Thoughts for the End of February

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Stars Reflecting on Somes Sound Ring 

This winter feels long: ever so long, as if it is stretching out in front of us forever. Although I see the lengthening light, the shifting colors during sunset, and hear the birds singing, the cold just…keeps…going.

Winter, and this winter especially, has created opportunities for thinking about people and life: specifically, how do we interact with people in our life? What role do others play in our life? How do we know other people, let them in, support them, and really love them? I keep coming back to the idea that to love others is not to ascribe a specific meaning to who they are: friend, lover, coworker, student, but rather to understand that Love (with a capital L) is the fundamental tenet of why we are the way we are on the Earth. Love governs every action that we take, whether productive and caring, or dispassionate and alienating. We can fear love, we can hope for love, we can give love, we can receive love and many actions in between. We can be disappointed in others, and in ourselves, when our past definitions of love don’t meet our present experiences of how it feels. We can wander, in the dark, or at least the twilight, for such a long time, years even, and not understand how our perceptions color not only how we perceive others but how others perceive us. We can even be reaching out a hand or opening a heart and not fully understanding that what may come back to us may not look like we wish it to, or at least, how it did before. The hard part is understanding how not to shy away from the learning portion of loving our own selves and the others who we welcome into our world. Loving without expectations is….difficult, eye-opening, present, and unconditional.

With that in mind, here are two thoughts that I think focus on this idea….the first you almost certainly have read, the last may be new to you. Enjoy the last week of February…

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Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
  If this be error and upon me proved,
  I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Sonnet 116 — William Shakespeare

“NAMING LOVE TOO EARLY

Most of our heartbreak comes from attempting to name who or what we love and the way we love, too early in the vulnerable journey of discovery. We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find our selves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations. Feeling bereft we take our identity as one who is disappointed in love, our almost proud disappointment preventing us from seeing the lack of reciprocation from the person or the situation as simply a difficult invitation into a deeper and as yet unrecognizable form of affection. The act of loving itself, always becomes a path of humble apprenticeship, not only in following its difficult way and discovering its different forms of humility and beautiful abasement but strangely, through its fierce introduction to its many astonishing and different forms, where we are asked continually and against our will, to give in so many different ways, without knowing exactly, or in what way, when or how, the mysterious gift will be returned.

January Thoughts
© David Whyte and Many Rivers Press”

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Emptying out the tiny house…

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The Story of Adam

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“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength- carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn’t empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” 

Corrie ten Boom

I met Adam in the early fall of 2011. As a new teacher at my North Philly charter school, I was required to visit the homes of all of the students in my home room. Adam lived in the Ojo de Oro neighborhood of North Philly: an area just off Lehigh Avenue that is most easily described as a melange of row houses, bodegas, cars, streetlights, and families.

When I pulled up to Adam’s house, or where I thought it was, anyway, I ran into a group of little kids sitting on a stoop, watching a movie on a laptop. Inside, their house was dark and they told me how great it was that they were watching the movie on the stoop. I asked if this was Adams house, and they said, “No! But he lives over there!”. Pointing, they steered me to a cream-colored house with a plain door. I knocked, and was let in by Adam’s mom. Inside, the house was dark, and I soon noticed that there was no floor. I sat on an armchair in the living room, and, looking up, I noticed that there was a huge hole in the ceiling where pipes were visible. His mom told me that some of the pipes had burst and they had tried to fix them earlier,  but that the basement still flooded all the time.

Into this room walked a tall, slender boy carrying a huge bottle of blue Kool-Aid. He was wearing a wife beater and basketball shorts, and had just come from his room where he was playing video games. Politely, he told me it was nice to meet me. His mom told me that I was the first teacher that had ever come to their house.

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Adam was challenged and challenging: life had set up many obstacles for him including a learning disability, emotional disturbance, a father with a history of incarceration, poverty, and a dominant anger management problem. During the first few weeks of school, Adam refused to attempt any assignment, and when asked a question, would laugh at the fact that I had dared to ask it of him. He sat, in the front of the room, where I had moved him, and did his best to do absolutely nothing.

