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Jungle Juice and Sensory Awareness

May 2, 2016

I recently returned from an adventurous trip to Nicaragua. It inspired. My next few blogs will no doubt be related to my musings about this particular part of the world. Like all journeys, my time in Central America was filled with highs and lows, offering up lessons and tales to be told.

Disclaimer: Nicaragua was not high on my list of places to see. If I’d won the lottery and could have traveled anywhere, I’d have flown to the South Pacific, headed back to Italy, or gone to see my adopted family in Tunisia. But I found round-trip tickets to Managua for $300, which, in a way, was like winning the lottery. Plus, two of my three kids spoke Spanish, and Central America was high on their list. We had friends who’d been to Nica and loved it. We’d even met a great Nicaraguan guy—on a hut trip of all places. He promised to show us a good time. Clearly, the stars were aligned, and Nicaragua was where we needed to go. It was a done deal.

However, because Nica wasn’t top on my list, I didn’t think much about it. I read one book. I watched an Anthony Bourdain episode. I talked to a few people who’d been, but I had no expectations for the trip. Until I got there and realized I did.

When I first saw the dormant jungle; brown, twisted, and void of lush beauty;

I cried. After living through a winter of white, my hope was to see green. Breathe green. Live green. But the jungle wasn’t yet awake, and with the exception of palm trees and bougainvillea, the colors had vaporized.

In order to push through my disappointment, I honed in on other ways to explore the country and its environment. In doing so, I discovered intoxicating beauty not found with sight, and I used my other senses instead.

The 95-degree Nicaraguan heat saturated my body, offering a longed-for respite from the Colorado cold. I let it sink into my skin; at times enjoying it, at others, not so much. The excessive temperatures also taught me to welcome the wind, which can’t be seen. First, I’d hear it. The wind whistled and rustled through the canopy overhead and then swept over me like a soft wash, cleansing my scorched skin. I taught myself to listen to the breeze, anticipating the relief it would bring.

I also heard birds—beautiful birds greeting the morning and closing the day. They became my clock. I heard people pounding nails, others selling wares. I listened to new music and learned the Nicaraguan beat. The sounds were foreign, exotic, and welcoming.

The fragrances in Central America were equally exotic. Smoke from burning trash and wood was not so pleasant, but others smells delighted my entire being. Fried coconut oil spilled through the streets as women grilled chicken, plantains, and fried fish. Spices filled the air, making my mouth water. The taste of turmeric and onion and red peppers exploded when I ate. Freshly roasted coffee greeted my morning, and pure honey tasted exceptionally good. After eating tiny, tangy bananas, mangos, papayas and pineapples, the fruit juices dripped across my fingertips, sweet and sour flavors lingered behind my tongue.

I didn’t see my self-imagined jungle, but as with any unmet expectations, there were lessons to be learned, experiences to be found. There is more to the world than sight. Would I have preferred to see the jungle its green glory? Of course. But in its place, I re-awakened my underused senses, rousing both body and soul and offering me the opportunity to rejuvenate, experience, and truly explore. Isn’t that what a journey is all about? The challenge now, as with all returns, is to keep the lesson alive.

Given that I still see snow outside my window, I’m more than happy to practice non-seeing. But it’s easy to forget to breathe deeply, to take time to feel the air, smell the sweetness in the coffee shop, or to taste every single bite of a hurried breakfast. But slowing down and taking time to taste and smell and feel and truly listen enhances our lives. I teach my writing students to use senses in their writing. Providing a variety of details is important to the depth of a description. And so it is with life. Seeing is powerful. Beautiful. But it’s not all there is.

 

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Grandma’s Ring

April 12, 2016

On Easter Sunday, I lost the diamond in my Grandma’s wedding ring. My mom gave me the ring after my grandma died, more than ten years ago. I never took it off—until the diamond disappeared.

Because the ring fit best on my wedding ring finger, I wore it there and shifted my own wedding ring to my right hand. The two fit together, like mated hummingbirds. My own ring is simple, and I wear no band. My grandma’s ring was old but also simple and also worn with no band.

When I discovered the diamond was missing, my entire family helped me search. It happened during a play and probably went down the drain while I washed my hands during intermission. But it doesn’t much matter; it’s gone. What does matter is what the ring represented.IMG_8384

For me, wearing my grandma’s ring was more about remembering her than it was about the bling. My grandma was a fascinating woman; one I wish I’d gotten to know better, as an adult. Back in the day, my grandma was a flapper and nicknamed Dizzy Izzy, probably for more reasons than I was told. Grandma liked gin and tonics and travel and lemon bars. Sadly, she suffered from manic depression and piloted shock treatments during the 1950s and 60s. She helped people. She and her mother were suffragettes, and when I was young, she made me watch a movie with her about the feminist movement in London. During the part where women were being forced food through their noses, I almost threw up. When the movie was over, she turned to me and said, “It’s not a pretty history so don’t take voting for granted. Ever.” Go Grandma.

