Tag Archives: kindness

Sometimes I don’t want to be your friend

True confessions: Facebook rants fascinate me. Like, I definitely get why they are problematic, but sometimes I just want to pull out the popcorn and read some comments. Kardashians step aside, my friends have your drama BEAT!

So a few months ago I was joyfully scrolling when I landed on a rant from one of my FB friends. I’m not close enough with him that I knew the context of his frustrations, only that he was annoyed with his friends for exclusionary behavior.

Here was his comment:

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And ever since, I’ve had a hard time getting his words out of my head. “You should never make anyone work hard to be your friend.”

Being a parent is a pretty great free pass. A get out of jail card I’ve used endlessly. For example, I haven’t been on time to anything in the past two years. When I give you an ETA, it’s really more of a window, a casual suggestion.

It also works really well as an excuse why I can’t participate in activities and events. For good or bad, a sick kid is the perfect answer to how to avoid the social event I’ve been dreading.

In addition, since I have been sick over the last year, I have had an even better excuse. I am a sick mom of a toddler boy (and I work full time). Sometimes I want to just tattoo that sentence to my forehead by way of explanation.

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And it gets really easy to operate out of this sense of scarcity. Because I truly don’t have a lot of free time. And saying yes to one thing usually means saying no to something else and if I’m not careful I can over commit and the whole assembly line shuts down completely.

Not to mention that right now it is tax season and my husband is a tax accountant, so we’re busy.

Which is why when my husband and I got an email recently from the pastor at our church, asking if anyone in the church would be willing to make treats for the time between our two church services, I deleted it.

But over dinner that night my husband said he was thinking we should sign up to bring brownies. So I said, “Why, we already do a lot for church. Let someone who isn’t doing anything sign up.”

My husband baked brownies anyway, and I was grumpy about it all weekend.

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(Though maybe a little less grumpy once I actually got to eat the brownies.)

But it gives me pause. Because I think there are seasons of scarcity. But I can’t help but look around, at the incredible life I have full of friends and community, and see not scarcity, but abundance.

And I wonder if maybe, just maybe, there are times when I keep everyone around me at the fringe and margin of my life because, well, it’s just easier. I wonder if there are times when I hold all that abundance closely to myself, hoping that none of it gets away.

I wonder if there are times when I make it hard for people to be my friend.

So I’ve been reflecting on what it looks like to say yes. To live with a little less fear. To trust there is going to be enough for me, even if I share a little with my neighbor. To take a moment to stop dwelling on my own forehead tattoo, and glance up to read the tattoos of the people around me.

To bake a few extra brownies, just in case.

A few weeks ago I met a woman at the library. She was there with her husband and two sons. While watching our boys play together at the train table, with occasional commiseration about the typical mom challenges, she asked if I knew of anyone who was a good babysitter. I asked if she knew about the local mom group in the area. I found out that she didn’t, that in fact, she just moved to the United States six months ago and is still learning the ins and outs of our shared neighborhood.

And I almost left it right there.

But before scooting out of the room to chase my son, we exchanged numbers.

When I got home later that night, I sent a text:

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I’m not sure if the playdate is going to happen. And there’s still a part of me that worries I don’t have time for another friend, or that saying yes to her would mean saying no to someone else.

And I think that’s probably true.

But then again, why not? It would be a good excuse to bake some more brownies.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

My Dog Has Serious Bathroom Issues and I’m The Center of My Universe

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My dog has been peeing and pooping all over our house. Literally, all over. Every room. I have stepped in poop three times this past week alone. It’s been maddening to continually bend over and clean up her messes. The baby gates we purchased to keep her out of the areas of the house upon which we’d like to traverse without stepping into feces, well it turns out that those baby gates have slats on the side just large enough for her to squeeze her tiny, six-pound Chihuahua body through, though she feigns captivity when we are watching. None-the-less, eight hours later, returning home after work, poop is waiting in the kitchen. Or the front room. Or our bedroom.

Thankfully, the gates do keep our toddler son sectioned off into manageable, poop-free zones while either my husband or I attend to the remaining toxic rooms of the house to deep clean.

OK, that’s dramatic. We don’t really ever deep clean.

