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Category: Teach Our Children Well

Leaf Man Inspired Nature Portraits

Leaf Man Inspired Nature Portraits

Well, whaddaya know? I’m teaching again. Thought I’d never do it. Even vowed I’d never do it again. But over the summer, one of my oldest and dearest friends planted a seed in my mind. He insisted, “Susan, you might not think so, but you are a TEACHER.” It’s not what I wanted to hear. I argued that I’m excited about the more holistic direction I’m taking with clutter coaching, Reiki, feng shui, and mindfulness mentoring. I’m done with teaching. Then he suggested that I at least consider working with young children as a menu item. I listened to what he had to say. After we hung up, there was a funny feeling inside me that made me think he might be right, even though I convinced myself otherwise for quite some time.

A few weeks later, that seed was watered by an intriguing job post another friend sent along that made me light up when I read it. I went straight to the computer and composed a cover letter that essentially wrote itself, and sent it off the next day.

To make a long story short, I got the job and am running a preschool program at our local library! I’m glad my two friends acted on their intuition because it seems to be a perfect fit. It’s a part-time position that allows me to do what I loved most about teaching: Helping children to love learning and books and to feel good about themselves. Incorporating lots of literature-based art and nature projects that build kindergarten readiness skills across the curriculum.

The elements I disliked about public school education don’t apply to this job. I’m not the only adult in the room and have LOTS of assistance because the parents/grandparents/caregivers stay for the program! And there’s no formal assessment. As a kindergarten teacher, it broke my heart to see my students’ self-esteem suffer because they weren’t ready for the “new” kindergarten expectations. I jumped on the library position because it would allow me to: 1) prepare children for kindergarten in developmentally appropriate ways, and 2) model skills and activities to the adults in their lives, who can do so much at home to support their child’s learning. 

I love that I can be a positive influence in the lives of young children and families again, in a much more supported way than when I was a public school kindergarten teacher. It’s wonderful to stick a toe back into the world of early childhood education, in a way that allows me to focus on my other interests, as well. 

The moral? If your intuition nudges you to deliver a message to someone, DO IT! Don’t think it’s silly and shrug it off. The Universe might need you to help plant a seed that will make a positive difference in their life. It might be exactly what they need to hear to help a new path unfold. 

In celebration of my return to working with “the littles” and my favorite season, here’s an activity inspired by the children’s picture book, Leaf Man, in which all the illustrations are made from autumn leaves. It’s also inspired by my favorite early childhood educator/blogger, Sally Haughey of Fairy Dust Teaching. A picture on one of Sally’s blog posts caught my eye, and I developed it into a literature-based art and science activity I did with my preschoolers this week. It would work with older children, too. (I even had fun with it on my own, as you might be able to tell from these pictures!) 

How to Make Leaf-Man Inspired Nature Portraits

Materials:
  • A few wooden frames (without glass; I used 8×10, 11×14, and 5×7)
  • Pieces of cardboard, fabric, or paper in natural skin tones
  • Assortments of natural objects, such as:
    • A variety of autumn leaves
    • Pinecones of different shapes
    • Acorn tops and acorns (it’s nice to include some very tiny acorns still stuck inside their top, too)
    • Short pieces of sticks (only an inch or two long)
    • Feathers
    • Shells
    • Small stones
    • Pieces of hazelnut shells
    • Maple seed wings (“helicopters”)
    • Indian corn kernels
    • Naturally dyed wool
 
Procedure:

Arrange each category of natural objects into its own container, and place them so they are within reach of the children as they work.

Each child gets a frame with some kind of backing paper or fabric canvas underneath it. Simply allow them to create pictures of people, animals, trees, etc. using the natural materials in different arrangements.

This is an opportunity to use directional words (i.e. above, below, next to) and talk about body parts, colors, size, numbers of parts, etc. It’s also an invitation to observe and identify natural objects and to discuss the changes trees go through.

Allow them freedom of creativity!

They might even want to take a little break and observe how maple wings, feathers, and different kinds of leaves twirl, tumble, and otherwise make their way to the ground. 

Here are some Nature Portraits my three- and four-year-old students made:


© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

The Magic Mixer

The Magic Mixer

One evening, I was making oatmeal raisin cookies and took my grandmother’s electric hand mixer out of the cabinet. I often use other methods for whipping up a nice, fluffy batter, but sometimes I’m drawn to the mixer. As I used it to beat the cookie batter, my energy shifted. I began to feel what I assumed my grandmother felt when she made cookies for loved ones or whipped mashed potatoes for a holiday meal. The pleasant feeling grew stronger and felt like love and joyful anticipation of being with family. Her energy and love came through the hand mixer so strongly!

Then I felt her presence even stronger behind me, like a hug from behind. It filled me with happiness, and I cried happy tears! She’s been gone for seven years, and I miss her.

Some inherited objects are like conduits of energy, portals into a departed loved one’s heart. That’s why my grandmother’s electric hand mixer survived my epic decluttering event last year. When I held it in my hands to determine what to do with it, I felt her spirit and decided to keep it. I call it the “magic mixer” because, in a way, it brings her back.

There’s something special about a grandmother’s love. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. It tends to feel more purely unconditional than a parent’s love because grandparents tend not to worry so much about things parents lose sleep over. There’s a kind of wisdom and perspective that comes from launching your own children, from which you can view the inevitable challenges and understand that much of what parents worry about is small stuff. Much smaller than parents in the thick of parenting tend to believe. Grandparents can see the bigger picture and assure subsequent generations, “It’s going to be alright. You’ll see.”

