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All who know me also know that I love the Toastmasters club of which my dad and I are a part. Not only is it a safe laboratory in which to challenge myself as a public speaker and communicator, but also so often I walk out of our meetings with the joy of connection—connection to my colleagues, connection to ideas larger than myself, connection to a broader sense of the world and the people in it.

In addition to our three impromptu speeches today, we had two prepared speeches. One was presented by one of our newer members, Tara Fall. I read Tara’s blog, and I enjoy Tara’s unique perspective—one of joy and optimism—as much as I enjoy her speeches at our meetings.

Today she spoke about teaching her daughters to say “See you later” to their father when he leaves for military duty. Tara’s husband is an officer in the United States Navy and has had several tours of duty in the last few years. She spoke of the ways in which she helps her daughters transition between his shore time and his time away, and it was clear to me that she gives them the strength to see his departures and his homecoming with equal hope and enthusiasm. She is a great mom.

What stayed with me most, however, was not something she spoke about. Listening to her and watching her and thinking about her children, I remembered that it is not only our military troops that serve our country—their families do, too. The spouses and children remaining on shore share in the honor of those they send. I am profoundly thankful for the wives and husbands and children—as well as our servicemen and women—who carry part of the responsibility for the welfare of democracy and freedom as part of their daily lives.

Thank you, Tara, for reminding me of all the people who help to ensure my freedom, and the freedom of my children. You are an amazing force of love, strength, and optimism—and also a compelling speaker. Hearing you speak was incredible today, and I thought your prize ribbon was well-deserved.

Let us gather our joy in truly listening to the voices of others.

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Every once in awhile, life requires a fort:

A place of games and toys and fun, a “time-in” space of laughter and happiness…

A place to hide away…we have a little front flap to put down as a door when we really want to get away… We used two sheets and some office clips (really handy for clipping sheets to chairs). Yesterday we played Chutes and Ladders and various card games (Old Maid and Go Fish).

Boppa and Katie help to clean the pond.

Eric loves the outdoors.

Hi there!

We like to leave our forts up for awhile when we build them, so if you are a friend or family member stopping by in the next couple of weeks, we will probably invite you in. We like to sing songs in our fort, so bring your favorites. Also books: we love to read and cuddle in there. Our next task is to find some operative flashlights to use in the fort when it is dark, right before bedtime!

A reader and a longtime friend (and also a colleague) of mine, LB, commented on yesterday’s post:

I am sure you cringe every time I write. I was never formally trained in college-level English …I break many rules and don’t even know it….I just write so it sounds good to me.

Thinking about you editing my writing sends chills down my spine!

LB is not alone: thinking about anyone editing my writing sends chills down my spine, too! Asking someone to be your second set of eyes is not easy; it is an act of faith and trust. We make ourselves vulnerable when we do that.

I truly believe that it is not ever very probable that anyone—myself included—will write a perfect draft of anything the first time. Is it possible? Sure. Likely? No. There is always something to fix, hone, improve, reword. The craft of writing never ends.

And just when we think we have it, there are new ways to push ourselves, new writing games we can play. A favorite teacher of mine in high school, Mrs. A, gave us a list of words we were not to use in some of our compositions. This list included common verbs such as “is” and “was” and “were”….plus several “helping words” like “there” and so forth. At first it took hours and hours to compose an essay around these rules. How do you write without the “to be” verbs?? Some students grumbled. Yet it remained our challenge, and we had to blossom creatively. I could feel myself stretching, and I loved that feeling as a student. Mrs. A will always be one of the truly great teachers in my life.

Our age of technology and quick written communication—blogs, e-mails, Facebook comments, text messages—seems to coincide with favoring efficiency and developing a more colloquial language. We do not read over our Facebook comments a dozen times before we post them, and we do not use our finest eye on our text messages. If we put these forms of writing through a rigorous and time-consuming editing/proofreading process every time we set out to communicate in this age, we might as well get out the ol’ fountain pen and stationery and make a trip to the post office. Sure, I am an advocate for writing as cleanly as possible so that you will be understood, but we must also understand that most blogs, for example, are first drafts, perhaps revised as we go.

That’s what editors are for: we can be the second eyes that take the piece through a clean-up time.

