Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lessons From My Mother

My mom died yesterday, December 20, 2011.  Ruthie and I were there holding her hands, telling her that we loved her.  Telling her that she was the best possible mom.

She died the way I wish I could go when my time comes.  Fearlessly.  Painlessly.  In love with the people around her.  She had straightened out as many of life’s complex affairs as she possibly could, giving away a great many of her possessions, making sure she had a living will, making sure her beloved house in the mountains was closed up and safe.

She said no to any additional tests, chemotherapy or transfusions, knowing that they would do nothing but prolong a very uncomfortable life.  She took nothing for pain besides Tylenol until the day before she died. 

The very last words I heard her say were, “I love you,” before she could talk no more.  She was more concerned for those around her than for her own personal comfort.  She was modest until the very end, declining my help in getting her into the bathroom when she could barely walk.

“Don’t cry,” she told me recently.  “You can’t be sad.”  But she herself did cry sometimes.  She worried about all that she would miss; graduations, family relationships, the happiness and accomplishments of others, seeing her grandkids grow up.  Several times in the last month, when it was clear that she didn’t have much time left, on the rare occasion when she allowed herself to be sad, she said, “I just want to know how it all turns out.” 

But it never really turns out, does it?  Life is just so complicated; families and friends just keep spinning out and out.  Life is a process, a journey.  It builds in complexity until the end.

You could never say good-bye to everyone you want to, make sure that all life’s accounts are closed, every possession is passed on.  But she came close.  She worked at it.

And until right before she left us, she laughed and reminisced, loved and received love.  I am a better man for having known this remarkable woman.  All of us who knew her are better off.  As I write this, hovering over my writer’s notebook, somewhere between Albuquerque, New Mexico and my South Carolina home, many of my mom’s lessons are coming to me. 

Here is a list of some simple truths and bits of wisdom that she passed on through her words and actions.  There is no order here.  I am too sad for order.  But my sadness is softened by the knowledge that she left this world a better place. 

My mom, ever the teacher, did more than teach me how to live a good life.  Through her grace and humility, her courage and her openness, she even taught me how to die. 

I could write for the rest of my life and never capture her essence, and if I have any good qualities, I learned them from her.  While this is the saddest time I have known, I am grateful to have had this strong, simply good woman in my life for 54 years. 

Lessons From My Mother

·      Be thrifty.  Our blessings can be more efficiently shared if we are careful with our resources

·      Be generous

·      Find your causes and follow through with them

·      Give a lot – not just money but time and energy

·      Find new friends wherever you are

·      Remember to stay in touch with old friends

·      Love nature. Spend time in the woods and near water

·      Leave a small carbon footprint

·      Recycle everything you can

·      Walk a lot

·      Write real letters with pen and paper

·      Don’t collect too much stuff

·      Find reasons to laugh

·      Love a lot of people

·      Keep up with current events

·      Have an informed opinion about social issues and politics

·      Be active politically

·      Be honest and sincere

·      Forgive easily

·      Work to make the changes you want to see in this world

·      Stand up for those whose voice has been silenced

·      Keep your hands busy doing things for others

·      Don’t waste time on sadness, but cry when you need to

·      Read constantly

·      Don’t give a book you haven’t read

·      Don’t hold on to a book if you have read it

·      Discuss books that move you

·      Appreciate music and all of the arts

·      Be creative

·      Never stop learning or teaching

·      Understand that a person’s worth is directly related to their willingness to serve others

·      Tidy up after yourself – don’t leave a mess for others to clean up

·      Say “I love you” often and mean it

·      When something bad happens move on to the next chapter

·      Listen carefully when someone is speaking to you

·      Appreciate life’s simple pleasures

·      Enjoy spending time with children

·      Be modest and self-deprecating

·      Have a strong work ethic

·      Wake up early – some of the best conversations happen before sunrise

Tuesday, December 20, 2011



it does not mean to be in a place

where there is no noise, trouble

or hard work.  it means to be in

the midst of those things and still

be calm in your heart

Saturday, December 17, 2011

These Hands

These hands are quilting even now
The last she’ll ever sew
A gift for someone very dear
A love he’ll always know

These hands have brought great comfort
To a beloved husband at his death
These hands held seven babies
As they took their first breaths

These hands held the first books
Many children learned to read
And crafted letters late at night
Just what we would need

These hands were raised in anger
At injustice in our days
Pressed gently on piano keys
In the evening as she played

These hands gave me great comfort
And strength when I was weak
They lifted me when I was down
As she kissed me on the cheek

These hands could be so gentle
These hands could be so strong
These hands have taught me lessons
I’ll keep my whole life long

And if my hands are worthy
And if my hands do right
It’s because my hands have been in hers
And I’ll try with all my might

To do with them the right things
That I could make her proud
To pull these old guitar strings
And raise my voice out loud

To let my hands be gentle
To let my hands be strong
To help raise others to their feet
To help right what is wrong

And if my hands could only
Go where she would reach
Then when my time to go is here
Then I could go in peace

To leave this world a better place
Is how she used her hands
And if I could only follow her
I’d be a better man

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chopping Wood

"Before Enlightenment chop wood carry water, after Enlightenment, chop wood carry water." Ancient Chinese Proverb

I love to chop wood.  There is something spiritual about it.  Chopping wood is real and useful, demanding yet simple.  There is sweat involved, always a good thing.  It is clean, honest sweat.  Even when it is cold outside and you start out bundled up, after a while the layers come off and the perspiration cools you the way it is meant to.

