Sunday, November 9, 2014

Fix You

A lot of times when we are in the midst of teaching, we don't really see the whole picture, don't recognize the truly important events and changes happening.  It's like watching a plant grow.  If you watch it hour by hour, day by day - you don't appreciate the tremendous changes.  But if you look away for a while and then look back.  There it is.

As Heidi and I were preparing for a presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English in a couple weeks, I was once again looking back on some of the work with my last third grade class.  It's a long story - maybe someday I'll get to the whole thing.  

The short of it is that we noticed a tremendous amount of food waste in our cafeteria.  It was mainly veggies.  Kids have to take a serving if they get a cafeteria lunch.  That's the rules.

In most cases the vegetables went from the cafeteria line to the tray to the tables where the kids eat then to the trash.  My class surveyed the school about their favorite vegetables so that we could give that information to the cafeteria manager - in hopes that the favorites could be ordered so we would waste less food.

In the meantime, our school had a food drive for a local food bank.  We became more and more interested the hunger ad homelessness in our area.  We read books, watched videos, had some guest speakers come in to educate us, we had our own food drive, did a ton of math, wrote a song, fasted, recorded a CD of original songs, raised a bunch of money, held a benefit concert at a conference at our school.  We visited a food bank and learned about the systems in place to help the hungry and homeless.  We learned facts and figures about hunger in our area and hunger and starvation throughout the world.  But most of all we changed.  

All of us.  

Here are some of the words my class wrote while we were studying hunger and homelessness in our area.  It was in the looking back over things that I could see those plants grow.  

Since we have been learning about hunger and homelessness I have changed a lot!  I changed because now I really see homeless people.  When I heard that 20,000 people die every day of hunger my heart was breaking.

When I was little I always thought that everybody was rich and had a home, but obviously I was wrong.  It helped me to see homeless in different ways.  I feel better knowing that I can help.

The world I want to see is one with no hungry people.

Learning about hunger helped me to change my heart.  I can't say, "It's all gonna be all right."  But I can say, "What can I do?"

I feel a lot more power inside of me.  I feel like I can help.  Just to know what it feels like to be hungry when we fasted together made me want to do something to help.

Hunger is like a slap in the face.  We don't have to live in that world.

I used to not even think about hunger but now I am selling my toys and stuffed animals to help with hunger.  We are all working together to make a big change in the world.  Our class is going to change the world.

Being a person who is kind and giving is something people will remember you by.  Not only should we change how we act, but we should change in our hearts.  I know that I will never feel real hunger but I can help one bit at a time.  You can feel bad for someone, but it won't help until you do something.  

There is enough food in the world for everyone and yet 842 million are starving.  I feel very blessed to have so much when other people have so little.  

One thing I know for certain is that if we give a little more and care a little more we will have a good feeling inside.  I have changed because of the people around me.  Seeing everybody be so helpful makes me want to help even more. 

I used to be scared of homeless people but now I just want to help.  If you feel bad that is good.  But if you do something about it then it is better.  Now I am doing something about it.  

We are very blessful that we don't starve and we always know where our next meal is coming from.  If you see hungry people then help them.  That means that you have changed the world.

Hungry and homeless people are just like you and me.

One question - when are we going to stop hunger for good?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Catching Leaves

When I was a kid, my mom taught me the importance of catching leaves.  I must have been little, and I don’t know where my brothers and sisters were.  There were 7 of us kids.  I can’t imagine how I had the chance to get out in the fall on a walk with my mom.  Alone.  There was probably laundry in, dinner cooking, mending to be done, and a dozen other things that needed her attention.  But we were on a walk in the fall, just the two of us.  Our neighborhood wasn’t that old, but there were some tallish maples and oaks there.

Some leaf came drifting down and my mom caught it before it hit the ground.  She handed it to me, as if it were a gift.  She told me that you were supposed to catch 10 leaves every fall.  Now, it wouldn’t be fair to shake the tree to make leaves drop or to scoop up leaves and toss them into the air and catch them again.  No, it had to be leaves whose time was naturally up and fell in their own time.  Catching those leaves was like magic; like a talisman.  It was something you should do every year. 

