. Why are we doing this again?” he asked, his
brown-green eyes questioning. “Are the people behind us poor? Can they not
afford to get their own Starbucks? Is that why?”
At this, I had to explain that we certainly did not know the
people’s financial status – just that kindness and generosity are always good options
and good things happen in our own hearts and minds when we take the time and
energy to be kind.
Hunter seemed to get this, but then asked, “But wait! Why
aren’t the people in the car in front of us paying for ours? No one is giving
us any free coffee!”
Part of me wanted to chastise Hunter for his questions,
which seemed to be trending to the negative. But I could tell he was sincerely
trying to understand why we were doing this – and maybe even why generosity
matters at all.
“Just wait and see, Hunter Man,” I said, sounding far more
confident than I really felt. “Think about what we did today. Know that we did
it. And you’ll see. It will change the course of not just their day, but ours,
At this, we decided to park the car and enjoy our beverages
in the outdoor seating area. We sat down next to the storefront window, and started
Soon, a bespectacled man, who was in his mid-20s and dressed
in a suit, motioned to Hunter from the indoor side of the glass. He took out a
red Sharpie and drew a happy face. Soon, all of us were smiling and laughing. Even
other people inside the store seemed to be enjoying the scene.
The stanger kept smiling and added other pictures, including
a smiling, running stick figure.
“This guy is so nice – so cool,” Hunter said, grinning.
Hannah sat quietly for a minute and then perked up. “It’s
working! It’s working!” she said.
But then she paused, looking disappointed.
“Wait! That’s not the person we bought the coffee for, is
it?” she asked, tentatively.
I explained that it was not. But it was still quite unusual,
the way this man was smiling and entertaining our family with his stick
figures. And his act seemed to be bringing joy – not just to us, but to him and
the other customers who were watching.
Finally, Hannah said. “Maybe he doesn’t know. But maybe he
feels it – he feels what we did.”
And as far-fetched as it may sound, I think that’s what we
all learned today – that goodwill and generosity can be felt by others. And
that when we approach life from a place of giving instead of getting, good
A valuable lesson for sure …..
The idea of centering our summer on three themes –
generosity, gratitude and exploration – excited me from the minute it came to
But at the same time, I have to admit I worried about
putting the idea in a blog, where all could see.
I worried the idea sounded entirely too lofty, conjuring up
images of my professorial self lecturing my kids, day in and day out, boring
them out of their minds by drawing from the great philosophers and sociological
researchers of our time. And surely there would be PowerPoints and a syllabi,
But the truth is, our days, like yours, look nothing like that.
Most of our time is eaten up doing normal, mundane things – like getting haircuts, enduring trips
to the post office, or scurrying off to some dreary meeting or another.
Yet, I have found that some of our best conversations as a
family actually happen during those otherwise everyday moments – at least when
I am open to them and willing to put forth the energy required to listen and
allow them happen.
Here are some concepts explored in the car during the past
week or so:
- If God made all of us, why are some of us better
at more things than others? Is that fair?
- Why haven’t we found a cure for cancer yet?
(This is a sensitive subject in our family, like most, because we have lost
several friends and family members to the disease.)
- Why does cancer even exist?
- Does the Tooth Fairy fly all the time, or
sometimes does she walk?
- Why don’t girls typically get to have their
heads shaved in the summer so they can be cool and comfortable like the boys?
- Why do some neighborhoods we drive through have
high numbers of minorities, while other neighborhoods are mostly white?
(Hannah: “Don’t people who look different WANT to live next to each other? Our
school is like that. We are all mixed up together. It is more interesting that
- How do babies get in your belly, anyway? (I, admittedly, turned the radio up and pretended not to hear this one. The answer
will come in time, but this is not an idea I am ready to explore with them just
yet – even if this is our summer of exploration.)
- What happens if you don’t go to college? Can you
still be smart?
- Is there really such a thing as too many Pokemon
- Why do some people have two great parents and
some kids don’t have anyone who really loves them?
- Why are there homeless people when there are so
many people who have so much?
I will admit to you that I enjoyed some of these conversations more than others. There were times when I found it almost
too tiring to both drive the car and answer their challenging questions. But I could tell that these were important conversations – the sort that shape the hearts and minds of children not just now, but for years to come. And really, that is what parenting is all about – at least on the better days.
