What if…

What if I gained the whole world but lost my soul? What if? And what am I willing to free up in my life- to let go- so as to gain inheritance of this eternal soul?  So as to protect that which is my most valuable part?

I feel like I have been operating on automatic these last couple of days- processing information internally while externally going through the motions. It’s been a trying, exhausting week, and it’s only Wednesday. A thought keeps popping into my head about these moments we are living right now. The fragility of such. The delicate vulnerability of this life. It is so fleeting. And that thought is this:

What are we doing with our days? Where are we spending our time? With whom? And how?

We are all so busy. Busy, busy, busy. And so connected to our devices.  Our technology. But at what cost? And for what purpose?

When you lose a loved one, one tends to become introspective. I realize that these considerations of mine are a natural fall-out. They happen and occur quite unsurprisingly. We humans tend to examine life a little more closely when we have just looked death in the eye. Or at the very least, when we have seen death’s shadow.

But it doesn’t take that long before we are back to the living games with a vengeance. Moving and shaking like we have never before considered the end of the story.

I wonder: what if we lived each and every day with a less stable understanding.   And if we did so, what changes in our lives might transpire? What if, when we woke, we considered that this day- it might be our last? What if we spent more time with people who are dying? What if we poured our time into ventures that had lasting value instead of the pursuits we so often choose that are frivolous and unnecessary? What if we regularly considered the end instead of always focusing on the present? Not to the exclusion of the present- but just sometimes, some moments spent on more serious matters. What if we spent some of our moments considering the uncertainty of the future?

What if we purposed to do this, even once a month? I wonder what a difference it might make in our overall living.

Sometimes we need to face death so as to appreciate living that much more. But we also need to understand that living this life is a privilege: we have been offered a vulnerable gift.  A gift given at a price. And that price includes our limited time and resources as well as our pursuits.

The price we pay is our life.  Both our mortal and our eternal lives depend on time and pursuits.  And how we choose.

We can gain a lot in this life: we can go a lot of places and do a lot of things and meet a lot of people. We make many choices, some better than others. But we often do not have a choice in our time of death. Death comes unannounced. And if we are unprepared, we can feel as though we have been gyped.  Stripped. We can feel as though we have lost something that was rightfully ours.

But truly in the end, we come to realize: this life is not our own.   It is a gift. May we never forget that and may we always appreciate this fact.

In receiving the gift, we are given certain perimeters. It is a gift to cherish. A gift to look after. But what if we take that gift and squander it? What if we lose something so precious as our soul in the process? All the life endeavors we have set out to undertake would certainly be a hefty price to pay for one’s very soul.

Might we never forget that we are not hamsters, so why do we run in circles?

We are not Nascar drivers, so why do we rush as if this life were a race track?

We are not frivolous players, so why do we pretend that life is a competitive game to be won?

We are not mindless ninnies, so why do we feel we must succumb to the pressure?

We are beautiful, sacred, eternal souls inside a fading shell that serves us well. Until it can no more. Might we never sell out that soul in pursuit of those things which seems shinier, flashier or more exciting.  Things which are temporary.  Not that these things are wrong, but if they take the place of more substantial, eternal pursuits, they have certainly become distractions. Might we never make this trade-off and in so doing, lose everything that is important and worthwhile and lasting in the process.

For to do so would be to trade one’s mortal desires for those of more lasting, eternal value.

Mark 8:36, 37

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul? “For what will a man give in exchange for his soul?…”

On kindness

Tonight, my thoughts turn inward. I am thinking of living. Of life. Of how we do this thing called living. This thing called living life. I am thinking: of how we are perceived by others to have lived our lives. Of how we even perceive it ourselves.

My aunt lies dying in a hospital bed, and I wonder about her life. About how she was unable to live a life which I would perceive to be full and complete. I wonder about such things, wonder what this really means. What it entails. Because, I want to know. Whose life is really full? Really complete? Is it mine? Is it yours? Is it hers? Is mine and yours that much better than hers? Is there dignity in a life of confinement? Is there any joy to be had? Any kindness?

