Friday, November 21, 2008

If you can read this, thank a teacher....

Have you ever heard the expression, made famous by playwright George Bernard Shaw, “If you can’t do, teach” ? It’s one of those maxims that is so widely quoted, we simply know it, as a culture. And yet, could there be anything more offensive to teachers, who feel driven, compelled and passionate about sharing knowledge ? There is no question that Mr. Shaw most certainly encountered negative teachers in his life. I’m sure that’s also true of the average person. I’ve not only had my share of either poorly equipped instructors to downright hostile ones. I’ve met these teachers in my own days of schooling, and more recently, on my children’s behalf. And yet, too often we let these negative, Napoleon complex, teachers are the ones whom we remember. We often forget the teachers who stayed after school with us, the professors who let us cry on their shoulder in their offices, and the men and women who inspired us to excellence. Sometimes they provided insight into a difficult subject. Just as often, they provided insight into ourselves, challenging us to grow into the human beings had the potential to become.

I can’t possibly name all the teachers who made a difference in my life, but I can share one story that illustrates the depth of knowledge that one professor had. As an Early Childhood Education and Psychology major in college, I took many courses within both disciplines. The lab science requirement for my Psychology degree was entitled “Lab in Experimental Psychology”, though we at Wheaton commonly referred the class as “Rat Lab”. I was assigned two white rats, whom I named Bert & Ernie, in deference to the Sesame Street fans of my future teaching career. Bert was my control rat, and simply fed, was taken care of and existed peacefully. Ernie, my experimental rat, was supposed to learn a variety of activities, including running through a maze that changed daily, and then learning to press a buzzer to obtain food. While my classmates rats all seemed to be the Olympic champions of, quite literally, the rat race, Ernie seemed content to just kind of hang out, look around the maze, maybe dig a bit. Our lab sessions could last anywhere from 20 minutes (for those with gold medal winning rats), or half a day (for mine). At the end of a particularly frustrating lab period, my classmates had left, and Ernie was still meandering around, happy go lucky in his lack of enthusiasm for my grade in the class. I had assumed that Professor Zuriff had also left. As Psychology department head at Wheaton College, I knew he had more important things than watch my directionally and motivationally challenged test subject walk the wrong way, in true Mr. Magoo fashion. Frustrated, angry and impatient, I howled at Ernie, “You stupid rat ! Just ding the bell so we can both leave!”. Out of the darkness of the lab, came my Professor. My cheeks burned red, and I wished that I could simply melt into the floor, like Oz’s Wicked Witch with water poured over her. Instead of berating me, threatening me with a poor grade or even criticizing my technique, Professor Zuriff said both kindly, and calmly, “Ellen, this is just a rat. If you lose patience with it, how will be keep your patience with your students ?”, and then left the room. I was shamed, not by his words, but by his generosity of spirit and insight into my soul.

It goes without saying that I learned valuable lessons that day. I learned to be patient because my ‘student’ simply didn’t understand what he needed to do. But, I learned something more important as well: that a teacher, no matter how laurelled, stayed very late to help me, not by telling what to do by speeding up the process for Ernie to learn, but by simply observing, gaining insight and letting me discover my own lessons. He spoke of relevance to my future, not just with the immediate message of the class. I learned that a true teacher doesn’t simply impart knowledge he wants regurgitated, but wants to know that his students will succeed beyond the classroom in their chosen fields. I learned that a true teacher learns who the student is, and sees each one as an individual, with unique gifts and talents. This one afternoon taught me about the kind of teacher I wanted to become myself.

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a teacher, in one form or another. I have taught in traditional elementary school classrooms, been a homeschool teacher, a tutor, a Director of Education and now a Yoga Instructor. While I don’t believe that I will ever achieve the kind of insight that Professor Zuriff taught me, I believe that I can strive for it. He set a standard for caring, excellence and humility that I’ve tried for emulate for more than 20 years. I hope that, if he does look down from Heaven, he will see all that I’ve learned, even in the two decades since graduation. And, I hope he will be proud of the lessons I’m still learning.

I also hope that Ernie, wherever he is now, has finally found that bit of cheese.

Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives. ~ William A. Foster

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

All dogs go to heaven...

You think dogs will not be in heaven? I tell you, they will be there long before any of us. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

Dogs are truly amazing creatures. They love us with complete and reckless abandon. If our days are horrible and depressing, and we’re in the very worst mood possible, the love we receive from our dogs can be the most healing of all soothing balms. Coming home to an empty house from a stressful day is always hard. But, being welcomed with the joy that returning soldiers receive when arriving safely home from battle makes walking through that door worthwhile. And, we haven’t even risked our lives. We’ve just slaved away, listened to other people’s complaints, tried to solve problems and felt little satisfaction. And, yet, we are greeted as liberating heroes ! Their trust in us, their faith in us, and their complete devotion to us make believe in ourselves again. Dogs have the ability to see past our grumpiness, our laziness and our worst faults. They look into our very hearts and see the good that lies within.

