A Practical Proverb

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it determines the course of your life.” –Proverbs 4:23

This verse was posted in a New Year’s message in which I was tagged. I know it’s a Bible verse, but I’m going to calligraphy it all nice and big and put it in my classroom somewhere visible. People need this advice at eighteen rather than forty-something.
I’ll explain to students it isn’t merely about romance–it’s barely about that at all. It’s about following our path, our passions…every moment of our lives.
We feel our passions, we ignore them. I’ll point out the many ways we’ve refused to be put into boxes this year–and how bringing that thought process into real life leads to victories…
Finally, I’ll remind them this truth is my story too–everyone’s story, really…we’re all traveling the same path…when we follow the heart in all things, the path goes much more easily. When we do not, we struggle through the brush without a machete until we come upon it once again.
It’s that simple–for all of us…I never know why we insist on making it difficult.
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Avoiding the Chainsaw Massacre: Ode to My Fake Tree

For years, the holiday season didn’t start until we hiked deep into the tree farm and cut our tree. There’d be a marathon pre-visit to choose and tag our tree followed up by several swears by the adults when we cut it down. We’d drag it to our non-truck, and bind it up so it didn’t fall, and drive carefully home, so we could enjoy language more colorful than the lights which were painstakingly tested and untangled.

Eventually, the tree would be up, blanketing the house in pine. Nothing beats the experience of the real Christmas tree. Once or twice, we found a tree with a bird’s nest. It was a special treat which now seems just a bit mean. Sorry homeless bird.

Sure, there were some disadvantages to the real tree, such as the spiders, and stepping on pine needles that stood at attention somewhere in the rug. But the tree was the official start and end of the Christmas season. My mom got us an ornament each year, so that by when we moved out, we’d have several to start our own trees. Each ornament has a special story.

I am now grown up and live in my own house. For years, we got a real tree, too. It was something I never compromised. Until…I kept getting sick. Every year at Christmas I got sick. I’d get a nice sinus infection, a raging cold, and I’d be miserable. I figured I made too many cookies, had too much holiday cheer, or maybe I was burning out from the first half of the year of teaching.

“Have you considered your tree?” Mom said. “There’s a lot of mold in a tree.” Turns out she had the same problem. Get rid of the tree? Unthinkable. Inconceivable…

The next year, it happened again. The following year, having noted the coincidence, I conceded to “try” a fake tree for one year. Miracle of miracles, I wasn’t sick. I enjoyed the Yule. I partook in the holiday cheer. I admitted, in public, my mom was right. And I saved a copay or two at the doctors.

Mom made this in 1983.

Mom made this in 1983.

I do miss my real tree, but not the stress of cutting it, hiking it home, and putting it up. We went one step further this year… a three-piece pre-lit tree. It took exactly three minutes to put up and didn’t require one “f” word. That’s the definition of holiday cheer.

This one's from when Rusty was a baby. There's one for his sister Carol next to it.

This one’s from when Rusty was a baby. There’s one for his sister Carol next to it.

I took the ornaments out of the box. I put them on the tree with Declan, and I told the story of each ornament. The “first year” ornaments, Daddy’s special ornaments, the train ornaments, the funny squirrel. The rainbow balsa wood ornament my mom made the year she didn’t have money to buy us our yearly ornaments, and the salt-dough ornaments I’d made in the Great Recession when circumstances were the same for me.

TrainThe ornaments showed Christmases in good times and in bad, and how the true meaning of the holiday always shines through in terms of the love of family, friends, and the miracles God and the universe bestow upon us, presents notwithstanding, if we are attentive enough to listen. Turns out, the Christmases with the least presents have the most blessings of them all.

Dough ornamentOur ornaments, this year, are on a fake tree, where they will be every year until they become someone else’s ornaments, for them to decide. Our tree is beautiful because each little bangle and ball holds a memory of love, even if they are hung on PVC branches made in China and not a home-grown Douglas Fir. I’ll look at them and smile. Declan will take them down when I’m pretending not to look and enjoy them. And then I’ll sneak up behind him and tell him the story of each one one more time.

