Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Using the Heartbeats Well

“You have been busy this past week writing reflective statements on the interactive oral discussions, finalizing college essays, drafting your digital memoir manuscript. Well, today will be different. For the next 15 minutes you can go anywhere, do anything. Well, within your mind, that is. Take this time and write freely, without any expectation that you are writing for a specific assignment. This will not be collected. You are writing for YOU. Anything goes. Just write”. This was how I opened today’s IB English class. 

Once the class selected their choice of utensil and settled into the challenge, I joined them and began to write.“You can’t transport yourself physically to another location--a tropical beach where you could lie on the warm sand listening to the sound of crashing waves--but through writing you can go there”. Despite wanting that beach, I was transported back to Friday’s keynote speaker, Kevin Honeycutt. Mr. Honeycutt is an Apple Distinguished Educator, who presented at the MAINEducation Conference, sponsored by ACTEM, the Association of Computer Technology Educators. 

Mr. Honeycutt suggested to his audience an idea that I’ve since learned can be traced back to astronaut Neil Armstrong when he said, "I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats and I don't intend to waste any of mine." Kevin Honeycutt reminded us all that we have only so many heartbeats in our lives, and therefore, perhaps we need to think,


Honeycutt was speaking from a perspective on being a teacher and working with kids. He urged us to pay attention to the moments of opportunity we have when we welcome our students into our classrooms each day. Do we smile, do we say kind things, do we laugh with our kids? Do we take time to speak beyond assessments, beyond curriculum instruction even, to show them that we are interested in them as human beings?  Yes. I believe most teachers do.  


When I heard the phrase stating that we only have so many heartbeats in our lifetime, I thought of two things. Immediately I thought of my Dad’s passing this summer. He had a heart attack that none of us were expecting. His heartbeats ran out in the late morning hours of Saturday, June 15th. We were caught off guard in losing him that day. I had counted on him being there when I would travel to visit in just a few weeks’ time. He’d been caring for Mom. He had only wanted to live one day longer than she would. The reality of him being gone has been sad to face. In my grief, it has helped me to remember that none of us knows when our time is up. Although I miss him, he only had so many heartbeats in this life, just as I only have so many in mine.

Secondly I began thinking about how many heartbeats I waste--on worry--on obsessing over frustrating situations that sap my energy, my creativity, my motivation, and my joy. Kevin Honeycutt also said in his keynote speech, “When we move on from a bad place, we may not know where we are going but we do not go back to that bad place”. He was speaking of a physical place, but the minute I heard him say this, I made a promise to myself not to “go back to that bad place” where I ruminate over situations beyond my control. Yes, I’ve wasted some of my heartbeats lately. So now I pledge: I am moving forward. 

At Mass on Sunday, Father Sam spoke of trusting that God has a plan. It’s rhetoric I have heard many times before, however now I hear of this with a new perspective. It is not up to us to understand God’s plan for anything that happens in our world and we waste so much of our resources--time and energy--trying to rationalize or justify what may NOT be meant to be rationalized or justified. Oh sure, I’ll continue to grieve and have sad days on occasion, and I’ll get frustrated by injustices the world cannot escape from, but when it happens to knock at my door, I’m not going to invite turmoil or negativity into my home to reside for any length of time. I have only so many heartbeats. 

This weekend I took time to use those heartbeats well. I talked with my college girl Sydney who was home on break. I listened to her discuss school and a possible trip to explore a new city. I texted Emma to ask her how she was handling the stressful schedule she has in costuming a show. I ran errands, balanced my checkbook, paid bills, baked cookies, and made dinners. I spent time with my husband--laughing--belly laughs, and talking from the heart. I made a deal with my son--to have him earn specific dollar amounts so he could buy that new video game--and I supervised his work as I cleaned and organized my own bedroom, the closet, and part of the cellar. I donated three bags of clothes to Goodwill. I decorated for Halloween despite the twinges of pain that I had when I unpacked a few decorations that had adorned my parents’ home last Halloween. I took time to run around with the dog outside. I gave her a bath using the hose which will soon be put up for the winter and got my jeans and sneakers sopping wet in the process. I listened to the radio. I watched a little television--shows I enjoy. I took time to look up at the beautiful colored trees and to feel the crisp air on my face. I shook off the grief that I let seep back into my thoughts at times in death’s aftermath, and I made my weekend heartbeats count. 


My students wrote for those 15 minutes, never pausing. Afterwards I asked them to share with me what that experience of writing freely had been like for them. The discussion that followed reminded me of how intuitively I teach, how my 22 years in the classroom have not been wasted heartbeats, by any means. Once again, as has been the case time after time, I went with my gut this morning and I took time to listen, to really listen, to my kids. The teens shared with me their thoughts, their dreams, their stressors, their plans of action, their To-Do lists. The discussion expanded into reflections upon what the world expects of them, what they expect from themselves, and what it is they need to do to live a life that will thrill them. And then I found myself saying it aloud, “We only have so many heartbeats in these lives of ours. What do you want to do with the number of heartbeats you’ve been given?” Several of my students nodded. One spoke up. “That’s exactly what this is about”, he said. “That’s exactly what I was writing about!” 

