Well, I'm going to be 40 on Saturday. Yes, I know. I'm not the first one ever to turn 40 and I certainly shan't be the last. Nevertheless, it's the first time for me.
Honestly, I'm looking forward to it. I was sort of born an old man and felt that everything before now was sort of a waste of time. I'm probably the only person who, when he was 16, looked longingly to 40 or 50.
Still, it's a bit sobering just because it is a major milestone--a marker that we tend to use in our culture. It has me thinking about the last 40 years as well as the next 40. What I've done and what I want to do.
One of my favorite movies is "Goodbye Mr. Chips." It's the story of a teacher at private school for boys in England and boasts one of the most beautiful songs I know, a song that sort of my personal anthem:
In the morning of my life I shall look to the sunrise.
At a moment in my life when the world is new.
And the blessing I shall ask is that God will grant me,
To be brave and strong and true,
And to fill the world with love my whole life through.
And to fill the world with love
And to fill the world with love
And to fill the world with love my whole life through
In the noontime of my life I shall look to the sunshine,
At a moment in my life when the sky is blue.
And the blessing I shall ask shall remain unchanging.
To be brave and strong and true,
And to fill the world with love my whole life through
In the evening of my life I shall look to the sunset,
At a moment in my life when the night is due.
And the question I shall ask only I can answer.
Was I brave and strong and true?
Did I fill the world with love my whole life through?
(I put a YouTube clip of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing this song below. It's really stunning. So, if you want to skip the rest of this and just listen to it, I'd understand).
I guess 40 feels important not because I think I'm in the evening of my life, but rather, because I've now passed the morning of my life and am in the noontime. I am working on being brave and strong and true. Most of all, I'm trying to fill my own little corner of the world with love. And that's what I've learned these last four decades. Life is about love and the more you have, the happier you will be and the more abundant your life.
I've had a rich and happy life. It's not been happy because it's been free of problems and it's certainly not because I have a lot of money. However, I do have a rich and robust group of friends and acquaintances--geographically, chronologically, ideologically, and religiously diverse.
I have been richly blessed with my family. I have amazing parents, wonderful siblings and a loving wife of uncommon goodness. She fills my life and completes me. My children are growing quickly and as they get bigger, their capacity to make me deeply happy grows. It progresses from me smiling at cute things they say to being deeply gratified at the choices they are making and the people they are becoming.
And my career is a tremendous blessing to me. I have tried before on this blog to express how deeply I love my students and how the love they show in return feeds my soul. I hope I can be worthy of their trust and merit their affection and respect. I'm grateful, likewise, for the association I have with many of their parents as well, people who have become precious friends.
And, of course, I have my relationship with God. I love him and I know he loves me. That's worth a great deal in a troubled world.
As I hit 40, I am convinced more than ever that there are three way to be happy and they all involve love. First of all is to love and follow God to the best of one's ability. Second is to build a loving marriage and family. This takes time and effort and can't be purchased cheaply. But it is so worth it! My family is where I have found my greatest joys in this world. I cherish the Mormon belief that families can be together forever and that the family unit is eternal. That definitely sounds like heaven to me. The third key is to love your work--to find work that you feel is meaningful and to try to do it well. This is another of life's great joys.
So, to those of you who are under 40 that's my advice. It's all about love. Love and follow God. Prepare to have a happy, loving marriage and to welcome children into your home. Prepare yourself to pursue a trade or vocation that you can love. Those have been the great foundation blocks of my happiness and I believe they will be for you as well.
And then of course, fill the world with love! That's my goal for the next 40 years.
Forgive me, please for being emotional and downright maudlin, but I just got a call from my wife. Our beloved dog, Ginger, is being put to sleep even as I type this. The grief I feel right now is sharp and keen--overwhelming in fact. I closed my office door and sobbed for several minutes. Now I need to write it out. Why do I feel like this? Death is part of life, part of how things are, right? This was our dog, not a child. And yet, the pain I feel inside takes my breath away. I can't describe how it feels without pulling out cliche after cliche.
At this point, all I can do for Ginger is pay tribute to her and remember her for the good and loving dog she was.