Now I don’t know if she made that up herself, on the spur of the moment, or if it had been something that her own father had handed down to her.  (I’m sure that her mother wouldn’t have wasted the time catching falling leaves.)  Although I don’t remember how old I was at the time, I was young enough not to question her authority.  If she said it, it was true.  My mom loved nature.  She could sit and watch sunset after sunset with us at the beach.  Not my dad, “If you’ve seen one sunset, you’ve seen them all,” he said on more than one occasion.

When I was in high school and college she spent a few years photographing and cataloging every plant that grew in our area in Northwest Indiana.  I still have that photo album.  Under each picture she put the scientific name as well as common names.  If she didn’t know the names of plants, she would look them up or ask one of the local authorities. 

Now every year, I catch leaves.  I always shoot for 10.  Some years I catch many more than that.  I try to catch them on 10 different occasions.  It would be too easy to stand under one tree whose time has come on a breezy day and catch all ten practically without moving my feet.  While I don’t remember exactly what my mom was telling me with this catch-ten-leaves-lesson, it was probably something about the importance of being outdoors, about fresh air and the beauty of nature. 

Because while one is outside catching leaves before they touch the ground, one is NOT inside watching TV or some other sedentary activity.  More than likely, if you are in a place to catch falling leaves, you are also playing baseball, or soccer, or kick-the-can, or cream-the-kid-with-the-ball.  If you are catching leaves you are riding your bike, hiking around in the woods or catching crickets.  If you are in a place to catch falling leaves, you are in the right place to be.

I remember the last time I went to see my mom in western North Carolina when she was still “healthy”.  It was October 30.  I remember because I went with her to her doctor to get a bone marrow sample, and the people in the doctor’s office were all wearing Halloween costumes and were a little hard to take seriously.  I took a day off school to go be with her for her appointment.  Her husband Jim had died about 3 months earlier.  She sure didn’t need to go through the bone marrow biopsy alone. 

That morning, before driving to North Carolina, I was out catching leaves.  I probably looked foolish, a 54 year-old man chasing leaves in the breeze – even falling down once.  It was when I was still hoping that my mom would be OK, that she would have more time with us. She was even thinking of selling her house and moving near us.  I caught about half of my quota of leaves that morning.

I held her hand during the biopsy.  It wasn’t easy.  It was like the doctor took a corkscrew and jammed it through her skin and muscle into her pelvis.  It had to have hurt.  A lot.  She was pretty stoic throughout.  She didn’t even want to take the test.  But doctor and I sort of insisted.  I cried.  But she was strong.  The news was bad.  She was diagnosed with the disease that would end up taking her life in just a little over two months. 

Here it is, 3 years later.  This is such a pretty time of year.  Heidi and I are ready to take our Sunday morning walk.  We have a crazy yellow dog to keep us company.  It’s cool so we’ll put on layers.  Our noses will be runny by the time we get back.  We’ve just turned the heat on yesterday for the first time.  We’ll probably have our first fire in the fireplace tonight.  The leaves are turning now.  We’ve had to fish them out of the pool and blow them off the driveway.  For the next month we’ll be raking, and blowing, skimming them off the pool and sweeping them off the porch.

We’re just getting ready to go out for our walk on this pretty Sunday morning. 

And I’m going to catch some leaves.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Rwanda Again

I was in Rwanda several years back.  If you knew me then, you know that I was somewhat obsessed with that country and its history and its beautiful people.  While I was there I wrote a lot and posted all of those writings on a blog.  It is 

While we know hunger in this country, Rwanda really knows hunger.  While we have racial issues in this country – to this day, Rwanda was nearly destroyed by ethnic violence.  Over one million people were killed there in a hundred days.  It was 20 years ago. 

