Sunday, November 29, 2009

Carrying Water

Over the next few weeks, well-polished people will debate the state of our planet at the Copenhagen Summit. What climate change? Carbon offsets? Oil? Nuclear? Solar? What dance shall we do to fend off the truth and fool ourselves for yet another day or year or decade.

Meanwhile in eastern Africa, women carry water in containers strapped to their heads. It's important work. They walk to a place where they can find clean water and haul it back to their villages. These women know the value of a cup of clean water. The want of water hangs heavily on their necks and backs and in their hearts. It's etched into their foreheads by fiber straps. They feel its scarcity in hot winds that ravage their soil and weaken the cries of their children and animals.

These women should be at the table in Copenhagen; but they are too busy carrying water, too busy surviving. Copenhagen should go to them. Ease the straps from their backs. Dig wells with them. Carry water with them. Share the burden of a common survival -- you and I and the water-bearing women of this one earth.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Today is a Very Fine Day

I have been following a terrific blog, "No Telling", created by a writing project teacher named Monda who has a wicked sense of humor and a keen eye for irony. She makes me laugh, cry, and shake my head with her dead-on portrayals of life as a teacher and woman-of-a-certain-age. So I am happy and very gratified to be one of her Editor's Picks for the September Easystreet Carnival of Writing.

Writing is tricky business. Whenever I put pen to paper or, now fingers to keys, I lay open a bit of heart, soul, dreams and unintended warts. If then I share my writing, I take a big leap of faith and hope that somewhere, sometime what I have written will touch another person and create a spark of connection, interest, feeling, wonder...

It's like so much of life . We go about our days and have little sense of how we influence and touch other people. Every now and then, a student or parent from my past will send me a note to share a triumph or an update and I am so pleased to be once again reminded of my small part of this big world.

So, check out Easystreet Prompts at

Enjoy the writing and bits of heart + soul you find there. And, know that there's one writer in New Hampshire who is feeling really fine today.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Somewhere above the Rio Madre de Dios

Southeast Peru. We're flying into Puerto Maldonado, a frontier city near the borders with Brazil and Bolivia. From there, we travel upriver by boat into the Tambopata National Reserve, a protected area that is part of the southern Amazon Basin. We have flown inland from Lima on the Pacific Coast, over the Andes Mountains to Cusco, and now south into the jungle.

From the air, I see vast stretches of green -- broken only by the winding rivers that feed the Amazon. There are animals and birds and even indigenous people who are rare, endangered, and specific to this region. But even as I revel in the strangeness and the beauty, I think about the changes coming from the east. A transoceanic highway is being built that will cross South America and link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The road will pass through Puerto Maldonado and open this area to trade, transport, malaria, people, and a more modern world.

Manifest destiny. I am completely cynical about the aims and outcome of this road, this progress. Who profits? Not the local people. Not the jaguar, nor the macaws nor the monkeys, nor the vast diversity of plants and animals of this region. Who stands up to the mining companies and the big oil and gas and lumber conglomerates? Who refuses the drug trade, the animal trade, the human trade?

Wanted: A new breed of human beings. A paradigm shift. A critical mass. A new definition and model of progress that improves more than it destroys. Needed immediately across the globe. Needed urgently in the tropical forests of South America. Matter of life and death.

Apply now.

Thursday, August 20, 2009


This summer I taught a three week course, Writing Workshop for Teachers, as part of the Plymouth Writing Project. We do research as teachers of writing and present a teaching practice based on the research. In the afternoon, we write, respond to others writing, and explore ways to nurture ourselves and our students as writers. In the spirit of the National Writing Project and our Plymouth site, we all write and share together. It's a powerful model and it changes the way we teach - and write - and live.

For me this three weeks in July was simply the best teaching experience I have had over my 30-odd years in education. It's an amazing feeling and I find myself, a month later, still in awe. So, what was different?

We were a small, diverse group of educators. There were young people starting their careers with two or three years of teaching behind them. One woman was head of a university department in the Dominican Republic and she was responsible for improving instruction throughout her country. One woman was a long-time first grade teacher. I came to this group with years of special education testing, primary school teaching, and writing -- always writing. Part of our curriculum involved writing with the larger Summer Institute, students in the Writing Camps, and Pakistani educators attending a leadership seminar at PSU.

