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Journal

Practicing Gratitude

Practicing Gratitude

This morning I got up in time to experience the sunrise, and while I was waiting to witness the first rays of this new day, I was inspired to share with you how a simple practice of gratitude has transformed my life. But first, the sunrise. Ahhh – such peace.

 

I have kept a journal on and off throughout my life, but several years ago it occurred to me that I tended to use it as a tool for venting my frustrations – and that if someone were to read it someday, s/he might get the impression that I was a very unhappy person, which was not the case. I didn’t want to leave behind that kind of legacy in print.

Somewhere I came across the idea of keeping a gratitude journal. The idea was to spend a few moments at the end of each day writing down five things for which I am grateful. It is simple to do and only takes a minute or two. However, this practice has had profound effects on my life over the past five or more years that I have been doing it.

I select a journal that strikes me as beautiful and feels good in my hands. I prefer journals with pages that can lay completely flat. The one shown below has a pocket in the back that is handy for holding ticket stubs, photos, notes, etc. I also use a pen that writes smoothly and feels good to hold. The experience of keeping a gratitude journal needs to be inviting. It may or may not involve a cup of herbal tea. (Usually it doesn’t, but I like the idea.)

 

Pausing to recall positive experiences and impressions is a lovely way to end the day. I fall asleep focused on happy thoughts rather than anxieties. This makes for better sleep.

I write down anything that struck my fancy or uplifted me during the day: Conversations with family members, the earthy smell of a homegrown tomato, the proud smile on a student’s face when he showed me how he learned to write the number five, comfortable clothes, eating a pomegranate, holding my husband’s hand while taking a walk, a smile from a stranger, the sound of my children’s laughter, heated car seats, the aroma of bread baking, having a washing machine – anything at all. When feeling down, it is comforting to open up my gratitude journals and remember all that has brought a smile to my heart. Some days (for example, when I am tuned to the “overwhelm” channel) it is more difficult to think of things for which I am grateful, and the list may consist simply of: good health, electricity, warm house, plenty of food, and a steady paycheck. But think about it: These basic things are tremendous blessings! Consider food: 47% of the world’s population doesn’t have food security! Sometimes it’s useful to acknowledge and appreciate these fundamental blessings that may go unnoticed on other days. Doing so is a surefire antidote to feeling sorry for oneself.

 

I find that when I set the intention to write in my gratitude journal each evening, my mind is busy looking for examples throughout the day. The result is that I notice more of the good stuff than I did prior to keeping a gratitude journal. Noticing is the first step. When you are able to notice, you can more fully savor the positive elements of your day. I literally find myself stopping frequently to smell the flowers or take in a beautiful sight. My mind is being trained to catch the fleeting moments and really experience them as they happen. The journey is one of joy.

 

After practicing gratitude for several years, I find that I am a happier, more peaceful person. Even in the midst of a difficult situation, I can glance out the window and appreciate a bird flying by or a leaf twirling gracefully to the ground. They are like little teachers reminding me that beauty is all around, even when I’m knee-deep in muck. Attuned to gratitude, it is easier to put challenges into perspective and not give them too much weight. Most of the troubles with which we burden our minds are so petty!

At this point, keeping a gratitude journal is no longer necessary in order to more fully savor and appreciate the goodness of life; the compass of my awareness points in that direction. However, I still try to maintain this daily practice. I also focus on gratitude as I drive to work each morning.

 

Some people develop a grateful heart as a result of some kind of wake-up call in their life – perhaps an illness, injury, or loss of some sort. For me, I think it was financial hardship. At some point when my children were young, I came across the book, Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel, which helped to put things in perspective for me. Although it was published in 1994 and is now somewhat dated, it remains on my bookshelf, and I pull it out (along with my gratitude journals) when I feel my life situation is somehow deficient. This book features portraits of families from 30 different nations outside their homes surrounded by all of their possessions. In some portraits, there is little more than a few pots or jugs. Some families live in war zones with mortar shell holes blasted through their walls. What an eye-opener. After spending a few minutes with this book, I realize how privileged I am. Peter Menzel has a number of books out, and all of them are wonderful.

I remember hearing my friend, Al, tell me about a trip he took to Calcutta and how he saw children who were impoverished beyond belief radiating great joy while experiencing simple pleasures. Al, himself, is one of the most content people I know, despite having very few material possessions aside from an extensive record collection that brings him great joy. Likewise, my friend, Trish, and my daughter’s friend, Dionna, remind me to be truly grateful for good health.

Our lives are full of blessings that are often taken for granted. Something magical happens when we become more aware of the big and little things for which we can be grateful. Speaking from my own experience, life becomes a more joyful journey. Gratitude gives a buoyant quality to life.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.susantarameyer.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Everyday Heroes

Everyday Heroes

Sometimes our light goes out, but it is blown again into flame by an encounter with another human being.  Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this inner light.  -Albert Schweitzer 

Every morning, I take a few moments to give thanks for various blessings in my life, set an intention, and invite into my day enough guidance, support, mindfulness, and skill to manage my classroom and other interactions effectively. This morning when I woke up, my heart was filled with gratitude for the ways in which such guidance and support have manifested, and I feel compelled to write about a few people who make a positive difference in my life.

