Are You Okay?

The doorbell rang. This is a tiny detail, but I love tiny domestic details. I love them in Virginia Wolfe and Elizabeth Berg and Anna Quindlen and Ann Patchett. And yes, I love writing them. The doorbell rang. I was cooking and quickly washed my hands. I dried them off and remembered to grab a mask before I answered it. The mask–a contemporary domestic detail that I do not love– tiny, but with a dark dystopian overlay. I put on the mask and opened the door. The delivery van parked in front of my house was from my favorite florist. The delivery person, a welcome stranger, held out fragrant flowers in every shade of blush. I reached out for this beautiful gift. I took the flowers in, and placed them in the center of our dining room table. The flowers were from a dear friend who knows me well. I read the card. Her message was full of the hope she knew I needed. She knew my hope was tired. “Now you can breathe again.” I smiled at her loving generosity and took a great big deep breath.

Life is beautiful even when we think it isn’t. Beauty interrupts as a firm reminder of what we are in danger of forgetting. A doorbell rings, a bird sings, the world’s tilt rights itself. Beauty interrupts fear. Beauty is hope’s calling card.

The accident. The phone call. The late-night drive from the beach. An ambulance. Another. A transfer. A trauma team.

The life that was saved was my youngest son’s. He and his wife and his baby girl were here visiting from Chicago. How many Little League games? How many high school baseball games? “Safe,” called the umpire back in those long-ago games. “Safe,” said the doctors as they made their rounds in the trauma ICU. Safe, but be careful.

What was to be a two-week vacation turned into five days in a hospital and a month’s recovery at our house. We have a big blended family and a quarantine squad of friends; I am so grateful for both. Step-parents and parents and siblings and siblings-in-law gathered with the common bond of love for John and Megan and Sylvia. Matthew stayed by John’s side the night of the accident. Jodie created a playroom for Syl, Susanna and Matthias provided lots of chocolate and love and support. Charles helped to adapt the guest room to support John’s recovery and set up a work station for when he resumed work. We were ready and when John came home, a full house welcomed him.

Syl asked me for the story every day as she worked to understand. “Da-Da?” she would ask. I would tell her: Your daddy got hurt and had an operation, but he is strong and getting better. He can’t pick you up now but he will one day soon. We are strong and beautiful and smart and we can wait. We can do hard things. Everything is going to be better. “Again,” she would say. And I would tell it again. I told the story to her and I told the story to myself. The story was full of hope.

Hope was an ally, but my battle with fear was a curse. Fear is a bully and cornered me when no was looking. Fear had my ear; I was afraid to name it, but my son knew. “Stop asking me if I am okay.” It wasn’t that I didn’t know better…I did. I do. Are you okay? There is an unintended message that jogs beside that benign-sounding question. Are you okay? (You might not be.) Are you okay? (I don’t think you are.) We ask a simple question hoping that a simple yes will vanquish our fear.

“Yes, Mom. I am okay.”

“Ha,” says fear. “See, I am still here.” If I paused for fear, hope would not let me stop for long. But oddly, I also felt that I was increasingly unable to linger for hope. It is fear that makes us afraid to hope. Fear tells us that hope will make fools of us. But hope doesn’t make fools of us. Courage is action in the face of fear. Hope is invisible courage. Hope surrenders the outcome, and at the same time knows that everything is going to be okay.

In no time the walker was moved to the basement. Megan and John’s tentative walks around the block turned into miles. We began the day with omelets and ended it at “Ice Cream O’Clock,” a term cleverly coined by Megan. We settled into a rhythm of family. I know for each of us some days were longer than others. We lived a rhythm of children’s books, bubbles, playdough, and big thick crayons. Syl sat on my lap for Zoom meetings. She joined my Zoom exercise class and did Downward Dog and sang “Happy Baby.”

“Ah-BEN,” said Syl from her highchair at the end of the prayer.  We laughed with delight. Saying grace was her favorite part of the meal and one night we said it three times. Sometimes after dinner, Ben played the guitar and we sang. The Fox Went Out on a Chase One Night…Hush Little Baby Don’t Say a Word…Froggie Went a Courtin’. While Megan put Syl to bed, John dealt the cards.

