Baby Stepping into Growth

“Strive for progress, not perfection.”–Anonymous

During a recent conversation with a new mother, she shared with my husband, John, and me, the plight of her recent episode of sleepless nights.  The mother explained that her nearly ten month old daughter had learned the joys of pulling-up and cruising around furniture for short bursts of time.  Enamored with her newfound skill, the baby girl was now waking during the night in order to practice her newly discovered skills. While the new parent was thrilled and excited at the baby’s achievement of this new milestone, her eyes were rimmed with dark shadows due to her lack of sufficient sleep.  However, as the parent continued to share various stories of her baby’s zig-zag pattern of progression–crawling and rolling by day, pulling up and cruising by night–the mom’s eyes, nonetheless, sparkled with delight.

Initially, as many parents do, I reflected on my own daughter’s development.  She was much more interested in mastering her vocal and verbal skills at the nine-to ten month period.   Her interrupted sleep, at least at that age, was to wake and explore all the ways in which she could babble, vocalize, and soon enough, form meaningful words.  It wasn’t until the 10-11 month period that she became more interested in pulling up and cruising.  Even then, it seemed that she pulled up with the sole purpose to practice all the ways in which she could use her voice!

My daughter’s path of development was not better or worse than the parent’s child, rather it is an example of the varied and unique ways in which children’s bodies and brains develop. In fact, John and I took great amusement in the fact that our own daughter would be more interested in learning to talk before walking.  Likewise, the new mom did not criticize or compare her baby’s progress to that of a child who had mastered walking, rather she focused on her child’s progress.

Upon reflection, the next day, I realized that there was a nugget of wisdom in that story that was worthy of more contemplation.  Reflecting, not only my daughter’s unique mastery of walking, but also upon what I understand as an educator regarding child development, I recognize that learning is all about progress, not perfection.  In fact, the same is true for establishing new habits or making/adjusting to a drastic change in life.  Cultivating growth, change, and learning, in the real world, moves slowly through up and down periods of time.

My parents did not compare my development as a toddler to that of my grandfather!

“Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step of your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take a step.”–Naeem Callaway

Reflecting on the ways in which babies learn to walk, child development experts state there are certain milestones, such as, sitting, rolling over, crawling, pulling up, cruising, and so forth, that parents should expect. During the process, the baby will learn to balance while standing, then bounce while standing, and might revert back to rolling or crawling. Eventually, however, the child will return his or her interest to pulling up, and perhaps begin to attempt cruising, but may still go back to crawling for a while–or in the case my daughter–focus on developing verbal skills.  

The point is that while so-called experts can point to certain milestones of development, in reality all children learn to walk (and talk) at his or her own pace–some taking longer or shorter periods of time than others.  However, we never compare the child-learning-to-walk to a so-called “master-walker.” Can you imagine a parent or grandparent saying to a baby learning to walk, “Why aren’t you walking like so and so?”  Instead, we foster and encourage each, well, baby-step along the child’s unique time-line of progression.  Which led me to wonder why so many of us, myself included, don’t do that for ourselves?

Nor did my parents compare my brother’s baby steps to his older sister (me).

Why do we, as adults, compare our own progress–or for that matter the progress of school age children–to that of a so-called, “master.”  While having a goal is absolutely worthy, as the old adage states, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and neither is progress.  In fact, I often have conversations with parents of students that growth often happens in fits and starts.  Each student’s brains are wired uniquely, and thus learning never occurs in a straight upward angled line.  The same is also true for adult learning. 

All progress–be learning a new skill, establishing a new habit, or changing/eliminating a bad habit–looks more like the zig-zag pattern of learning to walk.  How many times per day does a baby who is learning to walk fall down?  Are we ever disappointed in the baby when he or she does this?  No!  Instead, as loving adults, we say words to encourage, foster, and inspire the child to try again.  In fact, I would argue, it is the adult’s positive attitude that is part of the baby’s motivation to get up and try again–at least until they are too tired.  Even then, as we put the baby to bed, we know that tomorrow’s is a new day, and he or she will be right back at it again in the attempt to learn to walk.

No matter how long or meandering the path toward progress is, keep on stepping into the version of your best self!

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”–Martin Luther King Jr.

Thus, this is the type of attitude that we should offer ourselves in our attempts to instigate personal change and growth.  Start with small steps towards the desired goal.  If you “backslide” and revert back to old habits, such as when babies revert back to crawling, get back up the next day, and try again.  Don’t compare yourself to others with self-defeating thoughts or other comparative notions. Each of us has our own distinctive way of learning, changing, and/or progressing.

I would have never told my daughter that she should give up on learning to walk, much less called her a failure when her interest in walking was put on pause for several weeks as she focused on her vocalization.  That was part of her own idiosyncratic pattern of growth, and the same holds true for our own attempts at growth and change. 

We all need a little help along the way towards our goals. Don’t be afraid to accept structure and help as needed!

According to the Kaizen principle that is often applied in the business world, improvements and growth in an organization most successfully occurs through small steps.  In fact, as best as I understand it, the Kaizen principle for growth and change encourages a business to create a culture in which employees plan, implement a small steps towards growth, periodically review whether or not the plan is working, then take action–either by taking the next small step forward or by refining/adjusting the current step.  With each successive step and revision, growth begins to occur. This principle can be applied to our own lives.

Stop comparing yourself to a master-image of perfection.  In fact, I encourage you to stop striving for a so-called image of perfection–after all, this is life, with all of its ingrained messiness and fallibilities.   Instead, foster progress.  Talk kindly to yourself as you would a child learning to walk.  If you fall down, it’s okay.  Cry if you must, but get up the next day, and try again. If you need to hold onto a structure for a while, as a baby must hold onto furniture in its attempt to master walking, remember the baby is developing its leg strength, and you are likewise building strength!  The point is to keep moving forward, no matter if it seems like you’re only making baby steps. Eventually you will attain your version of success that works for you.  

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A Prayer for a Compassionate Heart

Do to others whatever you would have them do to you . . .”Matthew 7:12

As I descended the hill and made my way onto a major Ohio route, I saw the flag in front of me.  During these schismatic political times, I am not unfamiliar with numerous political variations of the American flag, but this one really bothered me.  I could feel its venomous bite, and like a poisonous snake, its toxin worked its way gradually into my consciousness.  

What is the purpose of a flag filled with hateful words?  Do they have kids?   If so, were they okay with their own children seeing those words?  This was also a major school bus route; those students would also read those words.  Did they think about them before hanging it up?  On and on my mind chewed on this image like one tries to chew taffy with its sticky consistency adhering like glue.

Miniature Old Glory hangs in my classroom.

It wasn’t long before a stereotypical image began filling my mind regarding the type of person who chose to hang the controversial flag.  Soon enough, the flag message became fodder for a few of my conversations–that is until my consciousness began to send me pangs of remorse and guilt.  

