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Making Life Count

Why stretch yourself and reach for a better life?

Why suffer the discomfort of thinking about or worse, writing out all the details of something you could never put in place given your current circumstances?

Why dream of a big backyard for the kids, a vacation home in the mountains, retiring in your twenties or thirties, forties or fifties… or even — if you’re barely making ends meet or digging deeper into the debt hole every month?

Why dream of giving thousands of dollars to a cause you’d love to support when no one can guarantee that you’ll scale that mountain? Has anyone traversed childhood without hearing the words, “Don’t get your hopes up”?

Good story: Several decades ago, when I was completing the student teaching portion of earning a teaching credential in Early Childhood Education, I organized and led a field trip to a redwood lined canyon about 30 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge. For weeks, I had drilled these 30 kindergarteners on how to identify about a dozen of the plants they would see on our hike using a crude self-made flip chart.

I’ll never forget the question asked by one excited boy when we’d just started out and there was a center divide with tree plantings. He asked, “Teacher, teacher! Are those redwood trees?!!”

You see, few if any of these children had EVER been out of the inner city. One particularly revealing memory is one morning at recess one little girl asked to hold my hand as I walked around basically breaking up fights. Her mother was walking by, stormed into the yard, wrenched the girl free, cuffed her on the ear, and shouted to me, “What’d she do?” She assumed that I was taking her daughter to see the principal for some infraction. I asked myself: Did she ever just hold her daughter’s hand? Did she ever tell her daughter that her future can be anything she chooses, that she can be a woman of influence and purpose?

There were regular thefts of lunch pails because more than half the kids arrived at school without lunches, and most hadn’t had breakfast. Ramming a rival with your desk or a table was a frequent occurrence, and fighting was the least concerning behavior in the cloakroom. Witness to intimacies at home, I was shocked to learn that this behavior was also mirrored, even in 5 and 6-year-olds.

Graphic picture, I know, and not one for which my professors had prepared any of us. It was much later in my teaching career that I learned to “police” a classroom, but never again did I have a class anything like this one.

Some might call it reckless that I decided to conduct a field trip as my student teaching project. I really didn’t know what would happen, but I suspected losing someone in the woods was one particularly grave — and not highly unlikely risk, given the combative and impulsive nature of my charges. In retrospect, I’m a little surprised the school let me take them. Maybe they had visions of much calmer recess breaks!.

During the bus ride, volume was high but so was excitement. Keeping kids in their seats was the only real challenge.

The miracle started to coalesce in earnest as soon as the scenery started to change from concrete and wires to sweeping vistas and wide skies. First, there was the glorious shimmering bay and the lofty golden bridge. All but the hardcore hyper actives began to quiet. Then came the trip into the picturesque town of Larkspur, and they were quieter still. When we headed up the canyon road winding through giant redwoods, there was silence and very wide eyes.

We got off the bus and immediately a girl here, a boy there started to recognize bay laurel, redwood sorrel in bloom, wild iris, sword fern, and the lichen colloquially called ‘old man’s beard.” You can guess which child just stood wordlessly under a huge redwood tree staring up trying to see the top. These children ran out and then returned to me to pull me to confirm their find.

There was no running off into the woods. There were NO fights. There was only wonder. It was a stunning transformation.

I like to believe that I opened their eyes that day — to the beauty of nature, to more harmonious communities, to the spirit of inquiry that expands all of us.

But they opened my eyes too. Looking at their engaged faces and hearing them laugh with the joy of experiencing something totally new, I realized that it’s imperative for all of us to try new places, new people, and new ideas on for size. How else will we find out what life we want to invent for ourselves?

Recently Lee was talking to a young woman who was our grocery check-out clerk in a desert town in Arizona. Being his usual congenial self, Lee asked her if she was from around there. She said, “Yes, my whole life.” Then he asked, “So, if you could go anywhere, where would you want to go?” Her answer: “Anywhere but here.” Our time was up with her, but Lee says he can’t forget her answer. Her frustration, her sense of being trapped by circumstances was palpable.

Lee and I have absolute conviction that life does not have to be a continual rerun, that anyone can design a new blueprint and, with good mentorship, construct a better life with unlimited possibility. We left wishing we didn’t have to head north so soon — without throwing out a lifeline to this young woman. We feel so sad for people who feel that it’s inevitable that others define their lives.

