The Metaphorical Implications of the Butterflies

Photo of just emerged mourning cloak hanging from the eave

There is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. So instead of talking about last Friday’s murders (or as CNN puts it, the 22nd school shooting of the year), I’m going to talk about last Wednesday’s butterflies.

I was sitting at my desk

cleaning out seventeen years of files. I was laughing over an old thank you card (“Thank you for testing our pooper-scooper. We give you our gratitude. Thank you for making this possible.”) when I heard a student say something like, “They are coming out!”

Some people wrap up their time at a job by working hard right down to the wire–crossing and dotting t’s and i’s, overturning every old stone, and finishing all those things they meant to finish months ago.  I’m not one of those people.

I stopped assigning new work and slid into a serious “winding down” phase at least two weeks ago when the seniors left. Since then, I’ve spent my days packing books, filling the recycle bin with old lesson plans, and interrupting my colleagues who are still trying to get work done.

When the student called out,

I wandered outside and looked up at the roof of the patio where, a few weeks ago, the same student had shown me a dozen or more nondescript chrysalides hanging above our heads. Today, two long rows of butterflies are peeking out of those temporary, fragile homes.

I watched them on and off all morning. One time I witnessed the exact moment when the chrysalis opened and the butterfly stepped gingerly onto the wall. Another time I watched as the wings slowly unfurled, transforming two tight cylinders into a full black cape.

A science teacher tells me their name. Mourning cloaks, she says, transporting me to an old-fashioned world where women drape themselves in heavy black capes and travel to funerals in horse drawn carriages. 

The metaphorical implications of the butterflies

are not lost on me. I’m leaving this job, leaving this place, getting ready to emerge in a new life with a new way of being in the world. But that’s too easy, isn’t it? Cliche, really.

How about this? School is the chrysalis. Kids grow safely there, out of site of the world. They change shape, mature, and, as high school ends they emerge as new beings, ready to unfurl their wings and soar.

That’s a little better, but I still don’t like it. Maybe sometimes a butterfly is just a butterfly.

That’s probably why the baby birds appeared. I’m staring up at the butterflies when I shift my gaze for a minute and see a bunch of kids staring up at the tree outside my classroom. “Baby birds,” someone calls across to me. “Right up here in the nest.”

If you were editing the movie, you’d cut the scene with the baby birds. It goes too far, you think; no one would believe it.

There is nothing new

to say about kids getting shot in school. That’s why I am writing about butterflies and baby birds. By Friday morning when I started getting texts from Fred, all the morning cloaks had flown. I saw one of them step off the eave. She flapped awkwardly for just a second, and then she soared.

On Friday morning if someone at the school in Santa Fe had said, “They are coming out,” they would not have been talking about butterflies. They would have meant the students hiding in the closet in the art room, emerging from that unexpected chrysalis as new creatures into a changed world.

When the reporters showed up

they knew what to expect. They were ready for surprise, for “we never thought it would happen here.” The reporter’s question even had that answer built right into it.

It turns out there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school except what Paige Curry said. “I wasn’t surprised,” the seventeen-year-old  told the reporter. “It’s been happening everywhere.”

The reporter blew the moment; he didn’t see the butterfly stepping out of the chrysalis. He didn’t see that this movement from shock to expectation was a new moment in the world.

I blame Rush Limbaugh

for all of it. That probably sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. He turned outrage and bad argument (yelling, personal attack, logical fallacy) into entertainment, and then convinced people his opinions were based on reason.

My parents loved him. I loved them, but I spent a career trying to teach young people how not to be Rush Limbaugh. I wanted them to think critically: to base their opinions on evidence and sound reasoning; to avoid digging in; to be respectful even as they disagreed. I tried to teach them that yelling louder than the other person doesn’t make your ideas right.

Rush Limbaugh started all of it, and now we’re here, and there is nothing new to say about kids getting shot in school. In public discourse, we’ve enshrined disrespect, elevated anger, and embraced dehumanization. Then we made a fetish out of guns.

We can argue all we want about banning guns and “hardening” schools and raising young white men to be less angry. What we can’t do any longer is pretend to be surprised.


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How to Prune A Peace Lily

Picture of the peace lily in bloom

At first I wasn’t sure it was possible to prune a peace lily; I thought we would just have to keep going on together as we had been. Several times a day she would beg for water, and I would mumble, “Already?”

Then, her leaves would droop lower and lower until I complied, tipping cool water from a pitcher into the ground below those elephantine sails. In October when my sister came to visit, I warned her. “The peace lily will probably wake you up in the middle of the night to ask for a drink of water.”

Let me be clear: I love the peace lily.

She came as a gift from my colleagues when my mother died in 2015. At that point, she was already a huge plant; I felt like I was hacking through a rain forest as I carried her from my desk to my car.

I got her home and rearranged some furniture to give her a home in the guest room, where the odds of her survival were slim.  I’ve been know to kill ficus and spider plants; surely this exotic creature was at risk in my care. We soon fell into an imperfect rhythm. I’d water her faithfully every Sunday with the other plants, and then forget about her until some stray errand took me into the guest room where I’d find the tips of her extravagant leaves dragging on the floor.

Eventually I adjusted my routine. I checked on her daily, but every time I went in, I found her drooping and calling out for more water. Things went on like this for a long time. When I realized my other relationships were beginning to suffer, I knew I was going to have to learn how to prune a peace lily.

Here’s how I did it.

Step One: Acknowledge your discontent

I tried to change other things: I thought about working out more, eating better, drinking a little less wine. None of them worked.  (That might have been because I only thought about doing those things, but I digress.)

I had to say it out loud. The needs of my beloved peace lily were taking over my life. Eventually, I had to ask myself the big question: Is this relationship keeping you from being who you are meant to be?

When I finalIy recognized that my dissatisfaction was rooted in the same pot as my peace lily, I called a wise friend. “I’m not surprised,” she said, surprising me. “You’ve been making this change for a long time; you just didn’t know its name.” 

Step Two: Make the Easy Cuts First

Armed with my kitchen scissors, I entered the jungle. I didn’t know how my peace lily would react to my pruning. I started with the leaves that had gone brown around the edges, following their stems deep into the heart of the pot. A snip here, a snip there. Soon my hands were overflowing with enough giant fronds to make a banana tree, but I wasn’t looking to start anything new here.

I carried the fronds to the trash can outside and dumped them in. “There,” I thought. “I’ve done it. I can go on.” Now I just had to wait to see if she survived.

Step Three: Re-evaluate the situation

She’s still thirsty, unmoved by my pruning. Our co-dependent droop-response cycle slows down, but the same old rhythm pulses. I cut back from watering every day to watering every other day, but it’s not enough.

“It’s not you, it’s me,” I tell her. Having tasted freedom from her needs, I’m hungry for more.

Step four: Be bold; cut deeply

This time when I enter with the kitchen shears she trembles a bit, tries to pretend it’s just a breeze. I’m going to take them all this time, I tell her. Every leaf that’s bigger than my face must go. I cut until my hands are full then walk, looking like a palm tree, outside to the trash.

My dog, confused by my arboreal transformation or the peace lily’s perambulation, barks at me.  Undeterred, I do it again. And then again.

