30 December 2013

The Sanity Lap

I’m not sure when the building I teach in was built, but it was probably during the 1960’s.  It’s a depressing institutional structure, with almost no natural light, especially in the interior corridors where my classroom is located.  Students report feeling the presence of Dementors in the building, and I honestly am not surprised, as I’ve sensed them myself.  It’s not a beautiful place to be, but we teachers try to make the best of it by painting our classrooms with cheery colors.  Nothing quite makes up for dim fluorescent lighting and general lack of interesting architecture, though.

This summer, when my friend and colleague, Lauren, realized that we shared a common prep period, she suggested that we walk a lap each day at the beginning of that class period.  We’ve since dubbed this short walk the Sanity Lap.  It takes place daily, unless there’s a downpour (which is generally unlikely).  We make our way outside, descend the stadium steps to the track and walk one lap, climb the steps and re-enter the building.  The entire trip takes probably no more than five minutes, from classroom door to classroom door.  We are leaving the track just as Boys PE is coming outside for their warm-up lap. 

There are some days when I wonder if those five minutes could be better used if I were grading or planning or organizing or photocopying or contacting parents or the myriad other things we teachers try to accomplish during the fifty-five minutes we’re without students.  But after a semester’s worth of laps, I can definitively say that the time spent on the lap pays greater dividends than the time it takes.  I have a daily opportunity to talk with an adult (and one who is wise and witty to boot), which can be a rare occurrence during the school day.  I spend a few moments outdoors, which restores my soul, and I inhale clean mountain air, rather than the stuffy re-circulated air in the building.  Just before we descend the steps to the track, I breathe in the distinctive view of Thumb Butte and the Bradshaw Mountains south of town.  I can discern if the sky is clear or cloudy or somewhere in between, having arrived at school before the sun is fully up during most of the year.  I connect with a friend, if only for a few moments.

Some days one teacher or another joins us, but usually it’s just the two of us, ranting, venting and laughing.  It’s often the best five minutes in the workday, leaving me refreshed and ready to tackle the challenges of the rest of the day.  The Sanity Lap has made me more productive and gives me focus.  I look forward to it each day.  It costs me only a tiny investment in time, but the pay-off is huge.  I’ve been reflecting on the year, as most of us do in December, and taking stock of habits I want to continue and change.  This one is a definite keeper.  As you reflect on the opportunities a new year brings, and the practices and rituals you want to establish, I hope that you will find something both as cost-effective and priceless as the Sanity Lap. 

22 December 2013

Light and Darkness on the Solstice

Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.  – John Lennon

The past couple weeks I’ve been receiving mail, not the electronic kind, which is great in its own way, but real mail.  There is something so lovely about finding an envelope in my mailbox, addressed by a familiar hand, and posted with an actual stamp.  I’ve been welcoming some of these each day lately, with stories and photographs of people I love tucked inside.  I treasure each and every one of them, but  I wanted to share a couple of them with you.

There’s one letter each year that Dan and I especially anticipate.  It’s written by a woman who was in the hydrology program with Dan at U of A.  She’s smart as a whip and definitely one of the funniest holiday letter authors in North America – quite possibly the world, as I assume that the holiday form letter is a distinctively American tradition.

In these letters, she relates the same family news and events as most of us are likely to share, but the way she approaches even the most mundane of life’s events (like potty training) and household disasters (flooded basement followed by ice storm) seem like sitcom fodder.  Really, really good sitcom fodder.  What a gift it is to receive letter laughter each year from across the country.  It always makes me reframe how I might view similar events in my life with a more humorous perspective.

This year we received one Christmas letter in particular that was so courageous in its honesty.  One of my dear relatives has vascular dementia, which has caused her to lose much memory and language.  I haven’t seen her in several years, but I remember her as a vibrant, intelligent woman and a great storyteller with an infectious laugh.  Trained as a nurse, she worked for decades in orthopedic medicine. 

