Monday, November 29, 2010

Think About Christmas Joy

Have you ever thought about why you give gifts to people?

I give gifts to people because I enjoy giving them; there doesn't even have to be an occasion. If I see something unique or interesting (or on sale) that I think somebody would like, I may buy it. I usually get too excited, though, to wait four months until a birthday or Christmas or some other special occasion to give it to that person. If the gift is as special as the person is, I want to give it to that person right away. I call those the "Just because..." gifts or the "Thinking of you" gifts. It brings me joy. I delight in the look on a person's face when he or she gets a present that wasn't expected. Joy!

When I was little, I made extravagantly long wish lists to give to Santa. I had fun doing it, and I had fun daydreaming about the toys on my list. I was never upset when I didn't get them (and it was rare that I did); my parents usually had better ideas anyway. My happiness didn't come from getting something expensive or trendy. One of my favorite gifts when I was five years old was when my brother stealthily swiped my favorite stuffed animal from my bed early Christmas morning. I looked all over for the animal; I couldn't start opening presents without him! Finally, my brother handed me a big package and suggested I open it first. Ah! There was my dear animal! I laughed at how clever he (my brother) was. In fact, it became a running joke for years, as we passed the stuffed animal back and forth at birthdays and Christmases. That was one of my most memorable Christmas gifts, and it was something that was already mine! Unexpected joy!

It seems to me, though, that many people look at their list of family members and grudgingly try to find some trinket or gadget for them. These are the gifts that don't come from the heart; they only come from the wallet. And, generally speaking, these are the least special gifts (although there are exceptions). Joy is priceless; it isn't sold at the mall.

It should not be a chore to go Christmas shopping, and it doesn't have to be expensive. Sometimes the best gifts are the homemade ones that you put time, effort, thought, and love into. In my experience, at least, making gifts for people has always brought me a sense of accomplishment and pleasure. One of my favorite parts of Christmas is watching the expressions on people's faces as they open their presents. Although I love to open presents as much as anyone, it's not the exciting part of Christmas for me. Christmas isn't about getting the latest video or an expensive new purse; it's about being with family and friends and spreading joy. After all, it's not our birthdays we're celebrating; it's Jesus's.

I used to always make my Christmas gifts when I was little. Although I'm not sure how much my family liked them, I loved coming up with ideas. Christmas tree ornaments are easy and fun (and cheap) to make--and you can personalize them; I made a lot of those (and they still hang on my parents' tree each year). Christmas cookies are almost always appreciated too. And, having a cup of tea while you chat with a friend is a relaxing holiday treat.

You could write a poem to someone or paint a picture. Sometimes these are the gifts that have the most meaning, last the longest (they aren't usually out at the next season's garage sale), and they cost very little.

This is my plan this year: I am going to use items around the house to make my Christmas cards, and I am going to make as many presents as possible. The people I give gifts to don't really need or want "things" anyway. Useful, homemade gifts are the way to go for my family and friends. So, think about making your gifts this year; or, if someone needs something that he or she hasn't bought for him or herself, think about buying it from a locally owned business. See if you can avoid chain stores this year. Think about how nice it would be not to have to be back in the stores on December 26th, returning and exchanging all those clothes that don't fit and gadgets that don't have enough memory. Think about not having big credit card bills next month, or think about using the money you saved to help less fortunate families have a happier holiday. Most of all, think about joy and the real reason for the holiday.

How will you spread Christmas joy this year?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Think About Education

For those of you who are Toledo locals and read The Blade on a regular basis, you will remember the article a few weeks ago regarding overpaid (public school) teachers. While I have definite thoughts about what public school teachers get paid, I have not done enough research to substantiate those thoughts in a public forum as this. Succinctly, though, the main issue of a teacher's pay as I see it, is that there is little or no correlation between how good a teacher is and how much he or she gets paid. (And, yes, this trend is apparent in many other businesses and segments of society as well.)

