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Rebuilding the Muscles of Connection

Education is heart-centered work, and I am grateful every day to serve Kent School. These past two months, however, have unearthed a stamina issue which quite surprised me. In our school we have literally gone from 0 to 60mph in about 10 seconds as we fill the calendar with our traditional springtime community events after two years of very limited in-person connection. It is wonderful to be together physically, but recently within one week, I found myself at two large events talking non-stop to hundreds of people leaving me with no voice, a sore throat, and limited energy. 

While tea with honey has certainly helped, I think I need some time to rebuild my muscles of connection. I have not spoken before large crowds, held conversations with a hundred people, and shared the wonderful story of Kent School repeatedly at spring events since 2019. My post-COVID energy level is not the same as my pre-COVID energy level, and I never really thought that I would need to work up to doing the things I missed so much. I need to rediscover my muscle memory, defined as the ability to do a particular movement without conscious thought, due to frequent repetition. Practice is the only way I know to succeed.

I am currently reading Mastering Community: The Surprising Ways Coming Together Moves Us from Surviving to Thriving by Christine Porath. In the book, she describes our deep desire to feel a sense of belonging, although many of us feel isolated coming out of COVID. The use of technology and remote work have led people to feel disconnected. As our human interactions have decreased, so has our happiness, and this is contributing to a mental health crisis. Porath’s research suggests that through “uniting people and sharing information, creating a respectful environment, providing a sense of meaning, and boosting personal well-being, any one of us can help a community truly flourish.” 

I believe this is my sole job this spring – uniting our school community in meaningful ways to help everyone thrive. While at the same time, rebuilding my own muscles for connection. Challenge accepted!

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Family Tree

A tree is a plant with a tall structure comprised of a stem and branches to support leaves and a root system that anchors the stem as well as procures and stores essential growth elements, such as water and nutrients.

Last week’s blog post mentioning a cottage in Marshfield motivated one of my nine Troiano cousins, Tim, to start a Facebook Group – Troiano Family Descendants of Amadio and Helen Troiano. It is so fun keeping track of the posts from my beloved cousins whom my brothers and I spent a lot of time with in our childhood. Sadly, like all families our individual lives have spread in different directions (and states), yet our roots remain as one.

This week, I learned that we all remember fondly the times spent at the cottage and the original clawfoot tub. I never knew my grandmother was a poet until cousin Tim posted one of her poems, and my cousin Susan, also a poet, posted her tribute to Babcia, our Polish great grandmother. My cousin Kathy’s son James (great name!) is a genealogical researcher and has great information about our Italian and Polish heritage. 

Kathy, Susan, and Beth, do you remember when our Polish cousin Roma spent the summer? This week’s Facebook communications, together with a war at the crossroads of Russia and Europe, on the border of Poland, has made all of my memories of our beautiful great grandmother and our cousin come flooding back. I spent years writing letters to Roma and learning about her life. Sad that we did not stay in touch and I wonder what she is feeling today.

A family tree is a genealogical chart showing the ancestry, descent, and relationship of all members of a family. In the later Medieval period, nobility adopted the tree as a symbol of lineage, and by the eighteenth century, family pedigrees were commonly referred to as “family trees,” although the foliage had disappeared and the “roots” appeared at the top rather than the base of the diagrams.

Regardless of the tree imagery as upside down or upright, trees are magical systems of sturdy trunks and spreading roots and leaves – just like a family. While we can spread our leaves, our roots nurture the steady trunk which in turn strengthens us year upon year. I am so grateful for my great grandparents and grandparents who made lives for themselves in these United States of America. And, no matter where my life journey takes me, my roots anchor me, and have made me who I am today. 

Time to plan a Cousins Reunion in Marshfield.

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Ebbing and Flowing

Throughout my lifetime the ocean has always been my source of strength, inspiration and reflection. As a young girl going to my grandparents’ cottage in Marshfield, MA for a month each summer was a gift that I treasured. For the past five years, I have lived on the Chester River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It has made me realize that I must always live on the water.

My job leading an independent school in the past two years of COVID has been complicated, exhausting, and challenging at times. Yet, my school is located on the Chester River and the views, especially the one from the Library, brings peace when I can take a moment to gaze outside or better yet, take a walk with River through the back field to the water’s edge. 

