Yet Another Storm — in Quito, Ecuador

The sky is blue, or the rain
falls with its spills of pearl.

“Spring,” from Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

Well it’s been spilling pearls here in Quito lately.

So

many

pearls,

drops

upon pearly

drops.

We are officially in rainy season. I see it outside; I feel it in my heart. Sometimes it feels like each Zoomy-Gloomy class is a fat drop of rain. This relentless rain pelts us, and instead of giving us life and growth and blooms, we’re just cold, soaked, and exhausted.

And while most everything here in the city is open for the masked human, school campuses remain closed. While restaurants are packed with unmasked humans eating food, school campuses remain closed. While grocery stores and malls and markets and buses are crammed with people, school campuses remain closed. Ecuador, I do not understand.

But while I sit here complaining about what a drag Zoomy Gloomies are, I have to remember what a privilege it is that my kids have devices, internet, and a connection — albeit through a screen — to classmates and teachers.

So many kids aren’t having any school whatsoever right now. So I think about all that rain and realize that it’s better than scorched and burning earth.

I am trying to see those raindrops as beautiful pearls and be grateful. But I’m human. And I’m cold, soaked, and exhausted. As I write this, yet another storm is rolling in. The thunder just cracked so loudly that a couple of car alarms went off. Pearls — they’re comin’.

All this talk of pearls — I should mention that in my household, “Pearl” has a very different meaning from the beautiful gem used for earrings and necklaces and rings. A long, long time ago, when kids were not even a thought, Steve and I used to entertain ourselves during church services by making little drawings of animal combinations on the bulletins. For example: a “feagle” was a fox with an eagle head and wings, a “duake,” a snake with a duck head, etc. One of our all-time favorites, both in name and illustration, was our beloved “Pearl.” Steve drew the most hilarious depiction of a pig and squirrel that I remember physically covering my mouth with my hands, stifling the laughs, feeling like my insides were going to explode from the pressure. All this during church.

So of course I start thinking about that poem excerpt, picturing our Pearls spilling from the sky. And though the sky is DARK right now, the thought of hundreds of pig-squirrels dropping from the sky brightens my day.

This. This is why I married Steve. We laugh SO HARD together, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. But isn’t that part of the fun? Tell me you haven’t gotten the case of the giggles during church, or during class, or during a meeting. You feel that tightening of your stomach and lungs; your face contorts; perhaps there are tears; and this volcanic laughter-air does everything in its power to escape out of your mouth and nose.

It’s the best.

Maybe it’s a reason I loved teaching so much. Those crazy students would make me laugh so hard. And laughing is energizing! And fun!

One time during Wellness Club, a club I sponsored, I decided to talk about this very concept of laughter being energizing (if you haven’t ever worked with teenagers, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of sleepiness happening at school). I thought to my 30-something self: I know! I’ll search around the internet and find some super hilarious videos to show them. We’ll all laugh together, AND IT WILL BE AWESOME!

I had such good motives. And such confidence!

So they all filed into my room, collapsed into desks, and I started what was sure to be a total laugh-fest. I started with the hilarious Steve Carell blooper reel from Anchorman. I started playing it, giggling in anticipation. But soon enough, I side-eyed my students to see them practically melting off their desks in boredom. (Think of those Salvador Dali melting clocks — those were my students drooping and dripping off their desks and onto the multi-colored classroom carpet.)

It was so bad that I casually grape-vined over to my computer with a squinty smile and pressed pause. Heads turned expectantly toward me. It was awkward, so I — as I do — filled the silence by talking. Soon enough, we were all laughing at how NOT funny the video was to everyone except me and how clearly out of touch I was with teenage humor.

Even when the rain is pouring, we can choose to view the raindrops as pearls.

Or Pearls.

So maybe this post is a pep-talk to myself during this Zoomy-Gloomy cloudy rainy time. I’ll take it. But I’ll say this to the nine of you reading this: find the humor in this life. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Start there. And maybe your own artist’s rendering of Pearl might help.

And if you happen to be one of my former students reading this, thank you for the laughs.

In all her glory.
More church shenanigans. You know those “connect cards” that churches always have? Yeah.
“I give Journey Church permission to print My Story.”

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

Getting Better at Life — in Quito, Ecuador

I knew when I met you adventure was going to happen.

A.A. Milne

But did I know that the adventure would lead me to Quito, Ecuador? No, no I did not.

My husband and I have had such a wonderful life together — from getting married right out of college, to moving to Michigan sans jobs and sans apartment, to going through grad school together, to relocating to Florida to get dogs and have kids and teach. Man, it’s been good.

Steve and I always say to each other that we’re getting better at life. We love to learn new things and apply them to life. And our life in Florida was so, so good. We had a great house and big yard. I had an awesome kitchen with all the tools and appliances I wanted. I had AN AWESOME VACUUM (not the first time I’ve mentioned my vacuum cleaner in a blog post — see this post about burning all of the things). Steve planted *all* the fruit trees in our yard. He built a pirate ship in the backyard for our boys. We had our dream screened-in porch built. Our life in Florida was so, so good.

So good that we needed to leave.

Steve and I decided early in our marriage that getting stagnant was something we would actively avoid. Even if stagnation was happiness.

We were extremely happy in Florida. But we had gotten to a point that we didn’t feel we were learning new “life things.” We had our routines. We picked our fruit. We made our bread. We biked around the neighborhood (sometimes picking up abandoned bikes for Steve to take home, fix, and sell). We got lots of free Panera coffee (and lots of other free stuff, too). Life was great! But it was time for a change. And not an easy one.

