On these hot summer days, there is only a small window in the morning when the air is cool, and it’s not too hot and humid for outdoor activities. Therefore, I have to plan my “magical morning power hours” carefully, prioritizing exercise and other outdoor activities because if I don’t do them first thing in the morning, they probably won’t get done at all once the heat of the day sets in. When I wake up late (as I did this morning), the window is much narrower than when I wake up earlier – let’s say 5:00am, which is my goal. There are so many benefits to waking up early. It feels amazing to experience the morning air, the sunrise, and to feel aligned with the fresh energy of a new day. But today I had to really prioritize morning self-care activities.
I started by walking the labyrinth. I left the house this morning with the Omega Institute 2016 catalog on the kitchen table opened to the Energy Psychology page. As I walked the labyrinth listening to the late summer sounds of crickets and cicadas, I wondered: Is it too late to do what I love? Do I have to choose one thing to love and do? I’m still drawn to the same interests I was drawn to when I was in college 30 years ago. When choosing a grad school, I was aware of some very intriguing schools and programs. But I played it safe, stayed close to home, and pursued a Masters in Social Work, which I found incredibly dry and ultimately didn’t finish. My real interest was in transpersonal psychology. But I sought the quickest, safest route to a private counseling practice. At the time, a four-year doctoral program seemed too long, and graduate programs in expressive arts therapy or transpersonal psychology without a more conventional base (such as an M.S.W.) felt too risky. Ultimately, I found that not going with my passion resulted in rapid burnout – which is why, when I came across the following quote in the Omega catalog, it went right on my vision board:
“Your wildest dreams are not frivolous. In a changing economic climate, true passion is your greatest job security.”
Back then, everything I was truly drawn to seemed too progressive and pioneering. Alternative. Risky. I took the boring, safe, generalist route, which in the end proved to be neither safe nor wise. I did that in my 20s, and I did it again at 40 when I pursued a career in public education because it felt like the safest path since it paid more than teaching in a private school and offered an attractive retirement benefit…if you stayed in the game long enough. Which I didn’t. Because it was not the right path for me. And I knew that was the case from the start but let practicality convince me otherwise.
I didn’t have the confidence to take the risk and study or pursue something that didn’t seem like a safe bet, and that is one of the greatest regrets and lessons I have learned during this lifetime, for sometimes playing it safe is the most dangerous thing we can do. Had I stepped out of my comfort zone and gone to a new place to specialize in something I really had passion for, I wonder what alternative path my life would have taken. I imagine it would have involved less poverty because I would have activated something within me that is incongruent with poverty mentality. I didn’t take the path less traveled – the path I suspect would have made all the difference.
Is it too late now? Too late to follow my bliss in earnest without compromising too much due to my current life situation? Did I miss my calling? Did placing greater importance on relationships earlier in life compromise the focus and depth with which I followed my vocational calling? The answer to the last question: Absolutely.
But maybe the path of relationship was part of my calling and every bit as important. Maybe it was planted in me with a reason and purpose. Perhaps relationship has been my primary learning laboratory, and establishing right relationship with relationships is part of my work. To reconcile someone else’s life situation and energy with my own calling and integrity, without compromising what lights me up..
Work. Relationships. Does it matter how you do your inner work as long as you do it? I have learned through experience (including two marriages) that the shiny illusion of The Other eventually fades, and I have learned by following through with my calling to be a teacher that shiny illusions around vocation can fade, as well. Relationships and vocation feel like the same basic work. Both point us inward, where the real work and awakening await. Ultimately, it is not about anyone else or any specific pursuit. And it’s certainly not about the shininess. It’s about cultivating inner qualities like peace and authenticity, which are available in every moment regardless of life circumstances.
Whether it’s bhakti yoga (path of love) or karma yoga (path of work), the question is the same: What flavor of shit sandwich do you prefer? Because it’s not all lovey-dovey awesomeness. After the initial attraction wears off, there’s work to do. How deep down the rabbit hole do you care/dare to go? The work is the same, whether it’s vocation or relationship – just a slightly different flavor. The work is the same whether it’s this person or that person – just a different flavor. The work is the same whether you are here or there. Whether you are involved in this vocation or that. All roads lead inward, where the outer details don’t make that much of a difference. Not as much as we tend to believe anyway.