When I’m finished, I’m surprised by how deep I was willing to go.

Step Five: The Reveal

I wasn’t sure for a few days if she was going to make it. She didn’t droop, but since drooping had been our main form of communication, I didn’t know how to interpret her silence.

The next morning I walked in to see if she needed anything. I opened the blinds to give her some sun and saw it. New, bright green leaves, younger than the whole world, were pulsing up from the base of the stems.

I could have sworn she was laughing.


And that’s how you prune a peace lily.

It turns out that pruning a peace lily is not that unlike making any other big change. Something nudges you, and then that nudge turns into a whisper. You ignore it for a while, but if it’s a real call, it keeps buzzing in your ear. You can’t swat it away.

It just keeps getting louder and more insistent until you figure out what the heck it’s been trying to tell you all this time. Rilke says, “Everything is gestation and then bringing forth.” It turns out that if you till the soil, plants are inevitably going to grow.

Rilke also says, “This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? …if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.”

That passage has been haunting me since I first read it as a freshman in college, when I was still as green and unfurled as those new leaves on the peace lily.

It has taken me more than thirty years to say I must out loud, to make the deep cuts and hack off the old, beloved growth. In less than two weeks I’ll be wrapping up this phase of my life as a high school teacher. It feels heartbreaking and wonderful; terrifying and invigorating at the same time.

Oh–and one more thought about that peace lily. Just last week it burst into bloom.


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Advice for Seniors

Note from the seniors reading "We [heart] you Ms. O'Shea"

“Do you have any advice for us?”

It’s a few days before the last day of classes and the seniors don’t want to spend any more time analyzing the Federal Reserve’s response to the financial crisis.

Who can blame them? My mind is on the future these days, too.

“Write an advice post on your blog,” they say. Then, they get back to work preparing for their debate on the Federal Reserve.

So, if they can power through their senioritis,  I guess I’ll get to work, too. Senior women in B-Block Economics, this one’s for you.

Note to everyone else: one of the perks dangers of teaching is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you are as wise as the students think you are. Let’s agree to pretend that’s true for a few more minutes while I get my hubris on and offer them some advice.

1. Everyone is insecure.

I spent a good deal of college feeling like I wasn’t quite “enough.” I was a great student and I made good and lasting friends, but I always felt a little bit like a misfit.

At my twenty-year college reunion I found myself in conversation with some of those people I’d been intimidated by. They were talking about all the things and people they had been intimidated by. Come again? One of them even mentioned my brains. Huh. 

(Bonus advice: go to reunions. They are funny and they give you an excuse to think about your life. Also, there’s a good chance that the crush who ignored you senior year will have lost his hair. That will feel better than it should.)

2. If you have a terrible job, juggle glasses.

My freshman year I worked in the dining hall. If your dining hall has a conveyor belt, imagine riding on your tray all the way through the little opening in the wall where it disappears. I worked on the other side of that wall.

Worse than that, I worked on the other side of that wall during dinner on Fridays when students were starting to let off steam for the weekend. Young people do terrible, disgusting things to mashed potatoes and patty melts after a few beers.

My job was to scrape the mashed potato castles and ground beef sculptures off those trays. Pete’s job was to take the glasses off the trays, dump out the mashed potatoes and fruit punch, and load the glasses in huge plastic racks.

Pete would grab a glass from a tray, toss it into the air, and catch it behind his back. Then he’d grab another, until he was juggling six at one time while trays kept rushing by. I never saw Pete break a glass.

I was homesick that semester in the dining hall. Pete made me feel like I could be happy.

(Bonus advice: don’t put mashed potatoes in your fruit punch in the dining hall. Extra bonus advice: don’t actually ride your tray on the conveyor belt. That would be weird. Extra super bonus advice: don’t keep that dining hall job for too long, Pete or no Pete. Dorm mail carrier–that was a good job.)

3. Try not to hurt people more than you have to.

You are going to have to hurt people sometimes. Maybe you will tell your freshman roommate that you want to live with someone else next year. Perhaps you will disappoint your parents when you realize the needs of your heart don’t align with the needs of their expectations. Someday you might stop loving someone who still loves you.

Life is complicated and sometimes it’s really hard to figure out how to be good. Don’t waste your karma hurting people when you don’t have to.

(Bonus advice: when you do hurt someone, don’t fake apologize. People hate that shit. Bonus apology to non-teenagers: Sorry about the profanity. Teenagers like that shit. Bonus homework assignment for Econ B: Debate the following proposition: O’Shea just fake apologized. Be prepared to argue either side.)

4. Don’t use the ice bucket in hotel rooms.

Old people soak their teeth in them. Don’t ask me how I know that.

(Bonus advice: If you have a long drive to college, you can always count on O’Reilly Auto Parts.)

5. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”

I’m just kidding. That’s terrible advice. (Trust me–I’m your Econ teacher.)

Did we remember to make you read Hamlet? Laertes, son of Polonius, is heading off to college. Polonius, perhaps fearing that he has forgotten to raise his son, starts spewing random advice. You can watch Bill Murray in this scene if you follow the link. Go ahead, click on it. I’ll wait.

I always thought Polonius was being sort of silly and arrogant in that scene. Then I started writing a blog post full of advice.

(Bonus advice: Make a budget. Live below your means. Be frugal when you have to be and generous always. Extra bonus advice: That thing Polonius said about friendship (did you watch the clip like I asked you to?): “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”–that was good advice. Do that.)

6. You don’t get extra credit for being strong.

Be as mature as you can pull off. Try to be decent. Be kind. But strong? Sometimes strong is stupid. Let people help you.

(Bonus advice pop quiz: Fill in the blank with appropriate bonus advice: ___________________________________________________________)

7. Like what you like, not what you think you are supposed to like.

I like Dancing with the Stars. I can tell you the complete plot of a Brady Bunch episode in thirty seconds or less. I’m a halfway decent Texas Hold’em player (I’m not kidding–I won a tournament in Laughlin one time).

People with MBAs and PhDs in English aren’t supposed to like these things. Sue me. I’m happy.

(Bonus advice: Love who you love, not who you think you are supposed to love. You should probably make sure that point ends up in your notes. In the scene before Polonius gives Laertes advice, Laertes gives Ophelia advice. In a nutshell, he says: don’t love that Hamlet guy you love. Things go badly from there. Bonus writing advice: don’t bury your most important point in the parentheses after number 7.)

8. No one is just one thing.

You’ll have to figure out what to do with this advice on your own. Someday you will need it, and I promise that it’s true.

9. See that face in the mirror?

Like that face. Say nice things to it. Treat it as well as you treat your good friends. I think I was in my forties before I figured this out. Skip those twenty years of wishing your face looked like somebody else’s face. There’s absolutely no upside there. Use that extra time to read Hamlet.

You are going to wake up with yourself every single morning of your life. You’ll probably wake up with other people sometimes, too, and that can be nice. But you are the one who will stick around. Make sure that person is someone you enjoy hanging around with.

10. You don’t need my advice.

I was halfway through writing this post on your last day of class. You started giving advice to the juniors. You told them to stand up for themselves and trust their own choices. Then you advised them not to stress out comparing themselves to their friends. Finally, you reminded them that they can get a good college education anywhere–that what you put into it is more important than where you go.