“Steph, you are pigeon-holing people you haven’t even met yet.  You don’t know that person, nor do you know the life they have lived.  Who do you think you are?  What makes you so great to sit in judgement?”

On and on my consciousness scolded me.  Then, came the remembrance of an image.  It was from my third grade classroom.  A small framed principle was hung beside the long ago classroom door, allowing it to be visible to those of us inside the classroom.  I was seated in the front of the classroom, due to my height, in a desk near the door, and consequently, the sign.  The image was embossed with golden flourishing, and the lettering was classically formatted in a bold black scripted font: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”  

As seen on Instagram @ drwaynedyer.

As best I can remember, this classic tenet was dulled with age, lacked any eye-catching appeal, and therefore I am fairly certain it wasn’t something to which I paid particularly close attention.  While memories of my third grade are as faded as that long-ago picture, I do seem to recall our teacher, Bonnie McKenzie, referring to the picture, from time to time, when any one of us was not acting kindly towards one another.  In fact, I have a hazy recollection of Ms. McKenzie, once standing beside the picture, and firmly instructing us that this was the most important rule in our classroom. 

It occurred to me that I had seen the very same thing somewhere in my grandparent’s house, but like all third grade minds, it wasn’t a precept I fully understood.  Rather, I interpreted it as a reminder to, “Be nice.”  Not that I always applied it, after all, I was a third grader, and life wasn’t always fair, but I’d like to think I mostly tried . . . at least until those angsty, hormonal teen years . . .

Regardless, I am now no longer a fledgling third grader and absolutely capable of understanding the golden rule more fully.  Therefore, I continued to wrestle with my consciousness over my self-imposed verdict of the flag for the rest of the evening.  My mind kept circling back to that darn third grade image, and I knew that if I was talking negatively about this unknown person, I was NOT practicing my beloved teacher’s guideline. 

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure Ms. McKenzie was as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us, but I would like to believe that it was important to her that she imparted the importance of this rule, above all others, to her students.  Thus, that is how I settled my mind.  

Do unto others the way your cat peacefully loves you! 😉

“To keep the Golden Rule we must put ourselves in other people’s places, but to do that consists in and depends upon picturing ourselves in their places.”–Harry Emerson Fosdick 

While I’d like to believe I’ve lived through a wide array of situations and therefore have a wide breadth of informed life experiences that grant me permission to quickly judge or criticize–it is one of my greatest ego-driven flaws.  One could argue, as I have, that the ability to discern quickly can be a strength in certain situations. However, quickly drawing conclusions is still deduced from my limited life experiences and perspective rather than taking time to place myself in the shoes of the other person.  

As the strangely linked cogs of my stored memories continued to churn their mental back and forth, my mind led me down another deep recess to the remembrance of an additional memory:  Rev. Larry Brisker, my one time pastor, teaching his flock about the concept of “agape love.”

Pets offer us unconditional love–no matter how we act, what mood we’re in, or what political/personal beliefs we have.

“Agape love is selfless love . . .the love God wants us to have isn’t just an emotion but a conscious act of the will–a deliberate decision on our part to put others ahead of ourselves.  This is the kind of love God has for us.”–Billy Graham

I cannot pretend to be an expert of Bible scripture, but I do faintly recall first learning about the concept of agape love from Rev. Brisker.  It was one of those rare teenage times when I truly focused on the sermon. (Sorry, Rev. Brisker, I wasn’t always focused, but in all fairness, I was awash in those darn, distracting teenage years.) As best as I can recall, Rev. Brisker’s message on agape love was based on a passage in Corinthians I often call, “The Love Chapter”.  In particular, it was the verse about the clanging cymbal that held my attention because, well, I thought it sounded cool. Ok, I was a kid, but the point wasn’t entirely lost on me.  

God loved us, period.  It wasn’t based on feeling or the hollow promises of impressive sounding words.  God’s love came from actions–not feelings–and that, Rev. Brisker explained, was the highest form of love and what we should all aspire to offer others–no matter what they believe or how they choose to act.  Of course, I am quite certain the Reverend was MUCH more eloquent than my memory.

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko on Pexels.com

Therefore, Dear Reader, I recount both of these faint memories to share this conclusion.  In this extended season of recent years filled with uncertainty, political divide, and one series of crises after another–both home and abroad, it was, and is, my lesson to re-learn that when I am quick to judge, that I must step back, and try to see things from the other person’s perspective.  In fact, it is my prayer that my conscience continues to remind me to refrain from acting as a loud clanging cymbal filled with noise based only upon my perspective.  The bigger picture is NOT about me. 

Instead, I pray that I may humbly be reminded, as often as needed, to extend compassion and understanding to ALL.  May I work harder to find a more gracious, warm hearted attitude, and not be so quick to render judgement.  Otherwise, I am acting in a way that could be, and has been, hurtful if/when someone quickly passes judgement upon me.  

Therefore, as the Golden Rule encourages all of us to do, may we all offer understanding and patience to others in the same way we would expect it given to us.  We don’t have to agree on all fronts to find common ground that binds us together as fellow human beings.  Agape love challenges all of us to humbly serve and offer grace to all as our Creator does for us on a daily basis.

“You can have the ‘golden rule’ do unto others as you would have others do unto you. But then you take it one step farther where you just do good unto others, period. Just for the sake of it.”–Jennifer Beals 

Treat others as you would have them treat you!
Photo by mali maeder on Pexels.com
Mom told us to get out outside and play!

Cricket’s Song

“When the cricket’s song is the only song you hear, how peaceful the whole earth seems.”–Marty Rubin

My face masks were washed from the previous week of work.  The sun had already kissed the horizon’s forehead before slipping away into the dusk, but it was not yet full dark.  I headed towards the garage of our home with the clean masks in hand in order to stow them away with the others in a large ziplock baggie I keep in my car.  Stepping down onto the concrete pad, I was struck by the singing of a lone, unseen cricket.

Photo by NO NAME on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  sang the hidden insect.

It seems as if it is a rite of seasonal passage for one cricket to find itself trapped in our garage. Even as a child, I seem to recall a single cricket trapped in my family’s garage, and later, the laundry room. In fact, I can once recall sitting on the step to the laundry room during a summer stay at home from college, listening to a lone cricket chirp its tune of summer’s end, and feeling both the mix of anticipation and sadness at the changing of seasons within my own life.  

Later in the week, having temporarily forgotten the guest residence of the cricket in our garage, my husband, John, and I exited out of our car after a dinner out, and we were greeted by the sound of our guest once more.

Photo by Neale LaSalle on Pexels.com

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” our guest continued its mournful solo concert.

Even as I closed the garage door and turned off the light, I could still hear its song of summer’s end continuing despite no longer having an audience.  

