A Difficult Year Or An Amazing One?

I found myself in an unusual emotional space at the end of this school year. I had the same bittersweet feelings about my students and I leaving one another. But, I also had rather strong feelings of angst, frustration, stress, and honestly, just overall ick. Top it all off with the perception that I couldn’t shake the ick, but instead was somehow stuck in that grey, disgusting, frustrating, depressing, putrid space.

How’s that for an image?

So, what’s an educator to do when she finds herself in that spot? Choose a new story.

Kindra Hall says “In life, the most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves.”

If I were in the audience when she said it, I might have jumped up and yelled “Preach it, sister!”

Ah, but how to do that? It seemed the story I was telling myself was quite true. It certainly felt true. And, in some very real way, it was true. But was it the whole story? Was it the only story? Was it the story I wanted to choose to tell myself about the year, or me, or teaching, or the world? No, no, no, and no, it certainly was not.

Well then, what was that story? What was the truth I was overlooking, or not highlighting as the star of my story? What is the story I want to tell myself about this year, and perhaps about every year?

It is a story filled with love, triumph, learning, and inspiration. Listen as I tell myself (and you) the truest stories about this year.

One night this spring, I just broke down. Crying, I said “I don’t know what the matter is.” My brother paused and softly said “It’s been a hard two years.” It has indeed. I did cancer treatment – during a pandemic. I didn’t teach or coach for what seemed like forever. I felt awful more than I felt good during my six months of treatment. I taught Kindergarten virtually after spring break – that’s a remarkable new level of exhaustion. I took a 200 hour yoga, SEL, and mindfulness course as I recouped over the summer. I returned to the classroom in person this school year with a compromised immune system, no antibodies, masks, seating charts, tons of new tech, and tons of new teaching load. For sure it’s been a hard two years.

And yet, at the same time, and for many of the same reasons it’s been a year of triumph, grace, gift, and amazing strength, love, and overall fantabulousness. Let me explain.

I did cancer treatment, during a pandemic, with drugs that compromised my immune system more than it already was. I did it! Not by myself, mind you. I did it with the help of the amazing docs, nurses, and researchers. I did it with the love and support of family and friends. We did it! Me, and my tribe, did cancer treatment during the pandemic, and lived to tell about it with smiles and deep gratitude to God.

I taught Kindergarten — virtually! Not by myself. I did it with the help of many beautiful, kind people who helped me, encouraged me, affirmed me, and sometimes sat with me while I cried. And I didn’t just do it. I did it well. I proved that distance is not a deterrent to learning or to relationship. It’s an opportunity to rethink, to collaborate, and to figure out ways to make it amazing.

Fall of 2021, I returned to my Kindergarten classroom with a compromised immune system, no antibodies, masks, seating charts, tons of new tech, and tons of new teaching load, in a year that was difficult, exhausting, and taxing to the best of us. I returned. I struggled. I ideated and iterated. I breathed through a lot. I imagined possibility and I worked to bring it to pass. I entered into relationships with my Kindergartners and their parents. Together we created a year of learning, joy, discovery, and creativity. Together we created and lived a year of triumph!

A sentiment I send right back to all my Kindergartners and their families!
As I processed this to share, I noticed the Kindergartner’s handwriting. It is ALL correct upper and lower case letters with beautiful legibility. That is a triumph on so many levels!

At times this year was fraught with stress and anxiety. Unwilling to have that be our experience of the year, we worked together to fill the year with joy, peace, affirmations, breath, and mindfulness. As those dear sweet Kindergartners wept — missing their parents, unsure of what their friends where feeling — we breathed together. Sometimes I held their hands, and did the affirmation and breath practice while they simply stayed with me. I trusted that their mirror neurons would do their job and calm them by simply observing my practice of self-regulation. At other times the Kindergartners were the ones reminding me to breathe and practice mindfulness of doors, or helping their friends with affirming thoughts and suggestions of ways to proceed. They embraced their classroom jobs of peace person and positivity proclaimer and daily led their peers through mindful, beautiful moments of breath, affirmation, and peace. They even asked if they could increase their having a holiday job to include leading their friends in two yoga poses each morning. They also took their practice home and shared it with their families and friends. I know, because parents regularly shared their amazement and gratitude with me.

