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Category Archives: Humble Gifts

Nothing is etched in stone.

Nothing is etched in stone.

IMG_1206Years ago, when we were building our dream house in the mountains of Georgia, I came across an engraved stone for sale in an art booth at a fall festival. It read, “Nothing is etched in stone.”

I found the sentiment humorous, considering the words were indeed etched in stone, and I felt the find was very unique, so I bought the thing, and when we were cementing in the stone work on our impressive, grand fireplace, we had the stone permanently set into the dramatic rock façade. Within two years, we had lost that house, stone and all – in fact, we lost our life. Our marriage, our dreams, our security, our friends, our family unit, self-confidence and more was wiped away by a series of unexpected mishaps. It was like the stone foreshadowed what was to come.

Recently, I went to visit my daughter in Georgia, and we enjoyed visiting the very same yearly festival. Oddly, all the same booths were set up in the same configuration selling the same things. (Which revealed to me that what seemed such a remarkably unique find the first time around was in reality me naively assigning meaning to a tourist attraction that repeats itself over and over, and all in all, picking up the stone was not as special a treasure as I wanted to make of it. No doubt there are hundreds of people with similar stones also thinking they have something remarkably unique in hand. )

Anyway, on my recent repeat visit, don’t you know I see the same vendor and he is selling the same stones. I had been thinking about that purchase before going to the festival, remembering the day I bought the stone. I knew if I saw another like it, I’d buy it again. And I did.

My daughter lifted her eyebrows quizzically and said, “Are you sure you want that? Isn’t is a reminder of all you lost. Perhaps having that thing in a pace of honor in your home is a bad omen. Do you really want anything from the past as a reminder of that difficult time in your life? ”

I thought about the warning a moment, but decided the stone, while reminiscent of a failed former dream, carried a very important message that deserves contemplation and respect. I brought the stone home, and it rests on our fireplace now, a constant reminder that life doesn’t always unfold as planned. We must appreciate and honor each and every day, because what we have in the here and now is a gift. Everything is impermanent. Our health, our money, our loves, our careers, our homes … everything…. In the end, we will all age, things will drop away and everything we have and we are will be gone. I like this second stone even more than the original, because I have a deeper appreciation for the message now.

There is a story I use when teaching yoga students about impermanence.

Once upon a time, a student asked a wise guru how he could bare the loss and heartache that is part of the human condition. The guru held up a beautiful vase and answered, “Do you see this spectacular vase? It is made of the finest crystal and it was given to me by someone I cared very much about. This vase is one of a kind and very special. I know, one day, the vase will no doubt drop and break into a thousand pieces. When it does, I will not cry because my beautiful vase is broken. I won’t grieve and laminate about what the vase meant to me, or be concerned that I’ll never have such a beautiful vase again. I won’t stress about the lost value, or the empty space created because the vase is missing from the place of honor on my shelf. I will not distress on the day this vase is lost, because in my mind, this vase is already broken. But between now and when this vase is actually gone, I will enjoy the beauty and splendor of the vase every time I look at it, appreciating that this inevitably broken vase is here now, a gift to enjoy.”

I think the stone says the same thing. My life today is a gift, as is my home, my marriage, my career, my business, my health and my current state of heart and mind. Someday, I will lose all of these things – to sickness, or failure, or old age, or death. But between now and then, I hope to nurture and enjoy what I do have, and certainly not spend my energy concerning myself with what was lost from the past. When you see everything you have and are as “inevitably broken”,  there is a soft poignancy and deep appreciation for even the most common moments of life.

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I picked up a few other stones at that second visit to the festival and they rest about on the grounds of the retreat center as fun reminders not to take life too seriously. I hope they remind people that our mind determines our world. What a gift it is to have the power to control how we think and view our experiences. We each have the ability to keep negativity at bay and face every day with gratitude and the wisdom of lessons learned.

A good attitude is everything. That’s a rock solid fact, my friend.

A life you can savor…

  Yesterday I was feeling overworked and nostalgic for a bit of country living, so I decided to pause and give myself what I was craving. I drove out to Huntsader farms (only a quick 20 minutes up the road) where they currently offer a variety of u-pick produce and everyone says you can get a big bag of tomatoes for only a dollar. When I got there, everything seemed sadly familiar –  the stand was quaint and authentically country like the places I loved in Georgia– and I couldn’t bear to go out to the u-pick fields myself. I decided instead to come back with Neva and David later to enjoy an afternoon in the sun among the growing plants. (A good decision since when I picked up Neva from school her eyebrows shot up and she said, “You did NOT go to u-pick without me…” I assured her I was waiting until we could all go together.)  But since I didn’t want to waste the drive, I picked up tomatoes for only 6.00 a case.

     In Georgia, I grew my own veggies but if I wanted to make a big batch of canned sauce, I needed to purchase a load of extra tomatoes, so I would go to the flea market and purchase tomatoes that didn’t because the fruit was starting to turn. I was lucky if I got them for 20.00 a box. Here, I can get tomatoes that are fresh, perfect and only 6.00? Wow. I bought two cases.
   I also picked up some onions, squash, beans and cantaloupe. After loading my car, I sipped a bit of cider and walked around enjoying the ambiance. I visited the goats and the barn and thought of both my happy and not so happy memories of Georgia. I ran a hand over a tractor parked on the gravel road, and talked to a kind woman in the store who talked about what produce was going to be available next month.

