An effect on one affects all.

Free-Stock-Globe-Images-2-GraphicsFairy-685x1024Gunfire at a block party. I have to stop watching the news because it reminds that the world’s civilizations built over centuries can be deconstructed in a moment. For no reason.

 

I am not a “religious” person. Although I have tried over the years to embrace one or another religions that are part of my heritage, I just can’t do it. Religions is an all or nothing thing. I see the holes in dogma, question belief systems written by man, and become irate with judgments  leveled against others in the name of religion. Part of me envies devotion; part of me thinks it’s crazy.  I hesitate to label myself “spiritual” because to me that implies an other worldly, ecclesiastic, supernatural realm that I am not comfortable acknowledging. It takes the onus off the here and now.

Who knows? I could be wrong about everything. Perhaps there is an afterlife with angels and harps, and our actions here determine entrance there. Perhaps there is nothing after this. There might be other worlds, dimensions…One certainty is my human brain is incapable of grasping whatever is beyond this, if there is a beyond this. Trying to envision the unknowable, the unimaginable seems pointless and egotistical.

After years of grappling with this big issue, I have made peace with and accept my tiny role on this speck traveling through an infinite universe. My time here is finite, so what can I make of it? “I” can’t do much since it’s not about me. It is about all of us. So here’s my mantra of sorts: We are not separate from each other or the natural world. An effect on one affects all.

Being mindful of this is really hard and forces me to take responsibility  for all of my actions not because of “sin” or “retribution” but because  of the connection we share. I may never know the outcome of my actions but remain cognizant that there is one .

Be compassionate. Be honest. Listen and don’t judge. Extend yourself to others, and realize that we are all on the same challenging journey.

Setting  aside ego is tough.

 

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Making sense of mass murder?

Sad_Boy[1]The mass murder of AME church members in Charleston is horrible. But is it really unexpected? History is filled with the tragic murders of innocents. The Holocaust, Bosnia, Cambodia, Rwanda are large-scale genocides sanctioned by the powers that be. Evil. Disturbing. Disgusting. On American soil, mob lynchings  have been part of our history since our earliest days (along with burnings at the stake and bombings), also sanctioned more or less by the powers that be.

Over the years, we’ve had our share of “lone wolves ” who have murdered en mass. Many of these have been forgotten, along with lessons that could have been learned. In 1949, Harold Unruh, a World War 2 vet shot 13 people as he walked down the street. He used a German Luger. I’m sure the fatalities would have been higher had he possessed the automatic weapons common today. In 1966 Charles Whitman killed his wife and mother in Texas before killing 16 and wounding 30 from his perch atop the clock tower on the U T Austin campus. The Oklahoma Federal Building bombing in 1995 left 168 adults and children dead. Still resonating in our recent memories are Columbine, 1999,  Fort Hood, 2009, Aurora 2012, and Sandy  Hook, 2012. We should not forget another 2012 shooting that took place in a house of worship when white supremacist, Wade Michael, opened fire in a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek Wisconsin. He killed 6 people and wounded 4. All of these are disturbing. Disgusting. How can we qualify one as worse? Is it the number killed? The race, religion, sex, occupation of the victims?  The presence of children? The site of the carnage?

 

I don’t know and don’t care. Each caused immeasurable heartache and loss. Each shocked us momentarily. Each sent us searching in different directions for “reasons” that might have prevented what occurred and what would occur in the future too  many times.

Perhaps it is more constructive to focus on the common threads. They are all “hate” crimes. They were all perpetrated by the severely, violently mentally ill . There were multiple lessons to be learned if we looked past simple answers and outcries.

 

At this point in our evolution (or de-evolution),  there are countless racists, sexists and anti-Semites out there along with a vast range of other “anti”_______ (fill in the blank.) groups. This is part of the human condition. People seem to be hard-wired,  taught and reinforced to stick with the familiar and reject what is perceived as “other”. The “Media” feeds into this in subtle and not so subtle ways by creating our exemplars  of beauty,  happiness, health, faithfulness, patriotism… and we internalize those images until they  change. We fool ourselves into believing these are constants, not based on what sells, what we want to hear.

Identifying with the familiar and casting out the “other” is our obsession. It makes us feel connected, helps us understand our place in a confusing universe. It also leads to prejudice, partisanship , bias and hatred. Any time we identify exclusively with one group we are separating ourselves from others. Not good, even when it seems righteous. I encountered some of the worst racists, anti-Semites and homophobes in houses of worship.

As a result, kernels of hatred are deeply embedded in far too many people.

