Van Am Gram

Sharing a string of life thoughts…one pearl at a time.

The temperature today, light rustic shades just beginning to emerge among the foilage, the lack of 95% humidity (whew!), and an overall lighter feel in the air… Autumn is making her first appearance a little earlier during this most unusual year.  Waiting patiently through the LONG hot summer of this pandemic with the consistent uncertainty, anxiety, and worry, it is ever-so-refreshing to simply breathe softer, cooler air literally on the day of the Autumnal Equinox. Pop hasn’t left the screened porch since awakening; meals, naps, snacks, and conversations ensue in his outside “office” today.  He takes a moment to look at me and to thank me “for living in a place with four distinct seasons and trees.”  We are grateful in our own ways for the blessings and gratitude of this first day of Autumn, the time when change is in the air, when everything bursts into the last boldest color, and nature saves up a grand finale of fabulousness.

Winter pencils into the etching… Spring shimmers in pastels… Summer glows in soft watercolors… Autumn, well Autumn explodes into the final mosaic of all the seasons together, simply reminding us again how lovely it can be to simply let things go.

Happy Fall, y’all! 🙂

It’s ironic, but perhaps highly symbolic, that I drank from my favorite cup on the very day of her passing.  Daddy even commented to me when he saw her image on my mug, “Now there’s an example of dynamite coming in a small package!”  I laughed, “Yes, daddy; definitely a petite, brilliant lady, but a heroic giant in the very best of ways!”  Little did I know hours later news of her passing would break and the tears would flow…

Whatever your political affiliation, it is undeniable Justice Ginsburg made our world a better place. Serving as a relentless litigator and jurist, especially with her decisions and dissents on the Supreme Court, she set the stage for generations to come.  The inspiration of her lifelong engagement of and dedication to excellence, to equality, to justice, to civil rights for ALL, and to this country, is undeniable.

Personally, how grateful I am to her for the exceptional role model she is in the lives of my own daughters.  I thank her for being a trailblazer, a citizen committed to real progress, an advocate in her unflinching pursuit for freedom and opportunity, and a relentless titan for equal justice under the law for ALL.  I thank her for the position she holds in changing the course of American history during her lifetime.  Just like other iconic legends in my own life, many of whom have gone before her, the soft yet powerful voice of Justice Ginsburg will continue to resonate loud and proud echoing into the next generations.  May we all move forward and continue working to live up to my favorite quote of hers:  “I would like to be remembered as someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability…”  

Rest in power and peace, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  And just so you know, whether it is fashionable or not, perhaps you’ll better understand why I wear my lace collars anytime I choose…

Nineteen years ago today, after my early morning message to our campus and my usual morning walkabout through hallways and random classrooms, a relatively peaceful start to another school day commenced.  I made my way back to the front office in time to take a phone call from a parent who happened to be in NYC on business that day.  We visited briefly as he began to share the reason for his call.  During the course of our conversation, the landline crackled, there was a horrific explosive sound, and the call went dead. I attempted to call him back but nothing connected.  The front office phones started ringing and all four landlines jammed. I remember a chilling, sinking feeling washing down my body (Granny called them “riggers”); our school was WAY out in the country and something felt completely OFF…little did we know…

In the course of working through that moment of panic (we had no set protocols back in those days for lockdown or shelter-in-place), I decided to lock all the exterior doors of our campus in order to mitigate outside traffic.  The librarian caught me in the hallways as she wheeled a TV to my office and asked me to join her there “NOW, please,” only to have both of us witness the second plane crashing into the other tower of the World Trade Center.  Before we could comment, the reporter broke in to share that the Pentagon was on fire.  I alerted teachers in person, asking them not to turn on TV or radio, but to teach and maintain a schedule while keeping email open for updates from me.  My assistant principal stationed herself at the front door so no one came in or out without ID.  Our school secretary manned the TV reports and district facts from my office while our Nurse, attendance clerk, and office assistant took non-stop phone calls for hours.  Little did we know in those first moments of terror and uncertainty just how much all our lives would completely change.

While 2020 is certainly not the same as 9/11, aspects and outcomes of these times in our history resonate:  All the children who will never see a parent again; all the families who have lost a loved one; all the individuals on the front lines of defense who have sacrificed themselves in order to assist and care for others; all the uncertainty and long-term effects for those who continue to struggle and search for answers…we see you and we hear you; please don’t give up!

