Sunday, June 12, 2016

A First Grade Commencement Speech

Last week, after the last books had been packed, the last papers returned, the last old markers set aside for recycling, and the last of the last had been done, we said good bye to our fifth graders.  In morning graduation ceremonies, the first graders, all in their white shirts and khaki pants, stood tall, sat quietly, and sang loudly, and then it was on to the fun stuff.  We held a picnic on the playground.  The boys ate lunch on blankets and ran and yelled and sucked on popsicles and played with balloons.  Every once in a while one came in for water and asked when we were having math.  "There is no more math today.  Today is just play!"  They weren't sure whether to be happy or sad.  Finally, when the picnic was over and when they were utterly exhausted from all the festivities, I brought them in to the rug one last time.  They sat there with sweat and dirt trickling down their faces, looking now officially like second graders.  But they also looked at me like one more game, one more 'summer bucket list', one more share time, would be just one too much.  And so I decided to give them my commencement speech.
"In first grade you learn a lot.  Maybe the most you ever learn in one year.  Next year you will already know how to hold your pencil and write your name, last name too, and practice spelling words.  You know already about Math Minutes, and Just Right books, and following directions quickly and sitting on the rug.  I hope you have learned a lot, but there are just three things you need to remember.
Take care of yourself.  Don't forget how good you are.  Be good to yourself, eat well, play well, sleep well.  You are a great kid.  You have wonderful ideas.  Foster them and let them grow.  Remember that you can learn anything!  In September you didn't know half the words you know now.  That's a lot of learning.  Don't forget how good you can be.  You are amazing!  Keep doing great things.
Take care of each other.  You will be together a long time.  Look around you now.  These are your buddies.  You are stuck together and you need to stick by each other.  In this little corner of the world, these are the people you can count on and your buddies will need to count on you too.  Be there for them.  If you let each other down, say you're sorry.  If they let you down, forgive them.  Don't forget what it feels like to help someone up and what it means to be a friend.  There is something special about the people you spend first grade with.
Take care of the Earth.  We learned so much this year about different cultures, the Native Americans, the Inuit, the Colonists and we know now how important our Earth is.  You know why the Colonists lived near the water, and how every different culture depends on the water.  You grow because of water.  Take care of it.  My generation didn't do so well.  It's going to be up to you to teach us how to make things better.  It's not so important to produce more if we don't know where it's going to end up.
So I have one question for you - Will you always be this good?"
"Yes, Mrs. Miles, we will always be this good!
We will even be good in high school!
I'll even be good to my brother!
We will even be good in college!
I will even be a good dad!"
I gave them each one last hug and they walked out of my room, but never out of my heart.   Good bye! Be good!
Take care.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Hold Knots

Last week I attended the very sad funeral of my cousin.  He was a firefighter.  He was an exemplary firefighter, as I learned listening to the beautiful eulogies of his friends and fellow firefighters.  Outside the funeral home, the fire engines lined up and displayed his equipment.  His jacket, his helmet, his boots.  Among all the life-saving equipment there, the oxygen masks, the ladders, the axes, the ropes, nothing could save his life.  I was caught, though, by the rope.  I had recently listened to a book on tape, Home Safe, and in it the author uses an analogy of "the hold knots on the rope of life."  Hold Knots - the things we can hold onto when life gets slippery, when life seems to be slipping out of our grip.  The thing is I can't remember what she said.  What are the hold knots of life?  Was it friends, was it laughter?  There are so many things I could plug in there.  The funny thing about a book on CD is that I can't go back and look for the page.  I have no idea where it would be.

