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Friday, July 8, 2016

Life Lessons From a Pineapple

I'm going to start this post by offering some unsolicited advice.

I've been home for exactly one month. Its been one month of hugs, family, food, a trip to Disneyland, an interview and a job offer, trying to buy a car and figure out what it looks like to live in America. I've spent time with people but a lot of time by myself, too. Here's my advice: if you know someone who just got back from studying, working, or living abroad and want to know about their experience try asking specific questions.

I've most appreciated those people who pinpoint their questions because a specific question is much easier to answer than the giant "how was Micronesia" question. That one is easy to ask but overwhelming to answer. It's much easier to answer questions like: How was the food? What was your job like? Did you really wear muumuus? What do you miss the most? What's the best part of being back? I want to ask better questions when my friends return stateside and I want to challenge you to do the same.

Besides those people who ask specific questions, I've found myself incredibly grateful for the ones who have made this transition themselves. I've had people ask me, "But Emily, how are you really? Because when I moved back after living in _______ it was really hard." Those people remind me that I am not alone and it's ok to feel a plethora of complicated, contradictory feelings all at the same time.

In between eating spinach salads and figuring out how to be in America, I've thought a lot about the life I want to create. Moves offers a fresh slate and I've been thinking about how I want to fill mine. It all comes down to capacity and choice.

We carry with us, as human beings, not just the capacity for different actions and emotions but the very choice of how we want to live.

Each person has capacity - the capacity to be kind, to be loving, to be joyful or jealous or angry. It's in all of us.

What's really beautiful, the part that's profound and moving, is choice.

Capacity is our baseline, choice is our heart. We all have the capacity to be kind, but there are some who choose to be kinder than necessary. I appreciate and look up to those people. We all have the capacity to show hospitality, but I witnessed more hospitality during my 2 years in Pohnpei than the 22 years before. We all have it in us to be open-minded, but it takes the choice to put open-mindedness into action.

Have we chosen to be helpful today? To be humble? To be truthful? To step outside the noise of our own lives and offer generosity to others? We all have the capacity but each of us must make the choice. And it's not easy because after the choice comes the work of actually living that virtue out, but we must, or else we will forever live admiring the choices others have made to tell the truth or be compassionate but we'll never have lived that way ourselves.

Living in Pohnpei changed my life. I worked harder, sweated more, learned how to build a life and navigate a new culture. I'm a truer version of myself, now, thanks to the past 2 years. I am more of the woman that God made me to be. I'm a vastly different person today than 2 years ago. My dreams have changed, the way I see and interact with the world has changed, the way I think has changed. It happened slowly, day-after-day of small choices and moments and mindsets. It's hard to describe but I want you to know that my spirit and heart have changed. My life is forever marked by this season.

I have a simple motto these days:

Be a pineapple.

Now, I have a mild obsession with pineapples. Eating pineapple, pineapple shirts or journals or keychains. Ever since I found this phrase on pinterest I've been a sucker for anything and everything pineapple.

Stand tall, wear a crown, & be sweet on the inside. Pineapples hit on three key choices I want to make every day which I got to practice in Pohnpei - to be confident, take care of myself, and be kind.

Stand Tall
Was I qualified to be the tech expert, the accreditation paperwork writer, the curriculum editor? Not particularly. But I was willing to put in the work and I had confidence that I would do a good job, even though I hadn't done it before. I was confident and I was my own biggest cheerleader. I did a lot of 'faking it until you make it' and honestly, I don't think anyone ever knew. That's what happens when you stand tall, have confidence in yourself, and aren't afraid to work hard and ask questions.

Wear a Crown
I think too many people forget to take care of themselves. Maybe they think they don't deserve it or have too many responsibilities or too little time, but Pohnpei pushed me to my limit and taught me that I have to take care of myself. My self-care often involves working out, reading, and going for walks. Those are the things that I do to fill myself up so I can give to others. Everyone's self care is different but it truly is the most important thing you can do. Please please please remember that you are wonderful and please please please take care to keep yourself feeling whole. You wear a metaphoric crown and deserve to treat yourself that way.

