Children Ponder Good & Evil at Camp Klicek

 

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We are all capable of good and evil.  People do bad things – sometimes they make mistakes that cause harm unwittingly. Sometimes they hurt others purposefully. Sometimes, doing nothing causes more pain for others than we can possibly imagine. At Camp Klicek in Malejovice, Czech Republic, founders Jiri and Marketa Královcovi make room for children to discuss and think about tough issues. They want kids in their care to be more than followers and simplistic thinkers, to see the humanity in everyone and the possibility that although conflict might be inevitable when a large group of people gather, people can make mistakes and still not be bad people.

And so, on one bright summer morning, following a hearty breakfast of porridge, bread, tomatoes, peppers, tea and hot carob with milk, the adults at camp led the children in an activity that reverberated throughout the week. The children gathered in small groups by age bracket. Some sat in the meadow, some under the mess tent, others in the courtyard. With adult guidance, they contemplated these questions:

  • What are bad or evils things?
  • Why do people do them?
  • What can be done about it?

The children took the assignment seriously, taking notes and including the voices of all. I moved amongst the groups, catching a snippet here and there from a kind translator. The children mentioned everything from the past and present atrocities of the world to the more mundane, including genocide, torture, terrorism and bullying on their lists. The youngest camper, when asked why people do bad things, answered, “Because they don’t love each other.”

At the end of the small group conversations, each group reported out to the whole camp, as we sat in the shade of the mess tent and processed together. The discussions were the scaffolding for the real fun. The next step of this activity involved each group choosing one of their examples, writing a play script to demonstrate the concept, and videotaping the enactment. The kids were deeply involved in this process throughout the day, and that night, they set up an outdoor theater in the courtyard, complete with a movie screen, the moon shining down upon us, and homemade apple strudel made from the summer apples, the Klicek version of popcorn. We smacked our lips and licked our fingers as we watched the completed movies, along with some movies created in past years.

My favorite play depicted two different families heading off to summer camp.  One family had no luggage or sleeping bags, just the clothes on their backs. The mother handed her children 10 crowns apiece and kissed them goodbye. The other family stood in front of a Mercedes Benz with their fancy clothes, belongings, cell phones, and the mother dolling out hundreds of crowns to each child. The scenario played out with the rich kids arriving at camp, immediately making fun of the poor kids, an act of kindness when one of them falls down and the other helps them up, and all of the kids ending up playing a game of football (soccer in the US) together.

A simple message, but one not lost on any of us. The campers did indeed come from a variety of backgrounds, and would probably not be interacting at school or in social circles outside of this camp environment. When I think of acts of evil, I think about how we create separation by dehumanizing people who we label as “other.” It is harder to keep these stereotypes and misconceptions in place when we wake, sing, break bread, play, and rest our heads together in the same teepee. I saw many acts of kindness each day between campers, whether it was an older child helping another child navigate steep steps, the hard work of the volunteers in our kitchen, or folks pitching in to help a teen search for her lost eyeglasses.

The thoughtful planning applied to activities that built community astounded me. Along with a mess kit and clothes, the camp packing list asked each child and adult to bring a glass jar with a lid to camp. The campers decorated these jars with their names and artwork, and hung them by ribbons on the branch of a low tree in the meadow behind the house. They left messages of appreciation in each jar, to adults and kids alike throughout the weeks. At the end of camp, they each took their jar with them, with strict instructions to hold off on opening it until they had arrived home. Marketa said that this is a concrete way to further the bonds created at camp. “Some of these children are isolated because of their illnesses. These jars and their notes are a lifeline for them throughout the year.”

My jar sits on my desk at home and reminds me of the generosity of spirit that children share so willingly. I can see why these campers return year after year to the meadow, the tree and the love.

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Kiddos

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A headline caught my eye this morning:

Miss USA 2018 Sarah Rose Summers on Her New Job, #ConfidentlyBeautiful, and Working with ‘Kiddos’

I searched the article to see if she was quoted as using the word, “kiddo”, and couldn’t find any reference to it in her eloquent and passionate description of her work as a child life specialist. So I am going to put the use of the word down to creative journalism.