My home has also been an oasis of rejuvenation each day as I watch the ever-changing and never-ending flow and colors of the river, and reflect on the health and well-being of my school community. I have heard many times, “take time for yourself.” That is much easier said than done. But, I do have an amazing view from my new picture window at home and I am so grateful for the chance to relax and regroup at the red roof inn.

A colleague shared a poem with me recently. Advice from a River by Ilan Shamir resonates with me and I refer to it almost daily. Its last line, Beauty is in the Journey, speaks directly to me. No matter the obstacle, go around it and continue with the flow. The journey will make you stronger and you will come to understand its beauty. This seems like an especially accurate metaphor for life in the time of COVID.

The ocean’s beauty always calls me and I look forward to being in Satellite Beach, FL for spring break. I plan to use the time to decompress. That consistent ebbing and flowing you see and hear as you gaze at the ocean or sit by its side “de-stimulates our brains,” says Richard Shuster, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping podcast. The noises and the visuals activate our parasympathetic nervous system, which literally slows us down and allows us to relax.

In addition, the color blue has been found to be associated with feelings of calm and peace. “Staring at the ocean,” says Shuster, “actually changes our brain waves’ frequency and puts us into a mild meditative state.” A study published in the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s journal even found that blue is associated with a boost of creativity.

Maybe this explains why I can always do my best writing in my home or at the beach. The energy of the ebbing and flowing awakens and stimulates my creativity flow. And, the water always shows me that no matter the storm, this, too, shall pass.

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About Nancy Mugele

Nancy Mugele is passionate about the written word. She is an aspiring columnist, writer and poet. Nancy believes that being grateful and kind can help change the world.

Nancy is the Head of Kent School, an independent day school serving girls and boys in PK – Grade 8 on the bank of the Chester River in historic Chestertown, MD. She is the Secretary of the Board of the Association of Independent Maryland and DC Schools, a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s, and a member of the Education Committee of Sultana Education Foundation.

Question Authority

Banning books has been around for centuries. From differing political, religious, and cultural viewpoints and expression, the explanations for censorship are unlimited. In 1624, Englishman Thomas Morton arrived in Massachusetts. He soon found that he did not want to abide by the strict rules and conventional values that made up their new American society. So, he established his own colony and wrote about it. His New English Canaan, published in 1637, criticized and attacked Puritan customs so harshly that even the more progressive New English settlers disapproved of it, and they banned it, making it likely the first book to be banned in the United States. (readingpartners.org)

Throughout our literary history in the U.S., many, many books have been banned or challenged. This past week, a school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from being taught in its classrooms because the book contains material that board members said was inappropriate for students.

Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, said he was baffled by the decision. “This is disturbing imagery,” he said in an interview on Thursday, which was Holocaust Remembrance Day. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”

In schools, classroom literature is carefully vetted so that creative, engaging, and bright teachers of Language Arts, Library, and English classes can offer students diverse characters, perspectives, and experiences. Educators know best the literature their students can handle and discuss in an age appropriate and relevant way, often finding selections that reflect the time in history the students are studying. Kent School 8th Graders read The Diary of Anne Frank, and pre-COVID went to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. Banning books from school libraries and curricula is a form of indoctrination, disguised as guidance by people with closed minds. Our students deserve better.

As a college student, I had a poster in my dorm room which said: Question Authority. It is a mantra I have always lived by – not in a disruptive way, but in a curious way. Banning a book makes me want to read that book, if I have not already. I can think for myself and I don’t need someone telling me what is or is not appropriate reading. I hope bookstores around the country offer customers sections filled with banned books. You will find some of the best and most thought-provoking novels ever written there.

And, honestly, if your child has a smartphone with a data plan, so they can use TikTok and search the internet, you have a lot more to be worried about than books.

Reason and Passion

I just watched Legally Blonde for, perhaps, the millionth time. Based on Amanda Brown’s 2001 novel, and released as a movie in July of that year, it was both of my daughters’ favorite movie for the longest time. Starring Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, Legally Blonde tells the story of a very fashionable college senior, dumped by her boyfriend, who decides to follow him to law school. While she is there, she learns a lot about herself. In the movie, on the first day of law school, one of her professors starts the class with a quote by Aristotle – law is reason, free from passion. Over time, Elle comes to believe, however, that passion is a key ingredient in the practice of law and in life.