     I used to visit this farm once a year, on our annual preschool outing for the pumpkin fest. Meanwhile, I pined for our annual trip to Georgia to see fall leaves and enjoy the quaint ambiance of the country. I could have had a taste of country anytime, if I just got in the car and drove a few minutes. I wasted so many years living in this diverse, opportunity laden place while living such a narrow life where all I experienced was work and an occational visit to the mall. For some reason, Mark and I believed we had to leave the region to have fun. We were so short sighted. 

    Today, I spent the morning cooking fresh marinara sauce. I blanched and peeled a case of the tomatoes, and cooked them down with other veggies and spices I gathered, along with more tomatoes, from my own garden. As I chopped and pealed the sauce bubbled. Music blared through the house. I danced and sang as I cooked, hit with a swell of happiness.

     When I drove away from Georgia on the fateful day I moved back to Sarasota, I was devastated, believing I was leaving all my dreams and everything I loved behind. For two years, I felt so empty I couldn’t imagine a happy life much less muster the energy to pursue one. But one by one, the passions of my life are returning to me, and my dreams seem more real and attainable now than ever before – I was up against impenetrable obstacles back then, even while I had more resources than most people ever have in a lifetime. Now, on the surface it looks as if I have less opportunity to create the life of my design, but the truth is,  I’ve never felt closer to achieving the kind of life I can be proud of and contented with.

     David sent me an e-mail yesterday. He wanted me to see a listing for a ten acre piece of land that is horse and airplane friendly. The lot is situated a short drive from my studio in a community where people have gardens and chickens and pools and many have private planes in hangers – there’s a small runway too. Thanks to the economy having lowered land prices, gorgeous tracks of land like this are available now, close enough to Sarasota to continue working here, yet remarkably affordable for anyone willing to drive a bit. Some of these lots have older houses on them that we could remodel, or we could buy land only and build a Zen-sort of house ourselves (if I can get past my panic at the idea of letting the man I love ever build a house again.)


    David said, “We might really be ready to try for something like this in about a year if we stay on track with our life recovery plan (we are both working like dogs to build a life and make up for huge setbacks due to our past mistakes, and slowly our hard work is moving us the right direction.) “But you would have to be OK with the twenty minute drive.”

    Are you kidding, I thought. In Georgia I drove 45 minutes a day just to get milk or take my daughter to school. It took an entire day to go to Atlanta if I wanted to be exposed to culture or professional services….  Things cost more, and there were very few options for work or embellishing a life. A twenty minutes trek to live in a personal paradise where I could raise with bees and have a wine cellar for homemade wine, and keep chickens and maybe even a horse or two, and where David can have a workshop and together we can work, him at a job and me running a business with serious potential, and perhaps have a project boat for the occational weekend on the water – all in a place where we can enjoy the culture and enrichment of a sophisticated town as well, is too good to be true.

    I stood in my kitchen happily squeezing the juice out of my tomatoes thinking that I’ve spent more time in canoes and kayaks enjoying nature in the last two months here in Florida than my entire 5 years in Georgia – I enjoyed taking classes in folk crafts at the Campbell school there, but classes like that had been available here all along – I just never ventured out of my narrow existence to partake. Since returning to Florida I’ve discovered classes in art and craft subjects at the local college, in art galleries, in speciality pottery and bead stgores and in art centers. I’m signed up for a drawing class this summer (to help me with art journaling) and Neva and I are thinking of taking a language class together this summer too. Neva signed up for a cupcake making class at the Publix cooking school recently.  I’ve stumbled upon beading, boating, literature and pottery classes, writing groups and horseback riding, running and scuba clubs. My list of “gonna do one of these days when I carve out the time”, is growing.  I have an amazing library for when I need to do research, wholefoods or the farmer’s market for stocking up on organic fare, art festivals and live music, and beaches and quaint shops down by the shore for entertainment. I have museums, movies and concerts and an airport only a five minute drive away. The only thing I’m missing from my former life is the Georgia mud. And what’s most important is now I appreciate the wealth of opportunity and paths to personal growth that are all around me now.  Nature abounds… you just have to drive past the mall to one of the national parks nearby, or to the florida country farms, or to the seashore, or the swamps…..

    When I lived here before, I thought Sarasota was primarily shopping, restaurants and concrete. I thought the people were demanding and stressed and had their priorities out of order. Georgia seemed a beacon of peace –  but rather than retiring in the quiet, happy world I expected, what I landed in was a place of ignorance, lonliness, and more stress, disappointment and loss than I ever had to deal with here.
   My Georgia adventure taught me that that what we feel inwardly is simply a reflection of what we project outwardly. People in Sarasota didn’t have priorities out of line as we supposed  – Mark and I simply lived a life out of balance and we projected our discontent on others. We missed out on all the beauty and opportunity of Sarasota because we were too set in a narrow grove of habit to embrace the joys, entertainment and discovery that was right before us. We ran off to Disney or drove to Georgia seeking relief from our problems, when all along what needed to change was our own attitude and perception of the world. Ah well, I have a new perspective now, and thanks to that, life here is different this time around.  