As one of the editorials following that article's publication mentioned: "We pay kindergarten teachers $90,000 a year for 185 working days. That's outrageous.... I won't be voting for any levies." I agree wholly. I don't care how much schooling a kindergarten teacher has, if he or she is getting paid that kind of money, his or her students better be entering first grade able to read the abridged versions of Charles Dickens. We know this isn't happening, though, because, sadly, many high school graduates in this area cannot read Charles Dickens, not even the abridged versions. When I started my volunteer tutoring work for Read For Literacy, Inc., I learned just how illiterate the greater Toledo area is.

Now, this post is really not meant to be about the public school system.

It is meant, instead, to show the disconnect between college and grad school applications. Let me explain:

I never had to write an essay to get into college; I never had to do much of anything. The applications were simple. Of course, the schools needed transcripts and SAT scores, neither item telling very much about the student. I never worried about being accepted. It seems, these days, that colleges--save the Ivy Leagues and other highly competitive schools--accept most anyone nowadays. There's not a lot of pomp to it; it just happens.

Grad school, though, is a different story. Once I found the program I was interested in, I signed up for the GRE test, studied intensely for three months, and still did just okay--essentially, average. No problem, though; it could be checked off the list. Next, I've been working on finding three unsuspecting people who will write my letters of recommendations. This is difficult, as they should be people familiar with my writing, with my academic work, and with me. I also want to pick people who will write a grammatically correct and organized letter, since I will probably not see the letters before they are sent on to Admissions.

Probably the most important piece of my application (besides the application itself) is my Statement of Purpose, a well-framed essay displaying my strengths and my learning objectives and career goals. And, when you're going for a Master's in English, you really want it to be written perfectly. Oy vey.

Then, there is the 10+ page critical essay.

Shouldn't getting into all college (even to obtain an associate's or bachelor's degree) be this tough? At the very least, a Statement of Purpose should be required. Perhaps this might weed out some of the oh-so-many students who do not belong in college. Not only would this make it more pleasant for the college instructors, but it would also make it more pleasant for the other students.

I am certainly NOT complaining about all I have to for my grad school app. On the contrary, I am relishing in the work I have to do for it. That's because I want to go to grad school; I want to further my education. I'm excited about my future!

Unfortunately, I don't think many first-time college students share this same ambition and excitement. And, if they don't, that's fine; they just shouldn't be starting college yet. Then, perhaps, (undergrad) college instructors would not have to water down the lessons, adjusting them to go over information that students should have learned in high school. Which, of course, brings us back full-circle to public education and its problems...a good place for me to end.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Think About Thanksgiving

If you visited the United States as someone unfamiliar with the tradition of Thanksgiving, what would your impression of the holiday be?

Might you think that Thanksgiving is synonymous with shopping?

Sadly, that's how it appears to me. Is "Black Friday" the real holiday or is Thanksgiving? Some stores open as early as 3 a.m. Friday morning. As unbelievable as that is, more incredible yet is that there will actually be people ready to shop that early! I am appalled and disgusted by this country's obsession with shopping. As you know if you've read my entry, Think About Stuff, I will not be shopping this weekend; instead, I will be donating bags of clothes and books and other "stuff" to organizations and charities that can use them.

The so-called "first Thanksgiving" took place most likely in 1621. The story goes that Native Americans shared their food and food knowledge with sick, hungry, and...well, unprepared, Pilgrims who were not ready for a cold hard winter. It was a gathering of people unfamiliar with each other and their customs. People who had food shared with those who did not. The Pilgrims were most likely thankful for this charity, even though they eventually forgot this helpfulness and tried to drive the Native Americans out of their own land (but that's another story for a different time...). Alas, the holiday has nothing to do with shopping.

Thanksgiving is not about finding the best deal on something that you probably do not need (and possibly will never use); it's about sharing food and time with family, friends, and, perhaps, complete strangers. It's also about being thankful for that food and those friends, family, and strangers--something we should be doing everyday anyway. The holiday is there to remind us of this selfless sentiment. How does "Black Friday" fit into the Thanksgiving plan?

It doesn't.

So, let's take Thanksgiving back from the commercialism and consumerism that surrounds it. What do you think? Are you with me?

Friday, November 19, 2010

Think About Being Present

"Choose your way of being." These were the words of my yoga teacher at class the other day.

Creative. Curious. Welcoming. Accepting. These are some of the ways I want to be.