Most of us don’t know a lot about the Rwandan genocide.  Our government told lies about it and did not act when they should have.  The O. J. Simpson trial of the century bought off our attention for the news.  And, after all, Rwanda is in Africa.  Put simply, if it doesn’t affect us directly, most Americans don’t care about Africa. 

What struck me most about my trip there and all of my readings and my acquaintance with the beautiful Rwandan people, especially Immaculee Illibagiza (author of Left To Tell) and our photographer/driver/translator/friend Richard, was their resilience. 

Today, while Rwanda still has its problems, it is one of the most peaceful, safest, most beautiful countries in all of Africa.  Incredible as it seems, the people have moved dramatically toward forgiving each other for the violence and murder of just two decades ago.  It is nothing less than miraculous. 

When I think of my time there, I think of verdant green hills and mountains, and the genocide memorial in Kigali, the mountain gorillas we hung out with in Virunga Park, and the little church in Ntarama where so many people were killed in one single event during the genocide.  The scars of the survivors, the smiles on the children, the sunrises so beautiful they made me cry, and the stories of survival, the hard relentless work, the mass I heard in English – the priest’s very first, and our visit to Mother Teresa’s Orphanage where they never turn anyone away.

There is no particular reason I came back to Rwanda for this blog.  Maybe I need to just because those memories are slipping away.  And I never want to forget those people, that precious time.

I'll include some photos from my trip, and a blog post I wrote back in September of that year, the words taken directly from my notebook that I obsessively recorded in while I was there.  I will come back to Rwanda from time to time.  I don't want to forget.

Children from the school at Ntarama.


Chopping Wood/That is Rwanda

Wednesday 7/3/07 8:00 PM

I didn’t get to finish my thoughts on Mother Teresa’s orphanage. Just one more before I forget. There were about half a dozen guyschopping firewood for cooking in a big open area inside the compound at the orphanage. Somehow they managed to haul in some huge logs. They looked like cedar but smelled different. Three feet across. Really hard wood. It was a hot and sticky day. The men were working with machetes and really dull looking hand axes. The axes had pipes for handles. Hot. Hard work. The kind of work that would have taken about an hour in the US with chainsaws and splitting equipment. Six guys. Chipping away at tree trunks with machetes. That’s like a metaphor for how things are done in Rwanda. This scene stays with me. They had their shirts off. Their dark bodies were glistening with sweat. They were relentless. We were there for about an hour and when we came out they were still chipping away with machetes and these tiny axes, hatchets really.

Then a puff of cool breeze came. Almost as one the men stopped their labor, closed their eyes and sort of leaned into the breeze. Little smiles came to their faces. Just that little pause. That tiny sip of refreshment. Then, just as quickly as it arose, the breeze left and the men went back to work. Sleek. No body fat. Thin and muscular. Determined. Uncomplaining. Facing a limitless task – That is Rwanda.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The History of Photography

Minolta AL-F

"There are no rules for good photographs.  There are only good photographs." - Ansel Adams

When Heidi and I were young, she gave me a camera.  She got it used.  I think it cost 50 bucks back in about 1977.  It wasn’t just any old camera.  It was a Minolta Hi-Matic.  The Hi-Matic was a rangefinder.  Instead of focusing directly on your subject, you looked through a viewer and brought two little yellow images together by rotating the lens.  

While it was rather crude, even for its day, it taught me about photography.  There was nothing automatic about it.  You opened the door in back and put the film cartridge in, pulled the film across and made sure that the holes in the edge of the film reached the little sprockets on the other side.  Then you closed the door and advanced the film by snapping a few pictures, rotating a lever each time to pull the film across. 

There was a built in light meter, and you used that to set the shutter speed and aperture.  Heidi and I were self-taught.  We learned that anything slower than 1/60 of a second would likely lead to a blurred image.  Unless you used a tripod and the subject was very still.  We learned about depth of field and backlighting and when to use the flash.  

