What’s so Funny?

Back at work after my stress free Summer adventures, I noticed the need for stress management in my students, many of whom take learning so seriously.  I have attempted to tackle the issue with humor.

Humor is a serious business. It’s no joke! Those of us responsible for providing the most effective educational experience to our young people understand its power. Laughter is known to have many health benefits including relieving stress, raising endorphins and increasing oxygen levels.  All things that assist learning and more importantly  extend life.   So it makes sense to chuckle, chortle, giggle, smile, and snort our way to academic success.

I hear from my students more and more how overwhelmed and stressed they feel with all they are expected to accomplish in any given day.  It is not only the pressure of doing well in school, but also the expectations that they manage all their extracurricular activities, part time jobs, club responsibilities and volunteer commitments. Oh, and let’s not neglect the need (if there is time), for a restorative night’s sleep! 

It is with this in mind that I choose to ease their stress by employing laughter in the classroom.  It is critical that one not confuse sarcasm, or being entertained by someone’s embarrassment with real honest to goodness humor; one that unites us, rather than separates us.  It must come from a sincere desire to include all while teaching important lessons.   

In the English classroom, we tackle the stuff of life through our close reading of some very serious literature.  Universal themes of loss, regret, corruption, cruelty, forgiveness, jealousy, love, sacrifice and others are delved into, drawing on personal connections to the stories we read, to gain a better understanding of our place in the world. Texts, with a few exceptions, that lack a comedic thread.   But laughter, too, is the stuff of life, and has a significant role to play in our well being, which is why it is so needed to redress the balance.

In the past, I have employed the help of disco music to energize my sleepy students who asked for something to wake them up before the first class of the day.  We all learned the steps and wiggled, jiggled and giggled for two minutes to remove the cranial cobwebs.  Yes, we looked silly, but two minutes of activity that starts the day smiling is worth the investment. Another lesson was in writing clearly. So, I followed the student written directions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, faithfully.  Well, she didn’t say I was to use a knife to remove the peanut butter from the jar. Nor did she mention that the slice of bread should be removed from the wrapped loaf!  They chuckled their way through that messy lesson.

Students are drawn to people who make them laugh, who are genuinely concerned for them; people who show them respect and pay them attention.  They respond to enthusiasm and kindness and to the setting of clear boundaries.   I want the young people with whom I come in regular contact to see a role model of strength and kindness.  To be inspired by someone who values hard work and determination, goal setting and achieving.  I want them to know that there is real satisfaction in reaching our full potential and that the quest for excellence can be enhanced by peppering our path with laughter.  

The extraordinary is to be discovered in the ordinary.

Reflecting on my time away from my “ordinary” routine, I realize that I have encountered extraordinary grace in the random interactions with folk in Corris. These people are no different than most good people anywhere, in so far as they have cultivated a habit of genuine community, where each member helps the others in whatever little way is presented, creating an atmosphere of service that becomes a natural part of village life.

When I dropped my phone in the river, I was immediately given a plastic container full of rice to absorb excess moisture ( it worked!). When the torch on my hubby’s walking stick died someone provided the batteries, without expecting payment.

In another instance, a head popped around the door of the small grocery/coffee shop announcing a trip into town and “Does anyone need me to pick anything up?”

The neighbor, knowing we were using public transport to get about, took us to the seaside, away from the bus route, where we dipped our toes in the ocean.

The invitation to share a traditional Indian meal and the aromatic rice offered over the garden fence.

The pub landlord who passed on mail that had been sent care of the pub for me – always a safe bet! Who also later gave me a garden umbrella to replace the one damaged by high winds at our cottage .

The lady who offered her empty home if we had overflow guests, and her neighbors who took care of her plants and her cat in her absence.

The local man, who on receiving a call that a stranded villager would have to wait 4 hours for roadside assistance for a flat tire, dropped what he was doing and showed up to fix it in 15 minutes.

It was not long before I, too, got into the habit of seeing a need and stepping in, such as when a sudden rush of customers descended on the coffee shop where my impromptu and brief stint as a waitress was welcomed.

Or, when the turnover of guests at the art studio required a team effort to get the rooms ready quickly, so I grabbed the bucket and rags and scrubbed the kitchen floor.

Or, when I greeted the stranger dragging luggage up the hill knowing she was headed to the now spick and span studio.

Nothing spectacular, just ordinary folk doing ordinary little kindnesses for each other, expecting nothing in return, but in so doing creating something exquisitely extraordinary.

It began with a smile.

I met a lady the other day outside her home as I wandered up the hill. We smiled at one another and said, “Hello”. The conversation had begun.

“I’m just closing the door – angry teenage boy inside.” She explained, as she pulled gently on the door handle.

“Oh, I know what that’s like.” I added in solidarity, “I had three boys under the age of four.”

“Oh, I have just one of each, a boy and a girl”. She sounded relieved and then asked, “Do you live in Corris?”

“No, I’m renting a cottage a few doors down. I was here last summer at Stiwdio Maelor and fell in love with the place, so have brought my husband with me to share it with him.”

“Oh, I have an artist from Stiwdio Maelor house sitting for me next month as I’m off to hike in Switzerland on Sunday for a few weeks. She was going to come earlier but can’t.”

“I’m here for a couple more weeks – I can water your plants for you.”

“Thanks, but the girl two doors down is taking care of that and the lady at number 9 is feeding the cat”.

“I love that about this place- everyone helps one another out.”

“Yes. It happens in a small community like this, where everybody knows everybody.” She added matter-of-factly.

Two women, who only two minutes earlier were strangers, were enjoying chatting comfortably together in the middle of the road. Any invisible or imagined barriers did not exist.

She shared that her children, now teenagers, both needed their own room so she had built a shed in her garden across the road for her own bedroom.