When we got her several years ago, she was literally skin and bones. She had been rescued a few weeks earlier from an abusive home, but was severely malnourished and had problems with parasites. Instead of being fierce and mean because of her abuse, Ginge was the sweetest most unaggressive dog I have seen. She was gentle with everyone and I have never been nervous when she was around small children--my own, or someone else's. She was affectionate and sweet-tempered.
The exception to her sweetness and lack of aggression was if she felt someone or something was threatening the family. Person, dog, or anything--it didn't matter. Not long after we got her, we were burning some leaves in the backyard. I was with some of the kids watching the flames. As soon as the flames got between us and Ginger, she turned into a wolf. She barked and growled and charged the flames. She got her whiskers singed and almost got some serious burns, but she was determined to fight them to the death because she was worried we were in danger. I grabbed her and pulled her out, but I know she would have died to save us.
Before she developed arthritis, Ginger and I used to take long walks through the back country roads where we live and I will always treasure the memories or long, lazy southern afternoons in the quiet hills and valleys of Tennessee.
She had some kind of auto-immune disease that made her prone to arthritis, ear infections and an itchy skin condition, as well as some other things, so she was often in discomfort--sometimes severe. She was incredibly stoic and tough, though. When we took her to the vet, something we did with increasing frequency, she tended to get a lot of sticking and poking and prodding. It was all for her own good, of course, but very uncomfortable. She never even growled at the vet or the assistant--just patiently endured it. Her deep, intelligent eyes seemed to reflect her saying, "I understand you're doing this for me."
Ginger loved cold weather. During the winter, when it snowed, we often found her sleeping outside of her house. She really seemed to relish it, something I thought was kind of unique about her.
We'll bury her down at the bottom of the yard, down by her house. We'll bury her in the shade of the trees she loved to sit under during the summer. When it snows, it will make me happy to think of her out there in it.
Ginger was a joy to us. She was a good, loving, loyal, brave, and patient dog. I hope I can be like her some day--to love as unconditionally and constantly, to endure without complaint. The thought that I will not see her again opens up an ache that I cannot describe--an emotional pain beyond reason or logic.
I think that flowers and dogs may be two of God's most wonderful gifts to we poor mortals trudging through this existence--two comforting and soul-filling blessings that lift our spirits, give and give and never take. Ginger was a wonderful blessing for our family. A furry guardian angel who watched over us. All dogs go to heaven, of course. But I'm sure Ginger gets a special place. Good-bye, old girl. I'll miss you.
I generally don't read romance novels. I mean, I don't grab them when I'm just wanting to read for fun. I don't have anything against them--they just aren't my thing. However, I think a balanced diet is important in literature as well as food. So, I am happy to tell you about a new romance novel I think you will enjoy.
Rachael Renee Anderson is in my critique group. And besides giving incisive critiques, she is a wonderful writer. I was able to read Minor Adjustments chapter by chapter as it was being written. Reading in this way was interesting because, even though I knew how it would ultimately end, it was like a cliffhanger. I remember staying up late to critique a chapter and then send it back to Rachael with a note that said, "Write more soon!"
I'm not just saying that because Rachael's in my critique group. If I didn't really feel strongly about it I wouldn't review it. Or I'd say something like, "Has a wonderful cover with an interesting message."
I found this book to be enjoyable and edifying. It brought back the feelings I had when my wife and I were dating and in young love. That's a wonderful thing for anyone to remember.
The book is a quick read and Rachael's style is clear and straightforward. She brings the characters to life and moves the plot on with great economy. She doesn't get in the way of the story, which is not as easy it may sound.
Briefly, the plot is about a self-centered young business tycoon who is named as the guardian of a young orphan. He clashes with the boy's tough solicitor (aka an Australian lawyer) and sparks fly. But along the way there are wonderful characters and some genuinely moving moments.
This is a wonderful book to curl up with. I highly recommend it. You can purchase the book here. I'm putting the book trailer below.
No, this is not an announcement about additions to the family. Let's just get that clear right from the start.
Pictured here is one of my favorite musical directions. It's an extended rest, a rest that is held at the performer's discretion.
In performances a rest can be very powerful. At the right moment in a song or monologue, this kind of pause provides power and can elicit a strong reaction. Of course, that only happens if the pause is between significant moments.
