Sunday, December 30, 2012

Man Plans and God Laughs?

The topic of the moment seems to be New Year's Resolutions.  Not everyone is a fan of New Year's Resolutions.  Some folks hate them.  Some ignore them.  For some, they are a simple thing.  For others, not so much.

My father has a long-standing tradition of writing New Year's Resolutions on New Year's Day.  I've always thought of my father as a philosopher.  He is my model of pursuing the life of the mind while in this physical realm.  Some of my earliest memories are of my Dad with his nose in a book, and that's true to this day.  We have a special kind of conversation that happens through the books we give or recommend to one another.  Sometimes that conversation ebbs or flows, but it's always there.

As I entered adulthood, I followed my father's model for New Year's.  But I added my own twist.  I keep a journal, and have since I was 7.  I don't write in it every day, but I do write in it regularly, and I re-read it to gain perspective on myself and my reactions to the world.  When New Year's rolls around, I re-read my journal for the year, reflecting on last year's resolutions and on the year as a whole, and contemplating what the year ahead may bring and what I want to focus on as I enter this new year.  And then I write my resolutions.

This process is often a reminder to me of the saying, "Man plans and God laughs"  (though I'm not too keen on this vision of a spiteful God who laughs at us when things don't go the way we hoped).  Often, the events of the year push me in a direction so unexpected that my resolutions ceased to have relevance.  Still, reflecting on the year's events often helps me take stock of my successes, and the times when I let myself down or wish I had been stronger, and those reflections guide my new resolutions.

I haven't yet re-read this year's journal.  As of this moment, my resolutions seem much more concrete than usual.  I often make resolutions about character, things such as "seek out small moments of joy" or "listen more to others."  Right now, this year's fledgling thoughts for resolutions are "Read more books, even during the school year" and "Eat more fruits and vegetables."  These two seem awfully mundane.  Perhaps there is a reason I am feeling so very concrete.  Perhaps these simple, concrete resolutions can ground me through whatever unexpected events await me in the coming year.

Do you make resolutions?  What is your process for deciding on them?  Do you look back at them?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Small Inspirations

This week, my students were once again my inspiration.  They witnessed the emergency response to the Clackamas Town Center shooting across the street from where they live (and some had family members there).  Then they heard about the Connecticut school shooting all weekend.  As we were finishing our oil pastel mural of a map of the world, I had them create word art by writing sentences to describe our world.  Here are some of the sentences my students wrote:

Our world is a calm and peaceful place.
Our world is beautiful.
Our world is as perfect as it can be.
People in our world play.
Our world is a fun place.
Our world is magnificent.
Our world is a place of friendship and kindness.
These 3rd graders are the definition of resilience.  If they can still have faith in our world, they give me a reason to hope.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

One Small Good Thing

How can we even begin to heal what has been shattered?  All around us we see violence and death, the rending of peace, the murder of children, the destruction of safety and innocence.  Can a world so horribly broken ever be made right?

This week, I faced these questions as I struggled to help my third graders, many of whom live across the street from Clackamas Town Center and saw the police cars and heard the sirens, some of whom had family members at the mall, all of whom had their sense of security in the world violated.  And then on Friday at lunchtime came the news from Connecticut, where personal connections left me anxious and terrified while striving to be present for my students, who were still mercifully unaware of this latest horror and who, when they heard it, would no doubt be shaken all over again.  "How can I be present for them when I feel so fragile myself?" I thought.  And the voices of great teachers I have known said, "One small good thing at a time."

If healing can happen, that's how it happens.  One small good thing at a time.  Every act, no matter how small, can be sacred.  The act of unlocking my classroom door or setting up the daily order of the room.  The act of drawing a line in pencil on plain white paper.  The act of painting in watercolors.  The act of sitting together in a circle and greeting one another.  The choice of questions and stretches and community building conversations.    "If you could be a superhero, which one would you be?"  I asked them.  "Would you rather snuggle with a cat or play with a dog?"  "Name a safe place or person, real or imaginary."  "Pretend you are a strong and powerful creature.  Show me what you would look like."  One small good thing at a time.  One tiny sliver of strength or safety or joy placed onto another to fill the cracks and rebuild what's been destroyed.  A laugh.  An extra moment to listen.  A kind word.  A gentle and patient response to a distracted soul.  The act of putting one foot in front of the other to continue the daily expression of faith in the future that is the education of young children.  One small, good thing at a time.

I know there are others who can only see healing happening through great and sweeping changes, through policy and laws.  I honor them and their fight.   But I also know the universe works both in the macro and in the micro, and I believe we must recognize the sacred role of small acts for the ground to be fertile enough to allow the grand changes to take root.   

Friday, December 14, 2012

Did heaven look on and would not take their part?
      -  Macduff, on the slaughter of his children, in William Shakespeare's MACBETH. 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Keeping Christmas In Your Heart

In honor of the season, here are a few of my favorite quotes from the Dickens classic A CHRISTMAS CAROL.  They say what needs to be said better than I ever could, or would wish to.
picture by jholbo
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say ... Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time ... as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good and I say God bless it!
                                                        - Scrooge's nephew Fred

Business! Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business.  Charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business.
                                  - Marley's Ghost

This boy is Ignorance.  This girl is Want.  Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.  Deny it! ... Slander those who tell it ye!  Admit it for your factious purposes and make it worse!  And bide the end!
                                  - The Ghost of Christmas Present 

Saturday, December 1, 2012


This weekend, I am pushing to finish a paper that's due on Monday.  Suddenly, I realized  something I was supposed to do for a friend that needed to be done today.

