Big Kids at the Seed

IMG_7629These days, when everyone is deciding about next year, our older students have been on my mind. The elementary years at the Seed are optional in many respects, with a variety of free alternatives available once children reach kindergarten age. Over the years I’ve learned not to take family decisions personally, trusting that the same discernment that brought students to the Seed is also a part of the decision to leave. Many children have been Seeds since their young toddler days and it’s time to start directing tuition funds toward college savings. Some families drive long distances to the Seed and decide to transition to a more local option. There are many reasons, all of them valid. This leads me back to the question: What is the value of the Seed experience for school age students? It’s a question I’ve spent most of my Awakening Seed career answering.

Several years ago we discussed this topic at a board meeting. It was at a time when our preschool needs were growing and I asked if perhaps we were at a point when the Seed should strictly become a preschool. After discussing this in depth, we unanimously decided that indeed the contribution of the older students was too valuable to the community to discontinue. I breathed a sigh of relief and our elementary program remains a significant part of the Seed. The board discussion focused on the impact of big kids at the Seed and not as much how the experience affected the children themselves. So the question remains about the value of being an elementary Seed student.

There are many children, I believe, who are best served as long as possible in an environment that provides greater attention to detail. They may be children who are more sensitive or need additional time to grow into themselves. Our smaller elementary classes give children extra direct contact with their teachers and other staff members who know their names and stories. When an entire staff supports a child in all aspects of his or her day, the possibilities for positive self-growth are amplified.

Being an older student at the Seed is a built-in training program for community service and social activism. Whether it’s visiting elders in a nursing home, loading up canned goods for a food drive, or directing families to paint shirts on tie dye day, the idea of service is the norm. Studies promoting random acts of kindness plant lifelong seeds of empathy that serve children for the remainder of their lives. Patience and advocacy for children who are still in the process of understanding how to navigate the social world have a lasting influence. Coaching on how to thoughtfully deliver constructive criticism to a peer results in a circle of young human beings who know how to be truthful in ways that are both generous and helpful.

Big kids at the Seed have time and space to grow their confidence. When they have frequent contact with their younger buddies for reading, work on common projects, and celebrations, they are reminded of the value of their place in the world. Given opportunities to make decisions and take responsibility, they grow into adults who care about creating a healthier planet. These intangibles aren’t readily measured or described by standardized data. They are qualities that will someday show up in a growing Seed’s life, and those who have been been responsible for nurturing that young person will pause reflectively and say, “That was because of the Seed.” I know this because I hear it all the time from those who spent a chapter of their lives at Awakening Seed.

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Emergent Convergence

IMG_7267 (1)I’m often asked to explain the emergent curriculum.  My short answer is that it’s a way to approach curriculum development that incorporates the questions, ideas, and passions of both children and teachers.  It’s an organic approach to learning that is local, immediate and authentic.  I generally continue by mentioning that at the Seed we follow the Arizona Early Learning Standards for the preschoolers and the Common Core for the elementary classes.  How we go about approaching those standards is where we veer from most schools.

Most recently, the concept of emergent curriculum has been associated with the Reggio Emilia preschools in Italy (, although the roots of emergent curriculum are tied to the work of John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, Jean Piaget, and Lev Vygotsky.  In Elizabeth Jones’ excellent article, “The Emergence of the Emergent Curriculum” (, she describes it this way:   “Emergent curriculum focuses on the process of learning. The more standardized the curriculum, the less children’s individual needs are met and the more likely it is that many children will fall behind. Children have diverse strengths. Early childhood educators, granted the flexibility to do so, can build on those strengths and on passionate interests as they help children construct genuine knowledge for themselves and practice empathy and respect for their fellow learners. In no other way can the inhabitants of a diverse world learn to share it peaceably.”

When I explain the emergent curriculum to visitors and persons unfamiliar to the term, I give lots of examples.  Among those examples might be preschoolers interested in space spending months exploring the world beyond ours through a curriculum developed by their teacher based on their questions and interests.  Or toddler teachers, inspired by a week of rain, with an emergent curriculum that includes messy mud puddle play, a heat lamp to represent a warm day (that also dries wet socks!), and a fan with bubbles to model how the wind blows.  My explanation might also include the account of 1st and 2nd graders engaged in a campaign for kindness, based on a book that explores the impact of kindness.

