We Are All Individuals

The world gets dangerous when we start to think about people in terms of generalizations rather than individuals.

My father once told me that if you had told him as a teenager that one day he would marry a white woman, he would have told you that you were out of your mind.

Then look at how happy his love for a “white woman” made him.

My father once told me a story about something that happened to him and my mother in the mid 1970s just before I was born.

My parents were driving home from somewhere in the early evening. Not quite dark yet, but getting there I believe. My dad turned to my mom and said, “I think those ladies behind us are following us.” My mom didn’t believe him and said he was just being paranoid. But as they kept driving, it became evident that there were two “old ladies” following them.

My father turned down a few side streets and the car followed. So he turned into a gas station and they followed. After a few minutes of this game of cat and mouse, my mom said, “I am tired; let’s just go home.” So they drove home forgetting about the ladies.

My father sat down to watch television and my mother went upstairs to wash her face and change into her pajamas. After about 10-15 minutes, there was a knock at the door. My father went to answer it, and on the front porch stood a police officer. The police officer began questioning my Dad. Had he recently driven his car anywhere? Where had he gone? How long had he been home?

Finally, my father said, “Officer, is there a problem? It is late, and I would like to go to bed.” Finally the officer asked, “Was there a white woman with you in the car?” My Dad, an elementary school physical education teacher (not that that really should matter here) turned and yelled up the stairs, “Paula, would you please come down here.”

My mother joined him at the front door and my father put his arm around her and said, “Officer, this white woman is my wife.”

It is hard for many to imagine that a black man just driving in a car with a white woman can be suspicious to some people. Our media and society tell us repeatedly that racism is a thing of the past, but the reality is that it thrives now probably stronger than ever.

Does that mean that #blacklivesmatter is an essential and productive rallying cry? Or that whites need to be schooled in the pitfalls of #whiteprivilege?

No. I don’t think hashtags have anything to do with it.

The hate will stop when we start seeing people as individuals, not as a race, a religion, a socioeconomic status, a gender, a sexuality, or even a profession.

The notion that police officers are power-hungry racist pigs is just as damaging to our collective psyche as racial slurs. These days there is so little respect and reverence given to those in what were once considered prestigious positions: police officers, teachers, doctors, and even the president. Just as so little respect is given to young black men in particular as the world seems to approach them as guilty until proven innocent.

Why?

Why did we as a society let a few bad apples spoil the bunch when it comes to these generalizations?

Why are we raising children to think that most police officers are not driven to protect and serve, that teachers are only in it for the pension and summers off, that the internet knows better than most doctors, and that most presidents are figureheads that only push corporate agendas?

There’s more to life and more to people than these generalizations.

Most terrifying to me is that police officers now have to walk with the added fear that much of the public they serve is skeptical at best.  But if you turn off the television, radio, and computers and just look around, you will find goodness in these people, in all people even.

I was so deeply moved looking at the photographs again from that horrific moment in American History: September 11, 2001. But this time, after 14 years, I was most captured by the first responders. I saw a photograph of a member of the NYPD comforting a bleeding ash-covered woman. His care and concern amidst the chaos was so beautiful.

We, as a country, continue to heal from the September 11 attacks and from the train of questionable police killings. Yet it is important to remember that as we work to root out police officers, who do not deserve the uniform that they wear, that there are far more police officers that serve with pride and deserve our respect for the sacrifices they make for others.

I want to thank Sergeant Tim Devine from the Linwood Police department in Linwood, NJ for giving my four children the royal treatment this week during a tour that I scheduled just for my four children, whom I now homeschool. Sgt. Devine and the other members of the Linwood police did not blink an eye showing a 2,4,6, and 8-year-old the fingerprinting machine, offices, holding cell, and even a very dangerous reindeer Christmas decoration rescued from the town bike path.

He popped his hat on the kids and let them sit in the police cruiser, while I took photos. They didn’t just see the radar gun, but got the chance to use it to clock the speed of an officer who drove in a circle 6-8 times to give everyone a turn, including me. The kids went home with a smile and a copy of their fingerprints to boot!

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I don’t write this to belittle the cases of Eric Garner,Freddie Gray or Michael Brown or any other black man or woman treated unjustly by police officers. (Everyone deserves just treatment under the law.)