Be Sweet On the Inside
No matter what happens, be kind. There is hate and injustice and heartbreak in this world. In the past 48 hours news stories have brought me to my knees, brought tears to my eyes, made me wonder what in the world I can do to help and made me whisper fervent, broken prayers. All I know is that no one will get mad at you for being extra sweet to the cashier or your co-worker or your family. Lets spread LOVE. No matter what is happening be sweet on the inside and let it show on the outside.

These are my mantras.

Thank you for reading them and for reading about my life the past 2 years. You came to Pohnpei with me and I hope you are richer for it, I know I am. I hope these posts left you with more hope than you started the day with. I hope they made you think and evaluate your own life. I hope they gave you a peak into my heart and a glimpse into the wonderful island of Pohnpei. Most of all I hope you saw God in the stories I shared and words I wrote. Because I see God in each one of you, and I hope you see Him in yourself.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Lessons Learned

Back in the fall our maintenance man made a concrete bridge connecting two parts of the school so instead of hopping over a little ditch, students could walk across. I was coming out of the office as the concrete was drying and principal told me, "Put your hands in it! It's still wet!" The other teachers agreed so out I went to immortalize my handprints at PCS. I hope in 5 or 10 years to come back and put my hands right back there.


Last week the PCS staff and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch celebrating my time here in Pohnpei and imminent departure. At the end I got this beautiful local handicraft as a gift and had the chance to say a few words. I'd been thinking about what I was going to say, perfectly calm and collected inside my head. Then I got up to actually speak and immediately my eyes filled with tears. I managed to squeak out a whisper, "I've learned more about hospitality and generosity the past two years than ever before. Thank you for inviting me into your family and teaching me how to be a better teacher and friend."

Hospitality. Generosity. Rest.

Those are the three biggest lessons I have learned here.

Pohnpeians have Matthew 25:35 on lockdown, "For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

If you go over to someone's house or walk by people eating together, you're likely to be invited to come eat. Homelessness and hunger are not major social justice issues here. Why? Because everyone has a family. And if you have a  family, you have a place to stay and food to eat. Family is serious, serious business. Loyalty to family runs to the core of your being.

Where hospitality abounds, so does generosity, whether that be generosity with one's time, money, food, or energy. It seems as though every weekend there is some sort of fundraiser happening around the island (bingo, sakau, raffles) and whole villages will go enjoy the social event and support whatever cause their neighbors are fundraising for.

The other supreme lesson I've learned is rest. Rest, rest, rest. I've rested more here than ever in my life. I've read 117 books (that's 37,256 pages!) in 22 months. I've played more games of Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride than I care to admit (and loved every minute of them) and learned to just be. Life moves at a slower pace here and people realize the value of rest, not only when you're sick but also when you're perfectly well. Rest is good for the soul. Always.

Apparently I needed a last minute reminder about the importance of rest. I've been down for the count these last few days with a terrible case of cold sores. My mouth is riddled with them. And they HURT, besides making my lips/face look like an alien. Not exactly how I envisioned spending some of my last days in Pohnpei. I finally got the right medicine Monday from my doctor after being mis-medicated at the hospital and am slowly on the road to recovery. (It is now Thursday and I look normal again - yay!) In the process I've done one thing: rest. Monday I spent the entire day watching movies and sleeping and reading different blogs. I took my meds and didn't talk or smile (it hurts!). My Principal was having an allergic reaction to some fish she ate and between her swollen face and my swollen lips, we were a quite a mess. When I went to Kindergarten graduation on Tuesday and the teachers all took one look at me after the ceremony and told me, "Emily, go rest. Go now!"

Pohnpeians know that our greatest strength comes out of a place of rest. Not from a place of striving or seeking or racing. From a place of rest.

Today, may you spend some quiet moments in true rest. Whether you are sick or healthy, worn down or walking on top of the world, may you rest and know the great strength that comes from it.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Rules, Teacher Emily

I have rules, Teacher Emily.

That's what Randall told me the other day.

Would you like to hear them?

Sure, Randall, sock it to me.

1) Always listen to Randall.
2) Students do their work.
3) I will sleep at my house.

Those are nice rules, Randall.

You can call me FBI.

Ok, FBI, go find your friends and play for a while.

I went back to my grading before I realized that Randall was onto something with these rules of his. We all have rules - unspoken or written - that shape how we live our lives. They're the mottos we live by, the things that ground us, the proverbs we play on repeat like a broken record.

