Have a suitcase heart.

tumblr_m9pqw775iC1qb9bj4o1_500“Have a suitcase heart; be ready to travel.”
That’s American writer Gabrielle Zevin’s advice — and the guidance I’ve offered my first-born child this week as she’s packed up and, for the first time, gone off to see the world without me. She’s going to England and Scotland with a school group, and I wish them all bon voyage.
I packed a little notebook with the suitcase heart quote on it in her carry-on back. I’m encouraging her to write it all down. From my experience, that’s the travel memento I’ve enjoyed most — words that capture a perspective on a time and place that, even though you return to that place, you can never fully have again. Words on a page help retain that.
Through the years, you can open that notebook like a cherished bottle of perfume — close your eyes and, for a moment, relive that time, place and perspective.
I’ve thought a lot about a suitcase heart lately and have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds.
One kind can be less desirable, destructive even. That’s the kind that packs up its bits and bags and hits the road once it’s seen the sights and taken what it wants from a place — or a person, for that matter.
This suitcase heart is possible without ever going far. Certainly, it’s not the style of heart gear I wish for my daughter or those she encounters — or anyone else, for that matter.
The other kind of suitcase heart, and the kind I wish for my daughter and the other people both you and I love, is in the travel and place sense. Go see the world. Take in the places and all that you are able. Go there. Eat their food. Dance their dances. Sing their songs. Walk their bridges. Ride their trains. Smell their flowers.
By being open to what they share with you, you’ll gain insights into their culture and beliefs that will make you a better and more tolerant person.
In every place you go, and the whole time you’re there, be open to them.
They will teach you things at every turn. They can teach you things you don’t even know you need to learn. They can teach you things you don’t realize until years pass and it all begins to make sense.
Just as importantly as you being open to them and learning from them, be ready to give back to them at every opportunity.
Smile. Say thank you in their language. Share your gum. Teach them your dances. Teach them your songs. Show them your pictures. Know that it’s not all about you. It’s about them, and that, my dear, is when life will open up and become so much more than you’ve ever thought it could be.
Take each of those people and places you come to love and put them in your suitcase heart. You’ll be amazed how expandable that luggage is. Without ever taking a single heart out, you can keep putting in more and always have plenty to share.

Canoe to work, Atchafalaya Pilgrimage and a long walk ahead

Atchafalaya PilgrimageA week ago, I canoed to work.
It seemed like the logical thing to do.
My husband’s car was getting new brakes. I needed to get to the office. We live on the river. As the crow flies, my office is about 200 yards away from the other side of the river directly across from my house.
I looked out the window, knew I needed to get to work and thought, “Why not?”
A friend and I got the canoe in the river, with my briefcase between my feet, and like a Venetian gondolier, she canoed me right across the Vermilion. I walked the rest of the way and got to work more quickly than it takes to drive.
Such was the start of what has always been one of my favorite weeks of the year.
Today is my birthday, and I believe in celebrating as much as possible. Throughout my life, I’ve loved that first week of spring. I feel like everything’s coming to life in sync with my birthday.
To continue my week of celebrating, last weekend another friend and I took what I called an Atchafalaya Pilgrimage. We walked along the levee for a long afternoon, from Butte La Rose almost back to Henderson. We saw sights and heard sounds that we miss when we’re going faster than walking allows.
Next year at this time, I’ll have what most consider to be a significant birthday. I’ll turn 50. There’s a connection between the walking I’m doing now and next year’s birthday. To mark and celebrate 50 trips around the sun, a friend (who was born a few days after me) and I are planning to go to Spain and walk the last 287 miles of the Camino de Santiago. In English, it’s called the Way of St. James.
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that dates back to the Middle Ages and has many routes from points across Europe. All of its various paths lead to a cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, in the northwestern corner of Spain. The route has been walked continuously since the remains of St. James were discovered and the shrine was created.
To earn a compostela (a certificate of accomplishment), pilgrims need to walk at least 100 kilometers (about 62 miles). Based on my short Atchafalaya Pilgrimage, I may suggest that we readjust our plans! Maybe walking 100 miles would be a happy medium?
In Spain, pilgrims who reach the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela prove they’ve walked the path by keeping what’s called a pilgrim’s passport and collecting necessary stamps along the way. Bright blue tiles with yellow scallops making an arrow mark the Camino de Santiago all over Europe. Like me, you may have seen them before and wondered what they signified.
Now I know. They mark the way of Saint James.
Though I’ve known all along that walking would be an arduous and incredible journey, I’ve thought, “It’s just walking. How bad can it be? I long for a day when all I have to do is walk.”
My Atchafalaya Pilgrimage gave me a reality wake-up call. I’ve known I need to prepare for the journey. However, as is so often the case when reality sets in, I now know that I need to prepare more than I thought. My friend and I have been planning this trip for three years. It’s getting closer to the time for the rubber to meet the road.
Literally.
I have work to do.
Even the longest journey begins with a single step.