The emergent curriculum has been alive and well at the Seed long before it became fashionable in early childhood settings.  On Wednesday, February 17, from 3:15-5 P. M. we’ll host an event called “The Emergent Convergence.”  It will showcase the emergent curriculum through lively examples from each classroom.  In The Hundred Languages of Children:  The Reggio Emilia Approach, Loris Malaguzzi, the first Reggio preschool teacher is quoted as saying, “Our expectations of the child must be very flexible and varied.  We must be able to be amazed and enjoy like the children often do.  We must be able to catch the ball that the children throw us, and toss it back to them in ways that make the children want to continue the game with us, developing, perhaps, other games as we go along.”  Please plan to join us for this informative glimpse of the Seed curriculum and see for yourself the Seed’s version of “catching and tossing the ball” with our students.

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Heart Maps

IMG_7481Thirty years ago I met a poet who changed my life.  That poet, Georgia Heard, is still changing lives.  Currently writing a book about heart maps, a technique developed to help young poets find poetry in their lives, Georgia asked if I’d be willing to try out heart maps with the Seed third and fourth graders.  I said yes and the kids did, too.  They embraced the project with great enthusiasm and this week we finished up.

Georgia sent her book draft that included around a dozen different heart maps with themes such as Where I Find Poetry, Be the Change You Want to See in the World, The First Time I Ever…, and Gratitude.  We picked one theme to work on together, drawing heart maps to familiarize ourselves with the process, then students were each assigned to one other theme.  With two heart maps to choose from, the children began writing, using their maps as a topic source.  I also drew a heart map and shared one of my poems, demonstrating how it came from my heart map.  They made list poems, then developed them into full poems.  Each child met with me for a publication conference and we ended up with a fine collection of poetry in addition to the collection of colorful heart maps.  Here are just a few excerpts from some of their poems:

“Listen to the croaks of my living frogs,
in the swamps going hippety-hop,
singing their earth songs and
I wanted to tell you mine:
I am the EARTH.

How can you help me?”


“a poem is just like a geode
rock on outside, crystal on inside
the beginning is pretty dull
the end is the crystal
because writing is beautiful
so it is the geode all together”


“At night my family is quiet
At night the moon
flies slowly across the black sky
At night I sleep
warm and snug in my bed
At night I awake
knowing morning will come to greet me”

When the poems were finished, I asked the students to reflect on their heart maps, describing how they used them to find ideas.  I asked them to describe their process of going from the heart map to finished poem, as well as add any  general comments.  About heart maps, one children wrote:  “It just surprised me.  I was gifted a wonderful thing.”  Another child said, “Working with heart maps was really cool.  Now it is part of my writing tool box.”  Yet another student commented, “I put adjectives and then thought of things that described the adjectives in San Francisco.  I then added and deleted words until it came out right.”

On the first map we did together, using the theme Be the Change You Want to See in the World, the kids wrote and drew concerns about the world.  One boy included orphans as a concern.  He initially wrote a poem about orphans, yet when he came for his conference with me, his poem, “Little Pockets of Fun,” was about planting sunflowers.  As we reviewed his reflections, I discovered the orphan poem and asked what made him decide to change topics.  He looked me in the eye with great sincerity, and said, “I thought it would be too sad for other people.”

This is the destination at which we arrived with our heart maps.  Yes, good writing was an outcome and the kids now have one more powerful tool to help them grow as writers.  The most important result, however, was the open-heartedness toward each other and the world that came forth.  Georgia asked us to pose for a picture with our heart maps to send to a group of students in Nepal who had also made heart maps.  Each Seed in this project will tape the photo of the Nepalese students in his or her writer’s notebook.  It is my hope that connections like these will continue to change lives, just as Georgia’s heart maps have changed ours.

