#SocialMedia

On a recent visit to my parents’ house, I discovered a room in the basement full of electronics from the turn of the century – bookshelves piled high with old monitors, printers, keyboards, and even stacks of floppy disks. We joked that my dad should open a history museum and give guided tours of the year 2001: “This is what technology looked like when you were born!”

One of those monitors had been mine in high school. I recognized it by the magazine cutouts taped around the border of the screen. I had a flashback of waiting several minutes for the computer to turn on whenever I wanted to chat with friends on AOL Instant Messenger (RIP). We had text messages but used them rarely. We still talked on the phone and made plans in advance in person, then met up at the designated time and place. We put up Away Messages on AIM with subtle tones that hinted vaguely about the exciting lives we were leading away from the screen. Then we truly stepped away from those screens, and into our lives.

Photo and embroidery by Naomi Washer. Quote from The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.

These days, it’s extremely difficult to disconnect ourselves from technology. From the minute I wake up to the sound of the morning alarm emanating from my smartphone, there are a hundred ways I check connections through social media to the outside world. I’ve got text messages and Instagram ‘likes’ that came through while I was asleep, and emails from contributors to my online poetry journal; I check the weather, my daily horoscope, and browse my Facebook feed; I read articles on the news, poetry, and education; and soon enough, my brain is fried from all the back-and-forth screen time, and I feel like curling up into a ball and going to sleep. Problem is, it’s only noon!

Photo and embroidery by Naomi Washer.

So, how can we use social media for all its wonderful connections without feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or anxious?

I’m writing this blog post in my office. The door to the office is closed, and my phone is lying on the dining room table, far away from me. This is one tactic I employ while I am working, as there is no need for me to be on my phone while emailing my Oak Meadow colleagues, designing curriculum, or writing feedback to students on their work. Phones have become an extra limb for so many of us – it’s important to identify the times in which it would be more beneficial for you to unplug and focus on the people or task in front of you.

Photo and embroidery by Naomi Washer.

Recently, I decided to teach myself how to embroider. I’ve never done this before, and my mother and I joke that she would not have been able to teach me, as it is a skill she claims she did not inherit from my crafty grandmother. While I do wish I could have learned how to embroider from my grandmother herself, I was determined to find another way.

Photo and embroidery by Naomi Washer. Quote from this writer’s poet friend, John Harrity

 

Hashtags can be an incredibly useful and instructive tool in the digital world. In order to teach myself my new desired skill, I began searching embroidery hashtags on Instagram. Now, every day, I search the #hoopart #embroideryhoopart #modernembroidery hashtags on Instagram to find accounts where I can learn tools and tricks for my new trade. Once I have learned these strategies, I put my phone down again at a table far away, curl up in the armchair by the fire, pull out my embroidery hoop, thread, scissors, needle, and marking pen, and get to work for several hours on a creation from my own imagination.

Photo and embroidery by Naomi Washer. Quote from the song “Sadie” by Joanna Newsom.

What skills, hobbies, or pastimes are you interested or would like to learn? Try searching those hobbies through hashtags on Instagram, on Pinterest, or watch YouTube tutorials! Find specific accounts you can follow for updates and new strategies. Mark out time during your week to browse those accounts, then unplug and get to stitching, swimming, fishing, gardening, or whatever else your heart desires.

Place and Space

In my high school journals, I often wrote about where I wanted to be when I grew up. Looking back on these entries with the distance of a decade, and the knowledge of what I’ve pursued in life, I am in awe that my essential self is still the same. It’s comforting, but it’s also empowering. It means that the person I became at 17 is still the person I am proud to be – just with more experience and more tools for how to accomplish the things I used to dream about from inside the decorated, forest green (my favorite color, then and now) walls of my high school bedroom.

From my high school journal: “When I think about ‘what I want to do’ when I graduate, I think of these things: I want to be the most approachable English teacher at an independent high school for unconventional young people, and I want to have a cabin on a lake with bookshelves everywhere filled with books, and I want to wake up every morning and find the passages I underlined in all my favorite books and remember what it felt like to be that age and read those words for the first time.”

Today, I live beside a river in a cottage full of books. I teach English at an independent high school for pretty cool young people (that’s you guys), and every morning, I wake up and flip through the passages I underlined ten years ago in my favorite books. I think about what it felt like to be 17 and reading those words for the first time.

In college, I learned about the concepts of Place and Space. Place was a physical location, while Space was an ambiance that could be evoked in a building or room. In a Place, one performed their public persona; in a Space, one could be their most private, interior self.

This reminded me of my high school bedroom – that place where I had engaged in journaling, daydreaming, painting, drawing, writing, singing, dancing – activities and rituals that gave the place a certain ambiance; that made it into a space.

