Thursday, December 25, 2014

"I am a mortal, and liable to fall."

Scrooge and Christmas Past, in performance
When in Dickens' classic Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the first of the three spirits, the Ghost of Christmas past, and the spirit beckons him toward the window, he is reluctant. "I am a mortal, and liable to fall," he says. And the spirit responds "Bear but a touch of my hand and you shall be upheld in more than this." I've always focused on the spirit's response, but this Christmas season, I've found myself noticing Scrooge's words and their wider meaning.

Like Scrooge, I am a mortal, and liable to fall. We all are, all the way back to Genesis. We humans are liable to fall. In fact, you might argue that it's what we do best. It's part of what separates us from angels and from God in fully divine form. We are so liable to fall that, in the days of the Old Testament, we made it a regular point to make offerings and sacrifices to God to make up for all our falling. And somewhere along the way, God decided enough was enough. We were so liable to fall that we really needed something much more powerful to bridge the eternal gap between the infallible divine and ourselves. Hence, Jesus.

When the angels fall, they get a full-fledged and eternal punishment. We humans are given ways to make up for all our screw-ups. Why? Maybe it's because since God created us, he's pretty aware of our essential nature, and part of our essential nature is that we're liable to fall. The point of interest is how we respond, and how God responds, when we fall. He knows it's in our nature, and so he's prepared to forgive.

If only we could accept our essential nature more in the same spirit that God does. If only we could stop trying to be perfect on our own and accept that we are neither God nor angels nor demons. We are mortals, liable to fall, and the power lies in reaching out for the divine hand, in whatever form it is extended to us.

Monday, November 24, 2014

A Sacred Responsibility: Grieving a Class Pet

Nearly six years ago, I began a remarkable new phase in my teaching journey. My students made it happen. They decided they wanted to earn a class pet. They could have chosen all sorts of deluxe, self-indulgent things - pizza and ice cream and movie parties and so on - but they chose the care of a living thing as their ultimate reward and celebration. And I said yes.

Sarge, the year we got him
I will never forget that class, and one young man in particular who persuaded me and the rest of the class to undertake this momentous new project. I will never forget bringing home our guinea pig, Sarge, from the Oregon Humane Society, where he had been brought by animal control after being found abandoned outdoors. I will never forget his first day as a member of our classroom, or the days leading up to that day, in which we prepared our room and ourselves for his arrival. I will never forget the transformation that would come over some students when they sat and held him quietly during their recess time, and a gentleness and calm would settle in them that never did during the rest of the day. Sarge changed our class community, and my teaching, forever.

A class pet brings a great deal of laughter and a special kind of bond into the room. But I knew from the very first that it also brought a heavier, sacred responsibility. Sooner or later, all living things die. Getting a class pet means accepting that fact and accepting the responsibility for helping students grieve.

This fall, I faced that final, sacred responsibility in my classroom. Sarge passed away at home after a sudden turn in his health. It's taken me a while to finish this post, to take the time to reflect on the experience. Sacred truly is the word for it. Taking the time to find the words to talk to my students about death, and about grief, the special kind of sadness we feel when we lose someone or something dear to us. As hard as it was, I would not trade that experience, that honor, for all the world.

When you explain something to children, it forces you to make sense of it in new ways for yourself. I have plenty of experience with grief, even very recent. It is a sadness different from other kinds of sadness, a special kind of sadness. That's why it has a special name. And the way we deal with that sadness has a special name, too. Grieving.

Everyone grieves in different ways, a fact that was abundantly clear in my classroom the day I told them Sarge had died. There were tears and questions and blank looks. There was a great wave of desire to talk about other deaths, other times of grief. I told my students that everyone grieves differently, and that one person might grieve in different ways throughout the day. Some people want to talk about it or cry; some people want to take their minds off it. Some people want to be with friends; some people want to be alone. I told my students there is no wrong way to grieve, as long as you don't hurt anyone else or yourself. Saying those words made them real to me in a new and powerful way, so much so that I repeated them again, slowly, to let them sink in for myself, too. I wish we could all hear those words again in our moments of grief, to smooth the rough patches that rub against one another when we grieve with our family or friends.

I put out blocks and clay and paper and markers and watercolor and other art materials, and we spent some time just being together - building, creating, or sitting quietly. Some kids got very silly and goofy. Some needed to talk and cry.