What I’m trying to articulate is that, generally speaking, parents can get so caught up in the day-to-day business of raising children that it’s harder to see the forest for the trees. They have lots of balls up in the air and get tired, stressed out, and snappy. The parent-child dynamic tends to be stickier and more controlling than the grandparent one, and to be fair, I didn’t give my grandparents the “attitude” I reserved for my parents! The parental ego can get so tangled up in children’s successes and failures, and even without meaning to, parents can make you feel like you’re not good enough as you are. 

Not so with grandparents, or at least not in my experience. I attended an Elisabeth Kübler-Ross talk in Tampa back in the early ’90s, and she asked us to think of one person who gave us absolutely unconditional love. I was in my early 20s, and my grandmother came to mind. Kübler-Ross followed this question by suggesting it’s often a grandparent who’s present to us in such a steady, unwavering way.

That’s how my grandmother was. She was my rock. When I looked in her sparkling, blue eyes, I didn’t see the worry I saw on my parents’ faces. I saw my goodness reflected back to me. I’m sure I gave her plenty to worry about, especially with the divorce when my children were young. But she still came out with reassuring words when my parents weren’t able to, and she made light of their reactions. We had a special bond.

I’m reading a book called Walking To Listen by a young man named Andrew Forsthoefel, who walked 4,000 miles across the United States after graduating from college because he wanted to hear people’s stories and wisdom and understand what it means to be an adult. He was on a quest for guidance and found it, sometimes in the most unlikely people and places. The book falls within my favorite genre: people walking on a quest for personal transformation.

One sentence I read the other night really spoke to me. During his travels through Alabama, he was taken in by a pair of grandparents, and the woman told him about when her mom died. When she remarked to her priest that she felt like an orphan, he replied, “You are not an orphan. You are a matriarch.”

Truly, in any moment, we can choose to focus on what is missing or what we’ve got.

I dreamed of my two-year-old granddaughter the other night. In the dream, she came up to me and exclaimed, “Mama!” (which is what she calls me because she can’t pronounce “grandma” yet) and collapsed in my arms, as if I was her safe place, just as my grandmother’s heart and home were mine. Little Ava needs the purely unconditional, grandmotherly love I can give her. I want to be her rock, like my grandmother was mine. She will need a rock. Don’t we all? Someone to be there for us unconditionally, who reflects our light and believes in us always.

That’s the energy I felt when I used my grandmother’s electric hand mixer. Grandmotherly love, as both a granddaughter and a grandmother. I am new to this grandmother thing, but the love I experienced when using the mixer felt like a form of both guidance and connection. It was like holding a compass in my hand. A compass that points to love.

There is a choice in moments like that to lean into grief or gratitude. I could cry because I miss her and feel bad about the way her life ended in a nursing home. Or I could embrace how her spirit connected with me, grandmother to grandmother, and seems to be guiding me in my new role, which she inhabited gracefully for 45 years.

Little Ava. She’s the one who most needs me to reflect her beauty, light, strength, and goodness. I am motivated to be the best I can be not only for myself but also for her. May she see her own reflection through me and how I love her. By loving her unconditionally, may I plant seeds for her to cultivate self-love. Hopefully it won’t take her until she’s 50 to do so (like yours truly), but that’s her path and her business. My part, my responsibility, is to love her…without any strings or conditions. Just love, like my grandmother did for me.

© 2018 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Redefining Christmas

Redefining Christmas

I’m sitting in my living room this evening feeling grateful for the little things. All day, I’ve been trying to be okay with Christmas being different now, and not really knowing what that even means or what Christmas will look like from now on. This is the first year of celebrating Christmas without my parents and without their house as the center of our family get-togethers. Last year doesn’t count because we were too busy getting ready to sell their house, which involved so much work that it still makes my head spin when I think about it. On top of all that, I was sick with a really bad cold, so my adult children spent Christmas with their dad.

This year is different.

Our circa 1840 house is really small and cannot even begin to accommodate a small family gathering that includes a toddler who spends every waking hour exploring. My daughter, who lives with little Ava in a small apartment an hour away, doesn’t have a car. So the solution we came up with is to have our family celebration at the home of my ex-husband and his girlfriend (who live close to my daughter) so we all can be together in a space that can host a holiday celebration that includes a very active toddler. 

For the most part, those in my small family circle aren’t buying gifts this year, and that’s okay. It’s not too different from any other year, and it’s not just about financial circumstances because values are also a factor. I’ve never been into the consumer aspect of Christmas and would always make most of the gifts for my children or give them art materials. Christmas wasn’t so much about the presents as it was about being together. My favorite Christmases were when I had the kids for Christmas Eve, and we’d have a dinner movie theater in the living room. I’d make our favorite holiday foods from a menu we created together, and we’d watch a few Christmas movies and (in the earlier years) track Santa’s whereabouts.

This year, I mostly want to give the gifts of food, art, and creativity materials, but I’m feeling like there’s still so much to do with only one more day until Christmas because the snow and ice we’ve had for the past two days put a damper on shopping for missing ingredients and supplies. But the down time has given me a chance to pause, reflect, and simplify my expectations for what I can accomplish in the next 24 hours. 