Maybe I have lived long enough in this lifetime, and there are more parameters in place now. Maybe we have a certain window during which infinite options exist, and as we make choices and proceed along our life journey, some options fall away, and our available options narrow. And maybe that’s not a bad thing. Because we can do the work whether we are here or there. Location, vocation, relationship: Ultimately, it’s all the same.
Maybe we can do our soul work better or more efficiently by not resisting where we are right now by convincing ourselves that we need to be somewhere else or do something else in order to be fulfilled. Maybe in the lifetime of the soul, what we accomplish in this human life isn’t make-it-or-break-it because we have eternity to expand and evolve.
Maybe it’s not as complicated as we try to make it. Maybe it’s really more about becoming less by shedding the unnecessary layers we’ve accumulated by living in this world, rather than trying to accumulate more – so we can embrace our original Wholeness (enhanced by new experience and awareness) and respond to each moment with greater intuition, love, authenticity, groundedness, etc.
And on the other hand (which is really the same hand), if you really want to manifest something, then go for it! There might be something we need to experience from the process of manifestation, and I believe the universe needs us to express our unique nature and talents every bit as much as we need to express them. But no particular outcome is the be-all-and-end-all. No pursuit, place, person, or anything outside of yourself ever is. But we can play – and see what we can do! We might just amaze ourselves!
What if we can’t go astray after all because everything we need is inside us, and it’s not about the scenery or the details but about cultivating, growing, and expanding the Self, which also expands the Universe? What if the path is like the labyrinths I walk, with one path that leads to the center, rather than a maze in which we can get lost – and each of us will arrive eventually? Even as we make certain choices – and sometimes in spite of our choices – we continue to walk toward the center?
Vocation, location, relationship: It’s all kindling for your soul fire. This work or that, this place or that, this partner or that: It doesn’t matter so much to our greater Self. But we owe it to our human self to choose wisely because at the level of personality, some options might be more distracting or draining, whereas others might be more compatible with our own energy and our vision of how we want to experience and express ourselves. Ideally, we make choices that allow us to use more of our precious time and energy in service of expanding and expressing our greater Self than in putting out one fire after another of unnecessary drama.
What if there is a soul map, and before incarnating we mapped out where we wanted to go? And what if I’m nowhere near where I wanted to be?
Well, what would happen if I had a geographical destination in mind that I wanted to get to – like the Bahamas or the Grand Canyon? And what if I got lost along the way, ran out of gas, broke down, missed my flight, etc. and ran out of time and had to return home before arriving at my intended destination? Then what?
Well, I’d hope I could at least make the most out of where I did go. Hopefully I experienced and appreciated the sights along the way, learned more about my world and myself in the process, and reflected on my experiences, including what I might have done differently and what I could try next time (based on a greater understanding of what might get in the way) to get closer to where I ultimately want to be. Live, learn, and make the most of it!
But I am still alive and hear the voice of intuition in my head more clearly than ever. I am open to inspiration and create quiet spaces for inspiration and creativity. I have stared down fear and taken courageous action. Raised two children. I have reclaimed some of my own power that I’d given away to others. I am learning more about who I am and how to navigate through life despite whatever setbacks or obstacles I have encountered, especially those that are inside me. I am still traveling through space and time in this body. There is still hope.
What if I didn’t fit in aerobic exercise this morning before the heat of the day set in? What if, after walking the labyrinth, I composed these words instead?
I have to believe it’s all good. That we keep moving toward the center in spite of everything.
This morning, I woke up to a supportive text from someone who loves and cares deeply about me and realizes it might be a difficult day. I’d awakened early this morning feeling worried about how the day might go but managed to get back to sleep for a couple more hours, and receiving that text, literally within two minutes of waking up for good, made a difference. It was comforting to begin the day knowing that I am not alone and that someone truly cares.
In order to get back to sleep a couple hours earlier, I focused on releasing my thoughts and replacing them with thoughts that brought relief, and I scanned my body to become aware of and release any tension. I told myself it’s okay if I don’t fall asleep and had a Plan B (yoga nidra meditation) if I didn’t. And then I fell asleep and awakened to that wonderful text.
Through half a century of living in this world and being dedicated to personal and spiritual growth, I have developed an well-stocked toolbox to help me regain my sparkle when I’m feeling down. The toolbox is filled with resources that empower me to embrace my wholeness and shine my inner light. I’m sure you have such tools at your disposal, too. Each of us has our own toolbox, though the contents will vary from person to person according to personal preference and what gets the job done. Personally, gratitude is one of my power tools that yields consistently effective and amazing results, and I have many specialized, go-to tools in the mindfulness compartment of my toolbox, as well.