 

 

 

Friending the Pope on Facebook

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The Pope crossed my Facebook stream. I wondered if it was really the Pope. I’ve friended Jesus H. Christ, Jesus M. Christ, and Jesus (Plain) Christ already, just to make sure I get the right one. I couldn’t find the Buddha on Facebook but Rumi is on Twitter–he’s pretty inspirational, and of course the Dalai Lama says something nice to me every morning. I love his tweets.

Yesterday, when I saw El Papa (that means “the Pope.” “Big Papi is someone else). I was pretty excited. I checked his friends so see if it was really him. Much like watching people look for mystery mechanical malfunctions under steaming hoods of cars, I must confess, I don’t really know who his friends would be–I guess I was looking for Cardinal this, Father that, or Rabbi Schmuley. I did see a bunch of good Catholics I knew from growing up, which means that they think this is the real Pope, too.

I had a fleeting thought that some computer nerd put the Pope’s likeness on Facebook. You think computer people are serious, but that’s really not true. This is just the type of thing someone who’s been coding too much drinking eighty Red Bulls a day would do, “Hey, guys, I can’t find the bugs, let’s take a break and answer some prayers.” I can see them responding to all the in-box confessions right now. Or it could be the kid in my Period  3 class who’s always looking down at something.

But just in case it’s really the Pope, I wanted to be in on the festivities before he got five thousand friends and I can’t be one. I have one friend like that who hit his Facebook limit. He has too many friends and Facebook won’t let us be friends. I have to be his follower. I don’t like to be my real-life friends’ followers, because next they’ll expect veneration or something. That wouldn’t be so bad for the Pope, but for a normal person, it can go to their heads pretty quick. And anyway, how can Facebook put friend limits on God’s leaders?

As I continued to look through the Pope’s feed, I noticed a few things that made me think my Red Bull theory might be true–or at least the one about the kid in my Period 3 class. There are mistakes in grammar and use of texting protocol in posts, such as the lowercase “I.”  Jesus would never permit the bastardization of grammar. Certainly, the head of his church wouldn’t post in textspeak. Unless…texters are the target audience to be saved…

Also, there is a request to email a Yahoo address for donations. There is no organizational link to this organization. I wonder if the IP address will be in some country I can’t spell that is in the international news for fraud. Hmmmm… But we should trust, I guess, and helping some guy using proxy servers to solicit donations is probably as good as helping the actual disadvantaged, because if it weren’t for the “donations,” he’d be disadvantaged too… Right?

I’m going to keep “the Pope’s” friendship. It’s a small price to pay if it is the real Pope. And if it isn’t, I might just send some prayer requests to Red Bull coder or Kid in Period Three or whoever you are.  I’m not sure what I’ll pray for, but I’ll make sure it’s good and juicy. Like salvation on crack. And it’ll be up to you to answer, oh God of Red Bull…

Let’s see what you come up with. Our eternal life is on the line…

Irish Blessing for Teachers (God Help Us, Every One)

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 6.28.26 AMI need a prayer to inspire the first day of school–a prayer useful to the religious and secular alike. I took a philosophy course on a bet once, learning about the nature of prayer in the process. My friend, the future electrical engineer, said he was smarter than me–that engineers, moreover, were smarter than liberal arts majors.

My major was Russian–it was an amalgamation of history, bad economic forecasts, political upheaval, and really long depressing literature–it’s the reason I make people cry with my emails, having earned the nickname “Madame Tolstoy.” I’m improving–wouldn’t trade my academic path for all the engineering salaries in the world. The spirit of the Russian people taught me a lot about teaching–about creativity, making something from nothing, about getting the job done without a lot of resources. Russian philosophy is a little like zen, but with a despot lurking in the background.

For our bet, we chose a neutral class.  The academic DMZ. Philosophy 101. He skipped class. I learned about how to spend an inordinate time fixating on the smallest detail, the meaning of God, what constitutes a pile, and other useful things. For example, if you have one piece of hay, it’s not a stack. If you have two, it’s not a stack. If you have a stack and take a piece off, it’s still a stack. At what point does it become a stack or lack of a stack? You can use this in life. Just substitute manure. If you’ve got a bit of manure in your life, it’s not a pile. If you add a bit more, it may not be a pile, but at some point, it becomes a pile. You have to shovel it away. Farm wisdom that can help you transcend the day-to-day BS in any career and still smile.