For the inner city kids fighting because anger is all they see, the young woman consigning herself to a life redecorating her rut, and all the people who feel that the life they’d most like to be living is off-limits for them — the starting place is the same. The starting place is that gift only we humans were awarded — imagining something better– getting our hopes up. This is always the first step in creating anything new.

Research shows that actually writing down these imaginings transforms them from wishful thinking into intentions in our subconscious mind. The subconscious mind sees these seeds of intent as instructions and goes in search of evidence to confirm what we can, indeed, alter the trajectory of our lives. I think of writing down what we want as laying claim to it.

Our reasoning conscious mind –the part of our thinking that reflects all our conditioning to date — shouts disclaimers:

“It’s unreasonable to ever expect to make in a month what you make in a year now!”  

“What makes you think you can break out of the pack, kiss your commute good-bye and travel the world?” 

“You have too much going on right now to even consider making a change.”   

The tiny seedling of hope can’t take root in this infertile soil.

Why is it possible for some inner-city children to break free of multi-generational decline and live fulfilling lives of contribution and peace of mind? How is it that we see people, much like our young grocery clerk, take a chance, leave the pack and write a new script for their lives?

I believe that, without exception, the people who take charge of their future, who are willing to drown out conventional thinking with their own freedom song, are the people who make a conscious decision to swim against the current of social norms.

It’s daring to leave the pack. It takes courage to dream, and even greater courage to seek out the voices of those who tell us that we can live a better life, a life without regrets.

Does that mean it’s going to be clear sailing once we decide we’re headed for a dead end and it’s time to change direction?

No. Not at all. There are sure to be bumps in this road less travelled much like the ones in the rutted track. A car breaks down, a marriage hits a critical impasse, a job is lost, a child is at risk in some way, there’s a frightening diagnosis. Any of these can send us scurrying back to the familiar, shrinking back to the seeming safety of low expectations.

Where the greatest courage is required is to stick with expanding our vision of what’s possible when circumstances trigger our more primitive brain to flee, not fight. It takes guts to keep slugging when we take a good, hard punch. And it takes a rare humility to seek out the help of those who have made it out of the rut.

To paraphrase an old homily, a Native American elder was told his grandchild that there are two animals doing battle in his mind, and the one who wins will determine whether he lives a life of greatness or a life of fawning mediocrity. The child asks which one will win, and the grandfather answers, “The one you feed.”

Feed the dream. Feed the soaring eagle of possibility. Feed it even when the storms try to blow you off course, even when lightning strikes and you have to take cover for a while.

Listen to those who say you can effect change in your life. Take the lifeline offered by those who have gone before.

Why commit to your dreams by writing them down?

It’s the first step to getting your life off the ground. It’s the first step to getting back up whenever life knocks you down.

It’s the first step to capturing this fleeting life and making it count.

Susan Strong
Susan Strong
Susan has always loved to write, and pursued it full-time for a number of years as the Book Editor of San Francisco Magazine and later as a freelancer for major international magazines. In order to provide greater stability for her late-in-life progeny, Susan put down her “pen” for twelve years to teach Writers’ Workshop and serve as the Admissions Director of an independent school. To free more time to learn the lessons her beautiful son and daughter had to teach, she launched a business that replaced her job income two years later, and also freed precious hours to happily obsess over the perfect phrase again. Now she and her great love and husband, Lee, travel full-time while building their business, timetodowhatyoulove. Their mission is to empower and guide people in the pursuit of their best lives. For Susan, her best life will always include trying to capture the elusive meaning of it all in words.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Susan, this was masterful! So I’m boo-hoo’ing all over my computer now, thank you very much. You remind me of how critical it is that we plant those seeds of possibility wherever we go. People tend to live into their on belief of what is possible for them. I remember, years ago, I was teaching a strengths program to a group of “high risk youth” and they had zero context for the conversation. Nobody had ever told them that they each possessed unique strengths. They all had come from neighborhoods where few graduated from high school, much less considered college an option. It simply wasn’t a possibility they thought was available to them. Simply planting the seed of possibility can be life-changing. I’m so grateful you’ve joined this community. I sincerely look forward to becoming a champion for your work.