As I gathered my thoughts for this post I went through the notes from this year, as well as ones I’ve saved from years past. These add weight and validity to my stories. They strengthen the positive neural pathways in my brain.

The Kindergartner made affirmations for the letters that spell my name.
Love notes from the Kindergartners

Thank you for creating a warm, peaceful, exciting, artistic, free thinking and child driven classroom.

You are a warrior queen — determined and victorious!

Remember what an inspiration you are to so many.

You encouraged her to try new things no matter how scary they seemed. You taught her to not be afraid to ask questions.

We appreciate your fantabulousity.

I’m not the only educator who had a difficult year of triumphant teaching and learning. I’m not the only creative one. I’m not the only amazing one. There are so many others. I hope each educator that reads this post, takes the time to carefully choose the story you are telling yourself. Make it about your triumphs, your discoveries, the lives you’ve changed, the relationships you’ve forged, the difficulties you have overcome. Make it the best and truest story about yourself, who you are, and what you do.

With gratitude to God and all the amazing people who encourage me to be me, and who help make what I do possible, I say, “I am capable, and strong. I have a big beautiful brain and am always learning. I am kind. I am brave. I can do hard things — and regularly do. I have an awesome heart. I make a difference. I inspire others. I am deeply loved. I am, and always will be, fantabulous. My year was not easy, but it was amazing.”


Post Script:
If you’re anything like me, it may feel a bit uncomfortable to say all these things in such a public way. It may even seem somehow improper to do so.

But, the truth is it is completely proper, and absolutely necessary!

We must treat ourselves as we would a good friend or colleague. We acknowledge their foibles and the times they have fallen short, but we champion their fantabulousness and all their victories, and gains. We tell them the stories that help them understand who we know them to be. We tell others those same stories and more — because they are valuable stories — to tell and to hear.

Please tell your amazing stories! I’m happy to listen if you want to share them in the comments. But feel no pressure. Just tell them to yourself and at least one other.

We Are All Storytellers

A storyteller, according to Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a:

a. a relater of anecdotes
b: a reciter of tales (as in a children’s library)
c. liar, fibber
d: a writer of stories

I’m a bit aghast as I read the definitions.

I talk to the dictionary webpage “That’s all you have to say about storytellers? A relater of anecdotes? A reciter of tales – as in a children’s library? A fibber? A writer of stories?”

Yes, I know they are — technically — definitions of storytellers. But, in my humble opinion — with all due respect to G&C Merriam and Noah Webster —  they are such pedestrian, dry, uninspiring, and perhaps even, incomplete definitions.

What is a storyteller according to me, you ask? So glad you’re wondering.

A storyteller, is:
a. a wielder of power
b. a connector of seemingly unconnected things
c. one who deals in possibility, magic, truth, inspiration, hope. 
d. a teller of stories — written, spoken, shown, lived — to children and adults.
e. me, and you

Are you suprised by my definitions? Are you thinking, “I’m not a storyteller. Storytelling isn’t my thing, I’m a teacher, a doctor, a parent, a crossing guard — I’m just me, I don’t tell stories.”

Ah, but it is your thing. Storytelling is our thing as humans. We are all storytellers. We craft our own stories, and we help others craft theirs.

Maybe in the place of the definition, the dictionary should just have a mirror, or the instructions: To discover what a storyteller is, find your nearest mirror and peer inside.

Still not convinced? Read on.

As you read, listen for the stories being encouraged and told.

Scenario #1

I’m in for an MRI. I’m feeling all the classic nervous symptoms, but I’m, doing my best to use positive self-talk, prayer, and my breath as anchors to peace and hope. 

I’m greeted at the door with hand sanitizer and a scanning thermometer. “Any cough, fever, recent loss of taste or smell?” “No,” I reply, adding, “Woo hoo and praise God! Have a good day.” She looks at me as though not quite sure how to respond. We make eye contact during her brief moment of hesitation. Finally she says “You, too.” before turning to the next person who has come through the door. 

Arriving at imagining I’m handed paperwork to fill out. It includes a laundry list of “have you ever …” Except for the fact that I’m able to answer no to many of the questions, this doesn’t do much to assuage my anxiety. Now I wait. The only noise is the TV which fills the silence of the waiting room with less than positive banter of some news broadcast.

My name is called and the tech takes my paperwork. Looking at the paperwork rather than me, she asks me some questions as she walks quickly — ahead of me — down the hall. She points to where I am required to change out of the clothes I specifically chose to increase my sense of personal power, courage, and fantabulousness, into a significantly less than attractive, dull, hospital gown that seems to mock me by incessantly whispering “you are most certainly not well.” I quiet its voice with my new baby Yoda hat and mask. They speak to me with the optimism of the child who gifted them to me. “Keep breathing. You can do it, Ms. James. You ARE fantabulous.”

As I walk into the MRI room, my tech matter-of-factly hands me the panic button, as I lie down on the machine.  She says, quite casually, “it’s going to take 35-40 minutes.” I do my best to control my voice so as  not to yell at her as she disappears behind a door.  “THIRTY TO FORTY MINUTES?!?!!!” 

I close my eyes and take a deep breath as the table slides inside the remarkably small tube. I remind myself of my dad’s words as I left the house “Remember, even though it’s small, there’s plenty of room for some angels in there with you.” My tech’s voice, as though from some far off land, jolts me from that space of safety. “Ok, the first one’s going to be about 3 minutes.” 

Scenario #2

My oncologist’s office and infusion room is on the second floor. No matter how tired I am, I eschew the elevator, and head to the stairs. Today is no different.

As I start up the stairs, I unzip my coat. My eyes fall upon the hot pink superman emblem on my tech-shirt. With each step, I focus on my breathing, and repeatedly run through a set of affirmations. “I am safe. I am sound. I am well. I am whole. My body is working for optimal health. Life is good. I am good. God is greater.”

I refrain from even thinking “I’m nervous or anxious.” I’m feeling nervous and anxious – but they are most certainly not what I am.  As I open the door at the top of the stairs, I borrow an affirmation from my kindergartners  “I am peace.” My hand closes on the rosary in my pocket as I walk down the hall from the elevator. In the office, I laugh as I’m greeted “Good golly, Miss Molly! How are you today?” 

Scenario #3

I’m holding a plethora of cardboard tubes as some of my young Kindergarten architects and builders work to secure them with duct tape. They decided our classroom supermarket needed a door, and after studying a few, they have enlisted me — and my hands — to help with the construction. 

The room is buzzing with voices and bodies, as  Kindergartners do their best to move without knocking into anything, or anyone. In the corner I see two builders in some sort of power struggle. One face is angry, the other timid. Unkind words come from the angry one’s mouth. Unable to extricate myself from the door, I raise my voice to get the angry one to stop. 

When my task with the door creators is done, I go check on the formerly angry and timid builders. We chat for a bit and settle the dispute that had precipitated the problem. 

I then ask the owner of the formerly angry face if I might chat with her. 

We find a quiet spot and sit together. I ask her if she understands why I raised my voice. “I was being mean.” she says. “Yes,” I reply, “You were.” She didn’t completely meet my gaze. I asked if she would please look at me. She did. 

I proceed. “How did I sound when I spoke to you?” “Mad,” she whispers. “Yes,” I say in agreement, “and maybe even a little mean, right?” Now she is really looking at me. “I was right to ask you to stop.” I explain. “I wasn’t right to be mean when I did it. I’m sorry.” 

Scenario #4

I finally finished zipping the remarkably long zipper on my comforter-like winter coat as I walk out the door for recess. As I slip on my mittens, I notice my boots have come untied. “Drat!” I say to myself, or perhaps even out loud. I take a breath and remind myself it will only take a minute to tie them, no worries.

Out of nowhere two Kindergartners appear — eyes wide, faces glowing — “Do you want us to tie your shoes for your Ms. James? We can tie them!” 

I chuckle and refrain from saying “No, that’s ok. I can do it!” Instead I smile and say “Thanks! That would be fantabulous!” 

Did you notice the stories that were being told in each scenario? Not just the events themselves, but the stories being told. What stories did I tell? What stories did others tell me? What stories did I help others to hear, and hopefully, to tell? What stories did others encourage me to tell? 