What separates these quietly hateful Americans (who are dangerous)  from the mass murderers  is the latter’s complete disregard for human life, centered on the  belief that the lives of “others” don’t matter. The rules that govern society don’t apply to them. There is a compulsion to act to right perceived wrongs. Whatever it is labelled (antisocial , narcissistic, borderline, paranoid) it is a personality disorder in the extreme that is chronic, rare and hard to treat. Its genesis may be genetic, environmental and a combination of both.  

This is not about creating a new stereotype for us to grab onto as we try to make sense of the senseless violence in Charleston. Let me be clear. .. the vast majority of people suffering with personality disorders are NOT violent, or dangerous. Put aside that stereotype.

Nor am I not suggesting that “mental illness” is the sole reason for  mass murder, but I do believe that  all people who murder strangers ( or anyone)  because they are black, gay, Jewish, Christian, children, watching Batman… are severely mentally ill. The media might focus on the racial motivation for this latest horror. While this is a fact, it should  not be the exclusive rallying point because that would divert attention away from what might be just as horrifying. Marches to promote  tolerance,  calls to end violence, and a serious re-think about flying a confederate flag over South Carolina’s statehouse are necessary. We must do these things  to combat our fear and ignorance of the perceived “other”. To blame the tragedy in Charleston on racism is just as simplistic and doomed to failure as a call to end bullying in the aftermath of Columbine.  The problems are deeper . Going back to common threads, like most mass murderers , Dylann Roof harbored an irrational, twisted and sick hatred for people he viewed as “other” . He believed  there was some perceived threat. He felt compelled to act. He had access to a weapon. Those facts scare the hell out of me.

Dylann Roof and his ilk are scary because there is little we can do without this getting uncomfortably personal. He lived in a small community, attended school, bought a gun and devised a plan anonymously. But no one questioned his long standing issues in school, his inability to make friends, his lack of direction, possible drug use, and increasingly hateful rants on Facebook. Friends and neighbors are Monday morning quarterbacks, expressing knowledge about his “strangeness” and wishing they had intervened. They will live with that guilt.

The solution is not only about rallies and speeches. It’s not only about  gun-control and white supremacy hate sites. A real solution has to  insure that children, teens and adults with severe mental illnesses are given  appropriate  treatment early and consistently,  and are monitored and nurtured within the family,  community and school.  It is about connection rather than  alienation. If we can’t deal with getting personal and getting involved, tragic shootings will continue to part of  our times. And just think…as you read this,  a child (or a thousand children) are quietly morphing into mass murderers. And no one really cares until it makes headlines. 

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When words captivate

 

vintage book
I am a bibliophile, enchanted by solitary words, rhythmic phrases and detailed  descriptions of arcane places so real I become a resident.To bring my insatiable appetite for plot twists, character conflict, and thematic wisdom to the minds and hearts of young readers  lead me to teach literacy.  I spend weekends and evenings curled up with towers of paperbacks often following the lives of several characters through the angst of teendom. Such exhaustive reading is my preparation.

I spend weekdays in my classroom (that has become my second home) with groups of pre-teens and just teens. Their voices are buried deeply in hoodies and flannel in the early morning. Some yawns and stretching arms break the silence. Slices of sunlight fall across their desks.  I am reluctant to close the blinds but fear that the glare may injure possible thoughts trying to make their way to the surface. I coax them awake with a question or recite the words of a beautiful opening passage. And so the day begins.

By mid-afternoon the hoodies are long discarded –  stuffed into a locker,  hanging off the back of chair, abandoned on the floor, and their voices have been released. They rise and fly around my room in high peals laughter and doubt (“Really?”). They ping off the walls and speed in crazy trajectories hitting with an unintended force (“Give me back my book, you loser!”). They puff up in self importance, with the bravado only 12 year old boys can muster  when shouting about basketball moves in PE. Only to have the one voice soar too far above the others, and crash to earth with a crack, the owner red-faced.

I truly love what I do. My classroom is a safe haven for even the most reluctant readers who will always find something to browse through.

“It smells so good in here… like strawberries or cotton candy. Maybe cupcakes.”

“I love all the shelves of books. You have all the stuff I love.”

“Can I put this one one reserve? And this one too? There’s so many books I wanna read.”

“Are we just going to read today? Please?”

“How come your room is always so nice and warm? It’s comfortable in here.”

“Where’d you get all those stuffed animals? Can I hold one while I read?”

“I never liked reading…until now.”

Happy New Year!