I just sat back and smiled. Class of 2018, relax. You’ve got this.


If you’ve got advice for the class of 2018, feel free to add it in the comments, and don’t hesitate to share this post with your friends.

I Am Not A Robot

Photo of Rusty, my golden retriever.

I am not a robot. In the past week, I have had to move a cursor to a little box, thumb-click my touchpad, and assert my non-membership in the robot species no fewer than five times. (I must be signing up to follow too many blogs!)

“No, o great internet gatekeeper widget,” I say again and again, “I am not a robot.” Then the robot asks me to type a strange message that only a robot could decipher, and, voila! I pass the non-robot test.

It turns out that joining the “I Am Not a Robot Club” is as simple as joining AARP.

Then one day I started feeling philosophical. How do I know, I wondered, that I am not a robot? Do robots know they are robots? What does it mean to know, anyway? All of a sudden I started to remember words  like epistemology and ontology from way back in Philosophy 101.

Before things got out of hand, I decided to make a list. Here’s what I came up with.

1.  I am certain that I am not a robot because my eyes hurt.

I woke up a few weeks ago feeling like my eyes were too big for their sockets. The last two times my eyes felt like this I had a condition called iritis, or inflammation in my retina. Apparently this “-itis”  comes as a free give-away with certain auto-immune diseases. (“If you call by midnight tonight, you’ll also receive…!”)

2. I am certain that I am not a robot because it is spring in Albuquerque.

The wind is gusting and the pollen is swarming like a gnat cloud. Those are both perfectly reasonable explanations for why my eyes hurt. If I were a robot, I would have an algorithm to weigh those explanations against my fear that I have iritis. That algorithm would have crunched all the data and concluded that I should go to my eye doctor.

3. I am certain that I am not a robot because yesterday when I had lunch with some friends, I kept taking my glasses off to clean them.

First, real robots don’t have friends. I know, I know. You are thinking about  C3PO and R2D2.  C’mon. That was Hollywood. Real robots also don’t wear glasses. And they wouldn’t have to clean them because they wouldn’t be feeling like there was a blurry spot in their vision because they would have gone to see their eye doctor when their eye pain indicators first started beeping.

4. I am certain that I am not a robot because I am thinking about Christmas.

The part of my eye that is usually just green is green and red now. Even though it’s April, you might be thinking about Christmas now. But if you live in Albuquerque and you just thought about Christmas in April, you probably meant that you wanted both red and green chile on that burrito you just ordered.

(Spell check wants me to change how I spelled chile, but don’t worry, Albuquerque friends, I won’t be bullied by my computer. I’m not some robot it can push around.)

(And if you have no idea about this Christmas thing, come visit. Experience Albuquerque!)

For the record, I never should have started down this path. Now I’m thinking about having chile in my eyes and that is making my eyes hurt.

5. I am certain that I am not a robot because when I finally went to the eye doctor she told me that my eyes are just dry.

Yippee! I don’t have iritis again. That news made me feel happy and relieved and a little embarrassed for overreacting and for letting my eyes shrivel up.  I am pretty sure robots don’t get embarrassed or feel relief.

So there you have it. In a world full of uncertainty, I am certain that I am not a robot. If you are craving certainty, too, give it a try. Sign up for some free blogs or newsletters online and answer confidently when you are asked if you are a robot. It feels better than it should.

Before I got around to hitting “publish” on this post, I learned that April 26 was “Poem in Your Pocket” day. I started wondering if there were any poems about robots, and I found “Robot Poems” in the Yale Literary Magazine. They are really worth reading, so click that link if you have a few more minutes.

Then one other funny thing happened.

Do you remember The Partridge Family? Well, Fred doesn’t. Somehow that fact came up in conversation a while back (we are nothing if not high-brow at my house). I told him stories about how my friends and I used to stand on a picnic table and sing into a hose.

Set the Wayback Machine to something like 1973 and you might even be able to see me playing the triangle (just like Tracy Partridge!) and rocking my bell bottoms in a red polyester pantsuit.

So, the other night when I was getting mad at the evening news, Fred changed the channel. “Here, I found these,” he said, and the seventies sprang to life before us. If it’s been a while, click this link, listen to the theme song, and it will all come back to you.

In one of the episodes we watched, the local department store has just gotten its first computer, the 1984Z. (And you thought The Simpsons were the first to insert clever literary references into a sitcom!) The computer turns Shirley’s $29 cuckoo clock into a $290 bill, and then things get really zany.

Before long the furniture has all been repossessed, and the lesson (every episode has a lesson) becomes clear:

Humans are better than computers. Groovy, isn’t it?

I was thinking about just how quaint that idea seemed when Fred switched back to the news and I remembered that bots have been planting fake stories on social media.

Maybe the seventies knew what they were talking about after all.

I’ll leave you with three last thoughts to wrap up this weird little essay. First, I might be the first person in the history of the world to have used the word epistemology in the same essay as Partridge Family. Enjoy the fact that you were there when it happened.

Second, twenty seconds into the first song, Fred said, “That kid’s not playing that bass.” He was talking about Danny Bonaduce, the red-headed smart-alecky kid. When the credits came on, Fred hit pause to show me the part where it said that the music was “augmented by” other musicians. Another childhood illusion bites the dust.

Finally, the point of that deep Partridge Family lesson about computers was that they aren’t reasonable, kind, or understanding.

My take-away is simple. The next time I declare that I’m not a robot, I’m going to do a quick inventory to make sure I mean it.


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Hard Days

Photo of hikers emerging from a cave into sunlight.

Many years ago (call it 2007) I was in the middle of one of those long stretches of hard days. My father had just died in West Virginia and my mother-in-law was dying in my family room.

I was teaching high school and Fred was teaching at the community college. He had a great schedule: all of his classes were on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so he had plenty of time to care for his mother. Part of this care involved managing the troupe of hospice workers who saved our lives every day.

They brought things Ann refused to use,

like oxygen and a hospital bed. They convinced her to do things she refused to do, like take a shower, or speak to the doctor, or sleep in her bedroom at night.

They took her blood pressure, listened to her lungs, and helped us find a good sleeping chair. Hospice workers taught me how  to help with adult diapers and  to apply the cream she needed for the rash under her breasts.

On good days, I’d listen forever to her stories–often fabulous tales with a recurring theme: life would have been better if only [fill in the blank] hadn’t wronged her.

On hard days I seethed while she complained about Fred or about the meal I had just made her. “I can’t eat this garbage,” she might say, on a day that wasn’t good for either of us.

That was a rough spell. Coming as it did on the heels of both my father-in-law’s and my father’s deaths, and in the midst of my mother’s worsening dementia, those were hard days. Even our dogs had started dying.

I look back on those hard days now

and can see how my focus telescoped in. Breathing and moving. Those were the things I knew. Inhale, exhale, and keep walking through the obstacle course as it unravels before you. One day you climb over a rotting fence, one day you belly crawl through thorny underbrush, and one day you leap over or (screw it) stomp through mud puddles.

Maybe you even have one day when you lie on the couch and pretend the world can take care of itself, because even the air has become too heavy for you to carry.

