Living Whole-heartedly

pipeAt the end of yoga a week ago, I jokingly commented to our teacher about how hard she had worked us.  She asked if it was too hard and I said no.  Then she added something like, “It’s important not to hold back—we never know if it will be our last time to practice together.”  I have thought of those words all week, and not just regarding my yoga practice.  On Tuesday morning as I was getting into my car to drive to school, her words came up again.  In a moment of complete openness to possibility, I caught a glimpse of the day ahead as a big adventure and wondered what it would bring.  I felt a whole-heartedness about my life that let in gratitude and appreciation.  I would have liked that experience to last longer.  As with everything else, though, it was a fleeting awareness, subject to to change, that was carried along with the flow of life.

It’s so easy to get distracted by to-do lists, lesson plans and piles of stuff needing to be sorted and passed along.  Thinking ahead to vacation time and the coming school year has been filling up a lot of my recent mental real estate.  Plus, I find that being anywhere but in the present moment frequently breeds impatience and non-productivity.  I notice it also keeps me from living whole-heartedly without holding back.

As I ruminated on this topic, I found these lines from the poem “When Death Comes” by Mary Oliver:

“When it’s over, I want to say:  all my life
I was a bride married to amazement…

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”

Living whole-heartedly is on the other end of the spectrum from  “visiting the world.”  Being around children each day offers so many opportunities for this kind of living.  After lunch today, three hot and sweaty first grade girls came from the playground into Bill’s office.  They were there to report a small bunny they named Nibbles who crawled into a drain pipe.  They were concerned he might get stuck and not be able to get out.  They were worried that a hawk might get him and, in the same breath, wondered what he might eat because they noticed he was a picky eater.  Bill fully engaged with them, didn’t sugarcoat anything about the hawks, and assured them that Nibbles made a great choice using the pipe for a hideout.  As quickly as they descended on his office, they were drawn back to the fullness of the rest of their day, holding back not an ounce of passion or enthusiasm for the world around them.  I’m lucky to have such gifted teachers to keep me whole-heartedly in the moment.

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Inside the Box

boxersIt’s rare for my blog to have a sequel.  This one does.  After writing about the Seed’s mission to inspire kids to think outside the box, we now shift to inside the box.  The inspiration comes from our littlest Seeds, our Toddler 1s.  When I popped in for a visit Tuesday morning, boxes were everywhere.  Boxes just right for sitting upon, boxes for stacking and knocking over, boxes big enough for toddlers to climb inside of.  One resourceful toddler figured out a way to lift her big box by sliding her arms into the plastic packing slip sleeve.  It was a toddler version of a forklift picking up heavy warehouse crates.  Beside her, short-lived box skyscrapers were toppling over as fast as they were constructed.  Another child made a chair from her box and perched on it, facing away from the rest of the group, off in her own little world.  I left the room for two minutes and when I returned, the box area was abandoned and the toddlers were engaged elsewhere.  During our week 3 focus on skyscrapers and habitats, I thought I’d do a bit of investigating about “elsewhere.”  This is what I found out from our summer toddler teachers.

The Toddler 1s have been learning about the ocean and their teachers created an ocean habitat in the water table.  On Monday they talked about where land creatures live and played with their plastic animals in mud.  They found out that snails carry their homes on their backs!   They’ve enjoyed their new classroom playhouse because, after all, toddlers do live in houses.  One activity was making white play dough “eggs” that will later in the week be placed in nests, the place where birds live.  Their teacher is also planning to take them outside to look for birds.  They are sure to find one, nesting near the main entrance door.

Toddler 2s and 3s have been talking about houses, too.  Each child made a paper bag house, which helped develop their fine motor skills through crushing paper, grasping small items and gluing on house details.  Through books they are identifying parts of a house, such as the roof, doors and windows.  The older toddlers are recognizing the colors of doors other elements of a house and have added the word “construction” to their vocabularies.  “Habitat” will be another addition to their lexicon.  Like the Toddler 1s, identification of sea animals in their ocean habitat is part of their week.