And thank goodness for that because July has been an emotionally tumultuous month here on the Hudson! For example, I took my son (my youngest) to college orientation for incoming freshmen, and it hit me that he really will be going away in less than a month and that I will have an empty nest for real. Not just practice, like when he’s seven minutes away at his dad’s house, but for real. I’ve also been witnessing the decline of a close friend’s mental health and feeling there’s nothing I can do to help. My dad’s physical health is suffering, and another friend is dealing with an alarmingly heavy load that life has served up.
It’s worthwhile to open our toolbox and do maintenance and improvement on a regular basis because the greatest gift we can give one another is our whole, loving self. It is that wholeness I strive to cultivate so I can give those around me the gift of my best self rather than a smaller version of myself that depends on them providing me with the relief that ultimately comes from me taking personal responsibility and doing the inner work only I can do.
But there are times when our energy and resilience are low – perhaps from exhaustion or overwhelm (which can happen when we’re not using our daily maintenance tools) – and encountering a great loss or challenge leaves us feeling needy, vulnerable, and incomplete. We might not even have the strength to open our toolbox and might forget we have a toolbox in the first place.
That’s when a kind and caring communication from someone who truly loves us can make a difference and give us that burst of strength and positivity that makes a difference. So surrounding ourselves with people who are naturally kind, loving, and supportive is a great tool to have in our collection. And it’s important to maintain our toolbox by discarding what doesn’t work for us. Life is too short to waste time sifting through our toolbox to locate useful tools in a pile that includes tools that are broken or never worked for us in the first place, even if others swear by them.
The other night, I felt very sad and lonely. It was an uncomfortable feeling that I realized I probably should sit with even though I wanted to flee from it. I sensed that if I ran from it, it would lodge in my body, whereas if I sat with a witnessing presence, it might dissolve or transform. But the idea of sitting and “being with” the uncomfortable sensations felt daunting. I wanted a distraction to whisk me away from the acute discomfort I was experiencing.
It was a clear indicator that life was offering me a tremendous opportunity for healing and growth…disguised as pain.
And then the image of a water lily came to mind.
I’ve been drawn to water lilies even more than usual lately and have spent hours photographing them on the river. There’s something about their energy and form that speaks to me. So when a water lily appeared in my mind during a moment of acute anguish (aggravated by being overtired), it inspired me with a simple movement that helped me to inhabit my fullness again and expand beyond feeling tattered and diminished. I call it “water lily pose,” and I made my first-ever guided meditation video to share with you. It’s simple and brief, and it’s the newest addition to my spiritual toolbox that can be useful when you are feeling disempowered in the face of personal or world events and long to return to your whole, sparkling self. Water lily medicine.
“If you ever find yourself in the wrong story,
(…unless you can change the story from within, of course. But if you can’t? Please leave, I beg of you.)”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I just came across an article about the five most common regrets of the dying, written by a former palliative care nurse. The article really puts life into perspective. Click HERE to read it.
Doing hospice work back in my twenties was perhaps the most important educational experience I’ve ever had. Dying persons – even those with whom I only had one visit – have been among my greatest teachers, and the article explains why. The obvious theme of the article is the value of living an authentic life and realizing that, despite circumstances, we can choose either to be true to our authentic self or to do what others pressure us to do. It is our choice.
I think I have learned the most from human beings who recently entered this world and from those who were about to depart – because at the beginning and end of a human lifetime, people tend to be most authentic. Babies are pure, unconditioned energy that reminds us of who we were before the world convinced us to be otherwise. Young children live in the moment with an innocence that is truly inspiring. They imagine, play, sing, dance, and create. Children are pure potentiality. Each one of them can be an artist or engineer, and perhaps the greatest joy I experience as a kindergarten teacher is witnessing when a child seems to be in his or her element and pointing out special skills, talents, and activities that bring the child deep satisfaction and joy. In other words, I love to notice what lights them up. Witnessing that spark is a responsibility we have to one another. (I watched a video in which children’s picture book artist, Eric Carle, spoke of how his kindergarten teacher made a point of telling his parents about his artistic talent and encouraged them to support him in that direction.) Children love stories. And they notice things that older children and adults have learned to look past. Children have helped to awaken me to the wonder and astonishing beauty of the natural world, and I am so grateful for the presence of children in my life. I’ve heard it said that it’s useful to remember what brought us great joy as a child, and to be sure to keep that alive in our life.