I couldn’t write, even though I am a habitual write-myself-awake-every-morning writer. I couldn’t write because I was holding my breath. I learned minute by minute how to do the next right thing. John resumed his work as an architect from the guest room. Step-parents and parents came together for a meal on our porch. Megan made a cobbler with Virginia peaches.

The stitches came out. John made pizza. We laughed at Will Ferrell’s Eurovision. We laughed a lot — in this house, even the baby is a comedian. Megan edged and weeded flower beds. The days looked long in the mornings, but by night we wondered where they’d gone.

“Still here,” said fear.  

“But so am I,” insisted hope, my old friend.

I was learning fast what I’d known in my bones my whole life: hope and fear are not either/or propositions. They are traveling companions; but we have to choose which one we want to sit with. Fear fuels irritation in a crisis. Hope fuels joy and laughter and creativity.

We celebrated the last night together with a cookout. The next day we ordered in our favorite sandwiches and had one last lunch together before they left. As they walked toward the car, we blew kisses and waved and I held back the tears. “Fuv,” said Syl (her word for love). “Fuv,” we answered in our grandparental call and response. It was what we’d all hoped for. When they got home, they Facetimed us as John was getting ready to grill dinner. They were embracing the normal and familiar.

I could breathe. We are okay.

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A Measured Life

I measure my life at the beach, which is not the same thing as living a measured life. I don’t measure my life in T.S. Eliot’s coffee spoons— those moments are too small and disappear too quickly like teardrops in the sand. No, I am living big moments minute by minute. I measure our life by walks at sunrise, by peach cobblers at sunset, and by the summer corn at this weathered picnic table.

I don’t just measure my life at the beach. I measure life in black dresses that hold too much to be worn again or to be thrown away. I measure my life in childhood ballet teachers who taught me to count the graceful moments measure by measure and not just to feel them. I measure my life in recipes, cup by cup and ounce by ounce and taste by taste: curry and capers; lemon and mint; orange and chocolate.

I measure my life in stories and memories and in their dance that finds its footing in truth.

I measure my life everywhere, but it is here at the beach that I am the most reflective and the most intentional about it. Susanna once said that the beach is like a journal, each year a new page. I have both lost myself in those pages and found myself in them.

Here Ben and I measure our life in anniversaries that are often celebrated here: a glass lifted to our children who helped us blend our families (31 years ago!) and to one another. We have measured our life together in the low cadence of the slow dance. And there is nothing in my life more beautiful than our measured step.

We have welcomed girlfriends and boyfriends who have, in time, joined our family. We have welcomed four granddaughters to this house. I measure my life in welcomes and good byes and in the deep breaths that mirror the tide. Every year is different.

I am writing on the porch with a granddaughter. She is writing in her journal. Earlier this week 20 month old Sylvia dipped her paint brush in water here and pulled it across the page. This is how we start. These are the moments I measure.

It isn’t that these moments only happen here, but it is here I remember to stand on tiptoe to go deep. It is here that I remember to look everywhere. It is here that I learn again and again to mark the sacred moments where grace shines through. And I’ve learned that grace always shines through and in good measure.

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Family Happiness

Family history, like history itself, is never perfect and is shaped by chance, circumstance, and story. Family history, like history itself, is always a little more complicated than it seems. My father did not want to get married and he never wanted children. Then he met my mother. She had a way of getting what she wanted. She wanted him and she wanted children. I noticed early that he was not like other dads. I had friends whose fathers spoiled them and could never say no. And while I wondered what that would be like, that was not the dad I got. My dad made the world bigger in so many ways. Other girls got little gold rings and tiny lockets. I got a passport and a library card with the strong message that those two things would work together. I was unfocused so he introduced me to ping pong to teach me a host of lessons: keep your eye on the ball, stay focused, you can’t hit it if you can’t see it. To give my mother a break when my siblings were babies, he took me to movies. I learned to see and love movies the way I would later read and love books. I still read several books at a time– a habit I learned from him. And I still have a deep love of movies.