  A few minutes ago, I went out and checked my lovebirds to see if the eggs have hatched. My curious, beloved dog wagged his tail at my feet and I smiled thinking that animal adventures come in all sizes.

I walked out to my garden to get some parsley and basil for my sauce and checked the blooms on my pepper plants, eager to see the promise a new crop. I took the remains of cut up veggies to my huge smoldering compost heap out back and tapped the oriental chimes in the trees to cause them to softly fill the air with music. Then, I came inside to check my e-mail to find a message from the editor of a local magazine who is running an article I wrote that will be published next month.. I looked to see if I’d gotten a response from the agent who requested my book – sigh, not yet – but hey, I’m writing again, enjoying what for me is an artistic outlet that gives life clarity. I also read a message from a writing student who is throwing a party this weekend to celebrate the book he wrote (inspired from essays he wrote in my class) that he just self-published. While my sauce is cooking, I will spend some time reading his manuscript so I can fully appreciate his celebration on Sunday.  Tonight, my daughter is having a friend over, a child I consider a wonderful influence because when they are together they always make cupcakes or cards rather than holing up in a room on a computer….. We will all go to the dollar movie theater and have a great night out for only 10 bucks- proving that life here is economically better, as well filled with opportunity to be productive and/or give back to others.
   Tomorrow, at work, I’m scheduled to interview two people interested in yoga teacher training this summer. I will start the day with yoga then I will teach dance to students I love. In between I’ll laugh with my staff, a group of positive, talented and committed individuals who appreciate and value me as their “fearless leader”. Oh how I missed the down to earth kidding of my dance peeps going crazy at recital time.

    Today I’m thinking of how rich my life is. I have a lovely home that reflects my personality, a very happy, well-adjusted child I can hug at will, and a business that is growing roots, building, providing me with the opportunity to do what I love. Every day I meet amazing people.   I am healthier than I’ve been in years – emotionally and physically. I am loved and appreciated by an amazing man who shares my life values, work ethic, personal interests, and long term vision for a life of substance. He is a true partner, sharing in the work, decisions, and efforts required to make our life unfold in the best of ways. We will spend the weekend balancing work and friends. We will eat homemade sauce for dinner and talk about how lovely it is to eat organic food grown in our own garden. He’ll share what happened in his work day, and I’ll talk about making sauce and the great call I had from my son.  Perhaps my birds will hatch. Perhaps that agent will write. Perhaps I’ll win the lottery. Ha. Perhaps I already have.  

     There is a Buddhist saying – you must lose everything to gain the world.

    A year ago, I kept reading that over and over, certain it couldn’t possibly be true for me. The devastation I felt over the loss of my family and the life I anticipated and worked for for years and years, but never reached, was more than I could bear.

    Now, I feel differently. All of life is perspective and the juxtaposition of my former life, with all its drama and dissapointment, next to my life now, which may not be easy, but is loving and filled with hope and respect and small pleasures, reminds me that finding happiness requires a person to be pro-active. It isn’t about chasing the things that you assume will make you happy “if only…” Happiness doesn’t come “later” when all your ducks are in a row. Happiness is being wise enough to recognize the things that truly make a person happy are all around you and if you can’t embrace them now, you never will. Our job, each and every one of us, is to honor and celebrate the subtle gifts that life bestows.  

Tutor Training

There are a lot of things you can do to make a difference in the world. You can write a check to a cause you believe in, sponsor a child in a third world country or volunteer to help out at the yearly church or school fundraiser. I’ve done all these things and felt good about them. Like most good people, I want to do my part to make the world a better place.

There is a comfortable distance in this kind of giving because the face and situation of the needy people on the other end is something you are aware of in a removed, academic way. Furthermore, you are only involved for a limited amount of time, which makes it easy to commit and then put the issue behind you. Your efforts are just a small part of one bigger whole. You feel good knowing you did your part, but you have to trust that the organization or foundation follows through and indeed does something wonderful along the line. Unfortunately, it also means you never really know how significant the impact of your particular contribution is.  You know you made a difference . . . but how much?

When you teach someone to read, the act of volunteering is a very intimate experience. You are paired with one person with a drastic need, and their success or failure is in your hands. You can’t be sure how involved teaching any particular individual will be, so your commitment is “as long as it takes. But one thing is sure, as you continue to show up week after week, there is no question of whether your efforts are making a difference. The results are right there in front of you. You are changing a life. And because every person’s life touches so many more, your efforts create a chain reaction of positive cause and effect. For example, the individuals you teach to read usually have children and spouses. Learning to read alters how they care and provide for them. Breaking the pattern of illiteracy in a family means not only the person you are teaching today, but future generations, will have better opportunities and happier lives too. And because a non reader often can not work and doesn’t vote or function normally in our community, turning them into readers means they become contributing members of society rather than a drain –  and that effects all of us. For all you know, a student who has learned to read will now be able to understand a warning sign on the highway, which will prevent them from slamming their car into an oncoming one, so now you’ve impacted the lives a another family as well.