I've added a new rule to my life maxims: acknowledge the end.

How to do this well and what it actually means - acknowledging the end - are still a work in progress. Acknowledging the end means saying out loud, "I won't do these things anymore, but it mattered that I did them, and it mattered that I did them with you." It means this job or person or place or season of life shaped me in significant ways and it's now coming to an end. It means I'm not the same person that I was before this (job/relationship/place/season) and I'm grateful for that. Acknowledging the end is recognizing the moments that changed me.

These moments, they deserve a hundred rounds of applause and a cash prize and a deep announcer's voice proclaiming them the winner. I've let myself be changed by the world, be changed by Pohnpei, be changed by my students and friends and host family. Each person and day and event changed me - made me more loving, more open, more patient, more empathetic, more aware of the experiences of others, of how very big the world is and how very small I am. There were moments that broke my heart and took my breathe away like a hard punch to the gut. Sometimes I became more frustrated, more short tempered, more of all those characteristics I don't want to be. Other moments left me helpless and confused and angry. These too, the hard moments, deserve their space on the podium, because we are not only changed by joy and goodness but by hard fought lessons when you walk through fire and aren't always at your best before you earn your reward.


Last week I gathered some Girl Scout Cookies, chocolate, and my pull-out students for something that I like to call a 'Teacher Emily Acknowledges the End Ceremony.' Besides teaching 1st grade this year, I've been working with small groups of students (1st-4th graders) on reading and language skills in the afternoons. I have truly thrived in this job. The chance to work with small groups and encourage these students utilized my gifts to the T.

The students and I gathered together on our last day to celebrate and to stop. We stopped for a moment over Thin Mints and Toblerone to recognize what mattered. It mattered that we met everyday to learn and share and grow this year. The moments we spent together mattered. Those moments have come to an end and this unique group of people won't ever be together again in this exact way. But we were together this year, and we learned from each other and brought our best to the table. That matters, and that's worth recognizing.

I wanted to show my students the power of acknowledging the end. There is power in naming the end, putting words to it, saying and feeling something. With each group there was a holy moment, a moment when time stopped and they all looked at me as I said, "Thank you for letting me be your teacher this year. Thank you for being my students. I care about all of you and I will miss you so much. You have changed me and I am so grateful."

Each student talked about their favorite activities and lessons from the past year. Our emotional, holy moment exchanged itself for laughter and hunger when I dug out the Thin Mints and Toblerone, but I know they got it. I saw it in their eyes.

2nd Grade

4th Grade

3rd Grade
I'm embarking on a season of goodbyes, changes, transitions, and new these next few weeks. I know I'm not the only one. If you're going through this season, too, I hope you can find healing and beauty by acknowledging the end and recognizing those moments that mattered.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Monday Blues

Monday was a blue day - blue muumuu, blue headband, blue comb. A group of 4th graders even provided commentary on my outfit while standing in the doorway of the teachers' room; I was making copies when I heard, "Wow Teacher Emily, even your eyes match today!"

But the 'Monday Blues' were only present in physical attire. The day started off with a quick Skype call to my parents and grandparents, who were celebrating Mother's Day together. I can't put into words how excited I am to see my family next month. At school we celebrated my student Aja's birthday with donuts and juice. Aja, myself, and her pals went around the school passing out extra donuts to the other teachers after every 1st grader was happily munching and slurping. I love surprising people with food - particularly baked goods - because a surprise treat never fails to put a smile on any face.

My students danced to Justin Timberlake's new song, Can't Stop the Feeling, while cleaning the classroom after school.

I picked a plumeria flower for my hair as I walked home at 5. Plumeria trees are in full bloom and without thinking I scan the ground to see which fallen flowers I can use. I pray for 5 people - one for each petal - before placing it behind my ear or tucking it into my bun.

This evening after Nicole and I ran errands we stopped by Principal Bernie's house to see if we could pick some calamansi lemons. Before I knew it I had hauled out the school's old ladder and was climbing up its silver rungs. I grabbed two before some men passing by on the road stopped to help. A foreigner in a muumuu climbing a ladder near a busy road to pick calamansi practically guaranteed that help would be offered immediately. A young man happily took my place, climbed up the ladder and into the tree, and picked our calamansi. He was much more skilled for the job than I and I'm grateful to live in a place where not only do you greet everyone you see on the road, but strangers help you without a second thought.

