Good-bye, Fox Island

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July 13-26, 1986

Those dates were hands down, the very best days of my teenage life. This is not hyperbole. This is true.

And this will be raw. I’m not interested in creating anything cohesive, not interested in editing or caring about flow or format right now. Above all I’m not interested in trying to tell a story with a happy ending or a valuable lesson. I suspect if there is one, I won’t be able to see it until much later. But what I really suspect is that there is no happy ending or valuable lesson. So you can stop reading now if that’s what you’re here for.

During the summer of 1986, I was thirteen years old. I was well on my way to fourteen, but not until the middle of August. And that was the best summer. A summer when, though I was far from mature, I started to grow up. A summer when, though I was a huge nerd, I found acceptance from a small group of people. A summer when I had one of the most formative experiences of my life.

I was lucky, oh so very lucky, to go on a great adventure, a two-week field trip to various educational centers around the Chesapeake Bay. It was something I dreamed of doing, something I applied to do, and after applying, waited, and waited to find out if I would be accepted. The day I received my acceptance letter in the mail, I leaped up and hugged my older brother, and believe me, the hugging of older brothers was not something my thirteen-year-old self ever did.

The first week of camp involved traveling around the bay: by canoe, by rowboat, in a workboat called The Osprey, on foot, and in a van. We baited our own trot-lines with salted eel and went crabbing. We had canoe races. We built osprey towers and wood duck boxes. We conducted experiments on water samples from the bay to determine water quality, dissolved oxygen content, salinity, and more. We searched for and recorded the locations of SAVs-submerged aquatic vegetation.

The second week was spent on Great Fox Island on the Tangier Sound. A century before our arrival, a hunting lodge was built on pilings next to a marshy island. The only solid ground-the floors of the lodge and the wooden boardwalks-were manmade. There was no electricity, just kerosene lanterns for light. The running water was supplied by a stationary bike in the kitchen. By pedaling the bike, water was pumped for washing dishes or taking short showers. The toilet, one that composted waste, used no water.

During our two-week bay odyssey, we got a first-class, hands-on, up-close-and-personal lesson in conservation and ecology. We did other things, too. We had ice cream in Annapolis. We swam at Sandy Point State Park where we also took our first hot showers in five or six days. We christened the van that drove us around “the party van” because we got to listen to “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins and “The Glory of Love” by Peter Cetera on the radio and because we were thirteen and fourteen and we were just that cool. We rescued a raccoon that got stuck in a trash container. We listened to ghost stories and told jokes and played Trivial Pursuit: What part of an airplane gives the bumpiest ride? Uh, the john? Hilarity.

During that trip, which I have always referred to since as “Fox Island,” I became friends with a boy named David. When the trip was over, I exchanged a few letters with three or four kids. But David and I wrote to each other for years. And years. This was when you still had to sit down with a pen or a pencil and a piece of paper and then put a stamp on an envelope. And we did. I have seen David three or four times since Fox Island ended. Our correspondence has dropped off in recent years, but we are Facebook friends.

That trip was the topic of many of my high school essays. What is your favorite place, and why? What is the most exciting thing you have ever done?

Why am I sharing all of this? Because just last night, I was thinking about Fox Island, fondly, as I always do, and wishing that my kids could experience this wonderful place. So today, I went to Google to see what I could find out. And what I discovered was devastating. Fox Island, for all intents and purposes, is gone. Last fall, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation made the heart-wrenching decision to suspend operations there. Due to rising sea levels brought about by climate change, the island is gone. The lodge and its boardwalks are still there, but it is no longer safe to take students there. It was the end of an era. I didn’t know.

Now I do know, and part of me wishes I didn’t. Fox Island will always exist in my memories and in my mind, but I never thought it would only exist there. It is terribly ironic and desperately sad that the very place that strove to teach generations of students about the dangers of climate change and the importance of conservation has succumbed. I can’t find a message of hope in its loss, all I can find is sadness.

I immediately contacted the one person who could understand and share my sadness. David. He responded to my Facebook message right away, as if he had been sitting there in front of his computer, waiting for me.

That’s so sad.

I’m really sad.

Those were good times.

They were great times.