(link to the entire collection: Heart Map poems)


Black World, White World

IMG_7384This year I took notes.  Although I’ve heard Elsie’s stories at least 25 times, I leaned in closely to listen with new ears to what her words would reveal.  I didn’t want to miss anything.  There is always more and this year held a new layer of meaning.  Last summer Bill and I had the great privilege of visiting her ancestral home in rural Virginia.  It was a deeply moving experience to sit on the steps of the home where Elsie grew up.  As I sat on the concrete steps, all the stories she’s told us year after year were right there beside me.  In many respects, I grew up with her stories, too, as they shaped my perspective on many aspects of life, particularly race.

Our long friendship has included an ongoing conversation about a topic I believe many avoid, a conversation necessary now as much as at any other time.  Elsie’s gracious annual offering of her life stories not only gives young Seed students a connection with a real person who lived through the Civil Rights Movement, it also gives them a chance in a safe setting to ask the big questions on their minds.  As years have accumulated, I’ve grown more and more appreciative of this safe haven for questions.  Throughout my own childhood, race was hardly ever a part of any conversation.  I grew up at the same time as Elsie, in a setting similar to the place of her childhood.  We both had strong family relationships and plenty of time and space to play, to imagine, to dream. The obvious difference was hers was a black world and mine was white.  Each carried its own burdens and responsibilities.

As a teenager I was increasingly aware of issues related to the Civil Rights Movement but didn’t know how to respond, except to feel guilty that I was white.  I would have benefited from conversations like those we have at the Seed.  Over time I’ve come to see that feeling guilty about white privilege isn’t necessarily the most beneficial path for anyone.  One of the most powerful parts of being on Elsie’s ancestral land was knowing that I was standing in the place where her life began, a place not unlike that of my own childhood beginnings.  These two rural places, hers in Virginia and mine in Nebraska, were what set the trajectory for each of our lives.  Our lives have brought experiences that are vastly different, in large part because of the color of our skin.  Yet there are similarities that always  strengthen our friendship and keep the conversation going.  We are both teachers who will continue our work to make this world a better place for generations to come.  I also know neither of us will let up as long as we are able to do the work.

In the end, I decided not to use any of my notes from Elsie’s Tuesday visit to the Seed.  It seemed too personal to do so, and I wanted to honor the sacredness of our time with her.   We all felt it and the Pre 4s/Kindergarten MLK parade down the hallway was the perfect send-off for Elsie.  She left with a big smile saying, “Only at the Seed…”

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Considering Sustainability

IMG_5191On Monday we met for preliminary planning of the Seed’s summer art camp.  I realized at that moment how much I love the creative process of curriculum design.  It’s always fascinating how it all comes together, particularly when everyone’s ideas are considered and heard.  For the past few weeks I had been thinking about sustainability as a possible theme and was also quite interested in ideas the staff would bring forth.  Several different options were proposed, including focusing on the elements earth, water, fire, air, and space.  We agreed that we wanted the art to be a continuation of last year’s emphasis on STEAM, yet give it a new twist.  Then the concept of “from here to there” was mentioned, making connections between one thing to another, such as a tree to paper.  About this time in the discussion, I presented my idea about making green art, using recycled materials to make art in a way that was also sustainable for the planet.  I thought of using a different type of material for each week, such as cardboard, paper, wood, natural objects, and plastic.  As the conversation continued, we came up with a way to focus on the connections idea (changing it slightly to “from this to that”) and then it started coming together as we considered possibilities for each of the six weeks.  Most of the materials fit neatly into our plan except for one, plastic.

While conducting my research on sustainable art projects, I came across an excellent article on teaching kids about sustainability (  In her article, Carla Robertson states, “Making recycled art projects like caterpillars out of egg cartons doesn’t teach your kids about recycling or about sustainability. In a week or two, that egg carton caterpillar ends up in the trash, just like the original egg carton would have – except now it has some pipe cleaners, paint and glitter glued to it, and all probably made in a factory in China and shipped to the US, with carbon dioxide spewing into the atmosphere at every step.”   Without having read the article, our plastics discussion touched on this issue.   We all agreed that we should minimize using plastics that could be recycled, so as not to further the problem of recyclable plastics mixed in with trash.

