Memories of France and Italy

I’m sorry, but “What was your favorite city?” is not a fair question. Yes, I have answered it, but if you have traveled much at all (and I hope you have), you know that it’s unlikely that one particular place rose above the rest of the amazing places.

Though I do understand the impetus of the question. You want me to relate the highlights of a 24 day get-away in a succint and helpful manner. You want to know, quickly, which place you may want to go on your trip someday (or maybe you’re just being polite). The problem is that visiting new places is very experiential. It happens, it’s awesome, and then you move on to the next amazing place. Unless one takes a video of the whole experience (which I’ve seen others do) — and even that isn’t the same — being there is really the only way to get across the enormity of the cathedral, the brilliant colors of the 15th century fresco, or the thrill of being 12,600 feet up in the mountains and seeing three countries at once. Words don’t do these experiences justice…so I should just stop writing….

Since I appreciate you taking the time to read this blog entry, however, here are my top seven favorite memories from our recent trip to France and Italy:

1. The greater Paris area speaks to me. The Metro is so useful and relatively cheap. The train (which is different from the Metro) helped us get to Giverny quickly and enjoy Monet’s gardens. We found ourselves at the top of places, searching for more stunning viewpoints (ie., Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triomphe, Notre Dame, and our 4th floor Airbnb, up one of many circular stairways). We enjoyed a riverboat cruise on the Seine River on the first night, too (Judy reaches to touch a bridge, below…click on the photo to enlarge it).

2. Beaune was memorable for the wine tastings, the food, and Daniele (our Airbnb host) and her generosity. I was surprised that the wine tastings were in the cellars of the winery; we snaked through over a mile of tunnels lined with wine barrels and stopped occasionally to drink a small quantity of various, delicious wines.

3. Mont Blanc took my breath away. That is, the views were gorgeous and we were so high up (12,600 feet) that I had some trouble breathing. We were in the French Alps at Chamonix, France, and found it charming and welcoming. We took the gondola up to Aiguille du Midi, an observation platform to view Mont Blanc; Rick Steves was there last year and made a short, informational video. Judy was in her glory with mountain views in every direction. We stayed at a beautiful, rustic hotel on the Arve River called the Hotel d’Arve And ‘stepped into the void’ for a dramatic photo.

4. The Amalfi Coast is gorgeous. We stepped into the Mediterranean Sea on some black, slippery stones in Positano. Then, later we stayed in a wonderful family hotel on a hill near Sorrento that overlooked the Tyrrhenian Sea and Naples and Mt. Vesuvius in the distance.

5. We were only in Venice for a couple days and in that short time we glimpsed the integral and complex place that diverse boats play there. We were on water taxis, a gondola, a water subway, a car ferry, and a regular ferry on our way out to the island of Lido to get to our hotel. And we found ourselves up high again to get a new perspective.

6. Staying at the Grand Hotel on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy with the Alps on the horizon was incredibly picturesque and the hotel’s lasagna was the lightest, most delicious of the trip. It was a resort area with a very relaxing vibe and I would go back in a nano-second.

7. Judy and I had a remarkable dinner experience in the Tuscany region outside of Florence at the Villa Machiavelli — excellent food (I had a T-bone steak), serenaded by a talented singer and guitar player, some impromptu dancing with Alissa (our travel director) and Preston (a new friend from Massachusetts with an artistic, fun sense), intersting conversation…and several local varieties of wine!

I would return to all of those spots. And many more. (I would have to win the Lotto to do it again soon…if you’re thinking about doing a similar trip and want to talk about costs for such a trip, email me at akabodian@gmail.com and we’ll talk over coffee.) Traveling is almost always costly, but it is always worth it, in my experience. I find that if I spend too long in my safe, predictable space, I forget about the rest of the world. I don’t think about people speeding along at 180 miles per hour on bullet trains or people who feel they need to pickpocket or palm bills upon payment in order to survive. I forget that there are other, interesting things to eat for breakfast, that even ice cream can blow your mind (as in…gelato), and that lemons (super-huge lemon skins) can be turned into tasty Limoncello. Travel spices up life by reminding us of the diversity of people and cultures. I can’t wait until we plan another get-away.