I’m no stranger to loss. The older I get, the more things change and disappear. My elementary school is gone and so is the public library visited I growing up. Shops and restaurants in my hometown have closed. Places I took for granted and thought would always be there are gone. It reminds me of a poignant exchange between Armand and Lestat in Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. About how hard it is to go on when everything that you love “slowly rots, or fades away.” I wasn’t expecting the world to change so quickly. I don’t know what the answer is.

I only know that I am sad tonight and I am weeping. Not only for the thirteen-year-old girl I once was, a girl who loved, and still loves nature, the outdoors, the water, and adventure, but for all the thirteen-year-olds who will never know what it’s like to step onto an island, step off the grid, and find yourself.

Good Night, Oppy. You Were Us.

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I have spent the better part of the day going back and forth between crying over the “death” of Mars rover Opportunity, and trying to understand why it has affected me so deeply. There is something at once poignant and terrifying at the thought of a small, silent ambassador of humanity stranded—perhaps forever—on a distant planet. Cut off from any and all contact with those who sent it, disconnected from the mission that once gave it purpose, beyond any hope of return or recovery. Dead.

Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. An achievement like this captures the imagination. It confirms our shared humanity. It is a communal triumph of the human spirit and of human ingenuity. It affirms our thirst for knowledge, our drive to discover, our insatiable need to ask “why?” and perhaps more importantly, “why not?”

Opportunity was meant to last 90 days. Three months. A span of time smaller than a blip, not even worth mentioning or quantifying in an infinite universe where millennia have passed in the blink God’s eye. Yet Opportunity outlived its expected lifespan and increased its usefulness. Months turned into years. And for nearly two decades, much less than one human lifetime but longer than anyone could have hoped or predicted, the little rover that could gathered data, processed information, took photos, and brought us all just a little closer to the stars.

Now that contact has been lost and Opportunity has been declared dead, my mental image of a brave and intrepid little robot trundling over the surface of Mars has changed to that of a sad, lonely, and abandoned heap of metal and circuits. Logically I know that Opportunity is not a person, not an animal, not a sentient being. Emotionally, though, my heartstrings are remorselessly stretched to the limit by the message, “My battery is low and it is getting dark.” Even now, reading these words makes me want to sob with despair, and rage against some kind of unfairness I can’t define. And as I ask why this should be, an answer suggests itself. Perhaps it’s not the defunct machine I am crying for, but for myself, and for all of humanity.

How often have we felt similar sentiments? I am tired. The darkness is too deep. It’s so cold. I can’t do this anymore. I am alone.

Somehow, a little rover on exploring a new world gave us a reflection of ourselves. It moved over the surface of a planet that has stirred our imaginations since we first knew of its existence, and has starred in our popular culture since we created such a construct. It did just as you or I would do, have done, when set down in some new place. Explore, learn, tell our friends what we have discovered, take photographs, share selfies. In this way, a manmade machine was humanized. It was like us.

Human beings built Opportunity and launched it to the stars. Humanity is its creator and commander—we sent it out into the world to see what we could not. And we waited and watched to see what it would do. And now it sits, abandoned, in a world colder and darker than we can imagine. It’s not so different, really, from the story of us. After all, God created people, and launched them into a new world. Granted, it was a lush garden where every need was met, a far cry from an alien world of dust and rocks, a true howling wilderness. But then God found it necessary to banish humankind from that ideal, into a world that was bigger, harsher, scarier, and more dangerous than anything we had seen before. And while He hasn’t abandoned us, I know it sometimes feels that way.

The banishment from the Garden of Eden is the world’s first morality story. A cause and effect narration that explains the introduction of sin into the world. Yet God himself placed the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the garden, along with the Tree of Life. Of course he knew that His people would seek knowledge. I’m sure He expected it. The Bible tells us that wisdom is more valuable than gold and that only fools despise knowledge. When humans moved from the Garden of Eden into the wider world of God’s creation, I am sure He watched with great expectation to see what we would do. Like Opportunity, we began to learn, to explore, to investigate, and to discover. But unlike Opportunity, we are not abandoned. There is no place dark enough, cold enough, far enough, that we can go where He won’t look for us, find us, and call us back.