My task now is to pull the ideas together to create a summer arts curriculum that is engaging, innovative, creative, and sustainable for the planet.  It makes it more of a challenge to incorporate the sustainability piece, yet it’s also an immensely important consideration.  What came out of the planning meeting and follow-up discussions with individual teachers is that this is yet one more way we can educate children and families about planetary stewardship.  As time goes on, I recognize that this is one of the Seed’s primary responsibilities.  I look forward to seeing how it will be expressed through the children’s beautiful art.


A New Threshold

IMG_7228I’m not surprised it’s rained every day since we came back from break.  It’s been a big week.  On Monday I announced to the staff, and Tuesday to our current families, that at the beginning of August I will step into a new role at the Seed, founding director.  Danielle Dueppen, our wise and well prepared assistant director, will become the executive director of the school.  We have worked toward this for the past three years, with each other and the board of directors, to establish a succession plan that will ensure strong leadership for the Seed in years to come.  There are few things more important to me than making sure Awakening Seed thrives long into the future, far beyond my own lifetime.  I have work calling me that I’m hoping will contribute significantly to the Seed’s longevity.

John O’Donohue, the late Irish poet and philosopher, referred to these life transitions as thresholds.  In his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, he wrote, “A threshold is not a simple boundary; it is a frontier that divides two different territories, rhythms and atmospheres. Indeed, it is a lovely testimony to the fullness and integrity of an experience or a stage of life that it intensifies toward the end into a real frontier that cannot be crossed without the heart being passionately engaged and woken up…It is wise in your own life to be able to recognize and acknowledge the key thresholds; to take your time; to feel all the varieties of presence that accrue there; to listen inward with complete attention until you hear the inner voice calling you forward.”   My relationship with Awakening Seed has always been this way.   From the very beginning in 1977, when I was invited by my spiritual teacher to start the school, it’s been a calling.  At the time I had two young daughters and I would have loved nothing more than to be a stay-at-home mom.  However, it was evident that the planet needed the Seed, so I chose the work.

Over the past nearly four decades, I’ve often been asked if I felt a sense of accomplishment for creating the Seed.  This question never made sense because, in my heart of hearts, the Seed has never been about me.  Now when I’m asked how I did it, this is my response:  “I didn’t make the Seed.  I chose good people who could be trusted to do the work, and they, along with the students and their families, made the Seed.”

A new threshold calls me forward into deeper Seed work.  I am excited about the openness that lies before me and for Awakening Seed.  John O’Donohue added this about thresholds: “No threshold need be a threat, but rather an invitation and a promise. Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace. We merely need to trust.”

I have deep trust in Danielle to lead the Seed with integrity and grace.  I have faith in the teachers to keep showing up day after day to give children a living, authentic education that will remain with them the rest of their lives.  I trust that all the people involved in the school (the board, the alumni, the parents, the community) will continue to support the Seed and its mission.  I trust myself to keep working diligently as long as I am needed.  Most of all, I trust the students themselves—past, present and future—to carry the Seed’s essence  into their lives, bringing healing and balance to Planet Earth.


Remembering the Why

PD WhyStar Wars has arrived at the Seed.  Actually, Awakening Seed was founded in 1977, the same year Star Wars  premiered, so we’ve had a long parallel history.  Over the years we’ve seen a steady influx of stormtroopers, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles, and other  supernatural warriors acting out their missions in life.  It’s a trend most prevalent with four-year-old boys, but not always.  This year’s hype with the new Star Wars movie is particularly strong.  As early as late September, we had questions related to Star Wars paraphernalia (specifically if the light saber is a weapon or not).  The single consistent response to all of these warriors is one of our oldest and most steadfast rules, no weapons, real or pretend.

On Monday, Star Wars came up at the all-school meeting.  Are kids allowed to play Star Wars?  What are the guidelines?  What it came down to was one question:  What’s the rule?  NO WEAPONS.  Groups most passionately involved in the topic took it back to their classrooms with the task of discussing how to play Star Wars, or any game involving warriors, without weapons.  A few ideas they came up with were building/maintaining a space ship, searching for someone, constructing robots, and rescuing someone from danger.  I thought about this situation all day, particularly as we planned our professional development session for the assistants that afternoon.