Also, my son has been sick. I don’t think it is related to the aforementioned lack of cleanliness in our home, but I can’t say it isn’t. In any case, he has been waking up throughout the night, and my heart just breaks as his body shakes with coughs fit for a pack-a-day, lifetime smoker. He’s ended up sleeping next to me for the last few nights. A part of me can hardly resist having his little body asleep next to mine, and another part of me recognizes that the sleep deprivation is starting to catch up to me.

There’s been other stuff, too, like getting a flat tire and taking it into the shop, casually mentioning that I would also like to get the driver’s side headlight replaced (I apologize for ruining your games of pediddle) and maybe an oil change. Three hundred dollars later I left with my car, and with more descriptions than I wanted to know about the melting of wires in the headlight, and the need to reconstruct the whole thing-a-ma-bob, and an, “oh, by the way, we don’t actually have the capability to repair tires or order you new ones, but hey, here’s a recommendation for another place that will charge you three hundred dollars to replace your tires.”

Which I went to. And they did.

By now you might have inferred that I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself. Licking my wounds. Consoling myself with Caramel Apple Milkyway candy bars (this really is the best time of year) and lots of episodes of Scandal on Netflix.

A few days ago I had a rare moment at home alone and I took my dog for a walk. It’s hard to explain her jubilee when I picked up her leash, and I’m ashamed to admit the weeks it had been since our last walk, and more ashamed to admit my general pet owning negligence, having grown even larger since having a child.

While on the walk, I kept thinking about one of my favorite moments in public speaking: David Foster Wallace giving his commencement speech called, “This is Water.” I first read the transcript while up one night nursing my son, and I have since watched the youtube video of his speech more times than I can count.

One part in particular started percolating into my mind.

“…the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.”

Seriously, this talk is well worth the twenty minutes of your time. If he had spoken these words at my commencement, I like to believe I would still remember them today. As it is, I don’t remember the name of my commencement speaker.

But the idea, that part about me being at the center of the universe, that all of life is happening TO me, well, it strikes pretty close to home. Or rather, it strikes home. Because it sure feels like my dog has been purposefully leaving spiteful packages for me to clean up, and that meetings are scheduled on the end of the day on Friday just to make my life difficult, and the world is conspiring to steal my sleep and my money.

And also, that walk was the first really kind thing I have done for my dog, Lily, in a week. Truly. When I picked her up she licked my face and jumped up and down on the ground as if I had just pledged her a lifetime of chicken scraps and string cheese. (Which for the most part, I have.)

Not totally connected and yet maybe kinda a little connected, I also started to spend intentional time with my baby boy this week. He’s at this incredible joyful age, full of wonder and amazement and glee. Thirteen months is my favorite age yet.

I’ve been feeling a little haphazard as a mother lately. I am relieved and excited to finally see my son after being apart from him all day, and I am also feeling the pull of the forty things I really want to do, like read a book or watch Scandal.

That was really embarrassing to admit, by the way.

While on the floor with him on Monday I started to play a game with him. OK, mostly we were just putting the empty LaCroix cans in and out of a paper bag, but that is probably his favorite game in the world right now, and has the added benefit of teaching him the life skill of helping clean up the recycling.

I sat there with him and coached him through how to put the can in and out of the bag, and celebrated how he dropped each can into the bag, and how he often did so while standing on his own. My phone was off and my computer was put away, and the world was just him and me.

The next day we played with blocks, and the day after that we went to the park as a family. Yesterday we went on a boat ride.

And this week I’ve been thinking about what the world is like for him. At the center of his universe is his father and me, and I’ve been thinking about the joy we bring to his world with such a small amount of intentionality. And I wonder why it often seems so much easier to watch a forty minute TV show than it is to spend forty minutes of uninterrupted playtime with my child.

This is really embarrassing to admit, by the way.

So it’s been making me think about whether this week has been any different than any other week in the monotony and sacredness of the everyday ebb and flow. It’s been making me think about the connection between times of generous kindness and times of, if for only a small moment, being able to step outside of my default mindset that I am the center of the universe, the victim of the events around me.