"But I've got to get this paper done.  I can't do this thing for my friend.  It's not a matter of life and death for them," I thought to myself.  And then I stopped.  I thought of some recent news about a family member that had reminded me how sudden life and death situations can be.  And I asked myself what mattered more, getting the graduate credit for this class or honoring my friendship.  I chose to honor my friendship.

That graduate paper doesn't have to be perfect, and I probably still have time to get it done.  In the end, friends and family matter more.  I'm not always very good at the niceties of friendships - the cards and little gifts and phone calls that hold a friendship together.  I wish I was better at that.  But in this one small instance, I managed to get my priorities straight, and I'm glad.

With the holidays upon us, remember your priorities.  What will really matter most to you in the end?   

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Are You a Dog, a Cat or a Guinea Pig?

The other night, sitting around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by friends, I got to thinking about the ways we reach out to others and seek affection.  I am so lucky I married someone for whom the act of making connections comes naturally.  I am not that person, and if my husband Sam were not in my life, my community would be a much, much smaller circle, and my life would be much poorer as a result.  Even those friends who haven't come to me through Sam have often come into my life because Sam has helped me become better at reaching out and connecting.

As I contemplated this reality over Thanksgiving dinner, it struck me how much I am like a guinea pig.  I have a guinea pig as a class pet in my 3rd grade classroom.  Sarge is his name.  He doesn't like to be picked up.  However, he is, by nature, a social animal.  So, although he is reluctant and often seems to run away from contact and affection, he  truly needs it and he is a sadder guinea pig without it.  It takes a bit of an effort, and a strong sense of self, to love the Sarges of this world.

Some people are more like dogs.  Dogs joyfully seek affection at every turn, sometimes shamelessly courting it, always giving it with undying loyalty and unquestioning belief that the person receiving their affection is, de facto, worthy of such affection.  They are sometimes wrong about that.  It rarely deters them.  They are the hopeless romantics of the animal kingdom.  I'm not sure I want to be a dog, though they are to be admired.  My pride perhaps prevents me.

I think I aspire to be more of a cat.  Cats appear to be loners.  However, when once they connect with you, they willingly seek affection, but only and always on their own terms. They don't run from it, but they won't sacrifice their sense of self to receive it.

With apologies to dog-lovers everywhere, I here end my ruminations on the cat, the dog and the guinea pig.  Feel free to add your own thoughts on other members of the animal kingdom.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Case Against Being Solitary as an Oyster

One of my all-time favorite holiday stories is A CHRISTMAS CAROL and I'm a purist.  I'm not a big fan of updated, modernized takes on the Dickens tale, because Dickens' language is just too magnificent.  Today, a phrase from Dickens was sticking in my mind, the first description of Scrooge, in which, among other things, Dickens says he is "solitary as an oyster."  What a great metaphor!  Closed up so tight nothing can get in or out without effort, prying, muscle, possibly killing the thing inside in order to retrieve its pearl.

This phrase came to my mind as I wrestled with the heavy oppression of dysthemia which hits me on and off especially as the darkness takes over and the sunlight grows scarce.  When my depression hits, I feel overwhelmingly alienated from others, like I can't fit in and should never even try.  The sense of disconnection is like being on a fog-shrouded island, all alone.  And the effort to reach out and connect with fellow human beings seems like climbing a mountain.  It is all too easy in this state of mind to self-isolate, to become, like Scrooge, as "solitary as an oyster."

But the lesson of Dickens' story is the power of human connection, the over-riding essential value of that connection, of remembering that we are, as Scrooge's nephew Fred puts it, "fellow travelers" on the journey.  Sometimes, when you least want that connection is when you most need it.  Lucky for me, I have a husband who understands this, and, more importantly, understands it about me.  He often reminds me of this lesson at critical moments.  So, as I rounded out my week, even though the grey fog was pulling me down, I made the conscious effort to connect, with my students and with my colleagues. It was worth the struggle.

If you, like me, find yourself on the fog-shrouded island at this time of year, I encourage you to reach out, no matter hard that might be.  Fight the urge to be as solitary and shut-up as an oyster.  An oyster's treasure is only revealed when it's open.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Brave Isn't the Same as Fearless

One of my students, facing his fear
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I worked with a child abuse prevention organization called Community Advocates (now known as Listen To Kids).  We talked to kids about being "inside strong."  We defined it as being brave or asking for help or saying "no" even when you feel scared.  I think it was the first time I understood the difference between "courage" and "fearlessness."  It doesn't take much courage to do the things you're not scared of in the first place.  Courage comes when you step forward and do what you know must be done or should be done even though you're scared.

What makes this tricky is that fear is there for a reason.  It's a survival response.  People who tell you "there's nothing to be afraid of" clearly don't get it.  If you had no fear, you'd do a lot of stupid, dangerous things and you probably wouldn't survive for long (unless y
ou're a super hero).  But sometimes fear stops you when it shouldn't.  So how do you know when to listen to your fear and when you should act in spite of your fear?

