It Is Not JUST Your Imagination

Twilight on the Nile by Ernst Karl Eugen Koerner

Once I had a student from Egypt who asked me for a word in English.  He took an Arabic word I did not know and created a picture of it in my mind.  “Mrs. Campbell,” he asked, “What is it called when it is no longer day, but not yet night?”

“Twilight,” I answered. 

I was struck by the way he was able to arrange and use the words he knew to seek the word he did not– and that he was able to do it in such a poetic and imaginative way.  The Latin root of imagination was clearly in play: imaginari–“to picture to oneself.”

By its very nature, imagination resists being confined by language. It is easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. Imagination is not the potter or the clay, but it’s the animating force that gives form and shape to inspiration.  It is not the artist or the canvas, but it is the relationship between the two.  It is not the story or the teller, but it is the dreamlike image conjured and brought to life with carefully chosen words.   It is not pedagogy or practice; it is the bridge between the two.  Imagination is the twilight space between the desire to know and knowledge.

Imagination can work with limitations. It understands rules, respects meaningful convention; it can thrive within parameters. It shrinks and shrivels under the inflexible command of conformity.  It has to be honored. It grows with space for play and expression. It shrinks when it is trivialized and dismissed as “make-believe.”  

Without imagination, our ideas calcify and begin to sort themselves into tired creeds of collective group think.  Without imagination, we are unable to tell our story, or worse,  we are unable to imagine a new story for ourselves and for others. Disdain and cynicism mask a lack of imagination and masquerade as sophistication.  

With imagination, we integrate new ideas with old ideas that work.  We begin to organize and reorganize our thoughts and narratives through the creative process.  We shape and reshape elements of our lives and knowledge in new ways.   We begin to adopt an attitude of simplicity, returning again and again to “beginner’s mind” to see ideas with fresh eyes.  We strike word against image and then wait in the space between what we know and what what we seek to learn.  We wait with reverence and patience for the blaze of insight and discovery.   The possible is hope, not failure.  Our work in the in-between places of “not yet” becomes art.

The artist and the intellectual are not mutually exclusive– both  seek to use imagination and creativity to harmonize thought and events in new ways.  

Our imagination enables us to see the universal in the particular–and then to test the particular, through theory and hypothesis, for universal truth.  

No academic discipline should exclude imagination and storytelling. When we teach imagining possibilities we teach human beings to play heroic roles in their own narratives, and to identify and embrace the narratives that are not their own with heroes that do not look or think like them. Imagination plays a vital role in connection, compassion, and renewal. In her beautiful essay, When I was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson wrote: “Story is an exercise in the capacity for imaginative love, or sympathy, or identification.” 

When imagination is honored, it shows up.  Because imagination is born through image, it often shows up as metaphor– an image that can reveal ideas and deepen thinking. Metaphors contain insight waiting to be uncovered by language– knowledge waiting for words to catch up.  Metaphors take us deeper than our words can go and invite us into a communal practice of respect for emerging words and ideas.

Our imagination works with metaphor to take us beyond the places we have known. It ferries us through the twilight spaces between places– from the desire to know more to the not yet discovered.  It is a renewing and amplifying gift that makes teaching and learning an art. 

Imagine

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Remember This

I am at the beach remembering–weaving the past into the present moment and at the same time committing the beauty of now to future memory.  We  memorize the moment and outline it with what has been. Hope realized has its roots in a time before this.  The sigh of relief is that the fear of ‘then’ has been averted by the promise of now.  We walk into beauty’s embrace with the fleeting confidence of a life that won’t stand still. 

I am at the beach, measuring my life in stories and sifting, sifting, telling, feeling, sifting my story like sand.  The hands that write this built sand castles as a toddler; then later joined Coppertone tan teen hands with friends jumping waves; and later still held hands with a husband; held babies in the waves….  And now my hands hold the hands of granddaughters as we stare at the vastness of the sea.  These stories sift and shift and shimmer. They won’t stand still.

“Remember?” We say it over and over, as if our memory is communal. In truth, we hold our own stories and our own stories shape our memory.  Memory shapes our experience. Experience shifts and  reshapes our stories; the way we remember is an ever changing coastline.

Some stories are held in place by the bookends of birth and death.  We, the survivors, when we are ready, edit the material that lies between these bookends.  We edit and refine and restore to life the very essence of that  which wants to live forever.  “Remember?” we ask, only now we can’t get the word out without laughing or choking up or stopping for what comes next (as though we don’t know).  These are the moments that catch the light of eternity.