After some recent surgery, as a way of deciding when I am finally healed enough to resume “normal” activities, I asked the surgeon, “When can I chop wood?”  His response indicates how authentic and purposeful wood chopping is.

“You can chop wood as soon as you feel up to it.  If it becomes painful, then stop.”  A simple almost Zenlike response.  I can simply gauge the path to renewed health by my ability to swing an ax.  I like it. 

When you are chopping wood, you are outside – usually in a forest.  There are very few human influences.  It is a solitary occupation for the most part.  When one is chopping wood there are no cell phones involved, no computers, facebook, email, TV, radio, no electronics whatsoever.  There is only the natural world and one of man’s first tools.  An ax (or axe if you prefer).  A wedge fastened to a stick.  There is something so primitive about it, something so primal.  There are very few pastimes so close to the earth, so basic. 
I love the smell of chopping wood.  Each species of tree has a different smell.  We have lots of old oaks on our property so that is our main wood.  But I am not above splitting pine for our firepit.  My neighbor gave us an old dogwood tree that is covered in sapsucker holes.  Sweetgum is very plentiful but it is hard to split as the grain is gnarly and swirly and unpredictable.  But if the logs are short enough, and it is dry enough, it’ll split alright.  And it burns just fine.  It just takes a little more effort.  When I start out chopping, I smell the first pieces, raw and fresh.  It is like nothing else. 

There is little else so satisfying.  You begin with large round logs and end up with something that is tremendously useful.  It is your muscles working in harmony with your tool and God’s gift from the ground that yields a stack of cut wood.  It is such an obvious enterprise.  The harder you work, the more energy you put into it, the faster and more effective the process. There are few more gratifying sights than a pile of freshly split wood.
When I was a kid we always had a fireplace.  A real one with a grate and a screen and fire stirring tools.  Most places I have lived as an adult I was fortunate enough to have a fireplace.  As long as I remember we had bonfires on the shores of Lake Michigan with hastily collected driftwood.  Campfire songs and laughter.  I courted my first girlfriend by beachfires and snuggle at night with Heidi by a fire. 

The warmth provided by a wood fire is sublime.  Heat from a register from the floor is, of course, necessary in most places.   But heat from a fire is pure.  You get close, you get warm.  Too warm?  Back away.  And the light cast into the room, or the forest or the beach is something special and alive and different from moment to moment. 

We have a fire pit down at the bottom of our hill.  Around that special place we have had parties, shared wooden music and songs, cautioned little ones and roasted marshmallows.  We listened to night sounds of animals and sat in companionable silence.  All the while we gazed into fire as people have done for all time from the heart of Africa, to the plains of America, from icy Norway to the southern tip of Argentina.  Fire is universal. 
Chopping and splitting wood is one of the oldest activities of humans.  And not much has changed.  Muscle, simple machine, tree, motivation.  As long as humans have been around  - and been truly human – there have been evenings gazing into fires.  The simple act of squatting down and losing focus, frontside warm, backside cool, listening to the wood sighing and popping and cracking, smelling smoke, avoiding swirling sparks – is an act performed essentially unchanged from the beginning of time.  There is something comforting in knowing that this same pastime has been enjoyed by billions before me and will be appreciated until the very end of time.

The fire is the main comfort of the camp, whether in summer or winter, and is about as ample at one season as at another.  It is as well for cheerfulness as for warmth and dryness.  ~Henry David Thoreau

Friday, December 9, 2011

Newt Gingrich's Plan To Help the Poor - Seriously

OK, no one can say that this was taken out of context.  Mr. Gingrich has doubled down on this a few times when he thought he was among friends.  There is nothing that I can say that would clarify or extend, synthesize or poke fun of this.  Mr. Gingrich is his own worst enemy.  Every other thing he says is just plain nuts.  What do you think?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Letters From Children

Occasionally I will write a blog post and think that my students' parents might be interested in reading it, especially if it has to do directly with school.  This is the reverse of that.  I wrote this newsletter and thought a few of you might be interested as well.  

Part of the rhythm of teaching where I teach is having interns and student teachers.  So far I have worked with 32 young teachers.  My students always have an intern in the fall and a full time student teacher in the spring.  At The Center for Inquiry we are all teachers and learners and having preservice experiences in our classrooms is part of that model.  