My mom was the one who made Christmas feel like a really festive occasion, a big deal. She loved buying presents, decorating their house and two Christmas trees (one real, one artificial). My mom was the spirit of Christmas in our family! For the most part, the store-bought gifts and larger ticket items (such as American Girl dolls) were under the tree at my parents’ house. 

But that’s not the case anymore, and my lack of consumerism really shows now because my mom isn’t around to cover for me! I feel some pressure (coming from nobody but me, of couse) to carry on my mom’s spirit of Christmases past. But without a home that can accommodate a family gathering, no space for a Christmas tree, and a very modest budget this year, it’s not realistic – and it’s also not me. A portion of my parents’ Christmas decorations are in boxes in my storage unit, but I don’t even have space to display them. 

I’m trying to be okay with this – with Christmas looking very different than it used to.

Earlier today, I spoke with my daughter to firm up holiday plans and told her I’m more interested in presence than presents but feel I should do more to make Christmas even a little more like it was when my parents were alive. She told me she was feeling guilty about not being able to buy presents for anyone except Ava. Seems we were both falling into the trap of thinking what we could do wasn’t enough.

We reminisced about Christmases when my parents were alive, and then she told me she can’t remember the presents she received at my parents’ house but remembers the feeling of everyone being together. We agreed that is what Christmas is really about. And we agreed to be gentle with ourselves and not put pressure on ourselves to do any more than we can do. 

In past years, I recall seeing lots of posts and pictures on social media of friends having big holiday celebrations complete with beautifully decorated trees and lots of presents. This year I’m on a 30-day Facebook fast and probably will avoid Instagram for a few days around Christmas, as well. It’s nice to see smiling faces and families celebrating together, but it’s still a sensitive time of year for me as I adjust to not having my parents or their house in the picture.

But let’s not allow our expectations for Christmas (or life in general) to be influenced by social media images. There is another reality.

Every day I work at the library, I’m in contact with many people who are homeless, and they keep my ideas about what Christmas “should” be like in check. They remind me of how much I have, even if it doesn’t look like much compared to the Facebook pictures and my assumptions of how other families live and celebrate. I realize that just showing up and being together is enough. It’s not the presents. It’s the presence that matters most. And we should be really grateful for everyone who can come together and celebrate with us. Thank God my daughter survived the car accident she was in over the summer and is alive and able to celebrate with us. 

There is a library patron who reminds me of my dad. He’s 88 years old, and we have developed a special bond. It makes me so happy to see his face light up when we interact.  Last week, he gave me advice about running cold water at the end of a shower, to close my pores. The only other person who ever told me that was my dad. I know little bits and pieces of this man’s story and am eager to learn more. Yesterday, he told me that a female relative (a cousin, I believe) invited him for Christmas, and he was happy she did because otherwise he would have spent Christmas alone. I had no idea! A week ago, I gave him one of my calendars along with a card referring to him as my favorite library patron, and now I’m thinking that might be one of the only gifts he will receive – which makes me so glad I gave it to him!

I’ve been thinking of him a lot today and am appreciating that I have family to be with on Christmas. Many people don’t. It can be difficult for divorced parents who alternate holidays to not celebrate with their children on the actual holiday. The years when we can spend the holidays together are special and not to be taken for granted. It doesn’t matter if you have a tree or any gifts under it. It’s the togetherness that counts. 

So please enjoy the company of your loved ones, and don’t put stress on yourself to have your holiday celebrations be anything more than what they are. Being together with whoever is able to show up is the greatest gift of the season. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake. 

May your holidays be filled with gratitude and love. And may you focus more on the love than any absences, and more on what you have than what you don’t. May you find a sweet perfection in what is.

© 2017 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this article, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness teacher whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

Graduation Day

Graduation Day

My youngest child graduated from high school today!

I had intended to bring some tissues to the ceremony, and when I arrived at the venue without any regretted the oversight. However, it ended up not being an issue – for, surprisingly, I didn’t shed a single tear. The graduation ceremony didn’t move me emotionally – maybe because it was nearly three hours long, which seemed about twice as long as it needed to be. And I’m not keen on formality to begin with.

It wasn’t the graduation ceremony that got me. It was watching the movie, Boyhood, with Cianan the night before that did it. We had watched the movie together about a year and a half ago, but watching it again felt like the perfect way to prepare for his graduation, especially since we have a history around film, and he is going to college in the fall to study film.

If you aren’t familiar with Boyhood, I’ll summarize it by saying that it was filmed over a period of 12 years, so throughout the course of the movie, all the characters really had aged that much. At the beginning, the main character was in kindergarten, and his mom had a talk with him about why he put stones into the classroom pencil sharpener. (Because he had an arrowhead collection and wanted to see if he could turn the rocks into arrowheads, of course!) The film ended with him – now an aspiring photographer – arriving at college and connecting with his new tribe of kindred spirits. The high school graduation party scene got me, as I knew it would – especially when his parents (who had split up before the movie even began) were having a harmonious, reflective moment in the kitchen. And the scene in which he was packing to leave for college, and his mom became emotional about that chapter of life coming to an end. And the damn  “Hero” song that played as he drove himself to college. (That song triggers tears every time I hear it.) There’s something about the main character that resembles Cianan. He even has the eye and passion for photography that Cianan has for film – which intensified the realism.