For us last week, our family was a sure Hold Knot.  We are tied by bonds that go back not just through our lifetime, but through the ages, through the family tree of our ancestors roots.  Our names, too, our multi-generational.  The third, the fourth of our grandparents.
Hugs were a Hold Knot too.  As we greeted each other after many months, some I haven't seen since the last funeral, we held onto each other tightly, not wanting to let go. Hugs are so important.  "7 hugs a day," I used to tell my kids.  We don't give Hugs enough respect!
Friends are a Hold Knot.  Friends who listened and cooked meals.  Friends who shared stories that otherwise couldn't have been told.
And laughter.  We all laughed at whatever we could even if it wasn't that funny.  We hold on to that feeling.  That release of pressure for a moment.  My cousin telling stories of his band members that had us all holding our sides.

I don't know why I haven't written in so long.  I had a mentor in education who said, "Children write in the wake of beauty."  I have always loved that idea. Beauty is a Hold Knot.  The flowers, the warm breezes, the silence of respect, the sound of the bag pipes, the tissues dabbing at tears.  Pain has its own beauty.  I saw 200 firefighters salute their fallen comrade.  I saw loved ones cry at the memory of their friend, their son, their brother.  I heard the most beautiful words spoken at the funeral about the incredible life of an incredible person.  I witnessed the beauty of family holding each other and loving each other through the most awful pain and it was a privilege to be a part of it.

For the author of that book, I'm not sure what her hold knot was.  For me, it could be so many different things.  The important thing is that we have Hold Knots.  That we have something to Hold On To.  Hold On Tight.

Saturday, December 19, 2015


Waiting.  It is something we learn from a very early age.  Wait.  Wait for me.  Wait for your turn.  Wait just a minute.  Wait up.  Then it evolves into waiting for news.  Waiting for a report.  Waiting rooms.  Waiting for graduation.  Waiting until they are grown up.  Waiting until this happens or that doesn't happen.
Last week I was waiting for something.  I can't even remember what exactly it was.  I was in the car I think.  And suddenly this peace, excitement, this buzz came over me.  What if...?  What if I get what I want?  What if the news is good?  What if he notices me?  What if she asks me?  What if?  That is the best part of waiting.  We can have the fantasy!  We are all waiting for something.  Let the buzz set in and enjoy the wait.
My students were waiting for Christmas.  Starting in late October.  I had one student tell me he was sad.  "Do you know why I'm sad?" he asked.  "Because it's not Christmas!" he answered his own question.  So we started a countdown board.  Each day he changed the number on the board until we finally got to vacation.  We were all waiting.  That excitement of waiting is part of the joys of childhood Christmases.  When I told my own children how funny this student was, Charlie said, "Mom, you have to tell him to be happy, because he has more time to ask for more things!" While I wouldn't encourage us to make our lists longer while we wait, I think we should realize that the wait is part of the fun.  Unfortunately as adults we can wait a little longer, we can use another day, another week, another shopping trip to try to make it more perfect.  (I hate to admit this, but bleaching pine cones is on my list.  Crazy.  Absolutely nuts.  Yes. But they are so beautiful!)  Our lists do grow longer and longer and we think, "If I could just do this..."  Don't get sucked in.   There are 6 days left.  Cut your list, or what's left on it, in half.  Think of the sanity you will save.  (I'm keeping bleached pine cones on the list until Monday.  If it's not done by then, off it goes.)
When I think about waiting, it seems like we try to avoid it at all costs.  Don't wait for what you want, go and get it.  Don't wait - act now!  Don't wait to fulfill your dreams.  Don't wait until it's too late.  But there is something to be said for waiting.  Warren Buffet says something about never regretting waiting to act on a decision, that time is the friend of the wise.  That's what I'm thinking - we should just enjoy the wait.
My mother teases because my kids always say, "Wait, what?"  It's like they missed some significant piece of news and need a second to catch up.  I realized it is rather funny once she pointed it out to me, but really I say it too.  "Wait, what?"  I say it to my kids.  "Wait, What do you need?  Wait, Where are you going?  Wait, What's happening?  Wait, Who are you talking about?"  The answer kind of refocuses you.  Oh, that, you say.  Yes, yes.  I get it now.  This last week of waiting, Advent, I'm going to try to refocus.  "Wait, what? Christmas?"  Oh, yes.  I remember.  Giving, loving, family, joy?  Yes. I got it.  We are so distracted by the razzle-dazzle, we get frazzled.  We all need to say, "Wait, what?"  Then, just wait!

