Road Trip Report (#2)

Most of us fall comfortably into routines. We like drinking our morning coffee in the same chair, or having a particular salad dressing for our lettuce, or stacking the plates in a specific direction when loading our dishwashers.   Some more than others of us are prone to repeating these routines; we like things done in a particular way. And pretty soon, we get “set in our ways. ” The danger of this is that we insist on our preferences to the point where we become  rigid, unbendable, unlikable. But travel works against these tendencies.

Travel makes us ask what’s important. When we’re out of our routines and away from the places where we have control over the details of life, we are forced to be flexible, to care less about trivialities and more about what really matters. No, the hotel coffee isn’t as good as our own. The rental cabin’s kitchen is lacking a good knife. The heater is hard to regulate, so we are alternately hot, then cold at night.

But really, how much do those things matter? In Jackson, Wyoming, our hotel wasn’t fancy, but we were right across from acres and acres of a wildlife refuge for elk. We watched herds graze. There were moose!

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The mountains across the valley turned purple at dusk. And in the morning we drove just seven miles into Grand Teton National Park to watch the sun rise on the mountains, turning the white snow on the peaks into silver.

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Things go wrong; how will we react? Not all travel experiences are beautiful. We had a flat tire. This forced us to spend a morning at a tire shop in Lincoln, Nebraska getting four new tires.

I had altitude sickness. I did not want to be sick, but I was. How rude of me to decline a lovely meal that our friends in Colorado prepared for us; how sad to miss such great conversation over the meal while I slept off my nausea.

After driving for hours through desolate landscape, we were more than ready to stop for the day in Casper, Wyoming. However, at the first place we stopped, we learned there were no hotel rooms left in town. ( An Elton John concert. We had not thought to plan for this. Really? It was a weekday in the middle of March.)

But the problems? We got through them. We waited for our car to be fixed and we drank coffee, together. I adjusted to the altitude and we had fun strolling through the streets of Salida the next day. And together, we left Casper behind us and got through another long, difficult 100 miles of Wyoming before finding a hotel.

Like every other disagreeable event in life, problems test a relationship. Will we choose cheer over anger? Will we turn away from blame? Will we be kind to the other in adversity and walk through to the other side of this problem together? If we (or you) can answer  yes  both in travel and in marriage, these are the ways to survive, to flourish, to love.

Decisions, decisions. Meals, lodging, activities: multiple options confront at every turn. This hotel or that one? What do you feel like eating? Which café?  Should we turn off here? Drive that far,  see this site? Are you up for the sunset? Is this a good spot for a picnic?  Again, the way we handle all these little travel decisions is a metaphor for the way to handle life together.

Here’s what we’ve learned after years of practice: we voice our preferences, and then we gauge the degree to which these things matter to the other. Sometimes he or I feels strongly. If it matters to him, we do what he wants; if it matters to me, we do what I want. ( If it matters to neither of us, well, we plunge in and take our chances….)

The southern entrances to Yellowstone National Park were closed, still buried under the winters’ snows. Dave had it in his mind to drive the 32 miles to where the road was closed- to get as close as possible to the park. I thought the plan was foolish, but it was important to him, and really, why not? To get to a sign that said ROAD CLOSED,

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we drove through gorgeous forests on empty roads with lovely mountain views.

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Sometimes I like to wander into book stores or galleries in little towns. Not interested, Dave waits outside, preferably in the sun.

Like all good friendships, honesty matters. And so does a little bit of sacrifice.

So as I report on our trip, it seems I have also reported on marriage. I’m glad I’m taking trips with my husband, David. Travel makes it clear that who we travel with, whether on road trip or in life is a pretty big deal.

 

Road Trip, Part One

My husband and I returned last night from a little road trip. Well, not a little road trip. In fact, we drove 4,900 miles.

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Please wait a while before asking me to get back in my car.

Now that I’m back, I am doing some reflecting. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living,” so I’m spending some time thinking about what I’ve just experienced. Writing about it helps in that process.

Here are a few observations:

Getting away can be helpful. We were starting to be too preoccupied with a few of our problems. The grey and gloom of winter, combined with a few months of some medical s**t had made us start to see things in a negative light. Getting away changed our focus. We thought about people other than ourselves. We saw blue sky and felt warm temperature, and we remembered that we’d someday have those again. We saw spectacularly beautiful sights – beauty is always solace and grace for a soul.

