The Fall To-Do List

I’m guilty of making too many lists of things I need to do. This weekend I got an email with suggested fall things to do. Along with the usual autumn list (fall foliage leaf peeping, apple and pumpkin picking, apple cider and donuts, Halloween-ish things), there were some others that I already do this time of year but probably are not on everyone’s lists. That’s if you have any lists. You don’t have lists? I envy you a bit.

For so many years of my life, September meant back to school, either as a student or teacher that I can’t help but think about that even though I’m no longer in classrooms. I still have school dreams. I still like watching movies about some schools – Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Cub, and Good Will Hunting, for example. Or maybe a fall football film, such as Rudy or Remember the Titans. There are films that just have a kind of autumn aesthetic, like “Fantastic Mr. Fox” and “When Harry Met Sally.” I’ve lost some of my interest in Halloween and scary movies but that makes some lists.

I spend a lot of time outside in September and October and always hope to continue working in the garden in November if frosts and winter don’t arrive. People like to decorate their homes with fall chrysanthemums, dianthus, black-eyed Susans, and pansies, but I prefer the optimism of planting in fall for next spring. As I dig up cannas and gladiolus I am also planting tulips, daffodils, peonies, and Shasta daisies.

My mental fall list also has things that might not be any “official lists.” ( I wrote a short poem this morning about that.) One such item is something that often appears on this site – nighttime celestial events. On a cool night, I will pour a warming drink, start up the fire pit, and sit outside looking for the Draconids and Orionids meteor showers in October and the South Taurids, North Taurids, and Leonids meteor showers in November. It is often cloudy and sometimes even on a clear night I won’t see any “falling stars” because of light pollution. But sitting there is a bit like fishing for me. You don’t have to catch a fish or a meteor for the time to be enjoyable.

Finally, my favorite spontaneous autumn thing is taking a drive to nowhere special but somewhere rural. Yesterday, we drove north and ended up near Warwick, New York after driving through many farms and fields and where I walked years ago on the Appalachian Trail. We ended up at a brewery for a beer and lunch. It is early for foliage but lots of people were out apple and pumpkin picking, taking kids on a little hay ride, and going through corn mazes. I love an unplanned stop to see a view, take a photo, and buy some cider and donuts. The air was cool and clean with a hint of someone’s fire or some ribs smoking.

It does feel like autumn. The equinox untitlted the Earth. How are you feeling?

Reading Aloud

Now that I have a grandchild and another one about to arrive, I’m reading aloud to children again. I did it with my own sons but in my 25 years of teaching in K-12 (and even sometimes in my undergraduate and graduate classes) I would often read to my students. My draft title for this piece was “Reading to Children” but I realized that it is really about reading aloud to anyone. Reading to the baby yet unborn and to the senior citizen in the nursing home or a patient in a hospital are all terrific things to do.

I enjoy reading out loud. I enjoyed it when I was a student in my post-kindergarten days when I could read. Not a good thing, but I didn’t have a lot of patience for my classmates who were not good readers. I would get in trouble because I read ahead and then didn’t know where we were in the book. I learned as a teacher that you have to let everyone read – the good, bad, and the average readers.

I was inspired to write today because of an excerpt I found online from The Art of Teaching Children: All I Learned from a Lifetime in the Classroom by Phillip Done.

He is writing about reading to the really young ones. as when you say “Boys and girls, please join me on the carpet” and read from a picture book holding it up for all to (sort of) see.

I never had the chance to read to a class of mostly non-readers, but I did get to do that one-on-one and one-on-two with my sons and with my granddaughter. But the advice he gives often applies to reading aloud to any age group. And as a big fan now of audiobooks, the best readers follow most of these suggestions too.

His book probably goes deeper into the research on reading but in brief, we know that “reading aloud stimulates the imagination and lets children explore people, places, times, and events beyond their own experience. It builds motivation and curiosity. When you read to kids, you are conditioning them to associate print with pleasure, whetting their appetite for reading, and fostering a lifelong love of books. Reading aloud also increases kids’ attending and listening skills.” They also learn what good writing sounds like and that will influence them as writers.

It really helps grow children’s vocabularies. H states that the average number of words in a picture book for children is around a thousand, so in a typical school year (around 185 days), if you read one book a day to your class, by the end of the school year they will have heard 185,000 words.

Reading aloud well requires “the voice of an actor, the timing of a playwright, the expressions of a mime, and the rhythm of a musician.” We don’t all have those talents, but we can all read with a better expression than some AI device (sorry Siri and Alexa and my GPS).

The best part of reading 1:1 is when the little ones start to ask questions about the story. Those interruptions probably aren’t a good thing in classrooms but when the audience is on your lap, it’s great. It shows they are paying attention and that their imagination is at work. I love hearing my son read to his daughter and ask questions like “Can you find the apple? How many ducks are there in the pond?” I did the same thing when I taught Dickens or Shakespeare just at a higher comprehension level.

There should be reactions from your audience – just like at any performance. Laughs, giggles, maybe a gasp, or an “oooh” when the llama finds its mama. No tears in the early years, but I saw those in my classroom sometimes. (I always read Johnny’s letter to Pony in The Outsiders aloud to get that emotional reaction.)

I used to have my “sophisticated” middle school students bring in a children’s book they loved as a kid that they thought had a “message” for grownups too. They had to read it aloud to the class – dramatically – and discuss the “theme” with their classmates. It was a good and not too threatening front-of-the-class experience. I was pleased that a number of students would connect their children’s books with something we had read in class. “I think that The Sneetches (Dr. Seuss) is a lot like what happens in Romeo and Juliet with the two families.”

I remember a girl who brought in another Dr, Seuss book, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! She said, “My mom got this for me at the end of fifth grade when I graduated elementary school, but I think it applies to middle school or high school too.” Yes, yes, and for college grads, and people changing jobs, and someone starting retirement. No matter where you are in your life, there is still much to see and do. The possibilities are still pretty endless.

Now, get your mat from your cubby, and let’s all take a little nap and dream about all those things.

Sleeping With Noise

Do you have trouble falling asleep? Or do you wake up at night and struggle to get back to sleep? Maybe you have tried one of the many “white noise” solutions. I know people who sleep every night with that steady sound that masks other sounds playing nearby. There are machines or you can ask Alexa or other devices to play white noise. When I heard about it many years ago, I was told to tune my radio between two stations for a steady static sound.

The idea of playing “noise” to hide other noises always seemed weird to me. For the past decade, I have had tinnitus which produces a steady sound in my left year and it does not help me sleep at all. In fact, trying to go to sleep is a time when I am most aware of the sound.

This noise filters out things that distract you, like people talking or cars going by, so they don’t interrupt your sleep. You may hear it called ambient noise.

Recently I read about “pink noise.” This is quieter and is like the slow waves that your brain produces during deep sleep. White noise may sound like a vacuum cleaner or loud static. Pink noise is more like falling rain or rustling leaves.

Both white noise and pink noise encompass all frequencies of noise that are audible to the human ear. However, white noise contains all frequencies with equal distribution, whereas pink noise has more power at lower frequencies and less at higher frequencies, making it deeper.

Specifically, pink noise contains the same overall intensity in each octave, but the volume of individual pitches decreases by 3 decibels with each higher octave. I don’t know what that means but I asked an audiologist about it. He said that it does work and that it might actually mask my tinnitus when I’m trying to fall asleep. I tried a white noise app and it did not work for me. I actually felt like the noise aggravated my tinnitus, so I stopped.

Should I try pink noise?


The Grief Stone

grief stone

When I was going through some very bad times at the turn of the century, I was reading way too much about depression and madness (Health Tip: that doesn’t help) and I came across a brief reference to a Native American belief in the use of “grief stones.”

I didn’t do any deep research into it but decided to give it a try. The idea was that you selected a small stone into which you would rub your grief.  Focus on the negativity, problem or grief and rub it into the stone. The stone I chose was smooth river rock and I used my thumb to rub. When you feel that you have transferred those feelings into the stone, you bury the stone in the ground where the bad energy will slowly dissipate.

I know how “new age” that sounds. Did I believe it? I guess I was willing to believe it at that point. After a week, I felt better and I dug up the stone. Maybe I was supposed to find a new stone, but I was comfortable with this one.

Perhaps, my improvement had nothing to do with the stone. Science would say that it had nothing to do with it. But I carried the stone with me and rubbed it when things were bad. I buried it again and waited for things to seem better. That took a few weeks. I dug it up again and kept it in my car.

I began a practice of leaving work and rubbing into the stone anything bad that had happened during the day. I did that for two years before I felt that I had packed as much into that stone as it could hold. I had actually worn away a very comfortable groove in that stone with my thumb which I found pretty remarkable. 

I buried the stone a few times again in the woods nearby because I didn’t want the grief dissipating too near home. I left it there for a season, dug it up, and put it back in the car. It is still there, but I rarely use it. It’s more of a reminder of what had happened to me back then.

This past week I did some searching online for grief stones. I didn’t find much more than I had found back in 2001. There were sites selling grief stones, which bothered me for some reason. I found stones called “Apache Tears” that are said to be good for “transmuting one’s own negativity under stressful situations.” It is a dark black stone of obsidian and when held up to the light appears somewhat transparent. I read that some people claim that when the grief one feels goes into the stone, it turns opaque.

I claim no special powers for my stone. I don’t even know what kind of stone it is. What I believe happened is that the practice of rubbing the stone and thinking about the grief, worry, sorrow, pain, anger, or whatever it was at that moment that was bothering me was what had some effect. Recognize it, process it, and try to dismiss it. More psychology than sorcery.

I did find a reference to the grief stone on a site about art therapy. In this practice, you create a stone to represent the pain, memory, and emotion and bury it. I also found the recommendation to cleanse the bad energy in a stone by burying it in a crystal bowl of sea salt or placing it in a stream or into the ocean.

But I don’t think you need a special stone or a special cleansing. A stone that feels comfortable in the hand and the burying is as much ritual as you need.

Do I still use the stone? No, things are pretty good right now. Do I think the stone still holds some of the negativity? No. Did it ever? I know I held some negativity and it went away. Coincidence?

I still have the stone in the car. I hope I won’t need it again, but it’s there. The ground around where I buried it is green and growing. My grief didn’t kill everything nearby.

Everyone has days when you need to stop for just a bit, focus on what is causing negativity, and try to rub it into some other place outside of you and those you love. It might take a long time to rub out all that grief. It might take many more days for the grief to be neutralized.

Lifelong Learning and a Beginner’s Mind

Lifelong learning is the practice of continuing to learn throughout one’s entire life, especially outside of or after the completion of formal schooling. It is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.

Image by Gyae Min

Lifelong learning can be informal or happen in more formal settings and courses. There is a wide range of experiences that fall under this large umbrella. Internships and apprenticeships and taking actual courses in a school setting but not pursuing credits or a degree qualify as lifelong learning. Teaching yourself a new language or how to play an instrument also qualifies. Sometimes the formal and informal mix. You start playing tennis with a friend and then take some lessons to improve your game. Maybe you’re learning a computer language to advance your career. Maybe you’re learning French so you’ll be better prepared to travel to France.

I have written a lot about online learning on other sites. Back in 2012 – which was called “the year of the MOOC” – I was very involved in this new form of online learning. These Massive Open Online Courses were seen as a way for learners to take courses free of cost online along with thousands of other learners. The courses were being offered by the top universities worldwide. This idea of “open education” was not completely new but was still considered a radical shift.

I taught (or perhaps facilitated) an early MOOC about MOOCs in education. I took dozens of courses for free. I gave talks about them. My wife and I wrote a chapter for a book about them.

The hype and buzz of MOOCs have cooled down but they still exist. Some evolved with a business model, so the “open” part is gone. I taught graduate students at a university where we offered certificate programs that packaged several courses together for people looking to add to their skillset while employed or to upgrade skills in order to move up or move on to other careers. during employment. This is quite formalized lifelong learning.

I have also done much more informal lifelong learning both as a student and teacher. I have facilitated classes in writing, art, and technology topics for libraries, galleries, and adult learning schools.

I am currently working with a local lifelong learning organization in New Jersey. They offer opportunities for in-depth, high-level learning and socialization for 55+ adults. These classes are free of charge, but registration is required.

During the pandemic, almost all the courses offered went virtual and for two years I was teaching online. We are just emerging from that and offering in-person classes again.

Image by truthseeker08

All of this had me thinking of the concept of a “beginner’s mind.” Originating from Japanese Zen Buddhism, the term (also known as shoshin) refers to a paradox: the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.

To have a beginner’s mind it means dropping expectations and preconceived ideas about something. It means seeing things with fresh eyes and an open mind, like a beginner. When you learn something new, you can be confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning. But a beginner’s look is also curious and can be filled with wonder.

Lifelong learners are best approaching new learning with a beginner’s mind which means an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. That is true even when you are an adult and studying a subject at an advanced level.

This is not an easy thing to do. Preconceptions and closed-mindedness is probably as much or more likely the older or more experienced a learner has become.

I first learned about beginner’s mind (not surprisingly) in a class on Buddhism. The book I was assigned to read was the classic Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind,

There are lots of places online for lifelong learning. MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, Canvas, FutureLearn, Udacity, P2PU, and The Open University, as well as other sites like Skillshare and Duolingo offer thousands of classes and most are available for free. I don’t know about you but my wife and I have learned how to do any number of things from YouTube how-to videos. Yes, all that is lifelong learning.

Do Nothing

I saw the perfect book for the weekend on a shelf at my local bookstore. It is titled How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell. You would think that there would be no need for a book on how to do nothing. Just do it. Or I suppose, just don’t do it.

The book’s subtitle (seemingly required of all non-fiction titles these days) is “Resisting the Attention Economy” which gives you an idea of what her idea of doing nothing involves. I am a maker of to-do lists

Odell is an artist who teaches at Stanford University, but she is writing about the pull of digital technologies – notifications, targeted ads, social media, and all that. You might be able to guess some of her plans to do nothing – unplugging and retreating from tech. She advises slowing down and cultivating attention to the physical world.

You know that a full retreat from the digital realm is unrealistic, and she knows that too. Balance. If you use digital means to stay in touch with friends and relatives that’s okay, but balance that with real-world interactions. She gives her own best practices to resist digital influences on our lives.

Balance and attention. Clearly good and increasingly difficult-to-follow advice. Attention is a precious resource that is being stretched and it does have limits.

There are many methods to improve attention. I saw an article suggesting some ways to improve your attention span, which is something that seems to be getting shorter all the time as a result of too many things that draw our attention.

Have you heard of “whole body listening?” It is a technique that is even being taught to young students.

How about focusing on a conversation and listening without interrupting? I need to work on that.

You can try spending time just listening to something. It can be birds outside, water in a creek, a podcast, or a piano concerto. But do it without doing anything else. No drinking coffee, checking your phone, looking at people nearby, or eating some chips. Pure listening.

If you have ever taken a class on learning to meditate, you have discovered that emptying your mind and “doing nothing” is quite difficult. Practice.