It’s late and my son has been asleep for the past few hours. My dog is sleeping next to me on the couch, barely having left my side since I got home from work. With such adoration it is no wonder I so easily slip into thinking I’m the center of the universe. With such adoration it’s even possible to forgive some ridiculous bathroom issues.

After all, she’s forgiven me for the missed walks.

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261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

 

It Takes A Butthead to Know One

A little over a month ago I was at the point of collapse. I knew I was leaving my job, but I didn’t know what was coming next. I was living in the perpetual sleep deficit fog that has become my life as a mother. I was starting to fantasize about winning a trip to pretty much anywhere in the world for a break from my life.

Enter the advice of a good friend: It’s time to go get a massage.

Massages are religious experiences. In an hour a massage therapist can work out tension and stress that weeks, nay months of yoga classes (which I do not attend, btw) cannot. A salon near my house could squeeze me in for a same-day massage, so I ran out of the school building in time to make my appointment.

In a hurry I parked my car, jogged to the store, slowed down enough to pretend I wasn’t winded from the block-long trek, and walked casually into the salon.

The massage was perfect.

The message I received after the massage was not. When I returned to my car there was a note stuck to the window. In silver sharpie (such a waste for such an amazing product) someone had scrawled:

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(Park it strait Butthead)

Truthfully, I could have parked my car much better. It was at a slant that barely, barely, put the butt of my car into the space next to it. I could have taken the time to back up, pull forward, back up, pull forward (repeat 11 more times) so that I fit into the allotted rectangle evenly. But I didn’t. I was in a hurry.

And, I want to remind you, I was at the point of meltdown.

I sat there stunned. There was the spelling issue, obviously, but I couldn’t believe that someone had been so upset with me that they ripped up an envelope in their car, found a marker, then gotten back out of their car to leave me a note under my wipers. Who has time for that?

When we’re driving together, my husband has to regularly remind me that the other drivers on the road are not driving with the intention of making me angry. For example, to my, “what the &@#% is that person doing” my husband might say, “They’re probably just in a hurry.” To my, “THAT IDIOT JUST CUT ME OFF!” he might say, “I’m sure they’re just as frustrated with traffic as you are.”

Rereading that it sounds a little patronizing, but his tone and intent are anything but patronizing. My husband lives by the phrase, “Everyone is just doing the best that they can.” And he offers me the grace implied by those words.

Sometimes I think about the lessons I want to teach our son. I have lofty goals of writing them down and making a family creed. And I have to say that this note on my car got me thinking about rule number one: Don’t be mean. (Well, technically, don’t be an a**hole, but I should probably introduce the rule as “Don’t Be Mean”, since another rule is “Watch What You Say”.)

In my new job as a coach, the coaching team takes the task of “coach” quite seriously, including coaching one another. One of the areas in which I’ve gotten feedback is that not everything I think needs to be said. For those who are my personal friends, this might make you laugh. I have a way of speaking “no filter” that can get me into trouble.

Put another way, “Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.”

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So I kinda of feel for the man who left me that note. I can guess at the anger he felt upon seeing the last available spot in the lot, only to realize he would have to wedge his car back and forth to fit into it. Maybe there was a line of cars behind him, honking to get past. Maybe he was coming from work, or leaving to go to work, and this made him late. Maybe he, like me, has a child, and the way I parked made it impossible for him to squeeze the carseat out of the door, so he had to walk around the car. Or maybe he’s just a meany. Maybe he wrote that note to feel the rush of indignation while sliding it onto my windshield.

I will never know.

Just like that man, I have a tendency to get lost in the moment and cuss at the car in front of me. Or to speak my mind without thinking through the ways it might hurt the people around me. (I can always apologize later.) Or to leave a scathing comment on a blogpost. (I don’t know the person, who cares?)

Thanks to my new job I’ve been practicing the art of holding my tongue. Keeping my job is good motivation. In true elementary school fashion, the walls of the school we meet in has the acronym “THINK” posted throughout the building: THINK before you speak: Is it True, Helpful, Important, Necessary, Kind? It’s cliche and I rolled my eyes the first forty times I walked past it.