What stands out from all of this is these are toddlers, children under three.  Their teachers aren’t holding back introducing them to the world just because they’re little.  In fact, they are holding the door wide open and inviting them to enter into as many new, yet developmentally appropriate, life adventures as they can.  Seed toddlers have daily opportunities to practice interacting with the world in infinite ways.  Through all their play with materials from everyday life, they are building strong minds and bodies that will serve them well—both inside and outside the box.

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Outside the Box

video guyIt’s been an outside-the-box week.  For one thing, it’s the one week during the year that I hold my summer yoga camp at Desert Song Healing Arts Center.  It’s my  chance to teach a five-day camp that combines yoga and a specific topic of choice.  Last year it was kindness.  This year was social activism with a focus on endangered species.  There’s an actual lesson plan with a wide range of learning experiences.  I always feel that I learn as much as the kids and this year was no exception.

During our conversations at yoga camp we covered the top 10 most endangered species, whether or not the black rhino’s horn has magical properties, and what a poacher is.  We learned that polar bears can swim 100 miles to find sea ice and they depend on sea ice for survival.  We took on the plight of the honey bee and viewed a hopeful video of two young guys who are working on a replacement for styrofoam—made from wild edible mushrooms.  My hope in offering this content to children is to invite them to think outside the box, in their current lives and in the future, just like we do every day at the Seed.  The nurturing of “outside-the-box” seeds came through in a big way with one of our Seed alums last week during the NBA finals.

Nick U’ Ren attended the Seed in the 90s.  Now 28 and living in the Bay Area, he’s a special assistant to Steve Kerr, the coach of the Golden State Warriors, the same Warriors who won the NBA Championship in Game 6 on Tuesday.  Nick played a significant role in turning the tide of the finals when he came up with a late night radical idea while viewing previous video footage as part of his job.  His idea eventually made its way to Coach Kerr via a 3 A. M. text and after the Warriors won Game 4, Nick’s name was all over the internet (http://www.si.com/nba/2015/06/12/warriors-steve-kerr-nick-uren-andre-iguodala-andrew-bogut-nba-finals-cavaliers).  The team stuck with his suggested line up and  won the series 4-2.

It’s gratifying to hear of successes like Nick’s, especially when thinking outside the box is part of the story line.  The more I reflect on this, the more I realize the Seed’s impact on lives.  Sure, it’s great to know our students are having successful adult lives.  It’s good for them and it’s good for the Seed when people ask how our students do.  The bigger story behind Nick’s story, though, is that he is and always has been a kind, intelligent, creative guy.  It’s who he is, partly influenced by his Seed experience.  In his biographical information contributed to our alumni project, Nick said this about the Seed:  “The Seed has a tremendous influence on their students’ ability to interact with, care for, and treat others as equals. It generates a curiosity in learning and about the world as a whole. They make their students feel valuable and capable of anything their minds can dream of. These things molded who I am and my approach to the world today.”  Nick is a person you want in positions like his because of what he will do with his life experiences for the greater good.  I have no doubt that the recent attention he’s received in the professional basketball world will be a springboard for immense contributions to the well being of the human race.

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Not-So-Perfect Corn

dark pollenI left Nebraska 46 years ago.  Not yet eighteen, I spent the summer in Minnesota, then headed west to Colorado for my first year of college.  I couldn’t get out of my home town fast enough.  For most of my childhood, I knew my life was going to be very different from the one in which I grew up.  This time of year, as summer unfolds, I often think of that version of myself, eager to burst out into the vast world before me.  At the time, I rejected much of my childhood world, wanting a life that more clearly matched the person I thought I was.  It took decades to sift through that rejection to arrive at a place of being able to  embrace the life I’ve created for myself, and at the same time honor my roots. After many years, I’ve come to appreciate what my childhood on the Great Plains gave me.  I find evidence of those roots appearing quite often these days.