“Come and have a look! It’s really cozy”. She was right. It was compact with a bed and a wood burning furnace. A cheery red door with a hinged window half way up, a corrugated roof, a porch with pots of purple and white cosmos to welcome her. “It’s all I need”.

There was something appealing about saying goodnight to teenagers in one building and then scooting across the road in jammies and slippers to a private cocoon. But wait – what about the Winters? Brrr.

I explained to her that we usually zip around Britain in the summer visiting family and friends but this year we’re inviting them to join us in Corris.

“If you have any overflow of guests, feel free to use my house while I’m away.” She guided me toward the front door. “Let me show you around.” She added, without any hesitation.

And so I was ushered through the door, introduced to the two teenagers and the cat, shown how to ensure we had hot water, where the towels are kept and what outdoor chair not to sit on when listening to the rush of the stream at the back of the house.

“Gosh! Thank you!” I was delighted to encounter such a kindly, open and generous spirit. Yet, this lady is not so different from most of the folk I met in Corris, where they have figured out what really matters – caring for and being cared for one another.

“I won’t bother giving you the key. I haven’t locked my doors in eight years.”

“Really?”

” No need” she added. “Hardly anyone does round here.”

“Well, thank you, again. I may well take you up on it — “. I wanted to add her name, but realized we hadn’t formally introduced ourselves.

“I’m Julie, by the way”.

“Hello. Nice to meet you, Julie. I’m Meg.”

“Nice to meet you, too, Meg”.

Learning to simply be.

Our holiday this summer is different than in the past. Instead of zipping from one place to another every few days, this year we are staying in one place for an entire month, without an agenda, welcoming each day as it unfolds and embracing the gift of being in the moment, whatever it presents. Like wading in the shallow stream and watching a renegade leaf bob along on the surface of the water; just going with the flow, or, smiling at a passerby who reciprocates and begins a friendly conversation about nothing in particular, or listening to the wind rustling through the branches, or getting an enticing whiff of spices from a nearby kitchen; unaware that the chef has plans to share the dish with us and our delight when he does, the feel of Bill’s hand in mine as he steadies himself on the walk up the hill. Even the itch that lingers after the bites from a horsefly reminding me that I’m alive. From it all I am learning that there is great joy in simply “being” and for this lesson I am filled with gratitude.

We all do what we can toward Peace

Today a young man popped in to Idris Stores in Corris and ordered 14 coffees for his cycling buddies who are cycling from London to Sheffield via Snowdonia to promote peace and combat Islamophobia. So far they, and others with the same goal, have raised half a million pounds for the Red Cross and plan on raising even more. These young Muslims understand, that at the heart of true relationship there must exist concern, compassion, a desire to serve and a willingness to work hard on a shared vision of real understanding. We are all on this journey together.

Welcoming the Stranger

Summer, this year, will be very different from previous summers, for instead of flitting from place to place on trains and busses around Britain, to visit with family and friends to chat over cups of tea ( or something stronger) at familiar kitchen tables, my husband and I are going to park ourselves, for the entire month of July, in a quarryman’s cottage in Corris, an out-of-the-way village in Wales.

Corris has a post office that opens for eight hours a week, a small grocery store, that in addition to stocking milk and eggs, doubles as a cultural gathering place for the villagers where a variety of events are held, ranging from live classical music evenings, to 70’s disco that spill onto the street. There is also a pub, The Slaters Arms, that opens each evening and serves real ale, hearty meals, good conversation and water bowls for your dogs.

Although remote by some standards, Corris is on a bus route that links to a train line that connects travelers with towns and cities all over Britain. London, for example, can be reached in about five hours.

The appeal of Corris, however, is not so much its location at the southern tip of Snowdonia National Park, a place of exquisite natural beauty, but the warmth of the local people who have a tradition of welcoming the stranger.

It was the welcome extended to me last year when I spent three weeks at Stwidio Maelor, writing. The first question posed to me when I popped into the grocery store for a coffee was, “What’s your name?” From that moment on, as locals came into the shop, I was introduced to each one by my name.

Now, no longer a stranger, I felt the invitation to be part of the community, albeit temporarily. From then on, each time I was greeted by name, my sense of being a stranger diminished. A smile and a seemingly superficial, though friendly, enquiry about how my writing was going became the foundational blocks to cultivating relationships.

And so I return to Corris, this time to introduce my husband to the people who welcomed me as a stranger, but because they chose to call me by my name, I feel at home.

Invitation is the key

While traveling with fifteen teenagers around England I have rediscovered the value of connecting with people; those I already knew and those for whom the only limits to cultivating friendship is a matter of geography and time.

I have learned that people are simply waiting for an invitation – an invitation to share the story of who they are, which is always a sacred gift.

I me Richard, our Polish bus driver in London, who responded graciously to our request that he play his accordion for us. Then Macik, also from Poland, who chatted freely about his life as an immigrant and the life he has as a bus driver.

In Cornwall we met Dean, whose knowledge of local customs, culture and real estate laws fascinated us. We learned that our bus driver had nine homes and seventeen motorbikes ( one in his kitchen and one in his living room), and that he had become a clinical psychologist after earning a degree from Oxford. He shared how distressing it had become to absorb the pain of other souls and so he listened to his wife and chose a different field of work.

A mother traveling with us discovered the warmth, generosity and hospitality of folk who saw in her an openness to connect and so offered her gifts of wine, shrimp curry, and Cornish Lust liqueur in three separate encounters in the same day.

People are created good. We want, nay, we need to connect , to discover our shared humanity and then, through our listening and sharing of stories, discover our mysterious and vital bond. For it is only once we respond to the invitation to share our stories with each other that we can truly begin to care for one another.