“I do remember!”  I call into the wind. My voice is swallowed in the crashing predawn waves, in the stillness of the guitar string, in the empty chairs on the deck, in the porch swing that moves with the weightlessness of the gone.  I do remember. I don’t stand here long.  I see the white caps on the waves– a warning to turn around.  The sirens of grief run deep.  I turn from the vastness of looking at it all at once. The sun has come up again and in its coral light,  I walk back to the beach house with deep gratitude for the family that was– and will always be– a cast that populates my life, dreams, and stories.  I turn to the family that is.  We’ll laugh about a game we played.  Otters are already an inside joke– a punchline that no longer needs the story. Fresh. New. Hilarious.  And  beautiful in the shadow of the word “remember.” 

The role of family archivist has come to me. Red and blue bordered airmail envelopes and postcards of ocean liners or TWA jets and brochures from far away beaches, sift through my fingers like sand, ephemeral and evocative. Unfolded blue paper, tissue thin, recounts the experiences that have shaped and reshaped the stories I have known or lived.  The past runs like a current into the present moment, where the sifted sand shimmers and glimmers. 

A two year old granddaughter holds a lemon popsicle and looks out at the ocean– vast and blue and brand new. The past tense flows into the present tense.  It is my  gratitude for the now that allows me to look at the past so unguardedly. The present tense is current.  I remember. I am grateful. Life is Beautiful.

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20 Something Reasons 2020 Doesn’t Suck: A List in Prose and Fragments

I hear this year’s anthem of our collective grief over and over: “2020 sucks.” I find myself dumbly nodding and it feels like a betrayal. It isn’t that I’m blind to the suffering and losses of this year. I’m not. Or that I fully escaped suffering. I didn’t. Or that I don’t feel the heartbreak.  I do.

But I also know that life is too beautiful and finite to write off an entire year. We cannot turn a blind eye to joy and gratitude–not even in a pandemic.   Perhaps we feel we should as an act of solidarity with those in grief’s most terrible grip. Choosing misery on behalf of others is not compassion. Being present and alert is. Attention shows us what we can do and guides us to a deeper presence with and for others.

Attention has another job, too. With alertness we scan for beauty and track it in our lives. We keep the light on for it. We train our alertness into an alacrity for grace–and then we welcome it when it shows up. Yes, even in a pandemic.  Where was the beauty this year? How did grace show up? In what ways does 2020 not suck?  What goes on the list? 

My list includes the opportunity to learn new things that make my world bigger in a time we can’t travel. It includes online groups of thoughtful readers and writers.  Each Zoom window zooms in on one good thing about 2020. This includes my teacher (once upon a time my student) who, through Facebook Video, teaches me stretches that lead to better balance and strength. Then there is the Book Group with readers bundled up, masked, and six feet apart in a park. And friends and porches and fire pits. 

Also on the list: I feel creative a lot of the time. I have never felt healthier.  I fall asleep and wake up every morning next to someone I love deeply.  My cooking is off the hook. “Who lives here?” I wonder when I open a refrigerator full of yellow lemons and bright green herbs and mason jars full of homemade soups. 

Add to that: The books. The streaming. The playlists.  Yes, yes, and yes.  Grateful. The phone calls where I have time to actually listen rather than multitask while I act like I’m listening.  And what about the blankets on the porch with low lamps and tiny lights?  Or walking in the woods at sunset every day with Ben and our dog. Add to that: Face Time with grandchildren and family and learning how to play in a different way. 

I am grateful for the blank page where I show up to write every morning like a runner at the mark. I move through paces with words and spaces, the said and the unsaid running side by side. On the page, I live the good moments twice. 

I love the walks and talks and meditation. Zoom coffee hour on Sunday Morning.  The sense of home and place that I have longed for is right here, right now. I take off my shoes and step barefoot into the pools of all I’ve yearned for throughout my nomadic life. I listen to Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans while I cook– as the daughter of a piano player, it sounds like home. I cook soup in my mother’s soup pot and it smells like home. I sit in front of the fire with my husband and our dog and I am home.  

I am grateful for the resolution of the challenges in my own life this year.

I am grateful for the ways that we have found to help each other and protest together and inspire each other and campaign for the things and people we believe in.  I am thankful for Christmas. We were much smaller in number this year, but it was merry and bright. We were able to let our hearts be light. A granddaughter and I set up a jar and strips of paper so family members could write good things about 2020 throughout the day.  We had a farewell dinner for 2020 and passed the jar around. We took turns randomly pulling a strip from the jar and reading it aloud, reliving the moments of happenstance happiness. Each strip of paper was a reminder: “Love Your Life.” Some years are really hard. Every year matters.  Leave the light on for beauty. Roll out the red carpet for grace. My prayer is that a happy and healthy 2021 will be full of both. And that we will notice it everyday. Here is to 2021. And here is to you.

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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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