The joy of making music

This weekend I spent some much needed time with friends at the Flatwater Music Festival in Hastings. Three years ago I stumbled upon this festival when I saw a flier advertising it at the Back Alley Bakery (quite possibly the best bakery in central Nebraska). For two years I attended as a festival goer, enjoying the music and local artists. This year was different because the band I used to sing in when we lived in Ogallala got a chance to open up the festival and play on Friday night. 

I've always had a bad case of stage fright that comes out in my singing with a trembly vibrato and flat notes. It's been almost a year since we all played together, so it took me quite a while to work through my nerves. Our sound check a few hours before was shaky at best. I had lugged my guitar along but left it in the car because I was so nervous that I didn't think I could play and sing at the same time. I wasn't even sure I could make any sort of sensible notes come out of my mouth (especially considering how terrible I sounded during our sound check). After the sound check, I was convinced that our performance would be a flop. I had visions of tripping over mic cords and falling into banjos. The worst-case scenarios continued to build in my mind as the clock ticked closer to performance time. While we waited to take stage, we continued to play through our set list, pausing here and there to joke around. About a half hour before we went on stage, I suddenly realized I was with a few of my best friends doing something I love: making music. I've spent a lot of my life worrying and stressing about being absolutely perfect that I've missed opportunities to just enjoy moments. I didn't want this moment to be stolen by worry. It took a lot of inner-head talk, but before we went on stage, I vowed to just have fun and enjoy the time I had with my friends. And 'ya know what? It worked. I've been performing in different capacities for many years, but this is probably first time I've really enjoyed myself.

On the drive home I was coming off of a serious music high. I couldn't help but think back through all the great memories I have: high school choir concerts (Celeste, Hannah, and Autumn--remember our last concert and what we "wore" beneath our choir robes?!), directing musicals with my husband, dancing with my niece Alexis on the deck at my mother in-law's house to Old Crow Medicine Show, falling in love with a clean-cut guy in a pink tie across the room my first day of college choir (that was Nate in case you were wondering!), playing and singing on a street corner in Norfolk with my high school friend Jon, sitting around Bob and Shannon's kitchen table drinking wine and singing...the list of great memories involving music in my life feels endless. All of my closest friendships are with musicians. I wish I could express this in a more eloquent manner; there's just something about making music with people that forges a unique and deep bond. Music has a way of connecting people and forging communities.

I'll end with a few photos from the weekend for your viewing pleasure--
During our performance as we waited for our guest clogger to come join us for a song
On Saturday we played for a group of senior citizens at an assisted living facility in Hastings; they were the best crowd!
We made the front page of the Hastings newspaper!


Everything I need to know about parenting, I'm learning from a four year-old

Today was our first "full day"with the little dude. 11 hours straight. Some of you parents with one, two, three or more children, won't even blink at our 11 hour visit, but it was exhausting for us. For seven years we've basically had peace and quiet with just the two of us. A busy four year old can quickly shatter that silence...in a good way. Tonight when we dropped him off, I expected to be excited to return to a quiet home. But once we got home, the house was just too quiet. Little man's mini-CamelBak water bottle remained on the table from dinner and our towels and sunscreen from today's escapade through the sprinkler lingered on our back deck. The house just felt feels empty. I'm glad we're taking our time with the transition to move him over to our house (it's looking like he might be living with us by late July/early August), but the joy and excitement he brings to our house is incredible. Our visit today wasn't all unicorns farting butterflies--there were some serious good choice/bad choice conversations, a time out here and there, and some pure head-scratching instances.