Before starting the movie, Cianan pleaded, “Mom, please don’t cry too much.” I was fine during the first half, but toward the end, I fetched the box of tissues and tried my very best to cover my face and control my breathing so he wouldn’t realize how much I was crying. The movie was awesome – so real and honest. But even bigger magic came after the movie was over, and my tears had dried.

Cianan and I have had so many heart-to-heart talks through the years about film, philosophy, psychology, spirituality, music, and relationships. He is an old soul and a deep thinker. Our talks have been a source of great joy and satisfaction, and the one we had last night was perhaps the best yet. The events, relationships, and dialogue in the film were a springboard for Cianan opening up about how he perceives himself, what high school was like for him, how events from his childhood affected him, ways in which he wants to grow and change, and how he longs to connect with his tribe at college – with people who share his passion for filmmaking and truly “get” him. We talked openly and honestly about relationships, drugs, feelings, and the joy of finally finding your tribe. We talked for a long time, and it felt exquisite and holy. It felt like our own private graduation ceremony. After he left, I cried again because, for the first time, his graduation felt real. It wasn’t so long ago that his world revolved around his Thomas the Tank Engine trains and his beloved frog pond. This milestone came sooner than I could have imagined back then. And I have so loved our time together.

Although he’s always been deeply loved, Cianan has not had what I would consider a particularly carefree life. He’s experienced some challenges and family drama, despite my best intentions and efforts. When I was pregnant with him, his dad (who I was married to at the time) applied for a position with Disney World. Moving 1,200 miles away from our family and friends in upstate New York was the last thing I wanted to think of while preparing for the arrival of a baby, but when Cianan was two months old, we were on our way to Orlando to begin a new chapter that would end up lasting for two years. I wondered and sometimes worried about how the stress and upheaval of the move would affect Cianan. But he was the calmest baby! His aura was pure peace, and his gaze was deep and penetrating. When I nursed him to sleep at night, if my mind wandered to anything other than the present moment, he would become restless and squirm. He was like a tiny Zen master who kept bringing me back to the present moment, and I’ve always felt that, if there is such a thing as past or parallel lives, he must have been my spiritual teacher in another lifetime.

Cianan Allen-Meyer

Cianan has had a passion for filmmaking since he was four or five years old. Around his sixth birthday, he was interviewed by the local newspaper because he’d helped compose the lyrics for one of the holiday songs his musician stepfather had been commissioned to write. When the reporter asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “A movie maker.” His passion for film has endured for 14 years now. I’m excited to see where it leads him and am grateful for how his art and writing have helped him to channel his emotional responses to life situations and events and cultivate a wisdom and compassion beyond his years. I expect that someday he will make a movie that caricatures the adults in his life and that doing so will be cathartic for him. When he’s experienced bumps in the road, we’ve often reframed them as material for his future movies and talked about how he might put a humorous spin on them.

I remember taking him to the movie theater when he was young and feeling it was a very important thing to do. It felt like more than just a fun and entertaining mother-son activity. He’d cue in to the music and know when a scary part was coming up so he could either close his eyes or bolt out of the theater (which he often did when his dad took him to movies, much to his dad’s frustration). I’ve often joked with him about how, when he makes his autobiographical film, there will be a montage of him bolting out of one movie theater after another.

Even when he was a preschooler, he responded to seeing a movie or reading a book by making a movie poster of it, which was often followed by a book (the further adventures of…). Early on, he’d dictate the text to me and create the illustrations. Then he’d script plays and eventually movies. He’d pace back and forth in the back yard with a tape recorder in hand, dictating his ideas for stories and movies and humming soundtracks. (I saved all the cassettes!)

When I was decluttering the house last month, the sweetest find was a letter from Cianan’s closest friend when they were in either first or second grade. It read, “Dear Cianan, I would like to be in the movie. What part will I play? Tell me about the movie.” That note was concrete evidence that the movie director was already ignited in Cianan at that young age. Although I remember that being the case, holding such an artifact in my hands reinforced how strong it was.

Recently, Cianan’s dad shared some old family movies with me. There was one in which kindergarten aged Cianan was directing and co-starring in a movie with his older sister in the living room. They were acting out The Letter People Come to Life, a story he’d previously dictated to me and illustrated in book form. (When he was in kindergarten, his teacher used balloon “Letter People” to teach letter sounds. So he created a story about the Letter People coming to life.) It was clear, even at six years old, that directing movies was his passion. When his sister did something that wasn’t in the script, he’d look directly into the camera and ever so seriously and authoritatively say, “Cut that part.”

He also loved to create a dinner movie theater at home, which included a menu that he wrote up. While I prepared the food, he’d make tickets and set up the chairs, covering them with silks to make them look fancy. He was so excited! By the time the food was ready, and it was finally time to watch the movie, we were often tired, and sometimes he didn’t have the turnout he’d hoped for. But the thrill seemed to be in the preparation.

It’s amazing to have given birth to someone who has such a clear purpose! I can’t do anything but encourage him because clearly, filmmaking is his path. He and I have had several conversations about the blessings, curses, and challenges of being a creative person and how you really have to be honest with yourself about what is most important to you. If you prioritize materialistic rewards, then take some time to consider whether a vocation in an artistic field is the best path for you. But if creativity itself is as vital to you as breathing, then you must find the courage to go for it.

