Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Kindness in Our Schools

I teach thirty five sixth graders sixth hour, the last hour of our school day.  The first five minutes students boisterously enter the room after their five minute passing time, bathroom break, and socializing opportunity in the commons area and about ten students, one right after another, ask me a flock of questions and tell me a pack of concerns: “Can I go to the nurse?” “Do you have a pencil I could use?” “What are we doing today?” “Today is my birthday.” “I can't find me folder.” “My mom told me I'm missing an assignment and I turned that in.” “Do you believe in unicorns?” “Do you want to see the  ninja star I made?” “Can I go to the bathroom?” “John is bullying me.” “Can I go to the nurse?”

At some point, I need to stop the students from speaking to me and simply start class or I suspect I could spend twenty minutes answering their questions and comments.  I wish I could give them the one on one time and serve their needs, but behind them await the twenty five other students in my classroom.  It takes several minutes to get this class started as they slowly and reluctantly walk to their seats.  I cajole and coerce several of them.  Some days I feel like a cowboy corralling cattle into their pens.  And then, about a week ago, loudly enough for everyone to hear, a girl blurts across the room: “If you don't stop I'm going to slap the Mexican right out of you!”

“Whoa!” I say loudly.  “Not acceptable.  Everybody sit down right now.  No more questions.  No more comments.  No more talking.  Everybody in their seats.” 

And then a boy shouts to another boy, “Shut up, faggot!”

“Whoa!  Not acceptable,” I say again.  “Everyone in their seats now.” 

The kids seem to know that the word they just heard is not acceptable and they quickly move to their seats, sit down, and are silent.

“I don't know what's going on right now,” I say, “but I just heard two things that are completely unacceptable and inappropriate and I am going to address them right now.” 

I remain remarkably calm. For the past ten years as a reminder I've used a white mug with these wise words on it:

It's been my mantra many times.  I must be channeling this quote when the girl yelled out the racist comment and the boy yelled out the homophobic comment because I stay calm and in control and say something along the lines of this:

“M, everybody heard you say what you said because you said it so loudly, so I'm going to acknowledge that you said it, but I'm going to address it to everyone.  What M said is racist.  She may not think it is. She may think it's just funny. You may think it's funny. But in this context, in a public space, too many people could be offended by that and too many people could consider it a racist comment that I am going to say it is a racist comment. And it is not acceptable.”  I point to the large poster I created that has hung in my room for the past two years.  “Read what it says,” I say.  “We respect everyone's cultural diversity in this classroom.  And look around you, boys and girls.  This classroom, your class, your peers represent a multitude of cultural diversity.  I look out into this classroom and I see African Americans and Hispanic Americans and Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans.  And what do you all have in common?  That you are Americans.  And as Americans you have to respect each others' cultural diversity and you have to be aware that racism is not acceptable and racist comments are a part of that racism.  Our country has had a long and ugly history of racism against people of almost every race and it needs to stop now and it needs to stop here.”

I'm proud of that teachable moment turned into a patriotic speech.

But I'm not done:  “And D, the word you said is not acceptable.  Faggot is an ugly and mean word that mean people have called gay people to be mean.  Many people, including myself, find that word is as ugly as the n word.”  I address the entire class: “And when I say the n word I think all of you know what I mean and it's such a mean word that I'm not even going to say it.  The word D just said is like the n word to me when I hear it and I will not tolerate in my classroom and we will not tolerate it our school.  And it is my belief that we shouldn't tolerate it in our families or our society.  It needs to stop.”

I'm proud of that teachable moment turned into a gay acceptance speech. 

I take a deep breath.  The room is silent. Eyes are on me or turned away ashamed and embarrassed.  “Boys and girls,” I continue.  “This year too many of you have been mean to someone else.  Maybe it's something racist or homophobic you said. Maybe it's teasing you did.  Or bullying.  But it's got to stop.  Kids feeling are being hurt.  Be nice to each other.  Be kind to each other.  It's the golden rule that we learned about in our IGH MS values: treat others the way you would want them to treat.  And how do we all want to be treated?  With kindness and respect.  So be kind and be respectful.  It is that simple and that easy and many of you need to start doing it now with your words and actions.  Words hurt.  But words also help and heal and make people feel good.  So choose the ladder.  Be kind.  Be more mindful, more aware of the things you say and make sure what you say is always kind and respectful.”      

I pause.  I take several breaths. No one moves. No one says a word. I said all I needed to say about this particular topic and so I move on to the assignment explanation at hand.