Sunday, December 13, 2015


We are SO busy.  We can't breathe.  We can't talk.  We can't think.  We've got so much on our list.  We've got so much to DO.  It's not good.  It's the never-ending tasks that seem to put us into auto-mode, as in automaton, that we can't be creative, we can't be funny, we can't be be generous, we are just pushing through to get through.  But I'm trying.  I'm trying to keep a smile on my face and pretend that we are all under control.  And I see your smiles too.  Just stop.  Please.

I was driving through north Philly this week and got stuck.  Behind a trolley.  In rush hour. The traffic light changes.  The trolley doesn't move.  The light changes again.  No one moves.  The light changes AGAIN.  Cars are honking.  Cars are trying to switch lanes and go back.  And then I see the wheelchair being lowered from the trolley car and the woman in it is clutching her bag. The trolley conductor slowly lowers her lift, gets her off and switches the switch for the lift to go back in.  He climbs on board and traffic is moving once again.  As I pull up to see the woman in the wheelchair, her chair is stuck on the curb.  Cars are still honking.  At the same time, a boy on a bicycle drops his bike on the ground and helps the woman in the wheelchair up over the curb.  Where were we going?  What are we doing that is so important?  Why were we honking?  

We are all so busy doing.  We are even busy giving.  Giving Tuesday.  Just click here.  Just do it.  Just pick a tag off the tree.  Just do it.  Just give a gift, give a turkey, give, give, do, give, do, do do.  It's just doing anymore, it's not Giving.  This kid, on his bike, on a cold, cloudy day had things to do, but he actually gave.  He gave a hand.  He gave a crap. He gave more than all those car honkers gave even when they are giving.  He didn't give in, give up, or give out.  He gave back.  

It's not easy.  But I think the difference between Doing and Giving is one little thing.  I can give a gift, I can give very generously, but do I Wrap it?  One of my favorite stores is PaperSource.  I had some time to spare the other day in the city and I wandered in, just for fun.  The wrappings are so gorgeous!  The little winter animals in all sorts of bright colors, the ribbons, the coordinated wraps that go over the wrapping papers.  Picture this:  The red and white candy cane stripe wrapping, with a piece of brown textured kraft paper, little glitter snowflakes, small strip of that just wrapped around the center, then a red satin ribbon with an overlay of the red and white bakery string, tying a little branch of pine needles, with a kraft paperboard tag written in red fancy print...  You could wrap trash bags in it and the recipient would be happy!  Really, just so cute!  Last week when we were wrapping gifts for a charity someone brought their own wrapping paper!  I thought she was a little over the top, but No!  She really gets it!  Of course the Wrapping makes the gift! And it makes a difference.

So this week, as we come closer to Christmas, and closer to losing our minds, I'm going to practice Wrapping.  Not giving, not doing, but Wrapping.  All the things I have to do, all the places I have to be are getting Wrapped, with Love and and Joy and Smiles, real ones.  Wrapping someone in my arms.  Wrapping them in swaddling clothes.  Watching the huddled hockey team with their arms Wrapped around each other.  

