Where Have You Come From, Where Are You Going?

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. When I woke up that morning, I decided I would call her to wish her happy birthday over the phone, then secretly make plans with my dad for a small surprise celebration we’ll have a few days later. But I had an email in my inbox from her, asking if … Continue reading "Where Have You Come From, Where Are You Going?"

Yesterday was my mother’s birthday. When I woke up that morning, I decided I would call her to wish her happy birthday over the phone, then secretly make plans with my dad for a small surprise celebration we’ll have a few days later. But I had an email in my inbox from her, asking if I could look over some materials she had written for a theatre workshop she was going to teach the next day. My mother is very talented – an expert in her field – and very humble. She is skilled at deflecting the conversation away from herself, even while she brings her whole self – her mind, her heart, her listening abilities, and her skills – to every conversation and interaction. This has always inspired me in my teaching. My mother and I love to connect over the fact that I have pursued teaching like her, in my own unique way, and that we bring a similar student-centered philosophy to our work. It’s exciting and humbling for me now, as an adult, to help her proofread her materials and share our thoughts and ideas about ways to bring student interest and engagement to the center of teaching and learning.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer: my mother blocking a scene with campers in her summer program for 3rd-6th graders where the kids collaborate with staff to write and perform an original play.

My mother’s area of expertise is Arts Integration – designing workshops and programs for classroom teachers to integrate the elements of drama with the subjects explored in history, math, science, language arts, etc. This approach keeps learning active for students and collaborative for teachers, building to a more meaningful and memorable learning experience for everyone involved.

I was first introduced to these methods as a young student in my mother’s drama programs, and the experiences have stayed with me (not only because my mother is around to remind me!). As someone raised by two teachers who became a teacher herself, I’ve always been interested in the ways our upbringing influences the decisions we make in our adult lives about our relationship to teaching and learning. While my area of focus is different than my mother’s, I see our process as essentially the same: provide a student-centered framework for learning, identify student interests, and scaffold a process for growth and creative and intellectual development.

 

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer: me working with my campers on original choreography.

And so I wonder–what influences from family and education are shaping the worlds of our OM high schoolers? What experiences with teaching and learning gained through the family feel most important to you now – feel like the things you will take with you as you go off into the world and into your adult life?

 

On Reading

from The Poetics of Space, by Gaston Bachelard.

We are deep in the heart of winter up here in Vermont, and many of our most recent blog posts focus on one of my favorite topics / winter activities: reading.

I recently ordered an enormous stack of books to keep me occupied through the cold evenings and snow storms. It seemed like every day, the FedEx truck was stopping outside my house. Books by my favorite authors, books I’d been meaning to read for ages, are slowly, beautifully taking over my living room table. In the mornings, evenings, and on precious weekends, I dive in and out of them, embodying the words and worlds in those pages.

One of my favorite writers, who also lives in semi-obscurity in Vermont, has written in her essay, “Someone Reading a Book,” from her book, Madness, Rack, and Honey:

“Is there a right time to read each book? A point of developing consciousness that corresponds with perfect ripeness to a particular poet or novel? And if that is the case, how many times in our lives did we make the match?” -Mary Ruefle

I always think about this quote when I happen to read a book at what feels like precisely the right time. I thought about it this weekend three times:

From The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

1) I read the chapter from The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard about how it feels to sit and read by the fire on a snowy evening in a country cottage, while reading by the fire on a snowy evening in my country cottage.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

2) I talked to a friend in Chicago about a new project we plan to start: writing letters to each other while reading the same book at the same time. She told me she would “reveal the book we’re going to read presently.” A few hours later, I posted a picture on Instagram of several books I planned to read over the weekend. This friend commented: “Are you kidding me! I was about to mail you the book we’re going to read. You already have the book.”

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

3) While working on one of my current creative projects, a collection of essays called “On Reading,” I get stuck on an essay about a female writer from the Surrealist movement, and start to do more research. Later, I am rereading another of my favorite books, Heroines by Kate Zambreno, aand I come across a section about the same female Surrealist writer I am trying to write about. I Google interviews with Kate Zambreno and read in one about how much she values those points of correspondence, when she discovers that another writer she admires is writing about the same topic she is writing about too.