In this room was a wall of closets, leftover from an educational past that would have had all the students hang their belongings in the closet at the beginning of the day. The school building was about 100 years old and had been built, owned, but not maintained by the School District of Philadelphia for all of those years. When the building was taken over by the charter school, it had sat, abandoned, for many years. Inside, homeless people had used it as a squat house and had stripped every piece of wire, every light bulb, everything of value, from its walls. When the charter started, they had to rewire, paint, and scrub every surface to make it into a semi-functional school again. Its three floors held its history in the peeling paint of its surfaces, its lack of air-conditioning, its squeaky floors, and those long, open-doored closets.

In the closet I kept all the tricks of my trade: lab supplies, baskets, colored pencils, paper, books, and fabric. I find that fabric is a great teaching aid, both as decoration and as a mechanism of soothing troubled children. All of us love touching fabric and looking at patterns and bright colors: this sense of touching something soft and flexible is a tangible way to relax and experience our environment.

One morning, Adam was supposed to take a test to determine his “levels”. These tests are notorious for the stress they cause in the students who are forced to take them. Racially, culturally, and economically biased, their results are questionable and do not take into account the individuality of the test taker. Adam had taken these tests every year he had been in school, and he knew what he was getting into, and most likely, what the results would say. So, he disappeared.

A few minutes passed and I asked the children where Adam was, and no one seemed to know. It was typical for the students to defend each other against the new teachers: they treated us like enemies who were out to hurt them in some way. This reaction to new people was not their fault: it was simply how they had learned to deal with the constant stream of teachers, counselors, and other adults who desired to help them when they didn’t want any help. In a moment of frustration, I happened to look into the closet and noticed that the fabric was moved, and looked almost wrapped in a cocoon. It was then I realized where Adam was.

Walking to the closet, I looked inside and saw a pile of fabric in the shape of a tall and slender boy. Crouching down, I touched him gently and said, “Adam? Why are you wrapped up in fabric?” He said, matter of factly, “I’m just in the closet”. I asked him if it was okay for me to ask him to unwrap himself and come back to his seat. He said no, again, very matter of fact. I asked again, gentler this time, if he would come back to class. Slowly, after a few moments of weighing his options, he uncurled his body, climbed out of the closet and back to his seat, laughing to himself the whole time. In his seat, he seemed to not acknowledge anything strange about his behavior. When the other teacher came to get him for his test, he refused to move, sitting in his seat, stuck as if with glue. When asked again, he became angry: cursing, he still refused to take the test. After much time and power struggles, we succeeded in getting him out of the room, after he locked the door, refusing to leave, and pushed himself against the door frame to stop the adults from being able to physically move him. Despite his slight stature, he was strong and young and absolutely determined not to have his intelligence measured by a test. Later, when we received the results, he was flippant and refused to engage with what those results meant. Again, sitting in the front row, he refused to attempt any of his assignments, and began his path to almost failing the seventh grade for the second time.

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Adam suffered from anxiety and, no doubt, felt an incredible amount of pain due to the circumstances of his life. He, often, could not see beyond his feelings to be able to see solutions that were actually fairly simple and direct. In refusing to attempt his assignments, he set himself back day by day, hour by hour. In becoming angry and potentially violent, he instilled in the adults around him a belief that this child was always going to be this way: there was no capacity for change. He had grown up in a terrible neighborhood that was enslaved by urban blight, poverty, open air drug markets, and violence. He lived in a house with no flooring, with a family that was trying their best to succeed when the deck was most certainly stacked against them.

Over time, Adam would occasionally arrive to school in a good mood and his almost constantly sarcastic laughter would give way to real laughter and enjoyment, Slowly, I could tell, he was learning something, even if hardly a pen touched paper during our ten months together. He complained that he was in the front row, and oftentimes was rude to the point of causing me to emotionally react to his behavior. Eventually, though, he grew on me and I on him, and he began to defend me against the other students who insisted on disrupting my attempts at teaching. One time even he turned to the other students and told them that “Miss is the only teacher that ever came to my house”.

I told him once that I was going to take him to Maine with me and put him on a lobster boat because that job was something that would be good for him. He needed time every day to do something kinesthetic: he needed to do things with his hands in order to bridge the gap between his anxiety and his intelligence. Adam was remarkably intelligent, funny, bright, sharp-witted, calculating and had a great capacity to learn and do almost anything. What stopped him were the negative feedback mechanisms of his own brain. When I told him about Maine, he laughed and said, “nah, Miss, I can’t leave my hood!”. I told him that he deserved a better ‘hood, and he just shook his head.

