Saturday, September 10, 2016

Where is the Brown Blanket?

When I first started teaching 25 years ago, (yes, this is something of an anniversary) I sat in my parents living room during August making sailboats out of construction paper.  Each sailboat had a different color sail and each child's name was lovingly printed on the sail.  I think I had to make 26 sailboats that year for my sixth grade class.  I then cut out the letters "Sail into September."  I taped them all up in the windows of my classroom.  I had pictures of blue skies and pink sunsets in mind when I wrote that, and although I know none of my students at Saint Luke's sailed, I thought that I was setting the stage for a peaceful entry into school.  It was cute and that was part of what I was going for.
Nowadays, not so much.  I have dinosaurs on my bulletin board (they are pretty cute) and we are "Digging New Discoveries."  The work implied is intentional.  Gone are my visions of pink sunsets and peaceful harbors and smooth seas.  September, for a student, for a teacher, for a mother, is nothing like a smooth sea.  It is full of rocky shores (I missed two meetings in the last two weeks) where you cut your toe and it bothers and nags at you for days.  There are rogue waves (Meetings you didn't plan on or that go on way too long) that set you crashing back into the rocks, and they can leave bruises.  There are unfamiliar places to go and we are not always catching that wind in our sails the way we dreamed about in August.
Today I picked up Matt from Outward Bound.  I learned that Outward Bound is a sailing term used by ships as they head out to sea, leaving the safety of the harbor without protection from the storms that lie ahead.  They are "outward bound".  Matt spent almost a week in the 'wilderness' on a backpacking expedition.  He headed out from the safety of his sheltered home for a trip with complete strangers with no ties or even any means of connecting to home.  For days we all worried about him. "What do you think Matt's doing?"  "I wonder if it will rain."  "Do you think Matt's ok?"  "I wonder if he's eating, hot, lost, scared, alone," etc.  Being Outward Bound is not pleasant.  There are so many variables.  So many unpredictables.  So many unknowns.  All you have is you - and maybe some friends you can count on, hopefully whom you can trust.  You come prepared and ready to try.  That is all you can do.
September is the Outward Bound month.  We are all setting out on new adventures to unknown places.  Will we like our class?  Will we like our teacher?  Will they like us?  It is not easy.  It is really not easy.  There is so much work to do!  Homework, signing papers, setting alarms, packing lunches, readying school clothes, taking showers.  (I think my kids showered maybe 4 out 7 nights during the summer)  Whether you've known your class of friends since Pre-K or not, things are new and things have changed.  If you're the new kid, things are totally different.  Our kids have been the new kids more times than I'd like to admit - just by sheer change in circumstances.  You have to navigate new relationships every day.  And find new ways of getting things done.  The anxiety in our household leaches into everything.  We run out of milk, we forget that we left bread in the oven last night, the dryer breaks.  It is really amazing that we accomplish anything in September, and the stakes are so high!  We are setting the tone for the year - meeting new people while not necessarily at our best.
In some ways we are all Outward Bound.  It might mean new jobs, new experiences, new places to live.  Maybe it is new definitions of who we are, or who our close friends are.  Maybe it's a new life they've longed for, maybe it's a new life they've dreaded for a long time.   How do we survive?
I know one of the lessons of Outward Bound is that you have within you the strength to do it.  You can accomplish anything, even the things you think you can't.  But the other thing that makes it ok to go Outward Bound is someone or something that makes us know we will be okay.  Perhaps the most important thing to take on your journey is the knowledge of the Safe Harbor.  You have someone to return to, someone to greet you when you get back to shore.  A warm smile, a familiar face, a soft hug, or even a soft blanket.
Matt hugged me when he saw me.  He had found his safe harbor again.  He ate.  He showered.  He ate again.  He jumped in the pool.  We sat at dinner peppering him with question after question.  He answered all our questions.  And then some more.  And at the end of the day he said to me, "Ok, where is the Brown Blanket?"  The brown blanket is something of an icon in our house.  It is the one everyone looks for when they are down, or not feeling well, or whatever.  It is the softest, just-long-enough, just-the-right-weight blanket there is.  Although I have tried many times to purchase a blanket that is just as soft, just as good, there is no equivalent in our house.  Funny, after all was said and done, that was the best thing - the ultimate in his safe harbor, it's what brought him truly home. So, when your child comes home crying, or worn out, or exhausted, or whatever, I hope you can find a brown blanket to wrap him in.  And no matter where your day takes you, I hope you have a safe harbor to sail into this September.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Beach Botox

The other day I ran away to the beach.  It felt good to just get in the car with three of my kids and escape for a few hours.  My mother met us there.  My brother left work early and met us too.  It was just one of those days where you feel you have to hold onto the fleeting days July days.  (I'm tired of thinking already that summer is going too fast.  It's only July!)  As we sat there we passed around sunscreen and reapplied and found the right ones for face and knees and wet slick bodies.  We debated the merits of 15 vs. 85.  That's when my mother chimed in.  "You know, over 15 is no more effective.  It makes no difference."  This has been her mantra for as long as I can remember.  Let me explain.