After dropping the priests' car at their house I grabbed a sliver of fresh Kosraen pie brought back from Kosrae by one of the Sisters. I ate and walked back to the apartment feeling very content - happy to be back in a normal rhythm after a few weeks of unique scheduling yet all the while knowing that this is my last 'normal' week before finals and the whirlwind of graduations and endings coming far too quickly.

While messaging a friend today I told her, "transitions that involve moving away from a life you've built and people you love is hard." That pretty much sums it up - I have built a life here. I haven't been on a mission trip or just been a volunteer - I've lived my life, I've made friends, I've found a church home. I have favorite restaurants and favorite places and favorite people. Life isn't perfect, but life never will be and I've found contentment in a lifestyle I truly love here. It is precisely because I have been living my life in a wild, glorious, simple way that makes leaving so bittersweet.

I'm soaking in the joys of Pohnpei for 20-something more days before I touch down in good old Sacramento, CA on June 8th!

My goal for today is to live simply and love deeply. I hope you will join me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Everyday Santa Claus

A few weeks ago my student Reedson walked into class one morning with a hot commodity in tow. After dropping his backpack at his desk he turned to me and said, "Good morning, teacher. Look what I have for snack today!" He was holding an entire package of chocolate wafers. I had an immediate flashback to sitting on the playground curb at Lake Forest Elementary School's after school daycare and smiling from ear to ear when my coffee filter was filled with those same vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry wafers. "Yum, that's going to be a great snack!" Beaming, Reedson put the package in his bag for safekeeping.

Morning recess rolled around and Reedson called three of his friends over to his desk. I heard them whispering and then Reedson zipped his backpack shut again. "We'll have them at afternoon recess," he said as they ran outside to play.

Afternoon rolled around and I was filling homework folders at my desk while a few girls ate and another erased the chalkboard. Reedson walked in. After surveying the scene he pulled out his chocolate wafers and made the rounds. "Here you go. Would you like one?" he smiled as he went from classmate to classmate. A chorus of "thank you!" followed his every step. After he gave a wafer to all the girls and me, he shuffled outside to share with his other classmates. I leaned against the doorway enjoying a little taste of my childhood and watched as Reedson distributed his wafers to every single 1st grade classmate before enjoying one himself.

At 6 years old, hospitality and sharing are already etched deeply on my students' hearts.

I sat down at the table outside our classroom and pondered what the situation would have looked like had I been Reedson. It took me less than 10 seconds to realize it - there's no way I would have shared with everyone! Six-year-old Emily would have given a few to her closest friends, maybe, and kept the rest for herself. A snack as good as chocolate wafers? Hello, more for me!

But not Reedson. No one even had the opportunity to ask if they could have one; he opened the package and what was his immediate action? Let me share these with my friends. Let me give one to everyone. Let me pass these wafers out like it's the most important job I'll do all day.

That's just it. Hospitality and sharing ARE the most important jobs we all do on any day. The sharing of food, a text or a phone call, letting that annoying car merge in front of you, paying for someone else's coffee. Hospitality and sharing lead to conversation, conversation to acceptance, acceptance to love.

On that day in March, Santa traded in his red suit for a school uniform and his bag of gifts for a package of wafers. Reedson showed me what it's like to be an everyday Santa Claus. With every chocolate wafer he shared he gave out a message, too: you matter to me, I want to give this to you, I want us to both enjoy this. Acceptance, sharing, and joy in a simple gesture.

I want to be an everyday Santa Claus. On any given day I want to sprinkle a little bit of positivity and a pinch of joy and throw a whole bucketful of kindness into this world. If you pass me on the side of the road those are the things I want you to be drenched in.

What about you? What do you want to pinch, sprinkle, or pour into the world today? We're all a little different and your recipe won't be the same as mine. Thank goodness the world needs all sorts of people and every single thing we have to offer: humor, love, music, peace, poetry, acceptance, patience, art, a listening ear, gratitude, courage, honesty. The list could go on and on.