It is funny: ever since I declared English as my major at Stanford, and especially since I became an English teacher, many people—even my family! especially my family!—imagine that I am in “English teacher edit mode” all the time. I wish I could explain how much that is not the case. I majored in English because I love to read—to read others’ thoughts and to interface with those thoughts, to analyze and to learn from those thoughts, to have conversations across centuries. So most of the time, I read to savor and enjoy, to relax, to ponder. I read blogs and Facebook comments for these reasons…and also because I am just a plain old busybody. It takes an extra effort in my mind to switch into “edit mode.” Most of the time, I don’t push that switch because when we start pulling apart writing, we are looking at it in a mechanical way. Good writing often needs to be enjoyed for enjoyment’s sake.

I like what LB says about writing “so it sounds good to [her].” YES! An editor is no editor (and a teacher no teacher) if, at the end of instruction, the writer has lost her voice. And LB is right even further: we must begin writing by listening to the poetry and rhythms in our inner ear. Our own personal cadence. Grammar concerns arrive on the scene when a writer realizes that adhering to certain rules makes it more likely that readers will better understand her.

So no, I don’t cringe. Not unless I am asked to. 😉 The times I am most aware of cringing with respect to Facebook or blogs, for example, is when a poster uses words to spread negativity or discordance. Words are powerful, and my emotional responses to them tend to be permanent. Words should be used for the Good. I am a big believer in that.

And I am willing to receive the feedback in return. Another friend and reader of mine, Miss M, mentioned the other day that perhaps joy should not be “gathered” but rather something one “feels.” I have been pondering the difference in those verbs for days…and I thank her for drawing my attention to the nuance of it. Not only does it mean we are communicating in a purposeful way, but also it means that she is letting my writing take both of us to new places in our philosophical outlook. Isn’t that what writing is for?

Finally, one of the greatest challenges of my life (as a person who is often concerned about earning respect from my colleagues and fearing my weaknesses) also turned out to be one of the biggest blessings. Still a young teacher, I was surprised when a colleague of mine, SH, (now a dear dear friend) asked me to team-teach with her a couple sections of 9th graders in classes that would combine GATE clusters with the special ed clusters and still meet the old rule of 20:1 students with a 9th grade teacher. Those clusters never would have intersected otherwise in 9th grade English at the time. We had a total vision for the double class, and the school gave us a double room and an extra adult. We were able to do some mind-blowing, amazing things together with our students. It was a time of great learning for me, for all of us.

That first year, I had to learn to trust the feeling of my colleagues watching me hone my pedagogy, watching me in both glorious moments and red-faced moments. I had several single classes of my own, too, and I know well how much revision goes on in a single lesson plan from period to period. Imagine revising lesson plans and teaching strategies with another teacher, being honest about what worked and didn’t, where I did well and where I didn’t. It was the same for SH. We could see and hear everything about each other as professionals. We even got to the point where we could revise together by just a glance or few words in the middle of a period, in a split second. We got to know each others’ teaching rhythms. We helped each other reflect. There was no room for anything but total trust.

That experience, combined with how I tend to think about life generally, opened me to whole new ways of sharing and gathering knowledge, on reflecting with someone else about what goes well and what doesn’t. There is not a place for critique (good or bad) of others without a supportive, open-hearted attitude. We can’t go into it feeling that knowledge is a zero-sum game, or that it is anything less than a true sharing without judgment. If two people are really communicating, the learning is always bi-directional.

Joy in the sharing…

I very much enjoy reading my friend Sana’s blog. Working as her editor, I think especially carefully about her use of language, looking for not just the little corrections here and there but moreso looking for the beautiful tools that come naturally to her. As with my students, my goal is to point out everything well that she does and to teach her the pattern of her natural style, her own voice. As a teacher I believe it is much more important for a student to be able to explain what they know and what they are doing right—than it is for a student to see red marks and corrections all over the paper.

Only by knowing what we are doing right—and why—can we hope to build our skills. Sure, people who write do need to internalize grammar rules, and they would do equally well to learn the conventions, too— if only to know when to break them.

(By the way, one distinction: grammar rules are hard and fast, based on logic; conventions are aspects of style to which people have agreed but that may be broken with poetic license. For example: it will always be illogical to pair a singular noun with a plural pronoun—i.e. “Everyone needs their daily chocolate.” “Everyone” is singular, while “their” is plural. Never may one person suddenly BA-ZING! become two or more in a sentence—this will always be wrong, by logic. Conventions, on the other hand, might include the old English teacher mottoes “Never begin a sentence with and!” or “Don’t use colloquialisms!” or “No sentence fragments!” Well, we know of writers who break conventions all the time and do it with panache. Grammar vs. conventions).