Dying persons are “real,” too. They need to make peace with the reality of future being stripped away from them and learn to live in the moment. This requires loosening the noose of ego and moving through predictable stages in order to come to terms with the end of life as we know it. There is a limited amount of time for putting everything in order and for reflecting on and reconciling that which got swept under the rug for whatever reason during their healthier, more active years. At this time, people see The Big Picture.
In between childhood and preparing to die, we identify more with the world and often get caught up in various pursuits and activities that consume a great deal of our time, our days, our lives. So it’s beneficial to retreat regularly from the hustle and bustle and spend some quiet, solitary moments listening to ourselves and noticing what arises in stillness. Spending time with children and old people is also good medicine, for they can reawaken us to what is ultimately most important.
We owe it to ourselves and to everyone around us to “keep it real.” What better gift can we give the world than our authentic selves? Earlier in life, I had trouble determining who or what my “authentic self” was in the first place. I often confused it with worldly pursuits, such as a certain career or goal. No, no, no! Our authentic self goes far beyond any condition or detail we might try to pin on it. It is unconditioned and fluid and goes beyond concepts and words. But you know when you have expressed it because you feel truly alive, energized, and peaceful. At least that has been my experience.
For me, the telltale sign of not living authentically is when I feel disconnected from the people and life energy around me. This happens a lot now in the teaching profession as public school educators across the United States are required to deliver new curricula (tied tightly to third-party student assessments and teacher evaluations) that we often are learning as we go along. Scripted curriculum is not authentic teaching. Even when school districts give teachers permission to “adapt” curriculum, it is very difficult to do that the first time you teach it because you don’t understand it well enough. It often takes a great deal of time and reflection to understand something well enough to adapt it. But I’ve noticed that when I put down the manual and allow my authentic self to drive instruction, magic happens. I feel more connected to my students, and they seem to be more engaged. And when I hear from parents that their children love going to school, I know that authentic instruction is taking place despite it all. Something real within me has connected with something real within them, and that connection is pulling us through. My yearly teacher evaluation score means nothing compared to the wonder and love of learning that I hope to instill in my students – for the connection between teacher, student, and curriculum is what ultimately matters most to me.
My “daily reflection” following my parent-teacher conferences last week is that, despite my concerns about the developmental appropriateness of the Common Core curriculum, to a large degree…
I don’t mean only teachers and students in a classroom. This is true of any mentor relationship, apprenticeship, or adult-child relationship. I think we often learn the most from who our teachers are. How they hold their instrument often speaks louder than the notes they play.
Earlier in life, playing piano was my whole world. I didn’t pursue it professionally, though, because of stage fright and not being able to handle competition. I gave it up because it ended up being about how others would perceive me rather than the music I could offer to the world. But sometimes I’ll sit down and play, and it’s the best feeling. I recently had a dream in which I was sitting at the piano with my eyes closed playing what was in my heart, and it was the most natural thing in the world. The music was so beautiful. I loved that dream and woke up wanting to play more. In the dream, I was not playing to impress others but to express the authentic music springing from within. That is what I am talking about. Teaching, musical performance – it’s all the same when it comes to authenticity. We must do our work in this world for the right reasons and be really honest with ourselves about whether the sacrifices we make in pursuit of our goals are worthwhile in the long run – or whether we are pursuing an illusory ideal. Are we overlooking what is ultimately most important? For when we are on our deathbeds letting go of worldly concerns and reconciling bigger questions and fears, we will realize how ultimately small and self-sabotaging our little fears and anxieties were – and will regret allowing them to sidetrack us from what was truly important.
For those of us living in the workaday world and feeling overwhelmed, I want to share some advice one of the wise women in my life offered recently. She insisted that no job deserves 100%; perhaps 60% is enough. Save 100% for spirit. Don’t let the demands of the world encroach on your spiritual health and deplete your energy. Know where to put your boundaries, and save yourself by honoring them. We need to remember that we are so much more than any job we do and not allow our lives to be consumed by what we are paid to do – or by whether we will be rated as “effective” or “highly effective.” Perhaps “effective” is good enough, especially when the criteria bypass completely your authentic reasons for being there. Achieving a healthy balance between “work” and “life” is critical if we are to end our lives unburdened by regret. If you have your heart set on a pay raise or promotion, it’s useful to consider whether the sacrifices are ultimately worth the consequences in terms of time and energy available for the people and activities that are most meaningful to you.