First there was me. Then there were two of us and then three of us and then four of us. And he knew how to be the dad we each needed by being authentically himself and seeing each of us clearly. He lived his life by loving the world and by seeing the humor in it. He taught us to do the same by inviting us along for the ride. He had integrity and was absolutely fair. He was unafraid and embraced the complexity of life with his wry eye. He could get to the heart of life with a story and a point. If Aesop played jazz piano, he and my dad would have had a lot in common. He taught me insight is just a placeholder when you are learning something new. Life is not as simple as point of view, because there is always more than one perspective. We followed him around the world and learned those lessons everywhere we went.

When I wanted to be excused from school to protest the Vietnam War in Washington, he said I could go–but he had one condition: I had to articulate the other point of view before the protest. How could I? The other side was wrong! He held his ground and a couple of days later I told him why some one would fight in that war and how they might feel like it was the right thing to do. I went off to the protest and shouted out against the war with passion. But I also saw the quiet girl who sat by the window in my homeroom a little differently. Her father was in Vietnam. I thought about her again when my own son went to Iraq. My father taught us to have empathy with those with whom we disagreed, while taking a stand for what we believed was right. Hate is lazy. Disdain is a cheap way out. He drew a hard line against bigotry. “When you don’t limit your friends to the color of your skin, your world is twice as big.”

He was full of paternal paradox. He had both a sense of foreboding and an ability to throw caution to the wind. He was a devout Episcopalian and wide open to the faith of others. He did not ever take a day off from work, but would leave early once a year to meet the circus train and have a drink with the ringmaster.

It’s been 20 years. He died at an age that would make him a contemporary of mine now. I hear his voice in my brother’s voice. My brother and I do not always agree, but we were trained by the same guy not to be threatened by complexity– to respect and trust other points of view. We were trained by the same guy to argue for what we believe in persuasively and then listen to learn something new.

But I don’t just hear his voice in my brother’s voice. The lessons from my father are lit up right now and catch me by surprise in the voices of others. Chimamanda Adichie is a Nigerian novelist and the author of Amerianah (a wonderful book). Her Ted Talk on The Danger of the Single Story resonated with what I was taught and have come to believe. We all need diversity in literature and in the storytellers. We need to see and learn ourselves, but we also need to see and learn others. Then we can learn to embrace the complexity in which our stories are entwined. The “single story” normalizes the two dimensional into stereotype. This is the history of the Virginia History books of my childhood. These books told a single story and they got it wrong.

I had a historian for a father. Not everybody does. But everyone can have a library card. Everyone can embrace stories from different points of view. Everyone can listen and learn something new. We don’t need monuments to the single story. Nor do we need to rush to trade one single story for another. In stripping history down to truth we can’t, in our hurry, strip the story of hope. We need to ask questions. We need to listen. We need to wait. The answers are going to take time.

I made a donation to the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia this week in my father’s honor. The mission of the museum is to preserve stories that inspire. I don’t have little gold rings and tiny lockets from my father. I have the treasure that I carry forward. I have a story waiting to be broadened by perspective and deepened by truth. The truth is our shared story. And that is where the hope is. Thanks, Dad.

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Welcome Happiness

Right now I am happy. And I truly believe that when I feel it, I should say it. It compounds the feeling and makes it twice as strong. Writing it down makes it even stronger. That is why gratitude journals work. If you’re happy and you know it, write it down.

My parents gave this to me. They never, not once, asked asked us if we were happy. But they often, out of nowhere, would say it. “I am happy.” There was a call and response that was uniquely theirs. I am happy, one would say, and the other would answer with one of these interchangeable phrases: It doesn’t get better than this. It’s good to be alive. Life is rich. I am better than I know how. They, each in their own way, lived this to the very last and the legacy runs deep.