A few rules or guidelines we tried to live by while we were there:
1. Use a rest room whenever you have the chance because you may not see one again for awhile (or you may have to pay for it…some public rest rooms in Italy cost .50 euro – 1 euro to use).
2. Use the language of the country if possible. People seemed to appreciate it if we said Hello, Thank you, You’re welcome, and other phrases in the language of the country…although I think I said Parle vouz anglais? (Do you speak, English?) more than any other phrase.
3. If you hear English being spoken by others, assume they are tourists and engage them in conversation. That connection with strangers in a foreign place is like finding a surprise, temporary relative. We met people from many states (FL, CA, PA, NY, TX…) that way, as well as interesting blokes from England and Australia.
4. Wear your money belt (with credit cards, passport, and some euros) almost all the time you are in a public place. With exceptions like the hotel restaurant and the pool, we felt safer with our valuables under one layer of clothes. We still had a few bills and some change accessible in pockets, but not the more valuable items.
5. If your feet are happy, you’ll be happy. We both had amazing shoes with us — I wore my Keen hiking boots and Judy wore a Keen sandal with a closed toe most of the time. These shoes had plenty of support, some breathing space, decent comfort, and weren’t excessively heavy.
6. Write down what you did every day because it’s tough to remember later on. Judy was great at this.
7. Take some photos, but don’t go crazy with it…enjoy the moment. That may be hard to believe, if you follow the link to the photo album I put together. However, I could have filmed the whole trip…it was that amazing…so finding your own balance is necessary. You’ll see people who go overboard — don’t be that person.
8. Look up…and down. The ceilings are often the most impressive part of the view. Frescos cover many ceilings and multi-colored marble and granite show up when you least expect it. Ditto on the floors.
9. Let somebody who knows the area do the driving. We used the Metro in Paris, our Eurail passes several times crossing France and then, in Italy, let the bus driver get us places (we took the Best of Italy bus tour with Trafalgar, which we highly recommend; we also recommend Affordable Tours to book the tour). It lowered our stress-levels significantly to trust others to get us places and not try to figure it out — especially since we hadn’t been to most of the places we visited. It was more expensive, but I was so glad we had made that choice. And I still remembered how to drive when we returned…so yeah.
10. Rick Steves is usually right, so don’t doubt him.

Here are some of our photos and videos for your enjoyment. Let me know if you want a personal explanation of any or all of them:

France and some of Italy

More of Italy

The Cascade du Dard (waterfall) near Chamonix, France video

Alissa tells Odysseus/Sirens story on the road to Positano, Italy, video

Focusing Back on the Cup

Politics is damn distracting — all sparkly, full of itself, and seemingly important. But I’ve decided to treat Politics like my dentist or proctologist — a necessary evil seen infrequently.

Instead, I’m focusing back on the cup with the water in it. You know the one. Sometimes it looks half full, sometimes it looks half empty depending on your perspective on life. I had a Facebook friend challenge me recently to look at my cup. At first, my cup looked empty. Just when I was starting to nod in agreement, I realized the evening light was playing tricks with my eyes. And I was too close to the cup anyway. As I backed up, the water level was right around half way and it dawned on me that my life is at least half full.

I have a steady, though small, regular income; I may be the last person on Earth to get a pension, but as of this writing I still have one. It’s roughly 33% of my previous income as a teacher, but it’s something. And I have numerous opportunities to make more money: Schuler Books gives me money for hanging out there and helping people find books they want; I’m writing an online unit for Youth Voices; and ASPPIRE of Mid-Michigan just asked me to job coach a bit more and teach a Personal Finance class soon. Maybe I can learn something from that Finance class to help me keep some of my savings in the bank. Retirement from teaching has given me time to read, to write, to exercise more often, and to volunteer in various places — all blessing to be sure.

Plus, I have a loving family and wife, I have my health, I live in a safe country without many natural disasters in my area, and my community/city (ELi needs your help) is a very diverse, close group of people. My faith in God also sustains me. Though I’ve struggled with seeing it clearly, God’s presence in my life is a constant reassurance and strength — definitely part of that full part of the cup.

That empty, top-half of the glass does concern me, but I’m trying to see it more for its opportunities. I don’t think we can ignore the half-empty part of the cup. It’s the yin to the cup’s yang; neither could exist without the other. There are the obvious, recent causes of looking at the cup as half empty: our President-elect has no experience to lead us and has surrounded himself with a bunch of like-minded, wealthy, self-absorbed puppets; millions of people voted for this guy; climate change is real and we’re not doing enough to stop it; our country is still incredibly racist and sexist at a deep level; we won’t address poverty in any real way so as to affect educational opportunities for a great many young people in any transformative way; too many people live in fear and lack hope for the future…. It’s overwhelming if you focus on it. I’m acknowledging all of it, but I’ve decided to take the Serenity Prayer approach to it as much as possible.

