Friday, May 18, 2018

Smile!

The substitute teacher across the hall caught my eye today and said, “There you are again! Always smiling!” It’s true. I usually am.

Perhaps smiling is my default expression, one I come by naturally. I can’t think back on my Dad without seeing his big bright smile. I still hear my Mom’s laughter when I remember my time with her. Even my Mom’s handwritten letters always included little smiley faces, long before emojis became a thing. Thirty-six years ago when I first met my husband, his smile and laughter were the first of his attributes that attracted me. My daughters have beautiful smiles. My son’s smile is one of my favorites. 

Science studies have increased supporting that a smile spurs a chemical reaction in the brain, releasing certain hormones including dopamine and serotonin. The study of emotions is most interesting and I frequently follow published and casual discussions around the topic of happiness. I experiment with happiness strategies too. For the past 100 days I’ve again practiced the 100happydays.com challenge. This challenge takes me from the weary final days of winter to the first warm afternoons of springtime. Whether documenting family gatherings, good meals, beautiful flowers, or satisfying work, I’ve taken time each day to focus on the fun, the joy, the appreciation and gratitude I feel. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes struggle with darker emotions. Of course I do. I cannot always smile. I am sometimes sad. I miss my parents, I miss grandparents, I miss my three children being little and scrambling onto my lap. Although not very often, I sometimes do get angry. Internet trolls, dishonesty, selfishness, sneakiness, injustice, gossip, and arrogance can make me seethe. I am also a worrier. I fret. I have a hard time getting out of my own head. I sometimes need a nap to give my head, my heart, and my soul a rest. Movies and books help me immensely. I tend to sigh a lot too. Sighing gives me a brief little bit of time to settle, to refocus, to take a deep breath. And when people’s actions frustrate me, I remember a former colleague’s laughter and his words, “People are funny, aren’t they?!” There was never any judgement in this statement of his. He simply would state the fact: people are funny. 

Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.   --Mother Teresa


This annual 100happydays.com challenge is sometimes difficult but as with the building of any habit, I’ve practiced this one (for five years) and I have become pretty skilled at it. In fact, the challenge of 100 days doesn’t truly end for me anymore. 365 days a year I demand from myself the act of “keeping a positive perspective”. I think about people, either reliving a sweet conversation, or remembering, often with a chuckle, the all-too-human foibles I witness in myself and/or in those around me. I continue reading others’ faces as I check in on how they are feeling, and yes, I continue to smile often and easily. Although studies say that even a fake or forced smile can benefit one’s health, my smile is genuine. I smile because I am thankful. I smile because I care about this world and its inhabitants. I smile because I appreciate life. I smile because I feel happy. I smile because I can. 

Life is like a mirror. Smile at it and it smiles back at you.      --Peace Pilgrim

Monday, January 8, 2018

Circles of Life



Priorities. Choices and decisions. It’s one thing if you’re trying to decide where to go out for dinner. If the temperature is once again below zero and you’re trying to catch a 7:00pm movie, you might opt to throw aside your budget and dine at that new Italian restaurant across the street from the theater where you’ve heard there are tables set beside a blazing fire. If you have 15 minutes to get to a basketball game and cash in your pocket, you might decide to grab a few pieces of pizza or a red hot dog and some popcorn at the concession stand and call it good. If you have a gift card to a chain restaurant and pay day is another week away, you’ll probably be in the mood for one of the new early bird dinners featured there. And of course, you can always decide to stay home and eat in.

But what if we were talking about priorities for your life? What if your fiftieth birthday was approaching, you’d just finished reading a memoir of a man who was given an expiration date before his fortieth and who suddenly was faced with his own set of choices and decisions, and you woke up on a Monday morning, healthy but feeling a little off and soon to be facing a classroom of 17-18 year olds on a crisp January morning?

First, let’s settle the food question. Today I grabbed an egg, cheese, and sausage wrap and a bottle of OJ at Dunkin on my way to work. There. Breakfast had been taken care of. I threw a container of chicken soup, some mini blueberry muffins, and a cup of jell-o in my lunch bag for later. And dinner is going to be decided upon after school, but it’ll probably involve the package of chicken breasts that I took out of the freezer this weekend.

So next, what am I going to do with that classroom of 17-18 year olds? They have finished a unit, creating a chapbook synthesizing the ideas around Elizabeth Gilbert’s book about creativity, BIG MAGIC. With only four class periods before the end of the quarter, how do I transition to a new unit?