They only said it if it was real. They said it in the shadow of the great pyramids, when drinking cider on the Rhine, over cocktails on a rooftop in Rome. But they also said it at the breakfast table when the marmalade was good; when cracking crabs on a screened porch; when the needle dropped on a great song; or when one of us made them laugh.
Fake happiness was for other people and other feelings were not to be discussed. “I’m bored,” I said once and only once. “There is nothing more boring than a bored child,” my mother responded. And she went on to recite Robert Louis Stevenson: “The world is so full of a number of things, I am sure we should all be as happy as kings; .” My parents worried about our well being (sometimes more than others) and curated life in the most amazing way. But finding and identifying happiness was our job.

They were not happy all the time. Misery did not skip our house. While happiness could burst through any veil of gloom, it could not be controlled or put upon to stay for one more cup of this or glass of that. Happiness came and went… and always came back. When it did, no matter how fleetingly, it was greeted and named.

Long ago, I was on a walk with my boys in the woods. One of them looked up at me with an earnest yet joyful smile. ‘Mommy,” he said, “I’m in an ‘I love life’ mood.” Without intending to, I’d passed on one of the most most important gifts that was given to me: the ability to name happiness boldly, unselfconsciously, and without apology.
You don’t lose empathy points for moments of happiness in a crisis and you don’t gain empathy points for being gloomy. Empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another— all of the feelings. So if happiness shows up at your door during a global pandemic, invite her in. Name her. Greet her. Welcome her. She’s here to help.

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Schooled in the Greater Good

I’ve got this. You’ve got this. We’ve got this. Parents, teachers, principals, and superintendents conjugate hope, courage, and determination. I’ve got this. You’ve got this. We’ve got this. This has been going on for days and yesterday Virginians found out it is for the long haul. Schools will not reopen this year. The news is hard and there was a collective sigh across the state, but nowhere was it a sigh of relief.

Teachers work so hard to build community and their energy comes from the love they develop for their students. It is real. Now, without closure or a roadmap, they have to figure out how to do their part with and for students they will not see again this year.

Students will miss egg hunts and splash parties and birthday parties. They will miss raffle sales and camp outs and end of year celebrations. Playgrounds are silent without their chorus of “Not it” and “Hey, look at me” and “Whoa, watch this!” Childhood is not over. But this season is a different season. This is a pause they will remember and history will too.

And the older students. The seniors. This will be the year they missed prom. Graduation. Beach week.

Parents (many of whom are teachers) are asking this question: “How do I home school my child?” This question was being asked last week, too. But it is different this week. We stand on the shores of overwhelm with a brave face. The brave face is important. The feelings are real. The compassion for yourself, your child, your child’s teacher, your neighbor is essential.

We know how to do this. Classroom English instruction is built on the model of the literate home. It is true. Literacy happens at home and is largely caught not taught. It doesn’t or can’t always happen at home, so school tries to fill in the gap with a state mandated 94 minute literacy block. Teachers are evaluated on how well they create the kind of literate environments that mimic the homes that launched highly successful and literate people.

The world is quieter– and deeper–with a whisper of opportunity waiting to be found. Look around your home. Is there printed material? Are you playing games with your children? Are you talking to them? Are you talking about what you are reading. Are you making sure they have something to read. Yes? Then school is in session. That is where you start. Build routine, habit and ritual from there. You don’t need the questions at the end of the chapter. Here are the essential questions–no answer key required:

How is it going?

What do you notice?

How do you know?

Can you say more?

Teachers are scrambling to answer “Now what?” They are working in uncharted territory. No one knows what this looks like. In a climate of loss, anger looks for a target. Please don’t target teachers or school systems. Please don’t compare efforts as a way to take the focus off the very complicated issues at hand. Much of the academic material has been covered by this time of year. The period after spring break is often a period of heavy review for state-mandated or Advanced Placement tests. Instead, right now, children are engaged in real time, project based, hands-on lessons in the greater good:

Everybody has the right to be healthy and safe and happy.

Our choices affect one another.

Sometimes we do hard things and make hard decisions for the greater good.

Research shows that successful teaching (and learning) is built on “knowledge of student” and “relationship with the teacher,” as well as the ability to “reflect on what works and what doesn’t work as you go.” These things are native to parents. We are in this together. You’ve got this.