Likewise, a powerful image of hope emerges:  all those who sprint into action to assist; all the scientists, healthcare workers, front-line workers, researchers, and supporters continuing to work endless shifts for answers and cures; all the educators and parents teaching, working, and keeping the home fires going; all the small business owners investing in their communities while their communities invest in them; all those folks simply acting in supreme kindness day in and day out even in the darkest of moments (just like a complete stranger who made certain that parent in 2001 made it out of that first tower alive and home to an anxious family)…we are beyond grateful!  How can we serve?

With all the political divide, the constant barrage of ugliness in words and deeds in a 24/7 vortex, the resistance to needed change for centuries-long systemic issues, or, just simply being asked to wear a mask, we all need to STOP for a single second and just breathe.  Breathe in and breathe out because we can!  Breathe in and breathe out to re-center our humanity!  We have life and so much more.  One simple truth continues to prevail no matter our situation:  there is always more uniting us than dividing us in this country.  We are still “one Nation, under God, indivisible; with Liberty and Justice for ALL…”  We are not here to BE right; we are here to get it right. We are here to DO the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.  You know it; I know it.  And on this particular  Patriot’s Day (and every day), may we never, ever forget.

While reflecting back over some stories from the past today, I found my beloved mom’s response to this VanAmGram blog from 2011…whew…stopped me in my tracks! So grateful for the powerful message mom and I both shared at the beginning of each school year. May we ALL find our “goose sense” and remember to stand by each other…no matter what! HONK!

Van Am Gram

While walking along the Miller track during recess time with a group of learners today, we looked up and noticed a flock of geese in their famous “V” formation.  It reminded me of a powerful lesson my mom always told her staff and one, in fact, I’ve shared with mine.  In light of the cooler Autumn temps today and the geese we noticed, I shared this lesson with the students walking with me: 

Everything in nature happens for a reason and scientists have discovered why geese fly in the “V” formation.  As each bird flaps its wings, it creates an uplift for the bird immediately following.  By flying this way, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.  Truth #1:  If we share a common direction and sense of community, we can get where we’re going quicker and easier…

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“Life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.”

“Hind sight is 20/20 after all.”

“Your bag is lighter when you don’t carry the past with you.”

“Don’t look back; you’re not goin’ that way.”

On the longest day of the year last weekend, Summer Solstice (which ironically fell on Father’s Day), every single phrase surfaced.  While I’m uncertain of the official origin for each, these simple, yet profound phrases continued to fall effortlessly from his wise mouth…

On really good days, we have deep and meaningful conversation in snippets, with daddy easily verbalizing his thought processes.  Stories, family lore, past vacations, dog show adventures, friendships, and more tumble into vibrant snippets of delightful conversation.  He can easily speak with friends or family on the phone, follow a pattern of conversation, and so forth.  I do my best on these days to soak up all I can with him, especially when his sense of humor and teasing take over.

On the harder days, we help him dig deep inside his mental well to encourage him onward…take that shower, use his cane or walker, tell a joke, take a short walk with us, sketch, or “read” in his newest book.  Often times, especially during our ongoing home quarantine, he simply chooses to quietly sit on our screened porch watching the birds at the feeder as he listens to nature hard at work all around him. As Daddy likes to remind on occasion:  “I haven’t forgotten, Bethy; I just can’t remember most of the time.” 

Sometimes, without warning, he looks deep into my eyes, straight inside my soul, and says, “When I forget, thank you for remembering for me.”  Those moments of clarity are a divine gift of JOY!  Gratefully, he is still at a point where he usually understands how we see his needs as we continue to find ways to help him fill them.  While never easy, walking this path with him as the keeper of his memories in his greatest time of need is a gift to both of us.

Alzheimer’s may be taking away the vibrancy of Daddy’s mind, but for now, he has us and we have him; we continue to forge ahead on this unique journey together.  We are reminded how some things in life cannot be fixed, but are shouldered with love, help, and strength of others.  Make no mistake; his heart and soul continue to hold what his mind simply cannot, so we choose to follow his lead and “take what you’re given with grace and dignity and move on because we’re not goin’ back…”  🙂

Personal note:  June is National Alzheimer’s and Brain Awareness Month.  Thanks to the thousands who hosted and supported fundraising activities on the Summer Solstice (the longest day of the year) to continue shining the light of hope for a future without ALZ.  Go to alz.org for more information on how you can support this effort.