I wonder.

Today someone reminded me yet again about the particular importance of kindness to the soul of another. We can have everything going for us- all talents, all gifts, all opportunities, all measure of wealth and wisdom and health. We can seemingly have it all. And yet be missing kindness.

And thus have nothing.

If kindness is the sole missing link, I wonder: is any of the rest really worth the bother? For kindness is the air that sustains. It is the breath of life. It seems to be everything.

I just got off the phone with the nurse on duty at the manor this evening. The nurse at the manor where my aunt lies dying, specifically. His voice was so kind. Palliative nurses and geriatric nurses are amazing people. What I notice first about so many of them is their kindness. Their voices are kind. So is their touch. They are tender, gentle. They are unafraid of what so many of us are afraid of: smells, textures, sounds, movements. To each subtle and not so subtle change, they offer a supreme measure of kindness and sense of respect. To each individual, they extend the olive branch of peace and grace. They are guardians of kindness. It takes an individual of high character and quality to work with people, but those who work with our dear elderly, who work with our dying: they astound me. For these individuals have a special quality- a seemingly overflowing measure of goodness within. Grace and love which just spills over into their touch. Into their interactions both great and small.

If we can learn kindness, we have learned nearly everything we need to know about interacting with the rest of our world. If we can know what it feels like, sounds like, looks like: what it is. Then we have a better chance of understanding how to do it.

For kindness (that kindness of which I speak is supernatural, is sacred): it is our only way forward in this messy here and now. It is the light that leads us. It is the hope that holds us.  And it is perfectly embodied in the One who knew it, breathed it, lived it.  Our example.  The One we uphold as the truest picture of loving care.

Jesus. Lover of humanity.  Kindest of the kind; gentle and gracious.

It is His kindness which is everything. Which we seek to model and exude.

His kindness.

Without which, we have nothing.

And it is His kindness which I know holds her in the hollow of His gentle hand.  Even now, in the darkness of this dying night.

Even now.  And forevermore.

Almost there

I am somewhere in between tonight. Half way there, yet still so far away.  Living years gone by.  Wondering about years to come.

I am neither here nor there.  Time sweeps over me even as I sit here in this haze of memories.

And yet. I might just be nine years old again.  I just might. Like my sweet Sarah is now. A little girl with bobbed brown hair who feels like a big, important girl because she gets to stay overnight at her auntie’s house—all by herself. She will sleep in a twin bed, surrounded by loads of books she has never read.  Books just waiting for her to devour and discover.  She will survey her Auntie’s vast and impressive record collection, the many records of Elvis and others of which the specifics about such that little girl will one day not remember. Which she will one day just hold careful in her memory: a snapshot of those dozens and dozens of records stacked high against the wall of a room. Memories like this one will forever be in that little girl’s head.

This little girl, she remembers the house and what it looks like- the bathroom, the kitchen , the living room, her auntie’s bedroom with its fancy four poster bed and ornate dressers. She remembers her black and white Huskie dogs, Shasta and Toby.  Their sharp, piercing yelp.

Her aunt’s head full of raven-black curly hair.  Her beautiful skin.  Her smile.

She remembers it all.

Even now, these many years later. That nine year-old girl remembers.

For she is 39 years old now—the same number of years that her auntie was when life was snatched from her hand, replaced by a façade for living that seems to mock and jeer with each passing year.  All those years of living life inside a decaying shell, bearing little resemblance to that which was her former beautiful self. She lies tonight in a bed far from mine, mortal life slipping out of her reach- urging her toward the eternal.

And while I do not weep for what’s to come—it is all I can hope for. All we can ever hope to attain. In my feeble mind, I sorrow for what was lost. Those thirty plus years she has lain in a bed and sat in a chair. From one mundane movement to another.  Those two activities, the totality of her existence. A prison of sorts- the worst kind, in my view. For she is listless. Immobile. Lifeless. Hands spasmodic at times and at other times, scratching at an eye that is swollen shut. She is growing old. Has been ever since that terrible day. Dying slowly. Dying fast.