One such place is our garden.  While preparing to plant this spring, I rummaged through a collection of seeds.  I found a package of Hopi blue corn, purchased for the 2012 planting season from Native Seeds/SEARCH (http://shop.nativeseeds.org/products/zf029).  Although the seeds were a few years old, I decided to try growing them anyway, since corn has always been a staple in my life.  I carefully protected the seedlings from birds till they were ready to stand on their own.  I kept watering and was surprised by how they grew.  After two months, some are not more than two feet tall, while others are towering over my head.  Unlike the uniform rows of genetically modified corn I now see growing in Nebraska (and Arizona, too, for that matter), my little patch of not-so-perfect corn has variety and personality.  The tassels look like miniature trees, with pollen hanging off like dangling ornaments.  Most of the pollen is light yellow, with the exception of one with dark purple, almost black pollen.  Ears of corn are beginning to form and within the next few weeks, I’ll be able to measure the success of my small crop of corn.  Regardless, just knowing there is corn growing in our back yard makes me feel a deep connection to my roots.

Recently a friend sent me a beautiful book, New Prairie Kitchen by Summer Miller (http://www.agatepublishing.com/book/?GCOI=93284100151420), about the “good food” movement in the Great Plains.  Organized by seasons, it features recipes and stories of chefs, farmers and artisans, and their relationships to food, who are living in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and South Dakota.  Reading their stories takes me right back to my roots and helps me understand a bit more about myself.  Their stories and my random corn patch serve as a message that we must all stay connected to the earth.  It’s imperative that we keep teaching our children about the value of planetary stewardship.  And the single corn plant with darker pollen reminds us to keep honoring uniqueness, for that’s what keeps our minds from stagnation and our hearts open to possibility.

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Wrapping It All Up

towel girlsIt was the sweetest and saddest of days all wrapped into one.  Even the weather cooperated by giving us a mildly breezy and not-too-hot evening for our family party on Wednesday.  Starting right at 9:00, toddler teachers handed out individual awards to our youngest Seeds as proud parents looked on.  In some classes, slideshows of the year were shown during the awards ceremony.  Busy with graduation practice and last minute tasks, I only caught glimpses of the morning ceremonies through the windows.  I did, however, get in on the afternoon awards.

I witnessed several proud kindergarteners, sitting on the bench between their teachers, listening to their teacher’s thoughtful assessment of their strengths and accomplishments of the year.  Then as the teacher showed a small poster with a photo of the child holding up an earth, we heard the list of what classmates thought of each child.  The fullness of their year in kindergarten was prevalent everywhere in the room.  Next door in the 1st/2nd grade class where Becky was conducting her last awards ceremony of her long teaching career, I walked in on a sweet song sung in Spanish to their teacher.   Becky quietly and thoughtfully continued the ceremony by reading these lines from Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”

Becky spoke briefly about her choice to depart from the more traditional path of teaching in which she was trained to come to the Seed.  She said what a difference it made in her life, and as she gave each child their award, it was clear how much of a difference she’s made in their lives.  She was gracious and honoring of each child she’d carefully nurtured for a year or two.  It was obvious how much she is loved.

Finally it was time for graduation.  We graduate all of the 3rd/4th graders, even though many of them return the next year.  Lined up in their new graduation shirts, they sang three songs, including a lively rendition of a Rosanne Cash song, “Land of Dreams,” that included an instrumental accompaniment by the kids.  We were all mostly cheerful until the last child tearfully received his diploma, and then a flood of tears burst forth throughout the room.  When graduation was over, I thanked everyone for coming and said they could take pictures if they wanted.  No one moved.  In that stillness, one of the dads, who himself has volunteered countless hours of his time to the Seed board of directors, stood up and offered heartfelt words of appreciation for the school and the people who have created it over many years.  It was a moment suspended in time that felt like pure grace.

The day was topped off by a lovely evening of food, casual conversations and kids running around in their bathing suits, soaking up a few hours of freedom at the end of their school year.  Toward the end, how I felt about the day was perfectly expressed by two girls huddled together in one cozy towel—grinning, wrapped in the warmth of friendship that began at the Seed.