You see, the ongoing effect of changing the world one reader at a time is huge. But you don’t need to wonder if you are making a difference, because there is no denying the individual sitting right before you is going through a life altering experience. It is all because of you – because you care enough to sit down, get intimately involved and make right something that went wrong along the way. You are evening the imbalance of opportunity and understanding for one lucky individual.
What I’m saying is, if you really want to make a difference in the world; if you want to put a face on your cause and experience first hand what it is like to change a life forever, then teach someone to read. They will never be the same.  And guess what . . . you won’t be either.     


The other day, I trained nine new volunteers to be reading tutors. I guess I don’t need to mention how passionate I am regarding the importance of literacy. I thought long and hard about how I wanted to introduce the subject, so I started with the above lecture. I then moved on to describe my experiences with Kathy and all I’ve learned as her tutor, both about her as an individual and about the lifestyle and culture of non-readers.

I’ve been working with Kathy for two years now, so I can paint a pretty clear picture of the realities of teaching someone to read. I talked about what worked, what didn’t work; what was positive about the experience and what was a drag. Mostly, I hammered home the fact that this experience not only changed Kathy’s life forever, but my own. 

After lecturing one and a half hours, I turned the floor over to our trained educational supervisor and director head, and she discussed resources for 45 minutes. By then, we had some very excited, committed new volunteers. (I must admit, I was jealous. I never got an orientation or training or a list of resources. I was just given a student and thrown to the wolves. Luckily, I was resourceful and I stumbled through. What I learned the hard way makes me a good tutor trainer now.)

After the session, I was told I was very inspirational. One woman stopped me in the bathroom and said, “I’m so moved. I just hope I can be as good a reading teacher as you.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was probably an average reading teacher, but just a good speaker. They told me others called the office the next day to rave about the training. I was pleased, because frankly, this first time, I didn’t know what to expect so I was winging it.

The fact is, I felt very comfortable in my role as teacher’s teacher, because this has been my forte for years in dance. It is all the same. Teaching others to be good teachers isn’t about drilling facts regarding the subject at hand nearly as much as it is about teaching the leaders to be good communicators and to be sensitive to the student’s mindset. To really teach well, you must be able to understand and respect a student’s needs and not confuse those needs with their short term wants or a person’s natural inclination to seek a quick fix rather than building a solid foundation. You must first and foremost teach your charge to love the subject at hand, showing them how mastering it will help them achieve their goals. Teaching is about enhanced communication and really knowing and caring about an individual on a personal level.

I walked the new tutors through a day in the life of a non-reader to widen their perspective. We discussed how and why these people have negative associations to school and how important it is to change that now. We discussed the difference between being “stupid” and “uneducated”, and how important it is to remind the student that you recognize that difference. I explained that giving tests is never testing the student, but testing the teacher, because when a student does not know something, it signifies that the information has to be re-explained or explained in another way so it can be grasped. This points out the responsibility of the teacher to do the job well, which helps the intimidated student no longer fear tests. You are acknowledging that even a teacher isn’t perfect, and success involves trial and error for everyone involved, both of you must work and learn together to achieve the goal.

I spent a great deal of time discussing that the teacher/student relationship should never become “us” against “them”, but people working together for a common goal. Students often forget you have their best interest at heart when they are being corrected all the time, so you must occasionally pause to remind them that even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way, everything you do is in an effort to help them find success. And frankly, you need to remind yourself of that occasionally when progress is slow and you get frustrated.

Anyway, the training was a success.

What I loved best about working with dance teachers at the dance school was the feeling that I could touch the lives of more students than just the ones I had time to work with first hand. It wasn’t just because I wanted a really great school. The truth is, I loved dance, and I wanted to do whatever I could to assure others loved it too. Making dance classes a positive experience and making the introduction to dance education inspirational was my means to that end.

This project is no different. I am hoping my insight and the extra effort I put into tutor training will result in better experiences for many other new readers and their teachers. It is a way of serving the cause I believe in.     

Anyway, it felt right.

The Gifts that count

Each year, the gifts I have to spend time really contemplating, are those that I send to people I don’t know. Family is easy. Children are quick to hand you lists. Your spouse and close relatives are around enough that you know their personal interests, needs or desires too. But strangers. Well, that takes some thinking.


When I had a business and I could slip a donation into the budget, I always sent a cow for Christmas to someone from a third world country. I have a special affinity for Heifer Corp, because it doesn’t send food to starving people. It sends the means to correct the problem of starvation. Self-sufficiency is the greatest gift you can bestow, in my opinion. It gives people so much more than a finite thing like a box of food -it offers a chance to restore pride, security, and a future. But a cow is a big-ticket item and when my donations had to come from our now limited household budget, I had to scale back a bit. Actually, it was always a bit of an issue when I sent the cow from the business, because we operated under a very tight budget, and my Dad, our financial manager, would always throw up his hands and say, “You bought another cow? Stop trying to save the world with livestock!”  He would harass me for it endlessly, but that never deterred me. I bought cows. Everyone accepted that as one of those quirks in my personality.


Anyway, last year, for Christmas, I sent a goat instead of a cow because that was something we could afford. I had purchased a pet goat for our own family, so I thought it would be nice to imagine a goat in someone’s yard a half a world away. Little did I know then how annoying our goat would be. I can only hope that my goat gift fit the family that received it more than a goat fit ours.