I believe there is always a way to express our authentic selves. We might need to reframe the work we do in our daily life or erect boundaries around our life outside of “work” to allow energy to flow from our authentic wellsprings. Or it could be as simple as smiling at someone or following through on an impulse to perform an act of kindness. And, as I wrote above, it is also our duty to help others recognize their own authenticity when we see the telltale light in their eyes.
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I’m sitting with my laptop with tears streaming down my face…because I get it. I understand C.P. Cavafy’s amazing poem, “Ithaka,” on a new level now. It’s been one of my favorite poems since I heard it during a Cornell University commencement address in Ithaca, New York in my twenties. I printed out the poem and displayed it on the refrigerator, or framed on a wall, for years back when I was trying to figure out what to do with my life.
Yesterday, I was walking along the riverside and was drawn to the way the sunlight illuminated fallen leaves, making them look like glowing embers.
I picked up an oak leaf and had an idea. I held it to the sun and was delighted to the core by the photographic effect I achieved. It was a simple effect but a very satisfying one that began spontaneously when a sense of awe was ignited by a creative spark.
All of a sudden, I realized I was holding a tiny magic wand in my hand. And that’s when the delight giggled in!
I continued on my walk looking at the world around me through a lens of appreciation and joy. I was completely in my element, exhausted from a long week at work but invigorated by being immersed in what I love.
As I admired some fall foliage on the trail, a line from the “Ithaka” poem sailed into my mind: “not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”* At this point in my life, I am not looking to anything or anyone to make me happy. I’ve been there, done that. I’ve been married twice and have raised two children who are now teenagers – one of whom has graduated from high school and is living on her own. I worked really hard to decide on a career direction once my youngest started school, and jumped through all the hoops (which were numerousand expensive) to earn the credentials needed for my chosen career path. After what felt like a mythic Quest, I landed a teaching job at my preferred grade level. And I was happy – immensely happy – for two or three years.
But the thing is, you really can’t look to a life situation to make you happy. Not a relationship. Not a job. Not material possessions. Not anything else. Because everything in this world changes, and happiness and fulfillment are ultimately an inside job – a way of relating to the world, a manner of traveling. Toward the end of the poem, Cavafy explained:
“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. Without her you would not have set out.”
*Source: C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992.
Relationships and career may awaken something extraordinary in you and set you on your path, but they are not the destination. Rather than thinking, “I will be happy when…” (I get married, buy a house, have a baby, land my dream job, retire, etc.), it’s about tuning your mind to the channel of love and joy and engaging with that “rare excitement” that lights you up.
At this point in my life, I understand the last lines of the “Ithaka” poem in a new way:
“And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you. Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.”*
Yes, I think I finally understand what these Ithakas mean. Don’t build your house on the shifting sands of the world. Build it in your heart, and carry it with you always. Let it lead you to new harbors when the time is right.
In my experience, a worthwhile life is one spent doing what you love – that which fills you with joy and meaning. And that might change. Whatever my job or career is, I feel that my true work is to love, to inspire, to be inspired, to create, to listen, to have a grateful heart. Those things have become more important than any particular life situation. As I become older and hopefully wiser, I find myself gravitating toward these things. The details don’t matter so much. I just want to keep alive the creative spark – the “rare excitement” – and live an inspired life.
I am never happier than when I am engaged in the creative process, and I set my sails each day to follow the winds of creativity. If it’s not in one place – and a place can be either physical/geographical or mental/emotional – I will find it in another and spend my time there. In that place, I feel truly alive and know exactly what to do.
In that place, I realize that life is short and that if you wait for all the lights to turn green before starting out, you’ll never leave the house. It’s one thing to have a map and know where you want to go, but it’s another to actually get in the car or on the bike – or even in the moving van – and get started. For example, my husband and I joined an online international rock balancing community a while ago. Every day, we are inspired by photos posted by group members. A couple weeks ago, Jack decided to start posting his own pictures on the group’s page. Why wait? And then someone liked his work and invited him to join another artists group. That is how it happens. You show up and share your talents, and then people are drawn to your energy and perhaps inspired by your courage, and they help you along the way. We help one another.
That is how the magic seems to happen. If you’re looking to an “Ithaka” to make you financially rich, there’s more involved, but if you’re looking to be happy and to live a fulfilled life, you’ve got to follow that spark and spend more time doing what you love.