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But like so many of those overused phrases, it’s got a point. Maybe before I pick up the sharpie to write my comment, it is worth taking a pregnant pause to consider that everyone is just trying to do the best they can. Even when driving. (Or parking.)

It’s kind of shocking how much less I’ve been saying lately.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

The Many Shades of Appreciation

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week. It’s the week when teachers get catered lunch and are brought balloons and homemade cards by their students. The week rife with platitudes like: “I touch the future, I teach.” And, “I teach, what’s your superpower?”

It’s not that I dislike those phrases or want to take away from the hard work we do everyday, but it’s just those phrases don’t really capture the day to day monotony and ordinary-ness that it is to be a teacher. Most days I am much less aware of my permanent impact on the future, and much more aware of how my teacher training did very little in the way of preparing me for how to handle a student who leaves the room Jerry Maguire style, pointing at each of us in the room and calling, “You’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek, and you’re a butt cheek.”

Or reflecting on how I never really figured out the right response on my first day of teaching to my seventh grade student, who looked me up and down at 2:45pm when school was finally dismissing (after an excruciating six hours)  and said, “Nice ass.”

And I’m not really thinking about my “superpower” when I am screaming at my students because the fifth stupid pencil sharpener has fallen to the floor, scattering dusty lead and wood chip shavings all over the floor, and five boys have rushed the broom in an effort to be helpful and are now arguing over who is the sweeper for the week. The answer is almost always none of them.

What I do as a teacher definitely matters. But I don’t generally get to see the impact of what I do.

However, there’s a very good chance that this will be my last year in the classroom, at least for awhile, and those sorts of monumental changes and decisions leave me reflective, ruminating on what has been and thoughtful about my legacy. These sorts of goodbyes have a way of crystalizing moments as they happen, recognizing that they may be the last of their kind.

Which is how I felt the moment on Wednesday when Lenaeya walked into my room before school and asked if she could tell me something she hadn’t told anyone.

I closed my computer, looked her in the eye, and said, “Of course. What’s going on, Lenaeya?”

“My dad is in jail. He just got sent to jail.” Her eyes were sad, vulnerability evident in her voice.

I asked her what happened, what details she knew. She didn’t know much. Just that her summer plans to stay with her father had been cancelled. After only five minutes of talking she was already late for class. (Schedules do tend to get in the way of the important things in life.) So I asked her if she wanted to have lunch with me so she could talk more and also write her dad a letter.

At lunch I pulled out the notecards I keep handy for emergencies such as this one and took out the special inky pens I keep sacred and hidden and let her write her feelings and thoughts for her dad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying my shared lunch with my ten year old friend, fully engaged in her concerns about her father, her classmates, her friendships. I helped her spell the words she didn’t know and we sealed the envelope with the message for her dad.

Two days later Lanaeya and I were sitting in my classroom again when Alex, my favorite kindergarten student, flung open the door, breakfast in hand, tear-streaks on his face, wailing at the top of his lungs. We both turned to him as he crossed the room and flung himself into my arms. I asked him what was wrong and he just shook his head. Meanwhile Lanaeya, ever ready in crisis, left to the bathroom to get him some tissue.

While Lanaeya was gone, Alex stood crying. I was finishing some paperwork I needed to get done when he sobbed, “My dad is going back to jail!” The pain in my eyes must have been evident because when I closed my computer (which seems to always be open) and turned to him to say I was sorry, he broke down all over again. While helping him dry his face with the tissues Lanaeya had brought back, I mentioned that he didn’t have to talk to her, but he might want to share what he was going through with Lanaeya because she had been dealing with similar things.

At first he shook his head no, but then stopped and said quietly, “My dad is going to jail.”

Without missing a beat, Lanaeya said, “My dad is in jail, too. Here Alex, do you want to write him a letter? That’s what I do when I’m feeling sad.” Then she took out some extra note cards from our lunch and wrote while he dictated a letter to his father. They talked together about what it felt like to have a father in jail. And I became completely unnecessary, getting out of their way, as a good teacher does.