But I do read and hear that word often in the vocabulary of child life specialists far and wide, in person and in writing — and it has never fallen easily on my ears. I wonder sometimes if I am being nitpicky. But I looked it up on the internet and my intuition was backed up, first by the definition I found, and secondly by several conversations in the media by everyone from teachers to business women and journalists.

Here are two definitions I found:

Google Dictionary says that it is “used as a friendly or slightly condescending form of address.”

Webster’s New World College Dictionary describes it as a term of affectionate address sometimes mildly patronizing

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THAT is the nuance that has always been pricking the back of my brain. It is the fact that there is such a thin line between an affectionate colloquial term and one that imparts a power deferential, demeaning the individual to whom we are referring.

In an article entitled “The word every boss should ban“, Leigh Gallagher says, “But kiddo can also be patronizing and condescending, and while the person using the term may think of it as an expression of benign affection, it doesn’t always come across that way. For a young woman who is trying her best to be taken seriously, ‘kiddo’ can very quickly wipe all that away.”

In a conversation between teachers, the opinions are all over the map, but the underlying message for us is one of being conscious of the language we use, and how it informs our professional relationships with children.

When I think of children in hospitals, I think about how disempowered they are by virtue of being a patient in a medical institution. It seems that anything we can do, including refraining from using unintentionally demeaning language, can usher in more humanity to an inherently dehumanizing environment. Calling children and parents by their given names, even asking how they prefer to be addressed, taking the time to note names and refer back to them, seems like the least we can do to show children and families that we see them for the unique individuals they are – beyond the confines of the hospital.

 

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Someone Who Looks Like Me

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Early morning this past Tuesday, I squeezed onto the uptown #5 train on my way to the Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx. The morning rush crowd swept me off the train at 149th Street and Third Avenue, and up the steps to a busy thoroughfare, where several streets spoked out in various directions. I made my way up a hill, heading north and west to where the school backed up against a Catholic church. The main school entrance opened onto a set of stairs, leading to a hallway where a receptionist at a small school desk pointed me up another two flights to the science room. Paper signs with arrows and CAREER DAY in bold print showed me the rest of the way, and I climbed the freshly painted cement steps, taking in the familiar smells and sounds of institutional cooking and children’s voices echoing through the high ceilinged halls.

The principal, Sr. Patrice, a longtime friend, and an avid Yankee fan, set down her coffee to greet me with a warm hug. My life partner is the school’s Board president, and this was not my first visit to the grammar school that holds a great reputation for its students continuing on to high school and college. In a neighborhood with highly segregated, low resourced public schools, this school provides an alternative pathway to children of all denominations.  Several other visitors, business people and alumni, sat at the round work tables on an assortment of chairs and stools, sipping coffee and nibbling at sweetbreads that I was thrilled to see. Breakfast had eluded me and I was starving.

I looked up from my croissant to see my friend enter the room. “Hey, Cassandra!”  I waved her over to my table. Cassandra is the executive director of the 163rd Street Improvement Council. They provide housing and supportive services for people with a variety of special needs. Cassandra is a fan of women’s basketball and attended Liberty games at Madison Square Garden in seats next to my partner. I’d met her when she invited us to her 60th birthday party, and we’d been Facebook friends ever since. I didn’t know her well, but I thought of her when I’d accepted the invitation to career day. At a previous career day, I’d noticed that there seemed to be a disproportionate amount of white speakers given the fact that most of the students were kids of color. I reached out to Cassandra in a transparent way, telling her I thought the kids might do better seeing more adults who looked like them. (See The Danger of a Single Story.) She accepted immediately, and here she was, excited and nervous about addressing the kids.

