Category Archives: Uncategorized

Walls

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©donnaesgro

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Long before the pink cinder block wall went up, and the balconies of the apartment house next door looked down into the squalor of our backyard, there was what had once been a bright blue picket fence, so weather beaten that when brushed against, its paint burst into plumes of powder. The fence did its best to separate our back yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Crawford, a pearly headed old woman who tended an abundant rhubarb garden that grew against the fence on her side. Every year, at Christmas, she brought us six jars of rhubarb preserves… magenta and green chunks aglow in a row of Mason jars on the window sill.

How quietly she tended her purple veined garden, never greeting us except with a silent nod, and never complaining about the wanton children that we were. Just as silently she died, and her still little house was sold. We never thought about her when we’d sneak over the fence to the sawdust scented construction site to steal the golden oak planed planks to make see-saws. My brothers collected the long heavy nails just for the joy of having such a forbidden thing in the pockets of their corduroy school uniform pants.

Then, one day, the picket fence was gone, replaced by the spindly, metal, Giacometti like girders of what would soon become a massive concrete wall between our two properties. As the workmen mixed the thick cement paste, I remembered the long roots of the rhubarb plants when Mrs. Crawford used to pull them up in the sunlight. My father seemed to like the wall, seeming almost proud of it…it was new and sturdy, like nothing else on our property, but, to me, it was an affront; an effort to keep us out – a high high wall, without any foot holds to climb.

Mrs. Brown, our neighbor on the other side, and owner of the neatly groomed courtyard apartments with the pansies all in a row, often complained about us, once even warning my mother that if she didn’t stop letting her children run wild, she would report her to the police for child neglect. And so we played, squabbled, accumulated scars, celebrated birthdays, ran through sprinklers, stepped on the occasional bee, sprained our wrists, made forts, and did the dirty job of growing up in our back yard, squeezed between two impenetrable forces: the thick cold wall and the glare of Mrs. Brown from behind the pretty lace curtains of her upstairs apartment.

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“I will build a great wall-and nobody builds walls better than me-and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”  Donald Trump

“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”  Socrates

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One of the best children’s stories about tolerance and coexistence is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In a way that only Dr. Seuss can, this book points out the absurdity of intolerance in an allegorical style that children can easily understand, “Ronald, remember, when you are out walking, you walk past a Sneetch of that kind without talking.” (Dr. Seuss – The Sneetches)

 

Walls, whether they be brick and mortar or metaphorical are designed to keep out the other. It’s time to break down these walls that degrade, deride, and segregate us. It is time to build inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. It begins with the children.

Namaste

Happy New Year

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Courtesy of: “The Snow Tree”

(and Avelena, age four)

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This year, as always, and like thousands of other educators, I dust off my winter holiday books –   “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Polar Express”, “The  Penguin Who Wanted To Sparkle”. I speak to children of the magic of sleigh rides or the science of snow crystals. Many of the illustrations in my books are glittery and shimmery, snow drifts in the moonlight and candles aglow.

But last week, as I read “The Snow Tree”, a story of a cub’s astonishment at experiencing his first snowfall, my mind was not on the beautifully illustrated pages but on the graphic images captured by Paul Nicklen, Marine Biologist and National Geographic Photographer, of a  Polar Bear in the Baffin Islands:

https://tinyurl.com/yc5pz2w9

Is this horrifying and shameful spectacle of the neglect and abuse of our power as humans what we stand for? How do those whose hearts are shattered by this legacy protect, cradle, and nurture our sacred earth? As the current leaders of our country not only actively deny climate change, but champion the corporate interests that have caused it, we must resist in every way we can.

https://tinyurl.com/y6w6llpo

Being an activist is a noble cause. But it doesn’t just mean marching, signing petitions and voting – vital endeavors as we have seen –  but also the thousand small choices that we make throughout our days. Mindfulness has become a common concept. But, in the tossing about of the word, has the meaning escaped us? To be mindful is to be alert and aware. “Life is not a problem to be resolved but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard

It has become so easy in the modern world to be careless. Releasing balloons into the air is celebratory and metaphorically beautiful. But what happens to those balloons? Most end up in our waterways and are often ingested by sea creatures who, fatally, mistake them for food. Juice boxes are cute and convenient, but each one takes about 300 years to degrade. The largest accumulation of garbage (twice the size of Texas and growing) floats in our very own ocean off the coast of California. Plastic is one of our planet’s most crucial enemies…And it is an enemy that we can all fight.