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Summer’s Lease

I gave the Uber driver the address and as we drove we chatted about his country (Nepal) and the custom of arranged marriages and the movie “Blinded by the Light.” The time flew and before we knew it, he was slowing to a stop.

“Is this the house?” He asked.

“No, this is not the house, but this is the address. There was another house. I lived here… there. Once.”

“Once” is the siren call from the confluent depths of memory and story. The past suddenly becomes the guest of an ordinary moment.

We both stared at the looming construction. I explained the house of my childhood had been sold and torn down. He seemed more upset by this than I was, but then he couldn’t see what I could see. He couldn’t feel what I could feel. I described the apple orchards that once stood on the farm behind our house. They were next to the stable that housed our neighbor’s horse. Once.

I told him how the doors were never locked and how we never knocked or rang a doorbell as we went into each other’s houses. We climbed backyard fences and took shortcuts across yards of people we didn’t know. I described the way our fathers stood in Izod shirts and madras shorts and drank martinis and turned hamburgers in the wafting smell of charcoal. Our mothers, in pastel shirtwaist dresses or coulottes or pedal pushers, swayed with babies on their hips as toddlers splashed in baby pools, while we gathered sticks to roast marshmallows.

Our summer birthdays were celebrated at picnic tables with cake and Neopolitan Ice Cream slices. On a summer night, beyond the trees you could hear the high school marching band practice. Screen doors slammed, unstable metal swing sets creaked well into the night, as did the grown-up sound of low laughter in face of life that was mid-century modern. The Uber driver, not quite dry eyed, left and I stood in the shadow of “Once.”

Eventually the swings became still. The swing sets were removed. We moved our fun indoors and the sixties gave way to the seventies. We had parties in the basements that had been presciently called rumpus rooms in the sixties. We went off to college. Or didn’t. There were showers and backyard weddings in the very spot we had written our names in the air with sparklers. Before long we came back and our children spilled out of cars; they grew up as their grandparents grew old. Like the swing sets that once stood in backyards, the houses on that street began to still. Before long, the houses were sold and sometimes torn down. They were replaced with houses that were much bigger. I looked at the house being built on the spot that my siblings and I once stood for prom pictures. It is going to be a much bigger house. But looking at the house I didn’t feel the loss or sorrow that the Uber driver expected me to feel. I felt hope for the people who would live there and uttered a silent prayer for them. Their house was being built on a foundation, now invisible, upon which I still stand. Their house will be much bigger and I hope they will find living there every bit as grand.

Last Thursday, I went to visit the new third grade teacher at Fox, Miss Eck. Her classroom is Room 204. She has created a wonderful environment. Her room — inviting, purposeful, and organized — is a true invitation to learning. Miss Eck was welcoming to me and it was a pleasure to see the space I’d loved given a new lease. Miss Eck has words on a bulletin board that say, “In this classroom you are loved.” I felt such joy standing in what is now her classroom and thought about the lucky children who would have her as a teacher. It was not unlike the feeling I had as I looked at the new construction at my old address. The feeling is hope for the future and gratitude for the past and a deep impulse to bless the moment and the space. There is a threshold between “Once” and “Someday.” We all stand there together. The threshold is Now. And it is every bit as grand.

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A Little Chautauqua

Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. There are brick walkways where streets might have been, but there are no cars in Chautauqua. Along the walkways are front porches with white wicker tables that hold vases full of gladiolus. Low walls made of slate and stone border flower gardens of purple hostas and bright pink cone flowers and black-eyed Susans. Window boxes on wooden ledges spill red geraniums and trails of ivy. The walkways are crowded with people walking to or from a lecture, book discussion, performance, or class. Beyond the snippets of debate and conversation, you hear abstract noises hidden behind dark window screens of houses– oscillating fans, the clang of dishes and flatware, and the animated talk that follows a lecture. Sometimes you hear piano scales, or a soprano, and sometimes in the distance, you hear a symphony in rehearsal.

