Sorry for participating in the Thanksgiving overkill, but I figured this was a good a time as any to write about this.
While I am a fan of giving thanks, I am not a fan of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is another exaggerated and incongruous element of American culture. The other 364 days money and work take precedent over gratitude and even family. I know this as I consistently survey my students to see how many have real sit-down dinners with family, few do. I do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but I try to be grateful every day. An example of this might be the daily gratitude diary that I have written for years now. It is quite simple and rewarding, here is how it works. Find a blank notebook and then you write:
Monday – Three things that you are grateful from the weekend.
Tuesday – A good thing that you did or that happened to you, now or in the past.
Wednesday – Write down a resolution… and then fulfill it!!
Thursday – Letter of thanks. To anybody dead or alive, real or fiction, whatever.
Friday – Three good things from the week.
Weekend – rest
I use this as part of my evening meditation practice, and I find it extremely calming and satisfying.
Now, back to Thanksgiving. While the holiday does nothing for me, I love how quiet it is! It is the quietest day of the year! So, I can go for a run or a walk, stay home and watch a movie, cook, or write my blog.
We are blessed at work, because our kitchen staff led by Philippe from Bordeaux cooks an amazing Thanksgiving dinner for lunch a few days before the break, so I do get my share of turkey, stuffing, pies, etc. Also, this year my friend Manuel invited me on Friday to have dinner with his kids, so that was fun.
This year I celebrated Thanksgiving by delivering dinners to low income or sick people. It was organized very well by my parish, and I drove around all over Boynton Beach delivering meals. People were really grateful, which made it all worthwhile. Oh, for myself? I cooked some killer spaghetti!!
As my faithful readers know, my community service this year was cleaning the beach every Sunday afternoon. It was extremely rewarding to help, and at the same time to walk for an hour and to meditate while enjoying the beautiful beach and weather. A three in one: community service, meditation, and exercise.
During the Winter months, the strong winds (I guess) blew in all kinds of trash, sometimes in the course of an hour I had to empty my big bucket (you know, the 5-gallon blue buckets) up to three times! Now in the warmer months there was remarkably less trash. Anyway, that was my highly scientific (not) guess.
Fortunately, I am not the only one on beach cleaning duty, I do bump occasionally into other people cleaning up. The town also has 4 buckets available at the entrance to the beach if you want to grab one and clean up.
On top of all that there is a bit of a treasure hunter thrill, and a fun component to what you find or might find. Here is an incomplete list of things I have found:
Bottle tops – this is the most popular trash on the beach ☹
Plastic forks and spoons – really people?
Bottles – mostly plastic but also glass. All sorts of bottles: drinks, shampoo, oil, you name it…
Bits of plastic – from tiny to huge and in all colors. You cannot even tell what they used to be a part of.
Flip flops – every Sunday at least one! Usually, barnacle incrusted.
Hammerhead shark – dead
Comb – I picked it up, not because I needed it.
Eyeglasses – no glass and broken, but I do not need them.
Lure – with a massive hook I gave it to a dude fishing.
Dog Tag – Palm Beach.
Part of a propeller – someone surely missed it…
Oh, and make sure you do not step on the Portuguese Man-O-War… or their deadly, long tentacles.
Volunteering is one of my favorite things to do. I find that helping others, however indirectly it might be, is one of the most rewarding endeavors one can aspire to.
I started volunteering after my breakup in 2010 in Boston. Community Servings cooks and delivers food to homebound families (due to illness) all over the Boston area. Spending my Saturday mornings chopping carrots -or whatever else needed to be done- was the best therapy. And I made great friends in my “squad”.
In Chapel Hill I spent four years volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House. The house hosts families of hospitalized children, free of charge, as long as the child is hospitalized. Monday evenings from 6 to 9 were spent cleaning the kitchen, cleaning, and preparing rooms for families, welcoming families and showing them around, vacuuming, sorting soda can tabs (the aluminum is well payed), whatever needed doing. I cherish the friendships I made in the house during these years.