Over and over, I found our "small but mighty group" offered a Quality of Attention not possible in larger classrooms and bigger settings. We could go deeply into topics, follow tangents, and take time for reading + research. We talked and listened carefully and asked questions of one another. The ideas and opinions of the newest teachers were as valuable as the experiences of the veterans.

We built a place where it was safe to question, share and risk. No tests. No red pens. No dismissive put-downs. High standards supported by respect for the learner... and we're all learners in the end. One of us was able to share a personal writing piece. One of us changed the style of writing from reporting to storytelling. We wrote about our passions, our challenges, deep experiences and questions.

I learned a lot about myself as a teacher this summer. My teaching starts with the physical environment of the classroom. When I taught Kindergarten, I had centers for work + exploration. I brought in stuff for five-year-olds to taste and touch and mess with. I put posters at five-year-old eye level and watched to see who became interested. There were sticks chewed by beavers and puppets from different lands. Maps. Life-size footprints of elephants, giraffe, gorilla, babies.

I realized I do the same with adults -- put out books and photos, pictures and found objects. We had snacks and went outside on sunny days. We used writing prompts, questions, readings and teaching demonstrations. The physical environment feeds the intellectual environment and the lines blur, no matter the age. We're all in this learning-teaching-writing thing together.

As I think about my experiences this summer and over my years in education, I have a few things to say:

For the administrators, pundits, and policy-makers, I say: Trust your teachers. Encourage collaboration, not competition. Build opportunities where every teacher's voice is heard and valued. Be kind. Be fun. Be interested in what seems difficult or different.

For the current culture, I say: Testing is not teaching. Testing does not make us more human or thoughtful. Interaction does. Openness does. Understanding, listening, valuing, respecting another's experience does. This is the kind of learning that moves the world forward in positive and sustainable ways.

I know this because it happened to me this summer for three marvelous weeks in July. Deep teaching. Deep learning. Deep, compassionate listening and sharing. Writing deeply as a way of thinking and being.

My passion is right out there so everyone can see.

So, where are you in this passionate world?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Path of One's Own

I've done some walking in the past. England. The Yorkshire Dales. We walked the old ways, over stiles and through farmers' fields, careful to latch the gates and skirt the cows. The footpaths led us from one small village of thatched houses and a pub to yet another and another.

Walking and walking. We bathed our faces and soaked our hats in an ancient spring. Here we found a "cloutie well", festooned with bits of bright cloth. Hang a rag at the cloutie well, and you heal yourself and others. So, we left a sock tied to a branch and traveled on, more secure, more protected.

Walking, walking. We walk history and the Freedom Trail. We walk the Mall in Washington. From Georgetown, we walk the old canal towpath to Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, where once mules strained and pulled barges of cargo from Rocky Creek to Cumberland.

Home in the north, a path leads from our back door up to the summit of Hersey Mountain to a granite slab of a lookout. We hike by vernal pools, a seasonal brook, signs of moose and deer, old logging yards, and an abandoned cellar hole. We go back down, down to our own small woody house and hang our sticks by the door.

As I said, I've done some walking in the past.

Long before I had a driver's license, I walked. I walked to school and to the "Y". I walked to the library and to Aunt Mary's, on to the dentist and piano lessons.

I walked because I had to -- no one around to give me a ride. But, I also walked because I could. It was out of freedom. Stubborn pride. Independence.

Walking was personal. No one could take it away from me.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

This Spring, I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the first time. I went to honor young men I had known who had fought and died in that hell. I also wanted to acknowledge my own part in the protests and marches. It had been a time of huge upheaval, torment, and rage -- my own rage against an unjust war and an impersonal system that drafted my friends and haunted our futures.

I walked from the Capitol Building and kept the Washington Monument in my view. It was cherry blossom time -- a warm and beautiful April afternoon. The city was alive with visitors, student groups at the Smithsonian, and the homeless at Union Station.

For an hour I followed a path I had walked 42 years ago. In October 1967, I marched in Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. We met at the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial and marched upon the Pentagon, where it was rumored Allen Ginsberg and a group of friends were planning to levitate the building.

I was with my friend Trish, in our tan trenchcoats, like the good journalism students we were. We had travelled all night on the bus from Syracuse. I was taking a first step in the long march that has become my life. I wanted to be counted -- against the war, against the military draft, against colonization and "manifest destiny" and all those other excuses we use for taking what we want, when and where we want it.

I marched for Jeff who had enlisted after losing his scholarship freshman year. I marched for Lenny and Mike and Johnny and Jim. I marched for what the draft did to young men and their families. I marched because I had been radicalized and I was furious at the betrayals in my life.