Support a teacher near you

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When veteran teacher Abby Breaux read her “I’ve had enough” letter to the school board nearly two weeks ago, her actions paved the way for local teachers to believe that things could change for the better.
Having taught in the local school system myself, I’ve followed their story with interest and enjoyed spending time with them learning more about their plans and progress.
Rather than retiring, the path that so many talented teachers are taking in the face of the mountain of issues on the education front, Breaux, Jennifer Guillory and Linda Rhoads, three veteran and accomplished teachers decided to use the momentum the letter sparked to try and find solutions to some of the problems. Andrea Thibodeaux, one of their colleagues who retired in January, joined their cause.

They like to quote Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.”
Based on my conversations with them, I believe they’re unafraid of telling the truth and want the best for students and the system at large. They realize that so many teachers don’t feel safe to bring attention to the myriad of problems. One of the main reasons they’ve been able to speak out is that their administration at Edgar Martin Middle School is way ahead of the norm when it comes to supporting their teachers.

“We are looking for solutions,” said Guillory. “It’s so not an us against them game. We just need to help the education system.”
Even so, the teachers admit they were a little uneasy going back to school once the stories starting running in the media.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without knowing that the administration was who they are,” Guillory told me. “Our administration at Edgar Martin is doing the best they can. Their hands are tied. They can’t change the discipline matrix or decrease the 33 standardized tests we’re required to give our students each year.”Rhoads said some of her students asked her what the newspaper story she was in was about.

“I told them to read the article if they wanted to find out,” Rhoads said. “Then I looked over at one little girl in my class — you know, one of those perfect little girls you get every now and then. She said, ‘I saw that article and I read it. It said you lost the joy of teaching. Is it because of us?’ It broke my heart.”
For Rhoads and so many other teachers in the district, state and beyond, the problem usually lies with one or two students — the repeat offenders.

In a classroom, one bad apple really can spoil the whole bunch.
As things stand now with Lafayette Parish’s discipline matrix, the consequences are the same across the board for various offenses. Think about that for a moment. That means a five-year-old and an 18-year-old get the same consequence for the same offense. For example, under the new discipline matrix, if a student uses profanity, a teacher has to file a report and the consequence is that the child gets out of class and goes to meet with the counselor. Then the counselor creates a behavior plan for the student.

“Middle schoolers want to be out of class. They’re old enough to know better and young enough to do it,” said Guillory. “Plus, the behavior plan is just more forms to fill out for the teacher.”
And how effective are the plans?
Recently, two of Rhoads’ students who were on behavior plans went to the counselor’s office. They came back to class with lollipops — eating them in front of the other students. What kind of message does that send to the students who are behaving and not using profanity?
One teacher has 10 students on behavior plans. She says two of them are working. Twenty percent is failing by any standards.

Everyone involved in the education system knows there’s no easy fix for the mountain of problems, but there are steps to take in the right direction:
• Fix the discipline system. The existing matrix isn’t working — and it’s doubtful that a single matrix will work for the whole system.
• Get repeat offenders out of the regular classroom.
• Get rid of most of the standardized testing. Allow teachers to teach during that time.
• Smaller classes work better.
• Have enough textbooks for each student.
If scores on the state standardized test affect teachers’ salaries, make all the tests pass/fail for the students too, rather than isolated years. As things stand now, the tests don’t matter for some grades and students have been known to score low deliberately to punish some teachers.
Good teachers are still out there, but our public educational system is broken. More tests, constraints and demands of teachers will not fix it. Stand up for a teacher near you and demand better.

