What I Learn from Children

Update: I recently wrote a guest post for my friend Rebecca at Rebecca in the Woods. The post is titled Lizards in Europe.  Check it out, and make sure to read about some of Rebecca’s adventures in northern Wisconsin.  My favorites are always the posts about squirrels and mushrooms. 

Let me tell you about Andy and Samantha.*

I knocked on their door yesterday evening and told their mom about the plan we’re supporting to restore the health of the lake and the river.  She was a supporter and wanted to make a donation.  She told Andy to finish eating his supper, but Andy was too interested in the visitor at the door to think about eating.  While the mom went to get her checkbook, I chatted with Andy and Samantha.
Andy is in the fifth grade, and he likes his teacher.  He is a friendly boy, but his speech is a little difficult to understand.  I believe that he has a developmental disorder.

Samantha is in the eighth grade and has fourteen teachers because she has an alternating schedule.  I only had eight teachers when I was her age, and I still found middle school overwhelming.

When their mom reappeared, she said matter-of-factly, “Andy, the dog ate your food.  It’s all gone.”

The shock and dismay on Andy’s face was priceless, but he took the turn of events in stride.  I felt bad that I had enabled the dog to commit his crime.

I told the family about the importance of writing letters and encouraged everyone to get involved.  The mom was too busy, but Samantha piped up.  “I can do it.”

“Do you have time?” her mom asked.

“Yes.  We can write them,” she affirmed.  Andy nodded his head.

We agreed that they would tuck their letters under the door mat.

Before I left, Andy wanted to know my name and made sure that he introduced himself, his sister, and his mom.  Then he spread his arms wide and enveloped me in a hug.

I thanked him and told him that made my day better.

At the end of the night, I had to walk an extra half mile to pick up their letters, but I knew that they would be waiting for me under the mat.  Samantha had written two articulate letters and had helped Andy to sign one.

When a stranger appeared at his door, Andy literally welcomed me with open arms.  He was curious and receptive to what I was doing.  Samantha was enthusiastic about getting involved.  She saw a way to make a difference and took action.

My heart had a warm squishy feeling as I walked away from their house.  I read their letters with my flashlight as I walked and somehow managed not to trip.

We all have the potential to be like Andy and Samantha (and their mom deserves a lot of credit for nurturing them and helping them become such awesome kids).  They remind me to greet each stranger and enter each new situation without judgment.  With every interaction, we can seek the goodness in others.  And when offered an opportunity to make a difference, we can seize it.

*Andy and Samantha are not their real names

Why Are We All Too Busy?

I knock on doors every evening between 4:00 and 9:00.  This means people come to the door when they’re in the middle of making dinner, getting ready to go to a football meeting, or trying to bathe squirmy toddlers and get them to bed.

The common refrain that I hear (several dozen times a night) is: I’m too busy right now.

Often neighbors will rattle off a list of very important things they have to do.  Some of which probably are important.  But we are all so busy that we don’t stop to distinguish between which activities are meaningful and which are just . . . filler.

There is a myth that most Americans wholeheartedly believe.  It is a myth that work and activity are inherently good.  If we toil at a job for a certain number of hours every week and have a large number of obligations outside of work, then we are doing the right thing.

It is what’s expected of us.

For many of us, how busy we are is a measure of our self worth.

I am coming to believe that this myth causes me great stress.  There have been times when I felt like a violin string that was ready to snap.

It causes me to miss out on potential moments of Joy.

I don’t connect with those around me because my head is too busy running over my to-do list.  I end up feeling bad about what I haven’t accomplished.  I cease to exist in the present and am caught in a cycle of worry.

The obvious conclusion is that I need to slo-w d-o–w—n.  The ultimate way to slow down is through meditation, something I frequently read about but rarely do.  The idea is that if you can’t clear your mind and be calm when you are sitting perfectly still, then how will you be able to find peace and serenity in any other situation?