Here it is if you need a reminder:

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

(prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, 1892-1971)

The things I can’t change just tend to infuriate me if I focus on them; I need to accept them and move on. I’m not saying it’s easy or even possible all the time, but that’s my goal. Other people…can’t change them. Who this country chose as a President…can’t change that. Deep breath. Moving on.

Even harder is having the courage to change the things I can change. Often that means rocking the boat and I’m not very good at that. But it needs to happen. I can call my senators and voice my concerns about Trump’s nominations (Check…did that today regarding DeVos). Not much rocking, but somewhat satisfying. Other, harder things involve digging deeper for courage: getting to know people of different races and cultures; working on improving relationships in my life; seeing a counselor when I need it; listening to people who think differently than I do; volunteering my time in ways that push my skills….

Yes, I see myself as a glass-half-full person. Life is good. I’m so grateful for the life I live. And The glass-is-also-half-empty. My life and the world could both improve greatly. I want to believe I’m learning to know the difference between what I can change and what I can’t…and I’m working to change those things I can.

1 if by land, 2 if by sea, 3 if by both

Pretend you are standing on the balcony of your penthouse suite on the top of a Seattle hotel. It’s a clear day, so you can see the Olympic Mountains to your west, Mt. Rainer to the southeast, and the Cascade Mountains to the east (with Mt. Baker in the northeast corner of your view). To the west and north you see a glimpse of Puget Sound and the waves look to be relatively calm today. It’s hard knowing which direction to explore first.

This dilemma is one of the reasons we keep going back to Seattle (besides the fact that Rachel and Robbie live there). In years past, we have hiked part of Mt. Rainer and poked around the Olympics, so this time we felt the urge to check out the Cascades and Puget Sound. It’s not always clear enough to see these grand creations of God from our penthouse suite, so we have to go to them to make sure they’re real.

A few years ago, Aaron biked throughout the San Juan Islands (in Puget Sound) and enjoyed the views and the natural setting. He suggested we visit the area. Rachel found an Airbnb on a 50 foot sailboat. (scroll through the photos on the link for a look at the boat!) Upon closer inspection, we discovered that the boat could be chartered up the the San Juans. We decided to go for it.

We all had very little sail boat experience. Fortunately, everyone (including Judy, Rachel, Robbie, and Aaron) seemed up for a new adventure. The owner and captain, Mike, also operated a bed and breakfast in the town of La Conner, WA, where the boat was docked. He offered us use of the shower at the bed and breakfast, since the bathroom on the boat looked like something you’d find in a tiny house. Adequate, but dinky (including a make-shift shower). He also offered us the option of laying outside behind the bed and breakfast since we were interested in seeing the Perseid meteor shower. We ended up not taking him up on the shower or the meteor view, but we appreciated the option.

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One of the most enjoyable and relaxing times of the trip was the first night on the boat. Due to Mike’s scheduling issues (he was summoned to do jury duty and couldn’t get out of it), we only had the one night on the boat and it was docked; at first that was disappointing, but it turned out to be a sort-of Mackinac Island-after-the-crowds-leave experience. We found the La Conner Brewery, then chilled on the deck of the boat, playing cards and keeping track of a couple local seals. The “kids” slept on the deck for part of the night, looking for meteors. While we could see many stars, only a few meteors were noticed before they opted for more comfy digs below.

We had also planned to go to Orcas Island and Sucia Island before Mike’s jury duty obligation; We settled for a one day cruise out to Saddlebag Island. It’s a state park and the whole island is small enough that we felt we had explored most of it in a short time (it’s 1/10 the size of Mackinac Island). We hiked every trail we could find and came across no more than 10 people the whole time. The unanticipated “excitement” of this part of the journey was rowing to the island on two skiffs. The combination of unsteady skiffs, only three paddles for two skiffs, and rowing into a current made for a memorable, tricky affair.

Our quick sailboat trip on the Armadillo gave us a satisfying taste of sea life. Sure we would have liked to sail more and explore more islands, but the time on the boat was very memorable and enjoyable.

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Other, AMAZING, highlights of the trip that you can glimpse in the photos, but you really had to be there to appreciate:

* Jason and Jackie’s wedding in Chicago started our trip. Jason is my cousin, Jan’s, son and he works on a top floor of a Chicago skyscraper at an ad agency where he influences which things we will buy. Jackie is a social worker. And despite this difference in occupation, they seem wonderfully matched for each other. The wedding and reception were grand affairs and we were blest to be among the witnesses. Long may they share life together.