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Hidden in the Vines

kabocha squashIn the early spring I planted a modest patch of Hopi blue corn.  Usually generous with the birds, I kept the seedlings covered till I was certain they were too large to be yanked out of the ground, roots and all, by our winged friends.  There was ample space for the corn in a larger bed shared by three newly planted peach trees, as well as our compost.  To say I was a bit overprotective of my corn plants is an understatement.  As the shoots grew stronger by the day, I noticed some extremely healthy looking leaves emerging in the compost from a spot near the water source.  I could tell they were squash, and there were lots of them.  I let the squash sprouts grow for awhile just to see what would happen.  Eventually, I thinned out about half of them, knowing fully that they’d take over the corn patch if I allowed it.  I considered removing all of the squash because I doubted they would grow very well in the summer.  Yet something told me I should let a few grow.

As they grew, I noticed several small round squash forming on the vines.  I trimmed off the ends of the vines so the plant would direct all its growth toward the squash instead of the leaves.  I also cut back anything that might remotely infringe on the corn patch.  Some of the tiny squash shriveled up after a few days, so I figured they would all do that.  Then one day I noticed two rather large and  healthy kabocha squash (sometimes referred to as Japanese pumpkins) hiding in the vines.  One was growing right on the rock border of the garden bed.  They are both still growing larger by the day and I look forward to cooking their delicious bright yellowish-orange flesh into something tasty.

I think of these two kabocha squash  as gifts.  They came forth without any effort or intention on my part.  For whatever reason, they were meant to grow in our garden.  The kabocha squash, one of my favorite varieties, came into my life like other pleasant experiences do.  It’s easy to receive and embrace the positives that arise, like the two beautiful squash.  It’s learning to embrace the harder events, however, that offer growth we might not otherwise encounter.  Each day as I begin anew, I practice being grateful for everything that “grows in my garden,” cultivating appreciation for all the gifts hidden in the vines of my life.

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May Peace Prevail on Earth

peace poleUntil a few days ago, I’d never heard of the Cu Chi Tunnels.  Our friend Kevin, a former Seed teacher, sent me a photo of a peace pole in Vietnam.  He said it reminded him of ours at the Seed.  The one he spotted in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) was located near the Cu Chi Tunnels.  As it turns out, the Cu Chi Tunnels are a triple-decker network of tunnels built in the 1940s and used extensively by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.  During the war the tunnels served as hiding spots, a place to store weapons, hospitals, kitchens, command centers and living quarters.  One source stated that an entire village lived within the tunnels under terrible conditions (http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/cu-chi-tunnels).  This 150 mile maze of tunnels was where our enemies lived.  Fighting for a cause in which they believed, they inhabited a tight space infested with “bats, rats, snakes, scorpions, centipedes and fire ants,” some of which were used with bamboo sticks to make traps for GIs entering the tunnels. (http://www.roughguides.com/destinations/asia/vietnam/ho-chi-minh-city-and-around/around-ho-chi-minh-city/the-cu-chi-tunnels/)  Malaria and intestinal parasites were prevalent.  I can see why a peace pole was erected in this place.

At the peak of the Vietnam War in 1969, I graduated from high school.  Other than one of our hometown boys being killed in the war, it was an abstract event in my life at the time.  However, backdropped by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, it was then that the seeds of peace came alive in me.  So much of what the Seed is all about has roots back to this era.

The Seed’s peace pole was a gift from a family in the early 90s.  For many years we kept it in a rolling container in the building until it finally found a permanent home in Gwen’s Castle.  It’s the perfect spot for it, surrounded by trees and lively children, in a space created by love. This past week I’ve learned that “There are tens of thousands of peace poles in 180 countries all over the world dedicated as monuments to peace.” (http://www.peacepoleproject.org)  Peace poles are in places like Ground Zero in NYC, Mt. Everest in Nepal, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Giza Pyramids in Egypt, a Nevada nuclear test site, and Baghdad, Iraq.  Peace poles are at places of hope such as schools, parks and museums, and places where great loss has occurred.  Places like the Cu Chi Tunnels.  Extraordinary humans like Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama and Wangari Maathai, the woman who inspired massive tree planting trees by women in Kenya have been photographed beside peace poles.