We read a book called Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children, which I highly recommend. We made a memory wall and cut out construction paper flowers with words describing Sarge. We hung it in the hallway to add to later, and allow others who had known Sarge to add their memories, too.

By lunchtime, the students started asking if we'd get another guinea pig. By the end of the day, they were craving fun and silliness, while I was exhausted. Their grief cycle was at once so familiar, and so different in its pace.

The beginning of the Sarge memory wall
The experiencing of grieving together helped create a new kind of bond for this class, just as Sarge's arrival did for that first class. I will never forget this class, and this first experience of grieving with my students.

Shortly after Sarge died, my students rescued a tiny Pacific tree frog that was stranded and dehydrated in a corner of our classroom. That is a story for another blog post, but I mention it here, because the act of saving the life of a small living creature was a profoundly healing one, after grieving the death of another living creature.

This whole process not only brought home to me the holiness of grief, but also the holiness of living things, great and small, and the tremendous power they have to impact our lives. Sarge, a small furry guinea pig, changed me and my classroom forever.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

For Ourselves and Our Posterity

This past week was Constitution Day, a day when we in the teaching profession are called upon to teach something about the Constitution to our charges, to honor the anniversary of its signing. There's something quite inspiring about unpacking the meaning of the Preamble for third graders, and it's been on my mind ever since.
We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.
What does it mean? What are the values laid out as the foundation for this great experiment upon which the founders of our country were embarking with no certainty of how it would turn out? I can't help thinking about how much care must have gone into the choosing of every word.

1) A more perfect union: The best community we can be. Together. United.
2) Justice: Law and fairness.
3) Domestic tranquility: Peace at home.
4) The common defense: protection from dangers, a shared sense of safety.
5) The general welfare: health, happiness, and good things for everyone,
6) The blessings of liberty: all the best that freedom gives us, secured, made sure not just for us, here and now, but for our children and our children's children - for our future.

As we set out to understand it in third grade, we asked the questions that were, essentially, the questions of the founding fathers: What kind of community do we want to be? How can we get there?  So simple and so profound. I imagined this group of people laying out their vision with those same questions in their hearts, not knowing that over 220 years later, their words would carry such weight and meaning and history - not knowing, but perhaps hoping. Hoping. "For ourselves and our posterity."

Every generation since has endeavored, in their own way, through their own challenges and mis-steps, to live up to those ideals, stay true to that vision, and understand it and reinterpret it through the ever-changing lens of evolving customs and events, in the hope of safeguarding it for future generations. "For ourselves and our posterity."

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Memory from The Secret Garden

"One of the strange things about living in the world is that it is only now and then one is quite sure one is going to live forever and ever and ever. One knows it sometimes when one gets up at the tender solemn dawn-time and goes out and stands out and throws one's head far back and looks up and up and watches the pale sky slowly changing and flushing and marvelous unknown things happening until the East almost makes one cry out and one's heart stands still at the strange unchanging majesty of the rising of the sun--which has been happening every morning for thousands and thousands and thousands of years. One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with the millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone's eyes.” 

-Frances Hodgson Burnett, THE SECRET GARDEN

In memory of Ben

Friday, August 29, 2014

Carrying Peace: A Prayer for the School Year

The school year is about to start. Like many teachers, I sit today perched almost at the top of the first hill of a roller coaster, my stomach doing somersaults, my brain dizzy with anticipation and nerves. It's an amazing roller coaster, never the same ride twice, and I always come back for more. Still, it continues to feel like a roller coaster. This year, I want to try to change that in some small way. I want to carry peace with me throughout the day, throughout the year. I want to be able to find peace at a moment's notice when I need it most. I want to be ready to stop and breathe in the moment, to step back and see with clarity, and make decisions from a place of wisdom and grounded-ness. I want to see, truly see, the small beings whose day is entrusted to my care.

So, here's my teacher's prayer for the school year, a musical variant of which I learned a lifetime ago and have cherished always:

The Prayer of Saint Francis 
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. 
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon; 
Where there is doubt, faith; 
Where there is despair, hope; 
Where there is darkness, light; 
Where there is sadness, joy. 
O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek 
To be consoled as to console, 
To be understood as to understand, 
To be loved as to love; 
For it is in giving that we receive; 
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Interconnectedness: The Spider and the Lake

This summer, I've been reading books of a spiritual nature. I've been learning to stop and be aware and present. I've been trying to treat that as prayer, to move through the world with a greater sense of the sacred quality of seeing, hearing, smelling, being, and the holiness of the things around me.