On one day like that, I stayed home from work. Ann must have been sleeping, because I can’t find her in this memory. The lone member of the hospice troupe scheduled for that morning was a woman named Mary.

I’d never met her before, but Fred knew her well. I don’t remember her title, but she seemed to be the “caring for the caregivers” member of the team. I put a pot of coffee on and she and Fred launched into conversation.

I hung on the fringes,

gave them some space, and poured the coffee when it was ready. Determined to be a spectator in this conversation, I wasn’t ready when Mary turned to me and said, “And how are you doing?”

What I mean by “I wasn’t ready” is that I didn’t smile and say something like, “I’m fine, Fred is really bearing the brunt of this.” Mary blew that simple trumpet, and all my walls came tumbling down.

When my mother-in-law was dying I didn’t dig; I didn’t open my heart to wonder why she was preparing to leave this world with so little affection for it. Her stories were set-pieces, polished works that I let pour over me like tiny stones.

I was afraid to pick them up and learn what they weighed. I smiled and nodded through Ann’s last six months, occasionally generous, often resentful.

When Mary asked me how I was doing, I talked and cried for a long time. I’m not exaggerating when I say she changed me forever. Her simple question gave me permission to feel what I was feeling. She taught me that I didn’t have to be strong, that I could set my little piece of sky down once in while so I could rest.

Oscar Wilde said

“The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death.” He was right about that, but in those hard days I felt like I was being precocious in racking up so many losses. My friends were still visiting their parents for holidays and dinner parties, not going to doctors’ appointments or writing eulogies.

Lately, though, and sadly, that has started to change. My friends’ parents are receiving hard diagnoses, entering hospice, passing judgment on their own long lives. My friends are walking beside their parents, holding up the sky as best they can.

I’m watching from the other side, wondering how to be helpful.

All that comes is a line from a poem by John Matthias.   “When my father finished playing dying/I began…”

The line is from a poem titled “Poem for Cynouai” that I first heard the poet himself read when I was in college. He was my teacher, and the poem moved me deeply. Whenever I forget what it means to write poetry, I read that poem and remember.

Right now, the book that holds that poem is sealed in a box in what used to be my mother-in-law’s closet. I packed most of my books a few years ago when we first thought we might sell this too-big house. We filled neatly labelled boxes and stacked them on top of one another like drawers in a mausoleum.

I can’t find “Poem for Cynouai” online (except in pieces in that review I linked to above). The words remain alive in me, but I can’t touch them. I can’t read the lines above or below the one line I remember. I can’t ask the poem questions or turn the page to see what follows.

It’s something like that, all of these losses.

I am not sure

why John Matthias showed up in my kitchen while I was writing this morning, or why Mary the hospice worker came to mind as the coffee brewed. What I do know is that a number of my friends are in the middle of things I’ve made it to the other side of.

I feel like I should have something to offer them: useful notes from the journey, maybe, or dispatches from the far shore. Instead, I feel like the friend I spoke with the other morning.

He’s in the middle of the obstacle course right now; he’s climbing, leaping, wading, striding, trudging–dealing with each hurdle as it appears. From where he stands, I imagine, there is no such thing as looking around or beyond or ahead.

“I wake up every morning,” he said, “and I don’t know.”

I remember that feeling.

In those long stretches of hard days it’s as though you signed up to run a race and no one will show you a map of the course or tell you how long you’ll be running. All you can do is put the next foot down, and then put the next foot down again.

Right now, though, I’m in the middle of a stretch of good days. Or maybe I am not in the middle at all; maybe I’m at the beginning, and these good days are going to unroll into the future as far as I can see. Or not–maybe I’ve lived through most of them already and my next obstacle course is waiting just around the corner.

In his poem “Evening” my old friend Rilke says, “It is alternately stone in you and star.”  I don’t know. But if I were going to send any news from the star days, maybe it’s just that they came back. Life came to its senses eventually and got back to the business of living.

In the meantime, it’s good to have friends who help you hold up the sky.


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Learning to Count

Learning to count in 7/8 time.

Yesterday afternoon while the wind blew and the pollen tried to kill me, I was learning to count.

The question at hand was this: Is it 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 or 1-2-3-1-2-1-2? For a few minutes as the numbers were flying, I could feel the panic room shields locking into place around my brain.

Does this happen to you?

Sometimes when too much information comes at me too quickly my brain just stops. Picture a little kid covering her ears and singing “lala-lala-lalala” when she knows you are about to tell her there is no Easter Bunny.* Or worse, if you’re an Apple user, picture that spinning color wheel of death.

Nothing good ever happens after the colors start spinning.

So yesterday afternoon at mandolin orchestra practice when I asked, “How are you counting those two measures in the introduction?” and Ken started calling out numbers, I felt my inner la la girl reach her hands toward my ears.

I don’t know if this shut-down feature has gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, or if I’ve just become more aware of it. All these years of encouraging students to reflect on their learning after every project might be rubbing off on me. (Where was it hard? Where did you get stuck? How did you move past that point? What are you most proud of?)

I had a similar shut-down moment a few weeks ago. I was walking through a model home with a realtor who wouldn’t leave my side. She had a really loud voice, and she wouldn’t stop talking.  In fifteen minutes, I learned details about her life story that I couldn’t tell you about some of my closest friends.

I finally had to interrupt her in mid-sentence and run out the door, leaving  Fred to mop up for my abrupt departure.

So Sunday afternoon

after Ken said 1-2-1-2-1-2-3 and 1-2-3-1-2-1-2 and Michael said 1-2-3-4-5-6-7  (and I snapped “That’s not going to be helpful at all,” at him), I thought it was all over. I was about to resign myself to being lost on the intro and hoping I could catch up a few measures in.

And then something funny happened. I looked at measure 48 and saw it–three eighth notes followed by two quarter notes: 1-2-3-1-2-1-2. Then measure 49 came into focus. Even measure 51: half note, eighth rest, eighth note, eighth note (1-2-1-2-1-2-3) started making perfect sense.

Learning to count in 7/8 time.
Learning to Count in 7/8 time.

Maybe you have been confidently playing music in 7/8 time for years, and you’re wondering why this was hard for me. Or maybe you don’t read music at all and you have no idea what I’m talking about. (Sorry about that!)

Or maybe you are neither of those people and you are just trying to figure out what the big deal is about a 54 year-old finally learning to count.

I’m trying to figure that out, too.

But the thing is, it was a big deal. It’s not just about learning to count in a 7/8 time signature. With as much music as I’ve played and sang in my life, it’s more remarkable that I’ve never learned that before.

What excites me is that, when my familiar shut-down moment appeared, my old brain did something new. It wedged its foot in the elevator doors before they slammed shut. To quote my uncle, that’s big potatoes.

I’ve always been able to empathize with students who have test anxiety. I’ve always assumed they felt just like I feel when my la la girl starts singing. Now, though, I can do more than empathize. I can assure them that their brain can do something different.

But how?

I can’t claim to know that what happened Sunday is repeatable, but I can tell you what I noticed.

First, I gave myself permission to fail. I was resigned to my confusion. I let go of any pressure to succeed, any pretense that I knew what I was doing, and any disappointment over not already knowing how to do this.