I think life in Florida had gotten easy. And when things got easy, we started floating. (Not that floating is bad — I think of tubing down the Ichetucknee River, not a care in the world.) But when we’re floating, it’s easy to float right on through life, not a care in the world.

So in January, before Steve had the job in Ecuador, we made our minds up. We were moving to another country. If not Ecuador, somewhere (preferably Spanish speaking — here we go with our high school level Spanish skillz).

Between January and now, a lot has happened:
– Steve getting the job at Alliance Academy International.
– THE PANDEMIC.
– “Quarantine” becoming a word on the most misspelled list.
– My St. Johns Country Day School teaching career coming to an end — through a screen from my guest bedroom.
– Getting fed up with police brutality.
– Supporting and celebrating and uplifting black lives.
– Processing lots of heavy stuff while still being somewhat trapped at home.
– Starting the moving process by selling a LOT of our stuff.
– Packing up 8 big ol’ suitcases.
– Renting a van, driving to JAX airport, flying to Miami for a 6+ hour layover, and eventually making it to the middle-of-the-night lights of Quito.

And here we are. Grateful and exhausted. (Actually, not so exhausted anymore. We’ve been here just over a week, and I am just now able to get some words typed — and not have to deal with altitude headaches.)

We are excited to reset in so many ways: learning a new culture, a new language, a new land, and, not to mention, a new kitchen. I am excited to make our new apartment a home — and my goal in doing that is to support the local Ecuadorians as much as possible. And once we’re out of our mandated 2- week quarantine (done this Friday!), we’re anticipating some awesome hikes up mountains and to markets.

It’s weird working to get to a place in life that is so good — like a well-oiled machine — and then completely ditching it. I’m learning patience in my new life already as I work my way around a kitchen with flimsy plastic tools and a glorified toaster oven for an oven. Part of the agreement in getting this apartment was the previous tenants leaving some stuff for us. In my mind, “some stuff” meant some basics — dishes, cutlery, tools. But they left SO MUCH STUFF — full kitchen and bathroom cabinets. I came into this experience excited to reset to a more minimalist lifestyle, but when we got here, we found ourselves having to go through someone else’s stuff before we could even relax.

That’s part of the process, though, and what better time to do it than in our 2-week quarantine. And it’s fun discovering weird food items in the cabinets. Like Coca Tea, made from the same plant that produces cocaine. (We’re donating that.)

We’ve connected with an awesome new friend, Cameron, who works for Education Equals Hope — a non-profit that provides “for the education of those living in desperate and difficult situations” — and we were able to donate a ton of stuff from this apartment to people who will use it. We encourage you to donate to the cause as well, from wherever you’re reading this.

Though the walls of our apartment are white and completely blank, we can see mountains through the window. Though the rice and pasta and bread and beans take (WAY) longer to cook, we are eating together as a family.

Life is different. We have a lot to learn. Like how to eat banana passion fruit (I’m trying to like it, I am) and guavas (the SEEDS!). But that’s the beauty. We are out of our comfort zone, still trying to get better at life.

And getting better at life means making life around us better as well. We are here. In Quito. Fully committed. And we’re going to live life in a way that supports the people and economy here. Like Cameron, we are firm believers in education and hope. While Steve will be back in the classroom educating, I’m going to try to be in community with people here. God is good. And, man, those mountains he created? They are something else.

If you’d like to donate to our cause, click here.

Crossing the threshold of our apartment for the very first time. WE WERE VERY, VERY TIRED (of having masks on all day).
Yes, there is an electric wire around our apartment complex. Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.
Making time for normalcy — chess and Mario Uno.
You better BELIEVE I brought my starter to Ecuador. Bread has been made. Bread has been shared with neighbors. If you’d like to donate in a way to get food to people who need it here, check out Pan de Vida and give them some of your money.

We’re Burning Down Our Own Island: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 12

Roger sharpened a stick at both ends.

“Cry of the Hunters,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Oh, boy. A stick sharpened at both ends. You know what that means, right? One end for the head, the other to stick in the ground. And who are the boys hunting in this final chapter?

Ralph.

A stick sharpened at both ends.

Ralph lies in a covert (like a pig), knowing that if he’s found, he will be stabbed to death.

How did things get to this point? How did the boys go from building shelters, getting water, building sandcastles, and swimming . . . to this?

Humans have done (and are doing) some horrific things to each other, and I do find myself asking How did things get to this point?

And we think of ourselves, here, and just know that we’d never do something so bad as take the life of another human. We’re good, honest people after all.

I think the point of this chapter is to show that even “good” humans can get to an unrecognizably evil point.

In the Hidden Brain podcast “Everybody Lies, And That’s Not Always A Bad Thing,” guest Dan Ariely talks about how it’s not about humans being good or evil, honest or dishonest — it’s about opportunity. He gives an example of cyclist Joe Papp who ended up becoming a drug user and a drug dealer. The compelling part of the story is that it all began with Papp simply filling a prescription for EPO (a drug that increases red blood cells — i.e., energy) that his doctor ordered and that insurance covered. Something seemingly mundane and completely justifiable. But something that would lead him down the path to eventually become someone who imports EPO from China for himself and others. He becomes a drug user and a drug dealer. But Ariely assures us that even though Papp ended up doing things that are deemed “bad,” that there’s so much good in humans — more good than bad, actually. So Ariely might agree with Ralph when Ralph, thinking back to the murder of Simon and Piggy, says, “No. They’re not as bad as that. It was an accident.” Ariely might just say “opportunity” instead.

So the boys on the island are hunting Ralph, and have realized that the best way to catch him is to smoke him out. They light a fire. I should rephrase that. They light the island on fire.