Take your children outside and express your love of the trees, the birds, the ocean-each mottled leaf and speckled shell.  Let them know that, just as we protect our family from danger, it is our sacred duty to protect nature. Get them away from the addictive call of their devices and get their hands in the dirt. Teach compassion for all who are hungry, homeless and hopeless, whether they be men, polar bears, or coral reefs…let your children know that all of these are one. One heart that beats. One soul that suffers.

Remember, your carbon footprint has little feet behind it, so when you choose to refill your water bottles, say no to a plastic straw, or bring your own bags to the grocery store, let your children know why you are doing so. We can all be guardians of the earth in our own way. Together our matchstick flares can bring light to the darkness and inspire hope…. hope, the ephemeral, invisible and intangible “thing with feathers” that our future depends on.

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Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

One million sea birds are killed annually from plastics in our oceans.

 

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/senate-just-opened-door-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

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Reclaiming Halloween for the Children

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Sign seen in local shop this Halloween

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I remember windy nights, leaves swirling, black cats silhouetted in windows and warmly lit porches. There was a time when Halloween had an edgy innocence that tilted on the fear of fruit bats, before severed limbs, decapitations, and hatchets dripping with blood were considered plausible decorations for front lawns. What, in our culture, drives this macabre fascination with violence to ever deeper and darker places, changing what used to be a fun night for children, when BOO! was the scariest word around and candy was the main objective, into a vampiric holiday that lusts on fear?

It’s hard now, amid the ever increasing grotesquery, to believe that the origin of the word Halloween is holy evening. Festivals were held in ancient times to honor the sacredness and mystery of death. Flickering jack-o-lanterns grinned and grimaced from doorsteps to scare away any evil spirits that may drop by. But, today, even a very young child knows that a pumpkin is no match against Freddy Krueger or Pennywise the Dancing Clown.

Parents make an effort to shield their children from violence, whether it be spurious or on the nightly news. But around Halloween, the depictions of ax murderers and deranged clowns abound. Once a child is exposed to an image that he or she finds terrifying all the reassurances that “It’s only pretend” are to no avail. It is not uncommon that these children will suffer a level of PTSD that leaves them with nightmares and vague anxieties that can last for several months. How do we protect our littlest ones from such emotional and spiritual trauma? Sadly, it is not 100% possible. Even the local Walmart’s Halloween section can be too much for a child. But there is much we can do to keep Halloween fun scary and not overly shocking. Your teenager may want to visit the seasonal big box costume shops, but leave the young ones at home. There are many wonderful Halloween themed books available that allow a child to experience the spooky mystique of Halloween while safe in a parent’s arms. In many neighborhoods, anatomic and screeching Halloween displays have become increasingly malevolent. A good way to avoid the experience of trick-or-treating becoming a bad memory is to have your child go to a few select houses, then to a party with a few of their friends. In this way parents are in control of just how age appropriately scary they want the party to be. It is healthy to confront our fears. Fake spider webs and skeletons can make a child jump, and then laugh. This is the level of scariness you want. It gives Halloween the off kilter experience that children need in order to achieve those heights of self esteem that come from conquering the unknown.

While we are protecting our children, it is important to be aware of what they actually need distance from. There is a great difference between the natural death of a loved one and violent death used  to sell products, or reported endlessly on the news. Avoiding talking about the sad parts of being human only makes children confused and likely to be misinformed. We can’t protect our children from pain. Knowing death is an important part of knowing life and children need the truth from us. That does not mean that they need to know about mass shootings, terrorist attacks, and other random acts of evil. This adult knowledge will come in time. But, for now, respect your child enough to let him grieve in a natural way for a death that touches him personally.  It is important to honor these fleeting years of sensitive physic vulnerability even though our system generally either ignores or tries to capitalize on them.