This incident reiterates for me that we as teachers need to teach kindness.  Not that we already aren't, but it seems that more and more students are in our schools are unkind in their words and actions.  It's certainly not all of them, but too many of them to create a true learning environment.  This is not particular to our suburban middle school, but rather indicative of many elementary, middle, and high schools across the country.

I don't know the cause.  Is it parents? Is it lack of spiritual instruction at home or at a place of worship? Is it media bombardment of violence and meanness and  craziness?  Is it poverty?  Whatever the multifaceted and interconnected cause, the symptoms seem rampant and contagious: mean words, mean actions, angry outbursts, insubordination, disrespect, disruption, racist, sexist, and homophobic comments, teasing, bullying, fighting, school shootings.  Whatever that multifacted and interconnected cure, it needs to run deep through the many veins of our society and into our families, places of worship, media, class systems, and education. 

It seems to me we need to deliberately and systematically teach kindness and respect to some of our students.  By this (and I'm in the nascent stage of this idea) I mean full courses with curriculum based standards and rich resources and experiences taught by accredited teachers trained in kindness instruction, experience, and assessment.  Our society—our world—is so complex that we need this simple and profound education and foundation. 

It's a radical idea and a paradigm shift in the way we think about our schools and the classes we teach in our schools, but for the future success our schools and our society, our public school system needs to revision and retool for the twenty first century in so many ways.  Teaching kindness stands like a stalwart sentinel at the forefront of this change, the peaceful warrior promoting kindness and spreading the seeds of love. 
As the poster on my classroom door states and which I hope all my students read and understand: 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Full Moon Mindfulness Walk and Run-February 2013

I left for my full moon mindfulness walk for February 2013 at 5:15 and arrived home at 5:45. I typically go in the evening when it's dark and I can see the full moon, but today there was a blue sky which I needed to see after these many days of gray sky and long hours of darkness. It was also forty three degrees, which is still really cold in my book of temperatures, but is better than the near zero temperatures we've been experiencing. My strategy for winter in Minnesota is to retreat into my warm home and to surrender to the solitude and stillness this season offers us. But I wanted to get outside.

I love nature. Any time we step outside we are in nature. My nature today was walking along a sidewalk in the suburb where I live during the last full moon of winter. There were so many bare trees with their branches exposed like arms and fingers stretching toward the sky, praising the universe, grasping for the sunlight. I too wanted that sunlight. 

I also wanted to run and I knew it would be safer in the light. While I meant my full moon walk to resemble walking meditation in a meditation room (in Japanese Zen kinhin in the zendo), which would imply walking slowly and mindfully, I realized today the activity is about mindfulness and I can run mindfully. Everything can be done mindfully. Everything!

So I ran mindfully. I think this was my best run ever. I was aware of my legs running, my feet landing on the concrete, my arms moving rhythmically with my steady and sure stride, my exercise induced breathing. I ran seven times about a half a mile each time. I'm not a runner; I'm a walker. Just like I'm not a fighter; I'm a lover.

When I was seventeen I was in a car accident that left me temporarily paralyzed and I've never felt my legs have been as strong as a man who hasn't experienced an injury like mine. Add to that having genetically thin legs and I've never thought I've had the strength or endurance to run well.

But that's changing. As I've late, I've been focusing on strength, power, and balance training for my legs at my fitness center, and as a result I have more strength, power, and balance in my legs. That has psychologically benefited me in the same capacity of mind: more strength, power, and balance. Strong legs, strong mind. Or as my friend Dale would jokingly and yet wisely say with enthusiasm, “Big thighs!” He knows because he's got them. I would add “big mind” to his proclamation and create my own zen adage: big thighs, big mind.

Our legs take us through our lives. Walking can be viewed as both a necessity that takes us through life and a metaphor for our journey. Although in the case of paraplegics, quadriplegics, and amputees movement of legs isn't necessary to take them through life and wheels might work better as metaphor. Recent media attention on Olympic athletes with prosthetic legs would also challenge the notion of our “legs”.

Nonetheless, there's a rich literary tradition of walking as both a practical activity and a metaphor. Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales with his medieval pilgrims, Robert Frost's “The Road Less Traveled” with his ambling and never rambling narrator, Henry David Thoreau's contemplative essay Walking, and Peter Jenkin's Walk Across America, Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, and Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail with their contemporary stories of walking long distances are all books that come to mind that I've read on the topic of walking.

I believe I'm more aware of walking than most people because coupled with my mindfulness practice for almost six months when I was seventeen I couldn't walk. I used a wheelchair. For another year I used crutches and canes. There are days I'm walking and I think, “I'm walking! Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I could have had a different reality. I could have been a paraplegic using a wheelchair or a semi-paraplegic using crutches or canes. While I know I would have made the best of my life and forged ahead confidently in the direction of my dreams, as Thoreau advises, with technological ambulatory assistance, I also know that life is easier when you can walk on your own two legs and feet. You also can do more. Or at least I know I would do more than if I needed a wheelchair or crutches or canes. I've been fully aware of not taking my legs and my ability to walk for granted.