That's where the other parts of our brains come in, the parts that act on more than instinct, the parts that take in and analyze all the information plus our own experience, weigh the possible consequences, and seek to make the choice we believe to be right, based on our values.

So, the next time you feel afraid, don't take it as weakness.  It's your survivor's instinct.  What you do next?  That's the rest of you.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Worth Repeating

Every day is filled with a million little failures and sometimes it's so easy to focus on those.  This morning, after a long and loaded day yesterday at school, I was thinking about my students, about the little successes and the things I wish I'd done better, the ways I've helped them and the ways I let them down, and I remembered this quote from Emerson.  It's been cited and spread around many, many times, but with good reason.  I still think it is the best criteria for success in life that I have ever found.  So, in the face of those many daily failures, I think through it and apply this checklist.  When I leave this life, whenever that may be, I know I will have lived it right.
To laugh often and love much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Rigor vs Freedom, Encouragement vs Discipline

What do you value most?  Love?  Truth?  Knowledge?  Freedom?  We can't value all these worthwhile things equally.  There will be serious moral dilemmas in which we most choose which is most important.  This is the fundamental flaw in the "it's all good" philosophy, the libertarian viewpoint and the all-is-valued perspective on education.  There is a school of thought that we should simply let children explore any and all interests without limits.  Freedom is wonderful and a child's ability to have a say is shut down far too often.  But children are still learning their values, and freedom without guidance can have its pitfalls.  Freedom doesn't necessarily produce rigor.  I may not want to do something that may be important or valuable to do.  Rigor has a place in the world.  If we fail to teach our children the value of rigor, we fail to give them an essential life skill.

In a similar vein, while encouragement is crucial for children, sometimes we overvalue it at the expense of discipline.  I'm not talking about discipline as in punishment. I'm talking about the idea of developing self-discipline, the notion of striving for something worthwhile, reaching for high expectations, following strict demands, delaying gratification when needed, hearing and accepting honest criticism, learning to battle back from set-backs.  I have seen the positive impact that discipline-heavy activities such as karate can have on a struggling soul, the way it builds a pride and self-confidence that the warm-and-fuzzy version of encouragement often fails to do.  And it makes me wonder.

I'm not saying send your kids to military school.  I'm not saying we throw out encouragement and freedom and self-determination.  I'm saying they need to be tempered.  They cannot be ends unto themselves, not for children, whose grasp of the world is still developing and who need our guidance to make them strong and resilient.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Education Is Worth Dying For

Fourteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai started writing a blog for the BBC when she was 11 years old.  She was awarded Pakistan's first National Youth Peace Prize.  Yesterday, the Pakistani Taliban shot her in the head.  Why?  She wanted to go to school.  She believes girls should have an education.  "I don't mind if I have to sit on the floor at school," she has said.  "All I want is an education.  And I am afraid of no one."  The Taliban considered this an obscenity.  "Let this be a lesson," they said.  Malala's father ran one of the last schools to defy the Taliban's orders ending female education.

I read about this in the paper today.  I felt such a wave of emotions - rage, heartbreak, pride.  I wanted to stand on a rooftop somewhere and celebrate this girl and her father for being so brave and courageous on behalf of education.  I wanted to thank them for reminding me just exactly how important education is.  Important enough to die for.  Talk about putting everything else in perspective.  Talk about inspiring, and humbling.

I wanted to scream in fury that there are still people in the world so full of hate and fear, so twisted in their view of the female gender, that this could happen.  The next time someone calls me or any other woman a "feminazi," I may want to punch them in the face.  There is a reason we can't sit back and think the battles for women's rights are all done and the war is over.

I wanted to shove the article in front of everyone and anyone who slams the United States and the West and says we're fascists.  There's a lot that's wrong with our country, but, damn it, we have public education for all genders, all races, all income levels, all ability levels, and whatever the politicians may say about our education system, we strive for equity for all those disparate groups.  The U.S. public education system is predicated on the notion that everyone has the right to an education.  Everyone.

Two years ago, I had a girl from Pakistan in my third grade class.  I remember the gratitude her mother expressed at parent-teacher conferences.  But I don't think I truly understood until now.  I had no idea what a powerful act I was involved in by giving that girl an education.

I hope 14 year old Malala Yousafzai survives this horrible attack.  I hope she can still say she is afraid of no one.  I hope I never forget that to her, education is worth dying for.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Phone Anxiety

Okay, so this doesn't really fall under the category of "Big Stuff."  Not at first, anyway.  But sometimes the little stuff pokes at you when it's connected to bigger stuff.

So, I have this weird phobia about making phone calls.  Trivial, right?  Except I can't help asking, "Why?"  What is it about picking up the phone to call someone that kicks me into high avoidance gear?  It's not just "cold calls," those phone calls you'd think would be scary, to people I don't know, or don't know well.  I put off calling close friends, too.  I even put off returning their calls.  I know they want to hear from me.  They called me, right?  So why do I put off calling them?

Is it fear of commitment?  A phone call takes a kind of two-way participation, energy and attention that email doesn't, and so much of modern communication doesn't.

Or maybe it's a fear of rejection, that weird sense of loss and disappointment that happens when the person I'm calling isn't home and I have to leave a message.

Or maybe it's the uncertainty and unpredictability?  I don't know if I'm going to have a conversation with a real person or leave a message with a machine.