I remember the circles. It’ll be different. It’ll be motivating. I’ll pass out a handout of 30 circles, give them 15 minutes and ask them to think of responses to a question. They can answer the question any way they want or need to. I won’t collect their work. It’s private for them. I do my own circle handout with them. By the end of the class period, we are all talking and sharing and I know I chose wisely.

Let me back up. After giving my students 20 minutes to work on their projects or their personal writing, I shared a summary of the book I’d spent the weekend reading, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The memoir of a man exploring the meaning of life, the purpose of our time on earth, a man who first searched for the answer in books as an English Literature major and later who continued the search while becoming a neurological surgeon facing his own death from lung cancer was richly reflective and thought-provoking. I spoke of the irony of reading this book on the same weekend that a dear friend of mine reached out asking nearly the same questions as the author, wondering if her life had positively affected anyone, asking what the value of her life has been… I’d written a response to her and had also thought of my own life--what I had accomplished in the past, the person I had grown to become, the future and all that I want it to contain.

We all began filling in circles to answer the questions: What do I want to do before the end of my life? What is important to me to have done when my life reaches its expiration date?

Keeping my word to protect their privacy, I only asked my students to share with me any insight or observations they had after doing the exercise. Many said they had fewer circles filled in than they had expected. I was with them there. A young woman said she had filled the circles with countries she wanted to explore. Another wrote of how her list had been filled more with desires to inspire others in different ways. We all smiled at the young man who said he wanted to be on national tv for something someday.

I now look at my own circles. Write a book. Travel the world with Eric. Be a fun grandma. Learn to play the cello. Paint like Grammie Freeman. Record an album for my children. See each of my children reach the age of 50.

These are a few items on my paper. I am not surprised by what is on it. I am more surprised by what is not.

What I feel best about is how my life priorities focus upon staying healthy and happy for the adventures of the years that are before me. I have lived a beautiful life in my first fifty years. I am excited beyond measure for the start of my second fifty.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

A "Commencement Speech" for my IB Juniors 2017

Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow.

Yesterday marked the 100th day of #100happydaysforanne2017! I have participated in the 100 happy days challenge each spring since 2014 after seeing posts from a former student on Facebook or Instagram (I forget which. Maybe it was both). For 100 days in a row Josh shared photos and experiences from his daily life, noting one sight, memory, or reflection that had brightened his 24 hours. It was the first spring without my Dad and after reading up on the movement (go to 100 happydays.com to read more about it), I decided to give the challenge a try.

I could say more about my first three years of participating in the challenge but let me quickly say that this activity has positively affected my perspective in life. It is no exaggeration to say that the challenge has also improved my overall health and well being and has guided my daily choices. I had the rug pulled out from underneath me in 2013 when my Dad died. The two years prior to that had not been easy either. But losing Dad was so profound a loss that I had to start over again.  This challenge of the 100 happy days saved me.

So yesterday on my 100th day, I wore a pretty dress. I celebrated at Dunkin Donuts by picking up the tab of the stranger behind me and at school I was commended by my principal for my flexibility, positivity, and wisdom which was awfully nice to hear. I spent my lunch break assisting a colleague who has also experienced a great loss recently and as we focused upon a creative project of hers, it felt wonderful to contribute and aid her.

Yesterday I also tried to write a commencement speech for you. I wanted to get it written before Emma (Woods) left so she could hear me speak from the heart. I was tired however and I could not find inspiration. But then came today. Okay. So I apologize for doing what I ordinarily never do—-and for what I would be aghast if YOU did—to write a year end speech during the TAKE FIFTEEN time immediately beforehand….WHAT?!?!?! But even the number there is significant…fifteen…

You see, June 15th is the day my father had a heart attack and died four years ago. It’s the day that rug was pulled. And each June 15th since I have allowed the day to come without holding on to any expectation. Some June 15ths I cry. Some June 15ths I am so happy. Today is June 15th and I don’t know what the day will bring. But I’m alive and I am grateful and I am the daughter of the most beautiful man in the whole wide world.

Dad’s dying words were shared with us children. As he was air lifted, with Life Flight, Dad looked out the window of the helicopter to see the bright blue sky and the following words came out of his mouth.

“It’s a beautiful day”.

It’s June 15th 2017. It is day 101.  And whether tears fall or laughter makes my sides hurt, it is indeed a beautiful day.


And I wish that for all of you—for the yesterdays, for today, tomorrow… and forever more.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Acknowledging Grief

This morning I finished reading a book on grief. It’s the fourth one I have completed on the subject since my Mom passed away six weeks ago, and the third that has specifically discussed understanding and coping with grief and change after the death of our parents. The Orphaned Adult by Alexander Levy has been the most helpful of the four texts. Its conversations and shared insights are gently presented with compassion, humor, and wisdom. The book has explored the journey I am taking and it has provided me with reassurances on the subjects of the redefinition of identity, relationships, and faith. The necessities and techniques (for lack of a better word) of grief itself shared in its pages have offered me both comfort and motivating challenges. 