Second, I was persistent (some in the Albuquerque Mandolin Orchestra might, if they weren’t such kind people, say annoying) in asking for what I needed. I kept saying things like, “Could you do that again more slowly?” or “Could you tell me how you’d count measure nineteen?”

Third, I was grounded. I’ve been making some big decisions lately (more about that in a future essay), and those decisions have left me feeling clear and solid. Years ago the city of Albuquerque brought goats (a flock? a herd? a scrabble? a gabble?) into the bosque to eat the salt cedars.

I feel like the bosque must have felt the next day: the goats have eaten away the underbrush and the path is clear.

In The Book of Awakening,

Mark Nepo writes, “the way to stay in the presence of that divine reality which informs everything is to be willing to change.” A dear friend gave me this book, and pointed out the section called “The Gift of Shedding.” Shed what?  “Whatever has ceased to function within us…whatever we are carrying that is no longer alive” (104).

I don’t mean to argue that loving yourself is some pat cure for test anxiety, but I do know that learning to count didn’t happen while the weeds were wrapped around my ankles.

One more thing about learning to count. I thought about telling you this happened in a dream so you wouldn’t think I’m crazy, but that feels like cheating. Sunday afternoon before I went to mandolin practice I was leaning on my kitchen counter, just sort of lost in thought.

All of a sudden I had this weird image: my chest opened up like one of those shoe box dioramas little kids make, and a whole menagerie of colorful animals came trotting out of my chest into the world.

I don’t know quite what to make of that vision (brain tumor?), but I thought it might be relevant.

I’ll leave you with that thought while I go play a little mandolin. The Albuquerque  Mandolin Orchestra is opening for Nell Robinson and Jim Nunally in a house concert this Friday evening, and while learning to count Cantiga 706 in A minor is great, it’s not the same thing as being able to play it.

(* That little girl is singing la la in a count of 1-2-1-2-1-2-3. See what I did there?)

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Adventures in Bird Watching #1: Meet Oscar the Egret

Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door, looking for a turkey dog.

If I were funnier, I’d start this post like a joke: an egret walks into the family room and the dog says…

I’m not that funny, though, and that would give too much away. I want to start further back, maybe with the wood stork.

It was Thursday morning, and Fred and I were visiting our friend Diane in Florida. We’d all gone outside because we saw the muscovy ducks walking around with their babies. The chicks were trailing behind them in a line like an old-fashioned Ugly Duckling pull toy.

Muscovy ducks are hilarious.

If you’ve never seen one, they look like the duck you’d make if you were finished making ducks and had some leftover pieces you didn’t want to waste. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes the muscovy as a “large heavy-bodied duck with warty red spots on face.”

One of the many charms of Diane’s neighborhood is that the muscovy ducks wander around all the time. Later in the week we’ll find ourselves in a duck jam when the muscovy space themselves evenly across the street, bringing traffic (by which I mean our rental Nissan) to a leisurely halt.

They won’t tell you this at Cornell, but muscovy ducks are flagrant jaywalkers.

Anyway, we were admiring the baby ducks

when we spotted the tall white bird in the water. Egret was the obvious choice, but that didn’t seem quite right. We grabbed the binoculars and took turns noticing details about this bird.

Huge, mostly white, black feathers along each wing, long beak, reddish feet.  We watch him until our coffee grows cold then head in to find him online. In the end, it’s the scaly head that nails it. Wood stork all the way.

I’m not a serious bird watcher, nor do I play one on tv, but I do I come by my fascination with naming birds honestly. My parents kept a bird book on the divider by the kitchen table, and kept a list of every bird they ever saw in the yard for the forty-some years they lived on Marvle Valley.

I have that book and that list somewhere, but I’ll never get to Oscar the Egret if I go look for it now. I do remember that for much of my childhood, they were on a quest to spot a pileated woodpecker.

Here’s the cool thing about that quest–

once they spotted him, they were just as eager to spot him again. I think there’s some sort of lesson about love lurking there, but I promised Oscar I’d write about him, and I’ve already broken one promise to that bird, so I’d best get on with it.

Fred and I leave our friend after the wood stork morning and set off across the state in search of adventure. We find some (another story for another day) and then drive back to the Gulf.

When we return Diane is house-sitting for some neighbors across the street. We join her there and gather in the kitchen to prepare a feast. We’re cooking steak and salmon, roasting corn and asparagus, tossing a salad, and baking potatoes.

The back door is open, and before long Diane lets us know that Oscar the Egret is here. He’s standing right outside the open door.

I’m a sucker for tall birds.

I walk to the door and strike up a conversation. With the S in his neck uncurled, Oscar’s beak hovers about waist level. Oscar stares while I talk to him and start taking pictures. Diane tells us that the owners of this house feed him turkey dogs.

Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door, looking for a turkey dog.
Oscar the Egret standing just outside the open door.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology says that the great egret eats “mainly small fish but also eats amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals and invertebrates such as crayfish, prawns, shrimp, polychaete worms, isopods, dragonflies and damselflies, whirligig beetles, giant water bugs, and grasshoppers.”

Turkey dogs aren’t on the list.

Or in the freezer. We check. But hey, we’re cooking salmon. I tell Oscar to come back later and we’ll save him some. Oscar says, “That sounds good,  but I’ll just wait here, thanks.” He has a very expressive stare.

He also keeps taking steps toward the open door, so in a moment of sanity we close it. We head back into the kitchen to work on dinner.

Diane is drizzling olive oil on the asparagus when we’re startled by wings, a commotion at the window. (According to Cornell, Oscar’s wingspan is anywhere from 4 feet 3 inches to 5 feet 6 inches. Fun fact, mine is 5 feet 4 inches. Fred just measured for me.)

Oscar the Egret perched in the kitchen window.
Oscar the Egret watching us cook salmon.

Oscar has flown up onto the windowsill, apparently deciding to oversee our preparations. He’s a little cramped there, so he flaps over to the barbecue where he still has a good view of the salmon.

At some point Oscar gives up on us and flies off,

making it possible for us to have dinner outside on the patio. Good friends, a good Cabernet, a great meal–dinner stretched into the evening and it was late before we all called it a night.

The trouble started the next afternoon. Oscar the Egret came back, looking for the salmon I’d promised him. But the salmon was really, really good. I’d forgotten all about Oscar while I cleaned my plate.

I try to explain this to Oscar, but he isn’t buying it. Or maybe he just figures it’s time to take matters into his own wings. To be honest, I’m not sure exactly what he is thinking when he steps through the doorway into the family room.

While we’re all standing around wondering what to do next, let’s try that joke again. An egret walks into the family room and the dog says…

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ginger stands by Diane completely unimpressed. “Giant white bird in the family room. What’s the big deal?” This dog is one cool cat.

Diane saves the day when she remembers we’ve got some leftover steak in the refrigerator. For a moment, we look at each other and wonder if we are really going to feed steak to the egret standing in the family room.

But, seriously, read that sentence again. The egret is standing in the family room.

What choice did we have?

When the steak is in my hand  and Oscar takes a few steps toward me, I realize that I don’t actually know how one feeds an egret. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes Oscar’s bill as “daggerlike.”