One morning, I sat in my back yard listening, looking, smelling, being. The light sparkled on silvery strands of spider webs that had appeared here and there throughout the yard. In one corner of the backyard swing, a spider sat in the middle of the circle of its web. The sun shimmering off the threads of the web was so beautiful to me in that moment that I simply sat and watched. As the breeze made its way through the garden, all those spider webs moved and the light sparkled and danced with their movement. The circle of that one spider's web waved and shifted, and the spider waved gently with it, staying still and grounded in the center of the web.

The image so captivated me that I took a picture, which I have shared here. I watched that spider for a long time. I thought about being that spider, sitting in the center of the fragile threads of web that connect me to the world around me. I imagined myself able to float and shift when the world around me is buffeted, keeping my stillness, feeling the vibrations and waves reach me from all those connecting threads.

Benson Lake
A few weeks later, I was swimming in my favorite spot, Benson Lake. The lake is in the Columbia Gorge, just before Multnomah Falls. A classic northwest tree line of evergreens rises up above the lake, etching points along the brilliant blue sky. Every summer, at least once, I go to Benson Lake to swim. I float on my back in the water and look at that treeline and that sky, soaking in its tranquility. This year, as I floated, I thought of that spider. I felt myself connected like the spider, the waves and ripples of the water stretching out around me. I felt like part of the lake, and, by extension, part of the fish in the lake and part of the gorge and the trees and the Columbia River, and the sky the trees touched, and the distant mountains that fed the waterfalls that fed the trees, and on and on and on. I moved, and the lake moved. The lake moved and I moved.

As I make the transition from the slow, reflective, deep, restorative meditation of the summer and back into the fast-paced, intense engagement of the school year, my prayer is that I can carry the spirit of the spider and the lake inside me, that I can remember how I am connected to the world, and that I can practice floating and moving with the world, staying still and flexible when change shifts and vibrates around me.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Frail Love

"Love is not itself
Until it knows it is frail
And can go wrong
It does not run
Like a well-oiled machine
Love runs best
When it seems to break down."

  - Thomas Merton, "Night Letters"

(I came upon this quote while reading The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, by Belden Lane.)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Ruminating on the Future of the World

That's a pretty huge and imposing title for the small, meandering thing I'm doing this morning as I sit in my garden with the breeze blowing and the birds singing and the sounds of revitalization from the home remodel next door. But, in essence, that's what I'm doing - contemplating the future of the world, something I realize, with each passing year, is only marginally in my hands. Perhaps being in your late 40's automatically nudges you into contemplation of generational differences, and makes you prone to despair if you fall prey to the generational gap mindset, the "what's wrong with kids today" thinking. On the other hand, being in the sandwich generation caught between aging parents and adult children while shouldering the responsibilities and burdens of maturity (mortgage, career, your own first hints of health issues and mortality) can make you more desirous to understand the other generations, and more aware of the fact that you, like your parents, will one day fade and be replaced by those young adults.

I work alongside colleagues who are the same age as my stepson, the young man I helped raise. My peers grieve the loss of their parents. Some of my peers succumb to heart disease and other early vanguards of our own aging bodies. Having been a young adult during the AIDS epidemic, I have had some prior experience confronting mortality, but back then I could rage against it, whereas now I see it for what it is - the inevitable truth for all of us.

That may sound bleak, but it's just realistic. It's realistic to acknowledge that your parents will die, and you will die, and that means thinking about what will be left. What will your legacy be? Who will be left to tend the garden of the world? Suddenly, the natural parental worrying you engage in as you think about your now-grown child (Will they find happiness? Will they make their way in the world? Have I given them the tools they need? Will they find someone to love, someone who loves them? Who will they be today, tomorrow, next year, in ten years' time, when I am gone?) expands to become questions about that child's entire generation, and how they will shape the future, what kind of world you will leave them and what they will do with that world.