And that’s the thing about teaching. Most days are just days, like every other. But then the platitude becomes real, the hackneyed phrase shows up in your classroom in the form of a girl extending kindness to a young boy. Every once in awhile a lesson sticks. And if you’re lucky, it’s an important one. And if you’re really lucky, it happens enough to keep you teaching even when the air conditioner is broken in your classroom and the sewage system has backed up, necessitating bag lunches for a week. (Yes, these things have actually happened.)

After Alex finished making his card for his father, I said, “I know this is a really hard time, Alex, but sometimes it helps me to know that even when I’m going through hard times I am not alone.”

“Yeah, like I have my brother and my mom,” Alex agreed.

“And you have Lanaeya and me,” I added.

“Are you my friend, Lanaeya?” Alex asked, turning shyly to her.

“Yes, Alex, I’m your friend,” she said. She grabbed his hand and walked him back to class.

Being witness to these moments doesn’t make me a superhero. But these moments are what I love most about teaching, what I will miss most when I leave.

And maybe sometimes I do have the privilege to touch the future.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

April is National Poetry Month – Celebrate!

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“Poetry is everywhere – it just needs editing.”        –James Tate

I have had a heck of a time writing this week’s teaching tip.  I had it planned out in my head (sort of) and had begun to collect resources to support teaching that centered around National Poetry Month.  And then I wrote a first draft – it took me nearly 6 hours to write and reflected my ADD.  And, as Rachel kindly and gently noted, “it was pretty long and maybe we needed to divide it into 3 parts.”  In truth, it was not only long, but it was everywhere.  And it needed a lot of editing.  James Tate’s quote about poetry is making me feel a little bit better about it.

So this week’s teaching tip is #1 in a series about teaching poetry, with a focus on “go to” resources for your classroom (or at home) to plan at least a little bit ahead for a month of poetry everywhere.  And parents?  There are some poetry ideas in here for you as well!

April is the perfect time to celebrate American Poets and Poetry!  It has been a long winter and celebrations are great ways to rejuvenate weary students and teachers.  There are countless ways to celebrate:  Collect and read poetry, respond to poetry in writing or art, write poetry or perform poetry.  You can write to poets.  You can make recordings of kids reading poetry.

Poetry is my favorite genre to teach: it teaches kids about good writing, the crucial importance of language, and how to read and think critically and carefully. Moreover, poetry gives kids the opportunity to reflect on the people they are and the world they inhabit, and to imagine the people they wish to be and the world they hope to create.  Remember: Poetry is a worthwhile genre across the academic spectrum: Language Arts (reading and writing), STEM, Social Science and Performing Arts.  


Click on the underlined links to check out these resources firsthand to create poetry units or to weave into previously planned lessons:

The American Academy of Poetspoets.org

This is the place to go for poems, interdisciplinary lessons (many aligned with the common core standards) to teach poetry, and ideas for celebrating poetry in your school or classroom.  Click on the “For Educators” menu to find tips for teaching poetry, poetry resources for teens, curriculum and lesson plans, great poems to teach, essays on teaching, and a teacher resources center.  Check out The Listening Booth.  Other highlights include:

  • 30 ways to celebrate National Poetry MonthTons of ideas to weave into your classroom or school or at home to celebrate poetry!  Put poetry in an unexpected place!  Write a letter to a poet!
  • A POEM IN YOUR POCKET: Share a poem with everyone you meet on “National Poem in Your Pocket Day” which is Thursday, April 24, 2014.  Select a poem or compose an original work and carry it with you in your pocket all day, sharing the poem and the fun of National Poetry Month wherever you go. The site has poems to download (.pdf format) ready to share in your classroom or school or with your friends and neighbors.
  • The 2014 Poet-to-Poet Project:  This is a special multimedia educational project for students in grades 3-12 to write poems in response to the poems of living poets (classrooms can watch YouTube videos of the poets reading and explaining the creation of their poem) and send them to the American Academy of Poets.  Students have until April 30, 2014 to submit their poems. The American Academy of Poets worked with a curriculum specialist to design a series of standards – based lesson plans, with Science connections, together with activities and resources to support students who participate in this project:
  • The Literature of War (Grades 10-12)Students develop a poetic vocabulary and pursue an examination of the effects of war on those involved in the fighting and those they leave behind, moving chronologically through time.  The unit concludes by looking at the world’s most recent acts of war, the effects and ramifications of the events on and following September 11, through the reading of poems written since that date. As a culminating activity, students are asked to respond with a poem of their own that they illustrate with relevant images found on the web.