And now, death hovers.  It is upon her. Waiting: impatient. Wanting to claim that which it thinks is its rightful possession.

But death cannot lay claim to one who belongs to Another.  She is His.

Our family got the call today that this might be it. This might be the end. I later called the floor and spoke to a nurse; I asked, “Is she in pain?” A reassuring ‘no’ given so as to ease my fears. I am told: she is peaceful. Calm. And so, after going through the preliminaries, I begin to talk. Talk of the person I remember her to be, back when I was that little girl of eight or nine.  Talk about the special aunt I remember.  And as I talk, I find myself crying. I do not know this woman on the other end of the line to whom I speak, and yet she listens so patiently to me as I recount memory after memory. Silly little stories, really. A trip to McDonalds and the hamburger proffered. A special occasion for me back then: something I take for granted now. I remember it as a treat.

As I talk, I feel the quiet liberation of emotion come undone within. I feel release.

I weep.

For I know: she will be going home soon. This life of bondage but a brief interlude in the great expanse that is eternity.

She’s headed for home where she will run without shackles.

She will walk without restrictions.

She will talk, sing, dance, and laugh.

She will live- in ways I cannot even imagine.

And she will know a freedom- a peace, joy and love that I do not yet know. Cannot even begin to imagine in my feeble mind’s eye.

Yet I imagine this: in that coming day, there will be a time when I will hold her hand and I will ask, “Do you remember?  Do you remember all you lost back then? The time that was wasted?”

And she will turn to me and express one simple thought: No.  Never.  I cannot remember.

For all will be forgotten.  The misery that is the here and now will be but a blip in time. The pain- gone.  The prison and sentence of years to a life of monotony.  The thirty years of waiting for freedom.  For release.  It will seem but a moment.  So insignificant.  It will all but be forgotten.

And she will take my hand.  She’ll smile.  And we will run together.

Free.

What is worthwhile: A Teacher’s Perspective

Not long ago, I wrote an article called “What Students Remember Most About Teachers” to which I received a phenomenal response from my readership. I continue to hear daily from people with stories to share about the teachers who made an impact on their lives- hear from those as well who share about the teachers who have chosen worthwhile ways in which to interact and be with their students, in the day-to-day lives of their classrooms. Last week, I received this comment, a comment which stopped me abruptly in my tracks, causing me to consider to an even greater degree the message behind that article I had written. Here is the comment in its entirety:

I’m new to the world of teaching – just finished my internship in a lovely kindergarten classroom. However, at the end of my experience three months ago, one of my students unexpectedly passed away. It has had a profound effect on my view of a teacher, but it has been difficult to put into words how my priorities changed.

This letter explains it.

To me, it is of course important to cover curricular objectives and make sure students are learning and growing. That is what teaching is. However, at the end of the day, the most important thing to me is that my students enjoy themselves and know that they were cared about. Because if, god forbid, it is their last few weeks on earth, I want those weeks to hold as much joy as possible.

I know that’s not quite where you were going with this letter – but it rings true anyway. Thank you.

As I read this teaching colleague’s letter written personally to me, images immediately conjured up in my mind of the horrific days just a little over a year ago whereby I found myself to be in a very similar place as she finds herself now. Because at our school, a sweet little boy just down the hall from me, one grade level up- fell ill and later died on the heels of a busy school week. He was in school Friday, dead on Saturday. No warning. One last picture taken the day before, during Show and Tell, to hold a lifetime of memories. In fact, I sang and played the piano at his funeral. Jesus Loves Me, This I Know. How can one ever forget the image of a small casket holding one so precious, so full of potential and promise. It is a mother’s worst nightmare. And although I was not his mother- nor was I his classroom teacher, I am a mother to four other sweet children whom I held that much more tightly, that much closer because of this tragedy. And teacher to countless others I call my own. I hold these all a little closer, a little tighter, now that I know better. Now that I know more. Because one never comes through an event like that unscathed. Unbroken. It was heart-breaking- words fail to adequately sum up the emotions that were experienced at the time.  Experienced still, for many of us. It affected all of us in our school- and indeed in the surrounding communities as well. Such a profound and senseless loss.