I am writing these words in my office, the front room in my cottage. My desk faces the yard; the trees; the mountain. This is the room in which I design curriculum for the courses I teach through Oak Meadow; chat with students; communicate with my faculty peers; read submissions for my poetry journal; write these blog posts, and a hundred other outward-facing things.

Photo by Naomi Washer

On the ceiling of my office is a drop-down ladder that leads to a secret loft; intimate, with slanted walls. I can stand upright in the center, but otherwise have to crawl. Pillows and cushions line the floor. One wall is a balcony, overlooking the living room below. Against the railing are my bookshelves. Photographs of places I’ve lived and the people I’ve known line the slanted walls. On the exterior wall is a tiny square window looking out to the mountain and the yard, just above where I sit at my desk in my office below. Up here, I am curled into a nest; I am closer to the mountain; I have my books and mementos and journals scattered around me. Below, the office is light, bright, and open, inviting all the work I do that connects to the outside world. Above, I enter the interior space of my mind – the space where I dream up creative projects and muse over the big questions of life and the world, my beliefs, my values, and who I feel myself to be.

Photo by Naomi Washer

The place of my office and the space of my loft are both necessary for the work that I do as a teacher and a writer. But I have to wonder if I would have ever discovered that these were the best places and spaces for me if I hadn’t dreamed about them in high school.

High school is not only the time when you begin to state your goals and ambitions – it is also a crucial time to dream. It is the most important time in your life to ask essential questions about who you are, what you believe, and what kind of path you see yourself pursuing in life.

By “path,” I don’t just mean career. Careers are your public persona – your exterior self. You will accomplish great things in the public places of your careers – I’m sure of it. But if you allow yourself the space of interior dreaming, musing, and questioning, then you will also become a person you’ll be proud to be – someone who lives by the virtues you believe in.

Photo by Naomi Washer

You can’t know where you will be ten, fifteen, twenty years from now. If you did, that would take away half the fun of the discovery. But what you can do is think about the kind of place you want to be in; where you can be productive by offering your skills and knowledge to your community.

And you can think about the space you want to have around you: what kind of weather and landscape make you feel grounded and at home? Do you want trees and mountains around you, or skyscrapers? Do you want to live on the road, in a tiny house, an apartment building in a big city, or a rambling old country house on a farm? If you ask yourself these questions now, you’ll find out what kind of person you are, and the kind of person you’ll be down the road, when the dust has settled, and the air has cleared, and you open your eyes: what do you see?

P’Chum Ben

In the U.S., Halloween is a spooky holiday full of horror films, scary masks, fake blood, and haunted houses. It takes place at a time of year when many regions of the country are undergoing that seasonal shift from crisp, early autumn to the bare, dark branches welcoming winter. The air turns colder, the wind … Continue reading "P’Chum Ben"

In the U.S., Halloween is a spooky holiday full of horror films, scary masks, fake blood, and haunted houses. It takes place at a time of year when many regions of the country are undergoing that seasonal shift from crisp, early autumn to the bare, dark branches welcoming winter. The air turns colder, the wind seems louder, and one can almost hear voices in the air…

But in many countries outside the U.S., this time of year is not as much about how well we can frighten each other as it is about taking the time to commune with one another and honor the cycle of life – birth, death, and return.

Halloween is certainly connected to ideas of death and return, but it manifests in gory images of witches and zombies wandering suburban streets. In other cultures, particularly ones rooted in the many strands of Buddhism, autumn is a time to pause in remembrance for our loved ones who are no longer with us, and gather for meals and services with those who are.

In Cambodia, the holiday P’Chum Ben (which translates to Ancestors’ Day) is a 15-day celebration which takes place at the end of September each year. It is one of the most important holidays in the Cambodian religious calendar. During P’Chum Ben, it is believed that the souls of relatives who have passed away come to the temples (called pagodas) to receive offerings of food and prayers from their living family members. P’Chum Ben is not to be missed, and much time is taken by all to visit the pagodas and to show respect for their relatives and ancestors.

As with the American Halloween, there is one spooky element to P’Chum Ben: it is believed that some of the dead receive punishments for their sins and suffer in hell, far from the sun, with no clothes to wear or food to eat. It is believed that those souls who are suffering have become hungry ghosts whose tiny mouths cannot take in all the food they need. Those who greet spirits at the pagodas believe that the food they bring can be directly transferred to the dead, and some people throw the traditional sticky rice into the fields as a way to reach the ghosts. Ultimately, P’Chum Ben is an opportunity for these spirits to commune with their living relatives by receiving the offerings, and hopefully gaining some relief for their pain.

Photo of a P’Chum Ben celebration in Cambodia, courtesy of pkocambodia.org. Unlike the American tradition of wearing black to a funeral, Cambodians traditionally wear white – a lighter, more celebratory color.