Poetry-Foundation-Logo-horizThe Poetry Foundation

This is an awesome website with thousands of poems and short bios of poets.  It is easily searchable for specifics.  It also has a wide variety of resources with ideas for teaching poetry across the spectrum:

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Poetry Out Loud

The National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation partnered with U.S. state arts agencies to support Poetry Out Loud, a contest that encourages the nation’s youth to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. This program helps students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about their literary heritage.  The site has suggested lessons and class schedules.

Although the official contest is designed for high schoolers, the materials could be adapted for classroom use in younger grades.  Here is a link to a downloadable .pdf of the 2014 Poetry Out Loud Teacher’s Guide.


PBS NewsHour Poetry Page

A compendium of PBS features on contemporary poets and poetry that might be relevant to the previously planned lessons you are teaching in your classroom (a simple way to weave poetry celebration into your current instruction).   

In particular, take a look at the project of the current Poet Laureate, Natasha Tretheway, called “Where Poetry Lives, “which focuses on “issues that matter to Americans through the framework of poetry.”  Some interesting pieces for parents and teachers alike that are certain to generate meaningful discussion.


ReadWriteThink

A comprehensive list of resources and ideas for lesson plans and assessments focused on National Poetry Month.

 

shel silversteinShel Silverstein

This page contains teaching and learning materials using the poetry of the late, but forever beloved children’s poet Shel Silverstein.  Who doesn’t love The Giving Tree? Here is a  link to the downloadable .pdf of Shelebrate National Poetry Month 2012, which is representative of the engaging curriculum found on this website.  Shel’s poems are accessible, meaningful and so much fun.  Parents should  might want to check out Shel’s website to access Shel’s poetry (samples), animations and activities and for a list of his poetry books.


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NY Times Learning Network

Here are thirty, easy, quick and engaging ideas for ways to respond to and appreciate,  create,  and perform poetry, all with connections to the larger world.  With links to specific teaching resources.  Designed with teachers in mind!

 

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The Poetry Archive

I couldn’t leave this site off this list even though it seems to be a UK site.  It contains a wealth of materials about poems, poets and the art of poetry,  with online recordings of poets from around the world reading their own work.  There is a menu of teacher resources with materials for teaching students at all ages starting at age 5, with ideas about how to incorporate listening into a lesson.  It also houses “The Children’s Poetry Archive” which allows a search by “poetic form.”   Here are some Tips for getting the best out of the Archive.


More next week!

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In the aftermath of horror and in the midst of grief, we must dance to heal and survive – or bake cakes.

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Baking Cakes in Kigali  by Gaile Parkin

Cakes.  Birthday Cakes.  Bat Mitzvah Cakes.  Graduation Cakes.  Christmas Cakes. Humans the world over bake cakes to honor, to celebrate, to mark an important ceremony.   The cutting of a cake at a wedding is a symbolic, social ritual: the bride and groom cut the cake together and share a piece  to symbolize their union and their promise to forever provide for each other, before distributing it to wedding guests. Cakes signify celebration and sharing, no matter where one is from or what language one speaks.

Gaile Parkin’s soul-warming story centers around cakes and celebrations  in the most unlikeliest of places:  Kigali, Rwanda, scene of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The novel opens only six years later, in the living room of a philosophical  and “Professional” cake baker, Angel Tungaraza.  Angel is a pragmatic, hopeful and proud native Tanzanian, who has relocated to Rwanda with her husband, Pius, and their five orphaned grandchildren to build a new life after the death of their only two children.  Angel is undergoing the “Change”, putting on weight, but still enthusiastically creating colorfully-iced cakes which she sells to friends and neighbors to help support her family.

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Parkin’s debut novel was first published in 2009 and is divided into 14 chapters.  Each chapter centers on a specific celebration and Angel plays the role of the “everywoman” cake baker as the stories of the celebrants, the attendees, and Angel’s family, friends and neighbors unfolds.