Still, I find myself turning the book over when someone approaches my desk at work. I forgot to do this a few times and caught the awkward expression of a student who read the book’s title before asking me a question about homework. I’ve tucked my book into my bag instead of carrying it into a doctor’s waiting room as I normally do with a novel. 

So, this is why I am writing this note today. I want to be forthcoming about what I have been reading lately. For I am not willing to accept that I am at all ashamed that I have needed to hear the ideas, thoughts, and words of another who has been here before, another who has realized that “grief cannot be done skillfully, artfully, or beautifully”, who sees that “the bereft earn no points for style or difficulty” (Levy 170).

Truthfully, the subject of grief intrigues me—no, not in some morbid manner, but rather from the perspective and reflection upon how our society or our culture approaches the emotions and the pains that come after a loved one’s death. I have read accounts of grief in books of fiction and have compared those to what I have witnessed first hand. In my role as a teacher I have worked with teens who have successfully pushed forward through grief to stay afloat academically. I have watched others crumble after a parent’s death. I have thought, read, and written about grief for several years now. I began my journey with parental loss well over six years ago, when I lost my Mom to the dementia of Alzheimer’s. I grieved heartily back in those earlier years and I shared some of that pain quite openly in discussions with close friends and in my writing which I published to my blog. My Mom was alive but I’d lost her just the same. I needed others to keep me afloat and my cries were heard and good people were there for me. My grief wasn’t comfortable for some and that’s okay— the grief was mine to do with as I wanted and needed, and I did the best I could to take one step at a time through this time of my personal despair.

Losing my Dad so quickly and unexpectedly to a heart attack in 2013 ripped me to the core. In losing him I lost the hold I had to the life I’d enjoyed with both of my parents for all of my 45 years. And although, growing up, Mom had been my greatest confidante, it was Dad who I’d realized I’d had so much in common with—I’d grown to understand him and to understand myself so much more in my adult years. And it was Dad who was the most influential and inspirational role model in my work to learn and to gain acceptance of my changed Mom. My grief for the loss of my Dad was complicated by the matters at hand to help my ailing mother and to clear their home and to tend to other necessities following Dad’s death. I learned many valuable lessons in the aftermath of my Dad’s passing and in the three years that my Mom lived without him. I grew and found the grace that comes with learning to embrace unfamiliar emotions and in finding the support needed to navigate life’s most difficult obstacles. 

I am proud of the growth I’ve made since Mom first lost her memories and through the deaths of both of my parents. But there has been one thing which has nagged at me. I haven’t been able to share these learned lessons with my parents. I have so wanted to tell them how, after they were gone, I started to catch up. I am seeing it all so much more clearly now. That barrier between generations has grown smaller. I now encounter events in life that I once saw them live through and I now have this shared experience, this understanding of life that I want to talk about with each of them. I fully comprehend behaviors and attitudes and our own lives so much more now. As Levy says, “Reality is no longer an orderly sequence from the past through the present and to the future…(it) is much more complex, much richer, that that” (189). For someone who shared nearly everything with Mom and Dad for much of my life, this is such a precious lesson that I wish I could talk to them about now. I do talk to them, actually. I have these philosophical discussions as I step outside and take in the sight of the setting sun or the moon as it rises in the night’s sky. I talk as I close my eyes before bed or as I drive home from the grocery store. And every so often I find that I’m given a sign that they’re listening, and that they both understand. They truly do. I know it, for they too were in my place before—they too lost their parents. 


Levy’s book offered me support and validation of all that I’ve gone through and continue to go through now in my most recent bereavement—it’s tough knowing that I can know longer go visit my Mom, hold her hand, see that twinkle in her eyes, and be satisfied with making her smile. But I do accept the loss and I know that my dear parents are reunited again, as it should be. I am going to take Levy’s advice to continue moving through this grief, to take time to breathe, to make strides to caring for myself more properly, and to acknowledging the fresh and raw pain of missing my Mom and the grief of several other losses I’ve endured over the past five years. I am going return to writing, to reading, to resting, to crying, to exercising, to laughing, to talking, to taking more adventures, to doing anything that I want or need to do. I’m not going to diminish my feelings nor my experiences, instead I’m going to open my arms wide and say to Grief, “Here we go. Let’s do this. I’m ready when you are”. I’m also going to refuse to turn my book over on my desk, because I want the next generation in our culture to see that grief is nothing to hide from. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Giving Sorrow Words

My mother’s funeral was held the day before our national election for our new president. As we drove to Millinocket, I said aloud to my husband, son, and daughter, “I’m glad this is taking place before tomorrow”. My son asked why. I don't think I ever answered him. 