Sr. Patrice had us each booked in separate rooms with half hour talks over a two hour period. I began with the fifth graders, who were eager to learn about the wonderful profession of Child Life. I began by asking them how many of them had ever been hospitalized. Every hand in the room shot up, making me think about the healthcare disparities in poorer neighborhoods — chronic illnesses such as asthma being a common scourge.  I shared some stories about playing with sick children and showed them the ultimate child life fact — how once an IV is inserted, the needle retracts into the plastic holder and only a flexible plastic tube called a catheter remains in your vein. I brandished a real IV start to demonstrate, causing several kids to cringe in fear. Reassuring them that no one would get stuck with a needle by me, I passed around the catheter for them to examine, showing them how it was so small that a mouse could probably drink a milkshake through it. They brimmed over with questions.

  •  What do you do if a child doesn’t want to play?
  • Are all the kids really sick, or do some of them have like broken bones?
  • Do you sometimes feel sad?
  • What do you do when it is really hard?
  • What do you do if a child doesn’t get better?
  • How do you become a child life specialist?

Our time together had one dramatic interruption when a bird flew into the room and many of the children panicked and lept shrieking from their chairs. Sr. Patrice came to see what was causing such a commotion. Her calm and authoritative presence quieted the room so that we could continue. She gave me credit, saying how lucky it was that a child life specialist was there to calm the children, but I knew that she was the one with the magic powers.

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My next gig was a classroom of sixth graders. They’d been hosting several speakers before me and were a bit wound up by the time I arrived. So I got them out of their seats for some stretching before beginning my talk. This group had some questions, but they were more interested in telling their own stories of hospitalization. I listened as several children quietly shared about their medical encounters, which sounded scary and unpleasant. Some of them had met a child life specialist, but many hadn’t. One girl said, “Child life needs to come to Lincoln Hospital.” That was a great segue for me to talk about why the profession needed more people like them, who understood what their communities needed.

After our time with the kids, Cassandra and I met up back in the science room and trekked down the hill to part ways, she to her car and I to the subway. Her enthusiasm and joy for the day were clear – She’d had a blast with the students. We celebrated and documented our day by posing for a selfie in front of the church. IMG_5559

Two days later, Cassandra reached out on Facebook with this post:

Today I got a call from a parent of one of the kids from yesterday (Some of the kids asked for my business card). She called to thank me — her 14 year old came home excited about this person who was passionate and accomplished and “looked like me.”

I am so grateful to have been used in this way.

I am thinking that next year, I need to invite more people of color to join me, including child life specialists. Anyone want to join us? In the meantime, consider a  visit to your own neighborhood public schools to spread the good word and ignite the fire in the next generation of child lifers.

 