So, in April 2009, I retraced my steps along the Reflecting Pool and was caught by the irony of the Vietnam Memorial being placed just over the berm from where we had sung and yelled and beat our fists into the air. "One, two, three, four. We don't want your fucking war." Over and over and over.

Who could have imagined that 42 years later, I would return to open thick, waterproof books neatly printed with the 58,256 names of the dead. Who knew I would search and find two men from my youth -- Michael who teased me about my high school editorials and Johnny, my neighborhood friend from when I was five.

Michael was to die early, on May 24, 1968. Johnny -- and eleven other young men -- died on June 22, 1970. Their names are engraved side by side on the same row. There are coordinates on each panel so you can trace that one death, that one name, that date and your unique heartbreak amongst the thousands.

Who could known it would be so organized...

I started walking the path next to the polished black stone. First, I passed rows of names at the height of my ankle. I found Michael on a slab that reached my waist. Johnny was lost in waves of names on a stone far above my head. May 1968 to June 1970 was a bad time for young men aged 18 to 25.

An airforce veteran stood nearby and talked about his experiences. Most of these men, he said, were shot down while on secret missions over Laos and Cambodia. Like Johnny, when they died they were listed as "Missing in Action" -- and certainly not missing in the jungles of Cambodia. We weren't there -- remember?

The airman did a rubbing for me and I carried that sad bit of charcoal on paper in memory of my friend. I called Barry and told him I was so grateful I wasn't bringing home a rubbing of his name, because we both knew how easily it might have been... could have been... would have been...

I sat on a park bench for a long time. A bird sang in the thicket nearby. I remembered me, at age 20. I cried a little for what had once seemed promised and for what we had lost.

Later, much to my surprise, I left the park feeling relief and closure.

I flew out of Washington the next day. From the air, the Reflecting Pool meets the Lincoln Memorial. Beyond an access road and a clump of trees, the Vietnam Wall slices a deep gash into the earth. Further out, Arlington Cemetery rolls over green hills speckled with small white crosses.

Arlington still yields her soft soil and embraces dead soldiers from conflicts, old and new, current and future. Pearl Harbor to Basra. Kabul to Iwo Jima. Normandy to _______. War is so persistent. So tenacious. So universal and eternal. I might have guessed.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The True Faces of War

I saw this photograph on the BBC News website. It's an AP photo of a Pakistani woman soothing her baby as they wait to be interviewed for the refugee camp.

The face of this baby breaks my heart. He/she is already traumatized and so confused. Think of it -- you, your baby, your husband and a few family members have just fled your mountain village in northwest Pakistan. You have spent months debating, worrying, hiding from the Taliban and from the unreliable government forces and even hiding from your neighbors because war brings out the spies and fearmongers. People you have known all your life now interpret your actions to the "authorities".

The girls' school where your niece was a student was attacked by men with acid in bottles. She wasn't at school that day, and you can barely breathe when you think what might have been.

You had to pack a lifetime of memories and possessions in five minutes time. You have so few things wrapped in woven blankets. Your baby, this light of your life, keeps whimpering and clutching at your hair. You murmur, Shush, shush, your momma is here... and the fire starts at your heart and sweeps outward.

You are Mother and Child -- Somalia, Bosnia, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Dafur. New Orleans, Kabul, Nairobi, Rwanda. Basra, Warsaw, 1940's Europe. You could be Roma, Tamil, Nicaraguan, a 1920's black woman from the backwoods of Georgia, Mississippi, Virginia.

Memorial Day 2009. Remember this woman and this baby. Cry for casualties of living wars -- dislocated Now... threatened Now... dying Now... even as we pray and parade and lay our flowered wreaths on cold stone graves.

Show this photograph to your family and friends and politicians and Congress. This is the violence we do by staying silent and allowing armies to war on our behalf. This is the cost of our "national security".

This is how we nurture the future.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Early Morning

I wake in the morning and find frigate birds and a sea lion sharing the same buoy. I heard the sea lion haul himself out of the water some time last night. We, the Rumba boat, also spent the night tethered to this buoy. It was a safe harbor for us all.

What Memories Stay

The Galapagos Islands are a world unto themselves. I get swept away when I think of what we have seen and experienced there. This time was all about green sea turtles hovering offshore, waiting for night when they lumber onto the beach and lay their eggs. It was snorkeling and swimming with small Galapagos penguins, white-tipped sharks, turtles, and eagle rays.