Our original intention was to do work around one of our strategic plan action steps, “ensure and demonstrate continuity of the school culture and curriculum,” with an emphasis on communications.  Star Wars fit right in.  We started with an excerpt from a TED talk by Simon Sinek (  He explained the “golden circle” of an organization that contains the what, how, and why of the group.  His recommendation was to always remember the why.   As we examined what we do and how, the why naturally surfaced.  Basically, we do what we do because we are dedicated to providing our students a safe, peaceful learning environment that serves the well-being of each individual.  If a practice or behavior doesn’t meet this criteria, we make every effort keep it out of the school environment.  Exclusion is one example.

Years ago we read Vivian Paley’s You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (, a brilliant book about advocating for children who are excluded by their peers in schools.  Vivian’s premise is that if as teachers we don’t stand up for the kids who are being left out, who will?  I believe our no weapons policy falls in that category.  Just because play involving pretend weapons is a common practice among young children doesn’t mean it’s okay to allow it in an environment dedicated to peace, safety, and well-being.  We are making a choice to give children the message that violence causes suffering, that nobody wins when situations become violent.  We give children tools, such as using their brave voices, to resolve problems peacefully.  Next week when the new Star Wars movie comes out, we know many of our students will stand in line to see it.  I plan to see it myself.  And we will continue to use it through dialogue and reflection to nurture this current generation of peaceful warriors.  We do it because we believe it’s the healthiest path for our students and our planet.

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Another Refinement

IMG_6951 (1)I have to admit, I momentarily lost faith in the Seed magic.  For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s our explanation for the fact that historically things at the Seed always have a way of working out for the good.  It often happens in the form of a person walking in the door just when we need a certain position filled.  Or it could be a supporter coming through with funding for a necessary project in the eleventh hour.  It’s a pattern that has persisted since 1977 when the Seed first began.  The Seed magic was in action on Wednesday as we finalized our new location for this year’s Celebration of the Winter Solstice.  I don’t know what got into me that I doubted it, even for a moment.

With the exception of a few years, our solstice celebration has always been held in a gym, with markings for basketball or volleyball being our choreography guides.  Parents sit in the bleachers or on chairs on the floor, as the children sit with their classes around the performance space.  It’s an hour of what feels like organized chaos, but somehow manages to wow the audience with charming, heartwarming dancing and singing.  It’s one of the year’s highlights for everyone.  This year we were informed that our previous location wasn’t available, due to use restrictions on new gym flooring.  For several weeks, there seemed to be more doors closing than opening in our efforts to find a new venue.  We had several suggestions and offers for alternative locations, yet nothing seemed quite right.

On Wednesday, a few of us ventured out to take a look at locations.  It felt like time was getting short and we needed to make a decision.   We checked out a church center with a stage and room the size of a basketball court.  We could have made it work.  A few calls were made and another possibility opened up to use a school gym in central Phoenix.  It was a larger space with bleachers in a beautiful school and it, too, would have fit our needs.  As we were leaving, Bill received a call from yet another school that their auditorium was available.  We decided to check it out and then decide.

As soon as we walked into the lobby of Marcos de Niza High School’s auditorium, we had a sense this was it.  It is a real auditorium with comfortable theater seating, a stage with lights, and an actual sound system.  It felt perfect and the people we met were helpful and gracious.  And a little bit curious about dancing toddlers.   I drew in a few deep breaths and understood that it was an open door, inviting the Seed to refine an already wonderful event.  It’s a chance to step into something new, to extend the realm of possibilities, a practice we live by at the Seed.  Whether or not it was a result of the Seed magic or just good timing, I’m excited about our new location and look forward to seeing what our creative teachers and their talented students come up with for this year’s Celebration of the Winter Solstice.  One thing for sure, it will be a night to remember on a different stage than a basketball court.

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Made for These Times

Indian clayLast week one of the 4th graders came up with an idea to excavate “Indian clay” from beneath the sand.  This project, located along the berm by the swings, quickly drew the attention of children of all different ages.  They went about their digging project in a remarkably cooperative manner.  The activity was spontaneous and inclusive, a fine example of the type of interaction that happens when children are encouraged to broaden their friendships beyond their age peers.  The project was eventually moved to another area less in the way of the traffic flow and a few kids still enjoy the safe, happy practice of excavating small bits of earth.