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We saw some rather plain sights, too, which made us remember that where we live is pretty wonderful.

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It would have been lonely to just sightsee.  We loved that we had some days to ourselves to explore, but spending a few nights with people  was pretty great, too. There’s something good about being on the receiving end, not being in charge, learning to be flexible. We had good conversation, comfortable beds, nice tours of local sites. And we connected differently with the people that we stayed with because we were on their turf instead of ours. Friends, family? These relationships are great gifts worth nurturing, cultivating, holding on to. I love to travel to sightsee, but I’m glad we could spend time with good people, too.

There were pleasant surprises when we slowed down. It’s easy to be destination-focused when you look at a map and just want to get to point B from point A.   On our third day we weren’t in a huge hurry, so when we started seeing flocks of hundreds of birds overhead, we realized we might be somewhere important  (in the bird world) and in the middle of something good. So we stopped, chatted with locals, and learned we were witnessing the great Sand Hill Crane Migration. We made a phone call to the local Audubon center to find out just where we could drive for a good view of the nearly 140,000 birds that were in the area that day. 80% of the world’s Sand Hill Cranes (about 650,000 birds) will migrate through the Nebraska flyway this spring. And we were there to see part of the aggregation.  If you are a regular reader, you might know that I am enchanted by cranes, as we have a pair that hangs out in the land behind our house.  So to watch cranes  ( and snow geese) congregate was pretty wonderful.  Yes, we made horrible driving distance that day, but taking that little sidetrip was one of our highlights. Watch 18 seconds here

One other example: thankfully we were driving slowly on a road without traffic when this guy flew down from a nearby tree. We were able to stop and watch him, long enough to take this picture.

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 We didn’t need half the stuff we brought. It’s always hard to know what to bring. We knew we’d need stuff for a variety of activities and a variety of temperatures. But truly, we overpacked. Did I really need six pairs of shoes? ( uhh… no.) Dave pretty much wore the same three sets of clothes the entire time. There are washers and dryers in people’s houses, in hotels. We brought about 30 lbs of dogfood, but our dog was adjusting to new places every night or two so he didn’t feel like eating. ( As if we’d forgotten there are grocery stores?) We spent more time re-arranging the excess items in our car than actually using them.

And here’s a revelation: we lived just fine for three weeks with half of the items that fit in about three suitcases and a few extra containers and bags in our car. So why , really, do we need all the stuff that we own?

I’ll stop here but add more  in the next few days, as there is too much for one post. I’ll write about our national parks, because they are wonderful. And another post, perhaps, about traveling companions, as in my husband, who is great. And maybe another about spending time with one’s grown children. Until then, here are a few pictures from our trip.

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350. Three hundred and fifty.

That’s the number of not-for-profit, charitable organizations in Door County. With a population of less than 30,000 people, that’s pretty good. There are people here who are passionate about the arts, about the preservation of bird sanctuaries, about literacy, about feeding the hungry. I’m glad to be in a place where people are philanthropic, where people give their time and their expertise and their money in order to enrich the lives of others in the community.

Last weekend was a clear example of this.

On Saturday we became familiar with the efforts of Friends of Plum and Pilot Island, or FOPPI.

Just off the tip of the peninsula there’s a beautiful island that’s been pretty much off- limits to the public. However, because of the concerted efforts of a few very dedicated people, this might be changing.

A special tour boat delivered us to Plum Island where for several hours we met the volunteers who have begun to raise awareness of the island’s value.plum island10. plmisland7They are working to clear paths and build benches and inventory the birds and flowers. They are scraping paint on the structures and repairing the dock. They are making plans to restore the incredibly valuable historical buildings on the island: the lighthouse that for over a hundred years housed two families of lighthouse keepers, and the life saving station that at one time housed twenty men and their families. There’s also a boat house, a tall range light, and a huge shed that housed the loudest foghorn on the Great Lakes.

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The volunteers were great. They love the place, and it’s easy to see why: the history, the beauty, the lighthouses. We were even allowed to climb the winding, narrow stairs for a view from the top of the channel light.