* We saw the Tigers lose to the Mariners at Safeco Field. It was the third game of a Mariners sweep that never should have happened. Three close games that the Tigers let slip away. The one we saw started beatifully: 73 glorious degrees, fabulous view of the Seattle skyline, Verlander and Hernandez in fine form, and the whole family together and lovin’ “baseball.” We had donned our Tiger gear and were cheering at all the ‘right’ times, but not too obnoxiously. After Cruz homered off Verlander in the 7th, though, we slowly made our way to the exit…though still watching the game…just from another perspective…which happened to be closer to the folks with the brooms…and made our quick exit after the last pitch. Still fun, but we had nothing to boast about at that point.

* Our Table Mountain hike within close view of Mt. Baker was glorious. Check out the photos on the link or go there and hike it because there’s really no way to fully describe the nature-high, the majestic vistas, the precarious heights on the trail, or the the satisfaction of reaching the tabletop summit. We hiked 600 feet up in 1 1/2 miles, starting from an elevation of 5,100 feet…and then, of course, down those 600 feet. If it doesn’t sound like much of a hike, I think you should try it for yourself; it’s doable, but it took some focused energy and effort. And it was worth every step.

IMG_2265 We hiked to the highest point in this photo

We were fortunate to find another Airbnb in Bellingham for all of us. Though a tad more pricy than the average stay, it was a very welcome, comfortable stop on our Cascade journey (and we definitely need to get back to Bellingham’s hip scene at some point).

The Billings, MT, Airbnb was fantastic. Nice people, several cool dogs, and the bonus of banana bread and coffee.

The Sioux Falls Airbnb was even more well furnished and spacious. We would have liked to explore the area, but we had planned the trip out and back to be a quick one (and it did save us a lot of money over what airfare would have been); we need to re-visit these cool cities again another time.

If you didn’t see the photos earlier, here’s the link to all of them.

What Now?

The unpredictability is becoming predictable. So many aspects of life are on the verge of being jiggled off the tightrope. If life is a series of tightrope walkers (which is an unnerving analogy, I realize), we seem less and less sure which ones will get across to the other side.

The easiest example is the weather. Mr. Weather tightrope walker is a Rodney Dangerfield-type character. He’s so annoying it’s funny. He gets no respect since the headset he’s listening to is obviously not giving him accurate information. He thinks it’s God or the Weather Channel and it’s more often Gilligan’s Island reruns and Nirvana songs. The chances that Mr. Weather makes it across to the other side are 1 – 51% (weather is a male in my example because he has trouble asking for directions and is sure he is right, until he’s not). Worthless predictions galore.

The political race is a troubling (possibly drunk), “What now?” tightrope walker. From now until November, we will be wondering about the outcome. And even after the election, “What now?” will fit. I don’t really want to get into which candidate is better or worse (though I have strong opinions). All I want to offer the discussion on that matter is to say that we all have a responsibility and privilege to vote. The unpredictability factor is lessened a bit when we know we’ve had input. I’ve heard too many folks saying they aren’t going to vote because they don’t like the choices. Instead of opting out completely, I hope for civil discourse (reasonable discussions) and participation. And beyond that, I have faith that things will work out. But faith isn’t enough. We need to be active. I view the U.S. like a P.B.S. show sometimes: “This show, called the U.S.A., is presented by the generosity of voters like you; it’s up to each of us to participate and then we’ll really know what this country wants its show to look like.”

Some have lost faith in the system, but I believe we need to use the system and be active in improving the system. I was a teacher for over 25 years; public schools are flawed, as is our democracy. As part of these systems, however, we have more power than we realize and than we’ve used. One model for sharing this voice we have is called Letter to the Next President (another model is called…just contact your representatives and senators). It’s a nationwide initiative designed to give 8th-12th grade students an audience to share their concerns. And if I may plug a free workshop I’m leading…If you are interested in learning how you can get students participating in the initiative, check out this brochure about the workshop. Be vocal without being annoying or disrespectful.

Why am I staying impartial on the political question? I liked what Michelle Obama said in her Democratic Convention speech:
“So in this election, we cannot sit back and hope that everything works out for the best. We cannot afford to be tired, or frustrated, or cynical. No, hear me — between now and November, we need to do what we did eight years ago and four years ago: We need to knock on every door. We need to get out every vote. We need to pour every last ounce of our passion and our strength and our love for this country into electing Hillary Clinton as President of the United States of America.” So there it is.