Now, forgive me if I cut this short. I need to go and Google Tooth Fairy mobility. Hunter says he “really, really, REALLY
needs to know – now.”
We havespent a lot of time this week both being grateful for and celebrating growth.
In some ways, the kids’ growth is actually visible. That is the case in this shot,
where Hunter has just confirmed he is, indeed, now finally tall enough to go
down the waterslide at our little community water park.
We have also seen the growth that comes from hard work. This week, the kids continued
to participate in daily swim team practices, where they worked quite hard to
shave a few seconds off their times for Saturday’s swim meet, which was the
last of the regular season.
It has been exciting to see how they have become stronger, growing as people and as athletes. Last week, when
Hannah was at the dinner table, she insisted that I feel her arms. “These bumps
– muscles? They are getting bigger.” Hunter, tanned and shirtless at the table,
then started showing off his muscles, concluding, “We worked so hard for these, huh, Mommy?”
And that is the thing about growth.
Sometimes, it happens when we are not really looking.
But most of the time, the growth that we are most excited about – the growth that really and truly matters – is the
result of effort. In some cases, that effort is physical, as was the case with swim team.
Many other times, growth comes when we are diligent in thinking about and working through complicated issues – like
questions about what we believe, who we want to be as people, and how we want
to treat others.
Working through those questions –as individuals, as families, and as societies, is difficult. And it often makes
you tired, even frustrated and, for a season, disenchanted. But in the end it
does, indeed, bring about growth that we can see and be thankful to have achieved.
I was sweaty, red-faced and a bit cranky as I helped the
kids select their fountain drinks at a neighborhood convenience store.
Making my way to the register, a man who was probably in his
early 80s tapped me on the shoulder and loudly said, “Ma’am, if it would be OK
with you, I’d really like to buy you and your kids drinks – and a snack, too,
if you’d like.”
I hesitated for a minute, not entirely sure what to make of
this man, who was standing there looking at me, his face deeply lined and his
arms suntanned. He had a case of Budweiser in one hand, and a massive fountain
drink in the other.
Part of me – the cynical, prideful part – immediately wanted
to tell him no.
I wanted to know what he wanted from us in return? Was he
dangerous? Crazy? Was he going to ask us for money? What made him want to give
us – a trio of tired, grumpy strangers, anything at all?
Then, I started thinking about how we might seem to him.
Did we look like we were so destitute we could not afford to
buy our own drinks?
At this point, I took a minute to consider what I was
After all I am known, in some circles, for sometimes
dressing as though I am homeless. (I want to claim that this started when I was
doing my dissertation on homeless students and spending a lot of time at a San
Bernardino homeless shelter. But that wouldn’t really be true. I’ve always had
this tendency to ignore fashion for the sake of comfort and practicality. I
like to think it is a sign that I am interesting.)
I was relieved to realize I was quite presentable – in a
dress, no less! The kids also had managed to avoid the homeless effect that day
– a surprising fact, considering both of them had dressed themselves.
Finally, I decided that the man, still standing there patiently
waiting for my response, was just being legitimately nice – he wanted to do
something kind and generous, just as the kids and I are trying to do with our
summer-long focus on generosity.
I flashed a smile and told him that yes, we would consider
it an honor for him to buy our drinks and snacks, and that we would always
remember his kindness. He smiled in return, and also looked a little relieved.
(I think he might be new to this practice.)
He paid, gave my children, who smelled of sunscreen and
chlorine, quick pats on the shoulders and was gone.
But that moment has gnawed at me these past few days. If I
am trying so hard to focus on being generous, why is it so hard for me to
accept the kindness of others? Why was I so cynical in response to the kindness
of a stranger?
Last night, I came across this line in Blue Like Jazz, a book about spirituality written by Donald Miller:
“I love to give charity, but I don’t
want to be charity.”
I suspect this has something to do with my initial reaction
to this man’s generosity.
And I think it’s
something I need to change. If I am going to focus on being generous, then I
also need to be willing to give other people opportunities to do the same.
We talked a lot today about generosity – what it is, what it
isn’t and why it matters.
As part of our efforts to behave generously today, we took
several bags of clothing, as well as some old toys, to a neighborhood Goodwill
donation center. The employees were quick to scurry out to the car and get our
things, but I insisted that we should carry them in ourselves. That act seemed
like an important part of the process.