That seems about right. I realize (a little late) that I don’t know if Oscar catches frogs with his beak open or if he stabs them. (Fun fact: the answer is both.)

I panic and toss the steak toward him, and he snaps it out of the air with a speed that would make my golden retriever sit up and applaud. Diane’s dog, on the other hand, is enjoying his own leftover steak and ignores Oscar.

The giant egret runs outside to dunk the steak in the pool before he eats it. Of course, if you feed an egret one piece of steak in the family room, most of you can probably guess what happens next.

I’ll give you a hint.

The egret doesn’t say, “Thanks so much, I’ll be on my way now.”

I’m still trying to process the fact that I was just standing in the family room with a giant egret when Oscar runs back in. I toss another piece of steak, Oscar dunks it in the pool, and back he comes.

This goes on for a few rounds before we come to our senses and make a move for the door when Oscar heads for the pool. He looks at us indignantly through the glass, just like a dog when you won’t throw the ball the twenty-seventh time.

So there you have it: my close encounter of the egret kind. The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful after that.

I’m left with a few random thoughts.

First, it worries me that I might be misspelling Oscar’s name. Now that I’ve gotten to know him a little, I think he’s more of an “Oskar”–there was something Germanic in that egret’s intense stare.

Second, to my friends who interact with wildlife outdoors, I want to reassure you that I do know better than to feed the wildlife. I would like to say that I’ll never do that again, but if a giant bird is standing in the family room, I might not be able to keep that promise.

Third, if you look up “egret poems,” you’ll get a lot of poems about “regret” instead. That might have been useful if Oscar had indeed speared my hand with his “daggerlike bill,” but that didn’t happen. The whole encounter left me feeling touched by wonder.

Finally, after you wade through the poems about regret, you’ll find this thought, tucked away in Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mysteries, Four of the Simple Ones.” Oliver asks,

“And what else can we do when the mysteries present themselves
but hope to pluck from the basket the brisk words
that will applaud them…?”

Well, I’ve got one idea.

Busy

The word of the day is busy.  Can anyone relate?

In the past two weeks, I’ve done every extra thing I ever do and then some. When I finished writing student narrative comments for midterm grades, I started working on a freelance writing job that fell into my lap from the sky. That work would have been easier if it didn’t appear in the same week my student service learning group was hosting a film screening and panel discussion on Tuesday night to raise awareness about HPV (click here to see a seventeen minute film that might change your life).

And those complications were complicated by the fact that on Thursday and Friday night, I had a rehearsal and performance of a staged reading of Angels in America (more on that in a minute).

Oh, and it just so happened that in the same week  I had agreed to preach a sermon, and I was trying to learn a bunch of piano pieces to be able to play in church the following Sunday.  For good measure, let’s toss in the dentist appointment to trade out the temporary crown on my back left molar for a permanent one. That appointment took an hour and a half before the dentist realized the permanent crown was defective and I’d have to reschedule and come back in three weeks.

Did I mention I’ve been busy ?

What I haven’t been is reflective. It’s finally Tuesday morning, and I have put a check mark in every single box. I’m at the front end of two glorious weeks off,  and I finally have time to glance back over my shoulder into the whirlwind.  What’s coming into focus is a group of chairs in a blowsy room in the back corner of the Peggy Ann Findlay Performing Arts building.

It’s Thursday afternoon, a few weeks ago. Three-thirty, to be precise. I’m sitting in a circle in the green room with a handful of students, two drama teachers, and three other colleagues. The students are highlighting their scripts, eating cheese and crackers from a plastic tray in the center of the circle. I was their age and a lot less busy the last time I did anything like this.

“When we reach a difficult scene,” Meghan explains, establishing the ground rules, “let’s just read it. Then we’ll stop and talk about it, and see if we think we can do it.” The play we are about to read is Angels in America, and if you know it, you’ll understand why reading it with high school students could get complicated.

The mood in the room is relaxed and expectant. None of knows quite what we’re in for. What unites us is that we are the people who said “yes” a few months ago when Meghan sent out an email saying, “We’re going to do a staged reading of Angels in America. Who’s in?”

The plan is to read the play from start to finish in the next two and a half hours and then to read it on stage tomorrow night, followed by an audience discussion; we’re calling it a reading and a “talk-back.”

Tony Kushner’s masterpiece deals with the AIDS crisis in the 90s; both the language and the themes are adult and explicit. Thursday afternoon in the green room we press on. Students and colleagues are becoming new people as we bring our characters to life. Students are saying words we’d correct them for if they said them anywhere else. Here, we’re just correcting their pronunciation. (One good teacher moment came when the unasked question took the floor–whose job is it to correct a student’s pronunciation of fellatio? If memory serves, none of us stepped up.)

We make it through one of the most explicit scenes: a character who has abandoned his dying lover is seeking punishment through a random encounter in a park. A little nervous laughter from the students and the adults, and then, “It doesn’t feel gratuitous,” a student says. “It shows us how bad he feels about abandoning his partner,” another adds. They are competent, these kids, and wise. The scene stays in.

I am playing an old rabbi who presides over a funeral in Act I. Later, I play Hannah Hill, mother of Joe, a gay Mormon man. When Joe tries to come out to me in a late night phone call I agree with him that his father never loved him, tell him to stop being ridiculous, and hang up on him.

By six o’clock we’re nearing the end of the reading and we’re all spent. It’s been an emotional afternoon. We’ve laughed and cried and created something intimate and holy together.

It strikes me that one of the things we’re doing in this little circle is dropping the pretenses that normally shape our relationships with each other. For this teacher/student thing to work  during the normal school day, teachers pretend the adolescents they are teaching are more innocent, less complex than they are; students keep up their end of the bargain by pretending their teachers’ lives end at 3:20,  and that we’re more innocent, less complex than we are.

Tony Kushner says that the thing about live theater is that you have to show up for it. Friday night, we sit in a straight line across the stage, a music stand in front of each of us displaying the name of the character we’re playing.

After the performance in the talk-back, a man in the audience thanks us. “I’ve been HIV positive since 1990,” he says. “I’ve lived through everything in this play.” He talks on, and I’m far from the only one weeping. Others praise the students’ courage in taking on these adult roles.

Another student expresses her gratitude for the chance to participate, saying, “Now I know I have all these questions I didn’t even know I had.” Teacher friends will understand that there is no higher praise.

The moment I’ll carry forever, though, happens when a tenth grader a few chairs down from me addresses the man in the audience. “I’m a gay man,” he says, “and it hasn’t always been easy for me.” He is choking up as he adds, “but it has been so much easier for me than it was for you. I just want to thank you for everything you did to make my life easier.”

I’ll skip the part where the whole room is crying. Another student in the audience rescues us and brings the light back when she comments that she just “got to hear the head of her school  say the F-bomb nineteen times.”

And just like that, the evening came to an end, and just like that, my insanely busy two weeks have dissolved into these few quiet moments when I can look back and catch my breath.

One of my favorite poems is James Wright’s “A Blessing.” You can follow the link if you want to read the whole gorgeous  thing, but it  ends with these lines:

Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.