I first went to Chautauqua when I was six weeks old. My memory does not go back that far, it just feels like it does. That happens when you are born to a couple of storytellers with a bent toward memoir. You somehow start thinking, or at least feeling, that you were witness to your parents’ lives before you were even born. My father often told me of wheeling me in a baby carriage to the symphony’s dress rehearsal in the large wooden amphitheater at Chautauqua. He held up this moment like a puzzle piece, so I could see it and look for the spot in my own memory and story where it might fit. He told me how we settled in; he read the paper and I slept. As he read, he listened to the tiny changes suggested by the conductor, and watched in amazement as those suggestions made something beautiful even more beautiful. He said from that moment on, he’d rather see a rehearsal than a performance. He loved the process of something good becoming even better than before.

My mother’s family introduced my father to Chautauqua, but the truth is that he was already a native to the philosophy of the place: renewal through arts, education, recreation, and spirituality. He was all about all of those.

I have childhood memories of our intermittent visits to Chautauqua. I remember wading into the children’s section of the lake and feeling the the smooth sand against the soles of my bare feet. I was six. Later, I remember sailing for the first time at Girl’s Club and being terrified. I remember a family reunion at an old wooden hotel. I was twelve. My great-aunt Shotty took me for a walk around the amphitheater, and with kindness and purpose, she told me she had a story to tell me. She told me about her brother and my grandfather, Rogers Elliott. He was a naval officer and had been killed in the second world war. They all grew up minutes away from where we stood. She said she wanted me to know him. It was my first inkling that someone can live through story.

I have had other visits there. My husband was the Episcopal chaplain at the Church of the Good Shepherd for a few summers, a week at a time. We were inspired by the themed lectures, readings, music, and discussions. We were energized by the speakers at the Hall of the Philosophy. I made a point to take the morning paper to the dress rehearsals at the amphitheater. In the clear sunlit air, I embraced all of it, responding to an invitation that had been presented to me through the tiny story of my first visit.

I haven’t been to Chautauqua for a few years. And I won’t be going this summer. But here at the beach, I have found we bring a little Chautauqua with us: spiritual renewal, recreation, a chance to tackle something new, a good reading list, and time with people we love. If I want an actual Chautauqua lecture, I can hear one. And so can you. They are available online here. The good news is that most of them are free.

Chautauqua is a lake and a place and an institution. It is also a concept and an approach and a state of mind. For me, it carries the personal reminder that the tiny stories of our experience are often puzzle pieces looking for a spot in a larger narrative. In the classroom we call those small moments seeds. The writing teacher helps children to isolate the small moment and then to write from it. And then the teacher prompts, “What is this really about?” Themes emerge and children learn to write and love their lives. But the true writing teacher has to be willing to write and love his or her own life, and be willing to ask the most reflective question of all: What is this really about? The answer, a puzzle piece, falls into place. Like a conductor of a symphony, a writing teacher knows and believes that with a few tweaks, something good can be better than before.

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Begin Here

When I became a teacher, at the age of 22, I knew it was for the long haul. Teaching was how I chose to serve, and I knew it would take a lifetime to develop a practice that would be worthy of the calling. I was curious, well read, well-intentioned, and inspired. That’s what I had. I did not have much experience, but I knew that If I kept reading, stayed intentional, cultivated my curiosity, and sustained the spark of inspiration, it would only get better. And it did. People debate whether teachers are born or made. It doesn’t really matter, because born or made, teachers take time to become fully who they can be.

Great teachers believe in great beginnings. Each fresh start is one more run toward getting it right. This month teachers are having all kinds of adventures, but I know from experience that whether in a tent in the woods or on a bridge in Paris, part of every teacher’s attention is on that bright shiny start in September.

Teachers don’t talk as much about endings, but last September I began with a deep curiosity about ending well. Committed to the twin intentions of beginning well and ending well, I threw myself into my work. I knew it would be my last year and I wanted to savor it. I wanted to teach well and to make it good to the last drop. I slowly confided in my closest friends and administrators. I needed the support of my tribe while I tested my decision for certainty and peace. I began to try to listen to and practice what I preached as both teacher and mentor:

There is not a problem that cannot be solved

Be strategic.