Whatever it is, it's positively pathological, and I think it's gotten worse with age.  Too many years of job hunts and phone solicitation and ambushing blind-sides from students' parents have solidified what was once just a minor discomfort into something one step away from phobia.

I'm 46 years old.  I shouldn't be bothered by such a little thing.  I should be able to move through it, right?  Or maybe, when it's something this little, I can let it go and let it be one of those idiosyncracies about me.

The thing is, sometimes this phobia gets in the way of relationships.  My friends may think I don't care about them.  They may get tired of always being the one who initiates contact.  They're wonderful, forgiving people, but still ...

It's a little thing with bigger consequences.  So I guess I'll push through it.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Faith and Artistic Expression - Is "Christian" Synonymous with "Family Friendly"?

Just saw a post for a Christian film festival.  Here's what it said:  
Committed to the highest quality productions in the film industry, The San Diego Christian Film Festival is trying to Change the Face of Film with better stories, exceptional productions, and family friendly movies for the entire world to watch.
(The emphasis on "family friendly" is mine.)

I couldn't help wondering why a Christian film was assumed to be family friendly.  The Bible is filled with violence, and even sex, polygamy and incest.  The Christian story has plenty of room for the dark side.  When we start thinking "Christian" means "whitewashed," I think we've missed something.  The crucifixion, for example, is not family friendly (i.e. I can bring my children).  Wrestling the dark side of human nature, facing down your greatest temptations, aren't necessarily family friendly topics.  But they are, in my opinion, Christian topics.

This bothers me, this implicit assumption of what Christian art or literature may encompass.  It is small.  Narrowing.  The Christianity I learned about was predicated on the notion that human beings are, by nature, flawed, imperfect and incapable of living up to the level of purity required by God.  Part of what makes the gospel powerful is the idea that God came down and lived as a human being, with all the doubt and longing and darkness and grief and misery that implies, thereby creating a bridge between us humans, fallible and flawed creatures, and the divine.  So, an artistic exploration of Christian faith should allow for an exploration of those flaws, imperfections, ugliness.  

If you want a "family friendly" film festival, call it that.  It is, after all, one view of the role of art - to depict something beautiful and transcendent towards which we might strive.  But it's not the only view of art.  The Christianity I know is not necessarily synonymous with "family friendly."  And that's not a bad thing.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Setting Goals That Work

Every day in my class, we talk about our goals for the day.  I've learned to guide my students in identifying goals they can control, as opposed to goals that others control.  For example, they may want the class to get a whole class award.  But they can't control the whole class.  They can only control their own choices.  So a goal of completing their work or staying on task is a more useful goal.

A recent comment on my other blog, Writer's Wavelength, got me thinking about this.  The commenter posted that her goal in writing a novel wasn't to get published but to finish the novel.  This makes sense.  There's a lot of factors involved in getting published that you can't control.  But you can control whether you finish your novel (barring unforeseen acts of God, as they say).

Setting goals that work means thinking about what you want or hope for and then identifying the parts of it that you have the power to control.  That way, you set goals that you have the power to achieve regardless of external forces.  I may want to get published or find an agent or get a job, but I am not the publisher or the agent or the one who makes the hiring decision.  So my goals need to be the parts I control - writing every day, finishing tasks, putting together a strong resume, making contacts.

Some of this sounds very mundane and practical, but there's a larger philosophical element in play.  "You can do anything you want if you just work hard enough" is a lie.  However, even if life is full of stuff outside your control, you still have some power.  You can do things to set yourself up for success.  As the Tao says, do your work and then step back.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

What Going Outside My Comfort Zone Means to Me

About 5 years ago, I paddled with a dragon boat team for the first time.  I am not an athlete.  I have never been an athlete.  In fact, I was often the kid picked last in team sports.  I tried out for the swim team once and had to quit because I just couldn't keep up.  But I joined a dragon boat team, in part to bond with my fellow teachers, in part to get regular exercise.  But a big piece of me decided I should try this new thing because I was scared to do it, because it was WAY outside my comfort zone.  It was in another country entirely.  The terrified-and-full-of-negative-associations country.

I'm not good at going outside my comfort zone.  I don't do well with change.  I'm anxious in new social situations.  I struggle when things are outside my control.  So why, oh why, would I deliberately do this?  Because every day in my classroom, I am asking students to do that very thing.  I am asking kids who struggle with reading to read and kids who struggle with math to do math and kids who are terrified to speak in public to get up in front of a room of their peers and share what they think.  If I am going to ask them to commit these acts of courage, I need to remember what that means and how that feels.

I had a great time at my first dragon boat practice and it's gone on to become a true source of joy and confidence and personal growth.  But I'm still absolutely terrified of the competitive part.  When we begin getting ready for a race, fear and anxiety grip me in intensely physical ways.  My heart races.  I have trouble breathing.  The moisture leaves my mouth and my muscles turn to jelly.

In that moment, I think of my students.  I think of a student I'm worried about.  I think of a student who faces that kind of fear when they sit down with a book or they have to take a test.  I think of the student for whom getting up and going into the world is an act of courage.  Or the student who battles to control anger or wild emotions.  Or the one who is miraculously able to giggle and to learn in spite of the worst possible realities awaiting them at home. And I tell myself, if that student can come to school and learn and try and laugh, then I can face this race and put my paddle in the water and keep paddling.