We tell stories by the things we think and say, the way we speak, our body language, the clothes we wear, the things we have in our spaces, the way we do or do not look at one another, the background noise we have in our environment, the relationships we encourage, and so much more. We tell stories with each little piece of our everyday lives. 

Sometimes the stories we tell are very purposeful and intentional. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes we tell stories without thinking about the stories we’re telling. Sometimes — as in the case of Doug Dietz designer of MRI  – we tell stories that we never intended to tell. If Doug is any example, and I think he’s a great one, that’s ok. We always have the opportunity to be intentional, and to change the stories into the ones we want to tell.

So my fellow humans, my fellow fantabulous storytellers, remember, we always tell a story. And, others always listen.

Let’s be intentional. Let’s tell the best stories possible. And, let’s help others hear, tell, believe, and live, their best stories too.

Birds, Photos, and Stories


It’s a beautiful quiet morning. The breeze is cool and lovely, and everything feels like gift.

As I sit, I notice a bird on the power line, silhouetted against the morning sun. I grab my phone and take a few photos. Intrigued by the images, and chasing the perfect one, I take a few more.

It may seem silly to pay so much attention to birds sitting on a power line. Really, what’s the draw?

At first the draw was art and possibility. The birds seemed like a perfect subject, with great possibilities for pen, pencil, or watercolor.

With each photo, I noticed more and more, and as I did, curiosity, wonder, awe, and delight joined the party.

The sun was bright white, and at first the scene appeared black and white to me. But, as I studied the photographs I took, I noticed blue. Blue?! I gazed upwards at the actual scene. Sure enough, there it was.

I took one more shot, and was gifted with the moon!

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At some point, connection and making meaning rounded out my morning party.

Curiosity, wonder, delight, and awe have been my constant companions these past few days. They’ve been filling my thoughts as I make art, and popping up in my research and reading as a colleague and I construct new curriculum. This morning they were present like faithful friends, encouraging me to photograph, study, consider, and enjoy these birds on the wire.

And, speaking of faithful friends — birds! They tweet their remarkable voices in the woods while I walk, and in the yard while I sit. They flit in and out of the garden, and even venture bravely onto the porch near my chair. And, just the other day, they blessed my art world in this Art Tool-kit video on sketching birds, and this remarkable resource by John Muir Laws.

When I first noticed the bird perched on the line this morning, I grabbed his image for the artistic possibilities. I thought he might fly off, and I’d miss the moment. But he stayed, and was joined by friends.

I’ve been working on breathing, and trusting life and God during these unusual days of the pandemic. That work, the birds continued presence, and my peaceful noticing, brought to mind the great spiritual His Eye is On the Sparrow, and the scripture of how important the small and seemingly insignificant sparrows are to God.

Birds, photos, and stories. I love when everyday things come together to tell a story.

I am held, seen, and heard.
I am loved.
Beauty is always present.
Hope is always warranted.
There is always more.
More joy, more surprise, more awe,
More beauty, more possibility, more reason to hope.
Look for the more.
It is here.
Expect it.
Accept it.
Live it.

There are endless stories to tell. Make them good ones.

Who Am I As A Writer?

What an interesting question. At first my response was, “I really don’t know. I just write.”

But, on further introspection, nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t ever, or rarely, just write. I always write to understand, to teach, or to create the perfect moment. Often I do it to create a space of positivity, affirmation, encouragement, and hope, that can be returned to as often as needed.

Sometimes I do it for me. Sometimes I do it for others. But it’s always the same. It starts with an idea, or a need, and it moves forward through many iterations. It’s a lot like my art making. I do it for the fun of the experience, the process, the flow, and the product.

I write and create art to tell stories — for myself and others.

More and more I am discovering and experiencing the power of stories. I want to fill the world, or at least my little part of it, with stories of goodness, truth, beauty, courage, and kindness.

That is who I am as a writer, artist, creative. Heck that is who I am as a human being. Or at least, it is who I strive to be.

Here is a shot of the latest story I am telling myself, and anyone who needs to hear it.

There is joy and possibility even in the wonkiness. And amazingly enough, sometimes there is great joy and possibility. I am loving the wonkiness of the mandala — created purposefully — and I’m thinking of working on a series!