I wonder what my grandma would say about so many people being so very disgusted with the current political election. What would she say to my daughters who would rather not vote if Bernie’s not elected? What would she say to my son and the millions of individuals who want to vote Republican but not for a misogynist, authoritarian clown? I know what she’d say. She’d say vote anyway—it’s a privilege.

And she’s right.

But this isn’t a political column, at least not today. It’s an ode to my grandma and her lost ring. Call me voodoo, but I believe possessions find a way of leaving their caretakers when they’re no longer needed or when they know the person is ready to move on. It’s no coincidence I lost the diamond on Easter Sunday. Among other things, Easter is a time of renewal. Of letting go. Of rebirth. The day before Easter, I’d returned from a writing workshop, full of possibilities and fresh perspective, ready to embrace a new project and complete another. On the home front, 2016 marks a pivotal turning point for my family. My oldest will move away, begin college, and launch her next adventure. In a hop, skip and a jump (as Grandma would say), the other two kids will be following her out the door as quickly as the eye blinks (Grandma liked her clichés).

Clearly, I’m in a phase of letting go and embracing new patterns and opportunities. It’s not easy. In fact, I struggle with change. But maybe that’s why I lost the ring, as a reminder that life is ever changing. Grieve and forge ahead. And just like that, even without the ring, Grandma’s spirit teaches on.

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Writing Retreats/Workshops

April 5, 2016

I recently attended a fantastic writing workshop/retreat in California.

It’s best summed up by friend and fellow writer’s post that you can read here:

3 Long-Lasting Benefits You Receive from Attending a Retreat

If you’re a writer, I highly recommend attending not just a workshop, but a retreat. They’re good for the soul!

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Sadness of Spring

March 21, 2016

Spring-like matters surround us: images of beaches and green grass (or even better, REAL beaches and green grass), Easter greetings, colored eggs, marshmallow Peeps, daffodils, and tulips. The hours stretch forward and light illuminates the sky early and late into the day. Truth? I hate it. I know that I shouldn’t use the word ‘hate,’ but I really do.

Of course, springtime where I live in Summit County has much to be desired. Instead of relishing in lilacs and lavender, we dust the snow off desperate little peonies and scrape mud from our boots. But for me, it goes deeper than disliking dirty slush.

Unlike most people, I have reverse seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a condition that creates depression during the spring months. Call me crazy, but I’d give anything to return to the darkening days of fall. I love the tiny white twinkle lights along my deck, and I’d rather smell wood smoke than fallen pine needles. I don’t want to stop making my vats of stew. Don’t kick me out of the mountains, but I don’t even like to spring ski—send me the blizzards. There, I said it.

According to an article by Linda Wasmer Andrews in Psychology Today, one out of every ten individuals with SAD suffers from spring depression. While people skip through tulips singing stupid spring songs, those with reverse SAD do not. Instead of increased energy, excitement, and enthusiasm; people with reverse SAD recognize spring fever with a feeling of dread. Depression can worsen, and statistics show that the highest rates of suicide are during late spring and early summer. Reverse seasonal affective disorder is not something to be taken lightly.

It took me years to understand that not liking spring didn’t make me a freak. I finally learned a few coping skills to help push through my months of ick. I work and write a lot, which helps me feel productive. Yay me. Because escape can be useful, I take vacation in April, the very worst month of the year for me. I cook with lemons and limes, focusing on a lighter diet. So there’s that. Most importantly, I’ve learned to rely on a growing spiritual practice, which includes honoring Easter and the sense of sacrifice, gratitude, and renewal. Instead of glancing at the muck between my feet, I focus on the birds building their nests. If I listen closely, I can hear their whistles and chirps full of joy, creating a chorus. If I take the time to notice, I see the magic.

In a word, spring is magical. Watching a seed emerge from the dirt as a tiny, green plant and begin to grow into a spectacular flower is the stuff fairy-tales are made of, pure enchantment. That alone, is enough to appreciate, if not love, springtime. I’ll never be one to dance around a flagpole on Mayday, but learning to appreciate the magic makes me dance inside myself. For someone suffering from reverse seasonal disorder, that’s not nothing. Happy spring to the rest of you!

 

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Winter Spirit

March 11, 2016

My word of the year is SPIRIT. As winter recedes, I’m posting a few of my favorite, random photos that capture winter spirit. The cute little ermine surprised me one day, popping up in front of our house, not afraid of a thing. An ermine with spirit!

How’s your word of the year treating you?

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Tis the Season to Test

March 1, 2016

Sharpen your #2 pencils. Stop. Never mind. Fill in the bubbles correctly. Stop. Never mind. Write your essay clearly. Stop Never mind. Take the test via the computer. Stop. Never mind. The testing procedure has changed. Again.