Naples Florida is a bit off the beaten track, so my volunteering took a two-pronged approach: Every Saturday I sorted stuff at the Saint Vincent de Paul Society Thrift Shop and then took it out to the showroom floor. I also helped at Champions for Learning, helping low income students get into college! This was extremely rewarding, as I helped students with their college essays or interview questions. The smiles on their faces when we made a sentence work or when they figured out an interview question were all I needed to fill my heart with joy.
Back in Spain I volunteered at the Ronald McDonald Prenatal Family Room at the La Paz Hospital keeping the room in tip top shape -and baking brownies for the families! I also volunteered at my local Caritas Chapter warehouse, sorting donated books, furniture, and electronics for low income families. I quickly integrated with the team and the hours passed quickly sorting and helping folks out.
Then Covid struck and I moved back to Florida. Although there might be volunteering possibilities out there, I am cautious. At the same time, I miss the camaraderie, the rewarding feeling of helping others.
Fortunately, I live near the beach where I go for open water swims every week (weather, rip currents, and surf conditions permitting), so the other day I grabbed a bag and went for a walk picking up trash. I spent an hour and a half walking, meditating, and retrieving plastics (mostly), all sorts of bottles, 2 flip flops (different), bits of rope, bottle tops, and random trash. While it was a lonesome project, I did clean up the beach ever so slightly, and I got some exercise and meditation done, so I will be repeating this socially distanced volunteering again soon!! (next time I will take a bucket since the plastic bag did not like the wind).
Read good books, life is too short to read trash!!
Going to church, any church will boost your soul
A walk in the mountains
Last outdoor meditation of the day
A simple cell in a monastery helps you focus
The Camino will change your life. Source: Club Renfe magazine
High fiving all around
Practicing Yoga on the Camino, wonderful session!
Richard Rohr’s wonderful lessons
For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other, looking at the stars. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). I believe that all of philosophy and religion is based on understanding the existence of the ego and separating from it. We see it in the Stoics, in Jesus, Buddha, good literature, etc. etc.
With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My knee-jerk, basically subconscious, reaction was going to church on Sunday– and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure). Other organic resolutions were to crank my exercise, to work with a therapist, starting with the amazing Dr. Nemser and others since, and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, and speaking of reading, I started seeking more profound books. Then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s daily meditation. Then I started yoga. With time I started meditating, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago (I can’t wait for my fourth this Summer) eventually, back in Spain, my retreats to El Paular Monastery and starting a gratitude diary. Has it worked? All I can say is that I am happy to be on this path.
All these actions have gradually made me know myself better, which is to say my mental construct of myself: my ego. Understanding this is the first step in breaking away from that tyrant. You see, we are born ego-less, just living the moment, enjoying life. This is what Paul Tillich calls the Ground of Being, where we will return -hopefully- just before dying (if this is of interest, I recommend Kathleen Dowling Singh, The Grace in Dying). Then as we grow up we develop a strong sense of self, necessary to establish oneself as an independent being. This is one of the reasons I love teaching adolescents when this ego creation is on full blast. Once we establish ourselves we don’t really need the ego any more, but we stick with it, most of us until we die. Only through trauma, breakage, do we realize that the ego is not necessary, in which case we start to let go of it. That is where I find myself.
The church part is easy, you just go. While I do not necessarily enjoy all the dogma, I do enjoy the chance to reflect, the ceremony, the sermon if it is good and eventually the community. In fact, my church in Boston, Our Lady of Victories and here in Madrid, San Fermín de los Navarros both asked me to participate more actively by reading or being an altar helper. This tiny contribution to the community goes a long way in making one feel helpful.
I started seriously meditating in 2016. It is painful to quiet the mind –the ego- by making it sit still for twenty minutes, but eventually you manage. The trick is to be very still and focus on your breathing: feeling it, visualizing it, maybe quietly reciting a mantra to help you focus on the breathing. I use the Insight Timer app and it really helps and motivates.
The gratitude diary works like this:
Monday: write three good things that happened over the weekend.
Tuesday: Write about a good moment in your life.
Wednesday: Set a task and accomplish it!
Thursday: Write a letter (in your diary, or you can send it) to someone you are grateful for.
Friday: Write three good things that happened during the week.
Saturday and Sunday are off.
About the life changing experience that is the Camino de Santiago I have already waxed poetic many other times on this blog, so scroll down to read it!!