So Sana hears quite a bit from me with respect to all that she does right. By now she knows that her strengths include her use of imagery and metaphor, as well as her precise use of diction to characterize the people she describes. She has a friendly, authoritative tone which she intersperses with wry humor. She has a natural ear for parallel structure (both within a single sentence and within paragraphs as a whole). Her organization of her writing never falters. She is structured and logical as well as empathetic and descriptive—everything you could want as a reader when looking to connect to a writer.

The other day she suggested that some of my positive feedback sometimes comes as a surprise to her. If I fulfill my job as a teacher, then there should come a joyful day when she is no longer surprised. Now, yes, some writers by their very nature will always be a bit surprised—it is hard to break a student totally of authentic humility, and who would want to? It is pleasing when a writer is not over-confident and still has a thrill at discovering her own ability to connect with people, as if by magic. But by “no longer surprised” what I really mean is this: there will come a day when she will be able to talk with me about the intention of her crafting and she will know that what she does is effective…and, most importantly (drum roll please) WHY.

Last night, Sana wrote a blog discussing some of the signs of domestic abuse. She wrote in the first paragraph:

Alexandria (Alex) was crying a lot.  She was trying to divorce her husband but he wouldn’t leave.  He wouldn’t speak.  He only yelled.  He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.  And he never spoke to her any more.  It’s been weeks since they spoke. When I asked her if she thought she was abused, she said, “No.  He’s never hit me.”

Check out the fifth sentence:

He yelled at her, alone, in front of their kids, in the morning, when he came home from work, he yelled.

This sentence is all Sana, and it is all good. Her syntax is brilliant—look how she bookends the sentence with “he yelled” to represent the constant presence of the husband’s loud berating. The structure of this sentence parallels Alexandria’s life: surrounded by yelling—whether alone, with her kids, in the morning, or when her husband comes home. In fact, it gets even better. If we were adhering to strict conventions, one imagines a period going in after “work.” The verb “yelled” has already been used in the first clause; the sentence does not require a second verb; it is not a compound sentence. The fact that Sana uses another verb (the power, the action of any sentence) at the end of the sentence—making it almost stream-of-consciousness or a run-on—achieves something amazing. She quite literally weighs the sentence down with the second verb, giving the sentence additional weight when we definitely expect it to have no more. By heavy-handedly giving us this second verb, Sana represents through syntax (sentence structure) the weight of the yelling on Alexandria, the crushing feeling, the heavy boxed-in-ness.

Yes, I love everything about this sentence. Did Sana craft it with this intention? Well, that is for her as the writer to know. Did Fitzgerald know the every possible interpretation of all his sentences when he wrote them? Did Hawthorne? Dickinson? The point is that she now knows for sure now how well that sentence works. It is one to write down and keep in a notebook where one writes down and keeps the best of the best for later use or as models or as inspirations for another day.

It is often helpful to have a second set of eyes on one’s writing…not just for the picky grammar stuff, but to tell you what you are doing well and why.

Gather joy in your strengths, and let others help you to know what those are.

I’ve been at odds with myself today, with Pride at the center. Pride—the chief cause of dissatisfaction. Pride—the shiny name for hubris, the cobblestones on the road of perfectionism. Pride—that which leads away from everything good.

I do not mean the type of “pride” that suggests being grateful or joyful for what life brings, or even being pleased in pleasing one’s family or friends, or the delight in a job well done for the effort we put in.

I mean the kind of pride that makes one inert and flat-feeling. It is a pride which squishes, by making us think we have the ability to do everything and perfectly and without experiencing consequences from thinking so. It is that pride which seeks constant recognition of itself.

In searching myself for my faults this past year, I find pride to be central…I have only just begun to study it and turn it around and round.

So Readers, I ask you: What is the nature of Pride? Does it have a use, and if so, what? Are there good types of pride, as distinct from bad types?

To gather true joy seems to require a state of gratitude…gratitude, for both the good and bad experiences which make us who we are, in turn requires a feeling of humility. Any room for pride, readers?

I celebrate and adore this picture of my mom, taken long long ago. I discovered it today while scanning dozens of our family photos in order to digitalize them. It will probably surprise her to find that I posted it (HI, MOM!) but I just love it.

So young, so full of life, and so free…I love it.

This looks like joy, to me. I want to go swing on a rope over a lake just like this… Why must we remain on the ground, be grounded, down-to-earth all the time? I want to be soaring and floating in the air, feeling the sky.

I am finding joyful treasures as I organize the family pictures. The stuff of legends and legacy.