This school year has been exceedingly challenging for me thus far due to a number of factors, including: school reform mandates, challenging behaviors, increased class size, and limited human resources. I find solace in knowing I am not alone. Public school teachers all over the country – licensed, highly educated, experienced, committed, caring professionals – are feeling overwhelmed and disempowered by a system that is being driven by statisticians and politicians at the state and federal levels who in general appear to understand neither child development nor the realities of the classroom. That being the case, I want to acknowledge two angels in my professional life who provide me with valuable guidance and support through the storm. 

The first is Sally Haughey of the Fairy Dust Teaching blog. I knew the instant I visited Sally’s newborn, Waldorf-inspired blog nearly two years ago that she was a kindred spirit. When she began offering professional development courses online via her blog, I signed up for every one of them, hungry for the wisdom she offers so generously with regard to “soulful teaching.” She has been holding my hand all the way from Oklahoma for more than a year now and enriching my life both in and out of the classroom. I am grateful for her vision, passion, and inspiration and for the technology that makes such sharing possible.

Another small miracle in my teacher life is a community volunteer who is helping in my classroom every morning out of her sheer love for children. Peggy does not have any children in our district but is a retired high school teacher from another district who lives in the neighborhood. I didn’t know her until a connection was established via my administrators. Unless you are a teacher, you probably have no idea how much of a difference volunteers can make in the life of a classroom, especially now that the whole game has changed. If there is any way to help a school or teacher in your community, please consider doing so. It is becoming clear to me that some of the finest teachers are among those most seriously considering jumping ship, and you might be responsible for keeping one in the classroom.

Several years ago when I was in the midst of a graduate program in education, I encountered some obstacles that nearly caused me to abandon my dream of becoming a teacher. On my birthday, I had a powerful dream that has stayed with me all these years and filled me with confidence and optimism. In the dream, I was traveling on a road surrounded by water, and it was raining so hard that the road up ahead in the distance was flooded. I didn’t know how I’d ever get back to my car. When I finally reached the flooded area, I noticed there were several flotation devices off to the side, and I used one to get across. The point was that I couldn’t see these objects from the distance; they appeared when I was truly in need of them. The dream convinced me that there would be help available when I need it – help I would not be able to foresee. When circumstances seemed bleak, the memory of that dream helped me to push through.

The two women mentioned above are examples of the kind of help that becomes available in times of need. I never could have imagined or anticipated the gifts they would give me! They appeared all of a sudden as if out of nowhere.

Finally, I want to mention two other people whom I consider everyday angels and whose positive energy is infectious. The first is a man named Lorenzo who works on a road crew at a construction site I drive through every day. He is so friendly and animated and looks like he is having the best time managing traffic. Talk about positive vibes! It always makes me smile and feel good to see him. He’ll exclaim (even through closed windows), “What a beautiful smile! So great to see it!” when I drive by and wave back at him. He is like a performer interacting symbiotically with an audience, fueled by the energy that returns to him.

Today during a staff meeting, the presenter happened to mention Lorenzo and that he’d given him a gift card. Then we discovered that other staff members also have given him gifts or stopped to thank him for his incredible, uplifting energy. I considered taking an alternate route around the construction on my way to work in the morning but decided I’d rather leave a few minutes early and wait in traffic in order to experience Lorenzo’s extraordinary energy! When I mentioned his exuberance on Facebook, several people commented that his happiness fills them with happiness and excitement and that they go out of their way to see him. What a gift he bestows upon our little corner of the world! I wonder how far it ripples as each of us, uplifted by his cheerfulness, goes about our day.

No doubt the finger pointing at the left edge of this photo is attached to a smiling face!
Spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, explained that the first step toward finding more satisfying work is to change how you do what you’re already doing by bringing full presence to it. You radiate positive energy, and then perhaps somebody will notice how present you are and feel drawn to that. Then perhaps you will make a connection that leads to a new opportunity. Or perhaps the act of being present will breathe new life into the work you already do. I think of this when I drive through the construction site because that is the kind of energy Lorenzo radiates.

Addendum: Lorenzo’s smiles and greetings have created such a buzz and touched the hearts of so many people in our community that a couple articles have been written about him, and he recently was given the key to the city and made an honorary citizen “because of the unbridled joy he gives to all those who pass by him.” What an extraordinary example of the difference one person can make  through the power of a smile and simply being kind and loving to everyone he sees! 

And then there’s Bill, the crossing guard/custodian at our school – an older man who has got to be one of the sweetest, gentlest souls on this planet. Every morning, he greets me by name with a smile and a few words about the weather. I look forward to his daily greeting. On special holidays, Bill gives all the children candy canes or other small treats just to see their smiles. Truth is, he reminds me so much of my deceased grandmother, who also loved children and worked at a school. Last Christmas, I gave Bill a card that acknowledged how much his morning greeting means to me. I knew that if I didn’t communicate this to him, I would regret it someday.