Then, the race becomes a kind of prayer.  It's my spirit declaring to that kid's spirit that I believe in their courage and it inspires me.  Every stroke of my paddle becomes a reminder that if I will ask my students to brave the country beyond the comfort zone, I must be willing to go there myself.  It is a declaration of my faith in determination, perseverance and resiliency.

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Small Death

The end of summer is a small death.  As it draws near, inevitable regrets hover about me.    Did I waste my time?  Why didn't I do more, travel more?  I should have finished that project.  I should have gone to the beach again.  I thought I had more time.  I can still fit in one more fling.  I want to be prepared for the end.  I want to say my goodbyes.

As these thoughts gathered in my brain this morning, I wondered.  If I feel this way at the end of summer, is it a taste of how I will feel at the end of life?  I reminded myself that my life isn't over.  It's just going to change.  The end of summer brings new things to anticipate, new adventures.  Perhaps that, too, is true for death.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Time for Prayer and Faith

Today I learned that a former 3rd grade student of mine, now about to enter high school I think, has hit a really rough patch and gone down a dark and dangerous path.  This breaks my heart.  In my mind, I still see the beautiful, sweet-souled young man I knew and I wonder how he went so wrong (though I know enough about his life to guess at the contributing factors).

photo from
It is moments like these when some notion of prayer and faith can really help.  I don't know how to get in touch with this kiddo, and even if I did, he's not a 3rd grader anymore and I don't know what I'd say.  Something like this, maybe:  "Don't forget - you have a beautiful soul.  You can get back on track.  You can't control the crummy stuff in your life but you can control your choices.  There is room in this world for sensitive souls."  I don't know if it would make any difference.

I carry this ridiculously hopeful wish that when my students leave my classroom and get older and go out into the world, they carry something from my class with them that could make the difference in what paths they follow later.  What I heard about this former student today reminded me that far too often, those future paths go through some really dark places.  And their year with me is one small part of a long and complex journey.

Teaching is an act of faith, the faith that a thousand small acts throughout the course of 170 days or so in an 8 year old's life will leave an impression and make a difference.

As for the role of prayer in a situation like this, since I cannot see or talk to this young man and I feel so powerless, I choose to have faith that the energy I put into prayer for him and his future might have the power to sway things in some small way.  It certainly cannot hurt.  And the air around us is filled with invisible energies that have concrete power - sound waves, light waves, digitized data.  Why shouldn't prayer be one way to harness the power of invisible energies within our own brains?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fire and Ice - What Brings About Lasting Change?

Fire and ice.  Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  Courageous love and righteous anger.  We're entering a campaign season at a time when much is being said about the vitriol and polarity of our political discourse.  Many decry the angry rants that characterize both sides over certain divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage.  People tend to say you should not address prejudice from anger but rather from a more reasoned position.  I'm writing today to make a case for the occasional value of anger in bringing about change.

This is the story of two women I knew in college, two women whose very different actions played  a pivotal role in bringing about a change in my own attitudes about an issue that was divisive in my faith community at the time, the issue of homosexuality.  One of the women was a respected leader in the campus religious group that was my spiritual family.  Her senior year, she spoke out at several of the group's meetings, two in particular that I remember, taking a stand in love and compassion against the homophobia on campus and for the notion that gays and lesbians were loved and welcomed in God's eyes.  In taking this public stand, she sacrificed her place in the group.  She became something of an outcast.  She lost her position of leadership and respect.  She shook the community to its core.  And she pushed me to question where I stood on this issue, to question where others stood, to question where God stood.  I doubt any of us knew how hard that must have been for her.

The second woman wasn't part of that group.  I knew her through other activities on campus.  She confronted me one day about this same issue.  There was a sit-in at the campus library in support of the Gay and Lesbian Student Alliance, which had disbanded due to the homophobic climate on campus.  As a result of the first woman's actions, and her participation in the sit-in, I had gone to check it out.  I don't remember how the confrontation with the second woman started, or even what was said, but the intensity and power of her anger towards people of my religious faith who contributed to homophobia left an intense and lasting impression on me.  That day, when I returned to my dorm room, I spent hours hunting down every single biblical reference to homosexuality, determined to understand once and for all, to reconcile what my conscience was saying and what my faith and my spiritual community said.

These two women, together with two incredibly courageous men in our religious group who chose to come out of the closet  my senior year, were instrumental in bringing about a fundamental change in my point of view, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that they brought about a fundamental self-examination that helped me find my point of view.  I don't know if they have any idea what an impact they made on me.  Both of them.  Fire and ice.  Courageous love and righteous anger.  Lasting change.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Responding to Horrors in the World

When something horrible, disturbing, senseless or incomprehensible happens in the news, we try to make sense of it.  We can't.  We want to do something, to fix it, to prevent it from happening again.  But we are not all-powerful, and we can't control the acts of others now or in the future.  We feel compelled to talk about it and analyze it to the point of wallowing or desensitization because we are struggling to make sense of it and thereby, we hope, gain back the control and sense of security that we have lost.

Some believe the answer to horrors is legislation or political action.  But for those who are creatively inclined, or those who feel politics and legislation can only go so far, I say "Create things of beauty and meaning, and generate laughter."  