And that is exactly how I feel. Looking back on these crazy, busy weeks, I’m struck by the fact that I was never stressed out. Life was over-full, and yet time felt ample.  Each claim on every busy day claimed it fully, and then left the other times alone. I think that for the first time in my life, I might actually be learning to understand what the Buddhists mean by being present.

Which isn’t to say I didn’t miss some things. I kept my head down in my busy march from commitment to commitment. That explains why I was so surprised this morning when I walked out the front door to get the paper and was shocked to see the flowering plum in the front yard in full blossom.

I hadn’t seen it coming. Surely over the past few weeks I could have noticed the swelling buds , the water-color green of leaves eager to emerge. There must have been signs. Spring doesn’t turn on like a light switch;  it meanders in like a ten year old boy, pausing here and there to kick a rock, or run a stick along a fence, or chase a dog.

So often when I’m surprised it’s by bad news; a phone call jarring the night or a tragedy scarring the world.

This morning I’m surprised by the way the light is sifting through pinon branches, by how much noise these gabbling desert birds can make, by the way this sad old earth has cast off winter one more time.

While I was too busy to pay attention it came back to life; it burst, inexplicably, and at last, into blossom.

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Believe

Here’s a slightly different post this week: my awesome church let me preach another sermon this morning. What follows is the text of my remarks. See you next week with a new essay!

_____________________

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.”

Many of you know that in addition to teaching just down the road at Bosque School, I write a blog. The last time I had the opportunity to stand here and speak to you, I posted my remarks.

Shortly after I put that essay online, a woman wrote to tell me that I “gave the most erroneous ‘sermon’ on one of the most beautiful gospel readings.” She implored me to stop preaching, and to pray and talk to my spiritual advisor.

I just thought you should know what you are getting into.

Seriously, I am grateful to be speaking again, and you are warned.

Today we heard an odd little story from the book of Numbers.

Moses has led the Israelites out of Egypt, but this morning, they are not grateful. They are like kids in the backseat four hours into a ten-hour road trip. They are bored and they are hungry. They are kicking the front seat and taking turns asking, “Why did we have to go on this stupid trip, anyway?”

So God, Yahweh, does what any loving parent would do: he sends poisonous snakes to bite them, and they die.

(It’s probably best to let go of that analogy about the kids in the back seat now.)

As the snakes slither through camp, though, the Israelites get it. They go back to Moses and say, “Hey, Mo, our bad. Can you do anything about the snakes?”

Yahweh steps in and tells Moses to make a snake and raise it up on a staff. If anyone else gets bitten, Yahweh explains, she can gaze at the snake on the stick and live.

Notice that Yahweh doesn’t make the snakes don’t go away. That feels like it might be important.

Let’s leave the Israelites wandering in the desert

for the moment and shift our gaze to the New Testament.

Years ago, I was talking with a friend who was wishing she had a place like St. Michael‘s in her life. She said, “I’d love to have a church like yours, but I don’t believe in God.”

“Oh,” I replied, without giving it any thought, “you don’t have to believe in God to go to church.”

That conversation kept popping into my mind as I thought about today’s readings. In his letter from prison to the Ephesians, Paul writes that “by grace you have been saved by faith” and in John’s gospel we hear that “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed.”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found this whole believing business to be hard. I think part of why I’ve sought out faith communities my whole life has been to surround myself with believers (people like all of you), so that I can hop onto your faith and ride it like a train clear into glory. One time when my parents were visiting, I woke early and looked out the window. I saw my father sitting outside on the deck as the sun came up, praying the rosary.  Those are the moments that carry me.

If I came to church only on those days when I could say with certainty that “I believe,” and have any idea what I meant by that, I would spend many Sunday mornings at home.

I think that’s why I’m normally over there, singing with the choir. Over there, I don’t have to think about believing. When the spirit breathes through us, turns our bodies and breath into instruments, my critical mind goes silent, and I know God.

But this moment, this space, is about words.

So I’ve been trying to make sense of one of the most beloved passages in scripture: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Think about it—that one sentence feels like it captures the whole thing: the whole New Testament, the whole mystery of faith in less than thirty words.

I’ve been imaging this scene:

Jesus is talking to God over some heavenly dinner table in the sky. He is begging his father to let him go live on earth. And you’re, you know, God. You can keep your child safe in heaven. You can save him from every scraped knee, every broken bone, and every heartache. I’d understand if God had said no.

But of course, to do that, God would also have to deny his son the full moon tilting over the Sandias, the feeling of the sun warming bare skin, that swelling thing your heart does in the presence of glorious art, or music, or poetry. That whole ability to feel embodied love.

Every parent lets him go. You cross your fingers, say a prayer, and watch your child walk out the door. You so love the world that you send your child into it, even though you know there’s a crucifix waiting on every hill.

Jesus says,

“Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already…” I don’t know about you, but I’ve been having a rough Lent. On Ash Wednesday, when those children were gunned down in their school in Parkland, I lost my footing.

I began Lent swinging from grief to anger, wobbling from cynicism into despair. Some days it’s just too hard to love the world. Some days the world (this beautiful earth, “our island home” as we’ll say when we celebrate the Eucharist) feels so old, and heavy, and tired.

In the second week of Lent, when my own school conducted a lock down drill, we drew the shades, turned off the lights, and sat on the floor in my classroom against what we euphemistically call the “safe wall.” Nineteen teenagers and I sat in complete silence for more than twenty minutes while we waited for the all clear. Every one of us was imagining what it would be like if this were real.

As the drill ended, I had to give the kids a break so I could compose myself. I had to figure out how to move out of the swirling morass of love and terror and cynicism and sadness that threatened to swallow me. I had to take a deep breath, turn on the lights, and remind myself that God so loved a world that was every bit as broken as this one.

It has been a rough Lent.

And yet, the days are growing longer, this morning there is actually a little water in the air, and today’s gospel calls us to believe. When Jesus says, “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light,” I think he is reminding us that we are called to love the world. That to sink into the darkness of cynicism and despair is to be “condemned already.”

To believe in the resurrection is, I think then, to keep believing that this tired, heavy, broken and breaking planet is bathed in light and remains worthy of our love. To believe in eternal life is to believe that in the long game, the eternal game, love doesn’t just win, love has already won.

Oh—remember those Israelites we left wandering in the desert?

When Yahweh answered their prayer, he didn’t make the biting snakes go away. Instead, he gave the Israelites what they needed in order to survive them.

On this fourth Sunday of Lent, as we yearn toward Easter, as we trudge on together toward resurrection, that feels like it might be important.

____________________

Hurry

How does the universe know when you are in a hurry? I’m going to assume it’s one of Newton’s rarely studied postulates called the Stress-Based Law of Increased Atmospheric Friction.

Or you could just blame it on a design flaw. That’s what I’m thinking after my alarm goes off this morning.  I’m reaching to turn it off when I knock my ipad over on the nightstand. Through the predictable physics of the ricochet (is that a thing?) my glasses fly across the dark room, and of course, since we are talking about my glasses and because it’s dark, I can’t find them. Good morning, design flaw.