People love to ask questions and make predictions about my retirement also. “What now?” is a logical curiosity. I’m only 55; I could live 30+ more years if I play my cards right. Many like to predict I will miss being with young people and miss the teaching…and in some ways they are probably right. However, predictions about me being bored or wishing I hadn’t retired (I predict) seem improbable. If I can go back to the tightrope walker analogy, I feel quite content on my walk; as a matter of fact, I’m embracing the unpredictability of retirement. Open to the possibilities of life.

As a wrap-up, I have to give a shout out to our POTUS on the occasion of his 55th birthday (yesterday). President Obama has led us admirably. There will never be a perfect president. I thank him for his level head, his intelligent way, his vision, his humor, his songs, his family focus, and so much more. Here are 55 photos of him on his 55th birthday. And I have to wonder “What Now?” for him, too.

While I’m doing shout outs, I loved New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s speech at the convention (here’s the text). I wonder if we’ll see more of him in four years…

This article by David Korten points out more of my thoughts on the campaign…
Yes Magazine’s article entitled “This Presidential Race is a Clear Choice: Flight, Fight, or Fellowship” May the Force be with us.

Mystery Skyping

Even since the Jetsons, I’ve been intrigued by the video phone idea.
jane-jetson

Now, we take it for granted, but back in the day it seemed quite futuristic. I was sure that if our society progressed enough to have the video phone, we would have flying cars, too. But I guess we’ll have to wait some time for highways in the sky.

This year, I decided to combine my excitement about video phones (like Skype), my middle school students’ curiosity, and the fun game of 20 questions. So, I employed the help of our district’s technology specialist, Kali Root, to figure out how to have my students Skype with other students around the world. She provided us with a laptop specifically-purposed for the Skyping event and with other tech support to make it happen. I signed up on the Microsoft Skyping website and let several teachers around the world know that we were interested in communicating with their classes.

I didn’t have to wait long. It’s now February and we have Skyped twice with classes around the world: Mr. Finkbeiner’s 8th grade classroom at Irma Coulson Public Schools in Milton, Ontario, Canada; and Steven DeFoer’s high school students in Berkenboom Humaniora in Belgium — though at the time, my students didn’t know their locations; they had to guess each other’s location. The teachers and I communicated in a patchwork of places: the Microsoft Skype website, twitter, and email. Part of my interest in this project was to introduce my students to students from around the world (and a bit of their culture). For example, the high school age students from Belgium were from a boarding school so the time change of several hours didn’t affect our call…and some of my students seemed surprised that students opted for that type of school.

Asking purposeful questions became a lesson in itself. We practiced and improved from the first Skype call to the second one. All in all it was a very worthwhile experiment, which I plan to keep re-visiting this year several more times; two out of my five classes have participated, so I guess we will do it at least three more times. Kali thought it went so well that she made us the spotlight of East Lansing’s tech page (you may have to scroll down a bit on the link). And I think my students had fun with it too. What started out as a far-fetched video phone idea turned into a risk I was willing to take and then a win-win-win learning opportunity. I highly recommend the experience to other teachers and would be willing to explain the process in more detail if others are interested.

That Poem I Promised You

Let me preface this poem with a bit of an explanation. A couple blog entries ago, I wrote about my time in South Dakota at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. It was a powerful, moving experience that, like many important moments in my life, I needed some extra time to more fully reflect upon. A few days ago, this poem popped out of my head/heart/hand in the wee hours of the day. It might be about my experience in a sweat lodge from South Dakota (read more about what that is in my July 23rd entry). Or it might be about being born. Or it could be about being re-born. Or maybe it’s about all those things.

“If I Had Words”

Seattle (with a dash to Portland)

Summer seems like the best time to re-connect with family. As kids get older, it’s harder and harder for everyone to spend time together. We were lucky this summer in that we were able to spend time in Seattle with Rachel and Robbie, her husband. And Aaron flew in from Arkansas and joined us. To top it off, my mother, Sally, also joined us for part of the trip. It was quite a grand get-together.

Here’s a link to a bunch of photos from our recent trip. I’ve captioned some of the photos to give a bit of context. Also, here are A few Keep Portland Weird photos.