My students write letters of advice at the end of each semester.  And they should.  Their point of view about what is important in classrooms is possibly the clearest one.  What they have to say is sincere and fairly unclouded by the lens of propriety that most grownups wear.  I always write a letter too, but my insights are rarely any more caring or accurate as those of my students.  

Here is last week's news to parents...

The World Is Our Classroom 
Dear Parents, 
           This morning was one of those magic times in the classrooms where, for 
about 15 minutes, it didn’t matter if I was there at all.  We wrote our farewell 
letters to Trina.  Today was technically her final day with us, but her 
mother-in-law died recently and she and her family are in Mississippi right 
now.  I am sure that she’ll be back by next Tuesday, when the MATs meet here 
for their final USC class with Heidi.  So Tuesday will be her gift shower.  Many 
children have already brought gifts and they are waiting for her in the corner 
of our reading area.   
           Today we wrote our letters.  We spoke together about what would be 
appropriate topics.  Certainly appreciations are in order.  Trina subbed for me 
a day when she did not have to.  She has been here to take the kids to 
lunch for our curriculum conversations, here to greet the kids with a smile 
and a hug every day she has been in the classroom, here to plan activities to 
participate in conversations, to teach math and to contribute to news and 
journals.  She has been our teacher as well as our friend and she will be 
           The kids are also in a position to offer wonderful advice for a new 
teacher.  They have insight about the teaching and learning process that Trina 
won’t get in her university methods classes.  Of course there will be those kids 
who say to have recess all day, but there are also the serious ideas about 
making time for reading books aloud, for writing and publishing for workshop 
and for having plenty of hands on science demonstrations.   
          There was also the suggestion that we write our condolences for the 
death of her husband’s mom.  Garrett said that he thought it might make her 
sad if she was reminded of this family tragedy.  But the consensus was that it 
makes us feel better to know that someone else is thinking about us in our 
own sadness, that they are holding us in their hearts when we need comfort.  
And so we wrote.  With quiet music in the background, the kids thought and wrote 
and asked each other how to spell.  They used their new best cursive 
handwriting (OK, I had to insist for some) and paragraphs.  They filled pages 
with their ideas and good wishes and sympathies.  You can read books so 
well…  I would not take anything to trade for you…  I’m very sorry your mother- 
in-law died.  I feel that pain…  I appreciate the wonderful things that you did for 
me like giving me an awesome little notebook…  It is like you are locked up in my 
heart and you are the only one in that special place…  I will miss your nice hugs.  
I will miss your warm welcomes…  When you are a teacher be kind to your kids…  
When you come in you look goooood!...  Thank you for helping us develop as 
readers and writers…  Make up games that require throwing balls at each 
other…  I really appreciate when you helped me edit my piece about William…  I 
think you are smart, joyful, sweet and kind to others…  I would be a little funny 
and teach where the kids will understand.  I’m saying you don’t teach like that, 
I’m just saying it’s some advice…  It was fun to look at writer’s notebooks with 
different eyes…  Never let the class get too wild…  You gave us writer’s notebooks 
and inspired us to take them wherever we go…   Love and care for your new 
class…  Next year I hope you get a teaching job because you are a good teacher…  
I bet you will be an amazing teacher and you will teach the kids such wonderful 
things…  You always smell good.  That is probably why your skin is as soft as a 
blanket…  I know you are not gonna be mean like those other teachers…  Don’t 
be mean to kids because they might kick you out…  Don’t let my brother be 
crazy…  I am sorry about your mother-in-law.  We are hoping that you are OK…  
I hope the cloud of sadness will go away soon…  You are in the choir in church.  
You should sing with your kids…  I always appreciate your read alouds…   

I will always love you… 
        There is something so sweet about how young children look at the 
world.  They are so much less inhibited than us adults, so unguarded and 
honest.  I think when I grow up I want to be like a little kid. 
 I ran across this poem the other day.  I think it says a lot about how 
great it is to have little ones in our lives.  Thanks for all that you do.  Have a 
great weekend.                         Tim 

Author Unknown 

"Whose child is this?" I asked one day 
Seeing a little one out at play 
"Mine", said the parent with a tender smile 
"Mine to keep a little while 
To bathe his hands and comb his hair 
To tell him what he is to wear 
To prepare him that he may always be good 
And each day do the things he should" 

"Whose child is this?" I asked again 
As the door opened and someone came in 
"Mine", said the teacher with the same tender smile 
"Mine, to keep just for a little while 
To teach him how to be gentle and kind 
To train and direct his dear little mind 
To help him live by every rule 
And get the best he can from school" 

"Whose child is this?" I ask once more 
Just as the little one entered the door 
"Ours" said the parent and the teacher as they smiled 
And each took the hand of the little child 
"Ours to love and train together 
Ours this blessed task forever."