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Almost at the end of the year, when I had reached my wit’s end with the school, with Philadelphia, and with teaching science to a group of kids who had never been given a science lesson in their lives, we were learning about dinosaurs. Each day we learned about a new animal because it was a good way to pack vocabulary words into a concise and manageable space for the students. Also, one of the teachers had told one of my classes that dinosaurs didn’t exist because they were not in the Bible. I decided to fight fire with fire and teach the students about one dinosaur per day for two weeks. On this day, we were learning about Pterosaurs: flying dinosaurs. As I was teaching the names of the dinosaur to the students, and talking about its dimensions and what scientists thought its behaviors might have been, Adam raised his hand.

“Yes Adam?”, I said.

“Did you know that the military uses flying dinosaur skeletons to design drone aircraft?”

Stunned, I said, “no, Adam, I didn’t know that. How do you know that?”\

“I just like this sort of stuff”, he said, and went back to being quiet in his chair.

During that period of time, as I watched each day pass on toward the end of another school year, my seventh as a classroom teacher, every day I wanted Adam to pipe up and say something. He did, on only one day, but that one day was a huge step forward for him as a student and as a citizen of his class and school.

Anxiety and our interpretations and expressions of our past experiences can show our pain, raw and red, to the world. Sometimes we cannot understand the actions of someone with anxiety because we cannot see beyond the ends of our own noses, and because, honestly, we wish to help when sometimes no help can be heeded. In those moments, it is important to remember that we are all only existing in this one, present moment, and to look for the glints of hope amidst the darkness. Those moments of precious clarity are fleeting, and some would say insignificant. I say that in that one moment, Alex let go of his anxiety and his anger and his learning disability and his father and his past, and was a normal middle school kid who loves dinosaurs, and planes, and video games.

And I will always be thankful to him for that.

“Do you know what hurts so very much? It’s love. Love is the strongest force in the world, and when it is blocked that means pain. There are two things we can do when this happens. We can kill that love so that it stops hurting. But then of course part of us dies, too. Or we can ask God [whatever we consider her/him to be] to open up another route for that love to travel.” 

– Corrie ten Boom

Falling Down

I am copying and pasting a poem by Rumi here today that was sent from a wonderful woman to her friends a few years ago. This beautiful lady died in a car wreck in 2008. The amazing speed at which accidents can happen and can take beautiful people’s lives is shocking, and her sentiment of cherishing the moment is expressed perfectly in this poem. I hope you enjoy it and it means something to you, as it did to me.

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The New Rule

It’s the old rule that drunks have to argue
and get into fights.
The lover is just as bad. He falls into a hole.
But down in that hole he finds something shining,
worth more than any amount of money or power.

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Last night the moon came dropping its clothes in the street.
I took it as a sign to start singing,
falling up into the bowl of sky.
The bowl breaks. Everywhere is falling everywhere.
Nothing else to do.

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Here’s the new rule: break the wineglass,
and fall toward the glassblower’s breath.
Inside this new love, die.
Your way begins on the other side.
Become the sky.
Take an axe to the prison wall.
Escape.
Walk out like someone suddenly born into color.
Do it now.
You’re covered with thick cloud.
Slide out the side. Die,
and be quiet. Quietness is the surest sign
that you’ve died.
Your old life was a frantic running
from silence.
The speechless full moon
comes out now.
I used to want buyers for my words.
Now I wish someone would buy me away from words.
I’ve made a lot of charmingly profound images,
scenes with Abraham, and Abraham’s father, Azar,
who was also famous for icons.
I’m so tired of what I’ve been doing.
Then one image without form came,
and I quit.

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Look for someone else to tend the shop.
I’m out of the image-making business.
Finally I know the freedom
of madness.
A random image arrives.
I scream, “Get out!”
It disintegrates.
Only love.
Only the holder the flag fits into,
and wind. No flag.

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Endings and Beginnings

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“I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end. “

– Jo March in Little Women

A year and four months ago, I moved to the small town of Northeast Harbor after a month-long trip around the country. In two weeks, I will leave Northeast Harbor for the much larger town of Bar Harbor. Twenty minutes away and boasting a population of almost 1000, my new town is the big city of these parts.

I am conflicted about leaving this little town, because I love its quirks and characters. I love its beauty and its quiet.  I met several great friends here who have since moved out, too, and soon I will go and move into an old house and still be able to see the ocean. But my new ocean will be facing north, while this one faces south.