I write this as a reminder that we are all individuals.

Maybe too if we stopped scaring our urban youth straight as teenagers and showed them this kind of care and attention at a young age…things could be different…for everyone.

Career and College Ready?

From the first moment I heard the catchphrase “career and college ready”, it bothered me, though I couldn’t easily put my finger on why.  The notion that school is a place to prepare students for life beyond school is certainly not revolutionary.

We teach children how to add and subtract so that one day they can work a cash register or balance their checkbooks. We teach children how to read so that they can fill out applications and follow written instructions or directions. We teach children about the world around them so that they can understand how things work and why people act the way that they do.

The now of education is inextricable from the later. Right?

Well, consider this quote:

“Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” -John Dewey

Perhaps, in focusing so much on preparing them for later, education has missed the boat in capitalizing on the now of the process of learning. Setting benchmarks and piling on assessments to make certain that children are on a track that will guarantee success might actually be derailing students from ever reaching that success.

If we teach children to enjoy learning, the process of it (the reading, the computing, the exploring, the writing, the thinking, the creating, the debating) they will learn more than if we teach children to be focused on the measurable results of learning. If we excite children about the act of learning, the pursuit of knowledge will become a self-propelled race rather than a proscribed march through pre-determined checkpoints.

Ask a college professor or an employer, what makes a great student or employee.

I am certain that they will not answer with a list of skills and knowledge, but rather a type of character.

Successful people excel in careers and college because they can think, they like to think, and they have within them the desire and fire to achieve.

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The kids completing observation journals after a nature walk at Huber Woods. Ages 3,5, and 7 learning together.

A Highly Personal Decision

Politics.

Activism.

Social Change.

Since my high school days, these are the things that have excited and inspired me.

During my freshman year of high school, I read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by, Dee Brown and found the band Rage Against the Machine not long after. I was shocked by the accounts of how the American government dealt with Native American tribes and fascinated by the sheer anger in lead singer Zach de la Rocha’s voice. His lyrics told a story that ran against everything that I had learned and the rage to make me believe it had to be true.

I wrote a lot of poetry in my teenage years and read even more books. My parents were not really into traveling (the farthest we traveled was Florida every year to visit my grandparents), so I fed my wanderlust with books like The Dharma Bums by, Jack Kerouac and A Clockwork Orange by, Anthony Burgess.

In college, my world view continued to open up, though through literature instead of travel as my parents vetoed my desires to study abroad. I started taking classes in World Literature and minored in Politics all while pursuing my passion for photography in the darkroom at Rutgers that is now extinct.

Then I stumbled upon Bruce Robbins, a professor whose interest in the place where literature and politics collide fueled my own leanings in that direction. As a senior, Bruce served as my adviser for my Honors Thesis, which was an exploration into whether books could use text and photography to achieve real social change. This was not just a scholarly pursuit, but also a very personal one. I wanted to figure out what I wanted to do after graduation. I loved college. I loved the reading, the thinking, the arguing, and the writing. But would delving into issues of inequality and poverty intellectually be satisfying enough for me? Would I be able to change the world that way?

Well, my Honors Thesis took me into flophouses in Manhattan and led me to interview David Isay the creator of NPR’s StoryCorps, a project that records the amazing (and often lost) histories of everyday people. But it wasn’t my Thesis that led me to my next move. It was a poster. The poster was recruiting college graduates to apply to Teach for America. I read the statistic at the bottom about how children in poverty are reading an average of 2/3 grade levels behind their wealthier peers. But I think it was the photograph of a young African-American boy looking back at me with big eyes that drove me to head to the computer lab and find out how to apply. That poster, in an instant, achieved social change. My dream of getting a PhD. at Harvard fell dead on the ground behind me, and since then I have only glanced back at that dream a few times.

The story here gets more complicated, emotional, and well…long. So I will zoom ahead, past my 12 years of inner city and suburban teaching experience, through the births of my four children to this summer when I finally decided to turn my back on public school for awhile to homeschool my children.

Those of you who follow my blog know how hard I fought against testing and for quality, dynamic, and developmentally-stimulating education. You read my editorials, speeches, petitions, and pleas. You know I fought and fought hard.