While I believe the movie made the quote famous, I have been reflecting on it recently, as my son gave me a stone engraved with the powerful Passion word for Christmas. The stone itself is blue and white – a nod to Kent School’s colors – and it has been added to the stone collection on my desk. Students frequently stand in front of my desk and ask me about all of the words on the stones, many of which have been my words of the year. Passion, defined as a strong and barely controllable emotion, is a key ingredient in my life and my work. I could not imagine otherwise. And, reason, the power to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic is also critical.

I have long been passionate about books. My mother, who began her career as a first grade teacher, instilled in me the mantra that books are your friends. I took that to heart, (unlike my three brothers – but that is another story). In the front yard of my childhood home I had a “reading tree” – a beautiful big oak tree whose shade comforted me while I read Ramona, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and every single Nancy Drew mystery. It was my sanctuary. My reasonable side had actual human friends, but I was so passionate about my book character friends and spoke their names as if they were present. I still sometimes think, when I am using reason to investigate a situation, what would Nancy Drew do first?

The only way to parent is with both reason and passion. Parenting is a tough job and one must act with reason, and also with passion, with each and every decision made. With an empathetic nod to all parents, I know it is an exhausting role, but the rewards and outcomes are so beautiful, I promise. Having my adult children as friends is a gift that I am so grateful to have. Yet, it was not always this way. Saying no to a party, with good reason, is often wrought with guilt that you are socially harming your child. It is a constant struggle, made even more difficult today in this time of COVID. I was just talking to a parent about this very issue and the angst in her face was so palpable to me. 

Educators, like parents, must also use reason and passion in their daily role. It is why I love and respect teachers so much. Even when they are reprimanding a student, and actually most often when they are doing that, it is because they care so much about each student that they are trying to help them become the best version of themselves. Creating honorable citizens is a role we take seriously and it involves both reason and passion. 

Honestly, I don’t think you can or should divorce reason from passion. Both are critical to leading a life of purpose. Feel free to quote me: Life is reason, full of passion. 

Weekend Workout

Bucket List – Royal Portuguese Reading Room, Rio de Janeiro

If you need a reason to stay inside on a cold, rainy Sunday and read a book, here it is. Reading for as little as six minutes can reduce stress by 68%, slow your heartbeat, ease muscle tension, and positively alter your state of mind. All the better if you have a dog beside you on the couch and a fire roaring in the fireplace. Reading is my weekend workout.

The problem with reading a good book is that you want to finish it to find out how the story ends, but you don’t really want to finish reading the book. This happens to me all the time. I have a goal of trying to read a fictional story every two weeks. I know, I am a classic book nerd, but book lovers like me thrive on having an unread book on the stack at all times. 

A Kent School colleague, who knows me well, gave me a signed collection of essays by Ann Patchett, These Precious Days for my winter break reading. I love Patchett’s work and her personal essays were soul-baring and inspiring. 

Two lessons from her warm and witty pieces, which I will carry into the new year, are that life is a winding path with turns that we cannot see coming. How we react to those obstacles marks our character. We must persevere and move forward with kindness and humor. (sort of like the last two years and COVID, but that is another story!)

Secondly, Patchett wove through all of her essays the importance of reading. As a bookstore owner, she shared that it is always important to have children’s activities in the shop because she is creating a love of reading in those who are her future clientele. I love that thought and it resonates with me as an educator who believes in reading aloud to children often. Maya Angelou said, “Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.” We are growing readers and book lovers at Kent School, and I am proud to play a small part in that by reading aloud weekly in Little School, Kindergarten and First Grade.  

Sharing my love of reading with students brings me great joy. Yet, I am most proud that my own children are readers and it is always inspiring to talk to them about a book they have enjoyed. When they were very young, Jim and I always read aloud to them individually at bedtime – a ritual we still have on Christmas Eve when we read The Polar Express aloud as a family. I know they secretly made fun of me for always having my face in a book when they were growing up, but now they appreciate reading a great story. Jenna enjoys historical fiction, Kelsy prefers mysteries, James loves fly fishing personal accounts, and Jim likes history. 

Everyone reading quietly on a beach is my ideal family vacation! And, if we can’t find a beach, the living room also works. Join me for my weekend workout. Your membership fee is a good book.

