We didn’t know about the flowers.

We arrived in London on August 4 at the beginning of a two-week European vacation. In an effort to keep ourselves awake after an overnight flight, we hopped on an open-air bus tour. It was a magnificent sunny day. The Tower Bridge, the church spires, the Houses of Parliament, and the dome on St. Paul’s Cathedral all stood out in sharp contrast to the clear blue sky. What a welcome.

As the bus rose up the hill past the Tower of London, we caught a glimpse of something red in the moat below. I tipped the view finder on my camera and lifted it high over my head so that I could capture an image:

IMG_1788 When we got back to the hotel, I downloaded the photos from the day. The poppies around the base of the tower were lovely, but at the time we didn’t realize how monumental they were. As it turned out, the spectacular installation that was just completed today (November 11), had just been started.

The next day, we returned to the Tower on foot, much more informed about the poppy project and hoping for a closer look. A large crowd had gathered along the wall; they were waiting, it turned out, for a ceremonial appearance by the Beefeaters.

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The red coats, the brilliant ceramic blooms, and the significance of the display combined to powerful effect. One stem for every soldier from England and the Commonwealth whose life was lost in The Great War. Every flower was placed by hand, for someone who fell in a field in Belgium, or in a trench in France, or in a haze of mustard gas. Young people fighting for an ancient alliance, giving their lives for a new century and a new world.  We are all the beneficiaries of that sacrifice. We didn’t know about the flowers, but we will not forget.

___

Last month, we brought our French exchange student to New York City to see the sights.  There, at the foot of another tower–this one brand-new and gleaming in an autumn sky, we saw another memorial.

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Again, a moat–or, more accurately, two moats–waterfalls, in fact. Rather than the protective boundary of a Medieval castle, these pools define spaces that are no longer occupied. Around them are low walls listing the names of nearly 3,000 people, most of whom perished on a single day as part of a war for which they had not enlisted.

The monument is striking. There are signs encouraging visitors to touch the engraved letters, and on that day, many people did. Fingers traced the grooves, brushed across the titles of engine companies, counted the firefighters from individual ladder trucks.

Some names were marked with flags or small mementos. And in some names, there were flowers. Roses, their stems clipped short so that the blossoms stood just above the surface, and the bright pink color reflected off the smooth stone. IMG_0117

We didn’t know about those flowers, either.

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Sweepin’ the Clouds Away

Forty-five years ago today, I was in a first grade classroom in Overland Park, Kansas (don’t even ask why this East Coast girl was in the middle of Jayhawks country, but there I was). It was 1969, if you’re not in the mood for math. In a pique of progressivism, the administration at my school decided that it would be interesting to wheel a television into our reading lesson so that we, the pioneer children of the Space Age, could be exposed to a brand-new concept in broadcasting: the first episode of Sesame Street.

I remember that day, and I would have remembered it even if NPR hadn’t aired a terrific story about the program and the magical, eloquent, indelible mark it has left on me and every subsequent cohort of first-graders.

For anyone reading this post who is younger than I am, it may be difficult to comprehend the sheer novelty of bringing a TV into the classroom back in those days. Sure, we had visual media (who remembers the old filmstrips with the bell that rang when it was time to advance the frame?), but trust me when I say that this was a whole new world. And the program itself was revolutionary. Deliberately, wonderfully, multi-racial, multi-generational, multi-lingual, multi-everything. A neighborhood that was obviously urban, a little bit edgy (come on, there was a grubby green grouch who lived in a garbage can), and decidedly working-class. It was idealistic, but not preachy. And the messaging elevated PBS and Fred Rogers out of his world of make-believe into a real world where grownups could help children navigate their way through a lot more than vowels and consonants.

Looking back now, I can only imagine the sense of urgency the Sesame Street creators felt as they brought their sound-stage neighborhood to life throughout the public broadcasting network. During the pre-production stages, the world had shifted. The US was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. Northern Ireland was in crisis. People had walked on the Moon. The summer leading up to the first episode had been filled with events that we now recall with phrases and one-word labels: Woodstock. Stonewall. Helter Skelter. Chappaquiddick. The Nixon Doctrine. What images from the news had made their way into the living rooms of the children for whom Sesame Street was developed? What worries and ideas were they struggling to resolve? On the steps of Susan and Bob’s apartment building, in Mr. Hooper’s store, in the alley where Big Bird kept his nest, how many difficult topics were raised and addressed with calm, measured, caring tones? And, in the context of the events of 1968 and 1969, and in all the subsequent years, who could have predicted that an earnest group of performers, puppeteers, and child development specialists from the Harvard Graduate School of Education would have built a legacy that has extended through at least three generations?

On behalf of all the grownups like me, who work in schools and have the unmitigated thrill of watching six-year-olds learn to read as an added bonus to an already fulfilling career, I would like to say, this post is brought to you by the letters that spell every good thing. With thanks to Big Bird, Jim Henson, Joan Cooney, Jerry Lesser, and Children’s Television Workshop.