As long as he maintains his passion and determination, is resilient, and can handle competition and criticism, I think he will do fine as an artist. Driving home from graduation, his dad and I talked with him about that. Earlier in life, I was a pianist, and he was an actor, but neither of us followed through because we felt intimidated by the competition and our fear of failure. We advised Cianan to learn all he can from his fellow film majors and not compare himself to them. The world needs creative people to express their unique voices and not allow fear and doubt to silence them.

As much as I will miss him when he begins college two months from now, he’s so ready to move on to this next step. He’s prepared me for the empty nest over the past two years, during which time he’s lived mostly with his dad after having lived primarily with me until then. During his senior year, he’s been involved with lots of film-related work, such as: interning with a local, independent filmmaker; founding and organizing a film festival for young filmmakers; being the theater manager for the local film forum; and working on his own screenplays and films in addition to assisting other young filmmakers with theirs. He was too busy with activities outside of school to act in school plays or get up at the crack of dawn to attend Vocal Ensemble, so both of those activities slid off his plate. High school seemed to get in the way of his next step, which he already was embracing.

Cianan is a young man with a mission. He hasn’t allowed other people, situations, or limitations to deter him, and I pray this will continue to be the case for him. Recently, when there was a question about whether he’d be able to afford going to college this year, his sheer determination made me feel that I would do everything in my power to support him however I can. I was ready to move mountains. You don’t argue with determination like that. You just have to bow to it and do what you can to support it. His English teacher told me that Cianan’s passion for making movies inspired him to return to writing short stories. That’s the kind of enthusiasm I’m talking about. It’s infectious. May it endure.

When I look back at what classmates wrote in my high school yearbooks, many of the comments referred to piano. One person wrote, “You have a great talent, and you’d be crazy not to let it take you as far as it can!” Well, I guess I was crazy, then – crazy enough to allow fear and self-doubt to snuff out my passion for music. Unlike Cianan, I didn’t have anyone in my life assuring me that rejection, failure, and mistakes are natural parts of the process, rather than conclusive evidence that you’re not good enough. Or that cultivating resilience and developing thick skin is every bit as important as artistic talent and sensitivity. Back then, books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Pema Chodron’s Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better hadn’t been written yet.

I gave up too easily. Sometimes I still regret that and wonder how my life would have been different if I’d kept going with piano and considered failure a stepping stone, rather than a roadblock, to success, as Timothy Bradberry advises in an article for The Huffington Post. But regret is a waste of time and energy, and it’s more worthwhile to apply that wisdom to my current pursuits. Do what you love to the best of your ability, and enjoy the process. Have goals, but don’t get caught up in outcomes or comparisons. Each of us has a unique voice and perspective, and we contribute to the evolution and expansion of the universe by expressing our unique talent(s). And if your passion for one thing ends up fizzling out and igniting a new passion, then so be it. Follow that. Follow your calling, even if it compels you to head in a different direction than what you generated student loans for. Above all, don’t let fear, a relationship, drugs, or enslavement to any kind of addiction (which can include all of the above) snuff out your light and steal the gift that gives meaning and purpose to your life. May you believe in yourself and have the courage to follow your passion and talents as far as they can take you, dear son, so you can be amazed by what you are capable of.

Who knows: Maybe you will be the next Steven Spielberg or Kevin Bright. Or maybe you will simply enjoy doing what you love at whatever level you do it and will cultivate a happy heart and gratitude for your precious life and for not giving in to the temptation to trade your talents for something much smaller by playing it “safe” (which, I’ve learned from experience, is the riskiest thing you can do). After all, a peaceful, contented heart is a state of mind and way of life that many outwardly “successful” people would trade their BWMs and mansions for. That comes from being true to yourself, doing what you love, and loving what you do. And that is what I wish for you, my son: To go forward and shine your light in this world, no matter what. I have been amazed by it since the day you were born, and now it is time for you to know it, grow it, and share it.

Cianan graduation-2

© 2016 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York. 

As the Waves Roll In

As the Waves Roll In

There is a distinct rhythm to a teacher’s life. When the glorious insect symphony reaches a crescendo with the chirping of crickets as the most prominent voice, and the corn is tall, and evenings become cooler, it’s time to turn attention to beginning a new school year. But not this year, since I resigned from my job. And that disruption of my normal rhythm has been throwing me off! It feels unnatural.

Driven to connect with a more universal and abiding rhythm, I heard the ocean call my name. There is nothing that restores rhythm and perspective like standing at the edge of the vast ocean watching the waves roll in. I longed to breathe the salty air, synchronize my breath with the rhythm of the waves, and inhale the sheer power and majesty of the ocean. I yearned for the ocean to raise my vibration and thus tune my instrument so I may move forward in greater harmony with Life.

And so my daughter, son, and I headed to the beaches of Rhode Island for our first-ever, mini beach vacation with just the three of us. We planned to go to Ithaca, New York – our old stomping ground and waterfall paradise –  but agreed unanimously at the last minute to go to Rhode Island instead.

As I watched my 20-year-old daughter stand at the edge of the ocean as the tide came in and the waves grew in size and intensity, I captured an image that is worth a thousand words. It is the story of a mother standing behind her daughter and hoping she is prepared for the journey ahead and its unforeseen waves.

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I’ve been meditating on waves – all the waves life thrusts our way. The inevitable, intense, and spectacular waves. A day at the beach would not be nearly so alluring without them.

I feel like I have been a student of waves lately. I have been trying to learn how to keep my balance, especially when the ocean pulls so much away, with such force.