And then out of nowhere, we have God from the machine — deus ex machina — AKA, a uniformed naval officer who appears and saves all the boys, especially Ralph, just in the nick of time. How lovely! Ralph was about to be murdered and beheaded, and the boys were literally burning down their home, the island (conveniently, this is what alerts the officer to the island — you know, an entire island in flames and smoking). Before the officer appeared, things were looking grim for the boys.

The officer asks the boys if anyone’s been killed (they say two, forgetting the boy with the mulberry birthmark) and how many of them are there (they don’t know — remember, Piggy tried to get a list but everyone scattered to build that very first fire). The officer seems surprised (“I would have thought that a pack of British boys … would have put up a better show than that…”). It’s all about the “show” to the officer, and he’s disappointed that the boys haven’t put up a better one.

But is that what it’s about? Putting on a good show? This diction is alarming. It makes you think that maybe this naval officer believes killing humans is just part of a good “war show,” full of heroes overcoming the evil villains. And if we think of war in that way, it’s palatable. It becomes a movie, a show, about the good guys winning.

And it’s justifiable.

But it gets tricky when throughout our human history we have had to justify murdering people. Something just doesn’t seem right about it.

Golding ponders in Notes on Lord of the Flies that even though the officer rescues the boys in the midst of a manhunt, “who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?” In other words, that’s nice that the manhunt got thwarted, but who’s going to thwart THE WAR?

Who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?

It’s the *big question* of the entire book, and the one that should resonate with you long after you finish reading.

And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

And while Ralph weeps for the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart, I implore you to hold fast to what is good. As we end out on this series of posts, I’d like to leave you with some prayers from the book Prayer: Forty Days of Practice by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson:

May I have the courage
to expect good for my life
and world,
And resilience if and when
those expectations are disappointed.

May love and forgiveness for others
be less and less optional.

Even in conflict, may I see people
as beloved
Instead of problematic.

And finally:

May I have the eyes to see this
as a good world in need of
restoration
Rather than a bad world and
an obstacle to my personal peace
and rest.

Amen.

White Fragility and More Murder: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 11

What’s grownups goin’ to think?

Piggy, “Castle Rock,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I play a game with my students towards the end of the book. I read various quotes, and they race to raise their hands to tell me who said them. This Piggy quote is definitely one of them. At this point in the book, you should well know that Piggy is concerned — nay, obsessed — with what grownups think.

I should also tell you that the game is basically their test — but on paper. “Fun game!” — what all my students are thinking, I’m sure.

But this line is so important (and so Piggy) because it underscores yet again the biggest irony of the book: the grownups — the people kids are taught to obey and respect — are the ones killing each other in a war. Piggy, bless him, can’t see this, though. Even after his words Piggy said back in chapter 5 — “There isn’t no fear…unless we get frightened of people” — he still can’t see it.

People are the problem. Piggy, you’re right! But in his myopic view, he can’t see past the boys on the island to realize the scope of his words.

Aren’t we a lot like Piggy sometimes? We know truth, but we suppress it. We’ll take just enough truth to be in reality and live among other humans. But digging deeper into that truth? It starts getting messy. And humans don’t like messy.

Flashback to chapter 10 when Piggy thought that Jack’s raid was to get the conch. Piggy understood the truth of Jack’s being bad and stealing, but denied himself the real truth of Jack’s stealing his glasses. Think about it: had Jack’s concern been the conch, that would have given everyone a glimmer of hope. He would have acknowledged his respect for what the conch symbolized: order and rules. But he didn’t want the conch.

Flash to the current reality of our leader acknowledging the coronavirus (part of the truth), but denying the fact that at this time the US is 8th on the list of mortality rates (the full truth). He said that the US has “one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.” That’s like Piggy saying that all we need to do is “meet and have tea and discuss” like grownups do and we’ll be alright when in reality the grownups are blowing each other’s brains out. Piggy, buddy, friend, champ — we do NOT want to be like grownups. We do need to be frightened of people, and not just the boys on the island.

Part of the truth isn’t good enough.

But even a little bit of truth is threatening to people like Jack and Roger. They’ve painted themselves, moved camp to a rocky section of island that is unsustainable for life, beaten poor Wilfred up just for kicks, and, of course, stolen Piggy’s glasses. Suffice it to say, they are not concerned with the truth of their situation. They get to do whatever they want with no consequences! What human doesn’t want that sometimes?

So when Ralph confronts Jack about stealing Piggy’s specs and tells him, “You’ve got to give them back,” Jack responds by saying, “Got to? Says who?” Jack doesn’t have to follow rules! He’s dictator! He does whatever he wants whenever he wants!

Ralph and Jack then proceed to do what we expect them to do at this point: fight with sharpened sticks. Meanwhile Roger is hanging out by a big boulder (watch him). Piggy is desperately clinging to the rock, knowing that one wrong step for him means falling to his death. But Piggy realizes the importance of coming to face Jack, and he tries to remind Ralph: “remember what we came for. The fire. My specs.”

Poor Piggy. He can’t even see what’s going on, but I’m sure he can hear them fighting. I’m sure he’s thinking “meet . . . have tea . . . discuss.”

Then, somehow in the scuffle, the twins are grabbed and tied up. Jack’s pretty proud of this, but Ralph loses it. He yells, “You’re a beast and a swine and a bloody, bloody thief!” (Interesting to note here that Ralph uses the word “beast” — the evil thing the boys are so afraid of throughout the story.)

Piggy decides to speak up and delivers several logical, rhetorical questions to the boys:

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

(Answer: sensible.)