The world has more than its fair share of senseless violence, destruction and ugliness.  I think there is value in the act of creation.  I think creation should combat the world's tendency towards cruelty and chaos.  Sometimes, an artist must shine a light on those darker things.  But we must do so with meaning and purpose lest we risk adding to the cruelty and violence or worse, feeding it, fanning its destructive flame.

I was going through my student teaching program when 9-11 happened.  I'll never forget how our Educational Psychology professor handled that day.  He threw out his lesson plan.  He put building materials on our tables - LEGOs, connecting cubes, tinker toys.  He told us to work with our table groups to build something, build a city.  That's all.  Later, we walked in a garden, reflected and talked.  But the most memorable part of that day was the act of communal creation in the face of a destruction.  For me, it was a powerful model of how to respond to real-world horror.

So, today, if the news has left you feeling hollow, disturbed, worried for the state of our society, create things of beauty and meaning, and generate laughter.  Work in your garden.  Knit.  Paint.  Draw.  Write.  Read poetry to someone you love.  Rearrange your furniture to make the space you share with friends more beautiful.  Tell a joke.  Build a LEGO village or a pillow fort.  Decorate a cake.  Bake bread.  Sculpt something from clay or playdough or sand.  Visit with a friend.  Make funny faces at your baby.  Blow bubbles with your child.  Make the world, for one small moment in one small way, a little bit better place.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Omens, Metaphors and Parables - Seeking the Spiritual in the Physical

This weekend, I had an experience that could make you believe in augury.  Or at least make you understand it.  I was at a dragon boat race with my team, the Mighty Women.  We were waiting for information on our next race.  Suddenly, a dragonfly as big as my fist, riding astride the back of the prey it was devouring, perched and clung to the left breast of one of my team mates.  It stayed there for several minutes, while the rest of us took pictures and gasped in awe, not only at the sight, but at our team mate's incredibly calm and unruffled demeanor.  (I would post a picture, but I think I should ask her permission first!)

The moment was so strange, the sight so bizarre, it was impossible not to seek for significance in it.  A dragonfly at the dragon boat race.  Devouring its prey as we prepared for our finals.  On a woman's left breast, the breast that the legendary Amazon warriors of old reputedly sliced off in order to improve their archery skills.  It was so loaded with the aura of significance that my own ability to apply meaning to it actually left me.  The image itself was the meaning.  Imagine what some ancient high priestess might have made of it.

This morning, as I was swimming in the pool at the gym, I found myself thinking back on that moment.  Why?  Because I found myself thinking in metaphor.  Swimming does that to me.  One moment, my head is submerged under water in a world where outside sounds are muted to near-silence and outside visions are seen only in refraction and reflection.  The next moment, I emerge into the full clamor of the external life.  "It's a metaphor for human existence," I thought.  "The internal life and the external life and the need for balance between them."

Now, admittedly, as a writer, I may be more prone to these musings of metaphor-meets-mysticism.  But I think it's built into our human consciousness.  If it weren't, we wouldn't have so many words for it - metaphor, allegory, symbolism, parable.  We seek for inner meaning in the world around us.

And why not?  The dance between the tangible and intangible, the visible and invisible is at the core of some of the most awe-inspiring aspects of our universe - from atoms to sound waves to the human mind.  Perhaps it's not only inevitable that we should seek meaning in the physical world.  Perhaps it is imperative.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Make Peace with Your Body

I am 46 years old and I have finally made peace with my body, though, like any peace that comes upon a ravaged battlefield, it comes with an uneasiness, and it cannot wipe away the past.  Still, I am celebrating this victory.

Girls in our society are at war with their bodies practically from pre-adolescence.  It's been this way for a long, long time.  We want to be thinner; we want to have more curves; we check every passing mirror for validation because we think our outer appearance defines our inner value; we battle against physical changes that come from month to month and year to year, furious that our body is not a fixed sculpture in marble but something that ebbs and flows and shifts over time.

Our bodies are inextricably linked with our spirits and our minds.  It takes us a long time to understand that connection.  The world doesn't help, using that feminine mind-body link to minimize what we think and feel and to justify excluding us.

Our bodies mark the passage of time for us, and we battle that, as if we could somehow stop time, as if we would rather not know where we are in our journey.

There are some wonderful signs of hope for today's girls.  There was a time when we didn't even talk to one another about our bodies, so we couldn't help each other understand what was happening to us.  That has changed, thanks to some amazing women pioneers, especially during the 1960s and 1970s, who blasted through the cones of silence that surrounded the health issues unique to women.  Trailblazing women entered the medical profession and started actually studying the physical differences in women.  The book OUR BODIES, OURSELVES revolutionized women's access to information about their own bodies.  Today's young women take for granted the incredible knowledge base that now exists, and their own freedom to talk openly about their bodies and to educate themselves.

When Title IX passed, it not only changed the face of women's athletics, it changed the way the world viewed exercise for women.  There's still a ton of pressure around exercising to look good and lose weight, but the world of sports and athletics has been thrown open as never before and now, a healthy female body has muscles, and women have access to all sorts of sports and athletics.  Not just some women, but all women, as part of our every day lives.

Mind you, when I went shopping for hiking boots just a few years ago, the main shoe stores I visited didn't carry ANY women's hiking boots.  I had to buy a pair in a boy's size.  This in Portland, Oregon, a hiking town if ever there was one.  On the other hand, the girls I teach in elementary school throw themselves into physical exercise with a joy that can only come from inclusion, and from the certainty that this is their right.  Sports are no longer seen as something just for jocks and tomboys.