We seemed to be well-grounded in the 21st century this trip: our stay in Portland was at an airbnb; our rental van for the first nine days of the trip was through relayrides; and after we turned in the van, we used uber for the first time. Each of these vacation/transportation modes involve a more personal, non-traditional avenue. We saved money (though not a lot on the airbnb), we got to know several interesting people we wouldn’t have met, and the service from each service-provider was excellent. I’d recommend them all, though they aren’t all available in every city, of course. I’d suggest reading the reviews for any person you’re thinking about employing. There’s also an excellent promotion for a free ride on uber if it’s your first ride (google it). So, sorry to Hertz, Sheraton Inn, and taxicabs everywhere, but I think we may not be using you in the future.

Seeing Pine Ridge Differently

Before we left for Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I had several teens and parents ask me if I have seen things change in the many times I have been out to the “rez.” “Unfortunately,” I would say, “things don’t change much.” Each time I have been there, I’ve been told and shown how poverty and suicide rates are higher than national averages, how few Lakota are practicing their rich way of life, and how few new businesses are popping up. It’s a dose of reality that most people don’t want to hear or see.

That answer has changed a bit this time though. I was one of the chaperones for the Peoples Church Youth Group as we worked for a week with the Re-Member organization on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in southwestern South Dakota. And my experience this time showed me that in some ways things are worse and in some ways things are better for the Lakota on the rez.

The number of teen suicides at Pine Ridge is accelerating out of control; this fact may have been the most startling realization to the teens we brought out from East Lansing. Over 14 teens have killed themselves this year and it came close to home for us this week; both Inila Wakan (aka Keith Janis) and Will Peters (speakers at Re-Member) shared that they each had a grandchild commit suicide in the past year. These tragic scenes of the current Lakota landscape are mind- boggling and unacceptable. How could teens who have role models like these two spiritual, caring elders take their own lives? While it’s true that Pine Ridge recently received a grant from the Department of Education to impact the number of teen suicide attempts, one wonders how much of that money will get where it needs to be due to tribal corruption…and the immensity of the problem. Some point to racism as the core cause of the suicide problem.

Others put their time into prevention through Lakota education and pride, as well as solidifying existing supports in the community. Two examples are from the speakers I mentioned above. Inila Wakan was instrumental in starting Santana House. Here’s the description of their mission off of their Facebook page:

“This page is for a Grassroots-based suicide prevention and interventions, support, outreach, discussions, intervention, sharing resources, positive input, mobilization of kindred groups and kindred spirits, community input and ideas towards accomplishing the goal of establishing the “Santana House” a safe home and resource for at risk youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The existing suicide response network here is Not Able To Handle This Problem Alone!

Most teens from the surrounding areas end up in institutional settings away from the reservation, are confined, and most often drugged then sent back to the communities and circumstances that are part of their lives in the first place. This home we’re determined to build and staff will best serve the children from a culturally based approach without isolation and drugs.

We can rebuild the lives of children through the Santana House and serve as the loving and kind, caring and supportive extended family for our children who just need that extra attention and love from a stable environment. We cannot do this without your support. We all have a personal and social responsibility to get down into the trenches where these kids are and lift them up high and save as many as we can.

Thanks to everyone dedicating themselves to this extremely important–life – affirming cause.

Thank you ever so much for your love, time, and generosity.

Let’s pound the pavement!
Shake the pillars!
Echo Over the plains, mountains, and seas!

Hecetuwelo! MITAKUYE OYASIN*!”
(Mitakuye Oyasin means “we are all related”)

If you are interested in donating to Santana House, contact Inila directly at inila4wakan@hotmail.com

Will’s newest CD “Chillin’ Rez-Style” has several inspirational songs on it. One that deals with suicide awareness directly is “I Know,” which he and his daughter, Keesa Jo, sang for us at Re-Member. The lyrics are so powerful that I ended up taking a video of part of their performance. However, follow this link if you want to hear the whole song from a performance at Re-Member in 2014. Or call 605-867-5039 to purchase the whole CD. Here’s a message from the CD insert that Will wrote to explain this song:

“The song “I Know” is not only to remember all those we have lost to suicide, but also to encourage all young people to remember that there are people who care and want to help. If you, or someone you know is thinking about suicide, please don’t give up. Pray, burn some sweetgrass or sage, and talk to someone you know you can trust. Your life is sacred, believe in love, it’s gonna be alright.”

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the field or even to have much experience, but this song (and music in general) and the efforts of Santana House have the power to save lives and I hope you help spread the word. Here’s a bonus song, sung by Will with our own Mike Buttery on guitar also: Hard Life.