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But it also brings us gifts from its invisible depths. We delight in finding exiquisite shells, smooth stones, Mother Nature’s artwork, and other surprises in the sand. The ocean moves in a rhythm of turbulence and grace.

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My prayer for my children is that they will develop the capacity to maintain their balance when the waves hit.

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Meditation is one way to facilitate balance. As a kindergarten teacher, I taught a calming breath practice by placing a rubber duck on each child’s abdomen as they lay on their backs on the carpet.  I instructed the children to do deep, belly breathing by making the ducks rise and fall, gently and slowly as if they were riding waves at the beach. A duck-free version of this basic practice helps me to calm down, find my center, and push the reset button when the stress response gets activated. But even better to practice in calm waters so it becomes a more automatic response when the waves roll in.

I believe that teaching children how to regain calm and balance and build resilience and courage are among the most important gifts we can offer them.

I wish for my children to have a happy life, but even more than that, I wish for them to have the fortitude to withstand and thrive in this imperfect, challenging life on planet Earth. To breathe through the waves and by doing so, access their calm center and discern with a clear and spacious mind how to respond most effectively to whatever situations and circumstances life sends their way. To trust the rhythm of life – the messiness and awkwardness of it – and not feel they are failing when they lose either their footing or something or someone important to them. To know it’s all an integral part of the process.

I wish for my children to dance with the waves and live a fulfilling life, according to their own definition of the term.

Once I heard someone explain that when you meditate and notice your mind has wandered (as minds do), each time you bring it back is like doing one rep. You are strengthening the mental muscles (or neural pathways) that help you return your attention to what you’re trying to focus on. Similarly, each time you lose your footing when a wave comes along and you catch yourself or get up again, you are building strength and resilience. Such are the gifts the waves bring us.

I would not wish for my children first and foremost a life of smooth sailing because it is unrealistic, and I believe they are made for something greater than that. What joy to discover our latent power when we are put to the test and learn that we are far more magnificent than we ever imagined ourselves to be. May they experience the joy and surprise that comes from recognizing their true strength and power. And may this joyful recognition enhance their capacity to imagine and create their future – for manifestation is born of imagination, and the great challenge is to use our imagination wisely. It is a latent superpower, and fear is a gross misuse of it.

We can do so much better than that!

We can cultivate a habit of returning to our private garden of imagination to envision new possibilities and plant new seeds. We can return our attention to that rich and vibrant place when we wander into self-doubt – whether it is generated by external forces or from within. We can resist labeling our experiences as “good” or “bad” and instead adopt an attitude of “It is what it is – not as forlorn resignation and apathy but as unflappable resilience and determination. And let us not forget the marvelous buoyancy of gratitude.

That is what I wish to inspire in my children and cultivate in myself.

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© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

The Courage to Leave

The Courage to Leave

“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story,
leave.
(…unless you can change the story from within, of course. But if you can’t? Please leave, I beg of you.)”
-Elizabeth Gilbert

Well, I finally went ahead and did the thing I’d been terrified of doing for a very long time: I officially walked through the threshold that appeared so threatening and resigned from my teaching position.

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I had been struggling with this dilemma for a few years. The scale finally tipped, and my inner knowing that it was the right thing to do outweighed my fear. I don’t know what’s next, but all the energy that went into “Should I or shouldn’t I?” is now freed up to figure that out. I feel a tremendous weight has been lifted. That weight is a double whammy called the Common Core and New York State’s Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) teacher evaluation system. Together, they have at least tripled both the teacher workload and the amount of testing young children are subjected to, and ultimately turned kindergarten into something unpalatable to my soul.

I apologize in advance for what will probably be a lengthy post. But I have a story to share and want to emphasize from the beginning that this decision was not made on a whim. I was passionate about teaching and had to work hard and overcome many obstacles to become a teacher. And I am not in a financial position to just quit my job.

I entered the teaching profession relatively late in life as a divorced mother of two, after staying home for several years to raise my children. Prior to having children, I had been working on an MSW degree, specializing in hospice care.  After becoming a mother, however, I was drawn to working with children and felt called to be a teacher. When my youngest child was in kindergarten, I began substituting in our local school district prior to pursuing a career in teaching. I had a long, complicated, expensive path ahead of me that involved obtaining a Masters degree, completing extra academic and internship requirements necessary for multiple teacher certifications, gaining experience, and finally landing a job in a highly competitive job market. The investment of time and money would be huge, but I knew I would have regrets if I didn’t pursue my dream. So I embarked on the long journey fueled by passion and focused on one step at a time so as not to be overwhelmed by the complexity and immensity of it.

There was a variety of unforeseen obstacles that I overcame along the way. For instance, in the middle of my graduate program, my ex-husband lost his job, and child support payments ceased. In order to proceed in the program (which that year consisted of a semester of full-time, unpaid student teaching), it was necessary for me to rely on student loans to cover basic living expenses. But I did it because I was passionate about teaching and anticipated it would be a lifelong career. One step at a time, I made my way towards my goal, not only for my own fulfillment but also to model to my children that when it comes to actualizing your dreams, where there’s a will, there’s a way. The day I was offered my teaching position was one of the happiest days of my life. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week straight and was so excited I could barely sleep!