The reason I'm pointing my lens especially at sports and exercise is this: I am making peace with my body because of sports.  And I was never an athlete.  I was the one no one wanted on their team.  I was the one they tried to keep the ball away from because they didn't think I could catch it.  So of course I hated sports.  Then, in high school, I started biking, on my own, and it felt good.  Sadly, at that time, exercise for me was so wrapped up in my obsession with weight and looks that it served as a weapon against my body more often than not.  Cut to college, where I dabbled in swimming and ice skating, as long as nobody was looking.  Self-consciousness was still such a strong presence.  Later, hiking and long walks came into play, allowing for a detente of sorts.

I turned a kind of corner when I was battling depression and learned that exercise was as effective with my level of depression as medication in some patients.  I joined the gym.  Exercise wasn't a tool for weight loss for me any more.  It was a prescription for mental and emotional health.

But it wasn't until I started paddling with a dragon boat team that a true and lasting peace with my body seemed possible.  In dragon boats, for those who don't know, a team of 16-20 people (depending on the type of boat) work together to paddle in time with power and speed.  It is the essence of team sport.  You are surrounded by the supportive energy of your team mates.  You CANNOT win unless you work together.

On the dragon boat team, I am surrounded by women of all ages and body types, all strong and powerful and beautiful in their might.  We practice 3 times a week.  I push myself further than I ever thought I could because of that powerful supportive energy.  And my body delivers.  It shows me over and over again what it's capable of.  That supportive energy has become something I share with my body.  I believe in it.  I am proud of what it is capable of.  I celebrate it.  To me, after over 30 years of being at war with my body, this is nothing short of a miracle.

Here's to sports and physical activity.  May today's young women find ever more reasons to celebrate their bodies, instead of being at war with them.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sharing a Summer Solstice Gift of Poetry

Today, I'm sharing with you a poem from my friend and fellow writer, William S. Gregory, known to his friends as Sam.  Sam has an elegance and eloquence with words that few can match.  Like Emily Dickinson, he sometimes shares gifts of poems with his friends.  Here is one in honor of this day:

Summer Solstice Poem 2012, by William S. Gregory

Let no tear fall upon the longest day,
No word in anger fly to pain the heart,
No blow be struck against substance or flesh
To shock the fabric of the duration.

Can we do this?  Can we achieve this task?
Can we close lips and simply hold our breath
For but the lifetime of a soap-bubble
Bright floating on a brilliant summer day?


William S. Gregory has a workshopped performance of his play about Joan of Arc, SAINT IN A CAGE, being presented this week by Portland Theater Works.  Meanwhile, on KZME 107.1 FM, the Society of the Inner Ear is featuring some of Mr. Gregory's audio pieces, including THE CONFESSIONS OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.  Enjoy!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Stop Saying "I Am Not"

Today one of my students said.  "I can't do this.  It's too hard."  And I said, "Those are not the same thing.  If it's hard, it doesn't mean you can't do it.  It means you have to work at it."  Now I find myself confronted with that reality in my own activities.

I am not a marketing person.  I am not an event planner.  I am not a cheerleader.  And yet, I find myself called upon to do these things.  I am a writer.  But to get my work published, I have to be a PR person.  I am a teacher.  However, being a teacher means not only teaching children, but also serving on committees, providing leadership, organizing school events and publicizing them.  Maybe I should stop saying "I am not."

Is there any job or vocation in this world that doesn't call upon you to do things that fall outside your areas of strength or comfort?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

What Matters

On the list of things that matter, your score on the state test isn't even a footnote.  You are not a number.  You are a human being.  For years and years, people who like numbers and run like frightened rabbits from the messy immeasurability of humanity have tried to reduce people to numbers.  It's no more realistic than trying to reduce God to a book or a set of human rituals.  Your score on the state test won't matter 100 years from now.  It won't even matter 20 years from now.  What matters is what you do with what you have.  What matters is how you treat other people.  What matters is how you live this one and only life that has been given to you.  This has been a public service announcement from one teacher opposed to standardized testing.  Life is anything but standardized.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Doing Things You Don't Want To Do

This week in my classroom, I asked my students to chew on this question:
When and why should you do things you don't want to do?  It's a pretty deep ethical question when you come right down to it.

The reasons my students gave centered on these basics:  To get something or become better at something (positive consequences), to stay out of trouble (avoid negative consequences), and "because it's the right thing to do" (moral implications).

We also talked about times when you don't want to do something and you shouldn't do it.  For example, a friend tries to get you to tease or exclude someone.  You might not want to do it, but you might be worried that your friend will get mad at you if you don't do it.  Once again, the decision revolves around positive consequences, negative consequences, and moral implications.

I asked this question in class because it seems like a lot of students value doing what they want above all else, simply because it's what they want to do.  Likewise, they value avoiding things they don't want to do just because they don't want to do them.  They seem to think this is okay.

I don't want to sound like an old fogey, but we're not doing anyone any favors if we pretend you can get through life by avoiding the things you don't want to do.  Sometimes, you have to do stuff you don't want to do so you can reach a goal that you really DO want.  Sometimes, life throws tough stuff at you and you have to do something you don't want to do in order to survive and take care of your family.  You have to weigh the negative consequences (what bad things might happen), the positive gain (what good things might happen) and the ethical or moral implications (is it right or wrong?).