As Hunter carried in a large plastic bag overflowing with
clothes he has outgrown and action figures he no longer enjoys, we talked about
why it was important to share our old items.
Hunter listened for a bit and then said, “Someone else might
really want these. But I don’t. So is giving them to someone else really that
I was impressed with this question from my brown-haired boy,
who just finished up kindergarten last week and still has not fully mastered
the frustrating art of shoe tying. And I had to admit that, really, giving away
things that we no longer want is not a true act of sacrifice.
Yet, taking the time to donate items someone else might find
valuable still seems like an important step – something we should all learn to
do from an early age and continue throughout life.
Thinking for a while, I finally said, “Hunter, it’s not that
what we are doing here is so amazing. But what we are doing is responsible.
It’s responsible because we can use what we have to help someone else. And also
because it’s better for the earth than just throwing it away. It really is the
right thing to do.”
So, maybe the lesson for today is that every once in a
while, doing the right thing actually IS easy. And that’s ok.
Throughout the first day of summer break, which we spent at a community water park, I wanted to be sure to talk about our themes in ways that felt natural. Hannah and I took a
spin around the lazy river – me balanced inside an inner tube and she swimming
alongside me, chatting.
I asked her about the idea of gratitude – what she thought
it meant and why.
“I know it means to be thankful and to appreciate things,”
she said. “You need to see the things that are good and not always the ones
that are bad.”
When I asked her what she was thankful for at that moment,
as we drifted along the lazy river at this amusement park, she said: “I am
looking at the plants that are here, and the water and the sun. And I am glad
they are there. And I’m glad that I can talk to you – just to talk about what
is in my brain. I think that’s good.”
Good, indeed …..
It’s official: We kicked off the Meaningful Summer Project
at the Henderson Household on Friday – the first day of summer break.
We spent most of the day at a community water park, but also
took the time to do some brainstorming on our project, talk more about our
themes and to figure out where we go from here.
I have a few ideas about how to incorporate our themes – generosity, gratitude and exploration – into our day-to-day summer lives. But I wanted to be sure to get the kids’ ideas, too.
It would be easier, honestly, to just push my ideas on them.
But I know that won’t work, because if they don’t feel like the project is
theirs, they will resist – or at least won’t learn as much as I hope.
I was surprised how much input they were able to offer, with
Hunter being six and Hannah being seven.
Right now, they seem most excited by the idea of generosity,
which we are basically defining as “being kind to others and giving freely of
our time, money and other resources.” One idea the kids came up with in the
area of generosity surprised me: They want to operate a lemonade stand, but
want the lemonade they serve to be free.
Hannah explained it by saying, “We want to surprise people
by being kind! People think a lemonade stand is somewhere you have to pay. Ours
can be different.” Then, we talked about the idea that some people might insist
on paying us. We talked about how we might handle that and agreed that we will
have a donation box, and will designate a charity that we are supporting.
One thing we are wondering, in doing this, is whether we
will actually end up making more money for charity from a free lemonade stand,
instead of one with an established price. This coming week, we will be exploring
where we might hand out our lemonade (We are thinking about our wonderful
veterinarian’s office, and also maybe at swim team practice, if we can get
approval.) and also deciding which charity we would like to support.
I definitely learned a valuable lesson from this first
formal project meeting, where the kids and I downed pizza and chugged orange soda: The kids do have good ideas and are eager
to participate. I need to be careful to allow them the freedom to make this
project theirs, while still guiding them. I imagine most of us are guilty of
underestimating the children in our lives at some point or another!
It is Memorial Weekend — that three-day period that has become as much a kick-off to summer as a patriotic celebration.
And on this weekend, the Hendersons will take some time to think about how we want to spend summer break, which officially starts for us when school lets out on Thursday.
I’ve identified some themes I want to focus on with the Little People this summer — generosity, gratitude and exploration.
My hope is that these themes will shape our summer, the activities we choose, the way we think about the world around us, and the conversations we have.
The themes are not meant to be confining, since some of the most beautiful days of summer are often the unstructured ones spent reading books together under the covers, going on meandering walks or playing with piles of Legos.
And ideally, in big ways and small, by the end of the summer, all of us — including me — will have a heightened sense of gratitude, a more generous heart and a new set of ideas and activities that have been explored and celebrated.
Want to learn more about each of the values, why we chose them and some of the activities we have planned? Stay tuned later this week ….