The marine iguanas were in full mating colors -- greens, reds, black. We saw a feeding frenzy in a small inlet where blue-footed boobies and pelicans plunged into three feet of water to feast on schools of silvery-colored fish.

A mother booby fed her ravenous chick as we stood on the path, agog. We were stung by small jellyfish in a bay overrun with boats. Sea lions swam by me. Huge frigate birds flew next to and behind our boat like escorts or guards with unknown motives.

But, what lingers in my memory is the wonder of night. From our cabin on deck, I could see the stars -- so many more, it seems, than in our northern skies. When it was hot, I opened the door where two feet straight ahead was the railing and the water beyond. Often, I woke at night and stood in that open door watching dark shadows and land masses pass by. I heard splashing when sea lions came close to the boat. I was in another world of hot, dark nights full of stars and the wild.

This is what I carry in my heart now.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Galapagos Islands

Here I sit in the February sun. It's 14 degrees F in New Hampshire. I'm watching a flurry of birds at our feeders -- bluejays, chickadees, titmice, and downy woodpeckers. The juncos scurry along the surface of the snow, eating sunflower seeds scattered from the feeders above. Flocks of goldfinch swoop and take over the trees. Mourning doves cover the ground, 14 of them at last count.

Soon, I will be in the Ecuador sun again. It's 80 degrees F at the Galapagos Islands. I'll be watching very different birds -- blue-footed boobies and magnificent frigate birds, flightless cormorants and Galapagos hawk. The famous finches and their beaks may have a message, as they did for Charles Darwin. Will I notice? Will I know what is significant and what is mere fancy?

I don't think Nature indulges in fancy. She has a purpose to every creature, every system, every feather, scale and cell. It's we human animals who ignore this truth, at our peril.

When we visited the Galapagos five years ago, I felt as if we were in another world, on a distant planet. Here, swallow-tailed gulls coexist with marine iguanas and masked boobies. The dark spot in the waves is a surfing sea lion. These animals survive together on isolated volcanic islands with more civility than we find in the marble halls of Congress.

Another fact of Nature we Democrats and Republicans, Fascists and Liberals ignore at our peril.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I want to pay tribute to those people who came before -- those millions of people who struggled, sang, preached, and  died.  This inauguration of Barak Obama belongs to those who came before -- those millions of people who were stolen, humiliated, tortured, and damned.  This day belongs to the lynched, the terrified, the grieved.  It's a call, a chorus, a testament to what is possible.  

As we are seeing today, we can never underestimate what is truly possible.  This is a gift -- and I have a host of people I hold in my heart, my mind, my memory.  They have inspired me and given our world a new day.

Today belongs to: Peg Dobbie, Arthur Newcomb, Berta, Ruth and Bud, Barry, Ginny, Trish and Laurel, outspoken teachers and professors, the children at Head Start in Westfield circa 1968.  Frances Crowe.  Caesar Chavez. Father Albert and the Community Action Program in Springfield, circa 1969.  Simon and Sue.  The Reverend Barry Stoddard.  Neal, Sheryl, and their extended family.  

Beyond War.  Peggo and Paul.  SNCC.  The Berrigans.  Pete Seeger.  Those thousands of singers who refused to be silent.  Unions and churches.  The Smothers Brothers.  Mason Williams.  Holly Near and Makeba.  Baez. Ochs.  Marion Horne. Unnamed jazz and Delta Blues bands.  Grape Boycotts and strikes.  Vietnam and "one, two, three, four - We don't want your fucking wars".

Martin Luther King, Jr. - What a fitting tribute to this man's life!   John and Robert Kennedy.  Harriet Tubman.  Quakers and abolitionists along the Underground Railway.   Immigrants who came (and still enter) into a well of suspicion and fear.    The marchers of Selma and Birmingham.   The writers who wrote after their presses had been smashed and their books burned.

For years, my vision of a just world soured into cynicism and impotence in the face of the Bush Presidencies, the Reagan years, Nixon, Cheney, Rove, Palin -- and the minions who remain nameless and faceless except for their signatures on bits of paper that seemed to destroy whatever I valued.  Education.  Environmental issues.  Wolves and whales.  Children.  Possibilities.

But it's a new day and I am alive to revel in its glory.   

I look at my lists and I know there's more. So, send me names.  It's a Whole World movement, and I'm back to being a Believer.