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New directions and opportunities have to be the themes of 2014 based on all the tumult and tumbling going on. For Valentine’s Day this year, I made flags spray-painted with red hearts. There are ten of them, and I installed them on snow mountain: the pile of dirty snow that sits beside my house in the parking lot. The snow plow guys scoot all the snow over here during every snowstorm, of which there have been many this winter. The flags were flipped and flapped all day yesterday by gale force winds, but maintain. This morning they wave more gently in the winter sunshine.

Tonight another snowstorm descends upon us, another 12-18 inches of the white stuff will drop downward onto the ground and into the branches of trees. My friend just told me that she has never seen anything like this winter, and I have to agree. In moments it is beautiful and inspiring and scary with its stark nature, and in other moments, it is somewhat defeating. The winter is so powerful here, just like the summer was in Texas. The difference is that the summer in Texas was just hot. Winter in Maine is dark, cold, snowy, icy, windy, and very, very long.

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I am trying to motivate myself to take care of business, but have a case of the Februarys. This is why I made the flags over the last couple of weeks, when I was working on two Valentine’s Day commissions for clients. I learned today that one of the pieces that I made with an old typewriter ball was met with tears and love, because said typewriter ball was found in my friend’s mom’s house shortly after she passed away. I love that there is so much love in the things that are important to us, even if those of us who transitionally handle those things don’t know the back story.

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The flags to me mean love for Valentine’s Day for everyone in my town: they are a prayer of sorts. The town seems to be changing but no one can see what the changes will look like. As the year round population shrinks again, as I move and a few others do as well, this town needs love and brightness. The flags mean appreciation for my friends here, for the family that I have found. They also mean gratitude for the safety of the four of us who were in the accident two weeks ago. The flags also mean focusing on endings and beginnings and being aware of the give and take of transitional times. I, historically, do not like change and have a hard time accepting that endings actually exist. I try and try and try to keep energy flowing in my spheres of influence so that life is a creative process rather than a destructive one, even though I acknowledge that creation and destruction, like the sides of a coin, are a yin-yang of sorts; you cannot have one without the other.

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Right now I am sitting in my bedroom, my favorite space in this little house. This room reminds me of a train car due to its size, cramped nature, and lack of windows (there is only one). My house is steadily being taken over by boxes. The funny thing about moving out of a tiny house is that there is nowhere to put the things you are packing. The tiniest of houses begins to feel absolutely small when stacks of boxes are pushed up against any nook or cranny of (non-existent) extra space.

When I look out my front window, I see those small flags coursing in the wind: red against the white and blue and green of their surroundings. I remember moving here two autumns ago, when I knew nothing of living here or of its people. Now, I know more, and am beginning to understand life here. But just beginning.

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Taking a Tumble or Two…

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It was on a dark Sunday night: winter, February, in Maine. We skidded on black ice, shot to the left, then to the right, hitting a guardrail head on. We launched into the air, spinning and flipping, skidded along the guardrail, landing on the driver’s side, stopping, hanging half off and half on the road. I remember a moment of silence, and then the sight of the windshield shattering into a thousand pieces, and landing, quiet, and we stopped.

I remember asking my friend if he was ok and he asking our other friend if she was ok. Our driver, our fourth friend, stayed quiet for a minute and we worried, but then she too spoke to us. Somehow that first friend opened a car door, pushing himself upward. He unhooked our second friend from her seatbelt, she fell, and he helped her climb out. Our fourth friend climbed out, too, and then I stood up from my crumpled position, fell once, and clambered out onto the road. We all looked back at the truck, on its side, hanging, and all said something to the effect of: “Look at the truck!”

Standing there in the cold we were accompanied by two strangers who had stopped to help us. They called 911 as we stood, dumbstruck. A policeman and an ambulance arrived, and both skidded to a stop in the ice. We were asked if we were all okay, and we said,”yes.” “How are you all okay?” asked the EMTs, random strangers, our kind policeman, the firemen. One of them said to my friend who had been driving, “Here you’ve been having a go of it.” She nodded.

My friend and I who had been sitting in the backseat were not wearing our seatbelts, and were surrounded by the tools of a long-standing landscaping and stone business: wrenches, saws, a chainsaw sharpener. None of them had flown and hit us, and even the careening of the truck had not shaken us too badly. Somehow we made it out onto highway 198 with not even a scratch, despite the glass that we kept shaking out of our clothes.