Jewel of Autumn

Once when I was living in the heart of a pomegranate, I heard a seed saying, “Someday I shall become a tree, and the wind will sing in my branches, and the sun will dance on my leaves, and I shall be strong and beautiful through all the seasons.” Excerpt from The Pomegranate, Kahlil Gibran

I just bought my first pomegranate of the fall and I am so grateful. This is the time of year for the jewel of autumn to once again grace our fruit bowls. Pomegranates are a fascinating fruit with a rich history whose name derives from the Middle French pomme garnete, or seeded apple. 

According to the Pomegranate Council in Sonoma, CA (who knew?) pomegranates have been cherished for their exquisite beauty, flavor, color, and health benefits for centuries. From their distinctive crown to their ruby red arils, pomegranates are royalty amongst fruit. They are symbolic of prosperity and abundance in virtually every civilization. 

Fortunately for us, this unique fruit has an abundance of juicy seeds, or arils, to savor. Some sources claim the number of arils is exactly 613, while others allow for an error of +/- 200 – a wide variance. I can tell you from experience, whether the number is 600 or 800, pomegranates have a lot of seeds. It takes uninterrupted time, a bowl of water, and a lot of patience to extract the flavorful gems from their web of spongy skin inside the husk. But, trust me, it is so worth it.

Pomegranate seeds are superfoods containing polyphenols, powerful antioxidants thought to offer heart health and anti-cancer benefits. Pomegranates are also a source of fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin K and potassium. There is some evidence that suggests pomegranates can protect from Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis, and aid in digestion.

Almost all of the world’s religions have recognized the pomegranate’s significance. The mythology of ancient Greece regarded this fruit as a symbol of life, marriage and rebirth, and by eating a few pomegranate seeds, Persephone tied herself to Hades as a symbol of the indivisibility of marriage.

Pomegranates are highly symbolic in Jewish tradition, most often associated with fertility and good deeds, and are an integral part of this week’s Rosh Hashanah meals. By eating the pomegranate at Jewish New Year, it expresses a wish for a year filled with as many merits as a pomegranate has seeds. A beautiful sentiment.

When I placed a pomegranate in my shopping cart today, I smiled to myself. Holding the jewel of autumn makes me anticipate our family being all together in a few short months at Thanksgiving. And, while I am not a fan of Halloween decorations in stores in the summer, or Christmas decorations in stores before Halloween, the pomegranate is definitely a welcomed guest in the fruit aisle of the grocery store right now.

Looking regal atop the apples and bananas in my fruit bowl, pomegranates are a strong and beautiful symbol of love. Pop some in a sparkling beverage and let the fun begin!

Pick Your Sunshine

Why do sunflowers make us so happy? The entire bloom is a smile and it is so hard not to see its joyfulness. We flock to the nearest sunflower fields in late summer and snap smiling selfies amidst the endless bright yellow blooms. Jenna and I recently went to Wildly Native Flower Farm in Chestertown to pick our sunshine. Being amid the uplifted faces of sunflowers is so welcoming and gives us hope. Bringing the blooms home brightens our soul.

English actor Dame Helen Mirren said, “I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life than the sunflower. For me that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because it looks like the sun but because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky. A satellite dish for sunshine. Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. And that’s such an admirable thing. And such a lesson in life.” 

Tracking the journey of the sun each day, and in each new season, has become a fascination of mine after living on the Chester River for five years. I have been enthralled by its gentle voyage up and down the river bank. I enjoy taking sunrise and sunset photos and think often of my family friends near and far who are all following the same sun miles and hours apart. Our connectedness is palpable.

Finding the sunlight, no matter how weak it may appear, is truly a great life lesson. I am a glass half full person and I look for the sun in every situation. I believe that is why I am passionate about education. My chosen field is a reflection of the sunflower field, and I stand in awe of the inspiring teachers at Kent School who help students find the sunlight each and every day. All while nourishing their students’ hearts and minds so they grow steadfast with their faces confidently pointing to the sun.

And, although sunflowers will bloom only for a finite time, I rejoice in their honest beauty as they follow the daily journey of the rising and setting sun. I think I may need a sun dial.

Story Lake

Photo Credit: Jenna Mugele

Our recent family vacation in Montana began with a fly fishing experience on the Story family ranch and their private lakes in the heart of Paradise Valley. (We know a guy – or should I say, we know a guide!) And, you all know how much I like a good story, so it was very fitting to start my summer vacation on a lake named Story.