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

(Answer: have rules and agree.)

“Which is better — law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”

(Answer: law and rescue.)

Can you imagine presenting logic to a group only to be met with “booing,” “clamor,” “yelling,” and “Zup” ? Sounds like my department meetings. It’s aggravating, really, when people can’t understand what the right thing to do is.

(But have you been watching Roger in this chapter? Hanging out next to the boulder? Leaning on a lever that — with his weight — would tip the boulder onto the path right where Piggy is standing?)

Piggy finishes, holds up his fragile white talisman while the sound of the boys becomes an “incantation of hatred.”

It is at this point that by Piggy presenting bits of truth and bits of logic, something becomes unsettled in Roger and he, “with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever,” releasing the boulder — directly towards Piggy.

Piggy falls forty feet to his death, the tide pulls his body out to sea, the conch “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist,” and the twins have now been taken captive.

Piggy thought that the only fear is the fear of people.

Simon thought that the beast was really inside them all.

Both of them verbalizing ugly truths about humans. Both of them murdered. By humans.

When truth seems threatening, it’s our chance to face it and reconcile with it. Is it true that Black Americans have been discriminated against since the forming of our nation? YES. Now what are we going to do about it? Feel threatened? Hear “Black Lives Matter” and have to clap-back with “No, no, no — all lives matter” and “No, no, no — blue lives matter”? All lives matter is the part-truth — the part where we tell ourselves that the focus needs to be on everyone, that giving anything extra to black people is wrong and unfair. But when white people have been getting extra for over a century, maybe the fair thing now is some reparations. Let’s even things out. Maybe we can talk about equality. Maybe we can go from this:

To this:

The chapter ends with Roger advancing upon the twins “as one wielding a nameless authority.” Friends, this is evil. Recognize it. Resist it. Don’t be like Roger. And don’t follow leaders like Jack.

See you next time for our very last LOTF post! Read chapter 12, “Cry of the Hunters,” and as you read, ask yourself “How can lessons learned through the reading of this book make me a better human?” Because that’s what it’s all about:

Being better humans.

Don’t Miss Your Ship: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 4

Roger led the way straight through the castles, kicking them over, burying the flowers, scattering the chosen stones.

“Painted Faces and Long Hair,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I told you to watch out for Roger! Here he is, leading the way. And what is he up to exactly? Kicking over sand castles that the “littluns” had been building. That’s just wrong, Roger. Being mean to little kids is a special type of evil.

Here’s what’s going on with the littluns in this chapter: lots of diarrhea, stomachaches, and night terrors. And sand castles getting kicked over.

Here’s what’s going on with the bigguns: more blatant cruelty, violence, painted faces, long hair, the thrill of power, and some good, ol’ fashioned selfishness.

Cruelty: Roger and Maurice kick over sand castles. Maurice “still felt the unease of wrongdoing.” Roger? Not so much.

We may not go around kicking over little kids’ sand castles, but are we without cruelty all the time? I’m sure we never think of ourselves as cruel, but maybe we ought to really ask ourselves if there are times that we are. If we’re having an argument with our spouse or our parents or even our kids, are we cruel in our tone of voice? Are we cruel in the things we say to them? I bet the answer is yes. Even if ours is “righteous” anger, there’s no reason to be cruel. Ultimately — hopefully — the objective of an argument is to resolve an issue. Yelling or having a sarcastic tone of voice or bringing up garbage from the past is taking steps away from resolution, not towards it. We thank Roger and the sand castles for this lesson.

Violence: Jack gets annoyed with Piggy (surprise!) and punches him in the gut. Smacks him, too. Breaks one of the lenses of his glasses. (That’s bad. Really bad. Not only can Piggy now see out of only one eye, the boys now have only the one lens to use to start fires. Poor planning, boys.)

Again, you may not go around punching and smacking and breaking people’s glasses, but you might let it happen, which some say is just as bad. You might punch and smack and break indirectly by the leader you vote for, the laws you create or follow or promote, the organizations and people you support, the products you buy, the flag that you fly. Be aware. Don’t follow a Jack. Or, heaven forbid, a Roger.

Painted Faces: “Jack planned his new face.” Yikes. Jack paints a mask onto his face, behind which he “hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.” Shame and self-consciousness are necessary emotions for Jack (and all people) to have. We can only imagine what idiot moves Jack is going to pull in the rest of the book without experiencing shame or self-consciousness (it’s Piggy’s gut and glasses now; what will it be next?).

Well, well, well. What are the painted-face masks that we have? This is one I think we can all resonate with because we actively choose how we want the world to see us. Some of us might use social media as a mask. Some might use a happy, I’ve-got-my-life-totally-together face as a mask. Some might use busyness as a mask. I could go on. So what is it for you? What is your mask, and what is it hiding?

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.

Carl Jung, psychiatrist

Long hair: The boys clearly are becoming little uncivilized savages because oh my gosh look at their long, shaggy hair. Yes, Golding, we see what you’re doing there.

Hey. Hey there, Friend. I know we’ve been in quarantine. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a savage. If you feel you need to, I encourage you to go ahead and cut your hair. Here’s the video I watched to learn how to cut my own hair.

Thrill of power: There’s a special kid in this chapter. His name is Henry. He is playing down at the beach, dragging his stick into the sand to create runnels for the water and these little sea creatures called “transparencies” to flow into. This may not seem significant, but it is. First of all, the transparencies are said to be scavengers. Just tuck that fact away for later. Second, Henry is enjoying his game a little too much: “He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over other living things.” This is not about a boy dragging a stick in the sand, creating runnels for the water and the creatures. It’s about absolute power and the thrill it gives.