One of my senior boys turned to me as he packed up his books at the end of class. “This was one of our best classes. Thanks, Mrs. Walker. This was just what I needed today. Honestly. I feel so much better now”. I smiled at him and nodded. 

EVERY MOMENT COUNTS. It’s this journey--my lifetime, the moving forward, that matters...from one heartbeat to the next. To make my journey more powerful, I must always remember that as I move forward, there are other heartbeats synchronizing or syncopating with mine. My husband makes my heart beat stronger. My three children do too. Friends, colleagues, my teens at school...they all have the ability to make my heart skip a beat. I have worked hard and with purpose. I’m living well. And when I get off track and get discouraged, I need to recall that how I spend my heartbeats each day will affect how my loved ones spend theirs. Moving forward. Trusting in God’s plan. Making the heartbeats count. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Trusting Harmony

The call came around 6:30 last evening. “Anne? This is Sandy. Will you be able to cantor tomorrow morning?” I quickly told her, yes. After having to cancel on her last weekend when we’d made an impromptu visit to my college girl in Rhode Island, I would indeed be at Mass in the morning. I miss being there when I’m out of town. I miss singing with my fellow musicians. “The pope has declared tomorrow a day for Mary. I’d like to do Esurientes”, Sandy continued.  “Could you sing the solo tomorrow? I know it’s late notice....” 

Simply hearing the title of the beautiful song by John Rutter made me smile. “Of course. I’d love to”. 

The music once again began its magic with that phone call. I went to bed humming my solo, remembering the lyrical phrases as I fell asleep. In the morning we headed to St. Joe’s. After greeting everyone’s smiles with my own, I sat down next to Sandy and found my place in the blue composition book. It was time for me to sing. 


When I was a little girl I used to love to hear my Dad sing with his mother. Grammy would harmonize with Dad and I’d sit back in my kitchen chair and smile. Music filled my soul early in life and I learned to harmonize before I could read music. I’d invent tonal harmonies to complement pop songs on the local radio station, and I cemented my ability to sing duets with Dad’s help. “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” was one of our favorites, and “You are My Sunshine” was another. It’s no coincidence that the song became my son’s lullaby years later. 

Dad and I went on the road with our harmonies whenever we visited Nana or Grammy at their nursing homes. We found our way to the piano or organ in the activities room. By then I had learned how to read music and play piano. Dad would take his place at my side and together we’d sing to the residents. Dad did most of the harmonizing, but I continued to take notes on the direction he took each song.

Dad always sang out, his voice strong and melodic, when we went to Mass. However, for years I was too embarrassed to sing at church. I’d sing in the chorus at school, I sang on stage when in musicals, and I’d sing in variety shows, but at church I felt awkward and it seemed no one, at least my own age, was singing. So I was silent. It took a while for me to return to my hometown church singing praise at Mass. But when I did, when I joined Dad and Mom in singing along to every hymn, I felt God’s grace. It was if God was winking at me saying, “THERE! Finally! You’re singing, Anne. Don’t ever stop”.  


As I sang Esurientes at St. Joe’s this morning, the choir added to the magnificent tapestry with their harmonies. My voice was strong and pure and as we took a quick break before Mass began, Sandy remarked how naturally and lyrically I sang the piece now, years after singing the music for the first time. I smiled and said thank you, but I turned my attention to Jesus on the cross. For I know what He has done for me throughout the years. When it comes to music, He knows how much I offer up to Him. And He, in return, fills me with His grace. My soul is refreshed. I am reminded of all that I am able to do for Him, if I will keep a song in my heart. As I began the solo at Communion time, I lost attention for a moment. My mind began to wander, which is not a good thing to have happen when you're singing a solo. As familiar as I am with the song, I needed to be paying attention to my notes and phrasing. Instinctively, Sandy heard me begin to falter and in an instant she guided me safely back. Focused again, I sang my solo without error. But I was once more reminded of how powerful music is for me, how it can return me to my path when I step off, however briefly. 

Music is an oasis. Music, with its modulations reaches deep to comfort us. It is hard to listen to the music of beautiful hymns such as Rutter’s Magnificat without feeling that God is using the artistry to speak intimately with us. But it’s not only church music that has this effect on me. Whenever I have doubt, whenever I forget my way, He brings music to me. Sometimes it’s the next song that comes on the radio, the one that reminds me to have faith. Sometimes it is the song I belt on the stage, the one that throws caution to the wind because no matter what happens, He’ll have my back. Sometimes it is the next hymn I announce to the congregation. 

As cantor today, I read the number of our next hymn. It was a song we had never sang at St. Joe’s, but the minute I turned to it, I began to smile. I remembered hearing the song at St. Martin’s when I was a child. It had been decades. The song began with an introduction that was not set to music; only the lyrics were written. But I knew the tune. 