My decision to homeschool was not a giving up on public schools as one teacher recently accused me of, but rather a giving in to my children and their needs and fulfillment. For many years, I worried about the world, now it is time for me to focus on my children. I believe that by giving them the best that they will in turn affect the world for the better. In just a short 10 years my oldest will be 18. And judging from what I hear from those parents who have gone through it, I too will wonder where the time went.

My decision to homeschool is a highly personal decision, not to give up on quality education for all, but to give in and commit myself to giving that gift to my own children while I can. There will be time to return to that bigger fight.

But for now, I will focus on them. I will honor my short time with them and give them every bit of what I want to give to all children. I will stop thinking about what I wish public schools would do and just do them without fight or argument. I will appreciate my opportunity to take this time with my children, knowing that one day (in the blink of an eye) it will be over, and then I can return to trying to solve the world’s problems.

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When A Noun is A Person, Place, Thing, and an Idea

A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.

I learned this definition as a young student and repeated it a thousand times over my 12 years of teaching elementary school and then middle school English.

But just tonight it struck me that some nouns are all of these at once.

Take this set of a table and chairs for instance.

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I write this post tonight, as I have written many others on a laptop perched on this table. It wasn’t until tonight though that I really allowed my mind and heart to wander down the rabbit hole of what it means to me.

A table with four chairs. It was a cheap set from Wal-Mart, couldn’t have cost more than a hundred dollars. My father wanted to buy my fiance (now husband) and I a housewarming gift for our one bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

It is funny to me now that we ever folded down one of the leaves to fit it flush against the wall. Only two of us at the time, now there are 6!  It fit in our apartment snugly and served us well when my parents came for dinner, but we continued to use it as our primary kitchen table even as our family outgrew the number of chairs.

This table has lived in all 5 of our homes over the past 12 years. I bet when my father had the idea to purchase it; he had no idea how much of our lives it would see us through. He had no idea that it would out live him. He had no idea that one day his only granddaughter would sit at that table on a little piece of him that would have to suffice in place of his loving lap.

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We have eaten meals on this table, completed homework, exploded homemade volcanoes, cut numerous birthday cakes, colored, painted, laughed and cried.  This table has dried playdough caked in the line where the leaves fold down…though now we never have a need to fold them down.

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This table wobbles and creaks, and screws, washers, and bizarre pieces of metal keep finding their way into my dustpan as I sweep up evidence of life from beneath it a hundred times a day.

“We need a bigger table.”

“One day it is just going to collapse.”

I say these things in my head. I muse about them aloud. But underneath the day-to-day routine, this table breaks my heart. I don’t think I can throw it away, even though I know I should.

My father loved kitchens. He said that life happens in kitchens and that is where he wants to be.

This table is…..

My Father,

My Home,

A Table,

and it is…

Family, Life, and Love.

A Word to Abusers: This is My Temple.

This blog a sacred space where I empty my deepest thoughts, feelings, and dreams.

A place where I leave my most raw, immediate self, so that one day I can look back and feel what I felt again with a new heart and soul, changed by time.

A place where I connect with those I know in life, online, or not at all.

A place where I philosophize, cry, smile, and spend quality quiet time with my mind and heart.

A place where I share private pieces of my life to contribute to the greater world beyond my small corner of time and space.

A place where I risk some privacy to feel rooted in something bigger.

Writing is my temple.

These words and pictures I share are sacred. My words are not in the public domain like some Wikipedia entry. My images are not just some stock photography or clip art for you to use to suit your own purposes.

There is a difference.

A difference that must be respected lest this beautiful new art form, the blog, will cease to have value. If writers do not feel safe, they will stop sharing. And in their place, commercial and culturally bankrupt drivel will rush in to fill the empty space, as it has in so many other places on the internet.

I feel threatened.

For the second time, I checked my stats page to find a disturbing search led some sick, pervert child molester or pornographer to my writing. To pictures of MY children.