I ask you this: what or whom in your life do you have unhealthy control over? There’s probably something. Or someone. And there’s a difference between being a parent, exercising healthy control over our kids, and becoming absorbed beyond mere happiness as we feel ourselves exercising control over other living things. *uncomfortable clearing of throat* So, Friends, let’s all take a minute and make sure we’re not being like Henry.

Good, ol’ fashioned selfishness: Jack wants to hunt pig. Jack wants to hunt pig with other boys. Jack takes boys tending the fire away from fire to hunt pig. Fire goes out. Ship comes. No smoke. Ship leaves. Jack realizes what he’s done. Isn’t sorry. But is excited about hunting pig: “We needed meat.”

This is the classic needs versus wants discussion. We’ve all thought about it. Maybe we’ve even talked about it with a spouse or a therapist or a pastor or a friend. Maybe we’ve made a T-chart! Well, good for us! But we need to continue to think about it. Every single day. You never know when you might miss your ship because you wanted to hunt pig.

Takeaways from chapter 4: don’t be like Roger, don’t be like Jack, and don’t be like Henry. See ya next time for chapter 5, “Beast from Water.”

Sharpened Sticks and Tattered Shorts: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 3

A sharpened stick about five feet long trailed from his right hand, and except for a pair of tattered shorts held up by his knife belt he was naked.

“Huts on the Beach,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The boys are really gettin’ naked now. And skinny. And with longer hair. This book could have taken a wildly different direction if Golding had realized that the boys are basically turning into runway models.

The chapter begins with Jack “bent double” — oh, how very devolutionary, Golding. This is always a special day when I teach. I make sure to wear pants this day, and I definitely get down on my hands and knees on the classroom floor to demonstrate how Jack is “bent double” — so low to the ground, in fact, that he can cock his head up to see the underside of a tendril, polished from the bristly-backed pigs running through and to feel the warmth emanating from the “olive green, smooth,” steaming pile of pig poop. He hears the “hard patter of hoofs” and it feels to him “seductive.” Yikes. (I say that a lot during this book. I feel that a lot during this book.)

The question here is: What weird (gross?) thing in our lives is seductive to us? Maybe for the hunters out there reading my blog, it actually is pig poop … or deer poop … or some other kind of animal poop. But maybe it’s something more socially acceptable and ubiquitous like money. Do we want to get so close to money that we can feel its warmth and see its steam? In this chapter, Jack’s eyes are described as “bolting and nearly mad,” but I don’t know that that’s too far off from our eyes when we become lustful for whatever it is we decide we want. Yikes.

He tried to convey the convulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up.

Whoa. That’s seems pretty deep for 12-year-old Jack. And two lines down from that:

The madness came into his eyes again.

And then he acknowledges,

“But you can feel as if you’re not hunting, but — being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle.”

Just a friendly reminder, Readers, that this is not just a story about boys running around in tattered shorts getting sunburns on an island. This is about us. When Jack senses something hunting him, it hits us that he’s not talking about a literal beast. He’s talking about something intangible. He’s talking about his own evil nature. And, Golding might add, it’s not about Jack. It’s about us — the inevitability of our own evil natures constantly hunting us.

How refreshingly pleasant.

This is where I remind my students that just because we’re reading this book does NOT mean we have to believe in Golding’s philosophy. (I actually hope they don’t!) While we probably all have evil within us, we don’t have to live feeling like we’re being hunted down by it. I believe we have hope against evil. I hope my students believe that. And I hope you believe that, too. (Sucks to your ass-mar, William Golding!!)

But as their pee gets absorbed into the sand, so does their hope. Their clothes (symbol of civility) are in tatters, their shelters (symbol of civility) are shaky at best, their short hair (symbol of civility) is now long and unkempt. Oh, and the adults are still fighting in that war, you know, killing each other. But maybe there is a little hope. After all, hope is the thing with feathers as they say (well, Dickinson, anyway). I’m afraid, though, that the hope-birds flew away a long time ago when the boys hurled a boulder down the side of the mountain in chapter 1:

Echoes and birds flew, white and pink dust floated, the forest further down shook as with the passage of an enraged monster: and then the island was still.

Just to make sure we get the enormity of the hopelessness here, Golding mentions, “Jack had to think for a moment before he could remember what rescue was.” Jack was so obsessed with hunting pigs, he forgot what rescue was. HUH?? How could he possibly forget rescue? It’s literally the boys’ one job. The question begs: What is the “rescue” in our lives? What is the one thing we should be striving for in life? That might look a little different for everyone, but possibly some answers might be:

  • loving well
  • being kind
  • doing good
  • being honest
  • staying humble

All good things, I think. But, like Jack, we get distracted (or even obsessed) by other things. For him it was hunting pig.

But more importantly, what is it for us?

Other things of note in chapter 3:

  • Jack decides they should paint their faces in order to better sneak up on the pigs (here we go with mask symbolism).
  • Simon peaces out. The boys think he’s weird. He probably is. He finds a secret spot surrounded by a screen of leaves. This is a spot he’ll return to later in the book. He seems to enjoy time alone to do some deep thinking. (Remember that critics out there think Simon is a Jesus figure.)

See ya next time. Until then, read chapter 4, “Painted Faces and Long Hair.”

Fire on the Mountain: Run, Boys, Run! Lord of the Flies, Chapter 2

The choir…had discarded their cloaks.”

“Fire on the Mountain,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

UH OH. Remember how I said to watch out for when the boys take off their clothes? And it’s the religious choir boys in their religious choir cloaks. Golding is practically yelling, “HEY HEY HEY HEY, THE MOST RELIGIOUS BOYS ARE THE FIRST TO BECOME SAVAGES — NAKED LITTLE SAVAGES!!”

Well good. Chapter 2, off to a great start.

Chapter 2 begins where a lot of things begin, and that is the setting up of rules. We do this quite frequently in life. Just look at the forming of any nation — rules. Lots of rules. Then when anyone breaks ’em — they’re punished. Fun!

Jack seems to think so, meaning: he’s less concerned with the order rules might provide and more concerned (excited? thrilled? obsessed?) with the punishment he’d inflict on people breaking the rules. Just like our founding fathers probably said, Jack says, “‘We’ll have rules!’ he cried excitedly. ‘Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks ’em — ‘”

The boys proceed to be excited:

“Whee — oh!”

“Wacco”

“Bong!”

“Doink!”

But here’s the deal: Don’t we Whee–oh-Wacco-Bong-Doink when we get excited about people getting the punishment “they deserve”? I know this about humans: we love judging people. And then administering “justice.”

And while justice is definitely good, I think sometimes we get a little like Jack. A little too excited about the punishment part.

Yikes. (Please don’t be like Jack.)

So let’s Whee–oh-Wacco-Bong-Doink our way to the next part of the chapter: the mulberry-colored birthmark kid. He’s the one to bring up the “snake-thing” — the “beastie [that] came in the dark.”

Jack is quick to dismiss it, saying that “if there was a snake we’d hunt and kill it,” while Ralph has a more thoughtful response as he “felt himself facing something ungraspable.” Ohhhh. Could that “something ungraspable” be the EVIL IN MAN’S HEART?

Meanwhile, Piggy is busy caressing the shell and chiding the kids for being like kids:

“Like kids!”

“Acting like a crowd of kids!”

“Like a crowd of kids — “

“Like a pack of kids!”

Friendly reminder to Piggy: You, my friend, are a kid, too — though you have thinning hair and an Uncle-Vernon belly.

But Piggy is irritated at the boys, and rightly so. When Jack realizes they can use Piggy’s glasses to start the fire (after the “shameful knowledge” hit the boys that they — surprise! — had no matches), the boys surround Piggy, and Jack snatches the glasses off his face — all while Jack is belting out Ariana’s “7 Rings”: “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” (Keep this tune in your head; he’ll be singing it again and again in the book.)

And as soon as the fire is lit, the boys start dancing as Golding describes the burning pile as “so rotten…that whole limbs yielded passionately to the yellow flames.” (Is he talking about the pile of wood … or those rotten little naked savages?? Interesting to note that the first four uses of the words “savage” and “savages” occur in chapter 2.)

And, now, for the most disturbing parts of chapter 2 (tribal drum-roll, please)…

  1. When Piggy is nonchalantly looking at the fire, Golding writes, “Piggy glanced nervously into HELL and cradled the conch” (emphasis mine). Um, WHAT? So Piggy’s staring straight into Hell. Cool cool cool.
  2. THE MULBERRY-COLORED BIRTHMARK BOY IS GONE. Yeah, he’s for sure dead in the fire that the boys let ravage completely out of control, burning the entire side of the mountain. Whoopsie doozie!

And just in case you forget that the adults are killing each other in a war right now, Golding kills two birds with one boulder when he describes the wildfire: “A tree exploded in the fire like a bomb.” Explosions and bombs — sounds like war to me.

The final sentence leaves us with the sound of a “drum-roll” continuing on the “unfriendly side of the mountain.” Welp, sounds like more evil is to come, so stay tuned!

But here’s the question: What are you learning about yourself through reading this? Piggy is obsessed with the adults, but the adults are killing each other in a war. Who are our role models? And should they be? Jack is obsessively excited about punishing people for breaking rules (note: Jack is already changing the rules: “the conch doesn’t count on top of the mountain”). Do we take a dark pleasure in seeing people get punished?

Until next time, don’t be like Jack (or the mulberry-colored birthmark kid, for that matter)! Homework: Read chapter 3, “Huts on the Beach.”

So You Wanna Be a Human? Read Lord of the Flies. (LOTF Post 1)

(The first in a series of LOTF posts. I hope you enjoy.)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.

So begins William Golding’s famous novel about humanity’s ultimate failure — its evil nature. I first read this book in high school, of course. Then again in college. Then in my first year of teaching high school English.

And every year since.

That puts it at 17 times.

Every year, I tell my students that this is my favorite book to teach because every time I read it, I see something new! I think of something new! I understand my students in a new way! I understand myself in a new way!

I went from mostly agreeing with Golding that we are evil little buggers (back in my recently-post-graduate “disillusionment” days) to later in life realizing that Golding’s got it wrong! We aren’t that bad! (Surely.)

Right off the bat, I tell my students that THIS STORY IS AN ALLEGORY. If we miss this, we’ll get caught up (like Piggy does: “I got caught up”) in the inconsistencies, the illogic, the creepers (which, by the way, are just vines). (And if you’re having a brain fart — happens to the best of us — an allegory is a simple story with a deeper meaning below the surface. Ultimately, the inconsistencies and the illogic don’t really matter because the story of the boys on the island isn’t actually important. It’s what we learn about the human condition from reading a story about boys on an island that is important.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the absurdity of the story: So you’re telling me that a bunch of British boys from all different schools — well, except for the choir boys, who are all from one school — all managed to survive a plane crash in which the pilot died? No girls, no adults, and just a scar down the side of the mountain to show for the plane? Riiiiight.

Its being an allegory can’t be missed. While it is a story about boys running around half-naked on an island with sharpened sticks chasing pigs and each other and pooping wherever they want (near the fruit they eat — gross!), it’s really a story about us.

It’s about what we do when there are no rules.

When there’s no one telling us what to do.

Or what’s right and wrong.

Or where to poop.

So in this tropical-island, full-of-pre-pubescent-boys microcosm, life is magnified, and we see who we really are — naked, except for our tattered shorts held up by a knife belt.

And if I know one thing about being a human, it’s that we’re a touch (a lot?) narcissistic. The story isn’t really about the boys on the island. It’s about us! Oh, well, I’d like to read that!

So I invite you to dust off a copy of Lord of the Flies, and read along with me as I read it again for the 18th time.

We’ll start with chapter 1, “The Sound of the Shell.”

The boys crash land down the side of a mountain on some random deserted tropical island in the middle of an ocean in the midst of some big war that adults are all in a fluster about, hence why the boys are being evacuated. There’s plenty of fruit (conveniently) and a fresh water source (also convenient) and a pair of glasses (I wonder what convenient purpose these will serve…) and a boy who can sing C sharp (clearly this is a sign of good leadership and survival skills) and a bespectacled, asthmatic fat kid nicknamed Piggy (a convenient nerdy-loser-scapegoat for the other boys to mock — “Sucks to your ass-mar!”).

Already in chapter 1, Piggy “waded away from Ralph, and crouched down among the tangled foliage” to take a fat dump. It’s important to note that an all-fruit diet leads to loose stool. The fat kid has probably been stress-eating non-stop since the crash. And as a fun added detail, he grunts while he poops.

And that’s just a little (fruity) taste of the chapter.

Oh, and did I mention that the Hebrew translation of “lord of the flies” is Ba’alzevuv, Beelzebub in the Greek? (The Wikipedia site is pretty fun. It chats about how flies are “pests, feasting on excrement” — and let’s just remember that the boys are already pooping all over the island.)

So you’re telling me that the title of the book we’re reading is basically SATAN?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Well what better book to read during quarantine. Get ready for some introspection. Read “The Sound of the Shell,” and I’ll meet ya back here for the next post. (Don’t have a copy? Can’t get a copy? See if a local bookstore is open — maybe a bookstore near you does curb-side pick-up. And if not, read for free here.)

The story is simple, but its implications about the human condition are not. Reading it forces us to ask the tough questions — of ourselves.

So until we meet again, we’ll start with this question: What would you do if there were no rules?

Your Dreams Are Not Your Own

“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” — Hebrews 11:1 —

My husband and I have done a thing. A big thing. It’s exciting and scary, and I (still) have lots of questions about it. But the thing has been decided, we’re doing it, and our entire world is about to change. This week, I’m sharing a post that my incredibly talented and intelligent and philosophical husband wrote. So with my intro as a teaser, please enjoy my husband’s words as he reveals what we’re up to.

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How many dreams have you had? How many can you remember? The answers are probably not zero, and are likely numerous. Whether they were dreams while you were asleep, day dreams, or the figurative dreams of future achievements or adventures, they exist.

My wife planned a wonderful night for us to go out to eat with friends and then to a Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert. It is rarely my idea to spend money on such luxuries, but it was like a dream. Was it my dream or her dream?

As my training in philosophical writing* would have me do, let me briefly acknowledge many definitions of dreams, my delineations of them, and narrow the focus of the topic.

A dream of completing some banal goal is finite and cannot be undone. This is basically anything done in your past that you had dreamt of doing at some point in your life. If it is to run a marathon, once you’ve done that thing, your dream has been accomplished and cannot be undone.

Conversely (or should I say contrapositively — look that up if you don’t know the difference), if a dream can be undone, then it would qualify as not finite (or infinite). You might dream of having a house or a family. Both of those things can be taken from you in varying degrees of tragedy or negligence. To keep that dream a reality is a never-ending effort.

There is also a difference between material dreams, personal dreams, and interpersonal dreams.

No surprise, a material dream deals with some inanimate object that you desire. I have a bicycle. I dream of a better bicycle. One that shifts so smoothly it barely makes a sound. One where the brakes never screech and always work well. One that is lightweight for my wife to move easily on her own but can also have all the desirable baskets, bottle cage, bell, lights, computer and other accoutrements. I can acquire the materials to make that happen, thus dream complete…for now.

A personal dream is something you can, essentially, do on your own. (I realize I needed a mom and dad and food and shelter and whatever else to bring me to adulthood. It takes a village, blah blah, don’t get uppity.) If I dream of running a 6 minute mile, that’s on me. No one else can train or run for me.

As expected, an interpersonal dream involves other people, which can make it much more complex. I dreamt of dating my now wife, but before she was my wife or girlfriend, she had no intention of agreeing to my dream. So this includes all sorts of celebrity encounters, potential friendships, or joint ventures with other beings. (For the sake of argument, if I had a dream to wrestle a bear, that bear would also need to be a relatively willing participant.)

Complex dreams involve lots of the aforementioned categories. We have a house. I dream of making it better. I also dream about who could move into the house for sale down the street (or who of my current friends I could persuade to move there which would make living in my house better). That’s some material, interpersonal, and possibly both finite and infinite dreaming.

Other dreams are fanciful (or were) like playing in the FIFA World Cup. So much time and effort on top of God-given talent would have had to go into that personal dream much earlier in my life for that to become a reality. Plus, given its dependence on coaches or teammates along the way, this is hugely interpersonal.