Visit my etsy site  or facebook page for a peek at my selephant 1oul….

paxdesignjewelry

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The Owl in the Courtyard

220px-Asio_otus_-Battlefield_Falconry_Centre,_Shrewsbury,_Shropshire,_England-8a“Are you in the middle of a test?”, whispered my teaching colleague from across the hall ,”because there’s an owl sitting in the courtyard! Do you want to bring your students over to see? It’s right outside my window!” There was excitement brimming in our science teacher’s eyes. Since our suburban Long Island community rarely sees wildlife other than seagulls, pigeons and squirrels, this was an unusual event for all of us. Living a train ride away from NYC, our students  were savvy in technology, music, and culture, yet some thought raccoons lived in treetops. Seeing an owl up close was a once in a middle school moment. After a brief hesitation, I said, “No.”

What was I thinking? The science teacher must have wondered, too, since I was the animal lover in the building. Everyone knew my passion for all creatures great and small. I rescued guinea pigs and refused to kill the cave crickets that sought refuge in my classroom. I integrated environmental science into my literacy instruction. How could I turn down this opportunity?  I was in the middle of a 7th grade lesson about text organization, demonstrating the “problem/solution” format, but that would have never stopped me before. Perhaps my reluctance to divert from my plans had more to do with the gigantic elephant in my room rather than the Long-eared  owl sitting in the courtyard.

The day before the owl landed, I attended an in-school conference with a noted expert on New York State’s Common Core. He urged us to embrace the more rigorous  standards put in place to better prepare our students for the challenges of the future. We were charged with getting our 6,7, and 8th graders to be “college and career ready”, to be 21st century learners who could “collaborate and problem solve” and get the job done.  To do this successfully, every lesson had to support the standards, and “we better know which standards we were addressing”. Prior to  designing a unit we were to examine carefully our objectives, materials and assessments. Were they aligned? Were our texts complex enough? In what way was this lesson moving our students to the ultimate goal? To help us learn how to teach to the standards, New York State published model units called “modules”, or 700 page tomes directing  every aspect of several weeks of teaching. We would use them in order and in sync.

After a mind numbing six hours reviewing the modules , I felt drained and full of self-doubt. I was a dedicated veteran teacher in an excellent district with wonderful students and parents. I viewed my students as “my kids” and taught the way I parented my own children  – by modeling compassion, encouraging curiosity and self-reflection , championing the pursuit of knowledge and character, and providing them with the skills and tools needed to be productive citizens in a new and challenging  world, or so I thought. That evening I reviewed my lessons for the next day with a critical eye. Were they aligned?  Were they rigorous? Would my students be successful? As I tossed and turned that night, a gigantic elephant had lumbered  into my mind and classroom.

I stood before my 7th graders the next morning  with a clear mission: to teach with the standards in the forefront of my mind. The learning outcomes were clear.  The students were engaged. And then that owl landed in our courtyard.

What should have been a teachable moment turned into a distraction. If I interrupted my standards based lesson to walk across the hall to look at an owl, how would I get my students’ attention back to the lesson? How could they be successful in career and college if they missed a lesson (a great one) on problem and solution? The elephant sat solidly in the back of my classroom with a loud thud. No owl watching for this class.

After the 7th graders left my room, able to recognize and use problem and solution to aid comprehension, I wandered across the hall to the courtyard. Yes, I wanted to see the owl. When I witnessed that beautiful creature perched atop the gazebos, I felt a sense of curiosity and awe. It truly was a magnificent bird with its deep shades of brown, tan and white and  long feathered “ears”. Yet the owl was out-of-place in a suburban school. What was it doing there? How long would it stay? Should we intervene?  My mind raced with questions.

Throughout the day, students passed quietly and respectfully by the windows of our courtyard to gaze at the owl. They pointed out its markings and ability to turn its head around much more than they could. Typical middle schoolers, they all tried. They whispered questions to each other and ventured guesses about the answers. I watched the students watching the owl and realized the power of this life lesson. What better way to teach students about problem and solution?  Regrettably, I had missed my chance earlier in the day. I would later apologize to my students.

The take away from this is simple. While standards are important and noted speakers have their place, there is a wonderful  and diverse world around us filled with opportunities to question and learn.  When our focus becomes radically narrowed to what is strictly “standards-based”, we lose sight of reality.  When we second guess our teaching practice painstakingly constructed over years of success and failure, we suffer under the weight of that self-doubt and so do our students.

A picture of a long-eared owl stares at me from my back bulletin board. The students think it’s cool, but it is really there for me. It keeps the elephants away.