Eight years later, at nearly 50 years old, I have very little in savings. I do not have an inheritance of any sort. I do not receive child support. I do not have a spouse who carries health insurance, holds full-time employment, or has any kind of retirement plan. I do not have a nest egg or safety cushion. I need to generate income to pay the bills.

The fact that I left my job despite all that speaks volumes about how my career has changed in recent years.

I had been contemplating leaving for a few years and did a great deal of reflection to determine, beyond a shadow of a doubt, whether resigning was the right course of action. I inhabited that possibility all summer, trying it on for size to determine whether it was a choice I really could live with. Any time I imagined myself returning, I knew doing so was not a viable option. My work environment had become a desert with a hot, unrelenting sun beating down every day, and my soul had moved on in search of sustenance.

Over the past seven years, I have grown and learned so much as a kindergarten teacher. My life has been enriched by so many wonderful children, families, and colleagues whom I have had the pleasure of knowing. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to educate their children, share my knowledge and passion, and be a supportive, compassionate, creative – and hopefully inspiring – presence in their lives.

This June, I received a tremendous gift. During a quick trip to my car during my lunch break, I ran into more than half of the students from my very first (kindergarten) class. They were all dressed up for the Moving Up ceremony (which marked their transition from elementary school to junior high school), which would take place later that day. They ran around the playground in search of kindergarten classmates, and about a dozen students gathered around me and shared their favorite kindergarten memories. It filled my heart with joy to see the light in their eyes as they spoke of: the Eric Carle seahorse collages we made, our “Gingerbread Baby Travels the World” (multicultural celebrations) unit, retreating to the Peace Table, the interactive and artistic alphabet books we made, watching a monarch caterpillar transform into a butterfly, being the Star of the Week, and more. Many of them echoed what I’ve heard from numerous parents of former students through the years: That the book all their classmates contributed to during their “Star” week (to celebrate what is wonderful and unique about the Star student) remains one of their most cherished possessions. It has been a most incredible journey, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a positive, nurturing force in the lives of so many children and families.

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So, what compelled me to resign after only seven years? To be candid, the way the Common Core has been implemented in my district at the kindergarten level conflicts with my core values and beliefs about early childhood education and has made it increasingly challenging to teach from my strengths and passions. As I expressed during my last post-observation meeting with my principal, I feel I’ve been working in an environment in which my talents, strengths, and passions are no longer valued. Kindergarten has become a whole new ballgame that differs radically from what I signed up for eight years ago. Veteran teachers insist that the decline began with No Child Left Behind, and I recall subbing for devoted teachers who returned from meetings in tears, distraught over foreboding changes that already were set in motion. Despite putting forth my best effort, I ultimately found it impossible to keep my passion alive in the new kindergarten culture. Working in an environment in which teachers’ professional experience and expertise was micromanaged, disregarded, and bypassed was demoralizing – and exacerbated by budget cuts and several changes in administration during the shift to the Common Core. Since I started teaching, we’ve had two principals and an interim principal, two superintendents and an interim superintendent, and two assistant principals (and a period during which that position was eliminated).

In my last formal observation, the evaluator entered my classroom unannounced in the midst of my most challenging student having a complete meltdown. Within a few minutes, I was able to calm her down enough to have her sit next to me as I taught a math lesson, and she followed along every single step of the way. That was an incredible accomplishment for this child, and it was completely unacknowledged in my observation write-up. This is an example of what is so disheartening and frustrating.

Early childhood educators are responsible for both teaching a more rigorous curriculum and keeping a handle on misbehavior that I believe is fueled by the more demanding expectations we now put on our youngest learners. When you are the only adult in a room of 20 or so kindergartners, and disruptive and/or dangerous children are sometimes not removed at all, or removed only for a brief time (i.e. 5-10 minutes) before returning to the classroom – only to repeat their disruptive and/or dangerous behavior – it is hard to adhere to the curriculum map. And that is what happens when school psychologist and classroom aide positions are reduced or eliminated due to budget cuts. Such lack of support becomes exhausting and demoralizing on a daily basis. It takes the wind out of your sails.

What looks good on paper and in theory often doesn’t hold up when real, live children are involved – especially when the policymakers and powers-that-be lack actual classroom or grade-level experience, and early childhood educators are required to do more with less, year after year.

For the past few years, I have felt like a fish out of water and have questioned how much longer I could continue. I realized it came down to making a choice between changing my mind and leaving my job. Prior to deciding on the latter, I tried in earnest – for years – to change from the inside. I attended conferences and enrolled in (self-funded) online courses aligned with my professional passions, values, and beliefs in hopes of reigniting my enthusiasm and finding ways to reconcile my personal and professional values with the new realities of public education. I returned to my classroom with renewed energy and optimism only to have them drained by the day-to-day, rigorous, and developmentally inappropriate demands of the Common Core.

So much that is important to me and that I believe is beneficial to children has fallen off the plate because it has been edged out by the Common Core curriculum and the excessive assessment that accompanies it and APPR. It became clear to me that I must leave in order to express and grow my soul.

I was thrilled to be appointed as a Kindness Club Advisor when the club began in 2012 because social-emotional learning is one of my greatest passions. However, it was anguishing to have to step down from that position because the workload resulting from the shift to the Common Core that year was so overwhelming.

Through 20 years of parenting and teaching experience, observation, and study, I have developed a personal philosophy of education concerning the nature of childhood and the importance of play and developmentally appropriate practices. I included my philosophical statement on my teaching résumé. Here are two excerpts:

The ultimate purpose of schooling is to cultivate the whole human being. School is a place for developing intellectual and technical abilities along with the social-emotional factors, creativity, and strength of character necessary to use them wisely.