 

Few things in life surpass the delight of being mostly asleep and feeling someone lay a blanket over you to keep you warm. It is a magically cozy feeling, a coziness that starts way inside the heart and through dreams. It is one of those simple gestures of love that one person makes to another.  A way to say: I am loving and thinking about you and your comfort; I am protecting you while you sleep. To cover someone with warmth and love is to give a true gift. So simple, and it costs nothing: the glow of coziness.

The kiddos and I had a busy morning: we took a long walk and played at a nearby park. When we got home, Eric was sleepy. Katie went to get one of their blankets, and she gently covered him after he had already fallen asleep.

Big Sister tucks in her little brother for a small nap.

 

She tucked him in, saying, “Swaddle him, swaddle him.” Such sweetness…

While he napped, we made lemon bars from some lemons my mom and dad brought back from my grandpa’s land. We talked about how the scent of the lemon zest reminds us of his land and of him.

Using the pastry cutter, Katie helps to make the shortbread crust for the bars.

We also worked on today’s craft/lesson: wax paper “stained glass” hearts. We shaved crayons onto wax paper, folded over the paper, ironed, and then cut out heart shapes. Pictures of the final product still need to be taken, as we have yet to hang them up. That will be tomorrow…

Katie said this project was “the best one we’ve ever done!” (And that’s really saying something, because we have done many, many art projects together. She loved choosing the crayons and color blends. I also let her help with the ironing (carefully).

Katie works on making crayon shavings.

I love my two little people so much. My wish for them is that they will always be the kind of brother and sister to cover one another with a blanket when the air is cold, that their bond will triumph over any test life brings. I see in Katie the loyalty of a big sister and in Eric his totally adoring and trusting eyes. Because one is three and one is 5.5 months, I am often bouncing from one’s needs to the next—and it can get hectic to have them so close in age and still so young. Yet then there are a great many magical moments like today, when I am beyond thankful that they are so close in age and will travel through many of the same life phases together.

And there is so much joy for me, as a mother, to watch my daughter gently tuck in her brother the way I have done for her so many times. It means that she knows, at some deep level that she cannot verbally express, just how much I love her.

The beauty of this springlike January weather is that we have plenty of opportunity to exercise outdoors and soak up the sunshine. There was a bit of a chill early this morning, but by the time we started walking, it was definitely much warmer. Katie took off her sweater and jogged and walked the last full mile of our walk. We talked about how important exercise is to keeping our hearts and lungs healthy—I want to give her some of the good habits that I struggle to abide, such as daily exercise. Brother ended up falling asleep, though he enjoyed sitting up and looking around for awhile.

Here are the kiddos as we leave for our walk.

Home again, Katie asked if we could do another project out of her Giant Busy Box. Oh, yes! She decided to work on the chicken project. After coloring it, attaching feathers, and trimming it with various accessories, she decided—totally unprompted and out of the blue—to give it to her little brother as a gift! What a sweetheart! She was so excited, too, and Eric was delighted about the chicken, as well. Katie wanted to write on the back: “For Eric, Love Katie.” She told him it was for Valentine’s Day, and she said, “It is a girl chicken so that you will always remember your sister.” Wow!

 

Katie was excited to give the chicken to Eric!

 

Eric loved his first homemade gift from his big sister. After we cleaned up, Katie wanted us to hang it up in his room for him. She chose to hang it on his bookshelf so that he could see it from his crib when he wakes up. The love between the two of them makes my heart purr.

We also spent time playing with some insect puppets that Uncle Chet and Aunt Irma gave Katie for her 2nd birthday. The kiddos were BOTH laughing as I had the insects devour Katie’s princesses for lunch. Really, both of them were cracking up. I love playing with them and watching them laugh together.

Joy is watching Katie and Eric delight in one another. I am so grateful that they have each other.

With my mom not feeling well this morning and unable to watch Katie and Eric, I had to skip our Toastmaster’s meeting to have fun at home instead. We had a leisurely morning in our pajamas, and during Eric’s morning nap, Katie and I savored some one-on-one time together that we have both been craving. We worked several puzzles (one of her favorites is our United States puzzle—she loves maps and globes), and read some of our longer books that do not quite captivate Eric yet.

When it was time to pick up some of our toys, Katie asked the question mothers long to hear, “What would you like me to pick up?” Woo hoo! This is the first time she has ever asked this, and we celebrated together. I made a big happy deal of it. Clean-up went very smoothly this morning, and I was grateful.