Gentle woman, quiet light, morning star so strong and bright, 
gentle mother, peaceful dove, 
teach us wisdom; teach us love.
You were chosen by the Father:
You were chosen for the Son, 
You were chosen from all women
and for woman shining one. 
Gentle woman, quiet light, morning star so strong and bright, 
gentle mother, peaceful dove, 
teach us wisdom; teach us love.

As the choir led the congregation, I looked up at Jesus again. I was hearing Dad’s voice singing harmony. Someday, I’m going to stand next to Dad and sing harmony with him again. In God’s choir. I know this to be true. Grammy will be there too. In the meantime, I’ve got some singing ...learning ...teaching... writing... living...loving here on Earth to do. 

As I left the church after Mass, Father Sam stopped me and took my hand, “Thank you for the music”, he said to me. “You are welcome”, I smiled, “so very welcome”

Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for the music. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013


The word perspective has taken on new meaning in the months following my father’s sudden death this past June. I have been thinking about his experiences in his final years, months, weeks, days, and hours. I have been thinking about my grief and the perspectives of his other four children who are also mourning. I am comparing my experience with those of  Dad’s grandchildren, great-grandchildren, his brother, nieces, nephews, his in-laws, friends, Maine Maritime Academy classmates, and of course, my Mom. What does she think about? How is she doing?

I thought of the word “perspective’ last week when just five minutes after entering my classroom one morning, a student of mine asked to speak to me privately. She shared with me her stress and uncertainty of knowing how to graduate on time this year, now that she is not living at her mother’s home. “How’s that for perspective?” I thought as I prepared to begin the rest of my teaching day.

Later, in my IB English class, we discussed Persepolis, a memoir of Marjane Satrapi told in the medium of a graphic novel. The eleven of us in the classroom, all Americans, admitted our naive thinking and lack of awareness of the conditions for the people of Iran during the last several decades and how our eyes are opened to the trials of our fellow human beings when we get the opportunity to read a work like hers. We discussed Maus by Art Spiegelman, another memoirist who detailed his own life in graphic novel style also, and how it was affected by his father’s time during the Holocaust and his mother’s suicide when he was quite young. We viewed the making of the Persepolis movie, one of the special features within a dvd of the film. Once again, perspective ruled. My students expressed their amazement over the work of the animators, voice-over actors, sound engineers, and the writer/director Marjane Satrapi. “I won’t be able to watch this movie without thinking about all this now”, one student said. Exactly. 

At the end of the school day, each of my children texted or called me on the phone to share news of their day and/or to ask advice. I thought of how much I love being a Mom, how parenting children continues beyond the years they live at home, and how I am now without parents to give me counsel. How odd that feels after 45 years of being a daughter! 

Returning to school the next morning, I knew what was coming. We were scheduled for a Rachel’s Challenge assembly. For anyone unaware of what this is, let me briefly explain. Rachel Joy Scott was the first victim in the Columbine High School shootings back in 1999. To honor her own acts of kindness and compassion during her lifetime, Rachel’s dad and step-mom started a student-empowerment program to support teens to reach out to others to end isolation and despair and to create a more positive culture of acceptance in their schools. The challenge extends to adults in school and also business settings as well. The assembly delivered a beautiful message. Once again, the word “perspective” washed over me. I dug my fingernails into my palm, my trick to stave off tears. I wondered whether the discussion was reaching anyone else in the audience in a powerful way. I looked up into the bleachers where students were sitting and I saw one of my students wiping tears from her face. I wondered, “What’s her story? What is she thinking about?” 

Sadly, just two days later, in the midst of our school’s Homecoming Weekend festivities, a 19 year old man from a neighboring school community took his life in our school’s parking lot. What drove that young man to such a point of desperation and hopelessness? I heard his dad died recently. I heard his girlfriend had broken up with him. I heard people saying, “I wish I could have had a chance to talk with him for just one hour. I wish I’d had a chance to talk him out of this, to give him a reason to have hope”.  I thought of people who counsel others and who remind others that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I wondered how people I would come into contact with during the next week were going to react? Some people expressed anger at the young man. This bothered me. A couple of my students had heard the gun shot. Many more of my students were evacuated from the sports fields where games were being played, none of them knowing what was going on, moving in fear and confusion. Once the news had gotten out, the community rallied to support our children and one another, and made plans to show our neighboring community the kindness and compassion we had pledged to offer one another just two days earlier.

Today is Thursday. It’s been a rough week for me and many others. I’m struggling because I’m missing my Dad an awful lot, wishing he were still here for me to talk to, but I’m doing my best to pull my head out of that sad space on a daily basis. It helps to have all these distractions here at school, but at the same time, weighing the situations and reflecting upon the various stories we all share with one another can be exhausting. The perspective we have on this world is continuously shaped by our experiences and the people we interact with during the course of our days. It shifts and is challenged, but it’s our own to be in control of. And sometimes, perspective is the best thing we have going for us. 

At least, that’s my perspective today.