Perhaps it is our culture’s fear of death that makes us both fascinated and repelled by it. We idolize youth, spend billions on anti-aging products, and hesitate to come to terms even when the family fish dies. While it is important to protect our children from violence, we should not shield them from death, but instead help them to viscerally understand that the end of life is as reverential and hallowed as the beginning of life – a natural part of the the wondrous cycle of being.

The Way of the Reader

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©donnaesgro

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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The Wings of a Wren

©donnaesgro

in memory of my mother on this sacred Mother’s Day

Read my post “In praise of Battered Books” for more on how my mother influenced my love of reading..

The Wings of a Wren

I kneel

she lifts her bare foot to me

the skin like parchment

on which is written

in flourishes of violet

the calligraphy of her eighty eight years

a girl with wind tossed hair

picking blueberries

on the craggy Maine coast

a feather boa of fog

the smell of creosote soaked pilings

and the calliope carousel music on the Santa Monica Pier

the bearing and birth of seven infants

one born still…ashen, silenced

blood, water, wonder

the Nautilus spiraled pain of loving too much

veins run rampant

like rivers gone wild

overflowing their borders

breaking madly into rivulets

She falls for the first time

walking across the suddenly too wide street

to the 7 Eleven

She falls for the second time

unable to rise

her morning coffee growing cold on the kitchen counter

She falls for the third time

calling out in a voice

as clear and fragile as glass

I fit the shoe onto her foot

and help her stand

her arms as light and hallow as the wings of a wren

she clings to me

as if I could keep her earth bound

donna burke esgro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Vital Importance of Diversity

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“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by.”

What a Wonderful World – Thiele & Weiss

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If we care about mankind and its future, if we care that the most powerful nation on earth has a leader who does not believe in science and who puts immediate gratification above concern for future generations, then it is time that we make a radical shift in how we view education within a global society. The mill of school grinds along, and we are glad that it does, but changes in how we teach at the fundamental level have now become critically important.

“Most of what we teach children today is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market in 2040 or 2050.”

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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 We cannot survive, much less thrive, if we build walls and keep people out. It is through the permeable sharing of ideas and cultural nuances that we build on our own reservoirs of knowledge, compassion, and the ability to live in harmony.

No one would dispute that teaching our children to share is a good thing, one of the basic elements of social-emotional relationships. When we share, we learn. We show others our good intentions, and they show us theirs. Bridges are built and alliances are formed.

The concept of respecting one another begins at the earliest levels of education. Even preschoolers can understand that their blue marble of a world spins in a beautifully complex solar system. They can grasp the idea that there are lands across the seas where people speak differently and go about their day in different ways, yet share the same joys and sorrows that we do.

We cannot coexist in any kind of peace if we fear each other, and we cannot imagine anything better if we don’t begin to encourage critical thinking skills and the uses of imagination in our schools.

Children feel a close affinity with the creatures of air, sea, mountains, and forests that share the world with us. Have you, lately, looked at a picture book of animals as closely as they do? They have an innate curiosity and empathy that, rather than dismissing as ingenuous, we need to recognize for the wisdom that it holds.

The question “Why?” is asked primarily by children less than seven years old and the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time. Think about that.

Yet we proceed, beginning in elementary school, to encourage students not to ask,  but to answer questions- to memorize facts, figures, and formulas. It is no wonder, then, that the trajectory of education becomes a long distance race to get into a good college, secure a high paying job, and then, finally, get down to the business of living.

The way our competitive education system works is that children learn early on that it is better not to think outside of the box. That imaginative thinking, flights of fancy, and creativity, at best lowers their grade point average and at worse, gets them labeled “weird.”

We are, grade by grade, inadvertently teaching our children not to think more deeply than a test requires.