Even if, like Opportunity, we can’t, or won’t answer, He won’t cease communication, end the mission, or declare us dead. God’s grace is everywhere and we can’t lose it or shake it off. God Himself may call us to go where we don’t wish to go. Far from friends and family, into places that are dark, or cold, or lonely. But He goes with us. Opportunity allowed us to look beyond ourselves, into the infinite worlds of God’s creation and to find, not only the eternal, but ourselves.

Henry and the Monstrous Din – A Cautionary Tale?

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I am not a political person and I try to avoid controversy. But the state of our great nation and the direction we seem to be heading scare me. To say nothing at all is just as bad as spewing hatred. I don’t hate anyone, but I do question the choices and doctrines of those who may soon be leading us. So, when the dissonant noise of the political campaign trail, the biased reporting of the media, and the hurtful agendas of bigoted and narrow-minded people are applauded and championed, we must stop the noise, and use our own minds and hearts to decide what is right. And so I present, “Henry and the Monstrous Din,” an innocent children’s story written in 1966 with a great deal to say to us in 2016.

Henry and the Monstrous Din is Russell Hoban’s story of an imaginative little boy who, early one morning, begins to make a little noise. Before he knows it, the noise has grown and grown until it takes the form of a monstrous din, a living creature with a bass drum for a body, the twin bells of a traditional alarm clock for eyes, a steam whistle on the top of its head, and many other parts designed for raucous and ultimate noise-making. This monstrous din precedes to take his creator, Henry, for a long ride past his school, much to the principal’s dismay, and off into the countryside for an all-night adventure that includes a double-feature at the drive-in with plenty of popcorn and ice cream. As the monstrous din begins to get tired Henry is eventually able to convince it to take him home, and he subdues it once and for all by repeating the noises that first created it, in reverse, and more and more softly, until the din is gone.

I loved this story so much when I was a child. The idea that I might have the ability within me to create something so powerful, even if it was something I couldn’t at first control, was irresistible. Lillian Hoban’s pictures are so imaginative and fun to look at and her conceptualization of the din’s physical appearance is delightful to see. The language is incredibly detailed and evocative. The descriptions of the din’s noises are wonderfully descriptive, including my favorite: “like fire engines and bulldozers crashing into a piano warehouse.” The most beautiful language of all, though, comes when Henry and the din’s journey is described. “They galloped past fields and farms on faraway roads.” I love this! I was always drawn to assonance in books when I was a child, and this sentence fed that love, while also filling me with a sense of adventure and a longing to see those fields, those farms, to travel those roads.

The reader is never entirely certain whether this event takes place in Henry’s head, or if it is real. By the time he and the din return, it is still the same morning of the same day they left. The hole the din made in the side of the house closes magically and Henry’s parents are completely unaware that anything unusual—aside from a bit of noise—has happened. I like to imagine that Henry and his new friend did indeed go off on a wonderful adventure, and to think that Henry can bring his din back to keep him company whenever he likes.

This book shows us what we already know—that we can create things.

Our words and actions—our noises and even our silences, can have a tremendous impact on the people around us, and on events and the bigger world.

Henry cannot at first control what he has created and although it is just noise, there is the potential for harm. Every time Henry’s din encounters opposition, it drowns out those who would stop it with deafening and appalling noise. Noise can confuse us. It can bewitch us or frighten us. It can drown out our own inner dialogue, and muddle our perceptions of right and wrong. Noise can be distracting. It can be hurtful. And it can sweep us along with a strength that cannot be resisted. Whatever we create, whatever words or actions or noise we put into the world, we should be asking ourselves if we are right, if our creations are worthy, if we are kind, and whether we mean them for good, or for harm. We must always question our purpose and measure the effect we have on others and on the world. Otherwise the noise, the clamor of hatred and intolerance, hurts not only our ears, but our sensibilities and eventually, our very humanity.