I traveled to Cambodia in high school with a group of students and teachers, to learn about the country’s traditional art forms. On the trip, I developed a strong interest in Cambodian culture and a love for the country’s arts, landscape, and people.

Several years after my trip, a close friend who had also traveled there, and held his experiences in Cambodia close to his heart, unexpectedly passed away exactly one week before his birthday. In my grief, my confusion over why this talented poet, photographer, and humanitarian had died so young, I found solace in our shared connection to Cambodian culture and Buddhist beliefs in karma and reincarnation.

Each year on November 7th, the day Johnny died, I take time to look at his photographs from Cambodia and reread his poems about visiting ancient Khmer temples. A week later, on his birthday, November 14th, I connect with our mutual friends to speak about Johnny and draw attention to the ways he touched so many lives while he was with us, and the ways he continues to make an impact after his death.

No matter your belief system, or what holidays you celebrate when the weather turns cold, autumn is undeniably a good time to gather with friends, family, and loved ones, to celebrate life and others who lived before us. It is a good time to pause and ask yourself what you do believe, what brings you comfort, and how you can bring comfort to others.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer. Poem by John Harrity, from a chapbook of poems printed by his family. In the photo, Johnny is playing the chapei, a traditional Khmer instrument similar to a guitar.

Here are some ways you can integrate this attention into your daily life this autumn:

  • Make a meal traditional to your family, culture, and ancestors, and bring it to a gathering of loved ones to share
  • Look through old photo albums of relatives and take the time to learn about their lives
  • Journal about your feelings regarding the loss of your loved ones
  • Build a shrine with photos, candles, and objects for a loved one who has passed on
  • Research the ways other cultures, different from your own, celebrate and honor the lives of their relatives and ancestors

Growth Mindset: Embracing Failure

Photo by Naomi Washer

At the end of my street, there is a secret path that leads into the woods. On the other side of those trees, a boardwalk winds through a meadow of wildflowers. It drops you off at the edge of a peaceful body of still water. Behind the water – rolling mountains.

The boardwalk has weathered many winters, and the wood planks lie warped and wobbly. When I decided to move to this town, I visited the boardwalk and spent some time by the water looking at the mountains, reflecting on the path that brought me here.

More than once in my life, I have taken the risky leap and moved to a new city where I knew nothing and no one. Each time, I found myself accomplishing different things than what I imagined I might achieve in those places. I learned to develop skills in visualization – picturing myself in successful scenarios in an effort to manifest them – and comfort in pushing myself through the unknown, remaining open to unexpected growth and discovery.

This is not easy to do, by any means. It takes belief, and it takes practice and time.

Photo by Naomi Washer

It can be easy to feel that big life decisions arise out of failures – not getting into the school of your choice; not getting the job you wanted, or the place you thought you wanted to live.

But the truth is that this binary divide between success and failure doesn’t actually exist. Society conditions us to believe in following one straight path, and to believe that we have failed if we deviate from that path. But that’s not even close to the full story.

Persistence, commitment, and dedication are necessary skills for pursuing a path or a goal, but they have to be paired with a growth mindset if we are to remain open to opportunities we didn’t originally plan for – things we never could have expected; perspectives we’d never imagined.

High school is that exciting, confusing, and complicated time when many young people prepare to leave home for the first time – the beginning of a long journey through new cities, jobs, more schooling, new friendships, accomplishments, and discoveries.

So how does one prepare for all that newness? How can you make yourself ready when you don’t even know what lies ahead?

Photo by Naomi Washer

We make ourselves ready by cultivating an awareness of what triggers our fears, our worries – our fixed mindset. The voice in our head that tells us we are unable to achieve what we want to achieve. The voice that emphasizes our fears, and tells us we shouldn’t even try.

Once aware of this voice – work with it. Talk to it, collaborate with it. Use it to muck through what you perceive as a barrier or threat until the truth is revealed – that we are very often the only people standing in our own way.

High school is the perfect time to begin developing a growth mindset. Your family, friends, school community, and other local communities of which you are a part have got your back.

High school is a safe time and place to take small risks in new directions, whether it’s auditioning for a play, learning to paint, or joining a debate team when you thought you were always too scared to speak in public. The high school environment gives you space to stretch yourself, ask questions, make new attempts, and revise, revise, revise, knowing you’ve got a safety net to fall back on; mentors to guide you; peers who are going through the same things.

When I walk down the boardwalk from my house to the river, the wood dips and bends beneath my feet. It creaks, and sometimes it feels like it will break. And I will fall.

But I do not. I wobble a little; stretch my arms out to the side to balance myself. Keep my eyes focused on the flowers, and the mountains, and the water waiting for me up ahead.