Early the next morning, I walked out to the garage to once more stow away another item into the car.  The sun had not yet made its morning ascent, and the garage was filled with shadows and predawn edginess. As I reached for the garage door handle, I paused. The cricket was still singing its melancholic song.  I had to wonder at the miracle of this creature’s voice and sense of perseverance.  How could it continue to sing throughout the night–even if no one was there to appreciate it’s fine farewell chirrupings?

Entering the garage, its piping paused momentarily.  Then when no harm came its way, its singing resumed full strength as I made my way to the car with my belongings. Returning to the house, its trilling continued even as I shut the garage door.  

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”  

“The crickets felt it was their duty to warn everybody that summertime cannot last forever.”–E.B. White

The cricket’s reminder that change is coming.  Summer’s warmth will soon be passing.  Leaves will soon slip the bondages of tree limbs, grasses will fade, and wintry winds will whir their chilly thoughts soon enough.  Silky time slips slowly through a faucet of seasons, drip by drip, slowly weathering away the husks of our bodies like water gradually wearing down a rock, eventually returning it to the dust of our Creator.

Photo by Vlad Bagacian on Pexels.com

Shortened days and longer nights, 

Football and band songs

Sweaters and caps, 

Bonfires and marshmallows 

Amber and red swirl over 

A ribbon of black  

Soon the first kiss of frost.

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .  

It’s been a week since the unseen cricket took up residence in the collections that fill the garage. Since then another loved one has left the earth; perhaps he sings for him.

Life is short

Life is sweet

Love is a river of time

Filled and flowing 

With the rhythm of

Seasonal rains and

Periods of drought 

Through, over, and around

Ultimately, returning to the Source

Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .”

The cricket bids you adieu, my friend. 

Dusk has slipped into night

Your tortured time 

Filled with shouts of pain

Has ceased into a timeless song of peace

Yet

Your imprint abides

Through students and players

O’er fields of dreams and

Work sites unseen

Through sons and grandchildren

And even four greats

Your legacy endures

May your hands be still at last

“Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye . . .” trills the cricket once more.

The cricket's song is a reminder that change is coming.  Goodbye warm summer days. Hello frosty autumn starts.  Soon we all will rest.




Endless Echoes of Kindness

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.”–Mother 

Teresa

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

It is Saturday morning, and I was once more at Ritter Park for my weekly run.  Arriving a bit later in the morning than originally planned, the sun had burned off most of the fog, and the temperature was beginning to rise.  Early morning exercisers were chatting and/or packing up vehicles in the parking lot as late morning exercisers began disembarking from their vehicles.  It reminded me of shift changes from long ago when I once worked at a fast food restaurant. 

Sweat came easily in the August heat, and my breathing quickly became more rapid. I felt my pace slowing–although, to be perfectly honest, I don’t run particularly fast on any given day. My desire to be here at an earlier time added further negativity to my mindset. Nonetheless, in spite of part of my mind urging me to quit, I continued on towards the goal I had set for myself at the onset.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prior to driving to the park, my day had not begun auspiciously.  A glass framed picture had randomly fallen off the wall, crashed onto the kitchen floor, taking with it a glass candle from the counter below it.  I was upset because the picture contained one of my favorite quotes, had been framed, and given to me by one of my sisters.  The clean-up took quite a bit of time, only to be followed by another larger item uncontrollably breaking in our main bathroom, sending me into a temporary river of uncontrolled tears as I wondered what else could go wrong.

Ahead on the path, I observed a man walking three dogs. Two of the three pooches were  incredibly large–I am not certain of the breed, perhaps Great Danes.  The other dog was tiny, made even smaller looking by its companions. Drawing closer to the dog walker, he kindly stepped off the crushed pebbled path with his dogs, and I wished him a “Good Morning.”

“Good morning to you.  I hope you have a great jog.”

His words were like magic beans as I felt my energy suddenly seem to grow.  I could have a great jog–no matter the pace.  Plus, given my slower stride, I had more time to take in the trees with their whispered leaf secrets, listen to the creek alongside the path gurgling its story of travels, and I had enough breath to pay forward encouragement to others.  Ultimately, the stranger’s moment of kindness positively impacted the rest of my slow, but steady run, and I was able to run the length of my modest distance goal.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich on Pexels.com

“As much as we need a prosperous economy, we also need a prosperity of kindness and decency.”–Caroline Kennedy

Sitting down a bit later for a bite to eat, I fired up my laptop and opened up a news app.  Scanning through one depressing headline after another, I began to notice the positive vibes from the morning run beginning to wane.  It seemed like the entire world, including our own country, could benefit from more acts of kindness and generosity–which made me curious.  Were there any tangible benefits of kindness?  I clicked off the disheartening news feed and began my research.

According to the Mayo Clinic, as well as several other leading research hospitals, kindness increases your levels of energy and instantly boosts your mood–so that effect of that man’s words weren’t my imagination.  Offering simple gestures of kindness increases one’s self-esteem, sense of empathy, and compassion.  Kindness has been shown to increase life span.  Furthermore, kindness decreases blood pressure, but increases levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone.  

In the brain, kindness decreases cortisol, a stress-inducing hormone, but increases serotonin and dopamine which in turn improves your sense of well-being and feelings of satisfaction.  Acting or receiving kindness also enhances endorphins, the brain’s natural painkillers.  Practicing kindness also reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and boosts the immune system.  I was already feeling better just reading about kindness as opposed to how I felt reading the news.

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“Kindness costs nothing.” Irish proverb

Psychologists and sociologists also note that kindness is contagious.  It has a ripple effect.  In fact, studies indicate that if you receive a kind word, gesture, or act, you are more than likely to pay it forward to another person as I found myself doing at Ritter–offering words of encouragement to other runners and walkers with whom I encountered.  In a world in which social media continuously hawks wares of the latest, greatest, and always pricey health supplement, here’s one, tried and true, scientifically supported method that will not empty your bank account: kindness.

I am but one small voice in a world filled with thunderous voices and even louder, enticing distractions. Answers to global, national, and local problems, I do not have.  What I do have is the ability to act kindly.  If each person reading my words offered one or two acts of kindness every day to others with whom they encounter, and they in turn did the same, then they did the same . . . .  Like ripples traveling down the Ohio River in the wake of one boat, what an effect those acts of kindness might have.

Take more time to notice when people smile; speak kind words; open the door for you; allow you to enter a crowded lane of traffic on a backed-up commute route; or, simply offer to help you. Notice, and pay those actions forward.  Rather than feeding your soul with the negative loop of blaring headlines with the motto, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and the frenetic diversions of screens, focus instead on the precept, “if it’s kind, it’s aligned”–aligned with health, wellness, positivity, and most of all peace–for you and the recipient. 

