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!   

Dress for Success

When I was first starting out as a junior advertising executive in NYC in the early 1980s, my highly ambitious female boss taught me an important lesson. When you are trying to make an excellent first impression in business, but are in doubt about what to wear, dress one level up from what is expected – so, if it’s casual, dress in business casual, etc. I have never veered from this in nearly 35 years, until the past 14 months.

I have always thought that dressing the part was important in gaining professional respect and success, especially as a woman, but now I am not so sure. From dresses and heels to jeans and boots, the pandemic has changed my thinking about professional wardrobe. 

Miuccia Prada said, What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language. And, while I agree that fashion is language, in this time of COVID, I have found that my language is, literally, language. 

I have spent 14 months leading a school in this complicated and unprecedented time requiring a high quantity of written communication and Zoom Town Hall Meetings to speak with parents. Professional clothing has not been a focus of my day, nor has it been a close second. The enormity of the issues facing schools and the world in this time of COVID require a very high level of reflection, informed decision making, and clear communication. This can be accomplished quite well in the comfort of casual clothing, especially from the waist down in our Zoom world.

Ralph Lauren said: Fashion is not necessarily about labels. It’s not about brands. It’s about something else that comes from within you. These words resonate with me. I know that it is not about fancy clothes or popular name brands, it is about feeling good about yourself and choosing clothing that reflects your personality. It seems to me right now that our personalities need soft, warm, and relaxed clothing to counter the heavy lifting our brains are doing.

Remember Jane Jetson – she was ahead of her time with her video telephone. The perfectly coiffed hair and face she “wore” over her true, tired self is what we all need for our Zoom meetings! Yet, it is our authentic tired selves making the world move forward and we are doing a pretty good job in jeans.

Dress for success? To me, in this moment, means being at ease with your fashion choices so that your mind can succeed. 

Words Change Worlds

Words change worlds – just ask Jason Reynolds, the poet and New York Times best-selling author of over a dozen young adult and middle-grade books, including Ghost, a National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature. I had the incredible opportunity to listen to Reynolds address independent school educators yesterday at the National Association of Independent Schools virtual annual conference (NAISAC). Despite the fact that I was sitting alone in my office, I was moved to tears and goosebumps as if I was listening in a room filled with educators from across the country, nestled alongside my dearest colleagues.

Reynold’s story is empowering, inspiring, and authentic, and he is on a mission to touch the lives of black teenagers by letting them know that he sees them.  “I can talk directly to them in a way that I know they’re going to relate to because I am them,” he told the New York Times in 2019, “and I still feel like them.”

To the crowd of educators at #NAISAC this week, Reynolds told us that he did not pick up a book until he was 17. “The books that were given to me in school, there was never a connection for me,” he said. Finally, an African American literature teacher gave him a book and asked him to read 5 pages – if he was not hooked he did not have to finish. He finally had a character he could relate to. The rest, as we say, is history. The book “chemically changed me,” said Reynolds, because it gave him permission to draw from the stories of his family and friends and write the way they speak. It is our job as educators to make sure that our students read books that offer windows and mirrors to the diverse lives they live. Reynolds’ journey affirms this.

“Language, this thing has freed me,” he passionately explained. I was enthralled by his every word and facial expression. Especially when he spoke about rap music. “Rap music saved my life – it shifted the way I thought about myself and shifted the way I thought about possibility. It was telling truths.” I remember when James was in high school listening to rap music. He also told us it was poetry, and it inspired his own writing and his love of words in a way that nothing else could. 

I hope one day to bring Jason Reynolds, a Maryland native, to Kent School as our endowed Kudner Leyon Visiting Writer. His words are so important for all of us to hear. He left us yesterday at NAISAC with an important charge to reflect upon. An essential question that is so important now in this global pandemic. How are we keeping our children whole? I have thought about this since he formed the words and said them to us out loud yesterday. I am convinced that along with heath and wellness initiatives, it must also involve reading and discussing books. Books that represent each and every student. Classics and new novels carefully curated to offer relevant glimpses into history and the complicated world we live in today.

Grateful to Jason Reynolds for his words that change worlds.

Hope Road

In my travels on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, I occasionally see an exit for Hope Road in Centreville, off of Route 301N. I have never taken it, but I have often wondered where the road goes, and why it is named Hope. If ever there was a time we need to drive down Hope Road, it is right now.

To say that 2020 was a challenging year is an understatement. COVID, racial relations in our country, politics, the Presidential election, and an insurrection at the United States Capitol in the early days of 2021, have all weighed heavily upon our minds and hearts, and we all long for normalcy to return to our daily lives. Sadly, I have forgotten what that looks and feels like. Yet, as a school leader, I need to remain hopeful and optimistic.

Hope is an optimistic state of mind, based upon an expectation of positive outcomes of events and circumstances in one’s life or in the world. Research shows that hope has an impact on emotional wellbeing, and one’s level of hope can predict future anxiety and depression. 