The storied Story family history starts with Nelson, who bought a thousand Texas cattle with money from mining gold in Montana. With the crew he hired, Nelson Story made the most famous and longest cattle drive in history. From Texas to Montana, through thousands of miles of plains and mountains, he arrived in Montana in 1866. And, for five generations the Story family continues to operate Montana’s oldest cattle ranch. 

Story family members have included cowboys, marksmen and ropers, a State Senator, the largest Montana sheep rancher, and adventurers. The Story’s are rumored to be the family that the Kevin Costner television series Yellowstone is based upon. I suppose it is possible although the series creator denies it is based on a real family. Regardless, the Story family is an integral part of Montana’s story.

Our Story Lake story had a purpose. It would be a quiet, calm, and remote spot for learning how to fly fish. Several of us had never tried to fly fish before so James wanted to start on a lake, not a river with strong currents. Our family had exclusive use of both the Upper and the Lower Lakes that day, and it truly was a spiritual and inspirational experience. While I did not catch any fish, I learned the art of the roll cast, and that I should always watch my bobber. I got a ton of bites, but I was constantly looking at the scenery or Jim fishing on the water’s edge, and missed a few times when my bobber was clearly underwater with a fish on. Patience is a virtue that I do not possess, so I had to really focus on watching and waiting.

Story Lake is an incredibly beautiful, hard-to-get-to mountain lake seemingly untouched by time or humans. Our visit there is one I will not soon forget. Under a bright blue, big sky, with cattle grazing in and along the lower lake, I was able to start the process of decompressing from a complicated year. I left the lake without catching a fish, but instead, catching a deep sense of peace that came from the knowledge that I did my best last year, and that I never backed down from any challenges or obstacles in the way of a successful academic year at Kent School. 

The day after Story Lake, I took the girls to the spa at The Sage Lodge, while the boys fished the Gardiner in Yellowstone National Park. I told my family that after the first two days of our trip, I felt the most relaxed I had felt in a year and a half. I realized then just how long I had been holding my breath.

Once I could exhale, I perfected my set on James’ drift boat early one morning as Jenna and I fished the Yellowstone River. James was more excited than I was when I caught my first fish on a fly. I also learned to mend and point. James is a gentle teacher, but he definitely yelled at me a few times to set, or to quickly sit to navigate high water! 

While our days were fun-filled and action-packed, living in a gorgeous, secluded log cabin on the bank of the Yellowstone River was especially relaxing and restful. The home was named Paradise River’s Edge – and it truly was. Loud family dinners cooked on the grill, Trivia, creatively crafted by Kelsy, card games, and late night conversations by the fire pit, warmed my heart and soul. I am so grateful for the love of family and the healing power of the great outdoors. 

Good bye for now Montana, we will return.

Brood X Invasion

Imagine being isolated from all your family and friends for 17 years, oh wait, we can, as we were basically quarantined for the past 15 months. Welcome to Maryland Brood X. The enormous, and creepy, periodical cicadas are finally here after a cold spring, and they are ready to party, maskless! 

Emerging in a yard near you, the insect is in its final nymph stage. It climbs a vertical object, sheds its shell and becomes a winged adult. Then, the 17-year-itch and mating dance begins. The female cicada can lay up to 600 eggs. Cicadas don’t bite, don’t sting, don’t carry disease, and are not poisonous, so why are we so repulsed?

The last time these happy, liberated invaders graced our lawns, patios, and walkways was in 2004. Jenna was graduating from Middle School and she was not a fan. It seemed that every step she took, cicadas were slowly buzzing by her. Truth be told, Jenna never liked bugs, even when she was a small child. So, the large winged cicadas made her crazy, but she could absolutely out run them. Her 8th Grade graduation was indoors but as we walked outside to snap the prerequisite family photos, Jenna was nowhere to be found. She refused to go outside. Made for a tough afternoon.

Cicadas sing from dawn until dusk, but mostly in the afternoon. Their chorus is loud and can be grating. Older neighborhoods with less new construction seem to have a large quantity of the visitors, and Jim’s family home was covered in cicada shells that year. I remember well the crunch of each step up the walkway to the front door and the loud cicada buzzing I could feel inside my car when we pulled up to the house. 

As COVID restrictions begin to disappear with the prevalence of vaccinated humans, we are all about to have a summer party, maskless. Makes me feel some empathy for Brood X. They are just trying to have some fun!