This has recently been made more significant with a sixty-nine year old friend of mine getting one of her hips replaced two summers ago and her other one this spring. Not to mention a knee replaced three years ago and her other one probably this fall. Old age can do that to our bodies. On the other hand, old age doesn't have to do that to our bodies. My fitness center has a lot of senior citizens who are in fantastic health both physically and mentally. I see them running with strength, power, and balance around the track or on treadmills. I can and will do the same now and in my old age.

Quiddity of this mindfulness walk and run: Strong legs, strong mind. Big Thighs! Big Mind!

I didn't see the moon when I took my full moon mindfulness walk and run. But at 7:45, after writing this and making and eating chicken vindaloo, I went to the bathroom, and hoping to see the moon, looked out my bathroom window, and there it was: the February full moon. I actually gasped in awe. I hardly believe I did that. I hardly believe I did so many things in my life. Or that I can do so many things. But there was the full moon, a monthly reminder of my potential—our potential—and of the beauty, awe, and impermanence of life.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Baking My Own Bread

I’m baking bread the old fashion way: mixing and kneading it, letting it rise for several hours, kneading it again, placing it in bread pans, letting it rise again, and baking it.  I make it on Fridays after work, usually within fifteen minutes of arriving home, and have been since September of 2012.  It's become a ritual.  It's become therapeutic.  It's become delicious bread that I eat for the week. 

So delicious that in November when I had two months of experience and baked white bread for my birthday dinner with my friends Jen and Jen and Jonah, their eight year old son, Jonah said, “James, your bread is better than bread at a restaurant.”  Coming from the fine taste buds of my godson, I value his compliment and opinion.   

I made white bread the first week, then half white and half wheat the next week, then whole wheat, and have played with these three combinations every Friday since.   I've added herbs and spices to different loaves:  rosemary, thyme, basil, cinnamon, Mrs. Dash's Original Spice.  My favorite bread is the half white and half whole wheat combination, nothing extra.  

Last week, reading in Walden that Henry David Thoreau made only rye bread while he stayed at Walden Pond I made rye bread in honor of him.  I always thought he baked and ate wheat bread, but because I am more aware of bread now, I noticed this detail in Walden.  This is true for many things in our lives: we notice them when they are a part of our lives and we have a connection.  The rye bread I made possessed a density I didn't expect, and yet, I could see how it felt like solidity and sustenance in Thoreau's mostly vegetarian diet.  He wrote that bread “...always does us good.” 

 I agree.  It's why I continue to make my own bread. Mixing together the flour, yeast, water, salt, sugar, and butter or olive oil and kneading it strips the bread of store bought preservatives and additives and affords me the opportunity to practice mindfulness.  The process transitions me from the work week surrounded by the middle school children I teach to spending time with myself in the quietude of my home.  I feel tension released from my body as I fold the dough and press firmly over and over again. 

In October, while I was at my godson Jonah's birthday party, I mentioned to his grandma, my friend Jen's mom, that I started baking bread.  A bread baker herself for many years, she told me that rather than time how long I kneaded the dough, which I was doing, I should intuit how long I should knead it. She told me to feel the give of the bread and sense when it was ready.  “It will let you know,” she said. 

After she told me this, I stopped timing how long I kneaded the bread and I began to use my intuition.  It's not really intuition I soon realized; it's paying more attention to the dough itself—becoming more mindful of the dough and feeling when it feels slightly taut and ready to sit and rise.  It's using my sense of touch. 

Recently on CBS Sunday Morning Wynton Marsalis interviewed the woman whom he believed made the best gumbo in New Orleans.  When he asked the secret to making gumbo she said that when you make the roux you can't leave the pot and do something else.  You have to stay with it the entire time and stir it. 

It's also true with kneading bread: stay with the bread, pay attention to the bread, and soon you feel what the dough feels like and you know when it's ready.  That knowledge is the intuition of which Jen's mom spoke.  Staying with the bread and devoting my attention and awareness to making bread is what I like about making my own bread.  Be there.  It's a philosophy that applies to everything in life.  Be there.  Pay attention and be aware of what you are doing.  Be there.  When you do that, you understand and experience the moment more.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Synchronicity and the Signal Light

My original plan involved packing everything I could into my blue Chevy Beretta and driving to New Mexico from Minnesota with the intention of living in Albuquerque or Santa Fe.  I was twenty seven years old.  I hadn't yet accumulated the years of living that would now require a U-Haul.  I had traveled to New Mexico two years prior to this trip on a solo sojourn and fell in love with the state.  Like its motto promises, it enchanted me. 