In contrast, this morning I watched a video of Syrian refugees arriving on the Greek island of Lesbos (  Their boats, heavily laden with families and many young children, were actually rafts, the kind of rafts generally used for pleasure and thrill seeking.  Children with hypothermia were quickly whisked into the arms of relief workers and wrapped in space blankets.  Right behind the group unloading was another raft.  And another.  One relief worker said 60-70 boats a day might land there. The peril is immense, and it’s hard to imagine the conditions they’re leaving behind.

Sometimes my life feels challenging, holding space for over a hundred families on a regular basis.  Having access to details of people’s lives intensifies awareness of their suffering.  The physical and emotional state of people near and dear to my heart is of great concern.  Generally not a worrier, lately the state of our planet, from the plastic-filled oceans to the desperate refugees, has weighed heavily on my mind.  The steady stream of one intense situation after another has often caused me to doubt my ability to gracefully handle the next one.

During a moment of self-doubt, a beautiful piece of writing appeared on my screen (  Written by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, she reminds us to “ not lose hope.  Most particularly because, the fact is that we were made for these times.”  She continues by mentioning the abundance of awakened beings currently on the planet and compares them to “seaworthy vessels.”  In her words, “there have never been more able vessels in the waters than there are right now across the world.  And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind.”

As a small, progressive independent school, we devote so much of our energy to being good stewards of the planet.  We encourage kindness, healthy living, and innovative thinking.  Lately, it doesn’t seem like enough.  Estes’ words offer encouragement:  “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach.  Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely.”

I’m thinking of ways to directly help Syrian refugees.  In the meantime, we will continue to offer a safe place on the planet for young children to dig in the earth, to express their true selves creatively, and be guided by teachers who care deeply about the next generation’s future.  We are made for these times, and I personally plan to keep doing what I can, as long as I can.

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Who Has Seen the Wind?

airplanesMonday was more than the average blustery day.  The wind that passed through the Seed was stronger and colder than we normally experience.   If I’m warm enough, I love the wind.  In fact, it’s been a big presence throughout my life, including my childhood.  I was introduced to sailing early on and the wind has almost always been a friend.  It’s represented freedom and open-heartedness throughout my days.

The wind was also a factor during tornado season in Nebraska.  When I was almost two, our family returned from living in Hawaii to a completely demolished home.  A huge tornado wiped out our small town.  In our new house, I remember vividly hauling our valuables to the basement when a tornado warning was issued.  Fortunately, we never experienced again the kind of devastation we did when I was small.  Maybe it’s the excitement we felt when a tornado was brewing that has carried over to my interest in hurricanes.

Monday’s wind reminded me of a favorite childhood poem, Christina Rossetti’s “Who Has Seen the Wind?” (

Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.

Who has seen the wind?
Neither you nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.

I love the way her poem addresses the fact that the wind isn’t seen, but is felt by the way the trees and leaves respond to it.  It’s like having a friend you don’t see (maybe they live far away), but they’re still a part of you because of  how their influence affects your life.

The wind on Monday affected Seed kids in several ways.  Lots of kids stood around shivering even though they were warmly dressed.  One little guy was perfectly happy in his shorts and flip flops.  A bright-eyed four-year-old approached me declaring, “I do not wish for this wind to blow today!”  The same child earlier in the day told one of her teachers, “One day I will go so high up in an airplane and open the door and jump out and play on the clouds.”  Clearly the wind was keeping her imagination alive.

The most visible response to the wind was the 1st and 2nd graders flying their paper airplanes.  Although it wasn’t planned, it was a spontaneous STEAM experience.  They experimented with plane design, angle of throwing, and compared the flight distance throwing into the wind vs. with it.  Their reactions to successful flights were as close to pure joy as I’ve seen in awhile.  I’m glad the remaining days this week have been calm.  I’m equally glad that the wind paid us a visit by passing through.

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