22 Ways Teaching Preschool is Like Being An Archaeologist

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I am many things: daughter, sister, aunt, wife, mother, writer, museum professional, archaeologist, and currently, preschool teacher. Archaeology is an amazing adventure. Writing is fulfilling and satisfying. Motherhood is my great love. But teaching has turned out to be all of these things and more. There is something unique and wonderful about every single little student who sits in my lap or puts their sticky fingers in my hair or holds my hand or asks me a million questions. There is something to love about each and every one of them. I never expected to teach preschool but God loves to surprise us and he certainly surprised me. It has been such a blessing to not only have a job I love going to everyday, but co-workers who are dedicated and tireless and loving, supportive and fun. We are all so lucky. I used to get lots of questions about my archaeology career, and I still do. I also hear lots of Indiana Jones references and the eternal question that drives archaeologists crazy: Do you dig up dinosaurs? (Just for the record, no. That’s a paleontologist). Anyway, my point—and I do have one—is that at first glance it might seem that the jobs of archaeologist and preschool teacher are so different that you would never expect someone who once did one to now be doing the other. In fact, there are quite a few similarities. And so, here they are: the twenty-two reasons why teaching preschool is like being an archaeologist!

1. You will get hot, sweaty and dirty.

2. You often find yourself using everyday objects for other purposes (medicine bottles for artifact storage, craft sticks for spoons . . .)

3. Digging in sand and/or dirt is all in a day’s work.

4. People think your job is fun, and only fun, all the time.

5. Not all bathroom breaks take place in an actual bathroom.

6. Crackers, fruit and water make the best snacks.

7. You have special clothes that make doing your job easier and more comfortable.

8. Tons of paperwork.

9. You don’t know where those stains came from.

10. Several times every day you find yourself wondering if you’re “getting too old for this.”

11. Hand washing is very, very important but never happens as often as it should.

12. When you finally get a break all you want to do is sit down and have a cold drink.

13. You have career-specific tee-shirts.

14. No matter how much you clean, there is always more dirt to sweep up.

15. You often find yourself crouching, kneeling or contorting in some strange position. Talk about “creative movement!”

16. You must have the proper permits.

17. You wonder how a small group of people could create so many artifacts.

18. At the end of the day you just want to take a shower.

19. You never know what you’re going to find.

20. You’re always trying to unlock the mysteries of a strange and alien civilization.

21. Every day is an adventure.

And finally . . .

22. You love your job!

Miss Suzy

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“Miss Suzy was a little gray squirrel who lived all by herself at the tip, tip top of a tall oak tree.” And so begins Miriam Young’s magical tale of a solitary but kind-hearted creature who cherishes the comforts of home and possesses a heart of gratitude for all that she has. When a band of bullying red squirrels chases her away from her beloved oak tree she is forced to look elsewhere for shelter. The attic of an old house provides her with a new place to live in the form of an elegant doll house, and when Miss Suzy also discovers a troop of toy soldiers, she finds friends who will become as close as family.

With wonderfully detailed and beautiful illustrations by Arnold Lobel, the creator of Frog and Toad, and an engaging story told through evocative language with a winsome cadence, this book is sure to be a beloved addition to any storybook collection. Miss Suzy’s appreciation for nature, the love and care she lavishes on strangers, the respect and love she garners from those strangers, and the loyalty she inspires in them, all offer marvelous lessons and teachable moments to share with young children.

I see so much of God in this story. Miss Suzy’s love for and proximity to nature show that she is a caring steward and a grateful denizen of God’s perfect creation. The fact that at night she can see “a million stars” is a gentle reminder that even in the darkness, God provides us with light and hope: The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork! When the wind blows, her house rocks gently like a cradle, that speaks to me of the simple pleasures God gives us.

When God guides her, not just to adequate shelter, but to a safe haven where she finds new friends who can help her, it is an example of His intercession and divine mercies. Miss Suzy’s insistence on taking the soldiers into her home, mothering them and caring for them, shows her servant’s heart and her love for others. If Miss Suzy is rudely ejected from her own personal Garden of Eden through no fault of her own, God is still with her in her exile, and just as he has made promises to His people, He leads her back home again, to the life she loves, but now broader and richer for the friends she has made, and with full awareness of the blessings she has received.

What can we learn from this story? What can we teach our children?

If you did it to the least of these you did it also to me.

Do unto others . . .

And of course:

The greatest of these is love.