This has been a year of intense learning, adapting, creating, executing, and hoping to implement a plan to safely open our school in the midst of a global pandemic. I am proud of my school and our efforts to remain open. We have successfully completed 16 weeks of in-person instruction. Yet, I am worried that I have not been able to focus my attention on long term strategies in many months. Operations has forced my hand, and I have had to be far more involved in creating a COVID-responsive school than advancing my non-COVID school.

I have a headache most days as I feel the strain of keeping our students and employees safe at school. Thank goodness for River, the Kent School dog, who turned one on January 3. River fills me with hope, and keeps me calm – except when he ruins another couch pillow. River also helps me get exercise and reflect outdoors, something I have really grown to love. While we got River as a puppy before we had even heard of COVID, he was an unexpected joy in the months of the Maryland stay-at-home order, and he has been a great addition to the student body at Kent School this academic year. The students love him and they need him. He is in constant demand as a member of each class’ gym routine. River is our hope. A wag of his tail or a dog kiss can certainly make your day. 

I have found in the past year that we must treasure simple pleasures and kindnesses. We had a surprise visit on our porch on New Year’s Eve from some new neighbors dropping by with a bottle of spirits to help us ring in the new year. They made our quiet celebration for two something a little warmer and happier. We all need more humanity in our lives, more warmth, more happiness, and more hope. 

This week a new President and an historic female Vice-President will take the oath of office in what I hope is a visible peaceful and majestic symbol to the world of our great American democracy. To me, it signals hope for a brighter 2021 and hope for a brighter future for humans of differing opinions in our country and our diverse world. 

As for me, I am going for a drive. You can find me on Hope Road.

Simple Abundances

And now let us welcome the New Year full of things that have never been.

~Rainer Maria Rilke

January, the month of new beginnings and cherished memories, beckons. Come, let winter weave her wondrous spell: cold, crisp, woolen-muffler days, long dark evenings of savory suppers, lively conversations, or solitary joys. Outside the temperature drops as the snow falls softly. All of nature is at peace. We should be, too. Draw hearthside. This is the month to dream, to look forward to the year ahead and the journey within.

I have just begun a journey to read Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach during 2021. Although the book was written in 1995, it is new to me. The passage above is today’s message. Happy New Year and Welcome 2021! I am looking forward with optimism and hope.

All day yesterday I kept thinking – what shall I wear to our New Year’s Eve festivities in our own dining room. It made me smile, but it also made me nostalgic. Truth be told, Jim and I have not ventured out on NYE in years, but last night felt different because there was truly no place to go. We were visited unexpectedly on our front porch by some neighbors who brought a gift of wine to start the new year. It was a heartwarming, simple abundance that Jim and I very much appreciated. 

When we were raising our children, Jim was always the Uber driver on NYE, back before Uber was a thing. My job was to maintain the home fire, while preparing a special five course meal which we ate between kids’ runs. Last night, Jim and I enjoyed our usual seafood-centric, five-course dinner with a gorgeous view of the Chester River from our new dining room picture window, our Christmas gift to ourselves. Thanks KRM Construction for the amazing simple abundance of a new view on life through a beautiful portal to our spot on the water.

Last night, as we face-timed with our children and watched the ball drop in an empty Times Square, I thought of the simple abundance of love that we are blessed to have in our lives. Love of family, friends, and a black lab pup who turns one on Sunday. Life is full of simple abundances and I am grateful for each of them.

And, today, as I gaze out the new window, I feel great hope and optimism for the coming year. I know that nothing really changed dramatically overnight, except, of course, our mindset. 

Cheers to a new year full of things yet to come!

Light and Love

Ultimately there is light and love and intelligence in this universe. And we are it, we carry that within us, and this is what we are trying to reconnect with, our original light and love and intelligence, which is who we are, so do not get so distracted by all this other stuff, really remember what we are here on this planet for.

~Tenzin Palmo, author, teacher, and one of the first westerners to be ordained as a nun in the Tibetan tradition

Light and Love are two powerful symbols of this season of Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa. In this time of disconnection, light and love are also the most important ingredients for gratefulness.

Like many families this year, Jim and I will be spending Christmas without our children and extended family for the first time. While I am unhappy about it, I am grateful that we were all together for Thanksgiving, and knock wood, no one became ill with COVID after traveling to Chestertown. That said, traveling anywhere during COVID is not fun, and probably not smart, so I completely understand everyone’s decisions. I am sure we will be on Facetime a lot!

To enjoy this holiday season, without the love of family present in our home, we are filling the house with light. Well, sort of. Don’t judge, but we decided against a Christmas tree this year for a lot of reasons. What we miss the most, however, is not the large fir tree sitting in the middle of the family room dropping needles everywhere, but the bright, colorful lights. (Yes, I also miss the nostalgia created by opening the box of long time family ornaments, many handmade, and some with photographs, but that is another story.) It is the Christmas lights filling our house at night that warms our hearts and brings us joy. So, we have decorated inside with a lot of lights. It is very festive when the sun goes down in our cozy cottage and the lights click on. Like an old and dear friend, I am grateful for their comfort.