A conversation like this with a group of 8-10 year olds is a powerful, powerful thing.  It makes me believe in the human spirit every time we wrestle with the big questions in my class.  And if a group of 8-10 year olds can get to the heart of this matter, why can't more adults?  Wall Street, for example, or politicians?  Ethics 101.

When have you had to do something you didn't want to do?  Did you do it?  Why or why not?  Was it the right thing to do?  How do you know?  (Ooh!  Good follow-up question for my class:  How do you know right from wrong?)

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Why I Think There's Something More

I believe God exists. I also believe as long as we're human we can't ever fully know God. God, by nature, is beyond us, bigger and wider and fuller than we are or can even imagine. But there are times when we get glimpses, we brush up against God, even find ourselves immersed.  Here's an incomplete list of why I believe in God:

The ocean's rhythmic infinity -
The universes hidden in a mind and the words that open those universes to other minds -
Uncalled for compassion and unnecessary kindness -
The powerful, energized mist of a waterfall -
A wild child brought to calm by holding a guinea pig or watching the small stillness of a hidden hummingbird -
A dream that connects you with a loss you didn't even know had happened -
The burst of emotion stirred by physical sensations -
The way the lump of spongy gray we call the brain creates life and thought and emotion and creativity, music and literature and art and scientific discovery, through electrical and chemical events that happen in the space between the concrete and the tangible -
The energy and electricity in a room full of people connecting with each other -
The invisible world of atoms and molecules and waves of light and sound upon which we have built this remarkable, visible civilization that is modern life -

This list hasn't reached its end.  What would you add?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Are Monsters Real?

When we're kids, monsters seem so very real.  They hide under the bed, in the closet, around dark corners and behind furniture.  They terrify us, and they fascinate us.  We want protection from them, and we want to be them.  Dinosaurs and alligators and aliens, vampires and ghosts and werewolves populate our minds and our books and our toy boxes and our collections of Halloween costumes.  We love their power, their capacity to wreak havoc and unbridled destruction.  They are big, strong, wild, untamed, powerful, in control.

Adults love to tell kids "there's no such thing" as monsters and ghosts and vampires.  But adults are wrong.  What are dinosaurs and sharks and alligators if not monsters?  Of course, the really terrifying monsters are the ones we adults don't want to name or think about in relation to our kids, though we seem to love writing about them.  They are the monsters masquerading as humans who do terrible things to other humans.  They are all too real.  And far too many kids have met those monsters face to face.

Judging by the characters that populate our movies, our books and our TV shows, these more insidious monsters fascinate our adult selves as much as dinosaurs did our kid selves. This fascination seems a lot more disturbing if you ask me.  The monsters that fascinate us as kids aren't necessarily malevolent.  They're just big and destructive.  It's in their nature.  They're predators doing what predators do.  Even the vampires and werewolves and ghosts have only a sort of abstract evil to us as children.  They're interesting mostly because they're gross or mysterious.

Our adult fascination with real, malevolent human characters, with the dark and depraved side of human nature, lands quite decidedly in the moral gray zone.  It's disturbing.  We often couch it in the safety of police procedurals, stories where the bad guy gets caught.  Yet, these stories seem to dwell on and wallow in the malevolent acts with a voyeurism that raises concern.  Are we, as adults, still longing for the license offered by imagining ourselves as the monster?  What moral and ethical price of the soul are we willing to pay to indulge our imaginations in this way?

There is another category of monster, one which is perhaps better referred to as "demon."  It is the unseen, internal one, the hardwiring of our brains that seems outside our control and torments us in a thousand different ways.  Depression is one such demon.  Addiction is another.  Psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder.  We have these new names for them, but back in humanity's childhood we called them "demons.'  If you've ever had one of these things inside you, the characterization feels apt.  It seems beyond your control.  You can't see it or touch it but it has so much power over you, and yet it feels like an alien force, an alien force that has somehow gotten its tentacles into your brain.

When I watch some of my students who struggle with issues such as autism or ADHD or anger issues or emotional disturbance, I see them wrestling these internal monsters. They feel overwhelmed, like they're fighting a battle they can't possibly win.  They need a the power of a T-Rex to fight that stuff.  Hell, adults need the power of a T-Rex to fight that stuff, and even then it's not enough.  Kids need T-Rex on steroids, and he needs to be fighting in their court.

So, are monsters real?  You know it.  Don't let anybody ever tell you any different.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Control: Fish Swimming In A River

For my first post on this blog, I decided to share with you some words I tell my 3rd and 4th grade students, many of whom have already had way too much rough stuff thrown at them in life:

We are like fish swimming in a river.  We can't control what the river does.  Maybe it will be stormy.  Maybe it will be sunny.  We can't control what the rest of the fish do.  We can control how we swim through the river.

Life is full of stuff you can't control - big stuff and little stuff.  Sometimes you have to move or people get sick or accidents happen.  Sometimes other people do awful stuff.  It's scary to know there's so much you can't control.  But you can control how you react to that stuff.  You can control whether you ask for help.  You can control whether you treat others with kindness.  You can control whether you keep trying or you give up.

Swim with strength and courage.  Find other fish you can trust and swim together.  Swim to the calm places when you need a rest.  Explore.