Company of Strangers

Bell ringers, crowded parking lots, a too-warm coat in a too-warm store waiting in line to pay, missing a gift box, losing a gift receipt. Bright lights and glittering messages of sales and making others happy. A barrage of noise and pressure camouflage what was once Christmas. Thanksgiving’s turkey barely forgotten and three weeks of hurry up to run.

Away from the malls, eight school choir members dressed in the winter jacket and hat uniform of kids their age line Fish Creek’s historic Alexander Noble House’s porch while dozens of friends, family, strangers, holiday lovers gather on the walkways. Young boys kick apart snow chunks along sides of the gathering. Flashing Christmas lights hang around the necks of middle-age women. Babies watch from cocoons of blankets and scarves. Couples relax within each other’s arms or stand side-by-side exchanging private looks of contentment.

Candle flames flicker in a playful breeze, burning holes in plastic cup that offer minimal wind protection. Most stay lit for the community Christmas caroling led by a choir director’s strong tenor. Everyone beyond the age of teenage angst sings. Confidence is found in the company of strangers on a mild December evening waiting for lighting of a tree maybe twelve feet tall. Choir members stand absolutely still, sway on booted feet, move from one foot to another as the crowd owns old songs, contemporary songs, religious songs. The night could go on longer as people unconsciously edge closer to each other.

The temporary community chorale doesn’t need a soaring Rockefeller Center tree to proclaim Christmas. When the switch flips and hundreds of white lights sparkle, the moment becomes special. People clap. Some call out Merry Christmas. The tree festivities end without a pitch for funds or a speech by the someone with a title, just the exchanging of holiday wishes as blown out candles return to a box.

Happy holidays to all of you. May you find times of comfort and peace in the coming weeks and all of 2020.

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One Hundred Reasons to Be Thankful

For weeks I have noodled around the idea of posting a simple list of the people, places, abilities, things, conditions, blessings to bring meaning to this year’s Thanksgiving day.  An introvert with a history of over thinking added complexity to the simple list. Capturing one hundred reasons to be thankful posed a bountiful problem: Do I capture family as one listing or name everyone? The same thought rumbled around for friends, for neighbors, and friends who play multiple roles. Should individual writers be called out or tumble them together. And what about music? Does the list become trivial with additions like homemade caramels and fresh popcorn? What about specific brand call outs?

My expectations for this Thanksgiving were not very high. It is a holiday that traditionally is celebrated by all of us in the U.S. The slow slog toward a nation divided topped by the trauma of impeachment hearings had me dragging my feet while approaching the common table. Friends do their daily grateful lists, but that habit didn’t stick any better than water exercise or keeping a drawer of perfectly rolled underwear ala Marie Kondo.

The nerdy spreadsheet used to record one hundred reasons to be thankful could be filled with the names of people, pets, foods, books, music and such to flesh out section and become quite a document. My self-editor is constrained by assuming you would want to be amused or impressed if those columns were offered. Many of us have a richness of reasons to be thankful—love, family, friends, a place to call home, jobs, talents, faith, a beloved nation. And responsibility to extend another’s list. Needs extend 365 days a year.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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The Kids aren’t Here

Our family includes many teachers, most in public school. Our kids have attended public schools, parochial schools, private schools, been homeschooled. Homework and talking about school happens at the kitchen table, in the car, while raking leaves.

It was a surprise that a school system where I have volunteered is struggling with absenteeism of 32 to 50 percent . And that reflects the national pattern of over 8 million U.S. students missing nearly a month of school each year. At this rural school there is poverty, students are widely disbursed, transportation options are limited. There are stories about kids needed at home to help care for siblings or other family members. Anxiety or bullying issues make attendance difficult.

In general, some parents feel schools don’t meet their kids’ needs. Some parents find the public education system to be monolithic in protecting traditional, seats in the chairs methods when other models exist. A teacher I respect told me that the process of pushing bright, unorthodox kids to adjust to rules that are necessary for control in classrooms of 28 students is sad, but ultimately prepares everyone for living in the real world.

School representatives cite anecdotal reasons for kids’ absenteeism. There may not be a ride available if a bus is missed. A doctor’s appointment can be an hour drive from school. Parents don’t feel their kids miss much if they stay home. The family needs to be away to care for relatives. A child is needed to care for younger or older relatives. The parents plan an extended vacation. Some claim to intermittently homeschool. A child is being bullied and administration is not responsive. A child suffers from mental health issues with no help during the school day. Travel for extracurricular activities eats up hours. When bad grades start, kids know they’re bound for summer school and give up.

Across the larger education sector, how does a child miss 30 days of school without prompting a remedial plan? How does a school system support learning in one-third to one-half of their enrolled students who are not present? What do students need to learn today and how is that delivered? So much money and so much policy maintain traditional archetypes when other societal archetypes are adapting or falling aside.

Schools are not unlike trains running on tracks installed a hundred years ago. There are reasons old rail beds have become hiking and biking trails. Like other social systems, the pathways to completing an education relevant now, and in the future, have changed.  School buildings, curriculum, teacher preparation systems, and teaching methods need dramatic review and overhaul. Fewer test scores, more involvement in the big world.

The question is not where are the kids, but how can we be sure there are good reasons for them to be here?

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Changing of Leaves

Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds walking on stinking hot asphalt is normal during first days of the Minnesota State Fair. Exhibit buildings and animal barns offer relief from a strong sun and the chance to gaze at huge dairy cows, fluffy bunnies, amazing artwork, quirky craft offerings. Plus opportunities to snack on fair food.

This year the first days felt wonderfully wrong. There were people in tank tops, shorts and flip flops, but many wore long sleeve t-shirts and jeans. With temps capped in the low seventies the great Minnesota get together drew record crowds. Weather folks hinted at a touch of fall in the air. Looking up some trees waving yellow leaves on their highest branches shared the same message.

Kids wearing big new shoes in advance of their first day of school. The state fair. Flowering plants browning as their glory days pass. Looking for predictors of what comes next, a common human habit, becomes easier. Then the Farmers’ Almanacshares its winter predictions and looking forward isn’t as much fun.

Except for the dwindling supplies of fresh vegetables and cut flowers, fall is my favorite season. Middle August’s splotches of yellow in treetops is just the start of the changing of the leaves. We have weeks and weeks of color to oooh and ahh, to bring inside, to place in books, to shuffle through during walks. Even in the city trees have their days of beauty. Trees show their true colors to everyone. Everyone.

Future generations may have less to enjoy. Years ago researching Midwest climate for my Ashwood books which end near 2050, the future of many familiar trees saddened me. Warmer temps will upset the wintering of fruit trees, some of our urban canopy trees will not tolerate the changes, pine tree forests will die.

Hug a tree. Make a promise to do what you can to keep the world green. Fill your memory with gold, red, and orange leaves waving on trees near your home. Oooh. Ahhh.IMG_5010