Tag Archives: Holidays

The First Thanksgiving

This first Thanksgiving without my mom is a holiday I’m experiencing from the sidelines. Even though I’ve been cooking all day, there is no formal, sit-down meal to share with family, for we are scattered in different directions. (I think the cooking is mostly therapeutic.) My dad’s neighbors have adopted him, my daughter is in Georgia, my son is spending the day with his dad in their new home, one of my siblings is in New York City, and the other is celebrating with her in-laws. I had considered volunteering at a soup kitchen and made some phone calls to explore possibilities but didn’t follow through. The bottom line is that I just want to lay low this Thanksgiving. It is quiet here in this little empty nest on the river.

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Yesterday, we had our first snowfall of the season. This morning, I woke up to a snow-covered world and went out in search of beauty for the first time in a while. I took a walk in my special sanctuary close to home, where I spent many frigid mornings last winter in silent solitude. It occurred to me that the last time I walked there in the snow was when my mom was sick. This is the first snowfall since she died, and I’m filled with gratitude for how the snow-kissed beauty of this special place saved me almost daily last winter. In this place, I found tranquility, inspiration, beauty, and joy. I was elevated above the challenges and filled with energy to attend to everything that called for attention. I’m grateful for the snow-covered trees that were here for me last year and transformed my grief into gratitude today.

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While walking, I contemplated gratitude. In addition to family, food, good health, and shelter, the following blessings rose to the forefront of my mind:

  • Reconnecting with old friends. Many friends from high school and even earlier resurfaced in my life upon hearing of my mom’s illness and death. Connecting with long-lost friends is like collecting lost pieces of myself. Some people who were little more than acquaintances in high school have showed up most faithfully and literally have offered me a shoulder on which to cry. As much as I’ve tried to forget the teen years ever took place, there is an undeniable bond that is forged through growing up in the same town and sharing a common history.
  • New friendships formed by shared grief and understanding. Knowing that others in my circle are experiencing the same loss gives me strength and comfort. I know I’m not alone. And the most wonderful gifts are the stories we share with each other – of dreams, peculiar occurrences, and awareness of our loved one’s presence. Many times, I have experienced a tingling, hair-raising sensation from head to toe when listening to friends’ stories. I long to hear them and share mine freely. We speak the same language, describe the same sensations, and transmit hope and joy to each other. The friends with whom I was close when our children were babies always have held a special place in my heart, and clearly it is the same with the friends I have made in the wake of our parents’ deaths.
  • The helpers who stepped forward out of the blue. Often, they weren’t the people closest to me but natural helpers who find their way to those in need – for example, one of my dad’s neighbors who shows up frequently on his doorstep with home-cooked meals and even an apple pie (with a heart-embellished crust) on Thanksgiving morning. These dear souls fill me with hope for this world and inspire me to be more helpful and giving.
  • Having a closer relationship with my other family members. My mom was the only extrovert in my family of origin. She was like a puppy that greeted us gleefully at the door. She did most of the talking and often talked for us by being the default family messenger. A large percentage of our communications took place through her. Now that she is gone, we have to step out of our introverted comfort zones and communicate with one another. I’m building a much closer, direct relationship with my dad, and my sister and I turn to each other when we miss our mom and when we feel upset about matters we would have brought to her. I think it would have been unfortunate for my dad to have died without experiencing a more direct relationship with his children. It used to be that we would talk with Mom on the phone, Dad would come on and say hello, and then Mom would fill him in on all the news afterward. But now he doesn’t get the news from her; he gets it from us. He is able to receive presence and love directly from us now. This is perhaps the greatest gift my mom could have given him – and us – by leaving us.

All of the above are blessings received as a result of losing my mom. It’s easy to sink into sorrow when thinking about what her death has taken from us. But I know that on Thanksgiving – and every other day – my mother would want us to celebrate the ways in which our lives are richer as a result of her life – and even her death.

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The photographs in this blog (except for those attributed to other owners) and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography (river-bliss.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Curriculum of Love

At this time of year, it’s fun to go back through all my photos from 2013 and notice what caught my eye throughout the year. Usually I spend a week or two fascinated by a certain subject in nature, and then the next thing comes along and seduces my heart, mind, and soul every bit as much.

At one point, I thought I could focus endlessly on spider webs. But they didn’t last any longer than anything else. The natural world is like a parade. One subject takes its turn in the spotlight and then fades into the background or disappears, and the next thing takes its place.

Right now, it’s frost.

Every morning, I am excited to get out of bed and discover frost paintings left on windows – especially car windows – and intricate ice patterns at the river’s edge.