Whatever you have, I hope you can give it today. I hope you remember that none of us are perfect, but we can all do our best with whatever we're given. I hope you can see the important, vital role you play in this world. I hope you can say "amen" at the end of the day and see the small moments where you tried your best to shake, sprinkle, and drench the world in whatever is important to you.

I hope Reedson and his wafers will remind you to be an everyday Santa Claus every month of the year.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

March Comings & Goings

March brought some exciting travel opportunities to my schedule and the change of pace was exactly what I needed after a longggggg February. First was a long weekend in Guam to chaperone our PCS Spelling Bee winner for the Scripps Regional Spelling Bee and later in the month a trip to Ant Atoll for spring break and my birthday!

Principal Bernie and I enjoying good food in Guam!
Look out point while driving around Guam
The one and only Father Fran Hezel! So thankful he took time out of his schedule to show us around!

Out to mass and dinner the night before the spelling bee

I don't have any pictures from the actual spelling bee competition but it was quite the morning! Our PCS speller did a great job amidst the tough competition of 50 other spellers. The winner was a very excited 5th grade boy from Guam! I not only got to relax, eat, shop, and experience my first in-person Scripps Spelling Bee, but I learned so much about Guam in just a few days. We stayed with Principal Bernie's family and I learned a lot about the history of Guam and Chamorro culture from our conversations. Guam is very different from Pohnpei and I'm so glad I had the chance to visit!


A few days of my spring break looked like this. It was glorious.

The sunset on my birthday just kept getting more and more vivid. I will never forget turning 24 on much a beautiful atoll! 

The view from my hammock.

Lastly I'd like to give a huge shout out to my friend Myvy's Uncle Victor for sending every student in my class an awesome Power Rangers toothbrush and toothpaste!! We had a few fun lessons on dental hygiene and the kids were bouncing off the walls to be the proud owners of new toothbrushes. About half of my class didn't regularly brush their teeth before our lesson, but now each one can keep their teeth healthy and clean!

Wishing everyone a happy, healthy week!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cheerleaders & Chocolate

I opened a package from my parents the other day to find a baggie full of Holland America chocolates and a note in my Mom's handwriting, "Put one on your pillow each night!" My family has been on a few cruises and always enjoyed coming back to our cabins after dinner to find a perfect little chocolate on our pillows. What's better than finding someone left you chocolate? I'd always eat mine within about 30 seconds of entering my cabin. My mom, on the other hand, is a master of self-control and would often save her nightly treat. She'd hide them away and once we were back at home I'd come into my bedroom and surprise! Find a chocolate on my pillow.

I had to fight back tears as I saw the chocolates she and my dad and grandparents collected for me on their Christmas cruise. Getting emotional over chocolates? What's up, Em? But it's not about the chocolate. It's the thought. Putting a chocolate on my pillow is just one of the millions of ways that my parents show me they care. It's a reminder to be myself and an affirmation that they know I'm working my hardest and giving my all.

I've also taken to rewarding myself after school with a sticker. If my after school cleaners get so excited about stickers, shouldn't they make me happy, too? You're Awesome! Excellent. Well done. Superstar! I stick one on my hand and take a deep breathe. You did good today, Em. Teaching is challenging, balancing my time between my classroom responsibilities and helping the school with other projects is challenging. But hey, life is challenging for everyone, no matter the job. So I slap on that sticker and press on.

You know something that happens when I stop to give myself a sticker? I more easily see the good in others. By being my own biggest cheerleader instead of my own biggest critic, it's easier to be a cheerleader for others. By finding the good in myself, I open up my eyes to the good in others or the good still present in hard situations.

Sometimes, you'll have people in your life putting chocolates on your pillows and stickers on your hands. They'll tell you how valuable your work is and how much you mean to them. Those people are the gems of life. There are other seasons where you might be the one handing out stickers and chocolates. The people in your life might need you to be a gem for them. Or maybe it's a bit of both, you give some stickers and chocolate and get some in return. Other times, though, you have to be your own biggest cheerleader. You have to put stickers on your own hand and chocolates on your own pillow. When things get hard are you going to be your own biggest cheerleader or let yourself be defeated?

I hope you have the eyes to see the good in others and sprinkle around some (real or metaphoric) pieces of chocolate. I hope you have the eyes to see the gems in your life and thank them for all they do. Most of all, I hope that you have the strength and love to be your own biggest cheerleader.