What would be meaningful this year? I could have sent a llama for $120, which is in the range of what I spend, but llamas are used as pack animals, and while I know they enhance the recipient’s life, somehow that doesn’t seem as vital as animals that nourish a family. So, this year, I sent a flock of chickens. This way, when I visit our chickens each day, I will be reminded of those less fortunate, whom, hopefully, are living a slightly better life because of my gift. Then, since a flock of chickens are only 20 dollars (about the same as they are in America – go figure) I bought a tree. Now I know a tree isn’t something you can eat, and it is sort of a weird gift. And expensive. A tree planted in a dry third world country (to help soil erosion and to bring life to ravaged soil) is 60 dollars. But as I thought of all the trees Mark brought down and burned in this half of the world, I thought it appropriate to replace at least one on this earth in a place where it is really needed. I certainly have enough trees surrounding me to remind me of the tree far away that is shading someone needy because of us, holding the earth in place and inviting worms to join it to begin the long slow process of healing the land. I had a remaining 20.00 to spend, so I allocated that to a share of a llama for a needy family. I guess I just bought the ears or something. Nevertheless, I will look at Dalai and think of my part in sending a pair of llama ears half a world away too.  In my small way, I’ve made a dent in the problems of the world. Wish it could be more.


 I sent money to my new friend, Meaza, in Ethiopia too. Lord, I hope that makes her smile. Her sad little picture drives me crazy. I’ve yet to write her a greeting. Perhaps I’ll do that today. I’ll send her pictures of our family with our animals. She can relate to that. Um.. I’ll skip our tree pictures. Might shock her considering the ugly American extravagance. I think of that a lot, you know – the discrepancies with human existence. It’s a disturbing reality.


Anyway, those were a few of my gifts for strangers. There were others, but nothing interesting enough to mention. I made something for a few of our ex-students, those that have shown independence and an endearing respect for us, but I won’t mention it because they may not have opened the package yet. In fact, two haven’t been sent ,so I know they aren’t opened. It was just a token. Wish I could send a thousand of those. . . so many children (of several generations) that I love and miss, remembered with such fondness . . .they are all still dancing in my heart.


I have to go. I am making soup. The cold is finally creeping in . . .

Kathy’s gift

The “What should I get Kathy for Christmas” dilemma has been solved. I’m giving her a smile. Literally.


I think I mentioned a few months ago that she found a dental assistant who makes false teeth out of his basement for people who cannot afford a regular dentist. I guess he uses his boss’s office supplies on the sly, sends the impressions out to be processed under the business name or something. For all that his actions may not be on the up and up, I can’t help but think he is offering a very important service to people who desperately need it, so I think this guy is a hero – one with a shadow, of course, but a hero nevertheless. (Moral justification, I know, but sometimes we must break a rule to do what feels right.)


Anyway, two months ago, Kathy paid to have her remaining five teeth removed. It cost her $60 a tooth, which was quite an undertaking on her budget. She then put $100.00 down on this set of false teeth. She was to pay $200.00 when the new teeth arrived eight weeks later. She had a plan for saving the money. She was so proud.


Kathy’s lack of teeth has been a serious obstacle to teaching her to read, because she can’t sound out words correctly when she is attempting to spell them. For example “Jumped” sounds like “Jumpt” to her, or “Bring” sounds like “Breen.” She can’t say the words clearly aloud, thinking about how they are actually pronounced, so she is often off the mark when trying to write them. Watching the learning process and seeing her mistakes on paper makes it clear that diction and poor speech is part of the problem, at least part of the problem of fixing the bigger problem of being illiterate.  


I have been anxious for Kathy to get her new teeth, because not only she will look great and it will improve her self-esteem, but because I anticipate this will helping us tackle her understanding of words. She was due to get the dentures this week, so Tuesday, I asked if she was excited.


She sort of shrugged and said, “Well . . . I canceled the appointment. With Christmas and all, I really can’t afford them now.  I had to buy presents for my son, and I also bought for my brother’s son, because he has been out of work for two months. I spent the teeth money I saved, but that is OK. I’ll get them a few months after Christmas.


This doesn’t surprise me at all. What woman doesn’t put her needs behind those of the family?


I looked at her, smiling at me good-natured, filled with good intentions, and said, “Kathy, Please make the appointment again. I want to buy you the teeth. Let me do that for you for Christmas. I’ve been trying to think of a nice gift for you, but so far nothing seems right. I wanted to give you a gift certificate to a store you might like, but I knew you’d use it for the family, and really, I wanted something just for you. This is perfect. Let me pay off your teeth as my Christmas present.”


She blinked a minute, then burst into tears and sort of collapsed into my arms saying, “You have already done so much.”