We learned to bend the rules sometimes and slow down the shutter speed for some cool effects while photographing our friends playing music in bars or while we were camping taking flashlight photos on a quarter of a second.

Canon AE-1 Program

After we were married, Heidi’s folks gave us a Cannon AE-1 (35 mm of course).  That was a sweet camera.  Great glass, single lens reflex so when you looked through the viewer you were seeing the image that was going to the film.  We got a bunch of cool lenses and attachments and filters.  When we printed out our pictures we put them into albums.  We thought we were pretty good at it. 

After a while, 35 mm became obsolete and there was a time when we really didn’t take many pictures except for special occasions.  Then an assortment of low end point-and-shoot digitals, which made taking pictures easy with relatively nice outcomes, but there wasn’t the same ownership as considering available light, setting the shutter speed and aperture, bracketing a few shots with slightly different settings and choosing the one you preferred (and LEARNING along the way). 

Now, of course, with “smart phones” I have become a fairly “dumb photographer”.   Point.  Shoot.  Apply effects (if desired).  Save.  Email or text.  We still have that old Hi-Matic, the one that recorded our early lives together.  I still break it out every once in a while to remind myself of the not-so-bad-amateur photographer I used to be.  And one day, I’ll get a digital SLR.  But for now, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time with my phone in my pocket. 

On a related note, I checked out this series of photographs taken over 40 years of these 4 beautiful sisters.  The idea was totally simple, but the effect sublime.  Four sisters sat for the same photographer every year for 40 years.  They began in 1975 – the year Heidi and I graduated from high school.  They continued the ritual 40 times.  The result is breathtaking.  When I looked at the series again this morning, I teared up a little.  I am not sure why.  Maybe it is because I see myself and my beloved in these pictures.  I know our faces are lined and our hair is graying.  While I weigh about the same, my weight is not distributed the same way it was in 1975, just graduating from Chesterton High School with my life in front of me and my dreams still being formed.  

I remembered the early pictures of my parents when they were young and frisky.  I remember thinking, Were they ever really that young?  When I misted over looking at the faces of these beautiful girls-to-women, I think it was about connecting to the changes and recognizing that beauty isn’t just with the young.  Check it out.    I'd love to know what you think.

"When I look at my old pictures, all I can see is what I used to be but am no longer.  I think:what I can see is what I am not." - Aleksander Hemon

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Donna Jean Hansen Mills

The leaves were already changing.  The sumacs and the sassafras were orange red, the true harbingers of fall in Indiana.  The corn stalks still stood but their leaves were turning to yellow and gold.  The soybeans in the fields were also yellowing.  Indiana.  The beginning of fall.  

Heidi's mom, Donna Jean Hansen Mills, just died a week ago.  As I write this, we are returning from her beautiful memorial.  We were with her when she died.  It was an honor.  I've known this good woman since the spring of 1977.  She has been a constant in my life.  And while Alzheimer's robbed her of her real self, much of our time in Indiana was about remembering who she was in her youth.  

We poured through old albums, selecting pictures for the montage that played in her memorial service.  Donna as a child, a teen, at her wedding, a young Army wife, a young mom.  Donna in love, Donna in the 60's with frosted hair, Donna at kids' birthdays, surrounded by her grandkids, in shorts, in her wedding dress, in PJs...

We were surrounded by stories of Donna as a library aide who came to the rescue when kids were unfairly punished, Donna as the defender of folks being mistreated in a nursing home.  We were reminded of her years delivering Meals on Wheels (she was also the beneficiary of these meals in her final days).  She was a strong Christian woman who devoted much of her life to the unselfish service of others.  

Her last visit to South Carolina was just days before she died.  And while her mind and body were ravaged by this terrible disease, she was more joyful in those last days than I had seen her in years.  She kept telling Heidi how happy she was.  When I played some old timey songs for her, "Camptown Races", and "Old Susannah", and "The Red River Valley", she sang.  Not the words to those old familiar tunes, but words of her own about her family, the flowers outside the window and her beloved dog.  And the tune that she sang wasn't the melody that usually accompanied the chords, but a simple melancholy harmony.  She sang her own song.  And she was happy.  Truly happy.  