Equity During Transitions

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At the 2018 commencement ceremony of the BankStreet College of Education this past week, graduates weren’t the only ones juggling feelings of excitement, nostalgia, and anticipation. Cheering on our Child Life Program students brought forth memories of some watershed moments in my own career. When a colleague reached out to the Child Life Forum today asking for child lifers to share thoughts about advocacy and empowerment in times of transition, I began to think more deeply about who and what supported me as I pursued my passion to work with children in hospitals.
As a career changer, I  worked as a coordinator in the volunteer department (a paid position) at a large cancer hospital for over seven years. I discovered the field of child life while attending a professional development workshop at my workplace. A participant introduced herself as a child life specialist, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the lightbulb that went off in my head lit up the whole room. I had found my calling.   She recommended the BankStreet College, and I enrolled soon thereafter,  minoring in child life within a masters in early childhood special education. The hospital paid for my degree, and it took me almost 4 years to complete as I worked full-time.
When I finally graduated, I very much wished to work in the same hospital on the pediatric ward where I had placed, trained, and supported over 125 volunteers. My colleague, the director of pediatric recreation, (child life wasn’t yet in existence there) told me that although she would enjoy working with me, she felt that if I didn’t leave the hospital and spread my wings that I would regret it. I listened to her and left for a large city hospital, working in the emergency department, pediatric wait and play room, and the child abuse clinic, where I learned more than I ever could have imagined. It was a very important time of growth for me and my colleague had been so right.
Another moment of transition came when I took on some of my first private clients. Two professors from my studies at Bankstreet referred me to work with children in their homes, to help them cope with medical procedures and the loss of a family member. My mentors provided supervision for me as I tackled this new and exciting challenge. They showed faith in me where I had little in myself, and they made it possible for me to take this next step. I am forever in their debt and I do my best to pay it forward in my work now as a professor in child life. My mentors’ investment scaffolded me to accomplish far more than I ever could have managed alone. It makes me think of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, and how children can accomplish more within a trusting and supportive relationship with an adult than they can on their own. But what does that mean for people who may not have access to these kinds of helpers?
With each step I have taken in my career, someone has always stepped forward to show me the way, cheering me on and acknowledging my abilities and place in the world. Some mentors have been teachers, some colleagues or friends. But that feeling of having someone opening a door for me and having my back as I walked through it, is something I have perhaps taken for granted. I may have always been grateful, but it never occurred to me that all this support could be the result of White Privilege. In her Integrated Masters Project study of Diversity and Social Capital in the Field of Child Life, BankStreet graduate Madalyn Marshall examines the obstacles for people of color entering the field of Child Life. Her research shows how social capital paves the way for White women in our profession. Given the fact that Child Life is dominated by White women, it behooves us to consider ways in which we can take action to change the face of our profession to include more people of color, to better meet the needs of the diverse populations we serve.
In the words of one of this year’s student speakers at commencement, Elise Hebel, “BankStreet’s mission and creed call on students, graduates, and teachers to enter with all five senses alert, to never stop learning, to be flexible, creative, gentle, and just, and to advocate for the rights and dignity of all.” She further entreats us to “nurture tolerance, understanding, and appreciation for the many differences and similarities that unite us, not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but stepping into the role of giant and empowering the vision and actions of others.”
Are we ready to take this first giant step? Recognizing our own positions of privilege is a start.
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Wonder

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“Doctors have come from distant cities just to see me. Stand over my bed disbelieving what they’re seeing. They say I must be one of the wonders of God’s own creation. And as far as they see they can offer no explanation… Oh I believe Fate smiled at Destiny. Laughed as she came to my cradle. Know this child will be able. Laughed as my body she lifted. Know this child will be gifted. With love, with patience and with faith she’ll make her way.”

–Natalie Merchant

I am not sure of when it was that I first heard Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder”, but each time I do hear it, it resonates deeply with me and I feel incredibly witnessed and uplifted.

In the early morning hours of my birth, the doctor gravely informed my parents that he had little hope for my survival. He actually discouraged my mother from naming me, in a misguided effort to help her accept the inevitable. I was born with a rare genetic skin disorder, Congenital Ichthyosiform Erythroderma (CIE). I made my first appearance on earth encased in a collodian membrane  – a tight outer layer resembling plastic wrap, looking as my father loves to say, like a “shiny red sausage”. The doctors didn’t know what to make of me. They had no name for my symptoms, no explanation for my appearance. But their worry about my skin’s ability to provide a sufficiently protective barrier led them to believe that I would not survive.

 

I spent one month alone in the hospital, as doctors searched high and low for a diagnosis. Parental visits were discouraged. They finally suggested that my parents seek an answer at a larger children’s hospital. My parents held me for the very first time in the back seat of the car, as their friends drove them the hour and a half to New York City. Another month passed before I was discharged, still without a diagnosis. The hospital cautioned my parents that the road ahead would be a rough one, and they highly recommended that my family employ a full-time nurse to see to my complicated needs. My mother balked at this. “I’m her mother,” she said. “I am the only nurse she needs.”

 

My diagnosis came soon after, when Dr. Charles Sheard, a dermatologist in Stamford, CT, observed that I appeared to have the same symptoms as one other patient he had read about in some obscure medical journal. Dr. Sheard took me on as a regular patient, seeing me once a week for the first year of my life, then monthly, and as I continued to grow and develop, annually throughout my teen years. He never charged my parents a dime. Although I suffered some complications and hospitalizations during childhood, my health stabilized and I have grown to live a full and rich life with few limitations. When dermatologists examine me, they remark at the seemingly mild case of ichthyosis I have, compared to other patients whose condition hugely impacted their development, mobility, and appearance.