A Room and a View

When I tell people that I have an amazing view from my apartment in New Haven, they usually respond with some skepticism. As in, “Really? What can you see in New Haven?”

My poor part-time city. It doesn’t get a lot of respect as a scenic destination.

My apartment faces north. And, it is on the 26th floor of one of the tallest buildings in town. And, I have floor-to-ceiling windows that make my tiny space feel much bigger than it actually is.

And, dominating my vista is a spectacular geologic formation. East Rock is a 200-million year old trap-rock ridge. Its peak is 366 feet above sea level. It is comprised mostly of diabase, a mineral compound that oxidizes when exposed to air (I looked it up), turning the face a beautiful shade of reddish-brown. All of the non-rocky surfaces are crowded with oak, elm, and maple trees. Since we’re in Connecticut, and it’s October, you can imagine the colors out my window this week. But why just imagine, when I can share the sunset view from my living room on Monday evening?

IMG_0145What can you see in New Haven? Well, I can see this.

And also (because I seem to be beginning most of the sentences in this post with the word and), just to give you a bit more perspective on the whole “Views in New Haven” concept, consider the following. This is the view from East Rock looking downtown.

IMG_0147This photo was taken one week before the sunset shot above. You can see across the top of the Yale campus and out to Long Island Sound.

I love my part-time city.

The Thing About the Coffee

I have a thing about my morning coffee.  It’s been mentioned in previous posts, and here it is again. A 4-shot latte. Usually called a “quad venti,” because I usually get it at Starbucks. Otherwise, it’s just a large four-shot latte. The point is, I order this beverage. By talking to a person. While smiling and usually while making conversation about the weather or some other relevant topic.

When I started my new job last year and rented my new apartment, a lot of my favorite people asked me about my coffee thing. Now that I’d be walking to work, didn’t I want a Keurig, or an espresso machine, or some other handy appliance?

No.

I absolutely do NOT want a coffee-making toy. I am way too much of an extrovert to make my coffee all alone and walk to school for half an hour without speaking to anyone. One of the reasons I decided to live downtown and walk to work was specifically so that I could find a coffee shop (or more than one) where I could stop every morning and talk to someone. Where people might get to know me a little, and might recognize me and say hello when I opened the door. And also, that they would make me a nice strong latte.

I am happy to say that my morning routine is exactly what I envisioned.  Because sometimes, in both large and small ways, we get to make our lives happen. The  coffee thing is kind of small. But it is really nice. Today, it was pouring out when I left the apartment building, so I drove the whole 1.9 mile route instead of walking.  But I stopped for coffee anyway. And when I walked into the cafe, the barista smiled at me and  said, “4-shot latte?” And I said, “oh, yes, please.” And then we talked about the weather.

Tuned In

One of the many reasons I love my job: The Head of School has initiated a “happiness group” among the faculty and staff. A couple of weeks ago, she sent a link to a TED talk by psychologist Shawn Achor, which has been viewed countless times and which, no doubt, has inspired countless people to re-think their ideas about success, satisfaction, and daily experiences. Toward the end of his talk, Dr. Achor offers suggestions for five daily practices that have been proven to raise our level of happiness:

  • Naming 3 “gratitudes” each day
  • Keeping a journal
  • Exercising
  • Meditation
  • Performing random acts of kindness

One of our 7th grade teachers had brought the talk to the head of school with the thought, “wouldn’t this be a great message to share with our middle school students?”

Of course, it’s a great idea. But before we bring it to the kids, our wise head of school said, let’s offer a challenge to the adults in the community. Let’s see if we can raise our own happiness quotients.

And so, our “happiness group” was born. More than two dozen people volunteered to choose one or more of Achor’s behaviors, and make a 21-day commitment to stick with it. We’ll all be checking in with ourselves and each other during the next three weeks as we try to make happiness a habit.

I like to think of myself as a generally happy person, and I think I try to seek opportunities to discover happiness in my day–but couldn’t we all be a bit more mindful about finding the good in our lives?

http://on.ted.com/f0U0c

Hearts Full

On any given day, hundreds of thousands of children are born on Earth. Each of them is a small miracle, and for the purposes of this post, let us imagine those babies being welcomed and embraced as they take their first breaths. Let us hold in our minds the idea that every one of those children is wanted, cherished, and precious.

A few weeks ago, a little boy surprised his parents and arrived much sooner than he was expected. The universe aligned for him, and for them; he is healthy, beautiful, and thriving. In less than a month, he has attracted a large crowd of admirers, including me. His blissful mama told me that she can’t believe how much time she spends just staring at him. Today, as an infant, he breathes–calmly, or in short little breaths. He startles, and his arms tense. His little forehead furrows and his mouth makes a small o. Everything about him is absolutely fascinating, and he is the only person she has known for his entire existence. What she doesn’t realize yet is that she will never stop being amazed when she looks at her child. There is no comparable experience. It is simultaneously heart-stopping and dizzyingly fierce.