I’m in a hurry because I have completely unrealistic expectations for the first sixty minutes of my day today. In order for the  thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that is my life this week to work, I need to start complete this essay and a second piece of writing that is close to being finished, but keeps refusing to give up its truth. Right now that other essay is a beautiful pile of words in search of what it’s trying to say.

Not this essay, though! This essay is going to grow like a freeze-dried seahorse from a tiny capsule into a complex, living creature in mere minutes. All I need to do is add water coffee. (Which is ready now–excuse me for a second while I go get a cup.)

This IS NOT an essay about seahorses. In fact it’s another essay about how wonderful teenagers are, but I know that you can’t tell that yet.

While we all wait for me to get to my point, here is the thing about seahorses. When I wrote that simile about my essay growing like a freeze-dried seahorse, I was thinking about Dudley Do-Right and those crazy things you’d want to order as a kid watching Saturday morning cartoons or reading the backs of cereal boxes.

Help me out, siblings or age-group friends. Does anyone else remember ordering freeze-dried seahorses by mail in the late sixties or early seventies? Pop them in water, and voila, instant seahorse?

It seems unlikely that I could be making this memory up, but when I asked Professor Google just now (and really, I’m in a hurry! Why am I googling seahorses?!) I didn’t find a link to a site for goofy seventies novelties, I found real information.

Did you know that there are twenty-five different species of seahorses? That fact is from some website I already clicked away from, and I’m in a hurry, so I can’t go back to figure out if I should trust it. I’m sorry if that information isn’t true. But really, this isn’t an essay about seahorses, so let it go, ok?

Get this. According to National Geographic, seahorses “are monogamous and mate for life.” And I know what you are thinking now. You are thinking, what can this possibly have to do with teenagers making five circle Venn diagrams?”

At least, that’s what you would be thinking if I had started writing the essay I was planning on writing this morning. That essay is about serious things like fiscal policy and Venn diagrams and compromise. I think you’ll like it.

I know we’re in a hurry; I’ll get to the Venn diagrams in a minute. But did you know that, according to Nat Geo, seahorses,  those amazing creatures that I think I remember buying freeze-dried through the mail “are among the only animal species on Earth in which the male bears the unborn young”?

“Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here!”

It reminds me of the day I learned about asparagus plates.

Before I start talking about teenagers and  fiscal policy, I’d like to point out that it’s not even six a.m. (but it’s close–way too close! I’m in a huge hurry this morning!) and I’ve already written about physics, marine biology, and economics. Well, I haven’t really written about economics yet, but that’s the subtext. I’m sure a careful reader will be able to tease it out, just as they picked up on that little Shakespeare quote I just slipped in.

I thought someone should notice. A little applause maybe. (Note to self: When I’m in a hurry, I forget to edit out my arrogance.)

Since googling seahorses led me to information about a real species, I decided to google “freeze dried seahorses” instead. That search didn’t go so well. In fact, it made me sad. I learned that seahorses are ground into powder for use in Chinese medicine. I learned about an illegal shipment of seahorses that was “seized at the Beijing airport.” I skimmed through the comments at seahorse.com  and read this note from a seahorse breeder who said “It is a LOT harder to raise seahorses than to kill them.”

And damn if I haven’t googled myself into a perfect segway for talking about teenagers.

This fall I fumbled my way into my now-all-time favorite lesson plan. It started about six hundred crises ago when the government was on the brink of shutting down. At this point, I can’t remember why. Passing a spending bill, maybe?

I found a nifty little game online called the Fiscal Ship. I’m in a hurry, so I’ll just give you a quick overview. You choose three governing goals–things like “protect the elderly” or “fight climate change” or “rein in entitlements” from ten or eleven choices the game gives you.

Then, you play the game by implementing realistic policies to meet your goal while you simultaneously work to “reduce future debt to today’s levels.” The policies are sorted into seventeen major categories, like education, defense, social security–you get the picture. I’d give you more examples if I wasn’t in a hurry.

Each time you choose a policy, you can see the impact on the debt level. It’s a nifty game, and it worked great for teaching kids about the sort of choices that politicians make.

John Dewey said:

“…give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; …learning naturally results.”

(I’d just like to pause in my rush for a moment to point out that I’ve now added pedagogy to the list of things I’ve written about before six a.m.)

I was having so much fun seeing the students struggle with hard choices that I decided to ask them to present their results to the class. Surreptitiously, I took notes on their governing goals as they spoke.

Then, because one of the students said, “This would be so much harder if we had to get other people to agree with us,” and I had already been thinking along those lines, I matched them up with other people whose goals were radically different from their own and had them play again.

First, though, I wanted them to reach a thorough understanding of their differences. On a whim, I told them to make a Venn diagram showing the overlap between their ideas. For the record, making a five-circle Venn diagram is no small feat. None of us were even sure it was possible.

Here’s what they looked like while they were trying to figure it out (and for the record, they told me I could use these pictures).

Photo of students, not in a hurry, figuring out how to make their Venn diagram.
These students found a model online, projected it onto the board, and traced it. That was the easy part.
A project you can't hurry through; finished five-circle Venn diagrams.
Here are some of the finished products. The tiny writing indicates the policies they each chose when they played alone.

Making a five circle Venn diagram was just hard enough that it took them a really long time to figure out how to do it. By the time they had worked it out, they had a rich understanding of the differences between their goals. (If you didn’t know me, you might think I had planned it that way.)

I’m in a hurry, so I’ll jump to the punchline. Once the students had clearly identified their differences, they were able to reach agreement on shared goals easily. I was shocked; kids who had chosen “rein in entitlements” quickly found common ground with kids who had chosen “shore up social security” or “decrease inequality.”

They played the game, and I listened to them negotiate their differences. I walked around the room hearing them say things like, “We all agree on the carbon tax, so that will give us enough money to pay for pre-K education for all. Can everyone live with that?”

The point is, they made it look easy. If you want to believe there is hope for the world, ask a teenager to solve a problem.

Finally, because one of the skills we’ve been working on is developing  models, and because I was so impressed with their work, I asked them to develop a model for how to reach a compromise. Again, piece of cake for these kids.

Picture of a student model; even if you are in a hurry, you can make a compromise.
One group compared reaching a compromise to growing a flower.
No hurry; this photo shows kids working on their model.
These students created a recipe for compromise.

One group based their model on a recipe. They combined five tablespoons of ideas with a “pinch of open ears and hearts.” Another group drew a flower. That model included taking the areas you agreed on and applying them back to your shared goals. Others created simple, step-by-step flow charts.

None of them failed. Every group was able to agree on policy choices that met their shared goals and kept the deficit in check. Not only that, they kept their friendships intact, too. No one called each other names or stormed off or took their crayons and went home.

The other thing none of them did was to decide that the problem was insoluble. A good Venn diagram  “shows all possible logical relations between a finite collection of different sets.” When the students played the game individually, they chose as many as thirty policies each. Showing all of the possible logical relationships between their sets was a massive undertaking.

That fact didn’t stop them. Even when they weren’t certain they could solve the entire problem, they kept doing what they could.

I’m in a hurry this morning, so I’ll leave it to you to wrap things up. There are some things we can all learn from teenagers like the ones I’m lucky enough to spend my days with.

Maybe someday they’ll even save the seahorses.