He Forgot to Go South

It’s cold outside. The kind of cold I’d bottle and save for July. I’m outside with no coat and untied shoes, starting my car so I can peel out of the driveway in five minutes. The engine protests. I jog back to the house.

My hand sticks to the metal on the door just a little bit and I hear the most beautiful sound. A bird singing over the cold I’d bottle and save for July. One bird, who forgot to go South for the winter. Stayed just for me. Stayed to remind me to stop. To take a moment. To be. Just be, even standing outside with no coat and untied shoes in the cold I’d bottle and save for July.

To listen to the beautiful song.

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Ageless: Lessons from the Horror of Pep Rally

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Pep rally day at school. Screaming teens with faces painted for war, and someone’s got a fog horn I just can’t catch. All day…The type of day teachers dread. Earplugs for everyone.

I think this day keeps me young.

“What are you WEARING, Miss?” My shirt’s not the required yellow. Standing near the Black and Golds, it’s clearly neon green. Students forgive, adults laugh. The kind of laugh you laugh when you meet a truly stupid person and you’re trying to keep it all in. One spits coffee on his shoes and asks If I’m color blind. No. Just stupid. Or perhaps I’m just getting old.

The signs are there. I take pills out of jars and rearrange them so I don’t forget, yet still find myself asking, “Did I take that?” I set an alarm. The alarm interrupts something uninterruptable, I don’t stop what I’m doing. I forget.

“Maybe you should get one of those things that say ‘Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday…” said my husband and next-door teaching neighbor.

“The one in the senior citizen section?” Nope.

There are other signs I may be getting old. When I pull my hair back there are five silver threads. Not exactly a streak. Five individuals standing out in the crowd. An allegory, perhaps.

“Miss, want me to paint your face?” Most  have chosen against doing their work in favor of pep rally prep–facepainting brushes with black, gold, and glitter. What moron actually assigns work three classes before pep rally? Teachers who are getting old, that’s who. I used to put work aside and make peppy signs with them.

“Sure…Paint my class year…” There are a lot of “’17’s” on faces. Fitting in with the crowd keeps me young.

“What’s your class year?”

“’89.” I sing our chant, “We’re so great, we’re so fine, we’re the Class of ’89.”

“I889?” She looks at me. She’s serious. Students do this every year. “Were you alive when…”

“No. 1989.” She paints me a nice 19-89 on two cheeks with black paint and gold glitter. I’m ready to pep.

I hand out earplugs to my colleagues and go downstairs.

One looks at my face. “That was the year I was born.” This starts a conversation where I realize I’m a generation older than my coworkers. Ancient. That much closer to death. I’ve never really felt my age. Time simply passed. Birthdays arrived. I got a new cake.

There are people in life who seem old and people who don’t. I posted a picture on social media. A friend chimed in. “Hey, that was the year I was born.”  Now, she’ll start to discuss things like knitting and quilting with me.

When I go home, I look in the mirror and scrub off the indictment of old. Glitter goes down the drain, I see my face and smile. Ageless. More than just a number. A few decades earned–the type of decades that give me the experience to be less dumb and to make better decisions, not the type of decades where I my reflection grumbles I’ve led a hard life.

I’ve lived well, I’ve done good things, I’ve helped others, eaten freakishly healthy food, and tried to make the universe a better place. I like myself just fine.

Even though I’m old, and for a brief moment confess I watched the pep rally line dance and thought, “Oh my God, what’s gotten into kids these days…”  But I caught myself doing it, clapped, smiled, and gave my students a thumbs up. They’re young and having fun. Best to let them do so, because before they know it, they’ll be a generation older than everyone around them, looking into the mirror, wondering if they are old.

Hopefully, they’ll have lived a good life and be young at heart, too.

 

[image: familyofchristconversations.wordpress.com]

 

The Death Smell of Compost in the Joy of a Warm Winter Day

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 6.55.46 AMSeed catalog season. They started coming last month. I really should be planning the garden. I can virtually smell it around me…

Wait, that’s compost. It’s been a couple weeks and a few feet of snow since I took out the compost. That little carbon filter in the top of the pail’s done its duty. Can’t smell it at all. I pick up the pail and collect the mountain of fruit peels on the cutting board in the kitchen. I trudge through the mud.

It’s beautiful outside–a break in the winter that tempts me to get out there and plant something I know will subsequently die. A January thaw–a break in Winter’s show. He got off the couch to get some snacks and a beer, letting Spring fill in for a bit. Still, I can’t plant now. The Farmer’s Almanac would be horrified. It predicts much more snow in February. Not long odds in Vegas. It’s New England.