This has been an emotional few weeks for me and I've been struggling something fierce. Nothing traumatic or dramatic. Some of it is the natural struggle humans go through with significant change. Some of it is based on external events or situations in my life. Some of it is based on intrinsic things inside of me. Suffice it to say it's been a bit rough and I haven't had the usual joy and excitement I feel when the school year begins.
Today, after rehearsal ended I was alone on campus. The sun was shining, but the shadows were getting deep. It was late in the afternoon and it had that golden feel of fall afternoons. The campus was spotless and primed for action. Today was orientation and just a few hours earlier excited voices were all over as parents and students returned. Tomorrow is the first day of class and the campus will not be silent again, not really silent, until late May.
In that time students will grow and learn. They will achieve and fail, succeed, thrive and struggle. They will laugh and they will cry. They will make friends and they will have disagreements. Their minds will be engaged, but so will their souls.
The quiet and solitude this afternoon were the sustained rest, the pregnant pause--the quiet full of meaning. This pause is the bridge between the aspirations of a new year and the beginning of their reality. The moment when hopes and dreams are either born or aborted based on the choices one makes.
One of the things I love about teaching is the significance of new school years. There is something powerful and poignant about a new school year. I almost call it sacred. The chance for a new beginning, the chance to try new things, to develop and grow and to turn over a new leaf, to push ahead. To me, January 1st is not really that big a deal. It's just a new calendar. The real new year begins with an empty grade book and big dreams, great hopes, and full-sized expectations.
Something about being in this pause connected my soul--it jump started my heart and grounded me in the rhythms of the school and the teeming life that fills it. The pregnant pause healed my heart today and birthed my excitement for a wonderful, challenging year.
Good luck to everyone who starts something new this school year!
Well, it's orientation today at school. Fun, exciting day! It's to the school year what Friday is to the weekend--everything is new and fresh, a blank page to be written without any reality intruding!
Kind of a busy time for the Bells as we farm kids out to 4 different schools--including one many states away for our eldest. But I'm fine. Not emotional at all (I can say that because you can't see my lip start trembling as I write this. I have become an emotional basket case this week, prone to get emotional at the drop of a hat. Very embarrassing. At least in Nashville, I can always claim allergies).
Speaking of school I'm hoping to have some exciting news about my book, Middle School Magi: The Kindling very soon. It's about some seventh graders and their teachers. It's set in a small private school.
If you have a few minutes, the first chapter is pretty short--about seven pages. I'd love to have you take a look. You can get there by clicking here.
Will you join me in a thought experiment, please? Think of the various groups you belong to and then pick the one that defines you the very most--Episcopalian. Republican. Humanist. Liberal. Presbyterian. Vegan. Whatever "it" is for you.
And now imagine that someone does something reprehensible. Something so ugly and evil that there aren't really words for it. However, this person takes the title that identifies you and adds a single word to it. They commit this atrocity and defend it using your cherished identity. "I did this because I belong to the Fundamentalist Baptist Church" or "the Reformed Democratic Party."
How do you feel whenever you hear the story reported in the press? Can you imagine how time slows whenever you hear the name of your beloved organization repeated in the same sentence as this monster? How much more upsetting is it if there is irony involved--not only was this act abominable, but it was specifically opposed to what you really believe.
Or, imagine that someone gave money to a cause you abhor, but they did so using your name, with possibly a different middle initial or slightly different spelling, but your name just the same.
That's how I felt this past week. I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For several theological reasons, child abuse is one of the most damnable, serious offenses someone can commit. Next to murder, I can't think of anything that the Church's teachings more vigorously condemn. In addition, one of the fastest ways to get excommunicated is to practice polygamy. There is absolutely no tolerance for it.
So, in the news is Warren Jeffs who leads The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Comparing the titles makes us sound very similar, doesn't it? Sort of like Baptists and Southern Baptists or Greek vs. Roman Catholics.
In reality, the gulf is unbridgeable. I am appalled by Jeffs' behavior. It sickens me and he deserves to be punished to the fullest extent of the law. I weep for the lost innocence of those girls and for the suffering the rest of his followers endure. Evil, evil, evil. Skin-crawlingly, gut-wrenchingly evil! I find polygamy ugly and troubling no matter what the age of it's adherents. But it's one thing for adults to choose that lifestyle. It makes me queasy but I move past it. To drag little girls in, though, moves beyond ugly to monstrous--and I mean that literally. Something a monster would do.