Although I don’t currently meditate, I am trying hard to put my energy towards what really matters to me.  The hardest thing for me is to opt not to do something when I feel as if others expect me to.  I fear that saying no means I will disappoint them.

But sixty, seventy, or even eighty years from now, when I look back on my life and consider how I’ve spent my time, those people I “disappointed” won’t be there beside me.  If I choose what really matters, then my life will be richer, and ultimately I will do more good for this world.

I have learned that the best thing to do when I’m “too busy” is not to plow through my next important task, but to take a walk and observe the beauty of the world around me.  Flowers bask in the sun and unfold at their own pace.  They are never too busy.  And animals aren’t aware of time in the same way as humans.  Sleeping is always at the top of my cat’s to-do list.

Nature reminds me that how many tasks I accomplish in a day does not alter who I am.  The length of my to-do list doesn’t make me a better person because it has nothing to do with what kind of person I am.

(My alternative, although less helpful, approach to managing stress is bursting into tears and eating a large bowl of ice cream.)

Question(s) of the day: Do you ever feel overwhelmed by your to-do list, and if so, how do you handle this?

(I now have Photoshop and couldn’t resist playing around with some effects.)

The irony of this post is that I haven’t updated my blog in over a week . . . because I’ve been busy.

An Afternoon at the State Fair

Until Labor Day weekend, I had never been to a state fair.  It was a larger, more crowded, more expensive version of many county fairs.  I loved it.

I loved the cute rabbits, some of which were bigger than my cat.

The alpacas and llamas must have gone home early, because we never found them.

I loved the smell of fried food.

I loved the Indian village. I was glad that the Native Americans have a chance to tell their stories and explain their traditional way of life.

I loved the stuff for sale.  We bought pure maple syrup (I’m used.to the high fructose corn variety.)

I loved the crowds.  Jesse did not.

And I loved the cows.

Welcome to the twenty-first century, where a farm boy plops in the hay, reclines against his cow, and plays games on his cell phone.  Everything and nothing has changed.

Jesse likes to say that cows have soulful eyes, although I’m not sure they have all that much going on upstairs.  After visiting the fair, it is evident that the dairy industry plays a huge rule in my state’s economy.  Following a surge in popularity for Greek style yogurt, the farmers and politicians wants to expand the yogurt industry in order to create more jobs.

Like I said, I like cows.  And I like farmers.  The traditional American farmer is fast becoming a legend, but some still exist, and I want them to succeed.  I completed my student teaching internship in a fairly rural school district in Ohio, and many of my students came from farming families.  They had an awesome work ethic.  In an era where most parents raise their kids to feel entitled to the best of everything, the farm kids were respectful and polite.  They wanted to earn their way.

Even the class troublemaker knew about hard work.  When I asked him how he spent his weekend, he told me that he’d chopped wood for his grandfather.  He was incredulous that I didn’t know TSC stood for Tractor Supply Company, which was where his dad worked.

Farmers are the backbone of our country.  Thomas Jefferson said so from the very beginning.

The thing is, cows are bad for the environment.  Raising several hundred cows on one farm creates a lot of waste that can harm water supplies.  My state has regulations to address this, but politicians want to relax these regulations.  Furthermore, cows eat grain.  And using land to grow grain to feed cows–either for beef of dairy–is a waste of resources.

We are a planet with seven billion people and counting.  I am not a gloom and doom person.  I believe that we can and we will find a way to provide a decent standard of living for seven billion people.  But the earth cannot sustain seven billion people eating a diet of beef and dairy.

I know that the federal government provides massive subsidies to agriculture.  I know that agriculture influences the FDA recommendations for a healthy diet.  There is a lot of money and power involved, and that power is not used to do what is best for the average American or for the small farmer.

Surely there is a path forward for American small farmers that can provide citizens with healthy food and provide the farmers with a living.  But relaxing regulations is not the answer.  More cows is not the answer.