Another way I saw Pine Ridge differently this time had to do with the Tier 2 group with which I participated (the other groups did more hands-on work that I’ve written about before). Instead of going out to the work sites and touring with the other groups, five of us who had been to Re-Member several times delved more deeply into Lakota culture. Cornell Conway (a Lakota elder and Oglala Lakota College professor), Jeff, and Nikki led us daily as we learned more about the seven sacred ceremonies (including the sweat lodge or inipi), policies and treaties, the Pine Ridge economy, plants used for medicine, and a Lakota preschool program. Then, everyday we combined the lectures/information with some real-life experience; these field trips included visiting a thriving business called Tanka Bars (they take online orders), walking at Yellow Bear Dam and learning which plants can be used for what, and visiting a growing Lakota-speaking preschool (they have started an amazing youtube station if you want to hear the language or learn it, wayawa cikala). These were signs of positive change I ached to see. The most rewarding of these experiences was when we made a sweat lodge. I have posted a photo of information about a sweat lodge (from Lakota Life by Ron Zeilinger) as a way to explain how the Lakota use it as a church. It was a spiritual, community experience and I’m sure I will write a poem or two about it at a later time (see my previous blog entry for more information). Suffice it to say that between the palpable heat, the beautiful Lakota prayer songs, the welcome darkness, and the sharing out of our prayers, I felt lifted and cleansed — closer to that Creator Spirit that binds all of us.

sweat lodge info

I wrote this prayer for all of us as we struggle on our journeys. Peace.

Mitakuye Oyasin (“We are all related” or “all my relatives” in Lakota)

Oh, Creator Spirit,
Oh, binding breath between all peoples of all times,
Help me and help each of us,
Know your presence
Feel your presence
In our hearts, minds, and spirits.
Help us re-connect
Broken relationships
With each other
And with you.
Help us re-visit
That deep essential
Oneness
That binds all living beings.
Thank you, Creator,
For life,
For each sacred life.
Help us to value each life
As we value our own.
When we lose hope,
Re-member us with you.
Help us to see
You in each other, Creator Spirit.
Help us to reach out
To each other,
To the You in our midst
And be re-born
In hope.

Here’s a photo album I put together of photos I took on the trip; some have captions explaining what’s going on (but you can only see the captions if you look at the photos individually, not on slideshow).

A Few Days in Arkansas

All y’all don’t really know about Arkansas until you go there for at least a few days. Judy and I recently drove Aaron’s car down to him at the yoga center and organic farm he’s working at in northwest Arkansas. In our short stay, we met many friendly Arkansawyers (or Arkansans), were pleasantly surprised by the state’s beautiful rolling hills, and were able to step outside our comfort zones during a new experience.

It takes around 13 hours if you’re fairly focused about getting there. The map, below, was our route; we stopped overnight near St. Louis to see our friend, Maureen (thanks for the lodging, Maureen!), at the St. James Winery because it called to us, and at Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home because history & literature are cool, but mostly we drove.
maptoponca

Eventually, we ended up between Ponca, AR and Jasper, AR. I added a red heart on this next map to show the approximate location of the Circle Yoga Shala (and farm) where Aaron is staying. It’s in that white space on the map between two very small towns. We turned at this one bend in the road where it said “Shiloh” and went up and around this steep, bendy road and after awhile the road turned from pavement into just rocks and holes and it was about a mile past that on the right.
Arkansas map1

Matt, Holly, Lou Ann, Christian, and all the folks at the farm were very welcoming and genuine. They invited us to sit down to some delicious sweet potato soup that first evening and every conversation we had with each of them was special; we could tell they appreciated Aaron, his work ethic, and the fact that we had driven down to see him.
Here’s my first shot of the space and a link to a bunch of photos from the trip.

shalabarn

Try to take some time to look at the photos on the link, above, since I took the time to put some explanatory captions on them (though you can’t see my captions in slideshow mode for some reason).

One of the main events of our time in Arkansas (that you won’t see in the photos) was our experience in a sweat lodge. Though we both had our reservations about the ‘opportunity,’ it turned out to be a powerful, eye-opening ceremony. Every question we had about the process was addressed beforehand and we were reassured that we could leave anytime we wanted. They even talked openly about the mistakes made some time ago by people in the southwest (using plastic to cover the lodge instead of using blankets or other breathable items).