Dogs, however, aren’t sedentary creatures. We have to walk them, care for them and engage with them. Study after study has shown that people who own dogs live longer, healthier lives. Why is this ? For those who live alone, dogs provide a reason to get up the morning, to exercise and to look outside ourselves. For others, they provide lessons in love and responsibility. The wonderful programs of visiting pet programs into nursing homes have shown remarkable results in the residents. Even people who can’t have a dog, can feel the joy emanating from their furry visitors. Dogs beg us to interact and to be less selfish…even if it means sharing a bite of bagel in the morning, or a touch of steak at dinner. But, we are happy to share with them, because they make our lives more musical.

Dogs can also be incredibly sensitive. A few years ago, we had a dinner party for my mother, and some of her oldest friends. One friend, Norma, was disabled and in a wheelchair. My oldest dog, Mackenzie, was then a 3 year old, and a very large German Shepherd. Mackenzie sat by Norma’s chair the entire time, occasionally resting her large, gentle head in Norma’s lap. While Norma didn’t own a dog at that time, she had been a Shepherd owner and lover during most of her adult life. I was amazed at the serenity Mackenzie, usually so dramatic and playful, showed while staying very close to our guest. She was attentive, concerned and gentle. When the car arrived to pick up our guests from their evening, Mackenzie followed Norma out the door and looked over the car very carefully. I could almost hear her brain saying “Is this a suitable and safe way for my new friend to leave ? I understand she has special concerns.” The extraordinary part about this visit was that Mackenzie had never been around a disabled person before, and often was overly gregarious in her greetings. I had been concerned about her being gentle enough. Yet, Mackenzie rose to the challenge, and made Norma’s evening special. Norma enjoyed being loved, gently & peacefully, that evening from someone who simply enjoyed being by her side.

These stories are endless and almost everyone has them. I enjoy walking my dogs into town, because I’m often stopped and talked to by people who have dog memories to share. They’re a great unifier among very different people. The provide a common language for all of us. Of course, I’m just as often stopped by people who are fascinated that, combined, I walk 260 pounds of dogs.
In Yoga, a pose I enjoy practicing as part of our Sun Salutations, is Upward Facing Dog. When held for 15 seconds or more, this asana can improve posture, strengthen, arms, wrists and back, firm your abdominal muscles and has even been shown, in some cases, to improve mild depression. I find it utterly fascinating that a pose can help treat mild depression…and has the name of one of the greatest loneliness cures: dog!

Since two of my favorite topics are dogs and yoga, I have watched Animal Planet’s “K-9 Karma” for years. I am only sorry that there aren’t new episodes, but the wonderful ideas combining our pets and our yoga practice have made their ways into my heart. Unfortunately, my pets aren’t nearly as cooperative about practicing yoga as “K-9 Karma’s” host, Kari’s, are. Mine usually feel the urgent need to kiss my nose while I’m in an asana. But, it’s a wonderful, uplifting and joyful celebration of two of my passions.

So, today, take your dog for a walk. Kiss her and snuggle with her. Tell him what a wonderful boy he is ! And, if you’re not a dog owner, I can guarantee there are fabulous friends just waiting for a walk, some time spent, or even adoption, at your local shelter. Just guard your slippers.

Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ~Roger Caras

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


"Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is." ~ Anne Frank

Isn’t it amazing that Anne Frank wrote these words not long before her family was turned in to the Secret Police ? I find it extraordinary to read about her optimism and heroic spirit, under the most trying, terrifying and tragic circumstances. It’s hard to fathom hiding in an attic, crammed together with another family, survival based solely on, to quote Tennessee Williams, “The Kindness of Strangers”, and yet to remain filled with a sense of hope and inexplicable joy. Anne Frank’s courage has always been noted, but what fascinates me beyond that valor is the happiness she felt in simply living…her zest for life coming not from outside her circumstances, but from within her loving, peaceful and sanguine heart. She was literally bubbling over with the insights into the human capacity for great promise.

Anne Frank’s words remind me that we have the potential not only for greatness in acts of kindness, love and generosity, but for deep contentment, regardless of our circumstances. I believe it’s much more difficult to remain in this state of bliss than it is to show happiness outwardly. In many ways, it much easier to lend a hand, give a hug or provide a listening ear to a friend who is struggling. These are all active qualities. The passive quality of remaining in gratification, under any duress, is more challenging. Why ? Because it requires a deep sense of balance in our perspective on our lives. Balance is very tricky to achieve. It’s easy to be happy when things our going our way! When we are laughing, singing, dancing and all good fortune seems to just flow in our direction, we can most certainly indentify with overflowing bliss. But, what happens when we lose our jobs, we’re up all night with a sick child, we find out a parent is ill or we’re very worried about our finances ? What happens in our hearts when we watch the news, seeing terrible stories that we are powerless to change ?