Like most holiday letters, this one from her spouse relayed the goings-on of the past twelve months and the accomplishments of their children and grandchildren.  It was also upfront about the challenges they now face on a daily basis.  But there wasn’t a shred of self-pity or woe.  The letter closed with beautiful words that brilliantly reflect the essence of my grandmother’s maxim:  bloom where you are planted.  In spite of unforeseen health issues (and honestly, how many health issues are foreseen?), they have changed their outlook to consider the realities of their lives, adjusting their expectations to mirror a much different retirement than originally anticipated.  

There are no guarantees in this life.  Each of our lives is marked by minor and major tragedies as unique, and yet as ordinary, as each of us.  We can choose to wallow in the injustice, and indeed, many do.  Or we can shine.  As MLK put it, “darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”  It is up to each of us how we choose to react.  In fact, our reaction is perhaps the only thing we can truly control in this life.    May the coming year fill you with light and love and laughter, and a desire to savor each day’s abundance.  Carpe diem, just like the old poets said.

17 November 2013

Life's Rich Playlist

For my fortieth birthday, Dan made me a playlist.  He is a master of playlists, assembling songs that flow perfectly from one to the next.  The one he made for that milestone birthday, though, contains ninety-five tracks, each released between 1968 and 2008.  I’ve been listening to it again since my birthday this year.  And while I’ve been the recipient of some special gifts over the years, this playlist is one of my favorites.  There’s a memory, an era, a phase for each tune.  For example, I can’t listen to the following without some kind of flashback:

U2:  Where the Streets Have No Name.  If you were in college in the late 1980s, this song was the theme for every party, road trip, pre-game celebration, and, ahem, study session.

REM:  I Am Superman.  The first openly lesbian woman I knew, who lived across the hall from me my sophomore year in college, played this song a lot.  She was older than the rest of us in the dorm, and was very wise for her years.  It was a big deal when she moved in, practically a scandal, but I remember how most of us came to consider her a friend.  I think of her when I hear this song and I wonder where she is today and what’s she’s doing.

The Smiths:  How Soon Is Now?  The theme of my senior year of high school.

Paul Simon:  Hearts and Bones.  I fell in love with Simon’s strangely poetic lyrics because of this song.  He made me realize how playful and poignant words could be, sometimes simultaneously.

Led Zeppelin:  Stairway to Heaven.  My favorite song when I was in about seventh or eighth grade.

Dire Straits:  The Sultans of Swing.  This song was on endless repeat during my summer in Paris.  My Parisien friend Marco had this song, and nothing but this song, on the cassette he played as we drove in his little Peugeot from café to café on the weekends.  He sang at the top of his lungs with his French accent, the lyrics just about the only English he knew.

Red Hot Chili Peppers:  Breaking the Girl, Smashing Pumpkins:  Disarm, and Cowboy Junkies:  Powderfinger. These are a few of the songs that Dan and I listened to a lot early in our relationship, and while I still love these songs, I also love how our musical tastes have continued to evolve as we grow older.

I doubt that Dan is aware of some of the stories behind these songs, and really, everyone has their own memories connected to music that can’t adequately be duplicated or expressed.  But I still love my lifelist, five years down the road.  A gift someone makes for you is truly something to be cherished.  Merci, D.  xoxoxox


03 November 2013

Lessons from the Mat

Over the past couple months I’ve been really busy, as is typical for end-of-summer and beginning-of-fall for me, as well as for most parents and all teachers.  And for most of the Saturday mornings in this period of time, I’ve been too busy or too lazy to make it to yoga class.  Or at least that’s what I told myself:  that it was because I had too much to do, or because I needed some extra zzz’s.  I did make it to class this weekend, and I’m so glad I did, because I realized that I hadn’t been too lazy to go; I realized that I’ve been avoiding class.  I hadn’t been avoiding it because I had too many things to do, or even because it meant I’d have to set an alarm on a Saturday morning.  I was avoiding it because of the mirror.