Talk with Judy or me personally for more specifics, but here is a montage of both the process and my reactions to the sweat lodge: we all drank a bunch of water throughout the day; the rocks were heated for a long time; the smudging ceremony calmed me; entering the space, I could see it would be crowded (30 men and women and one boy); the waves of heat were intense as water was poured on the hot rocks by Steve; he also sang most of the Lakota songs and calmly explained what was happening and why; the prayers I had on my heart helped me stay focused and made it more meaningful; I also concentrated on my breaths a lot more than usual; it was so dark, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face; the ground was cool and I laid down a few times; they opened the doors between the four sections and that helped me cool off and relax; after about 1 1/2 hours, we all hugged as we walked out into the sunlight; I felt a strong sense of community with these people and of the symbolism of the re-birthing/renewing process. Later, we ate a potluck meal together, shared our thoughts and feelings about the experience in a circle, and smoked the pipe.

There was something about knowing Judy and Aaron were in there with me that made it more special. Experiencing it in the hills of the Ozarks added to the magical quality of the moment. We took in many other sights and experiences in our short time in the South, but that Fourth of July sweat lodge stands out as the most significant, grace-filled* time we had.

P.S. Our plane ride back to Detroit was delayed due to some back weather in Chicago where we had a lay-over. I was texting back and forth with Aaron about it. As it turned out, even though we missed the bus back to East Lansing, we found a friend at the airport who gave us a ride. I commented to Aaron that we were “crazy fortunate” and he reminded me that our crazy fortunate moments sound like grace.

When I Retire

This time a year from now (or maybe 2 or 3 years), I’ll be retiring from teaching public school. I can see it out there on the horizon. It’s not a vague notion. I’ve been thinking about it and planning for it for years. Many of my retired teacher-friends seem to love it. They travel all over the world, spend more time with family members, volunteer in a variety places, and generally have a certain flexibility in their schedules (sometimes even working) that I envy. They have even recommended that I retire as soon as I can afford to, so I can enjoy the benefits of retirement while I am healthy. I have to admit that their argument is quite persuasive.

There are a couple realists, though, like my friend, Bob, who are quick to remind me that when you retire they stop paying you. Finances definitely play into it and even if I start my pension right away, our standard of living would be quite different. I can’t deny that making a decent income has been a goal for most of my life. It’s closely tied to my ego and to willingly give that up seems counter to who I am.

And there’s the fact that I like teaching. Students seem more and more curious and engaged, administrators rate me as ‘almost’ highly effective, and I enjoy the challenges of thoughtfully incorporating technology into lessons. Some would argue “Why stop just as you’re starting to know what you’re doing?” For me, though, there’s something about doing the same thing from year to year that doesn’t fulfill me. Yes, I’m on the verge of my 25th year teaching, but I’ve found a way to split that up so it hasn’t been the same thing over and over:

* Years 1-3, teaching high school English
* Year 4, teaching middle school English and Social Studies
* 1 1/2 year break to go back to M.S.U. and get my Masters Degree in Special Education
* Years 5-7, teaching middle school Special Education in a self-contained classroom and some co-teaching
* Year 8, teaching high school Special Education
* Years 9-10, teaching high school Special Education at a different high school (more of a Resource Room)
* Years 11-14, teaching high school Special Education at a different high school (back to a self-contained classroom)
* Years 15-17, teaching 8th grade English
* Years 18-23, teaching 7th grade English
* Year 24, teaching 7th and 8th grade English

It seems like I’ve had seven or eight different jobs in that time period. I keep learning and growing each year and I’m feeling closer to needing an even-more-different job…before I don’t like this particular one. Why wait until this job becomes too constrictive and standardized-test focused? I know myself well enough to know I wouldn’t survive long in that atmosphere (like being on the moon without a spacesuit or in a library wearing a straight-jacket).

So when I retire, I do plan to work for awhile. I’d like to do something with writing or with people or with technology. Here are a few possibilities:

* some non-teaching job at M.S.U.: Human Resources, fundraising, writing (public relations, for example), working at the library…

* bank teller (it was one of my first jobs and I remember liking it)

* teaching at the college level at Lansing Community College (I check their jobs page from time to time) or online

* yard work (like my Baboo (grandpa) Godoshian) or organic farming since I like to work outside

* writing a book or a musical (maybe about teaching or retiring)

When I retire, I will not be doing a few things: Walmart greeter is out; substitute teacher is out; bus driver is out. I know myself well enough to understand these would drive me crazy.

All I know is that change is the only constant. Things change. Dozens of teachers have retired from East Lansing Public Schools over the years and the district seems to still be chugging along fine. You’ve read my thoughts about joining them. These thoughts could change too. Or something else could happen. That’s the tricky thing about making plans. Life happens. It’s unpredictable and wonderful.