Tis’ the season for standardized testing, although it’s easy to lose track of which one is being administered. CSAP? TCAP? CMAS? PARCC? NWEA? ACT or SAT? The amount of money spent to create and choose the best test to maintain accountability is mindboggling. In the end, does testing do any good? Do tests make our kids smarter? do they make students better writers? Do they make our teachers better or our schools more productive? Do tests accurately measure a person’s intellect? What about a student’s physical or emotional well-being: can a test measure health and happiness? Shouldn’t values and integrity go hand in hand with lesson plans, and if so, how does a test cover that? This blog is full of questions—just like a test.

In most American public schools, standardized tests are administered in the spring, giving teachers the ability to teach to the test for most of the school year. But don’t blame the teachers—they get tested, too. In 2001, the Bush administration designed No Child Left Behind, launching the obsession with test success, and although NCLB is no longer in place, testing remains an essential ingredient in public schools.

Should communities continue to support educational systems that measure success by a test score? I don’t think so. Very rarely will an exam measure creativity; or for that matter, passion, perseverance, and responsibility. Tests don’t make kids better writers. They might make them nervous writers, but not better writers. A writer learns to write well by reading widely and practicing often: not once a year on a test.

As a writing instructor at Colorado Mountain College, I will also say this: some of my most successful students are not those who scored perfect SAT scores. They are students who’ve shown drive and determination. They’re students who’ve experienced life and have found ways to make sense of their world, creating their success through effort and true grit.

It is possible for schools to assess progress without a standardized testing system. Many charter schools, private schools, and a few brave and progressive public schools use alternative measures, some of them outside the box and others radically simple. Games and collaborative activities can be used to develop critical thinking. A student who shows up every day for a clarinet lesson or basketball practice will learn something about dedication, effort, and results. Some progressive schools develop student portfolios, measuring progress and knowledge by a body of work, rather than by an exam. A test is not the only measure of success. An environment where students are encouraged to express themselves creatively can result in healthier, less anxious people.

I recently read an article about a teacher in Kentucky who’d ordered a newfangled push-pedal contraption that her kindergartners used under their desks, keeping them physically engaged while working. Really? How about letting kindergartners run around a playground for twenty minutes? During standardized test weeks, many principals and teachers remind parents to feed their students a healthy breakfast and to make sure they get plenty of sleep. Am I missing something, or isn’t it important for kids to eat healthy breakfasts and sleep well all the time? What message do we send by spending so much effort preparing for a test?

Let’s let kids write: write creatively, write for fun, write to practice, write to journey, write to express themselves; but not to be tested.

 

 

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White Oscars: Not Okay

February 22, 2016

On February 28th, the Oscars arrive. But for the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated only white actors/films in the industry’s top categories; exposing a shocking lack of respect for our diverse culture. As a writer, not an actor, should I care about the Oscars and the recent movie scandal?

Yes. Everyone should.

The Academy’s predominately white, male board members may not have consciously or purposely shut out diverse movies, but that’s no excuse. Honoring all people, matters.

Why?

  • Everyone deserves to be heard, and everyone has a story. Enough said.
  • Our country has changed. The white majority is in decline, and yet, they still command the wealth, privilege, and power in our society. Until all individuals are recognized for their accomplishments, a distorted and unfair balance hangs like ugly air. Not only is it important to learn from a film’s content, but also, it’s crucial to have a diverse balance of leaders running the show.
  • Education is key to our country’s health and well-being. Diversity (including, but not limited to; race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status, age, sexual preference, and gender) should be recognized and reflected in all realms of our society. By watching stories on the screen, we can learn about historical and societal events, highlighting a variety of subjects. In Straight Out of Compton (unfortunately, NOT nominated for best picture) the audience learns one reason artists rap about police brutality, exposing an important and timely issue. While watching the movie, I felt extreme empathy for African Americans who continue to be unjustly targeted in police brutality. Empathy (via education) is a key ingredient to change.
  • People need positive role models. If there aren’t any in film, literature, business, or in our leadership, how can there be growth? In the book/film, The Danish Girl (unfortunately, NOT nominated for best picture), the main character’s confusion about his gender identity almost leads him to suicide. However, once he finds the courage and support he needs to come forward as a woman; he discovers himself, paving a way for others struggling with gender identity and acting as a progressive role model.
  • Diversity can act as an avenue to discover common ground. People suffer. People triumph. People cry, and people laugh. It’s simple; human emotion does not discriminate.

A diverse culture creates a strong economy. I come from a long line of farmers, and my female ancestors contributed to the economy by raising children, preparing meals, cleaning clothes, and running the household. They created the foundation for stay-at home-moms. However, as our country expanded beyond an agricultural workforce, and thanks to people like Gloria Steinem, women expanded their talents and skills. Girls can now become whomever they chose to be: a pilot, a plumber, a CEO, or a carpenter, thus creating a more sophisticated and healthy economy.

Shame on the Academy for not recognizing and respecting our culture’s rich diversity. For our country to move forward in a healthy, successful manner, we need all walks of life to be honored in film, books, businesses, and in our government—diversity should be respected and represented in all realms.

 

 

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