 

I did, however, struggle with post-hospital trauma in the form of sleep disturbances, sensory issues, and severe separation anxiety. Then came the bullying in school. But I had several resilience factors at play in my life. I grew up listening to my parents tell me stories of my early health challenges, referring to me as a survivor and a fighter. My mother too was a fighter and fierce advocate for my medical and emotional needs throughout my growing years.  It should come as no surprise that I became a child life specialist as an adult, advocating for the emotional and developmental needs of children facing illness in hospitals and their communities.  Natalie Merchant’s song “Wonder” reminds me of the miracle of my birth and life, how I surprised the naysayers, and how my mother saw the possibilities and joy in my birth and life more than the dire prognosis.
To learn more about the many forms of icthyosis, check out the Foundation for Icthyosis and Related Skin Types.

Frightened Teens: Supporting Your Adolescent in Scary Times

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Another Shooting.

It takes all of our strength as grown-ups to not give in to despair, anxiety, and fear in the face of yet another young person accessing an assault rifle and murdering his peers. School is supposed to be a safe place for all children — teens included.

As the political debates about gun control make our brains feel like exploding, we have to remember to reach out to the adolescents in our care. If it is that tough for us to wrap our heads around, how much harder is it for teens? We must be proactive in engaging teens in conversation every day, about life, about what is important to them, and about the awful things that happen in the world. When something truly terrible happens, it is even more important to take the time to listen, witness, and validate their struggles. And this often means admitting that we don’t have the answers.

Teens have the capacity to reason, to wrestle with abstract concepts, and to articulate their feelings. But their brains are still developing, as is their self-concept, their ideas about who they are in the world. A random act of extreme violence will shake their new identities and burgeoning belief systems to the core, and they need calm, kind adults to prop them up as they try to make sense of their new reality. They need to know what to expect as much as possible, who they can count on. We know it isn’t always easy, so here are a few tips from the experts.

Tips For talking with Teens

What Mental Health Experts say to Their Kids

Fear and trauma responses can sometimes look like anger and disconnect. The teen who is suffering the most, without the ability to articulate and share their feelings, may be the one who needs your best efforts. Often teens find it easier to talk about tough topics when they are involved in an activity. Consider a cooking project, or gathering some art supplies, maybe magazines for collage. Or how about the ingredients to make a mini volcano? As you create something together, you can talk about how the shooter was a volcano waiting to blow, and how many feelings are often seething underneath. The teen can write down questions they have about life or list things that make them feel like blowing their top, and these items can be folded and put into the volcano before you set off the eruption together.

Volcano!

Introduction

This technique helps release anger through a structured activity providing an opportunity to discuss anger and to problem solve. It works well individually and in groups with preschoolers to teens.

Materials

  • Small paper cup or medicine cup (Dixie brand bathroom cups work great)
  • Plastic cereal bowl
  • One container of Play-Dough (The kind that comes in a 4-pack) or homemade.
  • White vinegar
  • Dishwashing liquid
  • Baking soda
  • Red and yellow food coloring
  • Teaspoon

Activity

  • Place a small paper cup upright on top of an upside-down plastic bowl. Secure it with a few pieces of tape.  Wrap it in play dough to make a volcano, leaving the mouth of the cup open.  Pour ¼ cup white vinegar, two squirts of dishwashing liquid, and several drops of food coloring into the “mouth” of the volcano.
  • If the child wishes, they can write down or dictate things that upset them (make them scared or angry or mad) on tiny pieces of paper and place them in the volcano.
  • Spoon in a heaping teaspoon of baking soda and watch the eruption!
  • For instant replays, alternate adding a little more baking soda and vinegar. A group can make a larger volcano using a large salad bowl and more playdough. Miniature people, animals, and props can be added to add aspects of dramatic play.