I think I'll wrap an empty box in my fanciest leftover wraps and ribbons.  And then I'm keeping it in my car.  Just a little reminder of the Wrapping.  I'm also going to breathe.  I'm going to take 3 minutes for me before I get out of the car, no matter where I'm going.  I'm going to focus on the little wrapped gift and breathe.  Next week, on my first day off, I'm going to my mother's to wrap all of Santa - it's like the North Pole.  We are going to binge watch Downton Abbey since I've missed the whole season.  And I'll be ready to wrap.  I'll be ready to really give the gifts.  But first I'm going to give and not just do.  I'm going to Wrap. It's Wrapping time.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Asking Too Much

Asking for what we need is important.  Asking for what we want is a Christmas tradition.  From the very best Christmas specials, It's a Wonderful Life,  and Miracle on 34th Street, we are encouraged to ask and ask big - I mean, a House!  Really?  Yes, Virginia, really.   Go for it!  Live Big!  Dream Big! It's Christmas! It's the season of Miracles!  The new Lexus in the driveway - it happens!  All those dreams being dreamed right now, being fulfilled by little elves, from the jewelers at Tiffany's to the Toys-R-Us stock room people.  Dream and keep the dream alive!  Write the list and make it a long one!  What would your fantasy list look like, if money and time were no object?  Go ahead, write it!

Even so, we temper our wants and our desires.  My children are not asking for much.  My husband and I are not exchanging gifts this year, so no lists.  Our lists to Santa have evolved into those grownup Christmas lists, so beautifully sung about in the song by the same name.  No more lives torn apart, that wars would never start...  My list certainly echoes those same sentiments.  A little peace on earth, a quiet day on the news...  I don't think it is too much to ask.   But I sometimes wonder if what I am asking is too much.

Don't misread this.  I have to ask for certain things.  I have to ask for kids to make their beds and do their chores.  I have to ask for help.  I have to ask for advice from friends.  But when is what I ask for just too much.  Really, I suppose it's not the asking, it's the wanting.  Do I want too much?  Do I tell myself that these are needs that I don't really need?  Are my grown-up wants just like the toddler having a temper tantrum in the toy store?  I don't know.  What do I need?  What do I want?  What's the difference?  The hard part is, What do I want from other people?  A little love, a little affection, a little attention, a little recognition.  Is that too much to ask?  What do I want from my children?  Good grades, happy smiles, requests fulfilled, rules obeyed.  Is it too much to ask?  And other relationships... what do I ask that is too much.  Even what I ask from myself - the perfect meal, being on time for appointments (a real bad habit of mine), remembering all the things I am supposed to remember.  Sometimes I have to go gently and remember that I am human too.   And sometimes everything is just too much.

Why do I keep asking?  Why do we keep expecting these things, from our family and friends, and from ourselves?  We do this because we believe.  Not just in Christmas or Santa or Elves, but in Hope.  We believe that we can have our dreams fulfilled and our hearts filled, at least on Christmas Day, if not the whole year through. So, I'm going to keep asking.  I'm going to keep the list going, all those simple things that I want.  I'm going to keep hoping and wishing and dreaming for my very own Christmas list.  But I won't be disappointed either.  And I won't have a temper tantrum when I don't get what I want.  I'll smile and hope again next year.  And maybe make a better list.

Friday, December 4, 2015


Last weekend I was inspired to try to write for 25 days of Christmas.  I had some pretty good ideas.  I just didn't write.  And here we are 5 days later and no writing.  So this morning, in the shower, I thought, maybe 12 days?  12 days of writing?  Is that too much to ask?  I don't think so.  And here's why...