And while I weep, I seethe and boil with anger that he did these things using a name that is so similar to mine that the casual listener or uninformed observer might not catch the difference.
It's a sort of spiritual identify theft and it infuriates me. And I want to speak up and make it clear that the church to which I belong does not countenance or approve of this in any way.
One of the traditions in our household--and in many other Mormon homes--is to have the father bless each child at the start of the school year. My father did this with my siblings and me, and now I continue the tradition with my children, who I hope will one day carry it on in their homes.
Taken simply as a sociological exercise and divorcing it of any religious belief, I like this image. The father is showing his children that they are important to him, that their lives are important to him. A father who does this--who prays to God for his child to have a good year is going to be far more likely to help with homework or enforce study routines and so forth. He's far more likely to keep an eye on what his children are learning and help provide support in a variety of ways. He sends the message that school is important.
If anyone doubts that an involved father is important to a child's life, try this thought experiment. Think of places where there are low numbers of involved fathers and look around to see what kind of a world that is. Try, for example, urban inner cities where the numbers of children living without a father can reach 80%. Anyone want to move there? I know one could argue I'm talking about possible correlation as opposed to causation, but I don't buy that. There are an increasing number of studies that point to how important a strong father is to both boys and girls. But the studies just affirm what I think is common sense.
From a spiritual level, this tradition is a beautiful thing on so many levels. Engaging in this practice blurs the millenia and for a moment, father and child stand before God in the same way that Abraham and Isaac or Isaac and Jacob did. It reminds us that while much has changed in the world, certain elemental relationships remain constant. It removes us for a moment from the bias we have for the rightness of our own time and connects us with the accumulated wisdom of the ages.
This practice also bonds father and child. It establishes a feeling of reverence for the sacred in the home. It reinforces healthy and loving patterns of parental authority and provides an incentive to be the best father possible. After all, no child is likely to give much value to the words of a blessing spoken by a mouth that yells or demeans or believe that the same hands that strike or hit can reach up to heaven and pull down God's blessings.
I believe in my faith, literally. I believe it is true. But if I didn't, I think I would still value the external benefits. The longer I live, the more I think that having a religious tradition in a family is a beautiful thing because it gives form and shape to good impulses. It provides a scaffold on which to hang family traditions and it provides a body for good intentions. I understand that some people had very negative experiences, where religion was used as a tool to manipulate or punish. That makes me so sad because when I think of what it has been to me--the comfort and peace and motivation it provides--I ache that others have had the opposite experience.
What back to school traditions to you all have?
I had kind of a hard day today--it was very emotional, up and down and in spite of some good things, I ended the day with a heavy heart.
I was getting ready for bed when I realized I had left the wrist braces I wear out in the car. I have them for Carpal-Tunnel syndrome and I have to sleep in them. So, feeling rather put upon, I walked out to the car.
Oh wow!!! It is a beautiful, beautiful night! Full moon shining, frogs and crickets singing. It's cool--refreshing and clear. And so peaceful. So quiet.
And I realize that life is good. And I'm glad I had to go get my arm braces.
I just saw an interesting exchange on a friend's Facebook post. This friend is a committed and self-described political liberal. He had posted a nice comment about buying lemonade from a child's lemonade stand. Several people then asked him if he'd seen the map going around the internet that shows all the places were government officials have shut down lemonade stands run by children.
His response intrigued me. He said that as a liberal he should be especially against this sort of overzealous regulation and nanny-ism. His reason was that excessive examples like this interfered with good regulations and injured a cause he believed in--at least in part because of the ammunition it gave extremists on the other side. (I'm paraphrasing, but think I am doing so fairly).
I admired my friend's intellectual honesty and courage. Instead of coming up with an instinctive, gut-based defense of those on his side who had gone too far, he said, "Yeah. That's ridiculous." I respect him for that and (for what it's worth) am far more likely to listen to his opinions and thoughts about future issues.