Also this month, another friend invited me to join her for a once-in-a-lifetime shopping trip: looking for a wedding gown with her and her daughter. I was–I still am— incredibly honored to have been included in such a special morning. The joy and excitement of the outing, and what it represents as a milestone, provided a happy undercurrent while we were surrounded by acres of tulle, lace, satin, and silk. However, the moment that made my eyes sting was when this woman looked at her child in what will probably become her single-most-photographed piece of clothing. In an eternal split second, she saw her daughter in one of those rare past-present-future glimpses that make our most intimate relationships timeless.

The title of this post was a hashtag emphasis posted by my college roommate and lifelong comrade in the journey of life. She had just established her eldest in his first apartment, ready to begin his professional life. “He is launched,” she wrote with bittersweet pride. I keep thinking about her thoughts during that weekend. How many times did she catch herself staring at him the same way she did when he was a newborn? Which of his small gestures or facial expressions took her instantly to the time when he was two, or five, or eleven years old? When did she find herself totally still, absorbing the reality of his adulthood?

These people who become adults always start out as tiny newborns. Of the many billions who presently share the planet, I offer you three as reasons to smile. With much love and gratitude to them and their families for bringing joy to me and mine.

The View from 50

Making the Path

Today’s post owes itself to two exquisite poets.

Caminante by Antonio Machado

Caminante, son tus huellas               Walker, your footprints are
el camino, y nada más;                       the road, and nothing more;
caminante, no hay camino,               walker, there is no road,
se hace camino al andar.                    the road is made by walking.
Al andar se hace camino,                   Walking makes the road,
y al volver la vista atrás                     And to turn for the view behind
se ve la senda que nunca                     is to see the path which will never
se ha de pisar.                                        be tread again. 
Caminante, no hay camino,              Walker, there is no road,
sino estelas en la mar.                        only the wake on the sea. 

 

That’s my translation, and while it’s certainly not as poetic as Machado’s lyrical Spanish, it expresses the message.

I first came across this poem when I read Miles Horton and Paulo Freire’s book We Make the Road by Walking. Horton paraphrased  Machado as a way to express the importance of intentionality and awareness as we live our lives. It’s one of the most inspirational and affirming books I’ve ever read, told by two men who made an enormous difference in the world, both of whom were near the end of long, well-lived lives.

We all mark our lives in a series of milestones. Birthdays, especially the ones that indicate decades, assume a particular significance. Aging itself carries weight;  many cultures bestow status upon young people when they have been on the planet for a certain number of years. Civic privileges and responsibilities such as voting, legal independence, and military service are dependent on a person’s age. What would otherwise be arbitrary birthdays (13, 18, 21) take on a level of importance because of the stature determined by a societal norm.

Birth and death are the only universal life cycle events, and humans have honored  them throughout history and across the world. Other milestones– coming-of-age ceremonies, marriage, and religious rites–are often recognized or honored as well.

And then there are the unique milestones we achieve in the course of living our lives. What are they, and what makes them meaningful? More than that, what do these milestones contribute to our narrative?

I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a bit this summer. If there were a map of my life, this season would be represented by an amazing series of crossroads and bridges. From this vantage point in the path of my journey, I can see back over five decades. Some of those distant experiences are clear and shining; others are blurred. Looking ahead, I can hope that the view extends the same distance. I choose to believe that I am at the midpoint.

On this part of my map, there are some very flamboyant road signs. One says 50FIFTY50FIFTY50FIFTY50. Or maybe, just maybe, it is identical to every other tiny marker along the way. Maybe it simply says, in all lower-case letters,  “today.”

Getting to 50 meant passing 18,250 of those little “today” signs. Like my 50th birthday, each of those days only happened once. And as the path unfolds–as I make the path, all of the upcoming days will only happen once.

The milestones along the way are markers that I placed. Reaching 50, to me, is a chance to pause briefly and be grateful for all of the people and experiences that helped me shape this path.

Another milestone this season is the one that I recognize today. July 18, 2011 was one of my own personal markers. Today is the 2nd anniversary of my third spinal surgery. I’ve written about my back and about the gifts of tolerance, balance, and gratitude that accompanied my injuries, recoveries, and discoveries.

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This morning began early, with open-air yoga in an idyllic space on Martha’s Vineyard. Every time I do yoga, I find moments of sheer joy and power. Every time I can achieve a deeper bend, a greater lift, a stronger extension, I am energized. Every time I can become entirely present in my breath, or hold a challenging pose for a few more seconds, I am more alive.

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There is no road sign for that type of moment–or is there?

The Summer Day
Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?