That might have to hold me over for a while…but you never know! There’s always birds, sunrises, animal tracks in the snow, and who knows what else.

It just occurred to me that my photo library is a curriculum of love. I often share my photos with my kindergartners on our SMART Board and hope to awaken them to the wonder and beauty all around us. But then again, children are usually the ones who notice such things first. So perhaps they have been waking me up all these years.

When I am in love with a particular subject, I reflect on its essence and what it can teach me. What message does a bee, a great blue heron, a morning glory, a spider web, an illuminated fallen leaf, or any number of other subjects offer us humans? How do they speak to us? How are they models for us? How might they inspire us? As I look to the natural world as my teacher, I find myself at the crossroads of science and social studies – for the inner meaning and teachings of nature speak directly to social, emotional, and character development. Migrating birds teach us about moving on when it’s time. Pollinators teach us about paying it forward. Geese teach about community and caring for our young. Flowers teach us about blooming where we are planted. Every morning the sun rises whether or not we can see it and offers us the gift of a brand new day. And so it goes, on and on. No one subject in the natural world is more important than the rest. Everything is diverse and interconnected and has its own time, place, shape, and purpose. And since each of us is unique, we might take away different messages and meanings from subjects in the natural world.

If I had a school of my own, this is what I would build early childhood curriculum around. Fostering and igniting a relationship between children and the natural world benefits both. There is such wisdom and guidance to be found in nature that can speak directly to a child’s psyche. And there is so much rich literature to share with children on these subjects, as well. I believe that our planet and our children are in need of this kind of holistic education.

I would also focus on celebrations. What do the people of the world celebrate? What common values are at the core of national, regional, and cultural celebrations? How are we the same and different? Every December, my students and I follow a runaway gingerbread cookie around the world and learn about our earth (geography, climate, seasons, direction, the cycle of day and night, and more) and the ways in which people around the world celebrate light during this time of year. Through the connecting power of the Internet, I have met people from a variety of cultural backgrounds who enthusiastically share and help me to better understand their holiday celebrations and traditions. Sometimes they even share photos of local or family celebrations that I, in turn, share with my students for a very personal window into another culture. There is such richness in this kind of sharing and learning. I have a “Holidays Around the World” Pinterest board with videos of multicultural celebrations and share many of them with my students. I’m always looking for new ones that will work within the context of public education. Ideally, we would continue to learn about celebrations the entire year.

During our upcoming school vacation, I plan to go through my photo library and make some notes about what I gravitated toward each week of the year – pencil it into my personal curriculum map and consider how I might weave it into the fabric of the school year. It’s an ongoing project that I’ve been working on for years. Even when the rigor of the school day doesn’t allow for this kind of enrichment, it can be useful for teachers, parents, and caregivers to reflect on such themes (and their inner significance) from month-to-month, to nourish our own development and well-being.

After all, a very dear mentor – a teacher and parent himself – told me decades ago that we long to teach what we most need to learn.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

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

A Little Perspective

Can you imagine a holiday season without any television commercials about gifts to consider giving your loved ones – or what Christmas (or life in general) supposedly looks like?

Welcome to my life.

It’s been about 13 years since I’ve had television reception, by choice. And honestly, I don’t miss it at all. At this time of year, I especially don’t miss the commercials that try to convince us that we’re somehow lacking or would be happier or more loved if only we (or a loved one) had this or looked like that. I, for one, am not buying it.

My husband and I don’t even really give Christmas gifts to each other because neither of us is interested in stuff. I’m more interested in getting rid of stuff. And I truly think that not watching television contributes greatly to this mindset. Almost all the time, I am blissfully unaware of all the products and services I don’t have. When I go to someone’s house and the TV is on, I am blown away by how matter-of-fact the commercials are: “Of course you have this. Everybody does! But here are all the reasons why you need to upgrade to this.” And there is also a very clear standard of how you are expected to look. Well, I didn’t get that memo, either! I am so glad not to be bombarded by these messages on a regular basis – because I might start to believe them! They are quite powerful.

Bottom line is, my husband and I are pallid consumers. We have had experience living on very little and as a result know how little we actually need to live. Money was especially tight when I was working on my master’s degree and completing my student teaching at the same time that my ex-husband’s consulting firm went under, leaving him unable to pay child support. But we made it through. And we learned how to live creatively. Now I am in a better situation and am truly grateful for a steady paycheck and health insurance. However, knowing how to live on so little was a valuable life lesson, a gift.