When I got to Albuquerque I stayed with two friends.  It was August of 1997.  I looked for a job and having had extensive experience in retail customer service and telephone fund raising I thought I would find a job rather quickly.  I didn't.  I had saved enough money for two months' rent, but the only apartments I could afford with a possible entry level position were in rough neighborhoods where my friend and her boyfriend advised me not to live. 

I went to New Mexico because, as Henry David Thoreau stated in Walden about why he built a house in the woods and lived there for two and half years, “...I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what life had to teach me, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived”.

When I was still living in Minnesota I started reading books about Zen—Thich Nhat Hahn's Zen Keys and Natalie Goldberg's Long Quiet Highway being two of the most influential--and I fostered a go with the flow as I navigate this canoe called myself along the river of life philosophy.  It's not what I would now consider Zen, but at the time it's how I understood it, and it got me to do what I need to do and go where I needed to go.

After three weeks, I realized New Mexico wasn't turning out as I had planned.  Sensing that perhaps my quest for a place to live and call home wasn't in New Mexico, I decided to move on and keep searching.  Three friends, Stacy, Josh, and Natasha, whom I had met three months ago in St. Cloud, Minnesota where I was living for the past year (prior to that Minneapolis for three years) planned on moving to Eugene, Oregon. I played with the idea of moving to Eugene and joining them, but I realized that Eugene was their destination, their dream not mine, and so I decided to drive back to the Midwest and live in Madison, Wisconsin, a city many of my friends told me I would like for its liberal and progressive nature. 

My car packed up again, I said goodbye to New Mexico, and drove to the Grand Canyon where I spent a day hiking, and then the next day drove through Colorado and Kansas  and the corner of Missouri and into Iowa.  I stayed at a hotel in Des Moines and left early in the morning.  Around 9:00, cruising east on Interstate 80, I noticed that my left turn signal wasn't working.  I decided that at the next city I would pull over and get my signal light fixed. 

That city was Iowa City. 

I repaired my signal light.  A wire had become loose breaking the connection.  Sensing Iowa City was unique, I decided to explore the city.  I was after all still looking for a city to call home and I hadn't entirely set my mind on Madison. 

I got a raspberry white chocolate mocha and a scone at the downtown Java House.   I walked through the pedestrian mall.  I walked along the sidewalk with the quotes from the literary stars of fame who had graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop.  I walked across the campus with its regal buildings and its hot college guys.  I walked along the Iowa River.  I stood in awe in front of the Frank Ghery building. I walked back to the pedestrian mall and ate lunch.  I got in my car and drove around the city and knew I had found my city and my home.  I liked the size, the slower pace, the college, the downtown, the pedestrian mall, the counterculture hippie liberal vibe,  the progressive politics, the literary and theater scene, the tree-lined streets, the forest preserve on the northeast edge of the city, and the cornfields ten minutes away from the center of the city.  I wanted to stay.  I wanted to live there. I had fallen in love with a place. 

I checked into a hotel that evening and started calling bookstores in Iowa City.  I had previously worked at a bookstore and thought a bookstore was my best opportunity for employment and enjoyment.  There were five bookstores listed in the phone book.  The manager of the last store, Walden Books, told me that two employees had quit that week and if I came in for an interview the next morning and got the job, I could start the same day.  I got the position. I found a studio apartment the next day and signed a year-long lease.  It all worked out with such rapidity and certainty and ease that I knew it was right, and the signal light not working moments before the Dubuque Street exit into Iowa City still shimmers as one of the greatest moments of synchronicity in my life. 

I loved those first few months in a Iowa City, because I had done what I had wanted to do.  I had moved to a city that resonated with me.  I felt like Rapunzel in Tangled when she left the tower of her imprisonment and stood outside for the first time, touching the bright green grass with her bare feet and exuberantly singing, “I can't believe I did this! I can't believe I did this! I can't believe I did this!” 

I couldn't believe I had done it!  I had followed my dream.  I had followed my bliss as Joseph Campbell urged me to do the previous summer when I had read his Power of Myth and stood alone on top of a grassy hill overlooking a blossomed valley near the University of Minnesota-Morris where I had graduated with my Bachelors of Arts about four years earlier and yelled at the top of my lungs, “Follow your bliss, James!  This is your life! Do this if you want to do this!  Take this risk! Live this adventure! Go west, young man!  Follow your bliss!” 