I have also realized this year in particular that we do carry light and love within us all year long. You can see it in the eyes of essential workers like the front line health care community, grocery store employees, and, especially, in our teachers, and those who support teaching and learning, at Kent School. As we embark upon our 14th week of in-person instruction on our beautiful riverside campus, our final week before a well-deserved winter break, I am so grateful and proud of what we have accomplished for our students. We are the light, the love and the intelligence for the Kent School universe. 

May Light, Love and Gratefulness fill your holiday season and the New Year.

One Drum

I have been thinking a lot lately about the connectedness of all living things. I chose CONNECT as my word to hold before the Kent School community this academic year because I believe that it is so important for us to CONNECT meaningfully in this time of disconnection due to the pandemic. But, my fascination with the word has taken me in a surprising direction.

A wise and thoughtful school head I know in Canada steered me toward the writing of the late Richard Wagamese. I have been inspired by his meditations since the summer. He is an Ojibway from the Wabaseemoong First Nation of Canada. His storytelling is one of Canada’s many gifts to the world, and to me personally.

His words ground me. I began with Embers, but it is his book, One Drum, in which he reflects on the connectedness of the universe and all of its pieces, that is speaking to me. “We are all one energy, one soul, one song and one drum.” Yes. 

These morning meditations have inspired me to learn more about indigenous peoples in our country, and I also have been reading about Chief Seattle, Chief of the Dwamish, Suquamish and allied Indian tribes, widely regarded as one of the most important figures among Native Americans for his efforts to accommodate the white settlers in the United States. On the other hand, Chief Seattle had also been a lifelong advocate of the need to respect the land rights of the Native Americans. In a letter to President Franklin Pierce in 1854, he wrote: 

We are all children of the Great Spirit, we all belong to Mother Earth. Our planet is in great trouble and if we keep carrying old grudges and do not work together, we will all die. 

How incredible that these words ring true today – one hundred and sixty-six years later. Have we not learned the most important lesson of all throughout the course of history. We are all connected and we must work together to heal our one world. We must respect and celebrate the differences of others, because we cannot all be the same. Our world leaders must come together to fight a global pandemic, climate change, and senseless territory wars. We must listen to each other and listen to our planet.

2020 has been a tough year. (I realize that is an understatement but I was trying not to swear.) We must welcome 2021 by taking a lesson from schools. Humanity needs to adopt a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck’s research, “a growth mindset thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” This is the roadmap. Let’s go, people. We don’t have time to waste.

Over Thanksgiving I shared with my family my desire to learn more about Native Americans and their teachings and beliefs. James and his girlfriend Whitney sent me a belated birthday gift of a pair of beautiful mukluks. The boots, generally made from sealskin or reindeer-skin are typically worn by indigenous peoples of the arctic regions of Alaska, Canada, Greenland, and eastern Siberia. The word “mukluk” is of Iñupiat and Yupik origin, from maklak, the bearded seal. My bearded seal boots have a beautiful blue (for Kent School!) bead design and they are the coziest and warmest boots I own. I will treasure them, and I am grateful for the love and support of my family as I take this journey to more understanding. 

We are all connected. More so than I even believed in September when I selected my word for the year. Collectively, we can make change happen. And, we must.

Wine of the Fog and the Hill

Last evening Chester River Yacht and Country Club held one of their spectacular five course wine dinners. Jenna joined me and we learned about the Vajra wines from the Piedmont region of Italy. I love a great bottle of wine, but I really love a great story. 

Since the 1600s generations of the Vajra family have grown grapes on this beautiful countryside in the northwest corner of Italy near the Alps. Historically, the family sold their grapes to winemakers, but in recent years the younger generation decided to harvest their own grapes and produce under their own label. And, speaking of labels, the designs of dragons, flowers, and birds in full color are stunning pieces of art. 

One of the selections, Vajra Nebbiolo Langhe 2018 was especially delicious and when I learned the word for the grape nebbiolo means fog, I knew this was the wine I needed to offer at my Thanksgiving table in 2020. During harvest, which generally takes place late in October, a deep, intense fog sets into the Langhe region where many Nebbiolo vineyards are located. Hence the name.

Recently I was inspired by a new UnderArmour Team video featuring fog as a metaphor for COVID-19, I am convinced that the tagline – the only way is through – introduced in January, should be our anthem for 2020. The Nebbiolo Langhe, wine of the fog, is thus the drink of the year.

We have had fog on the Chester River almost every day for the past two weeks. I am now looking out my new dining room picture window at fog, once again. The best thing about it, though, is that when it finally lifts, you can see so clearly that which has been hidden. It is a reminder that once we are out of the fog of COVID our path will be visible. I hope that it will make people kinder, and more empathetic toward each other and to our differences.

We also tasted a bold and hearty barolo last evening, which I specifically went to the dinner to taste. Vajra Barolo Bricco Viole 2015 is also made from the nebbiolo grapes. Bricco means top of the hill. Another great metaphor for 2020. The only way is through the fog, and we must get to the top of the hill for the best vantage point.