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My momma always said, “the best sermon is a great example;” thus she and daddy (for better, or worse sometimes) taught us daily by their living example.  My sister and I know we “chose our parents wisely,” because in the midst of everyday life, there were daily lessons through their poignant example.

As I watch moms today in the grocery store, on a hiking trail in the park, and everywhere else in the community, it stuns me how moms must be as wise as Solomon, as smart as Socrates, as unconditionally loving as Mother Teresa, and as disciplined as an Olympic Athlete.  Momma was the same over half a century ago…she wasn’t our friend (until much later in life); she was our parent. “You didn’t come with instructions, so rule #1:  I’m never wrong, and rule #2, if I am wrong, then refer back to rule #1.”  🙂  Funny how those rules changed drastically when she became a grandmother. 🙂

Yes, my mom demonstrated daily who she was and lived by the legacy she created with witty southern sass, grit, humor, and backbone.  Even though she was a young mother who literally grew up with us, she firmly shaped our character with integrity while encouraging us to dream big for the future.  And because we also grew up in a progressive household where we were expected to “take care of ourselves in the real world,” finding our passion to help us independently support ourselves was non-negotiable.  “Get a grip and buck up” were heard daily in our household.  “You’re not lost and don’t need to go find yourself; I know right where you are.”  We also learned to control our attitude and effort because “those two things are in our constant control.”  And just like her classroom and school settings as a teacher and principal, mom set the bar extremely high, but she also provided a loving cushion when we stumbled along the way.  Our mom was our first and most important teacher, advocate, and disciplinarian; she set the rules and we followed them, well, mostly (except for riding the laundry basket down the stairs, dropping each other into the laundry hamper, that whole chandelier disaster…).

While mom’s physical voice is now silent, the echos of her lessons and expectations ring clearly inside my soul.  I’m humbly grateful and thankful for the example of my mom.  I was so busy growing up and then raising two little women of my own, I often forgot she was growing older.  Even in her final hours with us, Mom was showing us how  to hold on and then to bravely let go on her journey.  If she were with us during this most extraordinary life in the time of COVID-19, I have no doubt she would have much to contribute to the conversation.

Thanks, Momma, for demonstrating the courage, hope, JOY, and unconditional love so I could one day be a mom to the two extraordinary miracles who shower my world and Momma-soul in JOY!  I miss you so…

Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms!

Yesterday, I cried over limes.  Limes.

After putting on my mask, my special pair of “outside-shoes-during-quarantine,” my gloves, and what’s left of my sanity, I ventured beyond our house.  Since pushing Day #60 of at-home quarantine around our house, heading into the community for necessary provisions was a considerable leap of faith.  I spoke sternly to myself on my way to the grocery store to retrieve our online order.  After last week’s verbal altercation inside the store with the creepy stalker guy who followed me with no mask, no gloves, and less than six-feet of distance from my personal space, ordering groceries online for pickup seemed the best choice this week.  Securing a time slot was an added bonus since home delivery is evidently not option where we live.  Choosing items online while giving up purchasing decisions was another step in tempering my control-freak-benevolent-overlord issue, but yes, I can and will be flexible too.  So, over the lake and through the woods to the grocery drive-up lane I went.

While loading everything into the back of my car, the very kind assistant shared the list of items missing from the order.  Mind you, I’m all about substitutions; after all, we must be bendable but not breakable in these challenging times (and will gladly accept ANY roll of toilet paper available).  As she rapidly ran through the substitution list, one item caught my attention…“No limes or lime juice available, but you do have extra lemons in the bag.”  No big deal.  Oh…wait.  No limes?  At all?  Lemons, again?  Who’s hoarding all the limes and do they have all the toilet paper as well?

There was one particular activity left on my agenda this week specifically involving limes.  You see, we were scheduled to leave with friends on a special vacation today, May 1, to explore Key West…the first non-working trip for St. M in a long time.  In the planning stages for the last three years, this trip was finally happening.  All our schedules coincided, reservations and tickets were purchased in advance, and everything came together beautifully…and then, a pandemic.  In a snap, the entire adventure evaporated.  My whole mantra of “plan your work, work your plan, and autograph your work with excellence” was out the window.  No vacation.  Stay home.  Be safe and well.  Adjust.  “No limes, but you do have extra lemons in the bag.”