It’s difficult not to compare oneself to others, even (or is it especially?) in yoga class.  I know that goes against one of the tenets of yoga - that it shouldn’t matter if my downward dog looks better or worse than my neighbor’s.  It shouldn’t matter if my arms start to shake in plank after my neighbor’s do, or that my neighbor spends more time resting in child’s pose than doing anything else.  But I am secretly gloating inside when I notice that I am doing better than my neighbor on the mat, even though I know in my heart that yoga is not a competition.  And yet, still my eyes wander to others, to see how I compare, until I realize that their eyes must also wander to me, and that they are judging me and comparing themselves to me, and finding themselves superior.  Why this realization always surprises me, I can’t really explain.

Deep down, even the most confident of women (and, men, too, perhaps) have some kind of body image issue.  I’m obviously not alone in this annoying and ridiculous self-talk, especially after disfiguring cancer surgery.  I struggled with negative body image even before my surgery.  But in class this week, our instructor said, in the middle of a difficult posture, “I’ve noticed that this pose is much easier for those with long arms.  I have stubby T-Rex arms.”  Many people laughed, of course.  She paused a moment, and then added in a steady voice, without a hint of sarcasm, “But I notice that I do have arms.”  The laughter stopped and the reminder that we are lucky to be capable of taking part in a yoga class hung in the air.  I know that what she meant was to show us that it is possible to stop the cycle of negative words that even she was experiencing.  It was very timely for me, as I’d been lamenting my own losses lately and dwelling in the land of self-pity more than necessary.  But it’s not just about body image or ability.

She went on to talk about the yogic concept of santosa:  contentment with the way things are.  This is different from gratitude, which is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.  She asked us, if we would pause for a moment each day this month to consider santosa, and to be mindful of it, as we contemplate thanksgiving (with a small t and also with a capital T) this month.  Instead of being grateful for what we have, what if we were content?  I think I am pretty good at being grateful, but I am still learning to practice contentment.  We are powerless to change much in this life, but we are utterly capable of changing our own perspective about anything at all. 

Sometimes I think of the phrase contrast aids perception, but in my mind I often confuse it with contrast aids perspective.  So often we forget that contentment and gratitude, as well as unhappiness and desire, originate from within.  But contrasting ourselves with others often leads to unhappiness and desire rather than contentment, unless and until we begin to look to others as teachers.  I often find myself reading true adventure-disaster tales, and I think I start reading these books because I wanted to know what happened.  Now I think I read them because I want to learn something about the nature of the human spirit:  how did this person survive this experience?  what was it that he or she found within that elicited the courage to continue?  We’ve all survived something, be it cancer, the death of a loved one, or simply Monday morning.  What is it that gave you the courage to keep going?  And how can we find and practice contentment in that? 

20 October 2013


My grandmother would have turned 100 this week.  She was a true lady, a tough, self-reliant woman, and a friend to everyone.  She was also very smart and musical, leaving home to study music Oberlin College at age sixteen, and playing multiple instruments, including piano and trombone.  Her superpower, though, was being able to make whomever she was talking to feel like the most important person in the world. 

I’ve been thinking about her a lot this week. 

·         About how she never felt sorry for herself.  Instead she adopted the attitude of blooming where she was planted, even when she followed her husband to remote mining settlements all over Arizona in the first half of the 1900’s.  And how, after her husband of more than sixty years and friend of much longer died, she bloomed again in a new community.

·         About how she would have enjoyed watching her “greats,” as she called her great-grandchildren, play sports and succeed in school.  About how she would have loved to hear my daughters play violin and guitar, and sing music.  How proud she would have been to receive the news that her great-grandson was appointed to the Air Force Academy, like one of her grandsons and two of her sons.

She would often remark how she enjoyed the opportunity to watch her grandchildren grow up - that she couldn’t wait to see who we’d become.  Each of us grandchildren was so fortunate that we were able to grow into adulthood having had the chance to know her, to have appreciated her from our perspective as adults, to have been thoroughly cocooned in her love for so many important years.  But, oh, how she would have loved her greats!

I read this Letter of Note this morning and thought of how I sometimes catch a glimmer of her presence now and then, in the long shadows of summer’s late afternoon, in the crisp, yellow days of fall in the high desert, and how improbable and lovely it is that this is a comfort to me. 

Happy Birthday, Gram.

29 September 2013


Granite Mountain Wilderness reopened this week, nearly three months after the Doce Fire ripped through it.  Saturday morning the four of us headed there to hike to the big alligator juniper tree; the intro bass line of REM’s Pilgrimage bumbled through my head, setting the pace.  The first two miles, out to Blair Pass, were as lovely as always.  The trail winds through a riparian area and is lush with vegetation, including a unique tree I christened the ponderoak. 

As we approached Blair Pass, though, evidence of the fire was all around us.  But perhaps even more evident was the regrowth.  Scrub oak sprung from its charred selves, like hundreds of phoenixes.  Smiling wildflowers of many colors were bending with the breeze.  Bear grass shoots reached tall.  Yucca splayed out around blackened stumps just inches high.  Industrious ants scurried, preparing for what will surely be a longer winter than usual for them.  And improbably, from what was surely a dead agave, a stunted flower stalk rose in testament to Mother Nature’s resiliency. 

At the pass, though, the fire had burned incredibly hot.  The manzanita thicket that adorns the wallpaper of this page has been replaced by burnt, black sticks less than a foot tall, jutting up from the damaged soil.  It was a moonscape.  The trail junction signs erected by the Forest Service had become charcoal, brittle, black, barely legible, propped against the remains of their posts.  The shadows of what remained standing on the blackened granite cast an eerie pall.  Madeleine and I rested there while Dan and Arden went in search of a small geocache he’d placed nearby in 2010.  They found it - the roll of paper within now a fragile, black cylinder of carbon.  I know the area will recover, but it will not return to the way it was during my lifetime.  This upsets me, in spite of my awareness that my emotions mean little to the wilderness.

The trail beyond the pass deteriorated significantly.  Due to the intensity of the fire and the prolonged monsoon, erosion and run-off have effectively destroyed the trail.  It was difficult picking our way through the rocky, narrowed channels, the charred underbrush whipping and scratching our legs.  At times we had to rely upon Dan’s excellent route-finding skills.  Eventually, after we’d wound our way down from the pass, we entered an area that hadn’t burned.  At one point, the trail was littered with pieces of white quartz.  Here we searched for and found the spur that led to the tree.

The tree stood as it always had:  massive and majestic.  The area to the west of it had burned, though, close enough to have singed parts of the tree’s canopy.  A small memorial made of white quartz at the base of the tree commemorated the Granite Mountain Hot Shots who’d created a fire break credited with saving the tree just over three months ago.  There’s a fantastic photo of most of the hot shots, in pyramid formation with sooty, smiling faces, dwarfed in front of the tree.

I thought of them as we climbed in the tree, but they didn’t dominate my thoughts.   Instead, as I watched my daughters climb and rest, cradled in its colossal arms, I thought of the comfort of permanence.  The tree was still there, as it had always been.  It would surely outlive me, just as it had outlived this fire and countless other hardships in the millennium since it had sprouted.  This tree, nearly geologic compared to all other life in the Granite Mountain Wilderness, was unchanged by the personal trials of our lives, unscarred by our small community’s national tragedy.  The tree was the same:  a symbol of stability and timelessness, its sacredness mere strength in the mundane monotony of life.  We scurry about our busy lives like ants, except when we make the time to pause, and breathe, and wonder. 

Click here for photos from our hike.

(If you go:  from Iron Springs Road, turn at Granite Basin Road.  Park at Playa ($5 or use your federal lands pass).  Take Trail 261 to Blair Pass, then continue due west from the junction.  Be prepared for hazardous conditions beyond Blair Pass; experienced route-finding skills are necessary as the trail is dismal at best.  Two miles to Blair Pass, plus approximately 1.75 to the tree, approximately 7.5 miles round-trip.  Have a map, GPS (and know how to use it), plenty of food and water, first aid kit, and a flashlight.  Be sure someone knows where you are going.  This trail is not recommended for inexperienced hikers.  Know your limits.  Do not add to or disturb the memorial at the tree. Please leave no trace.)