What a blessing.  Because three days later, after waking up and being dressed, and slipping on her three watches and her favorite little girl shoes, after getting her morning kiss and hug from Big Bill, she just sat down on the couch and slipped away.  Her body was alive for another day and a half, but by the time I got there on Saturday afternoon, I think she was already gone.  

We were all with her when her body finally shut down, singing hymns, saying prayers and telling stories.  Tears, laughter, prayers, hugs, many kindnesses from the nursing staff.  Donna looking sweetly and serenely like an innocent child.  Whispers of love and devotion, kisses on the forehead, kisses on the back of the hand.  The screens on the machines showed the steady decline in her breathing and blood pressure, the final heartbeats.

And then she was gone.  No more fears, no more suffering.  No more indignities or confusion.  She never had to live in a nursing home.  She had very little physical pain.  She loved and was loved by many.  And she will be missed.  

While dying is just exactly as natural as being born; while death is a debt we incur the very moment we take our first breath; while none of us ever gets out here alive...  It's just so hard to say good bye.  

But the seeds of our lives go on, right?  Not just our children, but our words and deeds and stories become part of our own song.  And it is sung long after we are gone from this world.  While Donna was diminished by the disease that took her away, her song was long and beautiful and memorable.

One of Bill and Donna's legacies is their oldest child, the love of my life, Heidi Mills.  And through Heidi, our wonderful sons.  And Heidi's legacy will live on through the teachers she has connected with and the children they will teach.  And through the written words in books and chapters and articles  she has published.  And through the kindnesses great and small, that she has shown to others.  There have been many.  And by the love she has shown to me.  And so the very best of Donna will spin out and out and out.  

While Donna Jean Hansen Mills is no longer with us, her goodness lives on.  When I look into the eyes of my love - I get to see some of her mom.  

And I am blessed.

she could be your twin, she’s
that good
this understudy
who has stepped in
to play the role of You
here in the last act
in fact
those who didn’t know You
those who have only tuned in
at the last
minute to see how it all turns out
might not even believe
in fairies
or in the You we tell them about
but we know
that even though we sometimes get glimpses
of You peeking in at the window
to listen to the stories we tell about You
the stories we tell to you
that even though we hear You in a laugh
in a pronunciation
in a wordless tune
this one that we have with us now
taking care of and watching over for safe
is just Your shadow
somehow come loose
as You slipped out into the night
one toe at a time
You, I know
are already flown away
to the land of lost boys
children and childhood
where the You who never really did
Grow Up
can have your adventures
winnie the pooh and cat in the hat
dancing and harmonies
baby birds and blue jewelry
sometime You’ll have to come back
to fetch her, Your
and we’ll pin her, our last
connection to You
onto our memories and our love
onto our Good-Byes for You
we’ll give her the curtain call
You should have had
but it’s You we hope
it’s You we know
will be there to hold our hands
as you did first
with first steps
first days
when it’s our turn with the pixie dust
to dust
so feel free to sail on
You’ve uncharted islands to explore
and we’ll keep telling the Story of You
we know it by heart
for Grandma

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Don't "QUOTE" ME

Don’t Quote Me

Years ago, we lived by this tiny little marina on the lake.  “Snellgrove’s Landing” was the name of this little Mom and Pop store.  They had a little candy counter, some live bait, a few of the most common lures, ice and “GAS”.  It was a very do-it-yourself kind of place.  You’d pull up to this little rickety dock.  The pump was very old school with a dial instead of digital readout.  You young folks may not even remember those.  There was a sign that read, “Please Pay First” and an arrow pointing up to the little general store. 

When you walked up the dirt path, following the “WATCH YOUR STEP” sign, and into the store there was often no one there.  It had a dusty smell, a dry smell, the faint smell of fish and fried food and old wood and oil and gasoline and grease.  The windows were filmy and the lettering done by hand, backwards from the inside.  “SNELLGROVE’S SUNDRIES”. 