 

 

 

 

 

Defrosting

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Some wonderful people just visited us over the holidays. They came all the way from Mexico City to spend Christmas in NYC. The added bonus was that although I am close friends with Marifer, I didn’t know the other two very well. But by the time they left, I felt I had two new chosen family members that I will cherish for a lifetime. Marifer’s mother Arin and brother Toño (an amazing photographer and artist) had never visited our beautiful city before, and they arrived months after the untimely and unexpected death of Fer and Toño’s father. Little did they know that they would have a rude welcome in the form of ridiculously cold temperatures. But intrepid is their middle name and we spent 10 days exploring the many beautiful spaces and places in the five boroughs, including grocery shopping in New Jersey. To heck with the cold!

We shared our holiday ritual of attending a Christmas pageant at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Christmas Eve, followed by a dinner with cousins at a cozy Italian Restaurant. We shopped, cooked, chatted around the kitchen table and shouldered through holiday crowds at Rockefeller Center, Herald Square, and Times Square. We tramped up and down subway steps, dove for coveted seats on the #6 train, waved at the Statue of Liberty from the ferry, ate dumpling noodle soup in Chinatown, warmed our hands and tummies with coffee stops along the way, trekked into museums, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, The public library at 42nd street, the Empire State Building, Bemelman’s Bar, Trinity Church on Wall Street, and B&H Photo midtown. We took a carriage ride through Central Park, viewed the Christmas lights of Dyker Heights, and enjoyed Shake Shack burgers. They topped off the trip on their last day by treating us to scaling the Freedom Tower via the time lapsing elevator ride to the observatory.

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All in all, a pretty incredible week. There was one thing that we had to work around though – our freezer drawer froze shut in a solid block of ice due to a broken water hose connected to the ice maker. It took 12 full days to defrost, and we had to balance our adventures with checking in and emptying pans of runoff water to prevent flooding and mayhem. In what felt like the grip of an ice age, it was almost impossible to imagine that the freezer drawer would ever open again.

And then, before the drawer even opened, they left. They had the nerve to go back to the more moderate climes of Mexico.

A familiar rush of emotion rolled over me – I call it separation anxiety and there is a historical basis for it. I link the surging adrenaline and profound sadness to my early childhood experience of lengthy hospitalizations (2 months at birth and many more throughout my childhood). In those years, doctors did not allow parental presence overnight or for procedures, and my parents unwillingly left me alone for long periods of time. To this day, I weep and feel extraordinarily vunerable whenever I say goodbye to my parents and close friends. The separation anxiety sets in a few days before the parting, rearing its ugly head and tightening my chest against the inevitable pain.

But I have learned a lot over the years.

  • First: The pain always dissipates.  It feels crushing and paralyzing at  first. In those initial moments, it seems that it will never be okay again, that the emotions are permanently etched into every waking moment of my life. But this is not the truth, and the pain gets a bit less with each passing day, and in particularly good times with each passing hour.
  • Second: Even though I have a unique personal history, many other people suffer from this kind of agony. Talking to someone who really gets it normalizes the feeling, helps ameliorate the intensity, and lessens the shame and self flagellation that can accompany it.
  • Third: Your average person can feel down around any holiday, especially if they have suffered a loss.  Depression and/or anxiety can naturally follow even pleasant holiday experiences.
  • Fourth: Despite the intensity of my suffering, I would never choose to avoid it by giving up friendship, intimacy, and community. The gain is always worth what follows, and the sun always rises after. Like Florence and the Machine sing, “It’s always darkest before the dawn!
  • Fifth: For any clinician working with families, or anyone who knows someone suffering a horrible loss, we can reflect hope and faith in the return of joy even in the midst of pain. We can give permission for all emotions and refrain from enforcing an arbitary expiration date on the grieving process.

So, hail to all you hardy souls out there, who love in the face of loss and suffering, who choose to walk through life with an open heart. And for anyone who hesitates, but considers it, try taking a leap of faith in the ultimate defrosting process. The light and warmth will return, and the seasons of life will always sprinkle some joy amidst the sorrows.