It’s been nearly two days now since we learned who won the election. I stayed up until 1:45am on election night. Just for the record, I was terribly disappointed as I went to bed. But I didn’t cry. I was sorrowful but I’d lost my Mom eleven days earlier. For me, my inability to shed a tear over the victor’s win made perfect sense. The loss of my only surviving parent had perhaps numbed my emotions for the time being. Or maybe I was simply in a state of shock and disbelief. Either way, the election was to be yet another layer of grief to be added to an already heavy heart.

Taking bereavement leave in the midst of this post election day toxicity has been interesting to say the least. I’ve grown to realize my need to step away from media a bit and I’ve gone back to basics. I’ve spent time outside, listening to the sound of my pups running excitedly through the fallen leaves, and I’ve taken time to talk to Mom and Dad. Inside I’ve watched some tv, cuddling up with my sweet kitty. I’ve napped in the warmth of the sun streaming through my back windows, and I’ve read some books on grief. One of the chapters in Good Grief  by Deborah Morris Coryell opens with a familiar quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, a quote I’ve found myself saying in my head often over the past several years. “Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’erfraught heart and bids it break”. 

Give sorrow words. This is what so many are doing this week—journalists, political pundits, and the quote unquote ordinary folks on the street or online. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers are engaging in discourse, sorting out their own ideas and emotions as they fervently type up statuses and comments to leave on the posts of others. Some people are growing more and more emotional and frustrated and are beginning to pull away from one another. That’s understandable, I think. But in my humble opinion, everyone in one way or another is giving their sorrow words. And that’s healthy as long as it’s done knowing it’s a part or a stage of grief. It’s a necessary step to healing. Denial, sorrow, anger, bargaining, acceptance….oh, I don’t believe that grief has a linear path, but I do see even self-sufficient adults grieving publicly this week. I am too, but you’ll have to understand that my grief is my own response to a catastrophic loss of different proportions. It’s not everyday that your Mom dies, after all. 

Our society tends to rank losses in a hierarchy of grief. This is wrong. Loss is loss and all losses must be grieved in their own right and on their own terms. Grief can be surprisingly deep and painful, especially perhaps when the loss comes as a shock. People feel depressed, resentful, angry, and need help to cope. Their grief should not be mocked. Giving sorrow words is a small step towards healing. When a loss arrives, even one that is expected, the heart and mind still must process the loss.

I process loss, fear, disappointment, betrayal, and other unpredictable parts of life through words—those I read and those I write. I’ve experienced a lot of loss over these last five years, and I have grown to become more self-aware. I say this with gratitude, but it doesn’t mean that this awareness has continued without struggle and vulnerability. Yet, I refuse to give in to fear. A broken heart has more room for  all that is important. I may be overconfident and terribly underestimating what’s ahead of us all, but I fiercely believe in my ability to navigate the hardships of life and in my capacity to be courageous. 

“Life in its very nature…(has) no guarantees of what will happen next…that very unpredictability holds loss at its center….this gives rise to the question of whether it was ‘ours’ to begin with. Our culture and even our world has become so disconnected from the nature of life that we have come to believe that we can take possession and control it…”, writes Coryell (119). I know that I only have so much control in this world but I’ve learned that I can and I do make a difference in my corner of it. And that will continue, no matter who is living in the White House. 


So that’s that. Those are my words concerning the timing of my bereavement leave. Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for me to return to my regularly scheduled journey with grief. I miss you Mom. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Living Summer to Its Fullest

With a sunburn on a small part of one shoulder, I told myself a day out of the sun might be best for today. But in truth, I think I was looking for an excuse to putter here at home. Since getting out of school two weeks ago, I’ve taken the phrase, “Live life to its fullest!” to heart. A trip to Boston, The Color Run, a week of Young Authors Camp, a night at the movies, two ocean days and one day at the pool, a visit with Mom, a wedding reception, Causeway walks and fireworks, even time spent snuggling baby goats, and several BBQs later, these first fifteen days of my summer vacation have been a whirlwind adventure of fun! 