Angel is determined, good-natured and warm-hearted and seeks to help other others find their inner strength and rebuild their lives in the aftermath of the genocide, “”those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate”. Much of the narrative centers on Angel’s apartment block in Kigali, the home of aid workers from around the world and native Rwandans whose paths cross and whose lives intertwine.  These characters experience a shared humanity despite their varying origins, races, traditions, and cultures.

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Despite the many beautiful cakes, celebrations and seemingly simple stories, painful, heart-wrenching pasts lurk in the background and the complexity of our world emerges from the pages with startling clarity.  At its core, the book tell us about love, acceptance and the ability to look forward and celebrate a hopeful future in the wake of an HIV epidemic, mass murder, suicide, and hate.  It also looks hard at the ideas of truth, unity and reconciliation and what it means to not only say, but live, the words “Never Again.”

As I was glancing through the pages of this book while writing this review, I realized how much this story – and Angel – stuck with me, even though I first read it 3 years ago.  It is an engaging read – but the hope in this book is a vital force and simply encouraging.   The ability to make something positive, especially at times when there is little hope and much to mourn, is an essential tool to living this gift of our life on this planet to its fullest.  It brings to mind a favorite philosopher of my husband’s, Zorba the Greek, who, after his son died, danced  –

It was the dancing When my little boy Dimitri died…and everybody was crying… Me, I got up and I danced. They said, “Zorba is mad.” But it was the dancing — only the dancing that stopped the pain.

I think Angel would have baked the cake for Zorba’s dance party – and there would have been even more healing and hope.

Suitable for ages 14 and up.  It is helpful to have some background of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 prior to reading (or, like me, you can always zip to the web).

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Book Review: Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Tattoos on the Heart

As teachers, we often seek stories to help us explain or show concepts (i.e. compassion, kindness, patience) that are hard to define without concrete examples.  As readers, we sometimes reach for stories to help us understand or explore our spiritual side.  As mothers, we might search for stories to help us explain to our children what is meant by God’s unconditional love.  Tattoos on the Heart:  The Power of Boundless Compassion is an astounding collection of stories that can accomplish all of these tasks.

Tattoos on the Heart  demonstrates the power and possibilities of boundless compassion and kindness through the sometimes startling and always unique stories of the former gang members (a.k.a. “Homies”) Fr. Boyle  (a.k.a. “G-Dog”) has worked with at Homeboy Industries in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles for the past 24 years.

I love the title of this  book.  But after reading it, I was compelled to write on its cover (my husband hates when I do that, but I am saying I was compelled) an additional phrase:  “Kindness is the only strength there is.” Fr. Boyle’s own story illustrates the fundamental kindness that transforms not just those who receive it, but those who give it.

G-Dog knows how to tell a story with grace and humor (I would love to go to a mass where he gives the homily).  His detailed and riveting accounts  are tales of deep suffering, hope, grace and redemption.  So many of the stories show the intense power of unconditional love and acceptance as well as the importance of fighting despair.

Through these stories and Fr. Boyle’s thoughtful reflections, we learn about compassion, mercy, baptism, gladness, kinship and God’s presence in our lives. We discover more about meaningful success: standing in solidarity with those in need and persisting faithfully, despite numerous failures, and not abandoning our post, despite the lack of “evidence-based outcomes” (ring a bell, my teaching colleagues?).

I loved this book.  Many of these stories are now “tattooed” on my heart and remind me, as did so many of my former students,  that every life matters.   Meeting the world with a loving heart will truly determine what we find there ( not my words but Fr. Boyle’s).  G-Dog has a way with words  and an ability to articulate deep truths, such as the concept that true compassion for the poor: “stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgment of how they carry it.”

Whole chapters or even just a few of the stories in Tattoos on the Heart could be used in a late middle school (8th grade) or high school classroom as authentic, mentor text for writing narratives.  Or to explore the meaning and power of empathy and compassion (focus of chapter 3 of the book) with visual arts activities (yes, we all have tattoos on the heart and so many students pre-write more effectively if they’ve created  a visual representation first).

(Intended audience:  Ages 14 & up)

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