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Handmade

Sometimes it seems as if the Industrial Revolution and the Machine Age started us down a slippery slope. As we become further and further removed from the producers, growers and crafters of our goods, we lose so much. Sure it’s convenient and cheap, but let’s factor in the real cost to humanity. I’ve noticed a sharp decline in the quality of what I purchase. Nothing seems to last. In addition, many of the things we buy are made in factories with deplorable work conditions for people (and children) worldwide. How can we feel good about that?
I always preferred to buy local because it helped the businesses around me. I would get to know the shop keepers and this gave me a sense of community. When I had all of my kids still living at home, I joined an organic farm co-op. It was awesome to get my large weekly share of fresh, beautiful produce from a local farmer.
Of late, I’ve changed my shopping habits to include buying handmade as much as possible. An item that was lovingly crafted gives it greater worth to me and the recipient. Buying local is important, but connecting to the designer and maker of the product is an amazing experience. I have made friends around the globe through my purchases.
That’s why Etsy is so important to me. Yes, I am proud of my Etsy jewelry shop, but I am thrilled to be an Etsy buyer, too. It gives me access to everything unique and handmade. Two years ago I pledged to buy most of my holiday gifts on Etsy, and it worked out beautifully. Last year, I had my daughter’s prom dress hand sewn by an Etsy artisan. The result was a gorgeous, one of a kind gown that fit her perfectly! This year it will be all of my gifts. Before I head to the department stores or mall, I login to Etsy and search for a special item that will be a gift from the heart.

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Ready, set, let go….

bird cages Here’s a secret… I have a terrible time letting things go. Whether it is my kids going off to college, my students moving up to the high school, or parting with a piece of jewelry I created, those transitional times make me introspective and moody (more so than normal). Not that I whine, cry and try to stop those changes that are an inevitable part of life. I seem to let go easily without a second look. The quicker, the better like tearing off a band aid. Say goodbye and move on. My suffering is all within where it turns my psyche inside out.
This time of year is filled with letting go. My students are prepping for graduation, and I will soon have to leave my classroom for the summer. Part of me is ready, but a bigger part is feeling those old transitions blues. I can tell because my thoughts start to revolve around images, sounds, places, people from the past. My dreams take on a more vivid and visceral sense of what was. Walking through empty Brooklyn streets circa 1974 with quick glimpses of old friends who fade away leaving me holding half understood messages. I find myself screaming, “What??” Come back. I don’t know what you meant!” I wake up with an ache inside because the dreamscape ended, and I’ll never have it back.
Watching my daughter transition from her first year of college brings back a crisp image I hadn’t thought about in years. I was alone in my dorm room on the last day of freshman year. The neon orange sheet that covered my wall was gone. My Indian bedspread was folded away in a box. The stereo and records were already packed away in my parents’ car. Nothing remained of my presence, my memories (good and awful), my being. Had freshman year with its high drama, impulsivity and soul rattling experiences gone by so quickly? Had it all reverted back to a nondescript dorm room? My heart skipped a beat when I heard my parents yell “hurry up” from out in the hall. But I stayed rooted in that spot. For one moment, I had one foot in the past and one in the future. I was desperately trying to stop time. I knew I was deep in a transitional space and had to take it all in, marking that moment because it would never come back. I would never be the same person. None of us ever are after a transition. I didn’t “hurry up”, but held on in that space willing the very walls to remember me as I let go. Only then could I move on.
I don’t know how we can get through transitions both serious and small unless we recognize those sacred spaces within all changes before we let them go.
I suppose we all find ways to do this. I know my daughter will this weekend, and I certainly won’t rush her.
Peace

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Learning Acceptance

close up of moonstone on black background.

Acceptance is at the top of my list,  but it’s taken me many years to arrive at this place. I start each day with a quiet moment spent thinking about the day ahead and how important it is to accept my students with all of their strengths and weaknesses. I know some won’t  have their homework, or a pen, or their binders again. Others will be filled with enthusiasm about new books they discovered and can’t wait to share with me. One student will sit with his head down on the desk defeated by the challenges life has thrown at him. Another will beam because the boy she likes, likes her, and she HAS to tell me about it. I am ready to handle whatever my students bring into our classroom. Acceptance is a beautiful thing because it lets us start out together. Rather than stress and wonder how I can possibly deal with one more pre-teen crisis, I  learned to be open and empathetic. I can’t control the world or change the world, but I can make a difference.

Accepting my flaws has always been incredibly difficult for me. How ironic!  I get upset when my jewelry loops are not perfect, yet I love handmade items because they are not perfect. The little flaws are proof of the human touch. I suppose I need to remind myself of that when I am working in my studio. In a machine made world, it is important to accept and celebrate the uneven and slightly off balance.

Peace

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