The rest of the day we worked on art projects and with this beautiful, glorious weather, we spent most of the afternoon outside. Oh, how I love outdoor days. We ate lunch, did some art, played in the yard, watched the sky, and visited with my dad. Soaking up that lovely sunshine…

Here are some of our joyful moments today:

Katie tried on my wedding shoes this morning. She chose her whole outfit today (clothes, accessories, hair), and it is clear that she loves, loves being a girl. She was pretending to be a fairy princess with a red flower necklace of mine that I got long ago in Little Italy in New York. When I let her borrow it, I thought about how when I bought it, I had no idea that such a beloved daughter would be in my life…amazing and beautiful how life works out. We pretended the necklace was magic, and we made up a little song to go with it: “Little flower necklace/Close to my heart/All of your goodness/Please impart.” (We learned what “impart” means). It helps to have a pretend narrative going when we’re getting dressed.

Oh my goodness, my cousin Jed gave us one of the best gifts EVER! My Giant Busy Box by Alex Toys. I would give this gift in a heartbeat. There are sixteen different crafts all prepped and ready for doing—so perfect for a busy mom with a child who loves art!!! Since all the materials are present and ready for use, I get to do the fun part of teaching (makes me miss my classroom sometimes!), and Katie gets to dive in immediately. We opened the box today and were just so thrilled… We made a dog project and a tissue paper fish, enjoying the sunshine. Easy clean-up, too—since it all fits in the box. Glue is also provided, and everything is pre-cut and ready to punch out, so no scissors are necessary. Awesome, awesome gift.

Katie explains to Eric what she is making.

Katie’s tissue paper fish. So much fun for both of us (fun for me to instruct and lead, and fun for her to do on her own).

 

Then it was time for the swings… Eric’s first official swing (I had suggested it once to him a couple of months ago, but he didn’t want to be in it back then). Today he really enjoyed himself!

Katie gently swings her brother. I love that they are so close in age…I can see the magic between them, even in how they look at each other.

The swing is yummy!! Mmmmmm!

Boppa gave Eric his first taste of apple, and Eric found the food he likes best so far. Apples….yummmmmmy! Boppa cut a big piece from his apple for Eric to suck on and gum a bit, and Eric did not want to relinquish it. I had some applesauce on hand…oh my! Eric had just finished a big bowl of oatmeal, but when he tried the applesauce, he gobbled it!

All tired out…Eric is napping at this moment. He loves his giraffe, especially today. He fell asleep while we three were sitting all in a row and reading books. Joy is often so simple…

 

It was time for a family adventure, and so last night Bill and I talked about ideas for a day-trip or something fun to do with our kiddos today. Since Katie has been asking to visit the snow again, and since she routinely points out the snow on the mountains we can see in the distance from Temecula, we decided last night to head toward the mountains in search of snow. Right before she fell asleep last night, Katie listened as I told her, “In the morning, Daddy and I have a surprise for you. We are going to do something very fun tomorrow! It will be a surprise!” She was so excited, and she woke up wondering what the day would bring. Isn’t it neat how easy it is to create delightful anticipation in our children? To turn an ordinary day into an extra-special day?

We weren’t sure if Idyllwild would still have snow since it hasn’t rained for a couple of weeks. It seemed possible, though, and since Idyllwild is a special place for our family, we decided to head up there today. Sure enough, we got lucky with patches of snow along Strawberry Creek, right by the inn Bill and I try to visit yearly for our Anniversarymoon.

This was Eric’s first time to visit Strawberry Creek out of the womb. He actually has been twice already (last year’s snow day in February and our Anniversarymoon this past May). Katie burbled over with memories of last year’s snow trip, and she is starting to know some of the special spots at the inn: the chairs Bill and I sat in to talk about what to name her when I was pregnant with her, for example. She feels connected to this beautiful place in some of the ways we do.

Eric was delighted. I hiked with him in the Bjorn carrier (I wish I’d had this carrier for Katie), and he bobbed around making happy noises at everything. He especially loved the chickens, and he was so curious to touch the snow. Both Katie and Eric come alive in nature, and we all loved the scent of pine needles around us. Although last year’s trip to Strawberry Creek was the discovery of a winter wonderland swath of snow all along the creek, we really found only a few patches this year. But no matter. The point was for all four of us to be together, to make a memory, to have an adventure, to see what we could find and celebrate the beauty there was.

After playing and hiking by the creek, we drove more into town, went to the restaurant Bill and I ate at our first honeymoon night several years ago, then found a candy and toy store and poked around a bit. We had a nice day together.

Some pictures from today: