Monday, December 31, 2012

Honoring the Old, Embracing the New

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I intend to cultivate kindness in the New Year through a random acts of kindness challenge. That's my New Year's resolution in a nutshell. There have been many years when I have made New Year's resolutions to fix myself in some way. However, I don't recall ever being particularly successful with the usual diet-and-exercise resolutions at this time of year. Last year, I took a different approach that proved wildly successful: I focused on something a bit more fun - something I wanted to cultivate, rather than remove from, my life.

For 2012, I took on a "photo-a-day" challenge. The idea was to take a photo every day of something that made some kind of impression on me - something I noticed or found lovely. It went hand-in-hand with the gratitude practice I had begun years ago. In fact, at some point during the year, my iPhoto library had essentially become my gratitude journal!

To make a long story short, taking one photo a day mushroomed into a new passion for photography and a heightened state of mindfulness and gratitude. In January and February, I pretty much took only one photo a day. However, by mid-March the whole experiment took on a life of its own, and it was not unusual for me to capture between 100 and 250 images a day! By July, I decided it was time to upgrade my gear and buy my first "real" camera - which, of course, I had to learn to use. That was my big project during summer vacation. And then this blog was born.

After a year of noticing and photographing, I feel so much more aware of my surroundings than I was a year ago. It's pretty amazing! My work life has been quite challenging this year to say the least, and the more frustrated and overwhelmed I felt, the more I looked for beauty. Connecting with something in the natural world helped me to let go of what was bothering me and filled me with a sense of peace and stillness that helped me to consider the challenges from a wider perspective.

And so, this year I am excited to take on the kindness project!

I created a video compilation of my 366 photos from 2012. In the beginning months, I didn't have many photos from which to choose. By spring, it was daunting to select one photo for the whole day! The video is organized chronologically and moves quickly. It is pretty neat to travel through the seasons of a full year in 12 minutes! I hope you will enjoy. (Please view it in 720 HD for best quality!)



Email subscribers: Click here to view the video: 2012 Photo-a-Day Project

In past years, I have celebrated New Year's Eve by writing down what I wanted to let go of and then watching the paper burn in a fire. That was powerful and served its purpose. I love the letting-go rituals of the Loi Krathong festival in Thailand that involve casting off little boats or releasing lanterns into the sky. There is also an idea circulating on the Internet that involves writing down happy moments as they happen throughout the year and putting them in a jar. On New Year's Eve, you take each of the slips out of the jar and remember the good times. There are so many wonderful, meaningful ways to honor the old and embrace the new!

Whatever you envision for the New Year, I wish you many blessings!

Happy New Year!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Kindness: Pass It On!

"My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness." - H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama
In response to some recent headlines in the news, I have committed myself anew to the practice of kindness, including intentional, random acts of kindness. There has been a lot of discussion recently about mental health care, gun control, violence in the media, etc. Kindness is a form of activism that can go hand in hand with political activism.

A few days ago, I came across a video that really touched me and reminded me that you never know who you might inspire as you go about your day planting seeds of kindness - or who might inspire you if you keep your eyes open.



My favorite recent, local example of kindness is Lorenzo, who directed traffic through a road work site close to my school. His smiles, waves, and greetings - given to every single person who passed by him each day - uplifted so many people that he was made an honorary citizen and given the key to the village for sharing his gift of "unbridled joy." He showed us the power that a smile and a few kind words can have on an entire community, which was a powerful lesson - one that inspired me to reflect on how I can channel more kindness and joy into my work and into the world at large. As an early childhood educator, I have an abundance of opportunities every day to offer a warm smile, a sincere compliment, and a listening heart. I remember how great it felt as a child to be noticed by and to connect with certain teachers. Simply running into them in the hallway and receiving a smile and a hello was such a treat!

That kind of warmheartedness comes naturally to most early childhood teachers. However, I'd also like to cultivate a random acts of kindness habit in the New Year that requires more intentionality.

The day before Christmas, I saw a picture online that made quite an impression on me. It was of a card a couple received on the windshield of their car when they came out of a hockey game. The card contained a $5 bill and a kind message and was given in loving memory of a certain child who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School attack. I had heard of the new "26 Acts of Kindness" movement to commit a kind deed in honor of each victim of the school shooting and had intended to accept this challenge. However, the picture motivated me into action; a new wave of kindness already had begun!

I decided to begin with a copycat act of kindness in our community with my son. I found a handmade card, wrote a kind message, and invited my son to select the child in whose memory we would perform this random act of kindness. His eyes widened in an urgent sort of way, and he said that there was a particular child who really stuck out in his mind. We looked at pictures of the 20 Sandy Hook students, and he found the child immediately. I wrote her name, age, and the name of her school on the card with tears welling in my eyes and slipped the money into the card. Focusing on that one child - learning her name and deciding to offer a kind deed in her memory - was a powerful, emotional experience. At the bottom of the card, I wrote, "Remembering this precious child through a random act of kindness that hopefully will make the world a better place. Please pass it on in some way." We drove down the road to our town's grocery store, selected a car, and left.

After returning home, I felt compelled to learn more about this little girl. I read about her interests and considered the idea of future acts of kindness being related to what each child loved or something unique about him/her. For instance, we might decorate a tree with treats for the birds in honor of a child who loved animals or donate a book to a library in honor of a child who loved to read.

Normally, I engage my kindergartners in a random acts of kindness project between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Valentine's Day. We create a paper quilt detailing 100 acts of kindness performed at home, school, or in the community. The children color heart designs, and their acts of kindness are written in the borders around each quilt square. I ask families to email me or send notes about kind deeds their children perform outside of school.


This year, I'm considering challenging each child/family to perform 20 acts of kindness - in honor of each of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School. We are focusing on the numbers 0-20 in math, and there would be no need for the children to understand the significance of the number 20. I just love the idea of responding to tragedy by flooding the world with kindness and light and the message that love is stronger than evil, hatred, and ignorance. Acts of kindness in the classroom also count.

Personally, I think I'd like to begin with the "26 Random Acts of Kindness" and then extend it by performing a kind deed every day during 2013.

Here is the link to an article about kindness research underway in Vancouver: Random Acts of Kindness Can Make Kids More Popular. I have to admit to fantasizing every now and then about moving to Vancouver to study with lead researcher, Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, whose work I have been following for several years. (And I have some really awesome relatives in the Vancouver area...) But perhaps I can work to implement research-based practices related to kindness, empathy, and awareness in schools in my area.

There are a number of resources online with ideas for random acts of kindness, in case you are so inclined and would like some ideas. Here are a few links:

And here are a few picture books about kindness that I enjoy reading with children:

There is another book about kindness that I refer to quite extensively in my classroom but must recommend along with a suggestion. The book is called Have You Filled a Bucket Today?: A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids. The book explains that each of us carries around an invisible bucket that holds our feelings of happiness. When our bucket is full, we feel good, and when it is empty, we feel bad. We can fill other people's buckets by being kind and helpful, and in the process of filling their buckets, we also fill our own. However, we also can dip from other people's buckets by being insensitive or hurtful. But dipping from someone else's bucket does not fill our own bucket. The ideas of bucket filling and bucket dipping are easy for young children to grasp; however, there is an important element missing from the story, which is learning how to put a lid on our bucket, to prevent others from dipping into our bucket in the first place. This piece involves resilience and personal empowerment and ensures that our happiness is not dependent on the actions of others. Although this idea does not appear in the book, I have seen it presented on the Bucket Fillers website and feel it is a critical piece.

Please let me know if you know of other good books about kindness!

And then there's the movie, Pay It Forward, about a boy who started a kindness movement as a school assignment:



Whereas the various issues being debated in response to recent acts of violence will take some time to work out, kindness is something each of us can do today. It is a way to heal the world more immediately. May it spread like wildfire!
"Every kind act, no matter how small, is like a pebble tossed into the pond of human caring. The rings reach out far beyond the point of impact; the action of our kind deed acts more kindly toward the people around them, those people act more kindly toward the people around them, and so it goes, on and on."   -Author unknown 

 
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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Simple Gifts and Traditions

My students and I enjoyed spending the month of December learning about how winter holidays are celebrated around the world. Closer to home, I find it heartwarming to see how friends and acquaintances celebrate holidays, which is something I love about social media. It brings us closer. So today I'd like to share a few snapshots of my own family's Christmas traditions.

I'll begin with the food. Our Christmas Eve tradition is very simple and dates back to when my children were younger and liked to set up the living room as a dinner-movie theater. They would arrange the chairs, plan the menu, and then of course I would make the food. Quite often, by the time the food was finally ready, it had become too late to actually watch an entire movie. However, that didn't matter because the joy was in the preparations! So one year we decided to do a Christmas Eve dinner-movie theater, and it became tradition - one that was initiated by the children, which is probably why it is so meaningful to them. Though the menu varies somewhat from year to year, the mainstays are Spinach Balls and a vegetable platter that usually consists of cauliflower, broccoli, and grape tomatoes. This year, I tried out a few new recipes I found on Pinterest, and the Hot Corn Dip went over particularly well.


As far as the movies go, there are a number we've watched from year to year. Most years the lineup includes Scrooged and The Polar Express. This year we got a late start and only managed Scrooged.

My children's father and I alternate spending Christmas Eve and Christmas day with them, and when the children were younger, it was anguishing to say goodbye to them Christmas morning when they left me to spend Christmas day with their dad. However, in time I came to prefer having them with me on Christmas Eve because of our dinner-movie theater tradition. Christmas day is spent celebrating with extended family, but Christmas Eve is our special time together with the kids when we have them. And when we don't, we do it on Christmas night instead.

Here are links to some of our menu items:

I also intended to make Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Garlic Aioli but ran out of time.

Here is my recipe for Sun-dried Tomato Pesto, adapted from a recipe from Simple Vegetarian Pleasures by Jeanne Lemlin (a recipe book given to me by my deceased uncle, whom I think of whenever I make it):

Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup loose sun-dried tomatoes (I use dehydrated tomatoes from our garden)
  • 3 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 small garlic cloves, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese
Procedure:
  1. Steam the tomatoes in a vegetable steamer until soft, for about 10 minutes. Remove and let cool.
  2. Combine all the ingredients in a food processor, and process until smooth.
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And now for the gifts. As I mentioned in a previous post, I'm not much into buying presents; I prefer to make them. This year, my favorite gift to make and give was a very practical one. I made a case of canning jar oatmeal for my college-age daughter. She has such a busy schedule, between classes and part-time jobs, and usually doesn't have time to make breakfast before leaving for the day. So I put together individual jars of quick oats, flax seeds, dried fruit (apple and mango), and a touch of brown sugar. All she needs to do is add boiling water to the brim, stir, put the lid back on, and let it sit for a few minutes - and remember to bring along a spoon! She can keep a couple jars in her car and have an instant meal anytime with a quick stop for hot water. She was thrilled because breakfast is such a challenge for her. I also threw in a jar of chai green tea bags to keep her warm on cold winter days.


I also love to receive homemade gifts, and this year my niece and nephew gave us Christmas lights and potpourri in a jar. The heat from the lights warms the potpourri and makes the room smell nice. It's beautiful to look at, too.


We spent the afternoon and evening at my parents' house, and probably the greatest gift (even though I tease her about it relentlessly) was hearing my mom play guitar and sing her favorite songs. She started taking guitar lessons a little more than a year ago at age 74 and now has 90 songs in her repertoire. It is her passion - just as nature photography is mine - and she practices for hours every day and often goes to hear live music at night. She's getting ready to do open mike nights. My dad would love to accompany her on harmonica (although I'm not sure she's agreeable to that, as she doesn't like to share the spotlight) but for now seems to derive joy from listening to her. He always sits right next to her when she performs for us - and sometimes will do a little jig. He whistles, too, and we tried to cheer him on to do a whistle solo, but my mom was all business.


After the concert, we all watched It's a Wonderful Life.

We live in a tiny, crooked home and most years only have space for a tabletop Christmas tree. We don't have a lot of money or possessions compared to many, but we are blessed beyond belief compared to many others and always try to remember this. We have a roof over our heads, lots of love, plenty to eat, and this year we were not mourning the fresh loss of any loved ones. We deal with whatever dysfunction arises and make the best of it, feeling grateful for what is rather than diminished by how things could or "should" be. (This has taken some work but seems to be getting easier.) Simplicity works for us. And on that note, I'm going to suggest that my mom learn this beautiful Shaker hymn:

SIMPLE GIFTS

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
  'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
  To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
  Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve Reflections

I want to share a couple insights from a story called "The Star Child," which I used to read to my children at bedtime on Christmas Eve. It is from a wonderful book called Gently Lead by Polly Berrien Berends. The story in its entirety is simply beautiful, and it is possible to read it on Amazon. (Click on "Search Inside This Book," and then enter "Star Child" in the "Search Inside This Book" field - which might require logging in. When the results show, click on the bold text "STAR CHILD.")

In the story, the author explains that most people were too busy inside their homes to notice the Star of Bethlehem shining brightly. However, some simple shepherds who were outside looking up at the sky saw the star. And...
"The only other people to see that star were three wise men. They had big houses with lots of lights and all the shiny treasures anyone could ever wish to have. Yet each of them still had one big wish. They wished to find something brighter and better than all the treasures on earth. The wise men saw the star because they were looking for light. So the only people who saw the star of the baby were some shepherds who had almost nothing and three wise men who had almost everything."  (Berends, p. 42-43)
Citation:  Berends, Polly Berrien (1998). Gently Lead: How to Teach Your Children about God While Finding Out for Yourself. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

 I have contemplated this idea a lot over the years and find it quite profound, especially when I get caught up in the mundane preoccupations of life. I find that my life becomes more fulfilled when I take time to look for light and to make this quality of awareness a way of life.

The "Star Child" story goes on to describe the rest of the Christmas story and how Jesus grew up and discovered
"that God is love and that everyone is God’s child. Jesus saw everyone in the light of God’s love. No matter how unfriendly or sick or sad someone seemed to be, he could always see the star child shining through." (Berends, p. 43)
What a powerful practice it is to look for the highest good in everyone with whom we come in contact! A quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow comes to mind:
"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should see sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."   
And it is every bit as powerful to experience someone connecting with our inner light. During the last meeting of a World Religions course at Ithaca College, the professor (with whom I remain closely connected) went around the room, looked into each student's eyes, and stated that she saw our divine nature.

WOW.

Remembering this experience, I entered the teaching profession vowing to connect with the higher nature of each of my students, no matter what kind of behavior or attitude they exhibited. This kind of presence is a gift for both the giver and the recipient. It has an elevating effect and is worth cultivating in our lives. It is a radical act that requires rising above so much worldly conditioning and the ego's desire for comfort. Love - which I think of as a force of unity and connection - is radical and courageous. We must risk stepping out of our comfort zone and calling our prejudices into question. Every single one of them.

Every single person in this world began life as an innocent, radiant star child. Everyone is someone's son or daughter and worthy of love. No excuses or exceptions. And we are all the sons and daughters of the same life force that created us, which makes us all brothers and sisters. We are more alike than we are different. This doesn't mean condoning misguided or harmful actions or being permissive when firm action is in order. But may we hold every human being's inner light in our hearts and pray that it may grow stronger. When we can do this, our light shines brighter, as well.

And with that, I wish all of you who celebrate a very merry Christmas. May the love in our hearts shine brightly, revealing the best and the highest within everyone we meet.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Natural Decorations

We're putting up our tree a little late this year, and I'm in the mood for natural ornaments!

Last year, I came across the idea of apple and cinnamon stick ornaments via someone who discovered them in Europe. All you need is an apple, a cinnamon stick, and some raffia or string (such as hemp). Cut the apple into slices about 1/4" thick, and let them dry flat on a wire rack, or hang to dry. Punch a hole at the top, tie a knot, put a cinnamon stick on top, and tie another knot to hold the cinnamon stick in place securely. If you want to get a little fancier, you can add a cranberry above and below the cinnamon stick. Eat the discarded parts of the apple, use them in an apple recipe, or dehydrate them for later use.


This year, I tried out the same idea with orange slices.


And then there's cinnamon ornaments, which I have been making with the children in my life each year without fail. I still have the first batch I made with my own children more than a decade ago. They don't go bad, although the spicy fragrance fades in time.

You can cover one side with glitter,


leave them plain,


or decorate them with glitter glue or dimensional fabric paint. White fabric paint makes them look like gingerbread cookies with white frosting.


Here is the recipe for cinnamon dough:

Ingredients
  • 1 cup cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon ground cloves (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
  • 1 1/4 cup applesauce (measure then drain in a strainer for several hours, or if straining isn't possible, use 1 cup)
  • 2 tablespoons white glue (i.e. Elmers)
  • 1 tsp. glitter (optional; fine glitter is especially nice)

Procedure

In a bowl, mix together the spices and glitter. Then mix in the applesauce and glue. Work the mixture with your hands for a few minutes until it's smooth, well mixed, and can be formed into a ball. If the dough seems too dry at this point, you can add just a little more applesauce. Or if it's too wet, add more cinnamon.

Knead the ball on a surface dusted with cinnamon until it holds together well. Then roll out the dough to 1/4" thickness, and use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. Use a straw or toothpick to make a hole for hanging.

Put shapes on a wire rack or cookie sheet, and allow to dry at room temperature for about two days, turning several times. (The room will smell wonderful!) Once they are dry, rough edges can be smoothed with sandpaper if need be. String with raffia, thread, or whatever you have on hand.

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While walking in the woods to take some of the above photos, I came across a patch of nature's own ornaments that caught my eye. I'm not sure exactly what they are (perhaps the inside of some kind of nut) but found them fascinating.


From certain angles, they remind me of the string ornaments that are made from string dipped in glue and then wrapped around a small balloon (which gets popped and removed after the string has dried in place).


I think we will finish our tree with a string of popcorn and cranberries, unless we decide to put the string outside as a gift for the birds!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dragonflies in December

Lately, I have been reflecting on some of the images I captured on the river over the summer and remembering my plant and wildlife friends - especially water lilies and dragonflies, which I spent countless hours observing with awe and wonder.


Recently, tragedy struck the family of a child in my life, and in my search for stories to help grieving children, I came across a gem of a booklet called Water Bugs and Dragonflies by Doris Strickland. I requested it through the library and was delighted to finally get my hands on it. The gist of the story is that a colony of water bugs wondered why every now and then one of their own would climb up a lily stalk and disappear, never to be seen again. They got together and came up with a plan: The next one who went up the lily stalk would come back and let the others know what happened. In time, another water bug found himself climbing up a lily stalk and turning into a dragonfly. After zipping about for a while, he landed on a lily pad and noticed his old water bug friends at the bottom of the pond. He wanted to go down to tell them what had happened to him, but since he was now a dragonfly, he wasn't able to go below the surface of the water. And if they were to see him looking down at them, they wouldn't recognize him in his new form. So he decided that he'd have to wait until his friends climbed up the lily stalk in their own time, and then they would understand for themselves.

I absolutely love the way the dragonfly life cycle can be used to explain death to children. I remember attending a hospice memorial service one December during my internship and hearing what must have been this very story - but I thought it was about caterpillars and butterflies. It was a powerful story that I loved immediately, although I must have misremembered the details over time.

After reading the little booklet, I recalled one afternoon this past summer when I paddled to the lily pads and arrived just in time to witness a newborn dragonfly fall out of its exoskeleton (which was still clinging to a reed) and onto a lily pad. It was pale and colorless and looked completely disoriented. It just lay there still, and I wondered if it would be okay, hoping the fall wasn't too much for this tiny creature. (The little booklet mentioned such a fall, so it must be a normal part of the transition.)



I felt honored to have witnessed the dragonfly emerging from its nymph state; it felt like a Very Important event to observe despite it being a common occurrence in the natural world.

After seeing the newborn dragonfly resting on the lily pad, I noticed numerous shells, or exuviae, of dragonfly nymphs clinging to reeds and water lily stalks all around me. They were completely motionless and looked like they were sleeping or just resting there. All this time, I had mistaken them for living creatures.

Dragonfly (top) and two clinging exuviae (middle and bottom)

As I read about the dragonfly life cycle, I learned that the exuviae would continue to cling to the stalks. However, they were simply empty shells, ghosts of former selves. Something about this image felt profound to me, and I became fixated on photographing them.


I didn't understand the power of this image until reading Water Bugs and Dragonflies with the child mentioned above in mind. I realized the exuviae piece could further explain to a child that the body of his/her deceased loved one is merely a shell, not to be confused with the living presence s/he had known and loved.

Although I did not feel it was my place to discuss the dragonfly allegory with the child in question, I passed the information along to someone who is in a better position to do so. The adults with whom I have shared this story since reading it myself were very touched by it, which is why I feel compelled to share it with you. My hope is that it will bring comfort to someone who is in need of it.


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Spreading the Light: Inspired Video

There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it. -Edith Wharton
Today I want to give you a gift of light at this dark time of year. And this time, I'm not talking about candles. I'm talking about human brilliance.

I am immensely grateful for the technology that makes it so easy to connect, inspire, and bring more light into our world. I was moved to start this blog while floating in my kayak in the middle of the river feeling profound peace and at-one-ment and wishing I could bottle the feeling and give it freely to everyone to make the world a better place. The closest I can come is images and words. I believe each of us has the responsibility to let our own light shine in the world to the best of our ability and to spread the light of those who have inspired us.

I love seeing the different ways in which human beings shine and am endlessly amazed and inspired by the ideas people come up with when they think outside of the box and use their unique voices to express their light. Today I'd like to share with you some remarkable videos that have truly uplifted my spirit, in hopes they will have a similar effect on you. You can view each of the videos by simply clicking the links below.

The first is an exquisite video about nature, beauty, and gratitude by Louie Schwartzberg and narrated by Brother David Steindl-Rast. Do yourself a favor, and watch this one:

Louie Schwartzberg: Gratitude
*Note that the video begins at 3:30, but Schwartzberg's introduction is also well worth watching.

Schwartzberg's short films are truly inspired and often feature absolutely stunning time-lapse nature photography. To view more of his films, explore his Moving Art channel on YouTube:

Louie Schwartzberg on YouTube

"The Beauty of Pollination" is another of my favorite Schwartzberg films.

Earlier this year, I watched a mesmerizing film called Baraka that is essentially a guided visual meditation completely devoid of dialogue and commentary. The following short film, which is lovely and uplifting in itself, is comprised of a narration by Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, and images from Baraka and two other movies (Home and Earth):

The Great Bell Chant (The End of Suffering)

Most recently, I was awestruck by a video about an orchestra in Cateura, Paraguay in which all the musicians play instruments made from trash:

Landfill Harmonic Video

The video speaks profoundly to the power of music and creativity. A feature-length documentary, Landfill Harmonic, is in the process of being made about this "recycled orchestra."

Finally, I offer a full-length documentary called Garbage Warrior that is available online in its entirety. Probably my favorite documentary, it is about New Mexican eco architect, Michael Reynolds, and his fight to create green, off-the-grid, self-sufficient communities of "earthship biotecture." This is the story of a brilliant person who, in Gandhi's words, works to be the change he wishes to see in the world and learns that his only hope of bringing about meaningful change is to become part of the very system that oppresses what he is all about. This is a dynamic to which I relate strongly, and his story gives me energy and hope - along with the desire to live in one of his "earthship" homes.

Garbage Warrior on YouTube

In case anyone is open to suggestions for a movie night, here is my list of feature-length movies that I have experienced as especially worthwhile and inspiring:
A new movie, Samsara, by the same producer and director as Baraka came out recently, and although I haven't yet seen it, I'm sure it would make the list, as well. 

Although I generally am not a fan of movies with battle sequences, the following two have enough spirit and substance to include them on my list:
Happy viewing! May you be inspired, as well - and if you'd like to pass along some uplifting movie or video recommendations, please feel free to comment!


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

Finding the Helpers

As a mother and a kindergarten teacher, my heart goes out to everyone affected by today's tragedy in Connecticut. I remember hearing about the Columbine school shooting when my own children were one and four years old and how it shook me to my core. Now a new generation of parents has to grapple with unanswerable "why" questions and concerns about their children's safety. You just want to hold them tight and keep them safe.

I recall driving my oldest child home from the hospital 24 hours after she was born. Passing through a crime-ridden section of Albany in the darkness, her newborn life seemed so fragile. Those first days of her life, I kept thinking about how she was going to have to share the world with so many hurting people who, as a result of their own pain, would be capable of hurting her. Protecting her from harm had become my new life's purpose.

Children are especially on my mind this evening. I can't imagine what it must be like to be a child and to hear about innocent children "just like me" being killed so senselessly at school. Every single day, I use the language of safety in my classroom, reminding my kindergartners that my number one job is to keep them safe, and that the various rules they are expected to follow are there for their physical and emotional safety. School is supposed to be a place of safety. For children with challenging home situations, school is a place of consistent, comforting rhythms and routines, an atmosphere of caring.

I hope families - parents, older siblings, extended relatives - will be mindful of how and to what extent their children are exposed to news about the Connecticut school massacre. Some families will be vigilant in limiting their children's exposure to the news. Others may have the news on in the background and assume the children aren't paying attention. Still others may communicate more or less openly with their children about what transpired. Even when families are vigilant, we can't control what young children may overhear on the bus or from older siblings.

Here is what I wish, most of all, for children to know about tragedies such as this one: Yes, something happened that was very wrong. However, there is more light than darkness in this world. People are capable of fantastic, wondrous things.

I am inspired by a quote from ("Mister") Fred Rogers that I copied down several years ago:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers - so many caring people in this world.  
May we do everything in our power to nourish the gardens of our children's hearts and minds with the sunlight of kindness, the pure water of beauty, and the warmth of goodness, and be vigilant in tending to the weeds of fear and sadness as they arise. May we teach them through our example and loving presence to be kind and resilient and to do good work in this world each day. May we expose them to positive role models - the helpers of this world who rarely make front page news but go quietly about the business of filling our world with light, hope, and love. May we bring children's attention to the goodness that exists in this world and surround them with opportunities for developing kindness, compassion, and caring. May we guide them to feel safe and secure, knowing that many people are looking out for them and safeguarding their well-being and that there is much more good than evil in the world.

I also envision a world in which people who need help have easy, affordable access to appropriate, effective health care.

For the adults struggling with fears, sadness, uncertainties, and unanswered questions, I offer a poem that has comforted me on numerous occasions titled "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.


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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New Moon Project

This evening, I write under a moonless sky; the visibility of the moon is 0%. This is the time of the new moon -  a special time of the lunar cycle - and I will write a little about its significance in my life.

The new moon and the waxing phase of the moon are linked with renewal, beginnings, and the availability of fresh, new energy. The idea is that projects or undertakings begun at this time grow along with the moon. The new moon is considered a favorable time to start something, whereas the waning phase is the time for letting go and clearing unnecessary clutter from one's life.

At this time of the lunar cycle, I like to focus on forming an intention by asking: What do I wish to cultivate in my life at this time? The answer to this question sets in motion my "new moon project" for the lunar cycle. This month, my focus is on getting up earlier in the morning so I can both exercise before going to work and observe the early stages of the sunrise. I intend to prioritize this behavior and put my full attention on cultivating this habit for the next 28 days.

With only 20 days until the beginning of a new year, new beginnings are on my mind more than usual this month. I've heard more than once that it takes at least 21 days to establish a new habit so it becomes more automatic and a more natural part of one's life. Whereas I haven't come across any hard data to support this time frame, I know from my own experience that real change usually takes time and that the early repetitions of a daily habit carry a certain momentum.

I don't recall being especially successful with New Year's resolutions, perhaps because a year is a fairly large chunk of time. A 28-day lunar cycle, with clear-cut beginning and ending points, feels much more manageable. And I love the idea of growing along with the moon. As I watch the moon grow in size, it keeps my intention in focus; the moon is like a visible companion on my journey that motivates and encourages me. If I need more time to work on a particular intention, I can recommit myself to it during the next new moon and reflect on the progress I have made.

The new moon is also a great time for astrophotography, which is a brand new fascination of mine. I love seeing the stars on a clear night reflected on the calm surface of the river and experiencing the peace and stillness.


If you care to join me in harnessing the energy of the waxing moon, may you find success in whatever endeavor you pursue!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Inspired Books to Share with Children


As a parent, one of my favorite memories is of reading truly beautiful books with my children at bedtime. As a teacher, the moments I feel most in-the-flow are when I am sharing wonderful literature with my students. I was like a kid in a candy store when I worked as a shelver at our local public library and was able to discover so many unknown treasures. I love books and have a passion for children's literature - picture books, in particular. There is something incredibly compelling about the pairing of beautiful art with an inspired story. I love how certain children's picture books can express such depth in the space of only 30 or so pages with limited text. 

Giving books as gifts has been my biggest exception to homemade gifts, and I thought I'd create a list of what I consider the best of the best in children's literature for anyone looking for some ideas for children, grandchildren, or other special children. The books on my list truly honor and are worthy of children through their aesthetic value and inspired content. Rather than describe them myself, I created an online list that makes it easy to click and find any information you would want about a particular title:

Click here for my list of The Best, Most Inspired Children's Books

My original list was twice as long, but it seemed too overwhelming with so many choices, so I forced myself to narrow it down.

A few of the books on my list are more like prayers or meditations than stories. These include:
  • All I See is Part of Me
  • The Circle of Days
  • The Secret of Saying Thanks
  • The Wonderful Happens
I asked my teenagers what books they remember most fondly from their childhoods. For my daughter, it was Grandmothers' Stories retold by Burleigh Muten. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey and Grandfather Twilight by Barbara Berger were the ones my son remembered. However, I also recall all the times I read The Country Noisy Book when he was little, and I remember him laughing like I'd never heard him laugh before as we read David Wiesner's version of The Three Pigs. I also remember how much my daughter loved the rhymes in Catch Me and Kiss Me and Say It Again by Clyde Watson when she became a big sister, and snuggling with her for repeated readings of Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara M. Joosse, The Big, Big Sea by Martin Waddell, and The Tomten adapted by Astrid Lindgren.

So many wonderful books. So many wonderful memories of time well spent with my children! 

What are some of your favorites? 

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Homemade Holiday Traditions, Part 2: The Gift of Light

My husband is fond of remarking that our home is like Santa's workshop at this time of year. We are an artsy bunch year-round, but I've always been a big fan of homemade holiday gifts, making December a busy time in an elfin manner of speaking here on the riverside. It began of necessity when I was staying home with my children and had more time than money, but I have held onto this tradition because it is so gratifying.  

I especially enjoy making lanterns. There are so many great metaphors around candles and light: lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness, letting your light shine, a single candle lighting a thousand more, etc.

This year, I decided to try my hand at making beeswax balloon lanterns, which I hadn't done in a good ten years. I first discovered these gorgeous lanterns at a Waldorf holiday fair back when my daughter was five and homeschooling. After buying one, I was determined to figure out how to make some on my own. (This was way back in the days before Pinterest!) I found a local beekeeper who sold me a 10-pound block of beeswax, and I set my daughter up with a covered workspace, a hammer, and a screwdriver so she could break the block into small bits for easier melting. (I chipped away at it, too.) The method involves dipping a water-filled balloon into melted beeswax many times to build a shell and then cooling the wax and popping the balloon. The process makes a home smell incredible.

The first year I made balloon lanterns, I created a full moon bonfire scene with tissue paper and mulberry paper. 



This year, I experimented with hearts cut from pressed autumn leaves and embellished by drilling some holes along the top.




I love the creative process! It evolves one step at a time with one idea leading to another. And if I don't like it, I can just melt it down and start all over again!


If you'd like to try this relaxing craft with an intoxicating fragrance, here are two links to which I refer when making beeswax balloon lanterns: 
http://www.herewearetogether.com/2011/08/03/waldorf-crafts-beeswax-lanterns/ 
http://morningsunrae.blogspot.com/2009/11/beeswax-lantern-tutorial.html 

I've used both the double boiler and the crock pot methods with good results but presently prefer the latter.

Last year, I discovered two kinds of beautiful star lanterns, which became my main holiday gifts. The first is a dodecahedron (12-sided) star lantern:



Here is a link to directions for making the dodecahedron star lanterns:
http://www.momscraftyspace.com/2011/01/dodecahedron-star-lantern-tutorial.html 

The 8-pointed star lanterns below are easier to make, and I fell in love with them when I discovered them last year. Making these lanterns became a favorite way to unwind! I even brought this craft to the classroom and invited my students to paint a sheet of watercolor paper which I folded into a lantern for them.



To view a video showing how to make the eight-pointed star lanterns, click here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLJvm5A9ocw

I have become accustomed to saving jars throughout the year to make jar lanterns during the holidays. I am especially fond of salsa jars and peanut butter jars. I tend to improvise with tissue paper, mulberry paper, and colored wax ("kite") paper and Mod Podge to make jar lanterns. I love repurposing the jars to make something beautiful to give to someone dear.



Last year I discovered another beautiful and oh-so-simple lantern that involves wrapping painted paper around a jar. The best part of this was painting the paper! I covered the still-wet paper with plastic wrap to add some texture.



Finally, here is a string of origami "balloons" (also called "water bombs") with LED lights tucked inside them that I folded for my daughter from sheet music:


Making holiday gifts may be more time consuming than buying them already made, but I love the way it feels to craft something with my own hands and to breathe into it the energy of love for the intended recipient. There's just something extra special about a homemade gift  - and making lanterns is another way to bring more light into this world!

If you like my lantern projects and have more money than time, some of them are available for sale through my Etsy shop: http://www.etsy.com/shop/RiverBlissed 

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Thank You, Sunshine

I haven't seen much of the sun lately because it rises shortly before I leave for work and sets when I am usually on my way home. During this dark time of year, I really appreciate looking at my photographs from the warmer, sunnier months.

I did hospice work many years ago and remember a patient expressing sadness because she would not live long enough to see the flowers bloom one more time in the spring. Having developed such an intense connection this year with the flowers, water lilies, dragonflies, herons, beavers, and my favorite cottonwood tree, I can really understand now what she was talking about. Although every season has a unique quality and beauty of its own - particularly if we stop for a moment and allow ourselves to connect with it - I have a case of kayak withdrawal, and my heart longs for the warmer months when I can riverbliss in my kayak and need not be content to sit at the water's edge. I still find peace sitting by the water, but it is quiet now except for the calls of some geese in the distance. The cold months do arrive bearing gifts, including colorful sunrises, interesting ice and frost formations, and snow-covered trees and fields glistening in the moonlight. I also look forward to focusing on astrophotography by the river under clear winter skies.

Nearly a decade ago, my husband wrote the song "Thank You, Sunshine" in honor of the Winter Solstice and recorded it with his band, The Zucchini Brothers. Over the weekend, I was inspired to create a video pairing the song with many of my still photos of the sun and sunlight. I offer it as a reminder that soon the sun will begin its journey back in our direction! (For best quality, view in HD.)



If video doesn't play, click here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GTPC5Mdqc88&feature=plcp

May your day be filled with blessings and light!



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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Homemade Holiday Traditions, Part 1

After writing yesterday about holiday traditions around the world, I thought that today I'd share one of my own family holiday traditions.

Years ago, I discovered a treasure of a book called The Autobiography of Santa Claus (as told to Jeff Guinn). The book contains 24 chapters - one for each night of December leading up to Christmas. It travels through 17 centuries of historical fact combined with magic and legend, beginning in Lycia with the birth of a bishop named Nicholas. I love how the qualities of kindness and caring are emphasized throughout the book as all aspects of the Santa legend are interwoven with a variety of historic and legendary figures and events throughout the ages. My children and I would make some Candy Cane Lane tea or minty hot cocoa and read the book together snuggled under blankets.


The first year, I read aloud from our hardcover copy, but after that I discovered the wonderful audiobook version while shelving at the library, and for years it was our tradition to gather around the CD player in the living room with our tea or hot cocoa and blankets to listen to the story. If we missed a night, we'd make up for it by reading two chapters another night. In all honesty, it took a few years before we got to the end of the book. Some years we'd decide to start again at the beginning, and other years we picked up close to where we left off the previous year.

Last year was the first year my youngest, a teenager, had no interest in this tradition. However - lover of tradition that he is - this year he seems open to having the CD on in the background some evenings. I imagine my oldest would still appreciate the comfort and nostalgia of it, although she is very busy and isn't around enough to make it a routine. However, I am hoping for maybe one evening of choosing a chapter(s) and either making cookies or painting together!

I recommend this book enthusiastically and with lots of fond memories to families with children eight years and older.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Holidays Around the World

I just finished an exhausting but totally-worth-it week in my classroom kicking off what is probably my favorite unit of the year: Holidays Around the World.

This unit spans the entire month of December and provides children with rich exposure to geography, multicultural folktales, and winter holiday traditions around the world (avoiding belief systems since I teach in a public school, but of course you could go into that in different settings or at home). It is organized around the Gingerbread Baby's travels around the world en route to the North Pole. Anchored in literature and social studies, the full unit spans the curriculum, integrating art, technology, science, math, and music, as well. It packs a powerful punch in terms of the Common Core Curriculum.

The unit begins with a study of my favorite gingerbread stories, including: The Gingerbread Man, The Gingerbread Boy, Gingerbread Baby, and The Gingerbread Girl. When we get to the last page of Gingerbread Baby, we find that the Gingerbread Baby has jumped out of the book and left a note in his place with clues regarding his whereabouts. Thus begins a search around the school for the Gingerbread Baby. Finally, all clues lead back to our classroom, and as we get closer to the room, the smell of gingerbread (room spray) becomes stronger. When we return to the classroom, we find the Gingerbread Baby's house and the Gingerbread Baby inside it sleeping on a pillow of cotton snow!


Children holding down the roof so the Gingerbread Baby wouldn't escape while I got some tape

This year, we put a scarecrow out front to keep watch, and the children insisted on putting up a sign to ensure nobody would disturb the house and let the Gingerbread Baby out.


Despite the safeguards, by the time we return the next morning, the Gingerbread Baby has escaped and left a note telling us he plans to run, run, run to the North Pole and send us mail along the way.

This segues into a study of winter celebrations around the world.

Throughout the month of December, we receive a letter, postcard, or email nearly every day from the Gingerbread Baby telling us about various multicultural celebrations taking place at this time of year. He is directionally impaired to say the least and even ends up in Antarctica at one point! He is a curious cookie who just loves a party!


We read stories and do art projects related to many of the different countries, cultures, and traditions. The places where the Gingerbread Baby stops any given year vary depending on the ties my students have to different geographical locations or traditions.

Poinsettias (Mexico), faux stained glass (Italy), menorahs (Hanukkah), and an Australia display

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I am able to show my students videos of these diverse celebrations taking place far and wide via our large SMART Board screen. I also use Google Earth to show them the Gingerbread Baby's route by "flying" from one place to the next. We touch down at various places to see landmarks or just navigate down a road to see what it actually looks like in different countries. For example, the letter we receive from Mexico references monarch butterflies (which we released in September), and we are able to touch down and see actual monarch butterfly sanctuaries! It takes a little research to find interesting locations and attractions, but the connections are so rich and entirely worth it in my opinion!

Each time we read a letter from the Gingerbread Baby, we use Google Earth to determine whether he is getting closer or farther away from his destination. We notice what kind of land masses or bodies of water he travels over, determine what mode of transportation he may have taken, discuss the different seasons occurring in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, notice how climate is a factor in the way holidays are celebrated in different places, and more.

It is so much fun.

I have spent many hours searching YouTube for the best videos related to multicultural celebrations and have created a Pinterest board that I am thrilled to share with you. (Note: I have found that researching the terms used by those cultures and locales yields some really great search terms that lead to authentic videos of community celebrations!) I've included videos from Thailand, The Philippines, The Netherlands, India, Sweden, Mexico, Italy, Israel, Australia, Finnish Lapland, and even Antarctica. I've really tried to target places and traditions to which my students have personal connections, and therefore the list is by no means comprehensive or balanced. It is a work in progress, and I love adding to it!

Click this link for my Pinterest board:
http://pinterest.com/susantara/holidays-around-the-world/

Watching these videos really puts me in the spirit, and I appreciate how so many of them focus on beautiful traditions and festivals featuring light. If I had access to these videos when my own children were younger, we definitely would have enjoyed them together. I just love sharing them with my kindergartners! I don't know who is more excited - they or I - to see a whole community gathered to witness the festive arrival of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) in The Netherlands aboard a steamboat from Spain! We learn that there are so many ways to celebrate at this time of year and that children around the world are a lot like them. Being able to see the expressions on the faces of children across the world is quite powerful.

When we learn that the Gingerbread Baby finally has made it to the North Pole, the unit culminates in a Polar Express party.

This is a magical time of year! I love it!




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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.