After a day on the island, it was tempting to want to join in on these efforts. The buildings have been abandoned for years; there is a lot to be done. We could help, we thought. We, too, could scrape paint, count wildflowers, haul rocks,  write flyers,  give money. (And in fact, we still may.) At the very least we will admire and praise those volunteers and tell everyone we know that Plum Island is wonderful.

But then, of course, there was Sunday.

Sunday was Write on Door County’s Open House. I love this organization. I believe in its goal to nurture writers of all ages and all levels. So over the past year I’ve plunged in pretty deep.  I’ve taught and taken classes,  written text for catalogs, cleaned the lodging where writers can come and stay in order to write. I’m on the board, and we spend hours discussing  ideas and making plans to help this organization grow.  So on Sunday, I roped Dave in, and we spent most of the day there, carrying tables, setting up tents, arranging displays, talking to authors, reading to children. I love the people of this organization, and the goals are goals I believe in. It was time well spent, but it was still time spent.

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The list goes on, of course. There are 348 more organizations that are doing worthy things. Part of settling in is figuring out where to put our energies, to give our time.

One fear I had about retirement was how easily retired life could degenerate into self indulgence. But here, there are good role models. There are hundreds of good people working for good causes who are happy to have our help.  So we’ll watch and we’ll learn and we’ll make decisions.  And we’ll take boat trips to islands and read books to children in fields full of daisies and be glad.

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One Year

We’ve lived in Door County for one year. Have we changed?
Yes. In no particular order, here are a few ways that come to mind.

1) We aren’t working as hard.  One day last week I was late to a meeting with a friend. I couldn’t find my purse; I had forgotten to print something out that I had wanted to show her. I arrived at her house flustered, feeling discombobulated. And then it struck me: I used to feel this way all. the. time.

Teaching’s main job description is multitasking: planning lessons, managing the needs of scores of children, reading their essays and giving meaningful feedback, calling parents, fulfilling committee obligations, gathering supplies, making sure my co-teachers and I were on the same page with curriculum, and then re-reading the book, for example, so I could teach it well the next day . And that was just teaching. Add that to the demands of a marriage and maintaining a house and spending time with friends.

Yes, I prefer this pace over my former one.

And the delight of seeing Dave no longer juggling the restoration of an old home with the hours he spent at his job? He’s a man who likes to stay busy, and it’s so nice to see him busy with things he likes to do and not be pulled in opposite directions.

2) We aren’t as social.  We live down a very long driveway. Our closest neighbors are ½ mile away, and we have learned that Door Countians, as a whole, keep to themselves. Our neighbors are fine people, but they are not likely to be the ones initiating a conversation or inviting us over. On days that we stay in, we don’t see anyone else. We like people and were pretty engaged with lots of them in our former lives. This has been a big adjustment.

3) We’ve become less engaged with social activism. I’m sad about this one. For right or wrong, I’ve been pretty fired up about injustices of various kinds over my years. It’s why I lived more than once in an urban, poor neighborhood. And tried to be intentional about finding friends of different races or ethnicities. I made my students learn about refugees. I traveled to Uganda to help kids whose lives had been destroyed by war. On the other hand, Door County is a pretty safe place. (See my July post here about the lack of diversity.) There are lots of do-good organizations in this county, and most people’s needs here are being attended to. So I’m still figuring out if this part of me has changed forever or only until the time I find a new role to play.

4) We love beauty more. Ok, to be fair, this isn’t a change. But, I was very afraid that living around beauty all the time would desensitize me to beauty and that I would become ho-hum about it. I’m happy to report that didn’t happen.

It is weighty, how clouds change color

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or how even cracking ice can be beautiful. Lake Michigan in all its moods and variations still takes my breath away.

The cardinal who comes close all winter is always striking against white snow day after day after day.

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I never tire of our night sky when it is full of stars. And even when the white and grey of winter lingered on, we chased a snowy owl one day. On another, the sun hit the snow in such a way that it glistened like a field of diamonds.

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5) We read more. I write more. We reflect more.  The pace of our lives is slower, gentler. I wish I could report that we are better musicians as a result of our extra time. I wish I could say that my novel is finished or that Dave has taken up woodcarving as he once hoped. Instead, we are learning to be content with a life not based on productivity. Dave has learned, more quickly than I, to feel no guilt about an hour spent on the porch with a cigar and a book. We no longer feel driven. The lack of deadlines and schedules is delightful.