I carved out an hour or two to drive to Starbucks and write (my internet is down at home), while my husband put the kids to bed. I sat down with my black grande coffee and a head full of ideas. While I downloaded my latest photos from my phone onto my laptop, I checked my stats only to nearly choke on my much-anticipated coffee that now bubbles like volcanic acid in my churning stomach, as I write fueled by anger more than caffeine.

Here is what I saw under search terms for July 11, 2015:

“daddy it hurts but keep pushing it up me”

This means, without a doubt, that someone typed those words into a Google search box and then clicked on my blog to see if it contained photos or information that related to those terms.

Are you sick yet?

How am I supposed to sit here and write now? How can I focus on anything but the fact that some stranger who would search for such a thing has looked at photos of my children?

I can’t.

Hell, I can’t even finish my coffee.

No photos tonight.

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Monkey in the Middle

“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.”

Hopscotch.

Double dutch.

Kickball.

Catch.

Flip flop.

One of these games has no place in the schoolyard. One of these games is hurtful to children and impossible to play fairly.

Flip flop.

A game suited for politics not education.

Education has become the playground for politicians. They change policies and stances on a whim trying to appeal to voters, when the winds of favor begin to shift. A scant few of these decision-makers have any experience or knowledge in the field of education, yet every single one has the confidence and often ignorant audacity to make grand statements and enact sweeping changes without a minute’s hesitation.

Sure, one can argue that politicians have advisers. They assemble commissions. They hold public town hall meetings. They fill in the gaps of their experience and knowledge with the wisdom and experience of others.

However, this system of communication is broken. The advisers do not possess the knowledge or experience base specific to K-12 education and the voices of the public are simply not heard.

Take NJ for example. Governor Chris Christie appointed David Hespe to Commissioner of Education. Hespe has some experience in education (see his bio), but it is limited to mostly the college level except for a stint as Assistant and Interim Superintendent in Willingboro School District. He also did some work with STEM activities at Liberty Science Center. However, the vast majority of his experience is political.

So we have Commissioner Hespe, who headed the Study Commission on the Use of Student Assessments in NJ. I was able to attend two of the three public hearings held by this Commission and witnessed students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school board members speak about the damaging effects of the PARCC tests and the implementation of Common Core. Yet, after each of these public hearings, Hespe published an Op-Ed piece continuing to laud the benefits of Common Core and PARCC in the state of NJ. He did not acknowledge the experience and knowledge of the public who took the time and energy to prepare and deliver testimony. Read my testimony here.

In fact, Commissioner Hespe cared so little about what the public had to say that during the third public hearing he walked out during a short lunch break and did not return. Hespe never gave an excuse or an apology, nor did he or Governor Christie, who appointed him, respond to my petition asking to replace him as the head of the Study Commission.

So when Governor Christie came out suddenly against the Common Core, I knew his decision run for president would not be far behind. Why? Because it was purely a political move. If it had any educational weight at all, then it would have stemmed from those public hearings, from the town hall meetings, from the growing opt out movement in the state, or from the droves of frustrated students, parents, teachers, and administrators.

Flip flop.

In an article by Amanda Oglesby in App.com, Christie appears to be one with the people of NJ.

“I have heard from far too many people — teachers and parents from across the state — that the Common Core standards were not developed by New Jersey educators and parents,” Christie, who is running for president, said in a May speech at Burlington County College. “As a result, the buy-in from both communities has not been what we need for maximum achievement. I agree. It is time to have standards that are even higher and come directly from our communities.”

The problem is that he hasn’t heard anyone really. He tells teachers to shut up. His own Commissioner walks out of public hearings.

Under his direction, NJ has spent millions on the conversion to Common Core Standards and the Common Core-aligned PARCC tests through the tests themselves and the new curriculum, technology, and countless hours of professional development that they have required. He already has what he calls “buy-in”, because our tax money has already been spent and wasted.

Flip flop.

When this new imagined set of community-created standards hits the ground, who will pay for all of those changes? Will Pearson, the company cashing in on all of the flips and flops refund the money spent, so that NJ can invest it in mythical standards that are even ‘higher’?

Maybe politicians like Christie ought to learn a new game.

Just for a moment stop the lip service and take a look at the monkey in the middle.

Our children.

Except for them this is more than a game and they are the ones losing.

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Happy Birthday, Daddy!