Last week was Thanksgiving, co-mingled with lots of pre-Christmas shopping, on Thanksgiving, after Thanksgiving, on cyber Monday and before cyber Monday.  I didn't engage until late on Sunday afternoon, when I thought I might be missing deals.  This year we are on a strict budget.  The kids have every electronic known to man, or at least to adults, or at least to me, and I can't imagine they are in need of one more device or screen.  Toys are pretty much outgrown in this house and we aren't quite into the luxury teenage items, thankfully.  Still, the lists may be lean, but they are a little long.  So I found an online guide this year.  Each person will be granted 'Something you want, something you need, something to wear, something to read.'  It's a perfect formula, especially with four kids.  However, I always over-analyze.  So here I go.  First, everyone has everything they need.  I can't imagine them lacking anything or truly needing anything.  Do we?  Something you want, yes.  Something you wear - they are growing so they always need clothes, so that is being merged with something you need.  Something to read - I am a reading teacher, so yes, yes, and yes.  Now I picture Christmas morning in my mind.  I have four grown-ish children, walking down the steps, eyes sleepy but wide with anticipation.  "Maybe, just maybe, they got me a car?  I did get good grades this year..."  After all, I used to have that hope in my eyes too.  Christmas-believing really doesn't end when you stop believing in Santa, it's when you wake up to the reality that not everyone gets cars with big red bows for Christmas, and that's really just for fancy commercials.  Sorry, kid, no car.  I'm not trying to be shallow here, just trying to see Christmas morning through my kids' eyes.  They'll eventually come around and the holy awe will fill that spot again.  So, Christmas morning, no cars, no bikes, no big ticket video game systems, no Rescue Heroes battle station... Those were big impact Christmases.  A few screws and the PlayMobil Pirate Ship came to life and we were Christmas heroes!  Not in their eyes, but in our own eyes.   No, this year is just a bunch of wrapping paper and red bows, the small ones.  So what can I do to make Christmas special?  Something Fun!  Something that will make them laugh!  Something that will make them say, "Wow!  It's not a car, but it's pretty darn close.  Besides, I don't even drive yet!"  So back to the formula - Something you want, something you need, something FUN and something to read!  Easy, peasy!  I haven't yet found something fun for, well, anybody.  What is fun these days?  Rubik's cube is more of a headache than fun.  A coloring book, one of the cool new ones. There are so many cool ones out there now! They are even toting titles like, Coloring Therapy Books!  A camera lens for your phone - really cool!  Lessons for cake decorating?  Maybe.  I have a ways to go to think about this.  But this is what really hit me...
I will not be self-gifting this year, either, as I hustle about from store to store.  That is definitely not in the budget.  No strongly scented candles, no extra bath bombs, no junk jewelry or big bangely bracelets.  But, I can give these to myself: something I want, something I need, something fun, and something to read.  I can self-gift these things everyday!  It may be the only way to get through December.  The thing I need is just this - Writing.  I love to write.  I write in the car.  I write when I'm at work.  I write when I'm in the shower, in bed, walking the dog.  I fantasize about sitting in a coffee shop all day and writing.  I have the plan for the sun porch where my desk will sit facing the sun and I can just sit in pajamas and slippers and write all day.  I write, just not in black and white.  Not on paper.  Not on the computer.  So it just kind of drifts around in my head.  I need to get it down.  So that is one gift to myself.  
Something I want.  I suppress a lot.  I want a lot.  I want to paint the family room.   I want to sit and drink coffee early in the morning and stare out the window.   I want to move my desk to the sun porch!  I want to take a bath.  I want to try curling my hair.  I want to try to wear one of those dark new nail colors.  I want to drive somewhere peaceful and just get out and take a walk.  I think I can do this.  Not bad.  
Something Fun.   I have a hard time having fun.  I have responsibilities, but not fun.  I have a job, I have a family, I have things to do, but not fun.  I'm going to try to have fun.  How hard can it be?  I'll let you know.  See, I can't even write about it!
Something to Read.  I love listening to books in the car, when I'm not writing in my head.  Even St. Ignatius encourages us to read something everyday.  I have a few books from the library stacked next to my bed.  I think I can gift myself this way.  I think this would not be a bad way to live.  
So, in spite of a budget crunch, I'm searching for something special this holiday shopping season.  Something fun.  Something fun for each of my children.  Maybe when I find it, it'll be easier to find fun for them too.   Happy Searching - for the perfect gift!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015



When I first came to this place over twenty years ago, I think we were engaged.   It seemed odd then to be invited in when we weren’t married yet.  I remember the anxiety I felt as we climbed the mountains and took the hairpin turn.  Would I like it here?  Would they like me?  I slept in the small open bedroom (yes, there is no door) and he slept on the sleeping porch.  I fell in love with the place.  And now we have come back countless times, each time with one more notch, one more step our milestones.  Married.  Married with one child.  Married with two children.  Married but only he went with one child.  Etc. Etc.  Each time different.  Each time magical.  Each time the promise that we will return.   That first year, I never knew.  I never knew that this would be our place.  I never imagined that we would keep coming back.  I imagined it, maybe, but didn’t know it would last the way it has.  Now our children have fallen in love with it.  How could they not?  A lake, a beach, a blueberry bush, a bed on the porch.