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Enthusiasm for Life in the Present Moment

“Discipline is not the enemy of enthusiasm.”–Joe Clark

There they were. Athletically built and full of swagger, I listened to their coach who asked them to circle up around me in the dewy grass.  The fog was rising, but the sunlight remained hidden on this humid August Saturday morning.  They were quiet and rather fatigued-looking after a week of two-a-day practices; nonetheless, they were respectful as I began to talk to each of them, my eyes moving from athlete to athlete.  

The task before me was to provide a recovery yoga practice for the St. Joseph Central Catholic High School boy’s soccer team, the sibling school to the middle (and elementary) school for which I am a 6-8 educator.  I began our morning practice by setting an intention. Mid-way through my opening statements, the thought occurred to me that I might also be talking to myself.

I began the practice with the following quote by Julia Cameron, “Over an extended period of time, being an artist requires enthusiasm more than discipline.” However, I replaced “artist” with “athlete.”  Enthusiasm comes from the Greek word, enthousiasmos, enthous, or entheos–which essentially means to be possessed or inspired by God.  Other translations include: filled by God’s essence; or, inspiration or possession of God.  When looking at synonyms for enthusiasm–passion, ardor, zeal, fervor–one begins to truly feel the emotional strength and power of the word.

The purpose of selecting this intention for the team’s yoga practice was two-fold. First, I  wanted them to walk away from practice with the thought that in order to have a successful soccer season, it would not only require disciplined practices, thinking, actions, and reactions, but also their discipline must be infused with enthusiasm–for one another and for the game.  Additionally, I hoped they would sense the Creator’s guiding presence in their life, the One who divinely and individually created each one, as they moved into and through their coming season and school year.  

As seen on Instagram @ postiveenergyalways

Discipline and enthusiasm, I believe, go hand-in-hand, especially when reflecting upon this past year and half of living with COVID. Like many, I had maintained the discipline of preventative COVID measures throughout the summer, fall and winter of last year, but by the end of February of 2021, I was beginning to lose my enthusiasm. I was ready, more than ready, to give up.  In fact, I was ready to run away from life. It seemed to me that there had been far too many deaths, distractions, changes, illnesses, storms, flooding, and other torments of life.  Like so many around me, I felt I was, like the old southern, metaphorical expression made popular by the band, REM, “losing my religion,” and barely holding on. 

Thankfully, I did not give up.  Instead, I kept showing up, moving, one foot in front of the other, one day–sometimes even one moment–at a time.  By the time summer arrived, I decided to create a disciplined morning practice devoted to inner, spiritual work in an attempt to find that lost enthusiasm.  And guess what I discovered?  The Divine Creator was still there, and at a snail’s pace, I began to once more feel the True Source of inspiration.  I began to find enthusiasm once more.  

Photo by Dom J on Pexels.com

“Write this down:  My life is full of unlimited possibilities.”–Pablo

I woke early every morning and committed myself to the practice of writing–not for publication, but for me.  Each morning, before the sun had risen, I sat and wrote for nearly an hour following a formatted plan. It didn’t matter how much my inner-self tantrumed about the early hour, time commitment, or the work, I kept up the practice and believed in the process. I filled pages of journals–words that I ultimately shredded!  

In fact, hours of work were ultimately sent through a shredder because, in the end, the words I wrote did not need to be saved.  They had served their purpose by allowing my mind to process and recover.  It took weeks, but my mindset gradually shifted. Instead of thinking, “Oh, I have to get up and write,” I actually began to look forward to my writing practice.  I was finding my joy.

Photo by Gareth Willey on Pexels.com

As I worked with those high school boys, they found their muscles tight from the pounding and compacting of twice daily running and drills.  Their bodies were not easily given over to poses (stretching positions) through which I guided them. It was as if their bodies were saying, “No! I won’t!”  I encouraged the young men to breathe through the resistance, release the tension, and relax.  The more they took deep breaths, the more they were able to relax those tight muscles.  The more they relaxed, the more their bodies allowed them to stretch. 

At the end of nearly an hour, they entered their final pose, “savasana,” final relaxation pose.  Savasana is also known as corpse pose–as there is a dying away of the body and mind to all of its busyness.  Savasana is similar to powering down your computer or phone–it gives the body a chance to assimilate all that has happened within that hour of practice, reboot, and return to homeostasis.

As seen on Instagram @ spiritualist_within

Likewise, my summer practice of writing served a similar function.  I had to learn how to loosen my rigid and restricted way of thinking.  Instead of remaining in my isolated, ego-driven “No-brain,” I had relearn how to tap into my “Yes-brain.”   Through my disciplined morning practice of writing, prayer, and affirmations, it was as if my brain was metaphorically breathing deeply, learning to relax, and eventually relearned to say, “Yes,” even to things for which I cannot control.  My brain had to die away from the busyness of my ego–the poor, pitiful me side, and tap into the True Source

Making my way around the circle of kids relaxed in savasana, I sprayed each of their feet and ankles with peppermint spray as an act of soothing refreshment. I could not help but notice all of their blisters, calluses, and chafed skin.  It reminded me of how many of us feel as we deal with this new variant(s) of COVID.

Photo by Maksim Goncharenok on Pexels.com

“Always remember to take your Vitamins:  Take your Vitamin A for ACTION, Vitamin B for Belief, Vitamin C for Confidence, Vitamin D for Discipline, Vitamin E for Enthusiasm!!”–Pablo

Many may feel chafed, not only by the notion of wearing masks again, but also by the fact that we still can’t return to a so-called, “normal,” or the sense of homeostasis. We are asked to remain vigilant and disciplined regarding not only our health, but the well-being of others, and yet our souls are begging for soothing like the peppermint oil sprayed on the soccer player’s bedraggled feet.  It is worth remembering how far we have come, and if we made it through last year, we can make it again.

I will argue that Cameron’s words can be applied to this extended period of time as we continue to live with COVID.  We need a large dose of enthusiasm, more than discipline, in order to continue to embrace life as it is and keep going.  Enthusiasm is our God-given, on-going source of inspiration and energy.  When enthusiasm is combined with taking action and believing in our Higher Power, we can continue with confidence to remain disciplined and still experience joy.  Life may not be like it was, and frankly, it may never return to what we once knew, but life in the present moment–no matter the status–is continuing; and that, my friend, is worth a mask-covered smile.  

Miss Ollie Ray is all sunshine and smiles no matter the changes around her as seen in this picture from last school year.

Rocks in Your Head?

“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wears you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”–Muhammad Ali

Have you ever been walking along and discovered a rock in your shoe?  It doesn’t seem to matter how small it is, suddenly, it is all that you can think about.  This is especially true if you are on a solo walk or run.  With each step, that multi-faceted, miniscule rock pokes and prods your foot until it becomes your sole focus. Likewise, if you are walking or running with another person, try as you might to ignore the aggravating rock, it remains in the periphery niggling away at your attention in spite of your best effort to focus on the unfolding conversation. 