Ideally the end product of education is an individual who loves to learn and is engaged with life, and in whom the healthy seed of self-respect has blossomed into respect for others and an attitude of social and ecological responsibility.

I believe early childhood education should focus on the whole child and be developmentally appropriate. Pushing an accelerated curriculum down to kindergartners can be detrimental to children who, for example, are not ready to read at age four or five. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners who come to kindergarten with a wide range of background knowledge and exposure. I always told parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up by the end the year and be where they are expected to be.

Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine and are able to meet higher standards when the bar is raised, I am concerned that this approach may diminish the self-esteem of youngsters who are struggling. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding and accelerated kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I showered my students with empathy and compassion, and still, those lagging behind were aware that they were not measuring up and felt bad about themselves. It breaks my heart to see children break down and cry because they are not able to perform at the level that is now required of them…and they know they’re not measuring up, no matter how much I try to ease the pressure and emphasize their strengths. I worry about future, unintended consequences (i.e. stress-related illness, drop-outs) stemming from this early push to achieve and don’t want to be part of a system that I believe, in my heart of hearts, is harmful to young children. I aspire to work in an environment that respects professional experience and expertise and offers greater freedom to honor and trust children’s developmental rhythms rather than pressure them to perform at a level that might not be appropriate for their developmental rhythm.

Given what I have explained above, it seemed quite clear that the most responsible and honest action was for me to move on to new opportunities that more fully embrace and utilize my particular skills, talents, and values and make room for an educator whose principles and philosophies about early childhood education are better aligned with the direction the school district has been heading in recent years.

And so it was with a heavy heart and a strong inner knowing that I submitted my official resignation letter last week.

Now all my personal teaching possessions are stacked in a storage unit. It saddens me to take inventory of all the materials I made and purchased with my own money to facilitate joyful engagement and provide authentic teaching that honors and inspires young learners. This includes a library of literally thousands of children’s books and materials that have gathered dust for the past few years because they have been muscled out of the curriculum by “non-negotiables” and time-consuming assessment.

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As word got around, I received an outpouring of communication from parents of former students who expressed gratitude for the special connection I had with their children, the seeds I planted in them, the confidence I instilled in them, and how I awakened them to the beauty and wonder of nature. They also expressed sadness for their younger children and all the other children who will miss “such an amazing experience and journey through kindergarten with you.” They said I’m one of those “special teachers” who entered the profession for the right reasons at a most unfortunate time. I believe the relationship between student and teacher is the true curriculum, and these parents expressed gratitude for elements that can’t be measured but are ultimately more important than any test score. They knew I loved their children as if they were my own, that I listened to what was on their mind, and celebrated their special strengths that often weren’t represented on report cards – just as my special strengths as an educator were absent from observation checklists. No rubrics can measure what is ultimately most important in the student-teacher and home-school relationship.

People who know me best have unanimously expressed joy that I finally had the courage to follow my heart’s wisdom and release myself from something that weighed so heavily on my soul and compromised my well-being. They expressed relief that they will not have to continue witnessing me being tortured by anxiety and returning to a broken system that is driving out many of the best teachers. A system that, instead of backing up teachers, reprimands them severely and accuses them of “stirring the pot” when they act with integrity and look out for a student’s health by sharing relevant information with a concerned parent.

For a couple days after submitting my resignation letter, I was thrilled that I finally had the faith and courage to follow my heart and leave what had become a poor fit. Then I felt angry. Angry that it had to come to this. Angry that politicians hijacked the career I felt so passionate about, taking children and teachers hostage. Angry that (as another colleague put it) something I was so passionate about was squished and torn right out of my soul.

And sad. Sad for the former students who would come to my room first thing in the morning for a few kind words, a hug, and a smile only to learn that I’m no longer there. Sad that I won’t have the chance to get to know a lovely little girl who would have been in my class this year and whose sister had been in my class three years ago. (I hadn’t seen my class list prior to resigning, but her family had received the letter, and her mother sent me a lovely, heartfelt message that hit me hard.) Sad for all the other children I wouldn’t have a chance to fall in love with and nurture this year.

But below the anger and sadness was a much greater, abiding sense of peace at my core.

When I was floating in my kayak on the river earlier today, I visualized myself teaching in an environment that is not bound to APPR and the Common Core – and felt hope arise in me. An environment that honors and educates the whole child. A holistic environment in which the arts, social-emotional learning, awareness and mindfulness, and nature are integrated uncompromisingly throughout the curriculum. I know such schools exist because I have been in the presence of teachers who work in them. When I attended a conference recently, I was blown away by what some innovative schools are doing and how they prioritize and weave into the curriculum uncompromisingly all that is in alignment with my heart and soul. Hearing these educators and administrators describe their schools with such love and gratitude brought tears to my eyes and a smile to my soul…and propels me onward.

And so a new journey begins.

© 2015 Susan Meyer. All rights reserved. To use any or all of this blog post, include this exactly: Susan Meyer (SusanTaraMeyer.com) is a photographer, writer, clutter coach, feng shui consultant, and mindfulness mentor whose work is infused with a deep interest in the nature of mind and appreciation of the natural world. She lives on the Hudson River in Upstate New York.

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