Yoga has taught me that when we are present in a moment and aware of ourselves, we can choose how we want to be--do we want to be happy? Joyful? Playful? Peaceful?

A few hours after my yoga class, I finished reading the novel The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. It's an interesting story of three people who, due to circumstances, necessarily live in the present--they live moments as they happen. The professor has a short-term memory that lasts only 80 minutes (and gradually less); the housekeeper and her son have to re-introduce themselves to him each time they see him. Even so, they carry on a friendship that lasts more than a decade.

Imagine how it would be if you could not talk about the past or the future with someone.

As I played with my dogs later that same night, I stopped my mind for a moment (from thinking about work and about all the stuff I had to and/or wanted to do). I thought about choosing to be present in the moment, and right then I chose to be playful with my dogs. It was wonderful; my energy was contagious, and my 8-year-old pooch started chasing her 5-year-old sister, like they often did when they were younger. I chased them as well, and it seemed very much as though all three of us were laughing and enjoying our time together. The three of us were present (I'm not actually sure dogs make the choice, but humor me here...). My mind and body were in the present and nowhere else for almost 15 minutes; it was an amazing feeling, not just to be there but to realize I was there as well.

When I thought about it, I realized there are certain times when I am naturally present--when I'm playing soccer, when I'm working a puzzle, when I'm reading, when I'm tutoring, when I'm writing....

Now what I need to work on is choosing how to be the other (perhaps) 75% of the time.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Think About How You Can Make a Difference

At yoga this past Wednesday, the teacher read us a poem called "Our Deepest Fear," written by Marianne Williamson. Part of the poem reads: "Your playing small/does not serve the world/There's nothing enlightened about shrinking/so that other people won't feel insecure around you/...We were born to make manifest/The glory of God that is within us." The idea of making a difference (or, serving the world, as Williamson refers to it) is fused with fear; often it's hard to pinpoint the fear, but it's there.

After I read the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years by Donald Miller this past summer, I thought (and continue to think)--A LOT--about creating meaning from my life and the natural fear that accompanies this process. It is not easy to make the changes in one's own life so that other lives can be changed; it's scary. But, Miller reminds his readers that fear can manipulate people into living boring lives. So, to me, it's necessary to face the fear and to fight my way through it (it's kind of like walking through the slew of cobwebs in my basement).

It's important to stretch ourselves (both our bodies AND our minds). In my post "Think About Stuff," I refer to the book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire by William T. Cavanaugh. That book pushed me to a different level of thought; Cavanaugh urges readers to think about how each person's actions AND inactions can/will affect another person or people. I began looking at stuff in my closet and basement that I hadn't touched in a few years (except to move it...), and I considered the people who could benefit from the stuff that I wasn't using.

It began with donating "stuff" to others that could use it, but it hasn't ended there. I continue to try to stretch myself in ways that (I hope) will make a difference to others. It's sometimes a slow process, but Williamson's poem was a good reminder that we all have a duty to fulfill as children of God. It doesn't have to be big; it just has to be.

"We are what we do." Who are you?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Think About the Future

So, the title of this post is a bit of a misnomer because, really, I'm going to talk about poetry. But, don't click off the page just yet--you'll see, it all relates to the next generation and the future generations after that.

I've been to a lot of poetry readings/open mic nights over the years--at many different venues, with a variety of talent levels. Last Friday I attended a reading at the Toledo Museum of Art, hosted by the Village Voice, that will stay with me for a long time. This was one of the most welcoming readings I've ever been to, and the first word that came to mind for how to describe the poetry of the evening was uplifting. There was a lot of positive energy in the room, much of it coming from the captive audience of, perhaps, 200 people.

In a time when writing seems to be approaching something close to a lost art in some educational institutions and grammar and punctuation errors abound in public and so-called professional businesses, it was heartening to see young girls (around the ages of 6,7, 8, or 9) taking their places in front of a microphone and reciting poetry that they had written by themselves. It was good poetry, too! Even more encouraging was that one of the hosts of the event gave out little notebooks for the young participants, so that they can continue writing. This is the future, I thought to myself at the time. These are the kids who are going to make a difference in the world. These are kids I have respect for. The host was obviously in agreement, as he had earlier recited a wonderful piece he wrote about how children are growing up too fast--skipping their childhood, emulating the dress and moves of celebrities, and finding nothing but trouble down that road.