Or a much shorter version, a sentence of encouragement I hear and see is making its presence known everywhere: “You got this!”  

Those first few months in Iowa City allowed me to approach and experience my life, without even knowing it, with zen mind, beginner's mind.  It was a concept I later learned through the book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind by Shunryu Suzuki.  I had taken a course offered through the Iowa City Zen Center led by their resident teacher at the time, Reverend Zuiko Redding, and Zen Mind, Beginners Mind was the inaugural book Zuiko chose to teach as the first resident priest. 

This concept of zen mind, beginner's mind means you approach the present moment with openness, appreciation, curiosity, and acceptance.  It's not always easy but when you can do it, this mind it transforms the moment.  As Shunryu Suzuki states, “In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few.” 

I value the openness, appreciation, curiosity, and acceptance with which I stepped into each new moment from the time I left Minnesota to several months after I had moved to and lived in Iowa City, and remind myself often to live with this attitude and engagement toward my life. 
Iowa City, Spring 2012

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Salsa Memories

The enchiladas were baking in the oven.  Looking in the refrigerator, I realized I didn't have salsa for the tortilla chips.  I did have all the ingredients necessary to make salsa, however, so I decided to make my own. As I gathered the can of diced tomatoes, the habanero hot sauce, and the leftover black eyed peas for good luck from New Year's Day, and as I chopped a green pepper and garlic clove, a warm shower of memories poured over my mind.  I realized and remembered that the last time I made homemade salsa was fifteen years ago.

I had just moved to Iowa City.  I was living in a studio apartment.  I had painted the large kitchen closet doors southwestern orange and the inside of the front door adobe blue, two colors I loved when weeks earlier I had traveled to New Mexico intending to live there, and instead, met and fell in love with Iowa City.

I made the Iowa City salsa for my friends Stacy, Josh, and Natasha who all had recently graduated from college and moved from St. Cloud, Minnesota to Eugene, Oregon to begin anew, to continue the book of their lives, to end one chapter and to start another, as I had done several months earlier when I moved from Minnesota to Iowa City.  Like me, they were a hint of hippie and the gist of gypsy.

I had never made salsa before. I wasn't following a recipe and as I made the salsa it somehow became spaghetti sauce. I wasn't sure which one I was making so I made both. As one. It was a combination of salsa and spaghetti sauce, which is a conundrum. Is it salsa or is it spaghetti sauce? Do you dip it in tortilla chips or pour it over pasta? If you use it for chips then it tastes like spaghetti sauce. If you pour it over pasta then it tastes like salsa. It didn't quite register with me that salsa is from Mexico and spaghetti sauce is from Italy and never the twain should share the same jar. As Dierks Bentley sings in his country song, what was I thinking?

The Avalon Collective, as Stacy, Josh, and Natasha aptly named themselves in their communal household, thanked me for the salsa. Whether or not they liked it and thought it was dynamite or disaster, and told me so, I don't remember. That's the cleverness of memory. You remember what you want to remember and forget what you want to forget. Ideally, it's the good memories you remember.

That's one of the wonderful things about cooking and eating: it can create memories; and similarly, it can conjure those memories. Like the music you listened to at the time. Standing in my kitchen, mixing together the ingredients for my homemade New Year salsa, I remembered that when I first moved to Iowa City, I loved and listened to Andean Legacy: A Narada Collection a lot. So I went downstairs to my CD collection, and sure enough, I still owned the CD, a CD I haven't listened to in fifteen years. I removed it from its slot, placed it in my CD player upstairs, and listened to it as I finished the last flourishes of the homemade salsa. I love listening to music while I cook and eat, and if possible, mindfully listening to it. Hearing Andean Legacy triggered more good memories of those first few months in Iowa City. Like food, music creates and keeps the memories of the soul.

The homemade salsa I made fifteen years later, the Happy New Year 2013 Salsa, is good. In fact, it's really good. It's hot and spicy and flavorful. It's salsa and only salsa. No indecision on my part. The black eyed peas vary from traditional salsa, but they work, and I'm always keen on questioning tradition. The habanero sauce provide a playful punch. I've become a better cook and culinary connoisseur in the past fifteen years and the salsa is proof in the pudding...or salsa as the case may be. Part of that is life experience and part of that is self education, as is everything we become better at in life.

Making salsa here and now in Eagan, Minnesota, in the house I've owned for three years and in the city I've lived in for ten years will also be a memory one day. It already is. I made the New Year Salsa almost four weeks ago and I'm writing about it now. What do I choose to remember? I remember the good. Life is better that way. The past, present, and future is better that way.  To acknowledge this is Zen.