Peace Pilgrim said, “Just as there are no little people or unimportant lives, there is no insignificant work.” By the very nature of the energy we put forth in the world, each of us has an effect on those with whom we come in contact, however briefly. Never underestimate the power of a smile or kind word to light up someone’s day. May we be a channel of blessings to others through the energy we emit throughout the course of our daily lives, and also be receptive to blessings that flow to us through the simple, caring actions of others!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Story of Patrick Cottonwood

The Story of Patrick Cottonwood

This year, I have spent much time observing the Eastern Cottonwood trees on the riverside and have fallen in love with them. They have amazing energy and a fascinating life cycle, and I want to share their story with you. Recently, I learned that cottonwood trees are sacred to the Lakota people and are central to the Lakota Sundance ceremonies. I experience cottonwood energy as quite powerful and therefore was not at all surprised to learn of the cottonwood’s significance to the Lakota.

Spring came early this year, and I was able to start kayaking in March, which was unprecedented. I took a lot of photos of trees along the shore, to share images of tree life cycles with my students on our SMART Board. Actually, I was quite blown away by noticing that leaves in spring begin with colors quite similar to the colors of autumn. (How can it be that it took nearly half a century for me to notice or remember this?) I photographed maple, oak, and willow trees and a mystery tree that took a while to identify. The mystery tree turned out to be an Eastern Cottonwood.

First came the buds.

The buds continued to grow

 

…developing more scales.

 

When I showed my kindergartners the photo below, they loved the “starfish” and began calling it the “Patrick tree,” after a starfish character in the SpongeBob cartoon. After seeing this picture, they made a habit of asking if I had more pictures of the Patrick tree. Naming the tree was a very important development, which came entirely from the children. Once the tree had a name, it seemed to come alive and become interesting to them. Even I began to think of Patrick as a personality and wanted to learn more about him.

 

I still didn’t know what kind of tree Patrick was but continued to photograph his changes. Next, the catkins developed –  drooping strands of tiny flowers.

 

 

 
 
 
Eventually, tiny leaves came out and began to unroll. 
 
 
 
The leaves continued to grow, appearing shiny and waxy at first.
 

 

 

At this point, I had become downright intrigued with the “Patrick” tree, did some research, and was able to identify him as a cottonwood. The next day, I went to school, excited to tell the children that I learned Patrick’s last name. He has been “Patrick Cottonwood” ever since, and I just love that name!

Patrick Cottonwood’s leaves continued to grow in size and deepen in color, losing their waxy sheen.

 

I have read in multiple sources that one of the reasons why the cottonwood tree is considered sacred is because its leaves provided a pattern for the tipi. According to The Cottonwood Tree: An American Champion by Kathleen Cain, Lakota (Sioux) holy man, Black Elk, explained that children began making little play houses from cottonwood leaves, which inspired the elders to construct tipis. In addition, if an upper branch of a cottonwood tree is cut, the cross-section reveals a five-pointed star (which seems to explain the five-pointed starfish pattern of the buds).

 

I read that cottonwood trees are either male or female, and that the name “cottonwood” derives from the appearance of the female cottonwood tree in fruit stage. I was eager to see which cottonwood trees would go through this stage in late spring. Patrick didn’t, which meant he was, indeed, male. But here is a photo of a tree across the river from Patrick producing green fruits that contain cottony seed clusters quite similar to milkweed. The children named this tree “Fluffy.”

 

I explained to the children that Fluffy was Patrick’s girlfriend, and he sent gifts (pollen) to her through the wind, and then she would reciprocate by becoming cottony and releasing cottony seed fairy babies into the air when the little fruits opened. Patrick and Fluffy love to give each other gifts!

 
 
On windy days in late spring, I enjoyed stopping to float near the cottonwoods and watch the seed fairies fly into the wind. (Fortunately, I seem to have outgrown my pollen allergy.)
 
 

Here (below) is Patrick, living peacefully on the riverside. Cottonwoods are similar to aspens in that their leaves quiver and rustle in the wind. When I approach Patrick Cottonwood by kayak, he is an endearing sight because it looks like his heart-shaped leaves are waving hello and beckoning me to pay him a visit – which I do. I rest for a while beneath his canopy of leaves. This is one of my peaceful places where I bring my questions and often find answers. Patrick teaches me a great deal about patience.

 

Patrick looks pretty much the same throughout the summer.

 

But now, on the first day of autumn, his leaves have begun to turn gold, much like human hair turns gray with age and wisdom.

 
 
Soon he will be completely golden and then will release his leaves throughout October until a late October breeze comes along and leaves him bare. And then he will take a long nap. When he awakens, the fascinating process will begin again – one big circle that includes a time for rest. As I watched what seemed like millions of cottonwood seeds floating on the river back in late spring, I wondered where the new generation of cottonwoods would make their home. Only time will tell.
 
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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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