As I’ve learned more about the Peace Pole Project and the Cu Chi Tunnels, interconnection comes up again.  The father from the family that gifted us our peace pole was Kevin’s mentor who told him about the Seed, the same Kevin who is now teaching in Vietnam and sent the photo of the peace pole at the Cu Chi Tunnels.  The peace pole is a symbol of all we’ve done at the Seed to make the world a more peaceful place, and a steady reminder to keep at it.  It’s an honor to be a part of this network of beings living with peaceful intentions.

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Becky’s Bragging Tour

BeckysummerBecky was a magnet for my children’s allowance.  Long before she started teaching at the Seed, Becky and her husband Steve had a shop on Mill Avenue.  Each Saturday after their dance class, my girls migrated up the stairs to Dollars to spend their weekly allowance.   Becky was always cheerful and friendly as she helped them make their purchases.   Within a year or so, our paths crossed again, this time at an ASU class where I was a guest speaker.

As Becky worked on her Arizona teaching certification, she soon realized that she wanted to teach differently from how she started out.  Hearing about the Seed opened a door for her and once she stepped through that door, she never turned back.  Even though she had a Masters degree, Becky chose to be an assistant for two years to make sure she had a grasp of what all was involved in teaching holistically.  One of those years was with me.  It was a most memorable year, my first year back in the classroom after graduate school in 1988, and it was such a time of deep learning.  Becky and I kept a dialogue journal all year.  She wrote her questions and thoughts throughout the week, then I’d take it home and respond over the weekend.  For years after that, when Becky took over as the 1st grade lead teacher, she used that journal as her “manual” for teaching first grade.  Just a few weeks ago Becky mentioned that she still has the journal.

Over the years, Becky has been a key figure in sustaining the Community nursing home project.  Year after year, she’s prepared her students with a study of aging to ready them for their monthly visits to their elder friends.  She’s collected their stories, delighted in the children’s insights and been inspired by the responses of the residents.  Even during the challenging years when her own mother was in a nursing facility, Becky stayed with it because she understood the value of the program for her students.

There are a hundred ways I could describe what has made Becky Lewis an extraordinary teacher.  She is kind, humble, ethical and dedicated to her work.  One of Becky’s most important qualities is that she’s never stopped being a learner.  Any time I’ve given her reading material, she’s followed up not only by reading, but also with a conversation to process it.  When we switched to the Common Core Standards two years ago, Becky embraced the change with enthusiasm.  She had the same response to our introduction of the STEAM curriculum and has spent the year learning about it.  At a time when most teachers entering the latter part of their careers shift to automatic pilot, Becky is still a lively learner.

Becky delights in her students’ learning as well as her own.  She’s famous for her “bragging tours,” mini-parades around the school to celebrate her students’ progress.  Just this morning she dropped in with two students who have made enormous growth as readers.  All three were grinning from ear to ear.  Becky knows how to celebrate what matters.  Now, as she prepares to step into her next chapter of life, it’s our turn to celebrate her.  In years to come the “Becky years” will be among the Seed’s finest.

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Outlier

MaryhawaiiIt wasn’t easy being my mother.  From the get-go I was a strong willed, scrappy, passionate outlier.  Malcolm Gladwell (http://gladwell.com/outliers/) describes an outlier as someone “so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”  That’s how I felt most of the time growing up anyway.  On more than one occasion I was informed that I was “too much.”  In school I was frequently in trouble for talking, often dealt punishments ranging from standing on tiptoe with my nose in a circle drawn on the chalkboard to copying pages of the dictionary.  With the exception of one elementary teacher and a handful in high school who “got me,” school was pretty much a waste of time.  Thank goodness I had the parents I did.

I’ve written a lot about my dad over the years, about our sailing adventures, going to the river, and his energy level for a 90-year-old guy.  I’ve frequently expressed what an important role model he has been throughout our lives.  However, as I’ve thought about teachers (Teacher Appreciation Week), and prepare to travel to Nebraska to see my mom and three other remaining women elders from my childhood, I find that it’s my mother I’m inclined to write about this week.