6) We dress differently. First off, there’s the weather. Why would anyone wear a dress or a skirt to anything when it’s 10 degrees out? Secondly, it’s vacation land. Nobody dresses up for anything. There just aren’t formal events here. So I’m in yoga pants and jeans a lot. Dave rotates between his many flannel shirts. I can imagine that I’ll be dreadfully out of style in a few years. Please friends, tell me if I become too frumpy.

7) We’re closer to the land.  We spent a lot of time this year with the trees and the rocks and the dirt on our land. We cleared brush, pulled junipers. We planted a garden and delighted in the lavish gifts it gave us. dh

 

The apples from trees just off of our driveway gave us the applesauce we’ve been eating all winter. A spruce tree on my walking path was brought inside and hung with lights and ornaments at Christmas. Our local grocer butchers his own beef, from cows that feed on grasses just four miles away. We have our own “egg guy” whose chickens provide us our weekly eggs.

When we stand on this land, walk on it, kneel on it, it feels right. It feels human. It feels holy.

8) Our bodies have acclimated.  When it was 46 this morning, we celebrated. It’s warm, we declared! As I write this, I am basking in the sun, thrilled to be sitting outside in just one layer of clothes. But it is only 63. A year ago, I think I would have been wearing a jacket.

We aren’t finished changing, I hope. There’s still more settling to do, more fitting in.

There are things we miss about our old life, our old selves. But for the most part, we’re grateful. It’s been a good year.

The stages of maple syrup making

One of the nice things about being retired is the ability to learn something new. We have time to read websites and watch instructional videos. We can talk to people about our new interests, and we have time for trial and error.

So, when we saw all the buckets and blue bags beginning to appear on maple trees all around us, we thought Why not? We have maple trees. IMG_1621

So we acquired a few supplies. We talked to the guy in our local hardware store. We went out just a few steps from our back door and within a few minutes, put taps in four trees.

I’m about to walk you through a long journey. There were many emotions involved. If you want the short version, suffice it to say it was all a lot harder and more time-consuming than we expected it would be. If you want the longer version, read on.

Here are the stages:

Delight. We were amazed that within seconds of inserting the tap, the sap began to drip (Dave literally drilled a hole and inserted the $3 metal tap.) How awesome is this! we thought. It was almost a spiritual, worshipful experience. Wow, these trees are connected to some underground, hidden life force. Sweet water is flowing through veins hidden behind this innocuous grey bark. We were laughing, smiling, in wonder and awe.

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Surprise. After just 24 hours, our bags were already pretty full. Our mood was pleasant. We were still in the this-is-great stage. However, because it was snowing/sleeting, we decided to keep what we had collected in the refrigerator overnight. We’d wait another day for the boiling.

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Determination. In order to get syrup, we knew that we’d have to boil off a lot of water. In fact, it’s a 40 – 1 ratio. Yep: we’d need 40 gallons of sap to get one gallon of syrup. So, on the third day, we began. Every website we read told us not to boil inside. There are stories of wallpaper coming off of walls because of the moisture  that accumulates inside a house during a boil. We have a great fire pit already, so we ran up to the local hardware store and bought a grate. Our plan was to get coals going, enjoy an afternoon at the fire, and end up with syrup.

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Disappointment. The first hour was pretty fun. The second was a little less so. By the fifth hour, we were taking turns going inside to warm up and to wash our eyes from the campfire smoke. Sometimes the boil would be going great and we’d feel like we were making progress, other times not so much.  It’s pretty hard to regulate the temperature over a fire. The wind was brutal. 

By the time it was pitch dark (about nine hours later) and we still had several buckets of sap that we hadn’t even started to boil, we put out the fire and began thinking about a plan B.

A little hope? We had made some progress. I brought in the mostly-boiled-down sap from that first batch. There were a few cups that I could continue to boil down on my inside stove. And indeed after another two hours, it started thickening up. Hurray! I thought.ms9

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Except not hooray. I have since learned that I boiled it too long at too hot a temperature. So instead of syrup, I made sugar. It was something, for sure, but not syrup.