St. Paul wrote, “for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” That’s a very powerful sentiment, and deeply difficult to achieve. Yet, isn’t this precisely the sentiment Anne Frank was sharing ? We all face challenges daily. Some are astronomical in size, such as learning you have a terrible illness. Others are more mundane, and yet, can feel astronomical when we are overwhelmed by them. Our challenge isn’t always to solve the problems, but to learn how to live through them, with them and regardless of them.

The tall task we face is finding our path through the chaos, not merely for survival, but in order to thrive. Most of us can sustain times of stress. We look ahead and realize these complications will not last forever and, keeping our eye on the objective at the end of the trial, we work towards that goal. But, have we thrived during that time ? Most likely, we’ve squeaked by. The key is to live abundantly while in the midst of turbulence. There are many ways to accomplish this, and none of them are simple, ‘quick fix’ methods. Each path is completely individual, and what works for one person, may not be helpful to another. But, I believe that keeping the words of both Anne Frank and St. Paul in our minds, we can ask ourselves these questions daily:

What happened today that made me smile ?
What happened today that I did well ?
What words did I say that made someone else happy ?

By reflecting on the joy, not the sorrow, and by eliminating the negative questions our minds plague us with, we can look to the good in all things, and in all ways. Often our evening recaps of the day begin with the “bad”. The simple action of reflecting on the good…no matter how trivial it might seem…can bring us to a place of looking for the simple pleasures in our every day living. Merely halting the inner dialogue of ‘what’s wrong’ can be incredibly uplifting.

So, when the dog eats your couch, your children are arguing, you’re worried about how to pay your heating bill or you wonder what you will do for your friend whose marriage is ending, take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Simply exist, at peace, in that very moment. Tackle each challenge as it comes, but know, in your heart of hearts, that all *is* well. Imagine the possibilities of hope when you unlock the inner potential for joy, regardless of your circumstances. And, always have a cup of tea handy.
"I am not made, or unmade, by the circumstances in my life, but by my reactions to them." St. John of the Cross

Sunday, November 16, 2008


When my friend, Marcia, posted this on her knitting blog, I begged her to let me copy it! What a great idea! And, of course, being me…I immediately thought of a wonderful book called “ The Eight” by Katherine Neville. It’s a twist-and-turn mystery, set during the French Revolution, with a dash of DaVinci Code throne in for good measure. It’s not a new book, but one definitely worth your time.

And now, on with the great 8 survey:

8 TV shows I watch :
1. Weeds
2. Entourage
3. John & Kate Plus 8 (that even works with the survey!)
4. House Hunters
5. Most shows on the Travel channel
6. Rachel Ray
7. The Ghost Whisperer
8. Whichever New England sports team happens to be competing..and I don’t have the remote.

8 of My Favorite Restaurants (I have too many favorites to name them all):
1. Waterfront Restaurant, Camden ME
3. Francine’s, Camden, ME
5. The Youngtown Inn, Lincolnville, ME
6. Café Miranda, Rockland, ME
7. Suzuki Japanese Cuisine, Rockland, ME
8. Chez Michel, Lincolnville, ME

8 Things that happened Yesterday
1. A big section of our fence fell down for no apparent reason.
2. Murphy tried to climb the section of the fence and got stuck.
3. My dishwasher, newly replaced with a new computer chip, began making hissing noises as if it was now possessed by demons.
4. I emailed Caroline at school three times and talked to my mom twice.
5. I watched the news obsessively about the Santa Barbara fires, since I spent a great part of my childhood there.
6. I read three chapters in Margot Livesy’s new book.
7. I made Risotto, and ate almost all of it myself.
8. I took the dogs for a very long walk in the mist to work off the risotto.

8 Things I am looking forward to:
1. Caroline coming home for Thanksgiving!
2. Picking out the tree and decorating it.
3. Finding a new job…hopefully soon.
4. Always beginning a new book.
5. Going to Arizona in the Spring.
6. Celebrating my 22nd wedding anniversary, albeit quietly.
7. My next yoga class.
8. The first snow !

8 things on my wishlist:
1. A new fence ! ;-)
2. The perfect butter leather soft black boots.
3. Gloves that can’t be lost.
4. A Kindle e-reader.
5. World peace tied with a really good haircut ;-).
6. Teens who don’t argue.
7. Good health for all of my family and friends.
8. A trip to Ireland.

8 Things I love:
1. My husband and our children.
2. My mom.
3. My cousins, Jeff’s family, and our dear friends.
4. Our wild & crazy pets.
5. Dunkin’ Donuts raspberry coffee, light.
6. GPS…I am no longer lost all the time.
7. Fresh sourdough bread.
8. The first snow !

8 things I can't stand:
1. Traffic and long lines.
2. Watching the news and knowing I can’t do a thing about it.
3. Reality TV, other than the ones I listed.
4. People who don’t like animals.
5. Bland food.
6. Wet socks on a cold day.
7. The wrong pillow.
8. Mean people.

8 People I am tagging:
1. I don’t know if enough people follow my blog to name ! So, jump on do this too, if you’re a reader and think it’s fun !
2. ?
3. ?
4. ?
5. ?
6. ?
7. ?