Have you ever noticed how much more free and spacious your mind becomes if you pause long enough to take the rock out of your shoe?  If you’re with a friend, your concentration easily returns, and if you’re exercising alone, your mind relaxes and resumes its free-flow thought.  When this happens to me, I often ask myself, why did I take so long to shake that rock out of my shoe?  Why did I allow myself to be tormented by such a small thing?  

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Oddly enough, there are times that I will go an entire run or walk, and complete an errand or two, before I take time to slip off my shoe. Once home, I’ll sit down on the front stoop of my porch, take off my shoe and shake out scanty pebbles and/or debris. Slipping the shoe back on, it’s like putting on new footwear–all because I had been too stubborn, lazy, or petulant to take off my shoes and toss out the rocks.

After a recent moment of emptying the rocks out of my shoes, it occurred to me that those crushed rocks were quite a bit like thoughts that can sometimes run through my head.  These are often circular notions of self-doubt, self-criticism, or self-reproach.  Depending upon the day, situation, and/or context, the narrative can vary, but the ongoing, well-rehearsed mental skirmish between Naysayer Nellie and Wetblanket Wanda certainly know how to prick and needle my grey matter like the crushed detritus poking and prodding my foot when trapped in my shoe.

These pessimistic pests tend to most often join forces during times of stress, change, and/or increase in workload.  Sometimes, all it takes is one moment of so-called failure, frustration, or new challenge to inspire those two negative allies to vie for my attention as they quickly assemble a barrage of heated messages designed.  Then, like a challenging adolescent, they turn up the volume, in case I didn’t hear their propaganda the first hundred times!  

Ironically, I know their stories aren’t true. I recognize the disinformation for what it is; and yet, like the proverbial pebble in the shoe, I don’t quickly empty the shoe, or in this case, the prodding thoughts.  Instead, I allow those irksome ideas to create a foothold in consciousness, and repeatedly nettle away. It’s as if these defeatist messages have hijacked my brain.  

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If I allow those obstructive thoughts to remain around long enough, like the shoe-bound pea gravel chafing my skin until blisters form, the negative mental chatter can create so much inflammation that my brain will begin its not-so-subtle messages of flight, fight, or freeze.  My head and heart will begin to pound, I will hold my breath, tighten parts of my body, such as my belly, back, or neck, and sleep becomes elusive or filled with nightmares.

What can I do?  Duh! Take off the proverbial shoe and shake out the rocks.  Not that it is easy, but I have to remind myself that thoughts are like clouds.  Even on the most overcast day, when all is gray and cloud-covered, the blue sky and the bright sun are still there–they have merely been hidden.  The sky is not the clouds, and I am not my thoughts–and neither are you, Dear Reader!  In fact, we are so much more than any negative messages sticking around in our heads. 

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 As I understand it, the emotional center of our brain is housed in the part of the area that evolved quite early in order to determine important life saving decisions such as, “Is this food poisonous or not?” or “Will this animal eat me?”  Once this area of the brain perceives something as dangerous–even if created by our own thoughts–this part of the brain won’t shut off until it feels safe.  (It is also worth noting that the same is true when this area of the brain experiences pleasure–it wants more and more.) 

However, we have another, more advanced part of the brain that allows humans to think, reason, make decisions, and plan.  Therefore, with practice, we can be aware of when the emotional center of the brain launches into its overwhelming fear-mongering.  We further have the capacity to choose whether or not we believe those negative stories, and we can also plan how to treat those thoughts when they do occur.  Furthermore, we can take daily actions to further reduce the rumbling rocky voices which are most often a product of fear . . . fear of failure, fear of success, fear of change, and fear of the unknown

“Remove the rock from your shoe rather than learn to limp comfortably.”–Stephen C. Paul

One of the best pieces of advice an acquaintance once shared with me:  “Stop yelling at yourself.”  She went on to ask if I would yell at my own daughter the way I think about myself.  When I said, no, she simply encouraged me to “play nice,” call fear by its rightful name, and then take steps to calm it down as you would with your own child.  

Many of the actions that can be taken to reduce negative/anxious thinking are not new suggestions.  Deep breathing, exercise, or simply walking away from a stressful situation for a specific time period are all actually quite helpful.  Other suggestions include: 

*Remind yourself of your past successes.

*Take small steps towards learning a new task. 

*Be willing to ask for help to reduce or understand new/heavy workloads.

*Talk to a trusted friend or family member–sometimes just naming your fears begins to tame them. 

*Write your problem on a piece of paper–dump it all, like you’re emptying your brain of pea gravel. The act of writing slows down the thoughts, relaxes your brains, and allows you to see things differently.  I’ve literally taken that written problem, slipped it under my pillow at night, and literally slept on it.  It never fails to surprise me how a little faith and trust that a solution will be found allows it to gradually unfold.  

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*Learn to nurture and protect your thoughts. 

*Cultivate affirmative thoughts.

*Take preemptive action if you know certain situations trigger a strong emotional reaction. 

*Be gentle and kind with yourself. 

If you begin to notice your brain is launching into story mode, each time a thought attempts to pop into your head, try to mentally swipe it away like a fly at a picnic before it can grow.

The point is, just because you think something, doesn’t mean it’s true.  Sometimes the solution is as simple as shaking out rocks.  I’m not saying it’s easy; it’s not.  Nonetheless, it is worth remembering that emotions come and go, like ever changing weather, but they don’t have to permanently hijack your brain.  

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May There Always Be a June

“Even the prettiest flower will die one day. It’s nature’s way of teaching us that nothing lasts forever.”–unknown

“Hmm . . .” I think, more than say, with a deep inhale as I yawned awake.  It was a rare, cool morning–a break from the typical heat and humidity of early July.  The bedroom windows were open, and I breathed in the fragrance of dewy grass, damp earth, and flowers. It was the lingering sweet floral scent that began a series of reflections regarding the significance of June and its likeness to the human life cycle.

At the time I am writing this, it is the July 4 weekend–marking, in my mind, the midpoint of summer.  Once July 4 begins, it feels like the rest of summer swiftly sails by.  Ah, but June.  June is sanguine–full of enough bright cheer to hold old-man winter at bay.  The early spring blossoms such as daffodils, crocus, and tulips have long passed.  Aromatic honeysuckle begins its fading away as the summer perennials and annuals begin blooming brightly in rapid succession.  July may be full of celebrations, explosive displays–all red, white, and blue–but, I adore June–modest, optimistic, June, and the colorful, unique flowers that blossom and thrive with its invitation to summer.

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One morning, this past June, I was in Ritter Park to meet a friend for a walk.  However, the friend was running late, so I decided to meander up the old stone steps to the rose garden.  Sunshine, brilliantly glowed in its mid-morning slant, created a kaleidoscope of vivid colors, varying in texture, size, and shape. With no purpose other than to enjoy the moment, I wandered around the garden, drifting from one rose bush to the next, fascinated with all the minute differences not only among the varieties of rose bushes, but also among the flowers within the same bush.  Meanwhile, a gardener attentively tended the blooms.