I once read about someone who lost everything in a natural disaster and said that you never really understand how much “nothing” is until that’s what you’ve got. In 1998, I witnessed this right before my very eyes after a tornado ripped through the central Florida town in which I lived. The tornado actually skimmed our subdivision, sending my children’s Little Tikes outdoor equipment (a slide and a sit-inside car) flying through the air. We found them a couple lots away the next day.

People around us were not so fortunate. Right outside the walls of our small subdivision, it looked as though a bomb had exploded. Cars were lodged inside what was left of apartment buildings. Some houses and buildings were totally leveled. At least one queen-size mattress had come to rest right against the wall of our gated subdivision. So many people around us – within 1/16th of a mile in more than one direction – had mere seconds around midnight to prepare for a disaster that would literally uproot their lives. Clothing and rooftops were in trees, trees were inside houses, and personal items were strewn about for miles. In the light of a new day, people who had lost everything walked around smiling because they survived. They returned to the rubble in hopes of retrieving some family photos because that was what they valued the most, for the photos were truly irreplaceable. But in most cases, in the end all they were left with was memories and gratitude. Whenever I went into a gas station, post office, grocery store, etc., I would hear people expressing how grateful they were simply to have survived. It was surreal.

Our family lives more comfortably now than we did back in the lean years, but we still cannot afford to buy a home. However, having “owned” a brand new home in Florida, I realize that home ownership is not essential to happiness – so I’m not buying that myth, either. We rent a small, old house that we sometimes refer to as our “camp.” It has just one teeny tiny bathroom and three unbelievably small closets, and all the rooms are very small. Sometimes I look around and feel sorry that we don’t live in a “nicer” home, but that is usually just a passing thought because a little voice swiftly breaks up the pity party by reminding me that we have always had enough and that compared to so many people on this planet, ours is a life of luxury. We have hot, running water and more food than our smallish refrigerator can hold. We have a wood stove and oil to keep us warm through the winter. We have an amazing view of the sunrise over the river every morning. And of course, we have each other. We truly are blessed.

I read an interview Maria Shriver did with poet Mary Oliver in which Mary Oliver, discussing her calling to be a poet, explained:

“When I was very young and decided I wanted to try to write as well as I could, I made a great list of all the things I would never have…would not have, because I thought poets never made any money. A house, a good car, I couldn’t go out and buy fancy clothes or go to good restaurants. I had the necessities.”

When asked if she ever had second thoughts about her choice of occupation, she replied:

“I’ve always wanted to write poems and nothing else. There were times over the years when life was not easy, but if you’re working a few hours a day and you’ve got a good book to read, and you can go outside to the beach and dig for clams, you’re okay.”

Mary Oliver followed her heart with regard to her vocation, as my husband has done with his music. He never compromised his true passion because he always valued expressing himself musically over having possessions. (His creative spirit and kind heart were what attracted me to him in the first place.) And whether or not you ultimately receive your big break as an artist, you are truly rich and richly blessed when you follow your deepest calling, regardless of the balance on your bank statement. (If, on the other hand, you place a higher value on possessions and comfort, perhaps the artist life is too great a risk to pursue full-time.)

During my weaker, more clouded moments when I sink into feelings of not measuring up to others in terms of our home or financial situation, I have a few books in the bookcase to put everything back into perspective:

…and a brand new acquisition:

Really, any books by Peter Menzel would do the trick, but I only own the two listed above. All of these books put our “first world” lifestyles into perspective by offering images (or – in the case of If the World Were a Village – data) of people around the world in their home environments. Many of the images are of people who have what we might refer to as “nothing.” No toilets, running water, beds, walls, appliances, etc. It is impossible to feel sorry for yourself when you look at images of people who have so much less – but whose spirit is intact and shines through their eyes and smiles. And this is something I always want to remember. It provides a profound reality check to our first-world, consumerist standards.

Perhaps what I am trying to describe is best summarized by the following video – an ad for Water is Life – in which “first world” gripes are read by Haitian adults and children.

At a time of year when advertisers pull out all the stops to persuade us to want more and spend more, perhaps we can pause to reflect on what is truly important. This time of year can be so difficult when we focus on what we don’t have or are unable to give – whether it’s a different family situation or a material thing. Give what you are able to give, joyfully and without apology, for we and our loved ones probably already have enough stuff to begin with. In the interest of sharing the gift of perspective during the holiday season, may we remind one another to honor and give thanks for what we already have and not allow ourselves to be stressed out or discouraged by what is ultimately small and relative in the grand scheme of things.

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The photographs in this blog and in my Flickr photostream are available for purchase as prints or cards through my Etsy shop by selecting a “custom print” in whatever size you prefer and indicating either the name of the print or the blog post and order in which it appears. 

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