From Mary Ruefle’s essay:

“There was one book I read not only at the right age but also on the right afternoon, in the right place, at the right angle. I read The Waves on an island, on a plotless day, when I twenty-two years old, sitting on a terrace from which I could see in the distance the ocean, and the horizon where it met the sky and the changing light that played there as the sun climbed to its zenith and descended again while I thumbed the pages and my blood pressure washed up and down with the words. The Waves is not one of my favorite books. But my memory of reading it is. I was very silly when I was young. I have that to be thankful for.”

The Waves by Virginia Woolf actually is one of my favorite books of all time (although, how many favorite books have I listed here? No matter, there is always room for more!), and my experience of reading The Waves is also one of my favorite reading memories. I read The Waves on the back deck of a house where I lived in Vermont in college, when I was twenty-one, on a plotless day, sitting on that porch from which I could see, very close, a mountain range, and where it met the sky, and the changing light that played there on that August afternoon as the sun reached its highest heat and cooled again, and I decided then that I would be a writer.

I wrote a letter to a friend recently, and before he read it, he told me where he planned to read it and said, “It matters where and when you read things.”

One thing I love about teaching for Oak Meadow is how much I know my students are reading “outside of school” – in environments away from a desk. And I hope my students experience these cosmic correspondences with books too – that they build lasting associations between themselves and the books they read, the days they read them, the landscapes they read them in.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer.

Mary Ruefle’s book, Madness, Rack, and Honey, in which she writes about reading The Waves, was published by Wave Books. How many times will you make the match?

On Writing: An Honest Curiosity

Quotes on ceiling of Michel de Montaigne's study in France.

“Among the liberal arts, let us begin with the art that liberates us…”

Michel de Montaigne wrote these words in the late 1570s, when he withdrew from public life to hole up in a tower where he read, wrote, thought, paced, and ultimately, transformed the landscape of writing altogether.

Montaigne was a French nobleman and former magistrate whose life prior to his writing career has been called “unremarkable.” But it is precisely the things society has always called unremarkable that he fixed his mind on when he chose to sit down and begin writing in a style and form the world had never seen before.

Actually, he didn’t even sit. He felt his mind was more active if he paced around his library and dictated his thoughts to another person in the room. When he moved his books into the tower, he had his favorite quotes painted on the wooden beams that held up the ceiling. In this way, he could gaze up at them while walking and allow their ideas to inspire him as he walked.

“For our boy, a closet, a garden, the table and the bed, solitude, company, morning and evening, all hours will be the same, all places will be his study.”

Michel de Montaigne’s tower in France, where he wrote his famous essays.

This active approach to writing and thinking makes sense when we consider what he was writing about—ordinary, mundane things that everyone experiences but which no one ever talks about, to this day and certainly not in 1580. These were topics like: “Of thumbs,” “That we laugh and cry for the same thing,” “Of smells,” “Of sleep,” “Not to counterfeit being sick,” “Of the resemblance of children to fathers,” “Of liars,” “Of the custom of wearing clothes,” and so on. They weren’t informational articles, nor were they fictional stories or poems. They didn’t fall into any category of writing that anyone recognized. So what were they?

They were the mind in active work on the page—exploring, questioning, doubting, contradicting, and meandering, through the halls of sciences, poetry, fashion, law, history, morality, and a hundred other topics and disciplines, all with one unifying factor: the pursuit of curiosity.

Montaigne called them his essais, from the French word essayer—to try, or to attempt. Montaigne wasn’t an expert in the topics he was writing about or disseminating his superior knowledge. Instead, he was thinking and writing with a passionate rigor and a humble acknowledgement that learning and the pursuit of truth and discovery are never-ending processes.

“Put into his head an honest curiosity to inquire into all things; whatever is unusual around him he will see: a building, a fountain, a man, the field of an ancient battle, the place where Caesar or Charlemagne passed.”