Examining more closely, I noticed the various insects drawn to the roses. Bees, ants, beetles, moths and butterflies, flies, and even a few mosquitoes crawled, hovered, dove, and darted–busily buzzing about the roses with purposeful missions.  In one of the more isolated sections, closer to the wooded area of the park, I also observed a hummingbird dipping and diving among the various blossoms in a delightful, whirring dance of flight. As I let my gaze wander, my mind relaxed and began to make correlations with June, its flowers, and life.

“A rose can never be a sunflower, and a sunflower can never be a rose. All flowers are beautiful in their own way . . .”–Miranda Kerr

Each flower–from the number of petals to the size of each petal, from the varying life stages of each flower to the variances of color in each blossom–whether it be a rose in the Ritter Park garden or any one of the wide variety of flowers found in resident yards and public spaces–was, and is, a unique creation.  This is similar to the way each person, within the same family, or outside familial ties, is likewise a one-of-a-kind individual.  Flowers go through a dormant and a growing season of varying lengths, but all bloom seasonally, until they come to an end–whatever the life end may be. So it is with June and human life. 

The season of summer officially begins in June.  The air is sweet and heady with the fragrance of flowers. Winds and sunshine warm the air, and rain falls with purpose. Many plants are rooting and establishing while early spring greenery and blossoms are fading away into their dormancy. Daylight reaches its apex in June, while nighttime descends to its lowest point.  

Likewise, several key life events occurred and are honored in my own life each June.  I graduated from Ohio University in June.  Within that same month, I signed my first teaching contract, thus beginning the start of my career as an educator. Two year later, in June, I married my husband, an anniversary we have celebrated for 32 years.  Ten years later, our daughter was born in June.  As educators, my husband and I experience the arrival of each June as the beginning of a dormant period–an opportunity for reflection and renewal before a new school year begins in August.  Births and weddings, ebbs and flows, the highs and lows, and even celebrated endings.  It’s all there in June.

“All the flowers of tomorrow are in the seeds of today.”–Indian Proverb

I am but one person in the garden of many: my family, my work site, my community, and so forth.  All around me, younger lives are taking root, growing, and blossoming into their own personal expressions–making our collective garden more colorful and vibrant–buzzing with energy.  Meanwhile, I can’t help but notice that just as the flowers of June replace spring’s early blossoms, July has taken June’s place.  

Of course, one could argue that like the flowers, humans seem to be planted in dirt and threatened by weeds and all varieties of pestilence. However, when I was visiting the rose garden in June, it was the array of blossoms, in a rainbow of colors, that caught my eye, and made my heart smile.  They too were planted in dirt, confronted by pests and disease, but a gardener was there watching over them just as we have the Ultimate Gardener attending to our needs. 

The flowers offer their seeds and pollen to insects and birds to eat and disperse, ensuring more and different blooms for the future. Likewise, I pray that until my last petal drops, I am offering seeds of hope for others as June does for me.  One day, my memories of past Junes will fade away into permanent dormancy. In the meantime, I will savor the memories made this past June, find nourishment in the full blossoming of the July summer, and, in the weeks to come, accept August as the petals of summer begin to fall away, one by one.  

May there always be a June.

Scent-ual Memories of Mamaw

“The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures as sharp as photographs of scenes that had left the conscious mind.”–Thalassa Cruso

The tall 8th grader nodded his head slightly as he handed me a basket.  

“This is from my mom,” he added and ambled away on legs leaner and longer than I am tall. 

Filled with several items of self-care, I slowly admired each item in the basket. Noticing a tiny tin of Nivea hand cream, I twisted off its lid. Since my hands were dry from sanitizing students’ tables, I dipped a finger into the rich, velvety cream and gently massaged it into the skin of my hands and fingers.  Working the cream into my hands, I proceeded across the room and thanked the student for his–and his mom’s–thoughtful gift. Then, beginning class in my usual manner, I promptly began moving about the room as I coaxed the 8th grade students into a didactic conversation, and suddenly noticed a familiar aroma . . . Mamaw?

Mamaw and me at her house in the rarely used living room during the Christmas of 1967.

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”— Vladimir Nabokov

Mamaw, whose actual name was Maxi Musick, was my paternal grandmother.  Standing 4’10” at her tallest, she became a widow not too much longer after I was born during the mid-1960s.  She lived in the same small craftsman style home in which she raised my dad and his younger brother for most of their lives. (They moved into the home when my dad was around nine years old.) 

Mamaw’s home was of great fascination to me, and it possessed a certain scent. This unique aroma seemed to mostly emanate from the bathroom and seep into the rest of the house as the one and only bathroom was situated right next to what she called the TV room. In particular, this same fragrance seemed to emanate from Mamaw’s skin.  In fact, I considered this Mamaw’s signature scent.

Where was this scent coming from? Surely, it wasn’t coming from one of the students? No, that was an absurd thought.  I’m tired and simply imagining Mammaw’s fragrance. 

Mamaw is sitting behind me in this picture from Christmas 1967. Beside me opening a Christmas gift is my Uncle Gary Musick, Dad’s brother.

Making my way around the room, discussing the topic of the day with the students, the lingering odor of Mamaw remained with me no matter in which part of the room I stood. Gesticulating in order to make a particular emphasis, a strong wave of fragrance wafted through the air.  A student began to talk, and I brought my palms towards my face.  Then rubbing my palms together and quickly inhaling, the warm scent filled my nostrils.  There she was again.  Mamaw.

Trying to force my mind back towards the speaking student, memories of Mamaw crashed to the surface of my consciousness, as if suddenly, hundreds of sticky note memories began covering my brain. Oh, I didn’t want to lose those remembrances, but I needed professional concentration. Nonetheless, winds of recollection continued to dance, lift, and float just below the surface of my focus like watching autumn leaves drifting to earth outside my classroom window.  Oh, but could I catch each one if only I weren’t inside the confines of the setting, focusing on the job at hand.

My mind drifted to summer nights spent at Mamaw’s house  . . .

Mamaw, with her thinning salt and pepper hair, topped with a wiglet, quietly swaying in rhythm, with me beside her, as we sat on a glider that gently twanged and screeched.  Not many words were spoken. The sensory thrill of summer was enough.

 Heading into the TV room once night was fully settled.  We would take turns bathing.  Mamw would emerge freshly cleaned, pink nightgown and robe swathing her tiny body;  wiglet wrapped in tissue paper so that it wouldn’t be mussed during the night, and that warm fragrance, like misty fog surrounding her being, emanating out each pore of her body. 

Together we watched The Rockford Files (or other such popular shows).  Before the episode began, Mamaw briskly entered her darkened kitchen, and using only the small light above her sink, she would prepare for us a snack. Using her cheese slicer, she deftly carved perfect slices of cheese, added a few Ritz crackers, poured a glass of water for herself, and fixed a cup of Tang for me–the drink of astronauts! 