I dump the compost in the bin. It smells like nothing I’ve ever experienced, having done most of its composting in the house. The death smell chases me half-way across the yard, laughing the moment I take off the lid. I can’t leave it like that. It smells worse than the time I left the chicken in my trunk for a week during summer. That one forgotten bag…

I stop breathing, reopen the bin, and stir the rotting compost into the fireplace ash. I toss a few oak leaves on top. Better. I sniff. The worms will rejoice just as soon as they thaw all the way.

I step into the garden. Mud. Enough to swallow me. I realize I haven’t been outside–really outside–in months. I stop. I listen to the birds who welcome me back. I think about walking around the garden. The mud plots to enshrine me. I sink. I take a step. I sink further. We come to an agreement. The mud releases its hostage. I’ll take my tour some other time.

The seeds will be calling soon. I’ll scatter them everywhere. Many will die as a result of my overzealousness and impatience. The laws of nature don’t bend for one good-weather day. Seeds in the garden–like in life–must be planted at the right time, then nurtured consistently to grow.

I take out the recycling and go to the farm. Eggs are in the red cooler out front on weekends.  Put in some money, take out some eggs. The cooler’s blown over. Scrambled eggs. I manage four dozen good ones. I toss in an extra buck–I was short last week. I still have eggs in the fridge. I stack these on top–always overbuy, over plant, overestimate when nature is involved. Plan well when you can and appreciate nature’s bounty always. It’s better to have just a little too much when it comes to growing, cooking, and eating. Dieters and zen masters have it all wrong.

I take off my muddy boots,  put the compost pail back onto the mantle, and sit back down to work. 

Spring will be here soon enough.

 

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.

Underwear Ninja Learns Zen

Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 6.45.07 AMHe was standing in the living room, dressed in his best Fruit of the Looms. Seems the holes in guys’ underwear make a convenient location to holster a sword. He drew it with intention, staring me down swinging impressively.

It’s tough to get sword training in these parts. “Where’d you learn that?” I asked.

“Percy Jackson. Mom, can I see your swords?” He knew I had them. He’d been asking for a while. I put him off, telling him he had to be good, had to clean his room, had to achieve world peace…The real reason I delayed was his love of swords. He’s been swinging the plastic one he won at the fair for three months–it was the prize they give the kid who doesn’t win a prize–perfect for him. My real swords–not so much. I was afraid he’d find them.

I retrieved the gun case with the swords. He followed me. Big mistake. He now knew where they were stashed.

The swords, once perfect, were damaged in The Great Flood nearly four years ago. The case had wicked the tiniest bit of water and my beloved katana and it’s friend the iaito–the training sword–rusted in parts. I was sad. I’d spent years drawing them, in the process drawing out the story of my life searching for inner peace, only once slicing my foot in a moment of inattention. They were a part of me as much as my best friend.

Exhausted from rescuing what could be saved in the flood, then tossing an entire floor’s worth living, I dried them the best I could and mourned their damage, promising I’d restore them to their glory. Then I lost myself in life.

Swords are like friends–not so much a piece of metal but a piece of the soul. Practicing Japanese sword is practicing meditation–looking for something better in oneself in the part of the mind that only quiet and meditation can unlock. It’s the opposite of what The Boy thinks it is. It’s calm, peaceful, and done right puts me in another place. How ironic to equate peace with an instrument of killing–but that’s the point entirely. True strength is never in the power to wound. It’s the power to hold that power in hand, and instead show compassion.

Looking at the rust on the sword, I consider that the power to use compassion must be practiced too. It gets rusty. Maybe I’ll leave the blemish on the swords as a reminder.

“Woah…” Declan said, finally being granted access to my swords.

“Don’t touch. It’s not polite. It’s dangerous.” I said. That’s enough etiquette for now.

“Let me see!” I showed him the blades, named the parts, and told him it’s important to take care of things, pointing out the rust. The damage wasn’t as bad as I recalled.

No time for nostalgia or catching up with old friends–only a six-year old ready to see something cut in two. “Pull it out. Quick. Like THIS.” He whipped his plastic sword through the air and started to twirl.

“There is no twirling in Japanese sword,” I said.

“Percy Jackson does it. And so does Kung Fu Panda.” If only I’d had these instructors, I could twirl. Maybe I’d be a better human being.

I decided to draw. A good swordsman can practice in a phone booth. I’d been trained in lots of spaces. Big swings, tight areas, working on space, timing, awareness…Sure, it’s been years. And it’s a live blade. And I lack coordination. What the heck. Why not?