Michel de Montaigne’s study, inside the tower.

This active, questioning, doubting, failing, and persevering definition of the word essay has been completely discarded from the American education system (if it was ever really present at all) through the industrialized uniformity of traditional curriculum design. When I say the word essay, I doubt you think to yourself, “Oh yeah, questioning and imagining, meandering and exploring! So fun, I love essays!” but rather, “Five paragraphs, same structure every time, topic sentences, plan the ending before I begin writing, never say the word I, hamburger method, makes me hate writing and feel like I am a bad writer.” At least that is what every writing student has told me the first time I asked them what an essay was.

The five-paragraph essay is one kind of essay, but it is not the only kind of essay, and it should not be the first kind of essay we learn how to write in school. I’ll tell you why: because it does not teach you how to think. In fact, it teaches you the opposite of thinking. It does teach organization of thought—but why should you learn how to organize your thoughts before you have been given the opportunity to think?

A copy of Michel de Montaigne’s Essays.

What Montaigne got so right in his essays that we should remember in our writing today is that essay writing is not so much about convincing your readers that you are an expert, but rather demonstrating the avenues, sidewalks, flight patterns, maps, and trajectories you’ve traveled to arrive at your discoveries. It’s about crafting a question (such as, “Since it is philosophy that teaches us to live, and since there is a lesson in it for childhood as well as for the other ages, why is it not imparted to children?”), reflecting on your initial knowledge about that question, researching the question, staging a conversation between your thoughts and your research, and reflecting on the discoveries that you made. By learning to think and write rigorously in this way, you also learn all the formalities of grammar and mechanics, and gain a comfort in writing in specific forms like lab reports or the five-paragraph essay.

In the spirit of Montaigne, and this rigorous, independent learning, I’ve designed a new writing course for Oak Meadow high-schoolers called Composition: Expression & Understanding, and you can enroll in the first semester now! Semester two will roll out this summer. This course will prepare you for the independent learning style of Oak Meadow, and it will strengthen your writing abilities in preparation for studies in all disciplines. But most importantly, this course will help you discover who you truly are, what you believe in, and how you want to pursue your own full and meaningful life. At the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?

Enroll Here: https://oakmeadow.com/news/courses/composition-the-art-of-expression/

All quotes from Montaigne’s essay, “Of the Education of Children.” http://essays.quotidiana.org/montaigne/education_of_children/

Time Is Always Right

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

https://www.nationalservice.gov/mlkday

On October 14, 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was the youngest man to ever receive it. He was just 35 years old and so committed to his cause that he donated the prize money of over $50,000. to the Civil Rights Movement. His protests and his “I Have a Dream” speech are world famous, and his accomplishments are still celebrated today. You can learn more about the 1960s and the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War, by watching the excellent video The Sixties from Annenberg Lerner. In Dr. King Jr.’s honor, the United States Congress designated a federal holiday in January each year to be a national day of service.

To take part in this day, plan what you and your family may do to promote King’s values on January 15, 2018. It is the Martin Luther King Day of Service.

Each year I plan to mentor students in my community that experience challenges in school. It’s a service that I enjoy very much! Share with us what you and your family plan to do in the comments.

Building Connections

Comics by Naomi Washer.

As someone who juggles multiple jobs, interests, and artistic pursuits, I find it helpful to identify what each of these endeavors share. I gain a stronger appreciation for all areas of my life when I understand why I engage with each one, and how they influence each other.

Building connections between the different areas of one’s life is something I learned as a student at Bennington College. Similar to Oak Meadow, Bennington encourages students to approach their lives as learners, artists, and innovators holistically: rather than compartmentalizing the different parts of you, how can you step back and observe yourself on multiple levels, then build a complete picture who you are?

I am an essayist, a poet, an editor of a poetry press, and a writing and literature teacher. I also make comics and embroidery art, and write resumes for a career counseling company. These are such different things! What connects them all?

Comic by Naomi Washer. First in a series of daily comics I’ll be making this year about living in Vermont.