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June 26.

Today my Dad would have turned 74.

I had to go back and check the math. It couldn’t have really been four years ago that I got that phone call from my brother at 5 am and collapsed on the back porch uttering sounds of sorrow that until that moment I had no idea my body was capable of making.

With that memory, I can still feel the old splintered wood against my face as I cried there, emptying myself of every ounce of grief only to take a breath and feel myself fill back up.

Four years.

You know, my Dad was right about a lot of things, but even he was wrong about some things.

Once, when I was going through some hard times at the school where I was teaching, I called him as I often did to have a heart-to-heart. My ear would get red and sweaty at the end of one of our long conversations. I talk to my mother once a day, well sometimes five times, but with my Dad it was different. When we did talk, we talked.

Well, I don’t even remember why I was so stressed about work at the time, but his advice was not to worry about it. He said as much as it may seem that you are irreplaceable at work, you aren’t. Sure you may be great at your job, but if you drop dead tomorrow, you better believe that they will have someone else in there to take your place.

His words stuck with me.

I remembered them when I invited my colleagues to come to a board meeting to hear my passionate resignation speech and only a handful showed up. I remembered them when I packed my classroom and nobody wanted to take my binders full of ideas from 8 years of teaching 7th grade English with creativity, heart, and soul. I remembered when no one wanted my invention project packet that had become my legacy. I remembered when no one had any use for my witch’s cauldron that I would use for various games or for the stacks of charts that I made the old school way with chart paper and colorful markers (before and after Powerpoint and SmartBoards became a staple).

One day someone will find a book of mine, labeled “Vaccaro” in obnoxious red Sharpie ink in the dusty corner of the book room and not know who that is and toss it in the trash. In a lot of ways, he was right. I have only been gone from my school for two years and so much has already faded.

But, a teacher is not your typical kind of worker that comes and goes and the company keeps on functioning as it always did.

You see my Dad is missed, though his replacement probably doesn’t know his name or what it still means to so many of his former students and colleagues. For as education becomes more and more results based, so much is being lost. You can replace a body, but you can’t replace the heart and soul that he brought to school every day and poured into his students.

This is not to say that today’s generation of teachers doesn’t care or have heart and soul. But, what I mean is that there is no longer a sense of reverence for those who came before. The policymakers from the state level down to the local school boards have lost a sense of what it really means to teach. They don’t understand that there isn’t a test, spreadsheet, or rubric that can capture the value of a true teacher nor assess the quality of learning that is being delivered. They don’t know that the kids need their physical education teacher down on the floor playing Duck, Duck, Goose with them (like my Dad did) a lot more than they need to take a benchmark to determine the value of that teacher.

The policymakers think that new ways are better than old ways and that the more technology the better, because it makes our lives easier. But have they really gotten easier? I am pretty sure that my Dad wouldn’t think so. Their new ways have done nothing but drive up spending on curriculum, professional development, and technology while devaluing the human capital right before their eyes in their teachers.

So, Happy Birthday, Daddy!

I hope that you have a cake where you are and that before you blow out those 74 candles, that you make a wish.

Wish that schools, administrators, school boards, and government officials can learn to do more than just replace and instead honor the value of those who came before and those who are there now trying to survive during a difficult time to teach, one of the most important professions in the world.

My Dad’s smile lives on in the hearts of so many of his students from over 40 years of teaching and that is irreplaceable.

I should know, because it lives on in mine.

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The Magic of Childhood

Discovery

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Cooperation

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Safety

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Wonder

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Adventure

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Imagination

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Love

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Sadness

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These are just some of the ingredients that make up the incredible magic of childhood. This magic is something to be revered and respected, like the power of an ancient sorcerer. It is a recipe that mere mortals cannot follow like a recipe from Pinterest. It is more than measurements and arithmetic. It has a life of its own.

When this magic is free, it is like nothing else on earth, boundless in what it can give. Far too much time is spent trying to contain it, train it, and mold it into what we adults want it to be, or think it should be.

But no, childhood is not a composite of please and thank yous and inside voices and pushed in chairs and sharing and good report cards and goals scored and homework completed and vegetables eaten before dessert is even considered.