LSS: A long way to go

International Women’s Day was Friday. Even though March 8 is an official holiday in at least 27 countries around the world, the day isn’t such a big deal here in the States.
In recognition of the day, The Economist compiled its own so-called “glass ceiling index,” designed to show where women have the best chance for equal treatment at work. After evaluating five areas including education; female labor-force participation; the male-female wage gap; the proportion of women in senior jobs; and net child-care costs relative to the average wage, the results are in.
If you’re sporting two X chromosomes and you want your best possibilities, the question is, how do you feel about kiwi? Yep, head out to New Zealand. The country scores high on all indicators.
If you’re not so fond of kiwi, maybe you’d prefer a more Nordic approach? Norway and Sweden come in second and third when it comes to a woman’s rights and opportunities in the workplace. Canada, Australia, Spain, Finland, Portugal and Poland follow.
The United States comes in 12th place. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, women in the U.S. make about 81 cents compared to the dollar their male counterparts make. Our family leave policies lag behind the others too.
We’ve come a long way, baby, but we’ve still got a ways to go. Elements of a patriarchal system still exist. Though not all workingwomen are mothers, being a working mother and having a successful career is difficult and comes at a price even in the best of situations.
Something’s got to give — even in New Zealand.
Unless a family makes a deliberate choice to create a life that is far from the norm, the daily rat race has the capacity to overwhelm. Our family decided to take two years off.
We’re back in high gear this year. A week’s activities include piano classes, tennis practice, track, quiz bowl, play rehearsal, guitar lessons, church youth group obligations, service hours on Saturday, early buses in the morning and late buses in the afternoon.
We’re managing — in large part because my husband is incredibly patient and doesn’t mind taking the lion’s share of the shuttle service we run. But the primary reason we’re able to make it work this year is because we rested up during the last two.
While we were out of the rat race, the pace of life was more humane. Remember, the laws of nature don’t say that we have to live the way we live culturally — in terms of education, work and activity choices for our children and ourselves. During our two-year hiatus, I home schooled our daughters while working primarily from home. For me, assuring a good education for our daughters and that my employers got their money’s worth took a lot of coordination, energy and disciple.
The flip side of the price I paid was that that the lives of our family were more leisurely — pleasant even. We didn’t have to be somewhere every minute of every day. We could have pajama days when we needed them. We didn’t have to sign forms for field trips.
Surprisingly, two years out of the system did wonders for my career — but it was a risk. The time and opportunity to look at the working world differently gave me the chance to take control of my career and not depend on a specific organization for my livelihood. My risk paid off, but it didn’t come without criticism from friends and relations. I had to listen to my gut and knew what I knew was right, even if it went against traditional thinking and wisdom.
In doing so, life was fun again — and the bonus was that professional opportunities blossomed.
International Women’s Day, started primarily as an initiative for women to gain more rights in the workplace. We’ve made strides in that department, but we still have work to be done. Women outside of the workplace need advocates too. There is so much more to being a woman than working.
Taking the risk to explore making the whole woman’s world’s better, rather than just her work life, pays off for every one.
Or as my husband and the old adage say, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”

Keep the faith

The Keep the Faith Sharing Project was a mystery to me until I listened to Bonnie Hession, the project’s founder, explain how she got the idea and inspiration to start a local movement of giving.
She started the project last fall amidst a series of personal and family trials. She knew Keep the Faith was the message she was supposed to share with others.
In a nutshell, the project is about delivering faith, hope and love in the disguise of a small gift, designed to enable individuals to journey toward healing. She encourages people to join the simple but profound movement.
“It’s now my new life’s mission,” she said. “My heart is in this project. People have responded so positively that I feel like I’m only the messenger.”
Judging by the growing list of gifts to deliver, Hession’s Keep the Faith Sharing Project is gaining momentum week by week. She remains organized but isn’t stressing about controlling the project to the nth degree.
“I’m not as fearful any more about wanting everything to be perfect,” she said. “I feel blessed to be a part of a lot of different people’s journey. Keep the Faith is an ever-evolving story.”
Keep the Faith Sharing Project seems to be an extension of the way she’s lived her life for decades. Much of her story goes back to her alma mater, the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Grand Coteau. In one way or the other, the school’s spirit and influence seems to have remained with her since the day she graduated leading her to serve others in a variety of ways.
She’s also challenging others to serve. Specifically during Lent, she’s challenging others to visit someone who’s homebound or in a nursing home 30 minutes a week.
In fact, that spirit of sharing led to our paths crossing recently. Earlier this month, my father became quite ill on a visit to Lafayette and ended up spending 9 days in the hospital. Hession messaged me via Facebook after my dad went to the hospital and asked if she could stop by and visit my parents. She said an anonymous donor had given a Keep the Faith token that she wanted to deliver.
“I find out on Facebook about a lot of the people in need,” she said.
Rather than simply reading those posts, Hession reaches out.
“There’s always somebody in need. You have the opportunity to reach out and make a difference,” she said.
What happened during Hession’s visit with my parents remains a mystery to me, but I know something special went down. By the time I got to the hospital, both of my parents were in great spirits and couldn’t stop talking about the incredible visit they had had. My dad was wearing his Keep the Faith baseball cap in his hospital bed. While they appreciated the gifts, it was mainly Hession’s visit that lifted their spirits.
I wanted to learn more.
“What exactly is the Keep the Faith Sharing Project?” I asked her.
She explained that people contact her to sponsor gifts for others. On what she calls Giving Mondays, she either mails the gift package or personally delivers them to local recipients. Either way, all gifts remain anonymous.
“I just knew that it had to be anonymous. In being anonymous — as a recipient — people are like, ‘Wow, who’s thinking about me?’” she said. “And our prayers go with it, which makes them wonder, ‘Who’s praying for me?’”
“From December to now, I’ve delivered every Monday,” she said. “It’s rained and stormed six of those Mondays, but it doesn’t matter what the weather is like, I’m always received in joy — this whole project is about reaching out to people.”
She encourages others interested in the Keep the Faith Sharing Project to start by reaching out to their own families. Liking Keep the Faith Sharing Project on Facebook keeps you updated with new giving challenges and updates.
“When someone is down and out, there aren’t many words to say that make a difference,” she said, “But if people know that I’m praying for them — or if they choose to share on our Facebook page, they know that others are praying for them too — it makes a difference.”

To receive more information on Keep the Faith Sharing Project, contact Bonnie Hession at(337)257-7317 or email bonnie@carobonsilver.com.