 

 

Kindness as a De-stressor for the Holiday Season

 

Whether or not you are a Christian, the month of December descends upon many of us all with an overload of stress: pressing consumerism, forced merriness, and social and family expectations that can make us feel less than and despairing in so many ways. We can lose sight of the sense of hope that the season is meant to embody, the acceptance of darkness before the dawn, the preparing and waiting for the light, the igniting of that light within ourselves and others, all in the maelstrom of media messages.

Well, today, I am thankful for this calendar that I found on social media, and I want to share it with all of you, I see it as a template. It might be a wonderful activity for you to do alone, with children, or with family members. If you make your own kindness calendar, you can add to it acts of kindness that hold specific meaning for you and are within your reach to accomplish. You can place a piece of oaktag or cardboard over it and cut out little doors and windows to open each day.

Just contemplating this activity makes me think of kindnesses I have witnessed in the recent and not so recent past.

A fellow teacher had a particularly bad day when a troubled student lost control, trashed the classroom and scratched the teacher’s face. My assistant teacher, Elizabeth, entered her colleague’s classroom during her lunch break to find her fellow teacher crying. Elizabeth quietly went about the room, righting chairs, picking up toys, and straightening up the chaos. Then she went to the nearby market and brought back some chocolate. These gestures spoke so much louder than words of consolation might have.

At a family gathering in the basement of a local Baptist church, where parents and children worked on arts and crafts, a family struggled with finding positive ways to respond to their preschooler. I watched as each parental admonition ratcheted up the child’s resistance and anger. For a few moments, my friend, Edna, joined the child in play, and gave him some gentle, corralling, positive feedback, helping him to self regulate and giving the parents a break.

On the city bus, a loud and hostile argument broke out between two passengers, fueled by both, but with one person definitely being more aggressive. As his voice grew louder and louder, an elderly lady finally stood up, and approached the yeller. “You need to stop,” she said. “It’s not okay to use that kind of language.” Once she spoke up, others did as well, and the situation calmed down.

A nurse responds to my tears of fear facing chemotherapy by putting down her medical implements, drawing her chair up to mine, taking my hands in hers and telling me that God will help me bear whatever I must face.

A yoga teacher guided our class in breathing with intention and awareness yesterday. He said that when we breathe for ourselves, we are breathing for all of our loved ones, and for all humanity. When we feel so overwhelmed that even breathing feels like a colossal task, it does help to know that it is enough, and that breathing can be more than a self sustaining act. Breathing can sustain others. So whether your acts of kindnesses are as simple as breathing, or a single word, a glance, a gesture, it is all within your grasp to ignite the light of loving kindness in yourself and others, one act and one day at a time.

 

 

Velvet Revolution Remembered

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November 17, 2017 marked the 28th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when  Czech citizens rose up against communism and succeeded in toppling the regime, foretelling the coming dissolution of the USSR. This date is no coincidence, as it echoes a previous moment in history, when the Nazis responded to students’ protests by closing all Czech universities, killing 9 students and imprisoning 1200 in concentration camps.

On the national holiday, the Kralovecs and I joined the throngs at Wenceslas Square in Prague to remember and celebrate the arrival of freedom and democracy  to their country. A large stage with a giant screen broadcast live music and political speeches. When we first arrived, yards away a news crew interviewed one candidate for the presidency, surrounding him with bright camera lights and microphones.

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Booths lined the street, some displaying candles in red glass jars, and ribbons in Czech red white and blue, others offering political information. One encouraged passers by to sign a petition calling a stop to the hunger strike of a man protesting the current president running again for office. People feel that his life is more important than the foolishness of the current president.

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The self sacrifice is reminiscent of a student’s martyrdom in 1969.  Jan Palach set himself on fire at Wenceslas Square after the Soviet Union invaded his native Czechoslovakia to crush the reforms of Alexander Dubcek’s government.  The actions of people who sacrifice themselves in order to awaken awareness and resistance against oppression are as disturbing as they are inspiring. Why should this have to happen in order for people to wake up and resist?