15 September 2013

Courage Doesn't Wear a Uniform

Over the past many months I have heard the word courage again and again, to describe selfless acts of first responders, to commemorate the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 earlier this week, and even in admiration of my own choices this past winter as I faced cancer.  The word courage comes from the French, coeur, which means ‘heart.’  This etymology is apt, as it requires a truly strong heart to face the challenges that global, national and personal disasters entail. 

Last night I read this open letter to teachers about the healing powers of faith, courage, and love.  It was written by Nebla Marquez-Green, mother of two children, her daughter, who died at Sandy Hook Elementary last December, and her son, who lived.  And it struck me that our national image of courage is one of a person in uniform:  police officers, soldiers, and firefighters, mostly.  These people, by nature of their occupational choice, are courageous, no doubt.  They somehow face opponents that the rest of us gladly hand over to them.  These are the people we call when the situation we are facing is beyond the scope of our skills.    This is courage, no doubt, to head to work each morning knowing that danger lurks at the very nature of the work they do.  They are worthy of the honors bestowed upon them and the sacred days we mark in their names.  And while Mrs. Marquez-Green feels that anyone who works at schools should rightly be included in that category of courageous heroes, there’s something else, too.

Courage does not always wear a uniform.  Indeed, it is far more often cloaked in fear and darkness, hidden beneath our soft flesh, encased in a cage of brittle bones - like the very organ from which its name is derived.  Perhaps this quiet, quivering courage is the most important kind, and the type of courage that Mrs. Marquez-Green so gracefully conveys - and I do not mean the courage of teachers that she pays tribute to, but her own courage.

Certainly, heroes rose to the occasion on that December day in Newtown, on 9/11 and on other dark days in our past.  Heroes will undoubtedly be called upon again.  But what about the courage of the days, weeks, months, and years that followed the tragedies in Aurora, Tucson, Oklahoma City, and Newtown?  The parents who found the courage to take their children back to school?  Those who found the courage to show up to work at the movie theater, the grocery store, the schools, the government job?  Courage doesn’t just happen at the site and on the date of a tragedy or near-tragedy.  It sprouts from that, but in mundane locations, like living rooms and hospital beds, classrooms and carpool lanes. 

I sense courage everyday from regular people.  Students who continue to show up and persevere in spite of the odds being stacked wildly against them.  Parents who know full well the inadequacies their children are saddled with, and yet, who continue to encourage them to take that next step.  This past winter, I was told for the first time in my life that I was courageous.  It’s a huge compliment, but to be completely honest, I hope to never be in another situation where courage is required.  Courage comes from the heart, to be sure.  It requires a degree of fortitude that is exhausting and a level of focus that is exacting.  And truly, all any of the quiet courageous really want is a return to normalcy, or a new normalcy if the old one is no longer possible. 

Think of all the days following 9/11, when, slowly, the stark reality of finding a loved one in the rubble of the towers evaporated to nil.  Think of the courage required to accept that.  Because if that horrible fate is possible, then what else is?  It takes so much, sometimes, just to keep breathing.  But one breath leads us to the next, and with the distance of time, we can begin to see what might be possible.

From time to time, we catch glimpses of this quiet courage, reflected perhaps in dignified bearing of Gabby Giffords or Mrs. Marquez-Green’s grateful letter.  But more often than not, courage reveals itself in the flutter of our hearts:  a not-so-shaky voice that calls out, “I am here.  I am present.”