I was humbled. I haven’t really done so much – for all that I have given her my time, it has been rewarding to me too on so many personal levels. Her appreciation was very sweet, but I was also a bit embarrassed. Her reaction was far more than I was expecting. The truth is, I’ve thought about buying those teeth from the very beginning, but I didn’t want our relationship to be about me giving her money – I wanted to keep our friendship authentic, based on caring – and I wanted to help her learn to help herself rather than step in like some kind of savoir gracious enough to do things for her (which implies she can’t do them for herself). It has actually been very difficult NOT to offer her money for the teeth. However, in that moment, with Christmas as an excuse, it just seemed natural. Nothing but a thoughtful gift between friends


She cried through half the lesson, holding my hand as she struggled to read the ads in people magazine that I was pointing to. (Funny thing – she has never heard of a Target and her commentary about the antics of stars is remarkably honest. Amazing how silly the world looks when seen through the eyes of someone who has not been conditioned or swayed by commercialism and what is in vogue. That has been interesting.)


In order to downplay the moment, I pointed out that my gift wasn’t so generous, because it was also for me. I knew that her getting teeth would make my job much easier. She flashed me a great toothless smile and said, “If you say so”. I tried to secure that image into my mind, because soon Kathy’s expression will be replaced with a different sort of smile. Both have endearing qualities, in their own way.


This morning, I was putting Neva’s hair up in pigtails for school and she was asking me if I was meeting with Kathy today. She follows my teaching progress and has taken a great interest in Kathy’s learning to read. I’m thrilled by that – I believe we teach our children by example foremost. Anyway, I said that I was meeting Kathy today for the last time until Christmas break was over and that I was going to give her my Christmas gift.


Neva asked what I got her.

I said, “I’m buying her teeth.”


Her face fell. She said, “Mom. How could you? That is insulting. You will hurt her feelings.”


I explained that the teeth were not my idea, but that Kathy had been struggling to get them herself. I was only helping her reach her goals. Neva seemed greatly relieved.

Kids are so sensitive and see things with such clarity. It is inspirational.


Anyway, I am giving Kathy a smile this Christmas. It always feels great when you find just the right present for a friend.


On to the others on my list.  

Cookie cooking

Yesterday, my lesson went fabulously with Kathy.

Excuse me for sounding conceited, but I think I am the second best teacher I know.

The first is, hands down, my husband. He can teach anyone anything with such insight and patience it never ceases to amaze me. For example, we took an evening class on sculpted bead making and the next week he decided to share the fun with the family. His lesson was ten times better and more thorough than the original.  I learned so much more than I did from the “professional” bead maker. And I thought, “Hey, what the heck? I was with you when you were introduced to this subject, and I heard and tried everything you heard and tried that night, so how is it you know so much about the subject now and can relate the information so well now?????”


He had done some additional research on the internet and mulled the craft over in his mind, but mostly, he has this innate instinct about visual things. And he relates information in such a logical way, using a building block system to lay a foundation of understanding, that it assures his instruction is not only understood, but can and will be applied by any willing student. It’s amazing. He is like one of those computers that teach itself as it goes – his capacity for understanding things by trial and experiment, rather than amassing information by traditional instruction, is almost eerie.


He did it with dance. I had far more experience and formal education in the art, but I always knew he was a better teacher, technically. He could see a body moving through space and it was as if his mind’s eye removed the epidermis so he could visualize the spine and musculature. He could watch a person dance and he immediately knew what was missing– everything that was out of alignment or lacking in the student was obvious to him. He knew how to fix it too – how to impart the necessary information and/or develop exercises to address the weaknesses. He never taught what he’d been taught as a student dancer, for that road was cumbersome and slow. He was innovative in developing a new approach to the universal problem of teaching dance to people, even though they are often somewhat resistant. Always impressed me- his wisdom and insight and CONFIDENCE in his own methods. Others didn’t trust his authority because they needed “credentials” to trust what he taught. But I happened to have those credentials, and I was blown away by his gift. People trusted me because of my background and experience. But I trusted him, and most of what I learned in dance, I can honestly say, I learned from him.


Anyway, his ability to teach anything is remarkable. I watch him teaching Kent to drive now and I can’t help but be impressed. I’ll be freaking out, but he has this unnerving confidence and faith in the kid as the car plows towards the nearest mailbox . . . and in a smooth voice Mark makes corrections and explains WHY Kent needs to incorporate certain considerations when driving. And I watch the improvement in a flash and think, “Wow, he’s good.” (Mark, not Kent – Kent still tends to sway towards the mailboxes when he practices.)


Mark took up wood working with logs only a year and a half ago, but he is now teaching new techniques to the carpenters working on our house (who have been working on rustic interior finish work for most of their lives) and they hang on his every word. He has been asked to help our builder on his next spec house too, because the builder insists he has never met anyone who can conceive of the things Mark can, and then get the workers to understand it and follow through. It is easy to be creative, but hard to make that creativity take solid shape.


Anyway, where was I going with this? Oh yea, teaching. My husband is a remarkable teacher – but I think I am good too. At least yesterday, working with Kathy, I felt like a good teacher.


I had planned a cooking lesson. I figured, since Kathy couldn’t read and she lives a rather oppressed life, her cooking skills (and materials) might be limited, so I packed up a pretty, red box filled with everything she needs. I bought all the ingredients (flour, baking soda, sugar, brown sugar, chocolate chips, nuts, etc) and a measuring cup and measuring spoons and said it was her “let’s celebrate your progress” gift. I also bought Kathy a blender and a good cookie sheet, just in case. She told me she didn’t have any of the above and was delighted to be given these wonderful kitchen things. Now, to me, a wonderful kitchen thing is a 400-dollar state of the art standing mixer. The idea that this woman has deep appreciation for my 9-dollar hand mixer is humbling to say the least.