The second thing I remember was about God. Many people believe in God and many do not. If God exists, and you messed up on earth, that’s an epic fail. You’re going into the inferno forever. If God doesn’t exist and you were good just in case–well, you don’t go anywhere for eternity but you make people smile in your time on the planet. Is that so bad? It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis.

My friend won the bet. He is smarter than me. He showed up for two classes–the midterm, and the final. He smoked me. I got to learn about the great Western philosophers, the nature and philosophy of prayer, and earn my first C-, my only low grade unless you count Calc, which I dropped twice before finally getting a “just go away” C, escaping higher-level mathematics forever.

Without further adieu, the prayer, “The Irish Blessing,” in its original form and it’s adaptation for education: The original is in italics.

May the road rise up to meet you. May you not get a flat tire on the way to work, and may the potholes not wreck your oil pan.

May the wind be always at your back. May you avoid hurricanes, storms, and floods that force you go to school until July.

May the sun shine warm upon your face; Likewise with snow days.

the rains fall soft upon your fields Don’t drink too much, because there’s no bathroom nearby. You’ll have to wait till 2:11 to pee.

and until we meet again, I won’t see you for 180 days.

may God hold you in the palm of His hand. May the school year not kill you. God help us all. 

May we have the best school year yet. May we do the greatest of things.

Blueberries and Pickles–No, I’m Not Pregnant

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Rocky Point Blueberry Farm, Warwick, RI

Last week, I picked blueberries in the rain. It wasn’t that pleasant. I was cold. When I reached into the bush, water shook from the leaves, soaking me to the bone. I got colder and wetter. I started to frown. There was one drop of rain on my glasses I couldn’t get off. When I wiped it on my wet shirt, I smeared both lenses until I couldn’t see the blueberries. And I had a migraine. Annoying.

I thought about homesteading. How I planted my garden, how my husband chopped the wood, how we try to get off the grid. How the stuff we can’t do–produce eggs or meat–we get from the farm around the corner. About how close I am to getting rid of boxes, store jars, and tin cans. As I sat in the middle of rainy blueberries wishing the weather would clear, I thought, “A couple hundred years ago, I wouldn’t have had a choice to make homesteading my…(dare I say)…hobby.”
Not picking very fast. Pioneers didn't check email while farmingI never thought of homesteading as a hobby. It’s a good activity–I started out intending to save money, produce better quality food, and maybe stop global warming, prevent a few small nations from blowing each other up, or attain enlightenment. It doesn’t save money. Farming is expensive and I give stuff away.  Friends visit and remind me they like my peach salsa.
“Homesteading” is cool, though. What people once mocked me for, comparing me to their grandmother, is now chic, hip, and in. I’ve never been any of those things–I’m enjoying my fifteen minutes of fame.
But whining about wet blueberries–weak. I could never be a real homesteader on the prairie…I felt somewhat disingenuous. The pioneers didn’t have an option. They would’ve picked blueberries in the rain. And been grateful. The work would’ve been there every day. No one’s great-grandmother in Oklahoma would have skipped a day because of a weather, a lunch date, or a migraine.
Because if they did, they would have died. I watch homesteading shows on the Discovery Channel. The Alaska ones are cool–no one comes to their rescue. “Excuse me Stop & Shop Peapod…can you deliver?” I think not. Conversely, I watched a few shows where modern families pretended they were pioneers–shows where people dress up and cry after the first few days. The Alaska people never cry. I have to toughen up and be more like them. Today, In the true spirit of Alaska, I’m weeding my garden and making pickles again because I killed my last crock of kosher dills.
“HOW did you ruin pickles??” asked my friend of Russian Jewish descent. No Russian ever ruins food–that might be the last vegetable you’d see until the reincarnation of Lenin. And a Jew ruining a Kosher Dill? Heresy. Doesn’t happen.
“I didn’t weight them down. The top ones molded.” I asked around, “Can I eat them anyway?” I was so looking forward to them–I’d just eat one off the bottom. My husband said no, it’d kill me. I rationalized that cheese is mold, and the life insurance is paid up…would the pioneers scrape off the mold? They wouldn’t have had mold to begin with. Because if they did, they’d have starved.
Prairie women. My heroes.