My mother is beautiful.  She has an inner beauty that radiates through her dark molasses eyes that can open up to you and welcome you in.  She played basketball for most of her life and is still fit - her leg muscles attest to that.  I've seen her walk the beach for miles.  She has a calming smile and an easy laugh.  But my mother is not a vain person.  She takes care of herself, not needing to go overboard on hair and make up.  However, once a year, actually all summer, she takes a new pride in looking good.  For her, this means her tan.  Now this is not the tanning bed-fake-orange-spray tan.  She just wants to get out in the sun and close her eyes for a few minutes.  It is a "healthy tan" as she and my grandmother used to call it.  It means that you have found time to relax, to let your cares drift away. You sat in the sun and soaked up some of the goodness in the world.  This could happen in your backyard, or down at the beach.  Back in the day my mother used QT by Coppertone, SPF 2!  SPF2. Can you imagine?  I don't think you can buy it anymore.  It's probably against the law.  But it was my mother's go-to regimen for summer for years.  I can remember her sending me to the sundry shop in Stone Harbor assigned with one mission, pick her up some QT.  In case you didn't know, QT stands for Quick Tan.   That's what she was and still is about.  Now that there are warnings on sunscreen, she heeds them a little bit.  She is proud that her moisturizer has SPF 15 and she uses it every day. Every day! she tells me, as if she were shocked that this is an actual habit she has gotten into.  I'm glad.

But there is more to it than just soaking up the sun.  Summer provides many more benefits.  After a long winter when we are pushing through headwinds and fighting against deadlines and projects and who needs what, and what needs who, our brows become furrowed.  We have fought some good fights and others not-so-good.  We wear those battle scars on our faces and sometimes deeper inside.  Many might go to their doctor to try to fix it or get rid of it.  My mom and I know all you need is a beach chair.  Slide that baby way back to slot number 1, or 0 if you have it.  Put down that book!  Put away that magazine or phone or device.  Close your eyes.  Get under the umbrella if you want to.  But lay your head back.  Put a little rolled up towel under your neck.  Maybe a travel pillow is a good idea here.  Now don't move.  Your body is fully supported.  Your feet are in the sand.  Your hands are free!  Your kids are fine.  Breathe the ocean air.  Listen to the waves.  Drift off.  After about 20 minutes you will have reached level one of the Beach Botox procedure.  When you sit up, even you won't recognize your face.  The little furrow between your brow will be gone!  Crowslines, schmoslines.  The winter wrinkles that you accumulated from December through March, vanish!  A little sun on your cheeks, a little Beach Music from the ocean.  For added benefits, stay in this position up to 2 hours, longer if you can.  Repeat daily as necessary.  

There is a reason why sea salt flavors are all the rage right now.  We need the sea and we need the salt.  The sea heals us.  The salt nourishes us.  If you can't be by the ocean, find some water somewhere.  If you can't get to the water, make a bird bath.  Run through a sprinkler.  (Really, run through it.)  

If you want to make summer linger, check out these.  ( I am not paid to do this, I just found these items and thought I'd share...)

Swedish Dream will make you feel like you are at the beach all year long.

Seawicks has so many fun scents to choose from!  This is the one I bought and I LOVE it.  I had it in the bathroom, but I never lit it.  I moved it next to my bed and light it while I read at night.   It takes me back to the Attic Room I had at the shore house from the time I was about twelve.  So heavenly! (And this is authentic Maine - from Boothbay Harbor!  If I ever go missing, you will find me in Boothbay Harbor!)

And no matter where you are, spread this out and voila! Instant Summer!

Turkish Roundie

Then, find yourself the perfect hat!

Conner has an amazing collection!  And seems to be responsible to the earth too!
I like the Charleston.  Summer in Charleston

Finally, whether you got too much sun, or just enough, after an outdoor shower, slip into the perfect sleepset.

This year on our trip to Massachusetts, I'm stopping at the Pine Cone Hill Outlet and picking up this set.  Blue Asian Capri

Wherever you go, wherever you are, I hope you have time to relax and soak up some sun, sea, and salt.  Beach Botox... never a better beauty treatment.  Just ask my mother.  

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.