And when one has experienced loss in such a way, I don’t think you ever look again at things in quite so casual a manner. No longer are you asking the same questions, going through the same rote motions. Habitually living your life. Rather, you ask yourself this: if this were my childrens’ or any one of my students’ last day here on earth, would it be a pleasant, happy, peaceful one for them? Would I in any way be a hindrance to them in living out their last moments here on earth with joy and hope? Would I actually be a help, offering them kindness, love, compassion and concern? Would their last day on earth be the best day imaginable, the most fulfilling one possible: and all because I stopped to consider what might be the most worthwhile way in which to spend that day with them? All because I chose to show care and concern over frustration and impatience? Important considerations for teachers to keep in mind. Because when it comes down to it, it really isn’t about the curriculum we teach: it is about the heart with which we teach that curriculum. It’s about the love we show in our words and in our actions.

It’s really about love, when all is said and done.

Donald S. Blumenfeld-Jones poses an important question in an article on curriculum as to what the right question must be for determining curricular studies. In order to get at what is important- what is CORE in terms of schooling and time spent “on task”, one must first ask “What knowledge is of most worth? Or even, “What knowledge can we not do without?” In other words, what is worth giving our time and attention to- our thoughts and intentions towards- in terms of learning.  In terms of mental, intellectual and physical growth?

William Schubert in his article “What is worthwhile: From Knowing and Needing to Being and Sharing” poses thoughts on what is worthwhile in terms of learning. In terms of needing. Experiencing. Doing and being. In terms of becoming. And he extends these thoughts to what’s worthwhile in terms of sharing. In terms of contributing. What is worthwhile in terms of wondering. In other words, what is worth spending our precious time on earth as we live life, from second to second. Minute to minute. Day to day. Year to year.

We only have this one opportunity: what is worthwhile doing and being while we’re at this job of living our lives? Or as teachers, we only ever have the day we are in RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT with our students: we are only ever guaranteed that one day in which we are living. Are we doing our utmost to make that one day the best one possible for our students? As if it could be their very last?

Today, we are on our thirteenth storm day. Meaning, there have been thirteen non-consecutive days thus far in the school year here on P.E.I. for which school has been cancelled due to this unusually brutal winter we are having in Atlantic Canada (a winter which seems to be brutal in much of the rest of North America as well, I might add). Currently, there have been five consecutive days of cancelled classes, stimulating much talk in public and private circles which concern themselves with educational matters. People concerned with outcomes and expectations. People concerned with time off task and focused in-class instruction. People concerned that students might not be absorbing information and skills within the four corners of the school walls, thus they must needs not be learning. People concerned with the matter that students need to be gaining knowledge in school rooms, not whittling their time away doing what kids like to be doing: whatever that might be. There will be calls that extra-curricular activities should be cancelled and that there must not be any wasted instructional time.

But what is really of most worth will never be discussed: that is,  that students need teachers for more than merely instruction. They need teachers because teachers care. Care about them. Care about their person. Care about who they’ve been, who they are now and who they will one day become. Care to listen and to offer advice. Care to empathize and offer compassion. Care in little and big ways. That’s because teachers are interested in students as people- not just as consumers of knowledge. Not just as sponges who must soak up information. Buckets to fill up with important knowledge and skills.  Teachers care about students because intrinsically we believe deep down that what is of worth knowing the most is this: our students.

We want to know our students.

And while we might be taken to task on matters of educational import, matters of the heart are really where it matters. And those matters are what teachers like myself will continue to spend their time on in spite of the call to “time on task”. Because what is of worth your last day of life should ever be in our minds: should be ever compelling us to stop and take heed. We have no idea how long- how much time anyone on this earth will be given. If this were the last day for anyone in my circle of influence, I should hope that the time they spent with me was worth their while.

Was worth spending it with me.

What a precious responsibility we have been given.  May we never take it lightly.