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Frustration. The next day, we switched to our propane camp stove. Besides, it was snowing again, and we could do this in the garage (with the garage door partly open.) So we boiled away, and yes, we saw progress. But we went through several bottles of propane, and let’s just say that the local store’s prices are a little hefty on propane.

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Consternation. Remember, all the time, our trees were still flowing. Our bags were still filling up. We had more sap than we knew what to do with.

More determination. Plan C. In just two days, the BIG propane burner that we ordered from Amazon Prime was delivered. Now we had a heat source that was steady, very hot, and consistent. This time, the boil down was at least working. It did take lots of time, (as in hours and hours and hours.) And, it took lots of propane. We went through TWO big tanks of propane in just a few days, but something was happening. As the water in the sap evaporated, we kept adding new sap. The color turned from clear to slightly tan to a deeper, richer, light brown. Gradually, the substance felt a little thicker than it had when we started.

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(Feeling like a novice) I should also mention that one of these days during this ten day process, we stopped into a local “sugar shack” where maple syrup makers knew what they were doing. Thanks to the generous people at The Farm, we witnessed people using the right equipment and utilizing tried and true methods that have been passed down for several generations. We learned really helpful information, like boil temperatures and sugar content, but most of all tasted some of the best, freshest maple syrup around. But boy, did we feel like beginners.

Acceptance. The final stage in most emotional processes is acceptance, right? So, this is what we’ve come to know: 1) There’s a reason that pure maple syrup is expensive. (Please, don’t ever begrudge paying a lot if you buy local. They deserve every penny they charge.)

2) My husband believes that having the right tool for any job is crucial. (That’s why our garage is full of tools.) In the case of maple syrup making, he’s right. If we do it again, (and that’s a pretty big if,) we’d be much better off with a different kind of fire pit, a different kind of pan/kettle, and a much better thermometer.

3) Mediocrity is ok. The maple syrup we ended up with is not perfect. One batch is a little thin. One batch is a little thick. However, it came from our trees, and that makes us happy. It was pretty yummy on our waffles.

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So in the end, yes, it was a costly cooking class. ( Costly in both money and time.)   But now that it’s behind us I’ve got one last stage to report: we’re feeling a tiny bit proud.

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Leaving Home

It has been ten months since we sold out house and moved to Wisconsin. We love it here, and are glad we made the move. But as I sit inside today, aware that a storm is barreling down on us that will likely keep us inside for a few days, I am feeling a bit closed-in and secluded. Specifically, I am missing my children, and I am thinking about the effect that our move may have had on them, and us.

Some people stay close to home.   They don’t go far away, but if they do, they come back. I know children who left for college or worked out-of-state for a few years, but now they are back only a few miles from where they grew up. Now their children join the very same soccer leagues that their parents played on twenty-five years before; the parks, the schools, the favorite restaurants are the same in childhood as in adulthood. An advantage of course, is that those kids and parents and grandparents hang out.

There are other ways of staying close to home. I know young women in their late 20s or early 30s who talk, by phone or skype, with their mothers every single day. They are grown, they have married, so they talk recipes and home decorating; they give play-by-plays of the details of their ordinary lives. I have opinions whether this is healthy, but there is also something I envy in those mother/daughter relationships that have turned to fast friendships.

My sons, however, did not “stay close.” We allowed for it, expecting nothing else. We paid for out-of-state colleges and congratulated them on out-of-state job offers. We asked for the once-a-week call on Sundays, but did not whine if they missed a week. We expected that, as young men finding their way in the world, they would learn for themselves how to pay rents on time, when to change the oil in their cars. We were there to offer advice and help when they wanted it, but we did not want to hover, interfere. We were proud as they grew increasingly independent.

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But of course, this independence meant that they became self-sufficient. In the process, we developed habits with them that have not involved daily phone calls or weekly dinners. But my children are great people, and I love them. When we are together, there is nothing better, so I find myself wishing they were nearer. I find myself wondering if we had tried to keep them closer, would they be closer?

I have noticed and listened to a similar wistfulness among other retirees who, like us, have moved away from the places we raised our children. That’s a lot of past to leave behind us- a past that can’t be packed up and put into boxes. In moving, we left the sidelines of those Saturday soccer fields, the libraries, the elementary schools and favorite pizza cafes: all those places where our children laughed and played and grew up.