Aside from common sense and what we've learned from our foster/adoption classes, I'm basically and idiot when it comes to parenting. Luckily, this four year old is teaching me all I need to know. Here's just a few lessons from the day:
  • Farmers markets are not as interesting to a lively four year old boy as they are to me. He was well-behaved after we bought him donut holes...(except for the small incident where he threw the last three on the ground because he didn't like them any more...and after Nate made him pick them up and throw them in a trash can)
  • Sometimes donuts ARE the answer. The minute we got to the farmers market he told us he was hungry and proceeded to tell us he was hungry every two minutes until we finally found a vendor selling something that wasn't green. 
  • Kids are messy; ergo, a house with a kid in it will not be spic and span. The kid tries incredibly hard (after he's reminded) to eat with a fork. But he's still at the stage where he has to steady his watermelon with his left hand and stab it with his right hand. Of course, the juice from the watermelon and the broccoli from his plate ended up on his arms, shirt, pants, chair cushion, and floor. Sampson has now taken perch beneath his chair during meal or snack times. 
  • Along the same lines, give a kid sand and it will end up in his hair. Little dude's foster mom sent over some of his toys (have I mentioned how awesome that woman is?! She could keep these toys for her little one at home, but she wants little man to be comfortable in this transition and have some of his own stuff at our place), one of which is a water and sand table. There's a little compartment for the sand and another section for the water. The two elements remained separate for about two minutes before he decided to combine them. About thirty minutes later I caught him dumping the sandy water on his beautiful, curly locks. And I did not stop him. I just let him rub the sand into his hair (don't judge me). A few minutes after that, he realized he could use that sandy water and some lingering dirt in the yard to make mud. And once a boy has realized he can make mud, there is no stopping him. 
  • Boys who say they hate reading simply haven't found the right books yet. Last visit I was thrilled to show the little guy all the picture books I'd been collecting over the years (including a picture book of Bob Dylan's hit song, "Forever Young") when he crushed my spirit by telling me he hated books, turning instead to his more "boy" toys. That night I purchased a kids collection of DC Comics. We read one today before his nap, and he was enthralled.
I feel like I could go on and on about what I learned today during our short time with the little man. I know we have so much more to learn, and I'm looking forward to all he will teach us. If you're the praying type, please pray for this little guy as he transitions. I know this is tough on him (conversations with him and some of his behaviors tell us it's tough on him), and we just want to do what's best for this kid. Pray that we'd find that very delicate balance between attachment and guarding our own hearts. Like I mentioned earlier, nothing is ever absolute with foster care/adoption until certain papers are signed, and we care a lot for this kid already. Pray for patience for us and strength in our faith and marriage as we increase our visits with little guy. And pray for his foster mom; she loves him so much, and I'm sure it's hard to see him transition out of her home. Pray also for his biological family, that they'd have wisdom and would make decisions based on his best interest. 

Many of you have indicated you'd like to help us out by purchasing things we need---here's an update: we will likely be putting together a more specified list/registry in the near future. We are waiting to see what his foster mom sends over, and the more he comes over, the more we realize what else we need. Once we get the list created, I'll post it on the blog. 

We truly appreciate the support so many of you have offered through prayers, kind words of encouragement, kid items, etc. Hopefully we'll be able to introduce him to some of you in the near future! 


My new job

This summer I'm working part-time as a consultant at Omaha Metropolitan Community College's writing centers. I'm happy to still be using my Masters Degree, and this writing center gig seems to be a great blend of writing instruction meets social justice. It allows me to talk with writers about their writing rather than talk to/at writers about their writing. I've only had four consultations so far, but from what I can tell--I'm not as good at this as I thought I'd be, and I think my experiences as a high school English teacher have contributed to this.

I'm learning that a writing center consultation should be writer-centered. As a consultant, I should work to understand (via questioning and listening) the writer's background, context, and the institutional demands of the assignment. My goal seems to be to help students creatively and critically negotiate these concepts through their writing. This seems difficult to me because there is no concrete blueprint of what this looks like. I've read about five articles on writing center theory and practice, and while they were provocative, I struggled through each one. Maybe it's because I'm not as intelligent as the people meant to read each article, or maybe it's because I'm accustomed to teachers' guides filled with suggestions and tips--but what I really wanted was a list of questions I could ask each writer during a consultation. Of course, these probably don't exist because each consultation will be different since each writer is different. I have to rely on my own intuition, education, and knowledge, which, for someone who is a bit overly analytical and self-conscious, can be intimidating.

You might be thinking: Helzer, you're an English teacher! Don't you "consult" with kids every day about their writing? The truth is, no, I don't. I can't always do this work in the traditional high school English classroom because of the institutional demands I face: timeliness, curricular confines, pressures to be on "the same page" as the other section teachers of my class, expectations of administrators/parents/students, etc. It is a teacher's responsibility to be critical and negotiate these demands with her own background, strengths, student make up, knowledge of best practice, etc. However--depending on the space and its culture--teachers are limited in what they can do. I would've loved to have sat down with all of my 110 students each time we wrote to talk with them about their writing before they turned it in; perhaps if I had stuck around Gretna long enough, I would've learned how to navigate this. But I just didn't have time. I felt like I was racing through the year from one assignment to the next (I can't imagine how my students felt!). When I did get a chance to talk with my comp. students about their writing, it was clumsy and awkward because we simply didn't do enough of it. Oftentimes I handed back writing assignments with editing marks and a brief justification of their grade scribbled at the bottom. I felt like a gatekeeper who controlled everything; admittedly, the writing process was not very democratic in my classroom.

Thus, the opportunity to work as a writing center consultant is an exciting challenge. I'm hoping to learn how to do this "negotiating" business so I can help students develop agency in an institutionalized setting. I suspect that when I return to the high school classroom I'll be more equipped to navigate the system so I can help my students more democratically. Hopefully I'll get better at this writing center business as the summer progresses!