But today has been just as nice. I completed a few chores that had been neglected. I located the vacuum that had been in hiding, emptied the upstairs wastepaper baskets, cleared off “the blue table” by putting away the last of my teaching materials, swept pine needles off the deck, and reorganized my writing desk (which then inspired me to write two blog posts). I took the pups for a mid-afternoon nap, read a couple of chapters in a new book, and even watched an episode of Law & Order with little Zoe in my lap. Even our kitty Jenny hopped up for an extended period of cuddling. I took a shower around 5:00pm, plopping down in front of my bedroom fan while in my towel, hair sopping wet. I played Yahtzee on my phone and I opened up and hung two strings of outdoor lights on the little tree near our deck. Oh, and I antagonized my son a bit, had him go down cellar to change the kitty litter box, then made him lunch. 

Shortly I’ll head outside to water the flowers. No doubt the pups will run around the house as I move from one planted pot to the next. I’ll chase them, retrieve another saliva covered ball to throw again, hear Ziva playfully growl in excitement as I try to pull her toy away from her. Zoe will go to her favorite digging hole and then play keep-a-way when it’s time to head back inside, coming in ten minutes later when she’s proven her point. The sun will set, I’ll read another chapter or two in my book, join my family for a little TV, and get to bed before midnight. 
     
That’s as much as I know. How tomorrow will unfold, I haven’t a clue. Maybe I’ll pop up out of bed and get in an early workout at the gym. Maybe I’ll laze around in bed and read some more. Maybe I’ll make us all a big breakfast and we’ll find a movie to watch together in the family room. Maybe I’ll hit the beach again, go to a movie matinee, sneak off for a pedicure…

     
One thing is for sure. I’ll be grateful for another day of summer. 

Inspiration: Young Authors Camp

   



For five days, June 27-July 1, 2016, I led a Young Authors Camp at the Naples Public Library here in town. Offered through the Southern Maine Writing Project, of which I became a Teacher Consultant back in 2007, the YAC day camp allows children and teens of all ages an opportunity to meet one another for a week of creative writing time. This was my first year leading a camp. Although each site is to have a minimum of six campers to cover costs, an exception was made for our group of four. We are a rare high school aged group and the coordinators hoped to nurture this budding interest in the Lakes Region. 

I had butterflies the morning of our first day. I arrived at the library an hour early and Dani Longley, the library's director (who would prove to be an incredibly supportive force for the teens and I), carried in several boxes of materials to The Gathering Room which would serve as our home base. As the campers arrived, I shook hands, smiled brightly, introduced myself as "Anne", and made last minute arrangements with parents concerning pick-ups at dismissal time. I led everyone to our meeting room. Then, we were off and writing!

In our week the three girls and one boy experimented with various writing exercises and prompts, practiced giving feedback to one another, enjoyed a fun writer’s marathon exploring our beautiful town, and worked on pieces to submit to an anthology of writings from all area Young Authors Camp participants. We tested the variety of nooks in the library and settled into our spaces to write. We often ate lunch together on the beautiful deck of the library overlooking the town. Those were times when the campers would find their way to me, to ask me to look over their stories, to ask a question, or to simply talk. At the end of each day, I asked my campers to leave me honest feedback on how the day’s activities had gone for them and whether or not they had suggestions for the next day. It was my hope that each participant was learning, feeling accomplished, and having fun. The teens expressed strong appreciation for the free writing time and the array of interesting exercises. They also proposed a few new activities they hoped to try. 

The writing marathon day was clearly their favorite day! It was mine as well, for it had been the day our group had truly bonded. Walking through town together a natural sharing of our writing and our lives had come about. By the time we reached our final destination on the marathon, the playground, it was evident the four teens had become friends. I sat at a picnic table watching the four of them push one another on the merry-go-'round and I felt all the emotions of a proud parent and teacher. The group was also sincere in their interest to encourage one another’s voices. They consistently shared their excitement to return to camp the next day. The notes gave me the satisfaction of knowing their time at camp was well spent. I could not have asked for a better set of young people to spend time with at the start of my summer.

Although my intention had been to inspire these young people to fall further in love with the written word, working with these four teens over the course of the five days has inspired me as a writer. Their enthusiasm to fill the blank page, to dive into new genres, to experiment with new approaches to writing was beautiful to witness. I began to realize it was time for me to reopen my own writing journals, to recommit to my love of writing.

Returning home after our last day together, I emptied my bag of books and writing utensils and took time to read the notes each had penned to me as we were about to exchange our goodbyes. Signing on to lead a Young Authors Camp, doing the leg work to bring one to Naples, and extending my teaching year for this one week was undoubtedly a blessing. And throughout this summer, I vow right here and now to practice what I’ve preached, to take a risk each new day to put words on the blank page.