I have had a bit of a go of it in terms of driving in winter this year: this was my second accident in two weeks, both due to icy roads. I now consider my first wreck a fender bender, and not serious at all, despite my hitting two trees at low speed. This crash, this tumble, was a big one.

For the last two or three days, we have been talking about it a lot together. It seems as if we were given a new lease on life, or at least an illustration of how it can all be taken away so fast. The accident took, probably, less than ten seconds to happen.

As an ex-science teacher and avid lifelong lover of anything science-related, I can explain a couple of things that happened in terms of survival and physics. I believe that the spinning action of the truck kept enough centrifugal force (the spinning force that keeps our planets in orbit, and our bodies in place on that crazy carnival ride with no floor or ceiling) to glue myself and my backseat companion almost still, and also held the tools that could have hurt us against the walls of the truck. This “sticky” force was probably what kept us from hurtling all over the inside of the truck and becoming seriously injured. The moment of silence is explained by our fight-or-flight survival response that causes us, in times of serious threat, to feel as if time slows down or stops. This is because our brain is seeking any and all possible escape route and our awareness is heightened to recognize a way to survive. There is a wonderful Radiolab episode on falling that explains this much better than I can here. I believe we were all silent at that time because we were attempting to process what was happening, not knowing the outcome, and preparing ourselves for all those potential results.

This huge, intimidating, frightening, and death-defying tumble was the scariest experience of my life, and I think my friends would agree with that. It is hard to imagine a large truck like the Tundra being launched into the air, spinning and flipping, by something as simple as a patch of ice, but that is what happened.

When events like this happen to us, traumatic ones, they often cause us to re-evaluate our lives at the moment and what we are doing with life at any given time. For myself, this accident made me think about things that I have put off, problems I am ignoring, goals that I am not 100% engaged with. I have, unfortunately or fortunately, had quite a few traumatic events over the past couple of years. I have had my house broken into, wrecked my car, and then a horrific accident with three of my closest friends here. We are neighbors and friends in a very small town: we have been, for a time, each other’s close social group due to living in this very tiny and quiet place. This drive was our last drive back to the Northeasy, our neighborhood, because three of the four are moving out in the next few days. When we left the party, it felt warm and as if everything was melting in the short thaw of a few days previous. Never did we think that it was cold enough to freeze all the water on the road, but, it was.

I have spent three days wondering what this accident means to me, what the other accident also meant, and then remembering my home invasion. I find that all three events make me very tired when I think of them too much, and that they make me feel confused as far as what they “mean” in terms of my life. I know that the events themselves mean nothing in and of themselves, but the effect on my life has been profound. When my house was broken into, almost two years ago, I decided to sell most of my possessions, my houseful of furniture and accoutrements, and move to Maine. The last two are too recent to really understand what the effects will be, but all I can say, as I have discovered during times of duress before, that the only thing that crossed my mind was how much I care for the people in my life, and that love is the strongest human emotion. Everyone that helped us was so kind, and so delicate with us on that roadside. There was nothing but smiles and care and quiet jokes. I remember thinking, in Philadelphia after the break-in, how thankful I was for my friends and coworkers at that time, who simply came over and helped and brought pizza and tried to be understanding and giving my roommate and I time to mull it all over. She chose to sell everything and go to South America, where she is still is, somewhere, living an amazing and colorful and educated life. I chose to move to my childhood summer home, went through some hardships, and now, also live an amazing and colorful and educated life. Clearly, the benefits of the break-in greatly outweighed the costs.

I am choosing to try to look at trauma as an opportunity to live the attempts at a realized life that I have been cultivating since moving here. Trauma is physically and mentally painful to us all, and can take quite a while to process, digest, and release. But holding on to it like a crutch is the wrong way to deal with it, and I know I have been guilty of that in the past. The reality, to me, is that I am quite a sensitive person who is highly emotive. I can choose to let things affect me personally quite deeply, but am beginning to discover that if you make it out in one piece, with just a few bruises for the experience, trauma is like a window into the universe, and it can help you hone your thoughts, sharpen the blade of your approach to living in a highly beneficial way.

I wonder, oh readers, whether any of you have had experiences like this one and how those experiences changed you? Did a “new lease on life” inspire you to greatness? How did you manage the upheaval of it all?

If we choose to see them this way, do all of our tumbles manifest great and good changes in our lives, or do we just recognize them as moments passing in time?

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