If you don’t get it YET, take a break . Then keep going or ask for help.

The secret of getting done is getting started.

Brainstorm ideas to find the most elegant solution

If it is too big to accomplish, break it down.

If you want to do something big, do something small.

Set the goal, see the goal, achieve the goal.

Anything worth doing is worth doing with good manners.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

I wrote and wrote.  I wrote about the beauty I saw in the classroom, I listed the moments that made the day come out right. I wrote about messes.  I wrote about the things that fell apart and how they came back together. I taught and taught and taught. And thanks to a glorious class of students (and their parents), and to a generous host of angels in the form of friends, former students, student teachers, and parents, it happened.  We ended well. We successfully tied a loose knot in the golden thread that runs though every teacher’s story. There was just one final step. I began this last year with a curiosity about the ending. And now I’ve ended this year with a curiosity about beginnings and the way they gently take shape. So I end at the start of “next” and wait for next gently to take shape. I begin the way May Sarton began her journals and the way I begin mine. I begin with these words: “Begin here.”

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Third Grade is Habit Forming

These days it is hard to pick up a magazine or  listen to a podcast and not encounter the latest thinking about the oldest trick in the book.  Habits. After all, habit formation is the bedrock of cultures that created the training of ancient armies and sustained the rituals of primitive religions.   Habits were life sustaining and soul sustaining. They still are.

Habits are age old.  I often tell my students that they were born in the 21st century,  I was born in the middle of the 20th century and my third grade teacher was born at the end of the 19th century.  We are part of the long chain of history. Third graders are the same, but the world is very different. When I was in the third grade if we had “good habits,” it meant that we were neat and clean in freshly pressed clothes and had nice manners.  Those are certainly good habits, but there is a difference between habits of presentation, and habits of agency. Both are important, but I am keenly interested in habits of agency: habits that help third graders to feel and be more independent and purposeful.  Rilke asks us to live the questions. One of the most powerful questions I have lived as a teacher is, “Which habits will support my students as critical thinkers, reflective readers, and creative problem solvers?” There is no answer key for that one. It is a question that stands firm and seeks new answers.

Habits may be nothing new, but the world we live in is.  Habits around cell phone use, email, video games, super-sized fast food, drive-thrus, social media,  and streaming mark the difference between living creative lives of self-control and living lives where technology, uncontrolled, encroaches upon our schools, homes, and lives like the desertification of arable land.

There are two kinds of classroom cultures. There is the culture that is intentionally built and supported by routines, habits, humor, and mutual respect.  And there is the culture that is built by mistake– a culture of heavy top-down control and shame based-practice that keep those terrible twin wolves, Fear and Chaos, clawing at  the door. No one chooses that. Not the teacher and not the children. The intentional classroom is the fiercely conscious and loving classroom. This is where the agency of the teacher comes in.  Love can’t be mandated. It is a fiercely conscious choice.

I’ve had a ringside seat for 40 years.  The world is a more unpredictable place than it was when I started teaching, but it is no less beautiful.  Over the years I have become more intentional about creating a safe space with my students in the light- filled corner room on the second floor of Fox where we can uncover the beauty of the world together.   Years ago, the piano and easel were taken out of my classroom to make room for computers. I worried. I had to learn how to let go of the piano and the easel and still intentionally create and preserve space for music and art in my classroom.  I want creativity to be a habit in the lives of my students.

I teach cheerfulness and happiness as habits.    I love a good fresh start and teach my children that each day is a new beginning.  I believe that walking across the threshold of a classroom door should always be an act of hope.  In Room 204, alongside my students, I have worked to cultivate the habits I teach over time. One of the most important habits is to “Look at the world with the eyes of  a writer.” I don’t want my students to miss a minute of their unfolding stories.

Each child I have taught has been part of my unfolding story as a teacher.  Forty years ago I wanted to make a difference in the world by making a difference in the lives of children.  My students have made a difference in me.