We are picking blueberries together, just he and I, here and now.  We have never done this before, like this, just the two of us, quiet and serious and concentrating on the task at hand.  A promise to get blueberries for breakfast.  We can hear our four grown (almost grown up) children out on the lake, their laughter echoing across the water.  Then a splash.  Then another splash.  Then the barrage of splashes between two of them before their sister calls out to stop.  We are keeping promises.  They are too – for we wait for those calls, like a promise.  They let us know everyone is okay.

The blueberries themselves hold promises too.  Right now, in early July, there are only a few precious Blue ones demanding our attention.  The others are green and won’t be ripe until August.  By then they’ll be fat and ready, a perfect shade of indigo.  Other promises lie around the camp.  Fishing rods and bait.  Rafts and paddles.  The uncut watermelon.  The chocolate for melting on smores later.  So much to do in too short a time.  But it’s not a vacation.  It’s a return to something.  Not new, not unfamiliar, not about discovery. It’s about the family we have and revisiting our memories.  It’s about going backwards.  In time and in pace and in our hearts.  We have rehearsed these routines until it is a ritual – one that renews us and reminds us of the promises made.  Grandfather’s promise that this place would belong to us as we belong to it.

I’ve broken promises over the years.  To friends, to commitments, to ideas I once had.  It is sad.  I’ve had promises broken too.  But… People evolve, or learn something new, or decide to think differently.  Things change.  Even the paddles left underneath the porch are beginning to rot from termites.  There’s a old rusty bike leaning against the shed that we don’t remember ever seeing before, except that this year someone cut the hedges back way far and now we can see an old tire, barely hanging on and the bike with no seat attached to it.  Almost perfectly preserved.  A promise to ride it again one day, but a promise unkept.  The golf cart, which Grandfather loved, sits in the shed with an empty seat and nothing happens when we turn the key.  We have promised to find a battery that will fit and to bring it next year.  We all break a little.  We all age.  We all wear down and wear out.  Our promises get rusty.

When I was first married, we promised to be true for a lifetime.  No one understands what that means when they are twenty or thirty or maybe even forty.  It isn’t possible.  But what we do know how to do is promise each day.  A promise to say good morning and goodnight.  A promise to come home.  A promise to smile.  A promise to cook dinner.  A promise to say thank you and God bless you.  A promise to find the missing sock.  A promise to make the bed.  A promise to talk softly and listen loudly.  A promise to say kind things.  A promise to be there.   A promise to show up.  Each person holds these promises.  Each place holds its own promises.  Each thing we touch holds its promises. 

The blueberry cup is almost full.  We have enough for breakfast and for snacking later.  The blueberries have fulfilled their promise and we have too.  In August there will be enough here for a promised pie.  We won’t be back then, but we know they will be here.  After a long, cold, snowy winter when we couldn’t even imagine Blueberries might be here buried under the snow, they arrived again just as they do each year.  And we have too. Winter is over and Summer is full of promise.  Another promise.  Each day we make them, each year we expect them and everything goes around taking its turn. 

Some day we won’t return here.  Too tired, we’ll say, or too hurt, or just too old or too far, we’ll say.  We’ll be too rusty.  But I hope not.  Just as I couldn’t imagine being in this place being here like this twenty years ago, I can’t imagine being here forty years from now, there being another forty years here.  But I hope so.  I hope we will always return and always keep our promise.  Just like the blueberries.