All the way home I pondered.  Once home, I removed my shoes, washed my hands, and M helped unload the bags to the designated drop area while I wiped down and put everything away.  The tears started quietly flowing when the first lemon emerged, then quickly turned into my ugly, snot-sobbing meltdown (if you know me at all, this is rare, but when it occurs, brace yourself).  While limes are not a necessary staple of life, especially in a pandemic, this one time, when I had a specific purpose planned as a surprise treat, “no limes, but you do have extra lemons in the bag.”

Limes weren’t the real reason for my outburst.  I was crying about the overwhelming weight of this entire reality for ALL of us.  I was mourning our complete lack of control over this unbelievable situation.  I was snot-sobbing because I can’t physically be with my little women, my sister, my family, and my friends.  I was grieving for the crushing number of individual lives lost in this pandemic, the families losing these loved ones, the heroes serving daily on the relentless front lines, the essential workers who are exhausted and scared, the scientists and researchers desperate for answers and a plan, the insane loss of millions of jobs and financial stability, the school children missing their teachers and friends, the parents doing their personal best to educate their children while maintaining daily life and keeping food on the table, the high school and college students missing milestone activities and graduation ceremonies, the individuals living in complete isolation with no assistance, people experiencing food and housing insecurities, the persons who are dying completely alone, the stress, hurt, worry, and despair we are ALL experiencing at varying and alarming degrees…and so much more.  I was naming and working to process the powerful thoughts and feelings within this uncharted territory.  But limes?  Limes simply became the tipping point.

When calm prevailed, the words of Washington Irving once shared again resonated new meaning:  “There is a sacredness in tears…they are messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love…”

So today, I’m grateful and relieved St. M had a soft flannel shirt and loving arms securing me as I released all on my highest speed.  I’m grateful for a working washing machine and detergent to wash his beloved shirt.  I’m grateful for fresh hope to move forward in the most graceful way possible, finding small ways everyday to make some type of difference.  I’m grateful to acknowledge and express my anxiety, fears, uncertainty, and longing.  I’m grateful for our kind neighbor who left three limes and more of her home-grown lettuce on our front porch table.  I’m grateful there are little lime pies now waiting on the front porch of our travel friends to remind them we will head south some day to the land of endless beaches, six-toed cats, spectacular sunsets, and authentic key lime pie.  And specifically today, I’m grateful we’ll make some fresh lemonade to sip on our porch (with all these extra lemons) as we continue to stay put, stay safe, and create new ways to be gentle and kind to ourselves and others.  🙂

On a meandering walk for some fresh spring air this past week, I came across a most surprising sight to behold…an egg tree.  These beauties were hanging in various shapes, colors, sizes, and levels as a welcome sign in these most unusual of times.  I instantly recalled the sweet story my Granny B often told about The Egg Tree.  Written and illustrated in 1950 by Katherine Milhous, this Caldecott Medal winning book revealed a story based on the author’s family with a beloved Pennsylvania Dutch Easter tradition.  I vividly remember the ONE Easter time Granny and I carefully blew out a dozen eggs (what a chore!) and then dyed them in various colors to then paint scenes, just like the two children in the book.  It was a two-day process and one where her patience with my tedious perfectionism at various levels of artistic struggle was most likely stretched beyond standard limitation.  Did I mention it was the only time we did it?  🙂

This tradition in my classroom and in our home with similar versions of an egg tree in the springtime usually involved wooden or plastic decorated eggs.  Cascarones took it up another notch as brightly-colored, confetti-filled egg treats, although patience of Job comes-to-mind when creating these beauties.   Each version visually symbolized the simple, charming reminders of rebirth, renewal, hope, and growth.

What’s a Springtime tradition you fondly recall?  

In these uncertain times of living in, as my daddy says, “that hotel where you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave” (thank you, Don Henley and Glenn Fry), may we all find subtle ways to engage in creating, cultivating, and inviting beauty into our day…just like this blossoming little egg tree.  Stay safe, stay well, and stay strong, y’all!  🙂

This little poem by Karl Fuchs fell out of his book today:

The table is almost brimming with good eats;
We’re surrounded by family and friends; what a treat!
The feelings that fill us simply can’t be beat;
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and it all feels complete.

But other days, sometimes, things don’t seem so fine;
Those days are not polished and don’t seem to shine.
It’s then in our minds, we forget all the good,
And think of the things we would get, if we could.