I had bought her a cooking magazine too, filled with recipes to browse through later. I was hoping this project would inspire her to practice more on her own and I wanted us to practice reading during this lesson in that thematic vein. I didn’t want her to memorize the recipe we were working on and fake it later– I wanted her to transfer the knowledge and prove she “got it” when she turned the pages of the magazine and saw other recipes she could read too.


The hardest thing about teaching someone to read (who speaks English as a first language), is that you have certain assumptions – you think everyone in America has shared basic knowledge. But a non-reader has been living in a prison of darkness that stretches far beyond her inability to read books. So, without being condescending, I must always approach things with an attitude that my student is clueless about how the world works. And sadly enough, more often than not, I am right.


I began by explaining how recipes work, showing her that the ingredients are listed first as a sort of shopping list. This lets you know if you have all the ingredients on hand. Kathy smiled and said, “Gee it’s nice that they do that for you.”

“Yes, they try to make things convenient . . .” I said, just then realizing it was true.

I pointed out that the second part of the information is the actual instructions to cook the item at hand. I showed her how almost all products you purchase today have recipes on the back. There is a cookie recipe on the back of the package of chips, and a peach crisp recipe on the back of the brown sugar package, and a recipe for biscuits on the back of the flour package, etc…. She thought this fascinating and asked why they bothered to print all that. This lead into a nice discussion of marketing and how companies work to sell a product – but it also made me suddenly aware of all those recipes I come across in my daily life that I tune out. I don’t pay attention to all that writing on the packaging because, as a reader, I am inundated with information in a given day. I fail to notice what is often before my eyes. When you become aware of that truth, you can’t stop noticing everything around you. Like when you buy a new car, and suddenly you swear everybody in town is driving that brand because you are noticing it for the first time.


We spent a long time going over the recipe, working on the words I knew she would struggle with, such as “Vanilla”, or “Blending” or “Granulated”.


Kathy has never cooked anything that requires a recipe. She makes scrambled eggs or fried steak. She heats up frozen dinners. She has never made a baked good from scratch because that requires “detail” that she can’t presume to guess. I had to walk her through the process of baking – such as blending all the dry ingredients first in a separate bowl, then creaming butter and sugar in a different bowl, then adding eggs one at the time. I had to talk about volume and consistency, etc… And as I did, I was vividly aware once again, of all the things I take for granted that I can do, but that a non-reader can’t. She has never used a measuring spoon or cup so I had to explain how that works. We went through the recipe and I had her point to what spoon was used for “½ tsp”, and what line on the cup denoted ¾ cup. And she struggled with it, because this was all new information to her, and her mind is being stuffed full with so many new things she can’t keep it all straight.


I explained that this lesson was not a cooking lesson – but a reading lesson. I really couldn’t care less how the cookies turn out, but I think it is important we see if she can pull the project off on her own – because practical application of her reading skills is mandatory for ongoing success. And if she likes cooking, she can try other recipes (with Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, there is plenty to aspire to) Cooking will keep her working on learning new words. It invites natural practice, you see, because her sitting down to struggle over a golden book everyday might lose it’s appeal. That kind of practice is cumbersome and easier to put off. .  .


I reminded her that I know she is smart and therefore, she can follow directions. If her husband or son helps her by reading the recipe, the value of this endeavor will be lost. She promised me she would make the cookies while she was home alone. Making these cookies is a bit intimidating for her, because it’s more complicated than you realize, but she needs things to do, and the challenge of making cookies like the rest of the world will feel like a great accomplishment. She sees examples of things like this on TV and feels badly about herself, as if the whole world has been invited to a party and she can’t join in. Now, hopefully, she will be like “normal” people.


Kathy said she prays the cookies will come out good, because she is invited to lunch with a counselor from court, and she would love to bring a few cookies as a gift, proof of her progress. I pointed out again what spoon to use for the baking soda (the culprit I’ll blame if her cookies bomb.) She stared at that spoon intently and said, “I’ll remember”.

Ha. That’s my girl!


So, today, Kathy is be home cooking. I am sending her good wishes from afar.


I keep thinking about that lesson – it reminds me to be grateful for basic skills, such as knowing my way around a kitchen without a second thought. I pulled out my sugar bowl this morning and thought of Kathy struggling to measure out 3/4 cup for the first time in her life. . . I guess I’ll never make cookies again without the image of this woman coming to mind. I’ll always wonder if today’s batch of cookies is the first in a long life of cookie baking, or the one and only because, the lesson failed to accomplish what I dreamed it might. . .


I am doing a lot to enhance Kathy’s life, but honest to God, she is enhancing mine in the most poignant ways at the same time. You get out of the world exactly what you put into it.  God’s ultimate balance. I trust it.


But this counts for cookies too. You get out of them exactly what you put in – Gee wiz, I hope Kathy doesn’t screw up the balance and overload the baking soda!

Kathy and the News

 I had a fascinating lesson with Kathy this week.