Worldwide-scholars, tech companies, scientists, educators, politicians, medical researchers, and thousands of others share knowledge; effectively creating networks of ideas that often lead to radical breakthroughs in their fields. When we think and feel and work together at the global level, we nurture compassion for the hungry, the suffering, the refugees of war, all those in need, because the faces and the voices of humanity become real to us. We cannot understand others without interacting with them, any more than we can understand what water is just from knowing its chemical formula. When we  foster bonds with different nations we all benefit. Our minds expand in many different ways as we share thoughts and our hearts grow in equal measure as we become more viscerally aware of others.

Without making a definitive change in both our education system and our budding nationalistic and isolationist politics we are in serious danger of losing our ability to engage innovatively and diplomatically. It is unwise, if not foolish, to be unaware that our entire planet is an eco-system, not only from the standpoint of biology, but on deeper levels of cognitive connectivity. We need clean air and water and we need to believe in and take responsibility for climate change, but we must also believe in mutual respect and tolerance despite different skin colors, religions, or ideologies. It is vital that we begin to teach, starting at the earliest levels of education, that we are the caretakers of our world, not its rulers.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/09/epa-scott-pruitt-carbon-dioxide-global-warming-climate-change

Resist

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“A machine that, when you touch the button, it makes the ocean clean for the whales and dolphins and even the sharks.”  Ava – Age 6

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Dr. Seuss – Zen Master

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“So please, when you step, step with care and great tact.

And Remember that Life’s a great balancing act.”

Oh! The Places You’ll Go!  –  Dr. Seuss

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Read across American month began this week with celebrations all over the world of Dr. Seuss’ birthday. Dr. Seuss would be delightful to read even if his books were just pure fun. But, there is more than silliness under that tall striped hat.

In The Uses of Imagination, Bruno Bettelheim states that “The child intuitively comprehends that although fairy tales are unreal, they are not untrue.”

This is the nexus of the genius of Dr. Seuss – His ability to create whimsical characters with wild hair, gangly bodies, and furry feet that touch our heart with their humanity.

Dr. Seuss, born Theodore Seuss Geisel (1904), was an artist, an intellectual and a seeker of knowledge. His very first children’s book  And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (rejected twenty seven times by publishers) encourages using one’s imagination as a way to see the world in many different ways. He poses the question: What is reality?

But Mulberry Street didn’t sell well and his career as a children’s author seemed doomed when Life Magazine published an article in 1954 that exposed America’s children’s poor reading abilities. John Hersey (author of A Separate Peace) was quoted in the article as saying that children were illiterate because the primers in school were so boring and that authors like Dr. Seuss should be writing them.

Shortly after, Theo was approached by a major publishing house and asked to create a primer using 220 vocabulary words. The result , The Cat in the Hat, made him a household name. Fame brought lucrative offers by corporations eager to exploit his popularity. The ever unconventional Geisel turned down every proposal. Even when he was wooed with an unprecedented amount of money just to use a short unpublished verse on a Christmas billboard, Theo, showing unusual moral fortitude, refused, stating that he did not want to be associated with products for sale.

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!

What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store

What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!

 

And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,

That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!

How The Grinch Stole Christmas – Dr. Seuss

Throughout his career as a children’s author, Dr. Seuss emphasized the importance of integrity, caring, tenderness, courage, and the interconnectivity of all creatures.

He held his head high and he threw out his chest

And he looked at the hunters as much as to say

“Shoot if you must but I won’t run away.”

I meant what I said and I said what I meant…

An elephant’s faithful One Hundred percent!

 Horton Hatches the Egg – Dr. Seuss

 

In The Sneetches he addresses the absurdity of prejudice, and in Oh! The Places You’ll Go! he gives us, in classic Seussesque style, both warning and encouragement:

You’ll come to a place where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted. But mostly there darked.

But Dr. Seuss reaches a lofty zenith in his darkly beautiful and profoundly environmentally aware treatise The Lorax, who “speaks for the trees.” The author’s brilliance lies in his ability to show us a believable glimpse of a tree’s soul – albeit one with a small orange furry body and a ridiculously large yellow moustache.

Teach your children to be on the look out for them.

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“When I let go of what I am I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” Tao Te Ching

 

“If things start happening, don’t worry, don’t stew. Just go right along

and you’ll start happening, too.” Dr. Seuss

 

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