I’m interested in framing devices–finding a frame for a concept, and identifying a form that highlights that concept. This interest in framing is why I make comics, where the juxtaposition of panels, image, and text tell a story all their own. It’s why I write literary essays that spiral around a question. It’s the reason I make embroidery art, where the circular hoop frames the artwork. It’s why I choose artwork for my poetry magazine that matches the style of writing we publish. It’s one of the main reasons I teach writing–to guide students toward strengthening their ability to frame their thoughts, reflections, and arguments. It’s also the reason I work as an editor, where I help professionals learn how to frame their achievements in the best possible light.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer. My beautiful hardcover planner, printed by Candor Arts.

I make a conscious effort to pull these threads together by filling my space with phrases and juxtapositions of objects that show me how things fit together. For 2018, I’m using a new planner with the words STILL LEARNING on the cover, to remind myself that I am still learning through all my endeavors, whether it be my new efforts in comics and embroidery, or the fields where I am already experienced, such as teaching and editing. I’m also restructuring my daily schedule to make time for handcrafts before and after long days in front of a screen.

Photo courtesy of Naomi Washer. My living room table set up for making comics in the morning and embroidery pieces in the evening – next up is embroidering some of the comics designs!

Now, let’s take an Oak Meadow student as an example. What connections can a student build between the following courses and extracurriculars?:

  • The Hero’s Journey: Introduction to Literature and Composition
  • Geometry
  • Environmental Science for a Changing World
  • A Sense of Place: The Geography of Global Change
  • French I
  • Ballet

To answer this completely would take the fun out of a student making their own connections, but here’s what I see on first glance:

Ballet uses the French language for all the names of its steps and positions. By studying French more in-depth, a student of ballet can gain a much more grounded understanding of the art form. For example, the word échappé in French literally means “escaped,” and it is the name for a leap where the feet move from close together to far apart! There is also so much to learn about the history of ballet by learning about French culture, where ballet has been tied to the country’s aesthetics for centuries. This interest in the cultures of other countries can carry over to A Sense of Place: The Geography of Global Change, and can go even deeper by engaging with a focused exploration of Environmental Science for a Changing World. The changing world, along with the ways we must change with it, is very much at the heart of The Hero’s Journey, where students read coming-of-age tales that take their heros through unknown lands. And let’s not forget Geometry! Gaining the skills to draw and comprehend shapes and spatial topographies and orientations will be incredibly useful when studying and drawing maps and landscapes in all of these courses. It will also bring clarity to spatial patterns in choreography for ballet (not to mention why and how your body can make the shapes it is able to make!).

There you have it. As we all dive back into our work at Oak Meadow in this new year, I encourage you to identify connections between your courses, your extra / co-curriculars, and the interests that keep you aware, curious, and growing through each and every day.

#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.

Opt Outside with Oak Meadow

Oak Meadow Opt Outside

Oak Meadow is once again hosting our own version of REI’s #optoutside movement for Black Friday and the holiday weekend. We’ve coined it Oak Meadow Opt Outside, or #OMoptoutside on social media, because we want to see your photos of family time spent in the great outdoors!

Opt Outside started when REI decided to close their doors on one of the busiest shopping days of the year, Black Friday, and to pay their employees for the day, urging them to get outside and reconnect with family, friends, and the great outdoors.

It’s a concept we loved and have been doing too since they started a few years ago, and we invite you to join us. Yes, we’ll have our Black Friday sale running. But we’ll also be outside running, playing tag, tossing a football, hiking, and generally enjoying the last of the good weather. When you come inside for a pumpkin pie or coffee break, browse our sale. We’re keeping it open until the end of Cyber Monday, so there’s no rush. Plenty of time to get it all in–food, family, fun, the great outdoors, AND 20% off.

We’re pretty fond of the idea of embracing gratefulness by being out in nature. We hope you are too. So join us for #OMoptoutside, tag us in your photos on Instagram and Facebook, then peruse our virtual bookstore!

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.