I think too much, and I wish sometimes that I could ignore the complexity of every issue.  Thankfully, these thoughts didn’t occur to me while we were at the fair.  After several hours, as the sun grew more intense and the crowd grew thicker, Jesse and I made our way to the exit.  I was wishing I had opted for the fried onion for lunch instead of the falafel, and regretting that I hadn’t saved room for a funnel cake.

But there’s always next year.

State Park on a Sunday

Thanks and welcome to all the readers who joined me after seeing my previous post on Freshly Pressed.  My goal is to post at least once a week.  I hope that you enjoy my scribbling, and know that I enjoy your comments as well! 

When I first drove past Watkins Glen, I puzzled over the name.  It sounded so familiar.  But why?  For several agonizing minutes, I had that brain itch that occurs when a piece of information is just out of mental reach.

Then I saw a billboard with a race car on it, and I realized that of course Watkins Glen annually hosts a NASCAR race.  (There was a period–mostly influenced by my little brother–when I watched quite a bit of NASCAR.)

Turns out that Watkins Glen is also home to a breathtaking state park.  A few weekends ago, I packed a picnic and Jesse and I set out to explore.

The park has a stream that cascades over a series of nineteen waterfalls while winding its way through a gorge.  After fueling up on my Thai-ish sweet potato salad, we descended to the gorge trail . . . and promptly became part of a human traffic jam.

Having finished teaching in mid-June, my brain was not exactly on a work-week schedule when I planned our excursion.  It hadn’t occurred to me that on one of the last weekends before school starts, parents would be out with their children in droves.

Which was great.  What an awesome, wholesome, healthy family activity.

. . . except that I saw Jesse clenching his jaw and I knew that the crowded trail was making him tense.  The future flashed before me . . . will we ever have kids?  Will we ever be able to afford kids?  Will we ever be ready to let our schedules be dictated by small human beings of our own creation?

The answer is not until we both have graduate degrees . . . which will be another five or six years.

One bespectacled boy was displeased with the crowd as well.  “I’d rather be at home reading a book,” he grumbled.

When at last I saw the reason for the traffic jam, my irritation matched Jesse’s and the little boy’s.

People were posing for pictures underneath the waterfall.

Now, I like taking pictures.  And I like posing for pictures.  And I’m sure at some point or another my act of taking a picture and/or posing for a picture has annoyed someone nearby.

It just seems that we as a society don’t know where to draw the line.  When your photo session prohibits all the other families (and childless 20-somethings) from proceeding along the trail (we were in a rocky gorge, after all) then I think you have crossed the line.

This has become a pet peeve.  Another example of when it might be inappropriate to take a picture is when you’re standing in the Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world.  Particularly if the gallery is so crowded that people are pushing and shoving to get a glimpse of her.

My concern is more than mere etiquette.  I worry that if I am taking pictures just to have evidence that I saw neat stuff, then I am not really present in the moment.  I love to travel, whether it is to South Asia or to a nearby state park.  But all the energy and money expended to arrive at an awesome destination are wasted if I frantically take photos to document my journey, only to get back home and not remember a single thing about the places whose images I digitally captured.

Like any other piece of technology, a camera can either enhance or detract from my travels.  It is up to me as the user to get the most out of it.  When I try to photograph the afternoon sunlight on a medieval church, then my effort–however amateurish– helps me appreciate the beauty of the centuries old architecture, makes me wonder whether the parish priest appreciated it in just such a light, eight hundred years ago.

Or if I stand patiently, waiting for a butterfly to land on a flower, hoping to snap it with its wings open.  Taking a picture makes me value the delicacy and energy of one of the world’s most beautiful creatures.  Especially when it taunts me, dashing off an instant before I get the shot.

Or even if I take a picture of a rushing waterfall, continuing the slow process of carving a gorge . . . as long as I’m not blocking the trail for dozens of other visitors.

Question of the day: Am I being a total grouch, or do you also get frustrated by the misuse of technology–in the hands of yourself or others?