I stepped into this reflecting pool of questions this morning through a strange route. The soil of my brain was already well primed, as I've been reading a book by Jon Savage called TEENAGE: THE CREATION OF YOUTH CULTURE. Then, my husband and I have been wrestling with the evolving relationship between us and our son, who just turned 29 and is no doubt wrestling with his own special challenges as he faces that milestone. I sat down with my cup of coffee in the garden and began to read an article in the New York Times about the recently released Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and was struck by one paragraph that began "Now 28."

Now 28. The same age as my stepson (until a month ago). The same age as my new colleague at work. The Millenial Generation is taking the stage. And, despite vast differences in the surface facts of their lives, there was some underlying shape to Sgt. Bergdahl's journey and struggles to find his way in the world that struck a familiar chord.

I stopped reading the article. I thought about this new generation, their lives and experiences - the self-esteem movement, the attacks of 9-11, the deep economic recession, Hurricane Katrina, the debate on climate change, the digital age, the first African-American president. I went online and started scanning the vast collection of articles attempting to understand this generation. There were some common threads, some things that rang true, some wide discrepancies and conflicting accounts. There was a great deal of speculation, and a certain amount of earnest hope.

I started thinking about this ritual we engage in - naming a generation, seeking to codify it, to predict how it will behave, how to engage with it, how to mobilize it, how it will change our world. We know, from history, that our world changes. We of a certain age are old enough to testify to that first hand, just as our parents have ("When I was a kid ...." "Remember when ....") and their parents before them. We vacillate between fear or despair in the future and hope. Despair always reaches for me. I choose hope. It's harder to choose.

The world has many problems, many causes for despair. It always has. Maybe at some point, the ability to change those problems can only come from a new generation. Not because the previous generations have failed. They haven't. But this world of ours will always, by its very nature, be a work in progress, and in constant flux, a perpetual balancing act. Previous generations have brought about amazing and wonderful changes, and sometimes unintended bad consequences and misguided steps, and some downright bad decisions. So has my own generation. We're all just experimenting, and we always begin that process under the conviction of youth, the conviction that we're right. Maybe we'd never have the guts to experiment otherwise. A new generation can see our work with fresh eyes. They can envision things that may simply be outside our view.

So, this morning, from the sunshine and shadow of my garden, I send out prayers and blessings to the next generation as, step by step, they take their place center stage and, piece by piece, they take the world into their hands. Like a first bike ride, we won't let go too soon, and we might even hang on too long. Our parents are behind us doing the same. When we do let go, we'll keep watching, anxious, cheering, worrying, trying somehow to steer when we no longer can, wincing when they fall and encouraging them to get back up, until eventually they disappear around the corner and out of view.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Finding a Kindred Voice

I just finished reading Leaving Church, by Barbara Brown Taylor and I found myself wanting to post in here, after a long time away. I came upon Ms. Taylor's name in an article in Time Magazine. Although her journey is very different from mine in many, many ways, it spoke to me and resonated at its core with a kind of quiet profundity. Her understanding of Christianity and God, and the humility and open-mindedness with which she explores that understanding, connected with me. Reading her story made me think back over my own journey and look at all its steps with reverence and affection. It made me want to reconnect with things from which I have drifted away. It renewed my desire to approach my job, my vocation, as a teacher with a sense of holiness, with the notion that my time in the classroom is a prayer and that teaching is how I serve God. When she described looking over her hymnals and the other items from her time as a rector, I found myself thinking warmly about my own well-worn Bible, with its note cards and papers tucked into the pages, and feeling so very grateful for all of the life experiences it held in its pages, moments great and small and most often profound. Ms. Taylor's book gave me a gift of seeing my journey through new eyes, and of knowing I am not alone in the "neither this nor that" it represents. I never lost my faith, but my faith changed and evolved. It is so hard to explain it clearly to someone else, and to read a book that spoke from such a similar place, to discover another voice that shared that perspective, was a great blessing. I'm posting about it here with the thought that it might be a blessing to someone else, too.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Quiet Echoes When Lives That Brush Against Us End

When I was in high school, I had one of those memorable teachers who made an indelible mark upon my life. Her name was Maureen O'Donnell. She did much more than brush against my life. But this post is not about her. Not really. It is about one of her former students, John Donahue. John was someone I knew of, but did not know well. She spoke highly of him, as if he was one of her children. That's how she treated all of us. I looked up to John. When John would come to visit Mrs. O'Donnell in the classroom, she would welcome him with open arms, and we knew that's how we would be welcomed, too, when our time came to be alumni who visited her. He was a sign of the continuity of the relationship, a hopeful reminder of the future.