What his poem didn't say is how society not only condones this behavior but encourages it. An enlightening book I read a few years ago, Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers' Schemes by Sharon Lam, Ed.D., and Lyn Mikel Brown, Ed.D., laid this out clearly. I have a feeling--and a hope--that the young girls who read their poems last Friday are above (at least, to some extent) the trends that society tries to set for "tweens" (a word created, incidentally, by marketers; what happened to "pre-teen" or, simply, "girl"?).

I read an essay a couple of years ago called "Can Poetry Matter?" by Dana Goia, from the book of the same name. I thought of this essay as I listened to the girls reciting their poetry last Friday, as I listened to the other poets and their predominantly positive messages, as I sat there with my heart beating fast with excitement and joy and hope. I wanted to shout, "Yes! Poetry CAN matter! It DOES matter!" Because the poets who read at the museum--young and old, male and female--proved it to me. It matters to them; it matters to me. If an eight-year-old girl can get up and read a poem she wrote in front of an audience of 200 people (mostly adults), she can do "anything." She IS the future!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Think About Time

Who isn't excited that we "gain" an extra hour tonight (even though we'll lose it again in the Spring)? An extra hour of sleep, yes? Or, an extra hour to stay up? Whichever.

It's actually not very hard to get anyone thinking about time. If, like me, you've long been shackled into the North American mindset of rushing around, you know what I mean and are used to hearing or uttering phrases such as, "I don't have time!", "Don't waste time.", "Where has the time gone?", or "Hurry up, I don't have all day."

So, what I would like to get you thinking about is this: Why do we think of time so often? Why do we make so many references to it? Why do we get impatient with people who are walking or moving too slow? On the other hand, why (and how) are some cultures so relaxed about time? Why can't we practice those same mindsets? What is it about time that keeps us so enslaved to it?

Thoughts? Please post your comments!

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Think About Yoga

I attended my second yoga session this evening. I knew what to expect this week; I mean, it's not too different from what you see in magazines or on television, but nothing you see or hear in mass media can prepare you for the experience of yoga. (A quick caveat--it probably varies somewhat from teacher to teacher, and I've only had one so far.)

It feels natural to close your eyes while doing yoga, and that is what the women in my class do. (I, however, have to peek periodically, just to double-check that I'm in the right position.) It is perhaps the closed eyes that contribute to the feeling of zen. It, perhaps, is also the soft nature music, the gentle voice of the teacher, and the dim room, lit only by natural light and candles. Peaceful. Quiet.

The teacher tells us, as we begin, not to think any one thought too long. This is difficult for my obsessive-compulsive mind. But, I follow her instructions, breathing deeply and freely; and negative thoughts do finally seem to dissipate with each subsequent even breath. Instead of thinking about that day's thoughts, the teacher instructs us--as we dance our fingers up and down our feet--to think about our toes, to think about the skin of our fingers touching the skin of our feet, to think about what it feels like. These are thoughts that I don't ordinarily think about during the day; and, consequently, these are the thoughts that feel very important to me right then. Why haven't I been thinking about my toes?, I wonder.

The teacher asks us to think about what our feet do for us and, later, what our noses do for us. How often do you think about your nose? She actually asks that question.  Again, I wonder to myself, why don't I think of my nose more often?

Press your fingers against each other, one hand facing the other, palm to palm. Think of the spaces that don't touch neatly together. How does it feel when your right pointer finger touches your left pointer finger?

So often we go through our days expecting our body to work endlessly for us--our legs to walk, our arms to lift, our fingers to type--but we don't always think of our body parts and how they work individually. It's that way in other aspects of life, too--we aren't always looked at as individuals; we're looked at as a team, a group, a class. When you're singled out, though, for something positive, how does that make you feel?

After two sessions of yoga, I certainly am not a yoga expert; but I think that, in some ways, the key objective of yoga is to invite a person to look at his or her body and, then, his or her whole life differently, if only for an hour session at a time.