Coincidentally, I've been thinking a lot about consistency lately and trying to make sure I act according to a consistent set of values in all the different spheres of my life.
This made me do some thinking and suggested a "What if?" to my mind. What if all of us turned around and objected to extremists on our own side--those of our compatriots who went to0 far for a little while and stopped lobbing grenades at the other side? It occurred to me that this could be a very powerful way to change civil discourse for the better--in addition to significantly improving things and making beneficial changes.
So, here's the homework I'm assigning myself: next time someone on "my team" (whichever of my teams it may be) says or does something wrong or stupid, I'm going to acknowledge it and call them out on it. (Maybe on this very blog!!! Stay tuned....) I'm going to work to define wrong and right consistently by what I believe and not by the tribal affiliation of the person.
Want to join me? This could be fun.
Extra-credit: Name three ways that your political party is flawed. Be honest. And you can't cheat by saying positive things thinly disguised as bad things like, "Well, we just care so much about [insert some universally good thing here] that we sometimes get overzealous." You can do this honestly in your own mind.
I just signed the contract on our school's winter musical. This will define my life in many ways for the next six or seven months. So it's a big deal to me. Because some of my students and their parents read this blog I thought it might be interesting to talk through the process I went through and how I chose the show I did, since it's not a show that's done very much anymore--especially in middle school. Those who are fascinated by the world of middle school musical theatre are also welcome to read along.
The show is Hello Dolly. It's amazing to me how almost everyone I know over the age of 30 can at least hum or sing the first few lines of the title song, even if they've never seen the play or movie. Almost everyone under 30, unless they are a serious-Braden-style-musical-theatre-nerd has never heard of it.
This is one of the first reasons I chose it. As a teacher, I see one of my fundamental jobs as exposing kids to material they would not otherwise engage with. My job is to show them what generations before have done with music and theatre. My students don't need me to appreciate Hairspray, Wicked, or Justin Bieber. They need me to take them places they wouldn't otherwise go and help them see the value in the questions and answers people grappled with in the past.
Hello Dolly is certainly not Shakespeare. It's not even The Sound of Music in terms of enduring merit. But it does capture a slice of Americana and I think it has some value as a window into the craft of 20th century American musical theatre. It's a well-made play, if not terribly innovative. It was box office smash--the Wicked of its day and I want my students to try to figure out why.
Now, for the more practical reasons. Our last play had 160 kids in it--students in grades 1-8. I need a play with large ensemble numbers in which young children can be featured. This excludes a lot of otherwise wonderful plays I'd love to do.
For me, the greatest priority in choosing a play is to find one that will maximize the opportunities for the greatest number of students. I spend a lot of time looking at the kids I have and trying to find a play that provides opportunities.
For example, I have a very talented group of kids this year--boys and girls. Somewhat unusually, I have several boys who can sing! So, I looked for a show that had leads for both males and females. That weeded several more shows on my short list out. I also have some talented actors who aren't strong singers and so I wanted to find a show with some good parts that didn't require a lot of singing.
I never pre-cast, but I have to consider things like vocal ranges and so forth. For example, this year I have lots and lots and lots of altos and very few sopranos. So, even though I don't know who will get what I couldn't do a show that relied on having a soprano.
My older students--who are candidates for leads--have been involved in the theatre program for up to six years now. The know the basics and are ready for a challenge, so I wanted something do-able, but something that will push us.
Finally, the show has to be appropriate for our younger students to come see. So there are considerations of content and theme. I'm fairly strict about what I think is appropriate for middle school kids to say/do/wear so this weeds a few more choices out.
With all these parameters in mind, I start reading scripts and listening to cast albums. I go through a lot of these in the course of my search process. I make spreadsheets to keep track of how many parts each play has. I think about the technical demands it will put on us. And so on. I think and obsess and study and brood. And then I put it all away for a week or two. It percolates and bubbles. This is where the creative process actually begins.
An idea will emerge--a few finalists. I look at them very carefully. Inevitably, one will rise to the top. My brain and my intuition will tell me it's the one. I'll listen to it carefully, read it again. Think about the kids I've got. And then, in a wonderful moment, I just "know." Somehow I know it's the one. And then, boom! I sign the contract and the business office cuts a check.
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