What is of most worth? Is it love or curriculum? Kindness or literacy? Compassion or numeracy? Empathy or time on task? Teaching to the test or teaching to the heart? The answer to each of these questions lies somewhere within us all. It is up to us to answer the questions wisely and carefully.

And the ways in which we answer these questions speak directly to where our heart is calling us.  That is, speak directly to whether our heart is calling us toward love or away from it.

You don’t know what you’ve got. Until it’s gone.

I’m doing double-duty tonight.  Husband lies feverishly curled up in the fetal position on the couch under that stringy, blue blanket that has seen better days.  While the girls and I tiptoe past like fervent mice on a scavenger hunt.   Then, on up the stairs to bedtime routines and tuck-ins.  I haven’t done the bedtime gig solo for a while.  Makes you appreciate what you have…a  capable, competent life-partner to share the load.

You don’t know what good things you have until they’re gone.

We brush teeth, wash hands, taking care with the green marker-puppet drawn on one set of fingers.  We scrub until most of it is rinsed away.  Green soap suds, washed away.  Another day gone.  Clothing is slipped off, pajamas pulled on in their place.  Four stories are selected, two picks from her and two from me.  And then the prayers.

Ah.  The prayers.  They are either prolific or torturous.

Last night’s prayers killed me.  She held her hands pressed tightly together in the iconic prayer clasp.  Her cherubic pose, one for the record books.  This is not our norm, so don’t be fooled.  Most nights, there are pleas from the Mama for her to co-operate and settle down, and “would-you-please-say your-prayers”.  But tonight, she obliges without a fuss.  I leave her in her cozy bed to go to the others.  Same thing, different faces.

The Older One has a tummy ache.  The magic bean bag is fetched, heated, delivered.

I read to the girls from a Christmas chapter book.  Because I have made this the one chapter book I will finish this year.  Even if it is January.  Christmas is still very much a topic of conversation in our home.  Youngest informs me she already knows what she wants next Christmas.  A train set, a camera and a surprise.  Her sister tells her to wait for her birthday.  We finish the book.  Check.  I can cross that off the to-do list.  But it really isn’t a chore.  I enjoy this time spent with my head stuck in a good book.  Making it come alive for my children.

That’s what readers do.  Make it all come alive.  Even for the moment.  Because the smallest of moments are those we often remember best.  And they slip away so quickly.

You really don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

I lay down with the Boy.  We talk about this and that.  Moments later, I am tucking him in and then that the door too is closed.  Another page in the chapter of our lives turned.  Did I make this day count?  Was it all worthwhile?  Did I treasure what I had?

No regrets tonight.  But I reflect on this: a wake for a woman I never knew.  Late afternoon, I watch as a family celebrates the life of their mama in stills.  Black and whites.  Technicolor.  I would’ve never noticed either had the circumstances been different.  Had I arrived a half hour earlier.

We drive the short distance travelling winter roads that takes us to the funeral home.  Predictably, we’re late to the wake.  We nearly miss it.  “Should we turn back,” I ask.  “It’s nearly four.  The wake…it’s over soon….probably not worth it to drive in,” I add.

We arrive to an empty parking lot, but on a whim, go inside.  Just in case. The family is gathered around a screen while pictures fade in and out.  Three boys, grown men now.  The pain evident on their faces, for they are still boys inside.  A mother knows.  I understand. They are their mother’s sons.

The black and whites are simply captivating.  I am drawn in, wanting to know “with whom” and “where” and “when”.  What was her story?  The moments she made count.  Her life in pictures: a reminder to the living to breathe in the here and now.  Seize the day.  What a family has left when the music fades and the song is done is never enough.  But a picture counts for something.

Photographs.  Those precious moments, preserved for posterity.  They tell a story.  They breathe life into the desolate and bring hope to the grieving.  And these happy memories are only possible when one has invested the time in those smallest of moments.  The simple joys that happen.  Inside a day, inside a moment, inside a memory.

We don’t know what we’ve got.  Until it’s gone.