Or a dream could be downright ridiculous. I dream of being a knight in King Arthur’s court but with modern amenities and the ability to fly in a rocket ship to Mars while eating dark chocolate peanut butter cups. 

And yet dreams for some people — graduating from college — are expectations for others. (I do not plan on unpacking that issue in this post.)

The problem with dreams for me is not if I have them or if I can remember them or how to define them, but can I stop them? People may not dream of moving to a suburb of Jacksonville like Orange Park. I get that. Once you’re there, however, you might develop dreams for your future there. I did.

If I am stuck** somewhere for any length of time (more than five minutes will usually do), I will dream of how it could be better. Imagine a waiting room, for anything. Hopefully I brought a book, but is the seating optimal and efficiently arranged? Sitting and writing at a cluttered desk — can I build shelves? Will that just invite more room for more clutter? Living in my house — what if we knocked down a wall, built an indoor laundry room, added a half bath…?

Some of the dreaming is not location dependent. My kids dream of going to a playground, but not usually one in particular. My wife may dream about a relatively close and not crowded beach, sitting in the warm sun, and reading a good book. I might dream about real estate investments locally or somewhere else which could also be done in that waiting room if I don’t have a book to read.

People, whether they be friends, family, or co-workers, may have dreams for your life. Parents may have dreams (or expectations) of their children to go to and graduate from college. I have dreams for my kids to be happy and healthy but also to be intelligent and kind (and successful, however you define that).

Since this may be more like an unkempt lawn growing wild, let me give it a fresh cut. (Note: I may still get caught on a section here and there just like my real-life mower does for various reasons.) So let’s focus on infinite, interpersonal dreams that are not location dependent and stay in the relatively rational realm. Mine will specifically address my family.

Twenty years ago, the expectation was to go to college, but my dream was to have fun and find a wife. Not incongruous, so all was well. Then, it turned into graduating, actually getting married, having a home together, and maybe more. Hold up. We needed jobs (let’s avoid all topics of dream jobs, it’s ridiculous). 

Twelve years ago, we needed new jobs (again, not dream jobs, just paid employment to thrive). Once settled with better jobs, a big house, and stability, the dream became filling the house with children (and stuff, kind of). With children, the dream quickly turned into wanting more time. Time for everything, the kids, each other, our jobs — life. 

Side note: what did we do with all of our free time before kids?

Six years ago, I stumbled across Mr. Money Mustache and had a new dream — retire early. That’s when we would have time for everything. So I ran the numbers and figured it would take ten years to get to a point of walking away from obligatory work.

Three years ago, well before we could actually retire, I stopped working to partially fulfill the dream of more time with my kids. I was a stay-at-home, homeschooling dad. I loved it. I also still loved my wife. (It’s an infinite dream, one that needs never-ending effort.) If her job was making her unhappy, I needed to at least provide a potential solution. Note: I had already told her to resign or quit or just leave, but that was not good enough.

About one month ago, I applied to teach again. Part of the reason was to provide her a way out without her deliberate resignation. This would serve the purpose of love and protection, too, which I vowed to do. Part of the reason was to possibly live out a dream I had — to live internationally, and potentially raise bilingual children. Recently, my dreams were coming true all over again. I was my wife’s knight in shining armor (see ridiculous dream above, double bonus). I was offered a job teaching math in Ecuador.

Dreams change and yet remain remarkably consistent.

My dreams are not my own, not entirely. And think about the dreams while you’re asleep. They are nothing but weird images and storylines unless you share them. Dreams are not meant to exist in isolation.

Odd note: I have been reading through the Old Testament. So many revelations came through dreams. While I am a skeptic as to the veracity of those claims, dreams can have that power.

Second tangent: I had a dream (while awake) to buy the property across the street from me so I could rent it to a friend before my parents moved down to Florida (my dream for them) to be close to their grandkids (and another dream for them). That dream came true, but is being undone as we are likely liquidating everything for our international move to Ecuador in less than six months. Oh well, dreams can be superseded by other dreams, I guess. 

And we’re back. Back to the Drew and Ellie Holcomb concert, almost. Drew Holcomb has a TEDx Memphis talk of similar nature to this post so I resonated not just with the beautiful music but also the message of a fellow dreamer. (John Lennon was also probably on to something.)

Because my wife shared her dream of a great night out with friends and a concert, we both got to live the dream. What happens when you stop dreaming? I’m not sure. As I mentioned, I can not seem to stop that part of my brain. But what happens when you stop sharing those dreams?

I applied to the school in Ecuador because my wife had a rough week at school and had gone to bed really early on a Friday night with no morning obligations. Normally, we might have just stayed up doing nothing together and loving it. The kids were asleep, too. So I was left awake and alone. Dangerous? I searched for my dream of living and teaching internationally. While I could have remained quiet about my pursuit, I told my wife the next day. My dream was not my own. I couldn’t dream without my family.

I can also tell you my wife dreams of me writing. She turned on her faucet of words months ago. Being so moved at the concert — a dream which was not my own — I felt the need to share her dream of writing. Is it also a Valentine’s Day gift? Bah…who cares; it’s too late anyway.

The dreams that really matter are not just about me. They are the dreams that never end, and I hope they never will.

-Steve

*I have limited the repetitive nature of philosophical writing in this post in hopes for a more readable blog, but if challenged to further develop my thoughts in an unassailable way, I may be inclined to expound on these ideas. For example, some may wonder what the differences between a dream and a goal are. I do not address goals directly in this post.

**Rarely would I consider myself stuck somewhere. It is mostly a choice to remain in that place for some end result or sheer inertia.

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