Focus on One: August

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love the water. I grew up in New Jersey, southern New Jersey, where an escape to the beach for the day was 45 minutes away. Nowadays, with the popularity of the destination and the increase in the local population, the trip takes at least an hour, but the beautiful white sand and the smell of the salt water is worth it. I’ve also lived in Michigan, not far from Lake Michigan, and no, it is not “just like the ocean.” It is big, yes, and sunsets are amazing, and it has incredible, enormous sand dunes, but fresh water is different from salt water and the waves are smaller. It is no less awe-inspiring, just different. And I have lived in Colorado, right on a river in a canyon. Smaller, of course, and I could see the other side, but fast moving and really cold all summer. Again, a completely different experience of water. I love a day in the sun, in and out of the water, and reading a book. Focus on One for August is simply to get to the beach and read a book.

It actually takes a lot for me to sit and read a book if it has nothing to do with what I am teaching in the coming year. I have no problem reading novels I am going to teach, or criticism of works I am going to teach, or collections of essays in search of new things to teach, but pleasure reading is a problem. I have to give myself permission and then stop that voice in my head that keeps saying, “You should be re-reading King Lear.” But reading for pleasure is a different activity altogether. Sure any kind of reading is good for my brain, but reading a novel for pleasure actually reduces stress, improves memory, helps develop analytical abilities, and helps with focus so that when I am reading for work, my mind doesn’t wander.

Another benefit of a day at the beach with a book is getting out in the sun. Oh, I know the cancer risks. But don’t put on the sunscreen until about 20 minutes have passed. While sunscreen protects your skin from harmful effects of UV light, it also prevents your skin from being able to manufacture Vitamin D. The good news is that most people won’t get a sunburn in 20 minutes, the time it generally takes for the body to generate enough Vitamin D for the day. And here’s what is interesting. If you are extremely fair-skinned, it takes less time for you to produce the same amount of Vitamin D than someone who is darker skinned, therefore, 5 or 10 minutes of “unprotected” sun time may be enough. I am not saying everyone should ditch the sunscreen. I am saying that a short amount of time in the sun will increase the amount of Vitamin D your body can produce.

Before the school year starts up, and everything gets crazy again, take a day, or an afternoon, or even an evening, and get out to a relaxing spot with a book.

Focus on One: Fun in the Sun

Summer is upon us: time spent outdoors, picnics, barbecues, vacations to the beach or the mountains, or just a day at a water park, it all leads up to fun in the sun. Why is it that I always feel so good, exhausted sometimes, but that good exhausted, after spending the day in the garden, or at the beach? Why do I sleep so well on those nights, in a house without air-conditioning, even if it only goes down to 75?

My first idea was that it was a response to the physical activity. But the thing is, I am pretty active – I garden, I walk our dogs, I clean house, I preserve food. After a little research, I found out that the beach has many restorative powers, like the iodine present in sea-water that helps thyroid function, and the salt in the water that has cleansing properties. But I realized that it wasn’t just on beach days. In fact, I feel much better in the warmer months, when I can get outside. I still walk the dogs, no matter the weather, we are out there, rain, snow, sub-zero (we don’t get much of that in NJ, but a rainy 33 can be more menacing of a walk than a dry -2), but I don’t sleep as well, and just don’t feel as well in the winter months.

I continued my research and I stumbled on some interesting facts about Vitamin D, and how varying levels can have a huge effect on how I am feeling. Vitamin D is photosynthesized by our skin, and we can reach an intake level adequate to meet our daily needs with 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure, depending upon where you live and you skin tone. Yes, you can take a supplement, but the sun is free, and no, 10 – 20 minutes of exposure is not going to cause skin cancer. Of course, if you are photosensitive, or you’re taking medication that makes you photosensitive, you should avoid exposure.

I also came across an article about the benefits of sunlight that gave me some food for thought: while the extensive use of sunscreen has reduced incidents skin cancer, there has also been an increase in musculo-skeletal disorders and autoimmune diseases, two things that are connected to Vitamin D photosynthesis. It will be interesting to see how bone health issues play out in the future, if we continue to use so much sunscreen and limit that amount of time we spend outdoors.