The end of a beginning

Well, in less than a week we will be completed with our PS-MAPP foster training coursework. After we're finished, the licensing department of our agency will come out and inspect our home, likely give us a list of things we need to do, and then come back to be sure we're in compliance and to do some interviews with us before sending our paperwork to the state. The state will then decide if they'll issue or deny us licensing. We've waited somewhat patiently for five years to be parents, so the wait for our license to be foster parents could seem like an eternity.

In the meantime, we plugged our outlets with those super swanky plastic outlet plugs and outfitted our dangerous stuff (like my gummy multi-vitamins) with child locks...and we prepped one of our spare rooms because we are currently working on transitioning a little man to our family!

Our new bunk beds courtesy of an incredibly generous colleague of mine from Gretna High...thanks Steph! 

 We've had two visits with him already, and I can tell you that he is a handsome charmer. He's four years old and incredibly intelligent for his age. He is in foster care, so we're not sure how long we'll get to spend with the little guy, but as of now, the plan is to  transition him from his current foster family to us. His current foster family is awesome, but they cannot provide a permanent home for him should he become free and clear for adoption. The agency is trying to be proactive in finding families who could meet his needs now through foster care and perhaps in the future permanently. Because we're open to both fostering and adoption, we're working on the transition to our home. Moving a kid to a new home, even if it is a good home, is a traumatic experience (as you can imagine). So, we're taking the transition slowly. We'll use the time between now and the time we receive our license (assuming we will), to get to know the little man. I have big plans which include trips to a paint your own pottery studio, a bounce house, the zoo, a few museums, lots of trips to the park, etc. After a certain point, he'll be able to spend a night or two with us, hence the bunk beds pictured above! Periodically we'll post updates, but please know that we cannot and will not share specific information in order to maintain confidentiality.

We're not quite sure on the time frame, and we've learned that with foster care and adoption, nothing is ever certain until papers are signed by the appropriate folks. So, there's even a chance that he may not move in with us. All we know is that right now the plan is to transition him to our home. So he will be spending time with us at our home. The dilemma: We don't have a lot of kid stuff. We bought bedding and we've acquired enough furniture for the bedroom, and my folks bought us a carseat (thanks mom and dad!), but otherwise we don't have anything. I'm sure if the placement will go through, we'll need clothes, toys, toiletries, kitchen stuff, and whatever else a four year old needs. Because, like most people who first have children the "normal" way, we cannot afford to go out and just buy all of this stuff on our own, we have created a wish list of items. We didn't complete a typical registry at a store, because we didn't want to limit people by specifying items. We are down to earth folks who are okay with hand-me-downs and gently used items. In a nutshell, if you have some of the following items lying around the house or if you simply want to contribute, check out the list below. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me via cell phone (if you have my number) or email (helzerdm@gmail.com).

Our list of needs for the little man: 
Clothes (size ??? I'll confirm this one later!)
Kids bath towels
Step stool
Toys (he likes Spiderman, trucks, cars, Dora the Explorer, Spongebob, etc)
Toy chest
A bike
Bike helmet 
Kids movies (Dora and Spongebob are his favorite TV shows)
A toy lawn mower (back story: at our last visit, he pointed to our lawn mower and asked if we could teach him how to use it)
And anything else a four year old needs... 


Deadwood-Mickelson Trail Half Marathon

Last week I ventured to Deadwood, South Dakota to run a half-marathon with my running partner, Kristin. Although Kristin was a trooper and trained all the way up to 18 miles with me during my marathon training, she had never run an "official" half-marathon until this race. It was awesome to join her for this moment. Not only did she run the race, but she ran it in well under two hours smashing her goal all while battling a barrage of recent injuries including IT band issues and a dog bite. Kristin and her husband, Jim, are from the Deadwood/Lead area, so this was also a trip home for the two. It was fun to see their stomping grounds. This particular area of SD, including Spearfish, are gorgeous. The weather was unusually cold, so we didn't get to do much hiking, but we managed to squeeze in a few chilly spurts of hiking and even ventured into an old mine for a tour. The run was on a beautiful course complete with roadside streams, mud puddles, and breathtaking views. The course was mainly downhill, so it was easy to PR on it. I ran a 1:52:59--a PR for me. This wasn't my official recorded time and didn't include stoppint to tie a shoe earlier on, but I think it still counts :) All in all, it was a great mini-vacation.

A pre-mine tour action shot 
A waterfall near Spearfish Canyon

The guy in the middle is Doug; he's a colleague of another runner we know from Ogallala. This was his first half also, and he was a pleasure to run with! About every mile, he'd call out, "Coach! What's our pace?" Dutifully, I'd holler out our pace and mileage...and he'd mutter some sort of profanity and a concern that he might not survive with us...but he did! He ran the half in under two hours as well. It was fun to push each other. 

Providing entertainment for the camera man

Last 1.5 miles of the course...still smiling!