This is my last year as a classroom teacher.  I’ve kept it quiet because instead of a “last” year, I just wanted one more really good year– one more chance to get it right. I am loving this year and this class.  I can’t believe how lucky I am to be ending my career with the same love of teaching that I had at the beginning. It is time to turn the page. In June I will step across the threshold of Room 204 into “next.”   It works in both directions. Stepping across that threshold has always been an act of hope.

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Rounding Grief’s Corner

BlessedThe people at Hospice take grief seriously. Serious grief?  It sounds comically and tragically redundant, and I didn’t want any part of it.  They told me counseling was offered as a benefit. Grief counseling sounded like being sad on purpose. I didn’t want that either. It was bad enough that I’d lost my mother and my sister within two years.  I wondered how I could honor them by taking sadness seriously. As if I had a choice .

I have had four immediate family members lose their bigger-than-life lives to cancer. Because of this, a grief  counselor explained that I was high risk for something called “complicated grief.”  I found out this happens with multiple losses and can be as severe, and with the same symptoms,  as clinical depression. I knew I didn’t want that. So I did as I was told. I took grief seriously and accepted the counseling. I avoided complicated grief, but I learned there is no escaping grief itself.  As a friend pointed it out, grief is like the children’s chant about the Bear Hunt: “Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.”

Grief is like a scavenger hunt.  One intuitive clue unlocks the next. Day after day.  I couldn’t see where I was going, I just did the next brave thing. Intentionally. I read the poem, wrote the poem, walked the woods, and walked the dog.  I got the massage, cleaned out the refrigerator, organized the pantry, and went to the ballet. I cooked my way through my mother’s cookbooks and wept on the beach. I read my mother’s essays and read my sister’s journals. I sobbed my way through dance documentaries at night and somehow stood cheerfully at my classroom door in the morning.  My husband and I hosted holiday dinners and upheld our family traditions and planned family vacations, just like we always do. He held my hand tightly and I laid my head on his shoulder. Life goes on. Life is different.

Grief is like a tide that moves in and out with a fog of sharp edges. I learned not to be afraid of the sharp edges of grief, those unpredictable chards that could and would poke through any moment unannounced and uninvited.  They cut deeply, but they did not scar. And, oddly, they did not preclude joy. That is the mystery. Joy breaks in much the same way pain does, and with the same unpredictability. I began to recognize joy with a new kind of familiarity that reminded me of the people I’d lost– but in a good way–and helped me celebrate the people around me.  I couldn’t create joy, but I could make room for it. And I could keep my eyes open to it.

Grief comes with a map that has a cryptic warning and promise.  “Do not get stuck here and you won’t get stuck here.” I had to believe it.  We are creatures of habit and I worried that sadness would become a habit too. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t get stuck in grief as long as I sought the reminders of life’s richness every day.

The months rolled on, but grief’s fog continued to roll in. I discovered I needed a transitional bereavement policy that didn’t exist. Yet.  So I decided to create one. I gave myself permission to put my students and their instruction first and excused myself from faculty meetings and arbitrary deadlines.  I wrote my own excuse. To make room for the work I needed to do, I stopped writing this blog.  People said it was a mistake. They knew what I knew: the way to kill a blog is to not post on it. But I didn’t trust myself to write for the public. My writing needed to be private. It was a risk. If someone is reading this now and is helped by it, it was worth it.

I poured what I had into my teaching and my students. I worked to model the truths  I learned from my mom and my sister. Happiness is a choice.  You can’t compare loss. Everyone is worthy.  Feelings are not right or wrong, it is what you do with those feelings that matter.

June came. We did well as a class and the year was a success. In the summer I could fling open the doors and breathe deeply. I had time to take it all in, and to begin to give back to those who had given so given so generously to me. Morning by morning, I woke up and chose life.

September came and with it a new class of incredibly wonderful children. I find that I love teaching as much as ever and that my teaching is informed by last year ’s deep reflection on what is most important in the classroom. The calendar page turned and I waited. The people at Hospice told me that the thirteenth-month mark is significant in the grieving process.  It eases. Life is established as a new normal.

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