23 August 2013

Faith's Symphony

I walked along the windswept beach, while a dense fog hovered beyond
the breakers, a barrier to this in-between place of water meeting land, land
meeting water.  A fine mist coated the boulders and trees, made the chilled
air heavy and dull. The cliffs behind me, scarred here, there, a warning of
their dynamic quest for equilibrium.  I was alone and pondering faith,
and stooped to pick up a rock, the size of my fist.  It was weighty, solid, grey
granite, fit perfectly in my hand, comfort in my palm.  Its smoothness proof
of the tenacity of wave and water.  Keep trying, I read in this gospel etched in stone,
Some things take time, whispered the waves.  Endure.  I watched the waves as
they worked, doing what they were meant to do.  I stood, still, in this borderland,
this convergence of worlds, and listened.  I held the cool stone, the grey sky melding
with the mist, and thought of the changing lunar face pulling on this water from
afar, like lost love.  But not until my head was quiet, the static of my thoughts calm -
then I heard them singing, those rocks, still rising and falling in the surf, their turmoil
a symphony of faith.  Singing, tumbling like joyful pups, falling over themselves again
and again, their essence revealed by the exhilaration of their existence.  I kissed the
stone and left it on the beach, in the arched hollow where it had been placed by the
force of tides, redeemed, for now  - respite among the grains we are slowly becoming.

08 August 2013

What's Your Crux?

Sometimes, the ideal afternoon reflects a charming Spanish proverb:  How beautiful it is to do nothing, and then rest afterwards.  I spent quite a few afternoons in this manner over the summer, relishing a certain degree of laziness which was precisely what I needed to come to terms with the events of this past winter and to prepare for the impending school year, which began on Monday.  In spite of the losses that have rocked our community, I feel refreshed and ready for the upcoming challenges, but with my eyes wide open to the fact that there is no predicting what those challenges could perhaps entail.

And just as I learned that there is often no predicting who might be afflicted with cancer, I was reminded that just a few generations ago, there was no predicting who might be afflicted with polio.  On our trip to Maine, we spent a very rainy morning in New Brunswick, on Campobello Island exploring Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer cottage.  This was where FDR fell ill with polio in 1921 at the age of thirty-nine.  Polio affects swiftly, and in FDR’s case it was only three days from symptoms first appearing to his being paralyzed irreversibly from the waist down.  In just over seventy-two hours, he went from being a healthy person to an invalid.  And while he never recovered fully, he did go on to become one of America’s most popular presidents during one of the darkest times in our history, his disability deftly hidden even while his bout with the disease was well-known.

Flash-forward to this week, when I found myself scrolling the headlines on the BBC.  A story caught my eye about a man who had spent forty-five years - his entire life, effectively - in the hospital after contracting polio as an infant.  In spite of requiring an artificial respirator every moment of his life since then, Paulo Henrique Machado has managed to become a computer animator and to forge deep bonds with the other polio-afflicted children he grew up with in the hospital in Brazil.  One by one those friends succumbed to infection, until today, only he and his dear friend Eliana Zagui remain.  Together they have had many brief adventures outside of the hospital and are currently collaborating on a film project that tells their story.

This is such a beautiful story and it made me more mindful of the excuses I make rather than accomplishing what I set out to do.  We all make excuses, certainly:  I’m too tired.  The weather’s bad.  There is something more important.  It’s so hot.  I don’t have enough time.  That last one’s my crutch, or perhaps my crux.*  As I struggle to add the demands of work back into my life after a relatively lazy summer, I’m going to try to remember Paulo and Eliana, and their proof that life is what you make of it, and nothing less and nothing more.
*crux = an essential point requiring resolution

30 July 2013

At the Crossroads in Philadelphia

We arrived in Philly as close to on-time as the airlines seem to be these days, which meant that we would make our connecting flight.  By the time we found the gate for the next leg of the trip, it was pouring outside, thunder cracking, lightning flashing.  We wandered for a while, shouldering the burden of the carry-on traveler, and eventually returned to the gate with bellies full and bladders emptied.  That’s when we noticed him:  Satan incarnate.  You’re probably not surprised that Satan can be found in an airport, maybe especially the Philly airport, since most of the folk who pass for airport workers are known to be his minions.  And so, there he was, that little devil:  about three foot four, forty-two pounds, stained khaki pants and swinging an orange sweatshirt over his head.  I’d guess the form he took was about three years old.