Prairie women. My heroes.

I googled in case everyone was wrong. Google said, “Don’t eat it, moron, you’ll die.” Not trusting Google is sort of like not trusting Jesus or the threat stated in a chain letter. I tossed the pickles.

I’d be a crappy homesteader. I didn’t pick enough blueberries–too busy finishing off a text conversation and dictating ideas into Siri. Pioneers wouldn’t have stood for such behavior. And I killed the pickles. I’d have eaten them anyway because Google wouldn’t have been there to save me. I must drink some imported french-roast coffee and contemplate ways to improve.
The weather cleared midway through picking.  I remembered why I love it. I go deep into the middle of the bush, where lazy people don’t pick. Then, I crawl under the bushes, where no one goes, either, except the grandmothers who are serious about their homesteading, and little, tiny kids.
When I’m  looking under the bushes, I see an entirely different view. Seeing the berries under the leaves where no one goes reminds me of teaching. The berries at the top shine for the world. They hog all the sunshine, tasting nice and sweet. But when you climb in and under the bush, you see the berries the world forgot. They’re there, clumped together waiting for someone to pick them. I like those best–they’re bigger and sweeter because they were left alone to grow at their own pace. They leap into the bucket with excitement ready to become part of something great. This reminds me of my students, the ones who get left behind by traditional academics and need someone to peel back the branches and leaves to let them see the sunlight, too. But when they do, it is always magic.
Maybe I’m a bad pioneer and homesteader, but thinking about the blueberries this way, I decide I’m a pretty good teacher.
I smile. And I pick one more bucket before it’s time to go home.
[image 3: candgnews.com]

Food Extremists Who Are Worse Than Me

This is me. Entirely. I never made out with anyone in the produce aisle, but I feel strongly about food. I want to grow and raise what I eat. I want to eat healthy, to avoid packages. I do lots of things that are considered weird. I bake bread–it goes on the counter to rise at night so it’s ready to make in the morning. I make two types of yogurt–Greek yogurt, and filmjolk, both of which can easily be made into cheese, which I then mix with herbs from my own garden and spread on home-made bruschetta. If I could be perfect, in my own mind, I’d produce or trade for the bulk of my food. I have the land to do that now, and it’s going to get ugly–things planted everywhere–a landscaper’s nightmare, but my idea of heaven. My husband has advised me to “Stay the #$%%^ away from the front yard.” So far I have.

“People don’t like militants,” said my new friend with whom I was discussing food. Am I that bad? I don’t eat meat, I don’t like packaging, I try to avoid processed sugar, erring on the side of local honey and local maple syrup. I denounce pre-cut fruits in bags in the store and I think that the person who invented the Lunchable, is a marketing genius but the devil incarnate.

I never eat fast food–I told my son Chuck E. Cheese was the evil mouse. I haven’t taken him yet. There are much better foods to eat. Like the ones I grow myself.

I just ate my first salad from the garden. I made my own mayo for the dressing from eggs I got down the road–kidnapped right from the chicken at my request, the farmer put them  in the carton I brought from home–never even saw a fridge before they were converted into culinary greatness.

Maybe my friend is right. Perhaps I am a bit extreme. But not militant. I don’t spray-paint people’s leather shoes or threaten their eternal salvation if they eat shellfish or drink beer. I’ll even cook you a steak if you’re a carnivore guest, as long as it’s grass-fed beef.

I just think we’ve lost touch with our food and I think it’s time to find it. But I’m feeling a bit paranoid–am I really all that extreme? It’s time to engage in the great American past time of looking at other people to make myself feel better.  After all, I’m just a vegetarian–there are plenty of extremists out there worse than me.

Many  cultures don’t understand vegetarians. When I was in Russia, people would offer me meat. I’d politely decline. They’d say “Oh, just have one.” I said, “I’m a vegetarian, like Tolstoy.” Tolstoy was also a political extremist. That never helped, but it got me out of the beef stroganoff even if I had to starve that night.

Many of my students are Hispanic. Vegetarians are even less common in that space. More than one student or parent has, out of great concern, tried to send me to the doctors. “Vegetarian? You need to see someone about that.”