A little sign on the glass counter read, PLEASE “RING BELL” FOR SERVICE.  There was one of those old timey bells that the teachers used to have on their desks to get the class’s attention.  The one with the inverted silver dome with the little button top.  When you’d ding that bell, often the little old lady would come out with an apron on, wiping her hands and say, “What can I do for you, honey?”  She had silver hair and sensible shoes. 

Mr. Snellgrove was forever fixing engines in his little old barn.  He wore the kind of coveralls that garage mechanics used to wear back in the day.  A one-piece suit of gray with snaps up the front.  Comfortable.  Sensible.  He wore a matching gray cap with a bill and thick horn-rimmed glasses.  I loved this little old place.  It was like something from my childhood.  While their “GAS” was more expensive, I didn’t mind.  It was like a visit back in time.

Snellgrove’s had a fondness for quotation marks on their hand-lettered signs.  I’m not sure why.  But the men’s restroom was MEN’S “RESTROOM”, and the refrigerator had signs on the outside that read, ICE COLD “COKES”, and “LIVE” BAIT and “ICE CREAM” TREATS.  Every sign, and there were many, had a quote associated with it. 

I took some pictures of quotation marks used in “UNUSUAL” ways recently.  They aren’t hard to find.

This first one was from the newspaper.  You’d think they would know about quotation marks.  After a quote from a school official about the expectations and goals, “joy” is in quotes.  Maybe it's because one doesn’t expect “joy” to be a big priority for a school district.  So maybe the quotes are meant to signify how “odd” that sentiment is.  On is says  Rule 5a. Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.  That’s too bad.  Seems like “joy” should be right on top of our “priorities”. 

The next one is also about education.  During a talk about sharing news with elementary children, this slide was shown during the “presentation”.  On it doesn’t say anything about double meanings.  I think this little word play is cute but a little outside the regular use of quotes.

A friend gave us some “strawberry” jam, last spring.  In this case the quotes just make it a little more “special”.  And believe me, it was real “tasty”. 

Not sure why anyone would quotate “RESTROOMS”.  They even went to the trouble of inverting them on either end of the word.  It’s not a direct quote, or a word used in a technical or unusual way…  Maybe we just don’t like to talk aloud in a public space about what goes on in there.  Perhaps the quotes mean something like, “You know what goes on in here – and it isn’t resting”. 

In Mount Pleasant, I wonder who “said” that “Occupancy by more than 300 person is DANGEROUS AND UNLAWFUL”  It certainly sounds like a direct quote, right?  Also interesting that the blank in that sentence has the word person after it, as though this form was expected to be used by a lot of people who would only allow one single person into their establishment.  Maybe it was originally intended to be used in the “RESTROOM” above in the stalls.

My favorite recent one is from the Marriott Hotel chain.  There are two quotes used in this sign.  The greeting and the “NOT RESPONSIBLE” disclaimer.  The red underline which extends through the quote emphasizes just how completely “UNRESPONSIBLE” they really are for those carelessly unattended articles and valuables.  But why the quotes around “TO ALL OUR VALUED GUESTS”?  Seems a little insincere if you have to quote it.  

I have been guilty of an air quote or two in my life.  Often I’ll overuse them for “effect”.  Sometimes I use them with my kids just to be “silly”.  But why do people use them so often?  Other than using them for direct quotes or for unusual technical terms, I guess it is often for “emphasis”, the writer wants you to “stress” the words as you read it to yourself.  

The next time you find yourself “writing” about something, avoid the “overuse” of quotes.  I am not a grammarian by any means, but they often send a different message than what you probably “intended”.  But don’t “quote me” on that.

The picture below is just another funny example of environmental print I saw in a hotel this summer. No extra charge.  There aren't any quotation marks used here, but perhaps there should be a set around the word "YOU".