Sun exposure also improves serotonin levels, which helps melatonin levels. These things help people fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer, and get better sleep. I have two insomniac friends that vacation at the Jersey shore every summer and they always say that they sleep better that week than any other week of the year. OK, so you say, “Well, they are on vacation. No stress.” I beg to differ – even if the vacation is to a place you really want to visit, as a parent/mom, there is tremendous pressure to ensure everyone is having a good time, that everyone is taken care of. But they are in the beach all day, everyday, breathing in the salt air, sitting in the sun.

I’m not saying throw the sunscreen in the trash – if you are going to be on the beach all day, or you’re coaching at soccer camp for 8 hours, by all means, slather up with the sunscreen. But if you are just going for a walk at lunch time, and you will only be outdoors for 15 or 20 minutes, forget the sunscreen and let the Vitamin D do its wonders. Focus on One for July? Get outside every day, even for just 10 minutes, and have a little fun in the sun!

Focus on One: Clean Up My Act

There are times during the school year when my To-Do list has a To-Do list. I know I need to focus on one thing, but I just can’t clean up my act.

There are times during the school year that I don’t see my children for two or three days. I have events that take me back to school, so I stay at school until the event, or I go home and then drive back to school, but didn’t see my children because they were at after-school activities. By the time I get home, they are already in bed and asleep. And I leave the house before they wake up in the morning.

There are times during the school year that I am so swamped with paperwork that my desk looks like, well, actually, I can’t find my desk, although I know it is under the mess, somewhere.

Things just get crazy. I know you can relate. Everyone can relate to that feeling of being utterly overwhelmed by things. “How are you?” someone asks, and you answer, “Busy.” Because we seem to live in a perpetual state of busy, we never seem to relax enough to focus on what is really important: our people. But our people require time, the one thing that we never seem to have enough of. One year, my mom asked what I wanted most for my birthday and I told her “Time with my family.” I didn’t want any things, just time to hang out together. Every year, at the end of the school year, I tell my seniors that at some point in their lives they should forego that $200 pair of sneakers and take someone they love out to dinner because the memories will last a lot longer than a pair of shoes.

I am addicted to my calendar. Not on my phone, but a paper calendar that I write on with a pen or pencil. Then I write in my planner. The same event. In two places. Sometimes, this writing twice actually helps me remember without looking. All the time, this writing things twice helps me to stay organized. My mother will vouch for the fact that I was never really very organized. My room was a mess, my homework was a mess, and my locker at school was a mess. When I lived in my own apartment, it was a mess to the untrained eye; however, I knew where everything was. My first foray into being organized made me realize that organization may just be in the eye of the beholder.

But I learned that as a mother and wife, I can’t live like that. And while things do tend to pile up around here, I always get my act together in June. Therefore, June’s focus is getting things cleaned up and organized. I received some great advice about how to do this, relatively stress-free, so I would like to pass it along.

Make it into a Game

Every few years, we play a game called, “Let’s Pretend We Are Moving.” This entails everyone making a thorough sifting of possessions. Trash goes right in a black trash bag, and when the bag is full, it goes right out of the house. Donations get stacked up in the dining room. Clothes for hand-me-downs go in grocery bags. Putting things in different types of containers, or in a specific place that is not in the working area helps at the end of the day, because you don’t have to open the bags and see what is in them.  Sometimes we find things we want to give specific people – a book we think he might like, or a bracelet she once admired, so we set those things aside in small bags labeled with the person’s name. At the end of the day, everyone is tired, and sometimes the house really does look like we are getting ready to move, but once we get all of the stuff we aren’t keeping out of the house, it is much easier to clean it all up.

One Day, One Room

Usually, when I would think about cleaning or getting organized, it was an all-or-nothing endeavor. A friend suggested taking things one room at a time, because then I would still have time to hang out at the pool with her and all of the children. It worked out really well, and I still do this. I focus on cleaning one room: moving furniture, wiping down base-boards – all of those jobs I don’t have time for during the school year. And I get my children in to help me out with things, and it goes even faster, and yes they hate it, but they are pleased when they see the results of their efforts. And there have been times when a room took more than one day. And I count a closet as a room.

Make-It-Yourself Cleaners

I happen to like the smell of bleach. Blame it on those years as a lifeguard and happy memories of the pool. And while bleach is a great cleaner, it isn’t the best thing for the environment. Here are some alternatives:

Spray Cleaner

In a clean sprayer bottle, mix 1 cup of white vinegar, one cup of water, ten drops of lavender essential oil and five drops of tea tree oil. Shake well before you use it. You can use this on counter tops in the kitchen and bath, and on the exterior of the toilet. Spot test the solution on natural stone surfaces to be sure it won’t change the color.