When I was in college, Mrs. O'Donnell passed away. She was 58. Her former student, John Donahue, stepped in to the great gaping hole left by her absence to teach her class. I remember my heart flooding with relief when I learned that a member of the family, the family of her students, would be shouldering this daunting task. I was so grateful to John for that. He became, then, a symbol of both the future and past, once again representing the continuity of the bond Mrs. O'Donnell had created among her students.

A few weeks ago, John Donahue passed away, too soon, from the same cancer that took Mrs. O'Donnell. Although I did not know him well, his death has left strange and quiet echoes in my heart because he brushed my life. How often this seems to happen. When someone we only knew tangentially, whose existence in some way impacted us, though not deeply, dies, there is ... a something. A moment, like the moment of silent reverberation after a sudden loud sound in a deep and quiet wood, a moment of acknowledgment, where we stop and think and struggle to name the feeling in us that is not grief but is not indifference. This life that ended may only have nudged our course by the most infinitessimal of magnitudes. But science tells us that even the tiniest nudge can amplify over time.

This feeling is a deeper, more intimate shade of the sentiment expressed in the famous poem by John Donne, "No Man Is An Island," whose most well-known line ("Ask not for whom the bell tolls") has taken on an ominous connotation that does not do its context justice:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because i am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Paradox of Age

I've been thinking about youth - the energy, confusion, struggles, and amazing vision that can come with being young, specifically that strange period from roughly 18 to 30.  I seem to have a number of people in my life right now who are in this age range, and I am constantly amazed, in awe and sometimes frustrated by them.

Full disclosure, I am 47, closing in on 48 (this week!).  I sometimes feel like a dinosaur, though my older friends would, of course, dispute that fact.  I have entered the stage of life when you fall effortlessly into lengthy conversations that begin with the words "Remember when."  The impulse to reminisce seems very powerful at this point in my life.  I engage in a lot of involuntary grunting and other vocalizations when I get up off the couch or out of the car. I'm in good shape, and yet I seem to have a variety of random injuries and odd health quirks that were never there before. Most of the time, in my head, I don't feel so very different from who I was when I was younger. Then something will happen that pulls me up short and reminds me how very different the view looks from here, and how very different the pilot of this ship called my body is now. The agitated struggle feels calmer, the reality of mortality more inevitable, the truth of physical limitations undeniable, the need for approval less insatiable, the warm glow of small joys burnished brighter by time.

Recently, there have been a spate of articles about various generations - Generation X, the Boomers, the Millenials, and other labels I haven't fully retained because I've come to the conclusion that they are just that - arbitrary labels. The sad thing about attempting to draw these careful generational distinctions is that it seems to be giving in to the worst of our human tendency to define, and segregate, ourselves by our differences. These generational articles all seem to amount to mud slinging from one generation to another.

I see it in myself, the way I sometimes get unreasonably annoyed by a new fashion trend (cutesy animal hats on adults, for example), or inestimably frustrated by a particular  attitude of someone younger than me, or a younger person's failure to grasp or understand some part of who I am. It is the nature of youth to push, to question, to demand, to assume, to point out what it sees as the failings of the older generation, and to have knowledge gaps that prevent a full understanding of that generation. On the other hand, it is the nature of age to see youth from the outside and find fault in what is essentially a work in progress. The hard won knowledge and experience that comes from sticking around life long enough to reach middle age or old age is something we demand acknowledgment for, and burn to share. Meanwhile, the younger generation demands the chance to prove its strengths and talents, and craves the ability to strike out on its own and define itself separate from the influence of the elders, at the very moment when those elders most crave recognition and acknowledgment of their acquired experience.

How can these two sides ever come together? Really, truth be told, it's more than two sides. What we're talking about is a prism, a diamond, its many faces made up of the many different perspectives that come not only from different time periods but different  circumstances and personalities. When we are able to let go of the us vs. them attitude and reach out across the gaps of years to connect with people from a wide range of ages, our lives can be so much richer. I envy and celebrate the incredible energy and optimism and can-do attitude of youth. I honor and rejoice in the depth of knowledge and the courage and wisdom only evident in seniors. I cannot help laughing and marveling at the special perspectives of children. My world is made better by the connections I have with people from every age.