On days when our thinking causes us dread,
If we could remember, it’s all in our head,
And not let our minds take our gratitude away,
Then we’d make every day like Thanksgiving Day.

Nope; it’s not November; it’s not even officially spring at this point.  It IS an unprecedented time in our world history filled to the brim with ever-changing news, updates, instructions, guidelines, hand-washing, anxiety, cabin-fever, toilet-paper hoarding (why?), information overload, and so much more.  In a word…overwhelming.  But as dad and I sat together at the table this morning drinking coffee and talking about the book he’s “reading,” he quietly reminded me how his generation, and especially the one before him, “went off to war, fighting for the ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ we likely take for granted each day.  Why can’t everyone just keep things in perspective now?  This too, shall pass, Beth.”  It was truly a beautiful moment of pure clarity…

Dad doesn’t understand COVID-19, or why he needs to incessantly wash his hands (when he “took a shower today, didn’t I?”), or what it means to medically self-isolate and be socially-distant in our home due to his high-risk status.  He  can’t remember why he’s even high risk.  He doesn’t care about stocking up on pantry items so we have a meal each day, whether we have gas in the car, or why everyone is working remotely from home.  Instead, dad focuses on the present because it’s all he knows in that moment.  Sometimes he looks at me and clearly states, “I don’t know what I don’t know, but I’m good just not knowing.  I don’t forget things; I just can’t remember them.”  🙂

Dad has structure each day mixed with relaxed freedom.  He’s not afraid to be alone, even though he never is.  He’s teaching me yet again how it’s okay to not be rushed, to stop and just be still a while.  And without knowing it, he’s reminding me how everyday is a present, a gift of new beginnings in boundless hope and endless possibilities.  It’s important not to allow my own mind to take away my gratitude.   So in these uncertain times when anxiety and irrational thoughts begin to take hold, may we all remember to take those deep cleansing breaths, set our minds, and keep moving forward in kindness, grace, hope, and love, while finding ways to fill each day with thanks and giving…even if it’s just the middle of March.  🙂

We often attempt to live our lives backwards…wanting more things, more education, more money, more order in an attempt to do more of what makes us hapLaRue Miller017 01py in this life.  The way it actually works is the reverse.

“You must first be who you really are and then do what you need to do in order to have what you need and want in life…smiles and trials will come and go; your true self should always shine.”  ~ LaRue Miller

For as long as I’ve known her (all my life, so, several decades now 🙂 ), LaRue Miller chooses to embrace and actively live this pearl of wisdom with grace and unconditional love.  And while she shares and remains as sharp as my Wusthof knives, she chooses to do so more comfortably from her favorite chair at home most days.  I gratefully had the opportunity to sit and visit with her in person this past week; what a treasured time indeed.

It is interesting to note how Mrs. Miller’s personal philosophy lives on in the generations of lives she has touched throughout her teaching and volunteer work in the very town where she grew up and stayed to give back.  To hear her talk is to participate in a master class of communication and collaboration from deep within her soul.   Her obvious passion for learning and teaching, her quiet strength, her pearls of wisdom discreetly dropped into conversation, and her determined ability to see and bring out the personal best in each soul…these are all touchpoints in the powerful legacy she continues to create.  And while she would never admit it, she remains a critical part of something profoundly extraordinary because she is a catalyst.

Mrs. Miller will tell you she is humbled and honored to have her legacy carried forth in the classrooms of the school bearing her name.  When you visit or volunteer on her campus, you will still find telltale signs of her subtle influence:  a picture or book here, a quote there…all small reminders of her majestic influence and continuing inspiration.  She deeply loves her community, her namesake school, her church, and her family and friends.  As the first principal of her namesake school for the last eight years of my educational career, I remain forever grateful for her wisdom, enthusiasm, stories (especially when she taught with my mom), collaborations, and hugs; she is so generous with those hugs!  🙂  She knows her story, she communicates her story so incredibly well, and she continues to lead with her story every single day!

There is a beautiful book in every classroom on her campus called The LaRue Miller Legacy, written by students and staff about her incredible story.  It is heartwarming to know her legacy project continues today to assist young leaders in practicing speaking skills as they develop language and communication skills through shared conversations while documenting for future generations the life and legacy of the school’s namesake.   Thank you, Mrs. Miller, for honoring us with your legacy and this important generational project.  Thank you for being a personable living legend with so much grace and unconditional love.  As you always remind me, “the goal is simple…to help you achieve yours!”  🙂

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