He was screaming at a girl a bit older than him, trying to hit her with the sweatshirt that he lassoed awfully close to other travelers.  The zipper pull was flying all too close to passenger eyes, but who was I to say anything?  And that scream:  shrill enough to make you wish a fingernail on a chalkboard would drown it out.  Meanwhile, she was tossing Cheetos at him, the orange crumbs on the carpet proof of an ongoing feud.

Every now and again a frumpy middle-aged woman grabbed his arm and spoke to him in a menacing whisper, although I couldn’t hear the words she said.  I could read her body language like a Psych 101 textbook.  I watched for a while, pretending to be vacantly staring into space, afraid of catching his eye and therefore his wrath, but unable to look away.  More Cheetos were thrown, the sweatshirt swung, the woman threatened.  Fellow passengers looked for empty seats away from this ring, moving away if they could.

Eventually the storm moved on and the call to board was announced.  In the shuffle of gathering luggage and jackets, I lost sight of little Satan.  I was awash in relief that perhaps he would not be seated next to me, and that maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t even be on board our plane.  Reassured and confident of a quiet flight, I actually exhaled a sigh of relief as I waited my turn to get on.  When my row was finally called, however, there he was, seated in first class.  Naturally.

19 July 2013

The Gratitude Project

Most summers, for me, entail some type of improvement project, usually of the home variety.  This summer, though, I wanted to do something meaningful that hopefully would have a positive ripple effect of some sort into the wider world.  I knew that I wanted it to have something to do with gratitude, because that is the predominant attitude I’ve tried to hold throughout this year of trials.  A gratitude journal, where on a daily basis you record three to five things for which you feel grateful, didn’t quite fit the bill.  It was too personal and self-reflecting.  I did some searching and happened upon this cute website that entertained me for a while, but wasn’t what I was seeking either.  But thxthxthx did drop the hint of writing thank you notes. 

And so I decided to write a thank you note each Monday through Friday this summer, from June 3 until today.  Each day I woke up and considered various people in my life and chose one to thank, thirty-four in all (I took Independence Day off).  Some of them were pretty standard thank you notes:  thanks for a place to stay, thanks for feeding our cat while we were out of town, and so forth.  Some were so heartfelt that I was reduced to tears while writing them.  In others, I wanted to express my gratitude at that person’s presence in my life and my admiration.  In many, I included a quotation that seemed meaningful to the connection I felt with that person.  A surprising and unintended effect was that many recipients thanked me for thanking them.

I had a simple set of rules:  the notes had to be handwritten; they had to mention some specific quality or thing about the person it was addressed to, and only one card could be written per day.  The act of writing by hand, addressing, and stamping each one forced me to pause each day and to focus on that person and his or her impact on my life.  There were times when the scope of the project loomed heavy, but the act of writing each one was never a chore.  If anything, it was a process of unburdening - of saying that which too often goes unsaid.  As the project neared its end, I felt a little scattered, like it needed to be extended because I still had more people to thank.  But today feels like a proper time to end it, with other events needing my focus and attention.  I also realized that writing a thank you note doesn’t require a project - I can do it any time, for any reason.

Overall, it was a pretty emotional experience, but also a very grounding one.  Each day I was reminded of the richness of this life - how people are the center of it all, and how seldom we truly acknowledge the textures and contributions made by others to our lives.  These small notes were a tangible way of making the abstract qualities of gratitude a bit more concrete.  The French have a saying, gratitude is the heart’s memory, and my heart is full-to-bursting that I am lucky to be a part of so many amazing people’s lives. 