The Yoga bit is really enriching. As opposed to the US where Yoga is basically a workout, my teacher in Madrid, embraces it as it should be: a way of life, a philosophy. So there are lots of breathing exercises and meditation, and in between some movement ashanas. When a class is not available I use the Down Dog app on my phone
Last weekend I again managed to escape to El Paular Monastery to spend four days with the Benedictine monks. This is as simple a life as you will ever live. Praying five times a day, walking in the mountains, eating in silence, working in the monastery, meditating. If you get a chance to do a retreat, do not hesitate, the silence is worth it!!
In conclusion, yes, I am in the search for spirituality. Many folks say we they are in spiritual journeys, the truth is more that they are spiritual beings in human journeys.
This has been a very difficult semester from a teaching standpoint. I feel that my teaching capacity, ability and integrity has been questioned. So looking over stuff that I have written about teaching, I found these thoughts that I wrote last year to apply for a teaching conference (I later found out it is basically only available to All But Dissertation candidates, so I have to wait). At any rate, here it is:
It took a mid-life crisis for me to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Teaching, I discovered, is my passion, my raison d’être. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: To return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly.
Sharing is what motivates me. Sharing my knowledge, my culture, my language. My first full-time teaching experience was in a budget challenged district, where I confronted underperformance and violence. I had to press charges against one of my students for assault and battery (one of my dad’s journalist friends even wrote an article about the event – somewhat distorted, as journalists do), one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother, who was then shot by the police instants before he tried to kill his other sister, dining room fights were de rigueur. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges, made me grow and mature. It was a baptism of fire of sorts and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. It also taught me what is really important as a teacher. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston (and the oldest independent arts high school in the US) where for five years I honed my craft and eventually led the Spanish Department. Before coming to UNC, seeking a challenge, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, in Cambridge, an elite independent school with a rigorous curriculum. There I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing and tennis, of getting involved in Community Service, and even teaching a Senior Seminar on Spanish film.
In my first semester at UNC I found that teaching at the college level requires a more intense and in-depth approach. Due to their higher maturity and experience level, the students are more demanding academically. This calls for more preparation and sharp execution and delivery from the instructor. The students have a clear idea of what they want, they have been in school for over twelve years and our duty as educators is to deliver.
Hand in hand with good teaching, goes meaningful, practical, applied professional development. Ever since Walnut Hill sent me on a new teachers retreat organized by the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE), I have been a strong supporter of learning and improving the craft. In this respect, my twenty years corporate and business experience came in handy, applying motivational techniques, mentoring and fostering teamwork. Another byproduct of my business experience is my devotion to Kaizen, the Japanese technique of continuous measurable improvement. In this vein, as a department in Walnut Hill, we mapped the full Modern Language curriculum, involved the students in year-end course improvement meetings, even held a Modern Language “Summit” inviting other academic and arts department heads as well as teachers from other schools to define and improve our department.
What little I know about being a good teacher I learnt from being a bad student. I was never a good student, so good teachers were very important in my schooldays. They marked my life, they made a difference. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and my PhD renewed my interest in teaching technique, what works and what does not.
Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, so a place of openness, of certain vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness, and that is what I build from day one in the classroom. First day of class I stand by the door – having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos – and greet by name and shake hands with every student. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb, in English so there are no misunderstandings later. This avoids misunderstandings later on and sets the tone. From there comes a fine balance of fun and hard work. Showing up early to the classroom to chat with the students and set up a music video in Spanish for them as they walk into the room and settle down. At the end of the year when I informally ask them what they liked and disliked about the course, so many of them mention the Spanish music videos! Then there is the grammar. I always go over the grammar, which they should know by now, but just so I know that I have gone over it with them and they do not have the “oh I never learned that” line. And talking, everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekends, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did over the weekend. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, culture, whatever. Once we spent a whole class period talking about bullfighting, something that I am passionate about.
So basically, as much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic need/want/desire to learn. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a relationship, it will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, it will happen from a relationship.
Putting my money where my mouth (pen/keyboard) is, here is a video of me teaching Spanish 203 an intermediate level in the Fall of 2012, my first semester at UNC. (Yes, I do have a FERPA release form signed by every student.)