“Move back.” The boy listened the first time, rare in these parts, suspecting there’d be action. I drew. No blood. Comes back quickly enough, I guess.

“Faster!” Why not? Faster indeed. I drew from one knee, then swung.

“Don’t cut the ceiling.” A vote of confidence from my husband. I drew again. Whoosh. I got the sound back–the sound of the air being sliced in two. There’s no clang in Japanese swordsmanship like in the movies. No samurai wants to damage a sword. It’s a quick one, two, three with three possible endings. You die, I die, or more likely, we both die, which is Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 6.44.09 AMprecisely why no one wanted to fight, and why many swordsmen, such as Miyamoto Musashi, retired in contemplation, having survived combat. I’ve noticed that about people who have faced death or simply overcome genuine personal struggle. They have this aura around them–the contemplative spirit–a true generosity and selflessness that’s difficult to attain without going through something in life. They are at peace with the struggle in their soul.

“Wowwww!” Declan seemed impressed. He inched closer. “Let me see the other one!” I showed him the iaito and drew it a few times.  It, like me, was tired. It was time for it to rest.

“Now,” I said. “Don’t find and touch Mommy’s swords. Can I trust you?”

“No,” he said. He was dead honest. “I’m going to find them like the marshmallows.”

This morning he helped me put away dishes pushing the chair to the counter. “I can climb, Mom. It’s how I find all the stuff you hide. I found the marshmallows this morning.” He wagged his finger at me. “Boy, you hid them good.” I think it was a compliment.

I don’t need him finding swords.

“I mean it.” I bluff. “I’ll throw them away. They won’t be here anymore.” I head toward the door.

“Throw away your swords?”

“Yup. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

My bluff works. He semi-promises, which means I have 24 hours to get a lock for the case.

“Someday, these will be yours.” His eyes widen. “Just not today.”

“When?” he jumps up and down.

“When you are ready to learn the lessons they teach. He walks away thinking of Percy Jackson, and I of Miyamoto Musashi, each in our own worlds contemplating the lessons we are equipped to understand.

And no one has been cut in two.

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.

A Long Road to Enlightenment

We are at the farm.

“Mommy,” he says, “I have something to tell you.”

“What?” I reply, “And hold my hand before you get squashed by that tractor.”

“I know about God now.” I often get in trouble for not teaching my son well enough about the God of religion and conquest. He knows about kindness, love, the power of the universe, karma, the meaning of the magic in nature, helping, but balks at the gargoyles and medieval statuary bleeding sacred hearts on the ground. Once, he came upon a nativity scene–at Santa’s Village, of all places.

“MOMMY! LOOK!” he said with an urgency that stopped me in my tracks. “What?”

“Who is THAT?”

“It’s Jesus. Baby Jesus with his family.”

“It is NOT JESUS!” he said. He was angry. I felt like a negligent parent, who neglected teaching her then four-year old to even recognize the baby Jesus. Wasn’t it bad enough he confused his baseball, football, and basketball, shouting “touchdown” the rare time he saw a baseball game?

“Yes it is, that’s his mom.”

“THEY TURNED JESUS INTO A STATUE!” There would be no convincing him otherwise, and to some degree, he was right–the God of love is often pressed flat between the pages of books nobody bothers to read, especially his people.

But today, he has figured out about God.

“What do you know about God now?” I ask.

“Well, one time, I was thinking about God and I had to poop.  I didn’t want to wipe myself. So I asked God if he could make it a hard poop, so I wouldn’t have to wipe,” the look of intense concentration and reflection on the importance of this detail cannot be mistaken. I follow along, with a face matching his in focus and intensity. I angle my head just a bit to show I am seriously listening.

“So” he continued. “That day, I had a hard poop. I didn’t wipe at all!  And that’s how I know that God is real. And that he listens to us all the time and that he cares about us. And that he is my friend.”

Pretty good logic. We’re often reminded to ask God for our needs, no matter what they might be. Sometimes, our prayers are answered, and other times–for good reasons unbeknownst to us, the answer is no. At those times, we should remember not to hold it against Him. There’s something in the scope of universe being set in motion–we just have to wait.

Today, I heard Declan in the bathroom reciting his prayer out loud. Soon after, there was a shout of disappointment, “Oh! It didn’t WORK, I have to wipe!”  I tried to explain that sometimes the Almighty has bigger fish to fry and loaves to bake. And that humans must be understanding.

“Fine!” he said. “If God’s busy, I’ll just go watch Scooby Doo. But I’m asking Santa for a kitty for Christmas.”  I’m afraid we have a long, long road to enlightenment.