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We headed to Narodni Trida, the place where the protestors and police clashed on the fateful day. Entering a building where an exhibit of enlarged photos of the revolution hung in the lobby, I noticed a father explaining one photo to his small son.

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The photos told the story of the revolutionaries, who were students for the most part. They carried signs calling for freedom. One showed students with raised and open hands. A banner read “Our hands are empty!” indicating their lack of weapons. Apparently the wording for “We have sticks in our hands” is very similar to their statement, and the authorities later lied in the press, reporting that the students were inciting violence. In fact, it was a peaceful demonstration and many students handed or threw flowers to the police in riot gear, who responded with violence.

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Outside the building a sea of glowing red candles and flowers surrounded the edifice. Citizens young and old  approached the flickering monument to add their own candle or flowers. Small children crouched at the edges, observing the firelight while they braved the cold night.

 

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A marching band made its way up the middle of the street along the trolley tracks and stopped beneath a balcony to accompany a singer whose voice silenced the crowd. She sang a rendition of a song performed from the same balcony during the protest, and I could see that many people were moved to tears by her words. Even though I don’t speak Czech, I too felt a stirring and energy that seemed synergistic with the crowd’s mood.

I  had many questions for Jiri  and Marketa about what they recall from that day in 1989. They explained that their role was a small one, handing out pamphlets and showing up for the protests. The people of Prague were mostly open to the ideas of change and democracy, but the citizens in rural areas were more closed to the revolutionary ideas and less willing to risk protesting Communism. Well known actors took up the cause to travel in groups from village to village to impart the message of freedom and facilitate change. It makes me think of what evil can do in the face of no action at all, and it was the many risks that people took, large and small, that brought about tremendous change.

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We drove home watching the television broadcast of the Memory of the Nation Awards broadcast from an elegant theater on the Square and streamed on Jiri’s smartphone. A dear friend of the Kralovecs, Father Frantisek Lizna, was one of three recipients. The nation celebrated the Jesuit priest for his service to the country in taking a stance against Communism that landed him in jail, and for a life of service to those in need. I had met him on one of my previous visits, and I recall his kind, open and playful nature. Indeed,  jokes and banter peppered his acceptance speech, and he exuded humor and lightness even in this formal environment.

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Funny enough, we found out later that we all appeared on the national Czech news prime time that night, as the news cameras caught us unaware in the crowd. I felt extraordinarily blessed to stand witness to the history of this place and to share in the personal memories of my revolutionary friends. As we headed home through the dark and foggy roads to the village of Malejovice, I thought about how the students proclaimed that in unity there is strength, despite the authorities’ attempts to separate the workers from the educated classes in order to tamp down knowledge and resistance. I think of our own country and how coming together may be the only way to survive and thrive as a true democracy.

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Whose Woods These Are

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I awoke to my first snow of the season dusting the rooftops, fence posts and trees of Malejovice. The woods called to me and so I donned hiking boots and set out over the fields to the forest. The snow sifted quietly, the mud of the unpaved road sucked at my feet and the utter silence filled my heart.

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Arriving in the forest felt like entering the haunts of Hansel and Gretel.  I stepped past the trickling brook and into the peace of the sheltering pine trees. The pine needles cushioned my steps and the trilling of birds and patter of melting snow the only sounds. I passed a fallen tree, it’s root system an earthy sculpture.  Pine cones and balsam branches decorated the forest floor.  Mossy tree stumps stirred memories of nature walks with my dad when I was very young. He used to point them out to me and tell me that they were fairy castles.

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I stood still and closed my eyes and listened. The first poem that I learned and memorized at age seven welled up from within.
“Whose Woods these are
I think I know.
His house is in the village though.
He will not mind me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sounds the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely dark and deep.
But I have promised to keep
And mikes to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.”
Robert Frost

Indeed I knew that friends and breakfast awaited. I reluctantly left the silence of the woods and headed back to the warmth of Malejovice over fields glistening in the melting snow.

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