14 July 2013

Harry Potter and the Banned Bookshelf

On our recent trip to Oregon, we spent a few days visiting friends in the very literary town of Ashland.  Shakespeare is everywhere in Ashland, thanks to the theater festival hosted there every summer.  While there, we spent a rainy day wandering into various shops, including a lovely bookstore downtown that sold new, used, and collectible books.  The shop was run by two older women who had that mix of sass and swagger that instantly made me want to hang out with them for the rest of the day.  Their books were mostly organized by subject matter:  gardening, Shakespeare, folklore, mystery, etc, as in most bookstores.  There was also an entire bookcase devoted to banned books.  It was fascinating to scan the titles of books deemed inappropriate, vulgar, controversial, and scandalous, and to note many favorites among them.
My daughters are voracious readers like me, and I thought they’d find this particular display interesting.  I drew their attention to it and briefly explained what it means to ban a book:  that a group of people feel a book’s topic is not appropriate and that the book should not be available to anyone.  This is quite different from, say, a parent’s decision that a book or movie is not appropriate for her own children at a particular age of their lives.  For example, I would not permit either of my daughters to read Fifty Shades of Grey at this is point in time, and yet, I also feel that it should be available to others who choose to read it. 

We stood before the bookcase and they read the titles.  It wasn't long before they demonstrated their shock: 

“What are all of the Harry Potter books doing here?”

“Shel Silverstein?  Are you kidding?”

Their exclamations continued, and while we stood there, a small group of people gathered behind us and voiced similar reactions.  A little while later my daughter asked me why someone would ban Shel Silverstein, well-known for his collections of children’s poems, most especially Where the SidewalkEnds.  And I realized, as with some of the tough questions I’ve been fielding lately as a parent, that I didn’t have an answer for them.  I couldn’t pinpoint what might be offensive about any of the books they were familiar with.  But I urged them to keep asking questions, especially when someone is trying to protect them from knowledge.  I want them to wonder and question and to never be afraid of information regardless of its form:  novel, poetry, music, art.

After we returned home, I did some research to find out why some of these books have been challenged and ultimately banned in certain places.  There were three basic arguments for the Harry Potter series:  the books promote witchcraft, Harry breaks the rules and yet is portrayed as good, and that the subject matter was too dark and violent.  And yet, [spoiler alert] if you’ve read the books or seen the movies, you are aware that the major theme is the triumph of good over evil.  But in order for good to triumph over evil, it is sometimes necessary for unjust rules to be broken.  To criticize Harry for breaking the rules is akin to criticizing our founding fathers for standing up to the over-reaching laws of George III.  Henry David Thoreau, widely considered to be the quintessential American philosopher, wrote a treatise entitled “Civil Disobedience,” in which he examines a citizen’s right to reject laws which are unjust.  As far as rejecting Harry Potter for promoting witchcraft, I fear there are much darker and more real forces than this fictional series describes.  One need only look to the nightly news to find evidence of them.  And regarding subject matter being too dark, this seems to be a personal preference.  What is too dark (or depressing, or realistic, or graphic) for one of us might be what makes a story appealing for someone else.

The kids in Harry Potter are placed in situations where they have to make choices, just like any of us.  These choices have the potential to impact their lives and the lives of others in positive or negative ways.  Some adults don’t want to teach the kids the skills they will need to survive in a world fraught with danger; others find it necessary to do so.  Some of the kids make good choices, others make bad ones; some of the kids survive and others do not.  This magical world seems to be a lot like the real world, doesn’t it?  Instead of dementors, we have meth and other addictions that destroy our essence.  Just like Dumbledore and Delores Umbridge, positive and negative role models surround us, and it is up to us to determine which is which.  And as in Harry Potter, our children will eventually learn that adults are not only fallible, but at times dead wrong.

And isn’t that ironic?  That, as J. K. Rowling put it, “we all have light and dark inside of us.  What matters is the part you choose to action.”  Of course, we know this already, and children know it, too.  So why are we afraid to trust them with their choices?  If we allow them to make small choices (like what books to read), they will perhaps be prepared when the time comes, to make the best choice about issues that truly matter.  Some adults don’t want anyone to read a fictional fantasy about kids forced to navigate various perils and make choices that will allow them to overcome evil.  Perhaps what those who ban books actually fear is free will. 

Banned Books Week is typically observed during the last week of September, to celebrate our freedom to read what we choose while also highlighting threats and challenges to this right.  I encourage you to look at the most challenged titles of the past decade, here