Powered Cleanser

You can replace this with baking soda. Just sprinkle it on a damp sponge and use it the same way you would cleanser. Rinse thoroughly. If you have really stubborn grime or hard water stains, add just enough water to get the baking soda to the consistency of that white paste we had in kindergarten. Spread it on the stain and let it sit for about a half an hour, then scrub it off and rinse.

Wood polish

We have hardwood floors throughout our house. I mop them with 1/4 cup of vinegar diluted in one gallon of warm water. I dry them immediately and then spray them with my floor polish (One cup of olive oil, ½ cup of lemon juice, 8 drops of sage oil and 6 drops of lavender oil, mixed well in a clean sprayer bottle), and wipe off with a soft clean rag. Turn the rag over and polish with the other side. And then no one is allowed to walk in that room for about an hour — just so I can admire the clean floor!

So this month, I will focus on getting cleaned up and organized.

Focus: Enough: Food gratitude

Gratitude is a term that gets bandied about quite a bit from Thanksgiving through Christmas. It’s not a bad thing, to reinforce a sense of gratitude for the things we have. Every year, though, one of my hopes is for this sense of gratitude to last well into the new year.

Since its release in 2012, I have been using A Place at the Table as part of my Politics of Food unit. Student reaction has been consistent: those who have enough food on the table are surprised that hunger is so rampant; those without enough food end up coming to me to talk. They aren’t on Food Stamps because mom/dad/guardian has just lost a job, become disabled, or lost unemployment benefits and although actively seeking, cannot find another job. While I am aware that I teach in a Title I School (those with high percentages of low-income students), when I am teaching, I just see them as students, not a socio-economic statistic. I am never surprised by the number (usually right around the National average of 1 in 10), but sometimes by who: bright, positive, sunny-dispositioned students, with GPA’s over 3.5. They don’t appear tired, don’t seek attention in a negative fashion, don’t appear to have a care in the world. Athletes, academics, and a few who have full time jobs outside of school to help make ends meet. We think about hunger as an urban problem, but it isn’t. Hunger is everywhere, in every school, in every town all across the country.

I have learned from my hungry students that they don’t want a fuss made; that family pride won’t allow them to put their names in for free Thanksgiving dinner baskets that our Student Council and Interact Clubs put together; that they haven’t put in a Free and Reduced Lunch form because they have parents/guardians who view that not as help, but as admitting defeat.

I am middle class. Solidly middle class, and my experience growing up did not include being hungry. I do not know what that is like. We have enough food on our table, so I have never had the heart-wrenching experience of putting a child to bed with an empty stomach. And no matter how empathetic I might be, I cannot fathom the depths of pain that must accompany that situation; that must accompany saying, “I’m sorry. There isn’t any more to eat.”

Ditching the Drive Thru discusses less expensive ways to obtain clean food, but admittedly it addresses the issue from a decidedly middle-class perspective. It does not have a plan or a method for people at poverty or below to obtain clean food. I wish I had an answer for that. I know that my CSA donates fresh food to a food bank that will distribute it. I know that other farms do that as well. And while a private farmer doesn’t accept Food Stamps, there are more and more Farmer’s Markets around that country that do, which is a start. And as to making better, more nutrient-dense food less expensive? Maybe government money should subsidize green beans and carrots and other fresh foods rather than corn, soy, and wheat.

I know that when I ask students if they will accept a bag of fresh fruit and vegetables from me, sometimes they will say yes and other times no. I know that when we donate cans to the food drive, I choose what I would put on my own table: vegetables, tuna fish, and fruit. My colleagues and I keep granola bars in our desks, and bring extra apples or oranges every day. We do this to carry on the tradition of a now-retired colleague. I know that we can’t change the world, but sometimes, we can change a moment in one student’s life. We all have that power.

Some food for thought:  My son and husband have worked with our local Scout troops collecting non-perishable food, and every year he makes the same observation: the trailer park up the road and the low-income housing development always donated more food to the drive than any other neighborhood.

Why write about this in February? Because the Food banks are probably starting to need more food. My goal for this month is to make sure to bring food to the Food Banks in my area.