    • You, Kimberly, are a kindred soul! I remember a Native American friend of mine — Art Runningbear — saying to me once that his tribe’s belief is that we are all born with a “tribe,” and when we meet one of them, we know instantaneously; we can FEEL it. My tribe are invariably seed-planters like you.

      Thank you for the kind and encouraging words,
      Susan

  2. Simon, I’m stunned and humbled by your words!
    I love “life outside a concrete shell”! (Maybe this should be the title?!)
    I’m getting little explosions of happiness that my words took you to a place of profound gratitude for your own peaceful and supportive childhood as well as the harmony and love you share with your own children,
    Susan

  3. Susan Strong! This is strong. Gripping and provoking. It encourages the pursuit of Hope and to find strength. It doesn’t matter when..it just matters that you do.
    Being in the company of children we need to promote the dreams and the right to hold value. What happens in childhood is the script for adulthood. Knowing you can change the script, changes the stages in life.
    Thank you for this wonderfully written and inspiring story.
    Your name suits you! So great to meet you too!
    Paula

    • Thank you, Paula! What an insightful and gracious response!
      I love “What happens in childhood is the script for adulthood.”
      Gratifying to know that singular actions taken can have a profound
      and lasting impact and, as you say, have the potential to “change the script”!

      Here’s to finding the joy in this day,
      Susan

  4. Oh Susan! Thank you for writing this. I adore the story from the Native American elder. What a powerful statement.

    I worked in a state funded day care center in a not-so-great part of NJ for many of my younger years and had similar experiences as you describe. I wasn’t able to get them physically out of the concrete jungle, but at 16 years old I’d regularly be in charge of a “miraculously” well-behaved group of “bad-kids”. Even at the young age of two, these kids were placed into this unfair category.

    I’d give each one a little extra attention and make sure they felt heard and loved. For some that was playing with a puzzle one-on-one, for others it was changing the shirt they had on for the past three days from the bin of hand-me-downs, and for others it was fixing their hair in ways that gave them confidence. And in return, they listened and played nicely. They wanted to be in my room. There was no threat or bribe, just humanity.

    I often think back fondly on those days. Those children helped me become the mother I am today. I’ll be forever grateful for those lessons.

    • Your strong and sweet memories are a testament that when we care for children, they ARE the teachers. They teach us the power of making someone feel seen and heard. None of us have to “act out” if just one person in our world is making us feel like we count, that our presence makes a difference. Thank you so much, Joanne, for bringing that front and center for me again!

    • I so appreciate that you took the time to compliment my piece, Maria.
      I think my Pantheist inclinations started young!
      It seems I’ve long believed that natural beauty unifies, enlightens and heals.

      Sincere thanks,
      Susan

  5. This was a fantastic read, Susan, I was right there with you in the bus.

    Please allow me to share your story with my friend who is on the board of Environmental Volunteers, an organization that serves a big number of SF Bay Area schools with giving them exactly the experience of awe you describe that the nature around us so amply provides – if we can get out there.

  6. Susan, I am stunned by your thought provoking article. You literally walked; guided me through the negativity that visits some kids; de-motivating parents or minders. The ‘concrete jungle’ limiting their view of a potential sunrise, an horizon, something really do-able to gradually build on. It also made me feel so fortunate a privileged as a kind and beyond to adulthood.
    The thought; the visualization of a mom grabbing her little girl by the hand and yelling at her was bordering on the traumatic. I m lucky. I have two of the most fantastic kids and hugs come naturally, whether via face-time or in person. Love is essential as it is part of kindness and harmony. A child feeling no hesitation in talking openly with parents’ who are receptive rather than too self-centered to bother.

    Thank you for sharing this most moving account. It will stimulate, promote thoughts and possible gentle actions, improving the life of someone who believes there is no life outside a ‘concrete shell’.

    Your words have really entered my heart.

    My kindest regards to you, Susan

    Simon Lever
    Winchester – from across The Pond
    Championing Positivity Empathy and Kindness

    • I’m sincerely moved by your response, Simon! And so happy to hear that it took you to a place of gratitude for both your own peaceful and supported childhood as well as affirming the love and harmony you share with your own children.

      I love “life outside a concrete shell”! Maybe that should be the title!?

      Thank you!
      Susan

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