Childhood is not a series of milestones completed and tracked on some sort of unwritten scorecard judging parents and teachers alike.

No, childhood is magic.

Period.

And we should learn to let it be and watch it color our world with joy.

Take a Small Step

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved for the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

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All rights reserved by the artist Callandra S. Cook. Image may not be reproduced.

Callandra S, Cook, or Callie as I always knew her, and I met in 2001. (I know the year because I still have my Teach for America t shirt that says 2001 corps member.) When we met, we both were recent college grads. We both were passionate. We both had signed on to do one of the most challenging jobs in the world: an inner city teacher.

But one thing I know now for certain is that we had not the slightest clue what we had gotten ourselves into nor how much it would change the very fabric of who we were. We had big hearts, sharp minds, and a sense of adventure.  TFA had chosen us well, but the choosing was only the beginning.

We sat on the campus of SUNY Maritime in the Bronx beneath the Throgs Neck Bridge in the sun. We stared at the water and chatted about where we had been, who we thought we were, and what might lie ahead. It didn’t matter that we were strangers. It didn’t matter that she was from Ohio and I from NY. It didn’t matter that we had different sexual orientation or racial background. Our paths crossed, and I still remember how fresh and new we were sitting on that concrete wall staring at the great blue expanse of water dotted with a million high rises of the city.

Callie and I did not end up teaching the same grade, or in the same school, or even living in the same neighborhood. Over our two year TFA commitment, we saw each other  quite a few times at various events, but our paths drifted apart. She stayed on after the two year commitment and my life took me to Brooklyn, where I continued to teach.

Callie and I stayed loosely connected through Facebook. I admired her dedication to the students of Baltimore from afar. Commenting on her beautiful daughter and her amazing photos of her family hiking in the woods. But most recently, I noticed her photography project and have been transfixed. I love her vision and her experience with inner city education that fuels it.

Right now education is like a minefield. A war that has polarized our country and pushed the argument far from what the children so desperately need from their schools and teachers.

Whether you love or hate TFA, charter schools, Common Core, testing, homeschoolers, public schools or private schools….I hope that you take a moment to consider supporting one amazingly dedicated and talented teacher’s project. For I believe that the only way education will get better is one visionary person at a time.  Callie is certainly a visionary.

If she does not meet her fundraising goal, she will not get any of the donations. So please check out her kickstarter site and consider taking a meaningful step in education reform.

Sure it is a small step in the face of all of the reforms, but every journey is made up of thousands of small steps.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1163253366/work

Does This Make Me Happy?

Sometimes I think that life would be easier if we all realized just how easy life could be.

Recently, while browsing Facebook, which I sadly admit to doing way, way, WAY too much… I came across an article that I am sure was hand-picked for me by some combination of a genius computer algorithm and an invasion of privacy.  Whatever brought it to my eyes, I am glad that it made it there, because I needed it.

The article was about decluttering your life. Trust me when I say that if you have ever been anywhere near my house, my car, my classroom, my head….you know I have a propensity towards, well an addiction to clutter. I don’t think of it as a flaw, so much as a character trait.

Well, the line that caught me in the article said that we should pick up things one at a time and ask ourselves, “Does this make me happy?” If not, throw it out.

Imagine if we all did that for everything. Not necessarily throw everything out that doesn’t induce joy (I mean hey who screams in ecstasy at the thought of cleaning the blender, but it is kind of nice to have.)  I just mean do more of what makes us happy and less of what doesn’t. Sounds simple but is it?

I got to thinking that what makes me happy is deeply rooted in making others happy. I am a giver. I give and give and give and often forget myself. But maybe I can find more joy by very simply turning the focus from what I don’t do for myself (or don’t have time to do for myself) and instead do good for others.

Say yes more.

Compliment people more.

Support their causes.

Give them that little push they need.

Help them up.

Bake them some cookies or bring a bunch of parsley from my garden.

Tell them it will be okay.

Send them a joke or an article they might like.

Call someone to hear their voice instead of the impersonal text or even stop by!

Since I started doing this there has been a subtle yet profound shift within….and I like it.

So give it a try tomorrow and see how you do. Come back and let me know.

My oldest and I

My oldest and I