The fact is that our children will come to visit us here, but they will never live here. And today, I am pining the fact that our move means, in a very final way, we will never have the closeness of children who live in the same town.

I thought this post was about moving, and the losses we incurred by making the choice to relocate. However, as I write, I am thinking more about parenting. It is right to let our children grow up, but this does not mean they must necessarily grow away from us.  I’m realizing that we might make new habits that keep ties strong between phone calls and across states. We must let our children be who they need to be apart from us, but we should remind them, too, how much they are a part of us. That’s true whether our kids live across the street or across the country.

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In the beginning are words, and Paris

In a writing class I’ve been teaching, almost thirty people have come for the past five weeks to take the brave step of writing down stories of their lives. Some of these mostly elderly writers have been urged by their families to tell the stories of their past. Others realize that life was different in their childhood than it is today, and they want to tell about the way things were. A few have a vague sense that what they witnessed or experienced years ago was noteworthy.

Very few knew how to start.   The task was daunting.

So we told them to write down one story. Because getting one story down is important. And then, we said, “You can get two stories down, or three. But just for now, write one.

“Perhaps you could write about a first job,” we said. So Art wrote about being ten years old and running out in a bowling lane to reset pins before the next drunk ironworker flung his second heavy bowling ball Art’s way.

“Or write about a holiday,” we prompted, so Phyllis wrote of the time she went in to a jail to bring “Christmas cheer” but instead, the inmates started crying, thinking of home.

We told them to think about just one summer afternoon as a child, and we heard stories of rowboats on farm ponds and fishing in the canal. Larry remembered when the pool was closed because of polio, but all he wanted to do was swim.

In the first weeks they were reticent, unsure. But when they started sharing their stories, they delighted us. The accounts were powerful. We laughed. We agonized, relating to the frustration or the sorrow or the disappointment of their experience. We nodded our heads because we, too, have also felt that way. In this society that says that our young are more valuable than our old, we came together to say that, no, your stories have value. You have value.

Writing down their stories helped them.

 And all of this because of words.

On Thursday, in a poetry project in in a local middle school, seventh graders showed me their poems about bullying and acceptance.   Ryan’s poem started with vague, non-descript lines, so I asked him if there were mean people in his school. “Well, if you’re good at something, people call you names. If you’re not good at something, people call you different names. So you can’t win.”

“That’s deep,” I said, and watched him as he wrote down new lines for a much better poem. I don’t think Ryan was used to being told that his thoughts are deep, and I caught a flicker of a smile. I told him his voice was worth hearing, and that was transformative.

The transformation that occurs anywhere and everywhere when people find and use their voice is why I loved my years as a high school writing teacher, and why, in my retirement, I have seemingly found ways to keep encouraging people to write. This week, as we’re hearing the news of the dark pain in Paris, I’m pondering the power of words in a new light.

There is nothing in me that understands why people become radicalized enough to slaughter their neighbors who are eating pasta at a cafe or listening to music inside a vibrant concert hall, but I know that the actions of these men are inexorably linked to the human desire to belong to something and believe that our lives matter. Did these men join a violent cause to express what they never could express with words?

Is it too naïve to believe that those young men who strapped themselves with bombs in Paris might have been different if they had learned that words also have power to affect people, to bring about change? Did they never sit in a classroom and hear that their opinions had value? What might have happened if someone had listened to their stories or affirmed and applauded what they had written down?

A few years back, I read that suicide bombers never come from families whose mothers have gone to school. If people read and write, they cannot help but see what others think and feel. They form opinions; they think; they empathize. They are changed by words, and they come to understand that words can change others, too.

In the beginning was the word, John’s gospel says. And the word was the life…. and the life was the light of all men.

 These words are hopelessly out of context, of course. They refer to God, not us. But words are the starting place. I saw it this week in the people that were old and in the people that were young; they were better because they spoke, because they wrote down words.

So, please, today, listen to the words of your friends, of your neighbors, of your enemies. Listen to what they say; read what they’ve written, and tell them: your words have value. You have value.

Perhaps it won’t prevent them from taking up guns. But perhaps it will.

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