As I mentioned earlier, at times I was a handful.  I was bossy and did things to my siblings that weren’t necessarily kind.  Nevertheless, I had redeeming qualities and one of them was my creativity.  I have my mother to thank for that.  Sometimes it wasn’t so much what she did to promote our innovative thinking as it was what she didn’t do.  She didn’t buy us coloring books and overschedule us.  My mom didn’t restrict our use of tools, paint, boards and nails.  She didn’t prohibit our building tree houses and forts.  When we flooded a ditch in the back yard on summer days to create a world we called “The Stream,” she didn’t mind the mud, sand and water on our clothes and bodies.

What she did do was give us time and space to follow our imaginations, to learn about things that were interesting to us.  If I wanted to spend the day in the basement creating miniature environments for my dolls, she allowed it to happen.  When I was bored with ballet lessons, she took me to Lincoln to buy tap shoes.  She sent us outside to play, regardless of how much snow was on the ground.  And when we brought snakes and mice home, she remained calm.  She, along with my dad, gave us a childhood.

To say that this kind of upbringing influenced our work here at the Seed is an understatement.  In the last few weeks I’ve been collecting stories and photos from our alums, many of whom would call themselves outliers.  Now in their twenties, thirties and early forties, they are using  their creative, extraordinary qualities to make the world a better place.  They have their parents who have supported and continue to support their uniqueness.  I also know that, like a mother who allows space for an outlier to grow, what we do at the Seed is also playing a role in helping these extraordinary beings become fully who they are.

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Toddler Tweens

compostersWhen I think of tweens, kids in the nine to twelve-year-old range come to mind.  At the Seed we have our own group of tweens, our Preschool 2.5/3s.  They start the year looking more like toddlers, some still in diapers and barely talking.  At the beginning of the year they need extra support with lunch containers and self-help skills.  At least for some, learning to speak up and use words requires a good bit of adult intervention.  This time of year it’s a whole different story.  Diapers are a thing of the past and everyone knows how to use the potty and wash hands.  And the language floating around…well, it’s hard to believe what comes out of the mouths of these three-year-olds.

On Monday I sat in on the Preschool 2.5/3s as they finished up circle and transitioned to snack.  As children got up to wash hands, their teacher asked them individually to tell her what they did over the weekend.  She wrote the survey results on the whiteboard.  One child moved in close to explain, “I had frow up.” She then elaborated by telling everywhere she vomited, including her car seat, her mom’s car, and her dress.  Not to be outdone, the next child described her sickness as well and added that she got Frozen bandaids.  Other activities included playing a game with their mommy or daddy, going to visit grandparents, and seeing Belinda, the pickle lady, at the farmer’s market.

As they joined their friends for snack, children were offered the choice of sauce or no sauce with their pasta.  There was constant conversation.  They spoke, listened to friends’ comments and asked for more pasta.  When one student threw his head back (obviously a common practice, since the teacher response was quick and well-articulated), a reminder about keeping heads up to avoid choking while eating was offered.  The reminder inspired the same girl who told the “frow up” story to recount how her dad had to stick his fingers in her mouth once to retrieve something on which she was choking.  In the midst of the conversation, the teacher counted, “1, 2, 3, big bite!” and several students took bites of their pasta.  When the pasta was all gone, out came leftover crackers and then pretzels until all appetites were satiated.

The conversation switched to the garden as the teacher said, “I checked the flowers. Can you guess what color they are?”  After a discussion about whether or not a milk carton was recyclable, the teacher handed a small bag of home compost to the child who brought it.  The child needed no directions regarding what to do with it and where it should go.  She took the bag right over to the compost pile and dumped it into the rich soil.

I lingered outside with the class for a bit longer, as shrieking children were chased by a fellow “monster,” plants were generously watered, and scraps that had just been deposited in the compost pile were appropriately covered with soil. I marveled at these children, at what they were learning, how they were communicating, and the way they are with each other.  Like every other group of children at the Seed, this collection of three-year-olds is nurtured each and every day by remarkable teachers whose ability to dream big is surpassed only by the vastness of their hearts.

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