Mamaw, Maxi, Musick is seated at the head of the table in her kitchen in 1967. Her kitchen would mostly remain the same throughout my childhood. It is interesting to note the way Mamaw tilts her head for pictures as I only now recognized that I have a tendency to do the same thing when photographed.

We were now ready to help Jim Rockford solve his current mystery. If Jim said or did something funny, Mamaw laughed with her whole body, her soft belly jiggling with delight. When he’d act romantically with his sometimes girlfriend, Mamaw would joke that she wished James Garner would date her.  Throughout the show, she and I would debate the merits of the case in our attempt to solve the crime.

By 11:00 pm, I would snuggle down in a twin bed that once belonged to my dad as Mamaw, a heavy-footed, purposeful walker for such a small person, would walk through “boys’ bedroom” to enter her own bedroom. I would fall asleep to the sounds of the C & O train cars moving around in the nearby rail yard.  Safe and snuggled in the blankets, if I listened closely, I could also hear the soft tick, tick, tick of the second hand of the square electric clock in her bedroom clicking off the passing seconds.

Rising early in the morning, Mamaw would make oatmeal for us with extra sugar for me, Sweet’N Low for her.  She boiled water to make herself a cup of instant coffee, and she poured me a cup of orange juice, or if I was really fortunate, grape juice.  Then, we might go to the local high school track for a walk, work around the house, work around the yard tending to her flowers or hanging laundry to dry on the line, or she might quilt, asking me to hand her pieces of material, thread, or find her thimble.

If I remember correctly, Mamaw drove a Toyota Corona for most, if not all, of my childhood. It did not have air conditioning, and so we traveled with the windows down in the summer. She required pillows on her seat to assist her reaching the pedals and seeing out of the window. Both hands were on the steering wheel–10 and 2 o’clock. Those hands never strayed from their designated positions, and her eyes were locked straight ahead. Therefore, she let me adjust the dial on the AM radio to WGNT, rather than WTCR, the home of the country music she preferred.

Mamaw was tight with her budget. She adhered to a schedule and routine with breakfast by 7:00 am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 5:00 pm. Her house was simple, but always neat and tidy. While she belonged to a Regular Baptist church that rotated services from one rural location to another, she talked about it only if asked, and I never heard her criticize other denominations and beliefs.

Meanwhile, back in my classroom, I felt the sticky notes of memories loosening as I required more and more focus to keep my part of the student conversation going.  

Papaw Musick and Mamaw Musick with my Dad, Larry. I just love this photo of all three as it conveys so many emotions–especially when you look at the eyes.

“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”–Cesare Pavese

Mamaw, I hope you knew, and somehow still know, how special you were/are to me.  You taught me to keep my head held high and to walk purposefully with firm steps grounded in simple truths. You further taught me to live simply and not wastefully; laugh abundantly and with your whole body; don’t proselytize your faith, but instead, live by example; eat your oatmeal and take walks; plant flowers; go to bed at a regular time, and get up early; be kind and loving; and, always remember that James Garner was one of the greats.

 I’ve decided to keep that tin of cream in my desk drawer at school in order to remind me to live by Mamaw’s simple truths as I work and teach the next generation of kids.  

Hmm . . . I wonder if I could find a way to work The Rockford Files into my curriculum?

The End of an Educational Experiment . . .for now

“What a long strange trip it’s been.”–Jerry Garcia

“Dear Ms. Hill,  Thank you for all of your hard work and patience.”

This was a one-sentence thank you note I received from a student in advance of the end of the academic school. I appreciated his sentiment and reflected over what I now think of as the “pandemic years of education”.  These past two academic school years have certainly tested teachers’, students’, and parents’ abilities to practice patience–both within ourselves and with one another in the educational community.  It forced all of the involved stakeholders to work in ways for which we were not prepared, and it stretched us to new limits.

As a middle school, 6-8 Reading Language Arts teacher, I have read countless student journals expressing their feelings of fear and uncertainty when the pandemic first began, their high levels of anxiety as well their feelings of isolation during their time in quarantine, their feelings of frustration during day-upon-day of virtual learning, and their exaperastion when dealing with glitchy/malfunctioning wifi or frozen devices.  Despite all of the pandemic educational vexations, students also wrote of their newfound appreciation for the value of the in-person community that schools foster.  Nonetheless, the scars of this experience, I fear, will remain with many of our students for years to come. 

“Reduced learning time has likely impeded student learning and also affected the development of the whole child.”–Economic Policy Institute

Meanwhile, when reflecting upon this pandemic experience with colleagues, both in the public and private school setting, many reflect upon the multiplicity of issues and/or frustrations, depending upon their unique school community.  Pedagogical adaptations seem to have been one of the major challenges often stated by the educators due to virtual learning, shortened school year, and/or hybrid learning.  Then, there were forced adjustments to instructional delivery in order to balance the engagement of virtual students while simultaneously instructing and attending to the needs of in-person students. This demanded that teachers refine and adapt instructional plans–often on-the-fly if there were wifi issues–in order to best facilitate student learning. Additionally, curriculum was often gleaned to the most essential learning objectives and standards also due to a shortened calendar year and/or class time and, in some cases, to allow for additional time to address the social/emotional needs of the students. Meanwhile, administrative tasks seemed to double with an endless supply of emails, on-line grading, and a multitude of spreadsheets and documentation monitoring student attendance, progress, or lack thereof.

Looking back over this experience, I feel as if I am standing on top of one mountain peak, but I can clearly see there are more summits to climb in the coming academic years.  From my current apex, I can tell you this.  Teachers and students should not judge themselves too harshly as this school year winds down.  Virtual teaching and learning during a pandemic was hard–plain and simple.  Students and teachers alike, across the country, were asked to exit their respective schools on March 13, 2020 with all of their personal/professional supplies and no preparation.  Then, on Monday, March 16, we were exhorted to embark on what would, at this point in my 30-plus years as an educator, be the most dramatic educational paradigm shift I have experienced that continued throughout the summer months of 2020 and on into the 2020-2021 school year for which we are now wrapping up.

One thing is for certain, the pandemic compelled teachers and students alike to establish a strong foundation in the employment of technology for educational purposes. The downside of this is that we also learned that technology is dependent upon access to wifi, devices that work, and equal access for all students to reliable devices and internet access.  While I was blessed to work in a school that offers equal access to devices (although our local wifi provider had MUCH to be desired), that was not the case for all schools.  Additionally, even with working devices, the importance of reliable internet service came to the forefront of the educational world as I witnessed in my own school.  As a teacher who committed to operating paperless during this school year, due to virtual learning, my students and I, very quickly, had to learn how to be incredibly patient when there was no service, certain platforms crashed, or devices simply froze. Which leads me to another lesson.