But am I really all that weird? I researched other diets. There are people out there who are far more particular than me. There are some really extreme foodies out there.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 6.18.03 AMI feed paleos all the time. Their food lists are like mine, if you cross off the meat. A list of restrictions that makes an Iron Chef competition look easy. Then there are celiacs, raw foodists, vegans, and locavores, each with their own lists of prohibitions, rules, and food prep nightmares. Muslims and Jews are easy–even though I technically need a second kitchen and a rabbi to convert me to really cook properly for my Jewish friends, there’s a tacit agreement that vegetarians are understanding enough not to use bacon grease in the home-grown French cut beans, and we’re good with that. It’s the culinary secret handshake. If only solving peace in the Middle East were so easy.

So, I do my best to eat my raw carrots for breakfast unobtrusively, while I greet my next-door colleague who’s busy avoiding wheat, apples, and lactose. We drink home-juiced liquids out of mason jars and shot glasses, and the leaves in my desk aren’t inappropriate for a school setting, they’re just a blend of black and fruit teas, some of which I grew and dried myself.

Am I that far outside the mainstream? Maybe so. We planned a work outing. “You two will not be bringing the food.”

“Your loss.” I thought, as I downed another shot of my friend’s juice–two beets, a banana, pear, and just one sprig of kale–and ate my home-made sauerkraut from a mason jar. It was pretty good. And it was all mine.

[Image: beginwithnutrition.wordpress.com–today this is a link because there are some awesome recipes here!!]

Pulling Weeds

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.47.58 AMI’m pulling weeds in the garden and planting new flowers.  The garden is full. It’s huge. Truth be told, it could have been a little bigger–I’d have filled it. A million things poke through the soil–some in rows, more in random places where I stuffed them when I ran out of room–overzealousness. I can’t wait for things to grow–I plant more daily.

I am installing marigolds along the fence, one by one, a million of them–the best defense against rabbits, I’m told. I dig holes, and stuff flowers in holes. Dig more, shove more in the ground. A line is forming.  Shovel and flower hovering, next flower ready… Two leaves rise up from the back of the hole.

“Hey!” they say, “What’s the big idea?”

“Sorry. Just planting the marigolds. Didn’t mean to disturb.”

“Well, watch yourself! You just planted here last week. I’m trying to grow. Do you MIND?”

“True,” I tell the zinnia seedling, and pat the dirt back around her.  “I forgot. I’ll try to remember.” I stuff the marigold row an inch forward and leave the zinnia be.

Screen Shot 2013-05-04 at 5.48.31 AMI get so excited watching new life pop up and grow, that I don’t wait for things to take root. I plant on top of plants, I accidentally rip things up, mistake things for weeds…never really knowing if the first plant was growing the way it should.  Sort of reminds me of school.

We have all these measures, initiatives, and changes–some are necessary, but others  never really get a chance to take root, because there’s always another thing to plant, hole to dig, things to disturb. Sometimes, we just need to wait–if we do, beautiful seedlings will emerge. If we encourage them, remain steadfast and patient, and allow them to be nurtured by the sun, they will flower. It is magic.

In management and business, it takes time to assess the effectiveness of change. There are mathematical equations for this. I’ve worked for corporations that made major change upon major change, putting the organization in chaos, never really knowing which initiative drove business. In education, it often feels the same way. Sometimes we demand effectiveness immediately–it’s important. We behave as if there’s a pedagogical magic wand putting us back at the top of the mountain for all the world to see. “If we just do this…we’ll be number one. In every category. Again.” That causes chaos. It pulls the zinnias out by the roots. They never get their chance to flower.

Change takes time. Assessing change requires patience. Growth cannot be rushed. It’s science. Nature. Cyclical. To expect anything other than what is truth in nature to be true in education would be absurd.

Wait for the growth.

Wait for the growth.

Sorry, little zinnia. Thank you for the reminder. I won’t disturb you with a big flashy marigold just because it has a big orange swirly flower right now. Honestly, marigolds smell terrible. They’re a bit ostentatious. I’ll wait for you to bloom–it’ll be spectacular. Even if it does take a little bit longer.

 

 

[images: blog.cameronleger.com and flowerscape.blogspot.com]