She has learned to read three letter words and many four-letter words, but still has difficulty with five letter words and up. The longer words involve rules that are harder for her to remember, such as when you add an E to the end of a word, it changes the vowel sound to a long sound. You also have all those pesky blends like Ch, Th, Br, etc . . .  that make an entirely new sound complicating the task.


Anyway, she is reading some easy children’s books now. I brought a newspaper to our lesson last Thursday see if we could use it in anyway, thinking its content would be less condescending than children’s books. As I lay it out on the table in front of her, it occurred to me that not only has she never read a newspaper, but it’s likely she has no idea what is inside. I asked her if she knew what was included in a newspaper, and she replied “News?” 


“Well, yes, but it isn’t quite as generic as that,” I explained. So, we went through the paper, page by page, as I pointed out what was inside. I explained how the Atlanta paper had national coverage, but our small local paper, published two days a week, was concerned with our community only. That happened to be the paper I was introducing to her Thursday.


We discussed the first page news, such as the fact that the mayor has been arrested three times for cockfights and people think it is time to give him more than a small fine. She had heard of this and nodded as if this was hardly news to her. There are yellow ribbons all around town, and another article explained that one of our local boys died in Iraq this week and his body was being shipped home for the funeral. On Sunday, they asked people to show their respects and line the streets when the hearse arrived. That was news to us both – we both wondered about the ribbons we’d seen along the road as we drove to the lesson. In that moment I think we both made plans to stand outside at 5:00 on Sunday.


Then we went to the second page and I showed her the section where all arrests are listed. Her eyebrows lifted and she said, “Does that mean my name was in the paper?”


I explained that, “Yes, she was probably listed.” This is why her son’s teacher and others knew what had happened even though she hoped no one would know. She was shocked. Embarrassed. She had no idea that kind of information was made public. She looked over the arrest names a bit sheepishly. I wondered if she was looking for people she might know, so I pointed out that she could check it once in a while to see how people she knows from her court appointed meetings are doing. If she read this section, she would know if friends or acquaintances slipped up and went off the wagon. She nodded sadly. 


We went on to the Editorial page and I described how people write letters to pronounce their opinion on things happening in the community. We read a few of the heated letters. She had no idea that there was a public forum for people to vent. She was delighted to learn of it.


I showed her the obituaries. She didn’t know there was a place where those that passed away were honored. She thought that was nice. I turned to the community events page and we reviewed how she could find out about all the nice things happening in the area that she might want to attend, such as the Christmas Bell Ringers concert or lectures or the 2.00 pancake breakfast the Shriners are holding this weekend. I also pointed out that civil services are listed, such as the empty stocking program where children from disadvantaged families can sign up and get Christmas presents. She said once a friend signed her son up for that, but she had no idea where to get information for those kinds of things normally. Now, she does.


We even reviewed the TV and movie listings, and the adds for the local grocery stores to compare prices and see what stores had a “buy one, get one free” deal this week, which revealed where she could shop for the best bargain. We saw what animals are up for adoption at the local animal rescue and reviewed the want ads. She was amazed to see so many listings for employment and the listing of things for sale. She remarked that, “those want ads sure make it easy for someone to find a job or something they want to buy second hand.”


I grinned and said, “Yes, Kathy. Life can be much easier when you just know how to maneuver through the system. Reading takes the work out of lots of things because information and communication is so important for understanding the world around you and all it offers.”


She looked at the paper pensively and said, “I can’t wait ’till I can read this.”


I nodded casually, but inside I was screaming a big, fat, yippee!


Since meeting Kathy, I can’t make a recipe, or read a poster about an upcoming concert that I don’t consider how non-readers miss out. And doing things like putting our Chicken Nesting boxes together this weekend – with directions that were furiously complicated -make me wonder how non-readers function at all.


Kathy followed along as we perused the paper, amazed and impressed with all the information packed inside. She said, “I thought there was just news in these things.”

I pointed out that news includes more than the obvious events, like a bank getting robbed. It includes community services, events and information too.


She took the paper with her and planned to read it on her own to see if she could make out what each section was later, when I wasn’t around to explain it for her. She can’t read it all yet, but she might be able to get an idea of the columns, even with her limited reading vocabulary. She was very interested in learning how to use the paper to her advantage. It made my day.


I was excited, because I know that Kathy isn’t going to learn to read and start picking up Hemmingway in her spare moments. The goal is to teach her to be self-sufficient and to improve the quality of her life, and learning her way around a newspaper brings us closer to that end.


What was best about it all was I had an opportunity, once again, to look at something I take for granted, in this case the newspaper, and see it through fresh eyes. I really never considered how valuable a paper is before. A newspaper, to me, is a disposable thing and I barely pay attention to what is inside, other than to browse through casually. I go to whatever section I think has information I need and ignore the rest.  But a newspaper is a marvel because it has SO MUCH information and it is published every single day (well, most papers) and it is inexpensive and easy to attain. What an amazing service for mankind.  


I think feeling gratitude for our life is one of the keys to feeling content. I may be the one volunteering to help Kathy read, but it is clear everyday that I am benefiting as much as she is from the effort.  Life has subtle, yet special, gifts to offer us, if we take the time to recognize them.


Anyway, I am feeling grateful today. For newspapers . . .  and people like Kathy.