The last day of school for 1st period, 8th grade, Reading Language Arts students, for 2020-2021, whether in-person or virtual. Eventually, all but one student, returned to the classroom.

“It’s (COVID) taught us that technology can be wonderful, but it will never replace the value of people in safe but rigorous learning spaces talking, playing, and working together.”–Brad Olsen, Senior Fellow in the Center for Universal Education

The importance of local communities, administrators, teachers, students, and parents valuing and supporting one another cannot be overstated. Communities witnessed, very quickly, that not only do schools provide an education for their children, but they are also a reliable source of childcare that keeps children safe, fosters their social development, and supports their emotional and physical well-being.  Meanwhile, administrators, teachers, and students discovered the importance of the synergistic experience that happens with in-person classroom learning. While the remote learning model worked–and will probably continue in certain circumstances–there are real educational, social, and emotional benefits from interacting on-site with one another within the structured periphery of a school setting. 

The last day of school for my 8th grade, second period, Reading Language Arts class for 2020-2021, at times, many were virtual, and by the end of the year, all were in-person

“COVID-19 highlighted the essential role of child care for children, families, and the economy, and our serious underinvestment in the care sector.”–Daphna Bassok, Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brown Center on Education Policy

While I have no doubt, next year will bring the educational system continued challenges from the lingering effects of this pandemic, I believe, overall, we have the ability to face them with an even greater capacity of compassion and empathy if we heed its many lessons.  The pandemic, it seems to me, has reinforced why it is crucial for the community at large to listen to the needs of educators, parents, and students.  It has given local leaders an opportunity to reflect upon the critical role of childcare and its contribution to the fiscal wellbeing of its community.  Likewise, the educational system must continue to rethink and adapt instruction in order to better facilitate student learning while continuing to cultivate ways to meet the emotional and physical needs of children, caregivers, and educators.  One-size does not fit all when it comes to technology, education, and childcare, but all affect and influence the successful functioning of the communities at large.  

In the end, I circle back to what my student simply wrote.  Thank you to the many who extended me patience through what has been one, if not the most, challenging 15 months of my career.  Many have granted me grace in moments of extreme stress and emotional duress, and for those unnamed moments, I am eternally grateful.  Here’s to summer break, and a fresh start on the coming school year.  May schools blessedly remain open.

First period class clowning around on their last day of school which was also a dress down day for their last day of 8th grade.
Second period, 8th grade, striking a pose on their last day of 8th grade which was also a dress down day.

Birdsong: A Harbinger of Hope

“Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” –Rabindranath Tagore

It is typically during the seventh hour of the day at some point in February, when there is a noticeable shift in the time the sun rises, that I become aware of their return.  Upon first hearing their growing morning melodies, while walking into the school in which I am an educator, their sweet sounds encourage me that winter will not last forever. With the arrival of March, there is a gradual shift in the start of their chorus as it begins earlier like the daylight.  As March melts into April, and April fades into May, their symphonious soundings continue to advance, in sync with the brightening of the sky.  Softly their voices appear, as darkness begins lifting its veil, until the cacophony of their songs reaches full crescendo with the rising of the sun.

“Birdsong brings relief

to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,

but with nothing to say!

Please, universal soul, practice

some song, or something, through me!”–Rumi

As one who rises well before dawn, but does not necessarily enjoy such premature risings, I do, nonetheless, appreciate the moments before the brightening of the sky:  birdsong.  These hopeful melodies, it seems to me, offer praise and thanksgiving for the arrival of the new day.  Birds sing regardless of the temperatures, whether there is frost or dew on the ground, or whether there is a bitter bite of the wind or the air is utter stillness.  Their animated voices echo among and around the hills of our area, playing a sort of hide and seek with the give and take of the various songs of each species.

I once read that because King Solomon understood what the birds were saying in their chirpings, they often remained near him.  Supposedly, St. Francis’ presence was so calm and reassuring that songbirds frequently alighted upon his shoulders.  While I am not sure that either of these accounts are much more than lore, they are certainly lovely images to contemplate in the midst of a morning birdsong performance.

Photo by Jess Vide on Pexels.com

This year, it seems to me that the birdsong of sunrises is a metaphor not only signifying the arrival of spring, but also life after the pandemic–at least for those of us fortunate enough to live where those affected by COVID seem to be decreasing.  Like a great collective exhalation, the birds’ songs reflect the hope and freedom that is life after quarantine.  The freedom for humans to flit, flutter, and fly from place to place, as if riding on the wings of these birds, seems as welcome as the spring weather.  Of course, I would not yet throw caution to the wind, but it does seem, at least for now, the worst is behind us.

This weekend, for the first time in months, I met a friend, and we walked together on a local walking path.  In spite of the early morning chill, the give and take of conversation while exercising felt as victorious as the first blossom of crocus emerging through a crust of white snow in late February or early March. As we walked and talked, birds offered a euphonious soundtrack, better than any store muzak, as they chattered, called, and chirped from limbs, lines, and landscape, tilting their small heads this way and that; our great guardians of the walk.

As the birds awakened my later weekend slumberings on the morning of this writing, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I wiped the sleep out of my eyes, at the birds’ optimism.  Even in the darkest days of quarantine, those harmonious fowls kept up their song.  In fact, they never ceased, not for one day.  No matter the restrictions, the overwhelm, the confusion, and the fear that existed among the human population, especially in the early stages of the pandemic, the birds held fast to their habit of daily, lyrical praise.

There is a scientific theory loosely held by a few scientists that the songs of birds, especially in the early dawn hours, vibrate at an ideal frequency to promote plant growth and yield.  It is theorized that when exposed to bird song, the stomata–the mouth-like opening found on the bottoms of leaves–open wider.  This widening allows for a greater exchange of air–expelling more oxygen–and also permits greater absorption of water and nutrients.  

Photo by Dariusz Grosa on Pexels.com

I can’t help but wonder if that is what the birds are likewise trying to do for humans.  In an act of Divine Instrumentation, a bird’s song is not only to aid in the growth of plants, but likewise in the swelling of the human soul.  Perhaps, those songs occur, in the birth of the day, when all is fresh and renewed from a night of rest, at an optimal time to widen the human heart, providing a greater opening for an exchange and absorption of optimism and aspiration from these winged creatures.  

In fact, one could think of each lifted note sung by feathered friends as a harbinger of the positive possibilities each gift of sunrise brings us–if only we allow our souls to remain open to them.  Working symbiotically with the oxygen expelled from the stomata of a plant, we too, can increase our own personal growth and yield by remaining unrestricted to the promising potential each day offers.  Even though the sky is still dark, the birds faithfully start their singing.  We can choose to do the same. 

 “ . . . . Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.

How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling,

They’re given wings.–Rumi

Photo by Jou00e3o Jesus on Pexels.com