Best-selling author Missy Buchanan calls us to reflection along the shore

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish. … Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.”
JOHN 21:9-12

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“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient. To dig for treasures shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience, is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”
Ann Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea, 1955

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Front Cover of Missy Buchanan's book Beach Calling

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The very last scene in the Gospels is Jesus sitting on a shoreline, cooking a breakfast of fish and bread for his followers—inviting them to come and sit a while with him over breakfast. The very first scene in Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s classic memoir, Gift from the Sea, is an invitation to lay down one’s burdens, settle into the shoreline and wait—patiently—for waves of spiritual revelation. Last week, in our cover story, spiritually restless columnist Martin Davis took us to the shore, as well.

For thousands of years, shorelines have fueled the human imagination—which is why best-selling inspirational writer Missy Buchanan is beckoning readers to come to the beach with her for 20 guided reflections. She calls her new, interactive book, Beach Calling—A Devotional Journal for the Middle Years and Beyond.

When Missy’s mother died in 2008, the one place Missy found solace was—the shore.

Echoing the opening pages of Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s memoir, Missy recounted her arrival at the beach after her mother’s death in an interview this week. “I vividly remember going with my husband to our favorite shoreline, an area near a national park that is so quiet. For me, sitting there, my mind drifts. You’re on the beach in that almost-asleep state and that is how I was able to begin to go back through all that I had experienced with my mother.”

In Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh actually insists that her readers not try to write when they first arrive at the shoreline. Yes, she advises, you should bring along that tote bag full of your writing supplies, but the sand, the wind and the waves take a while to work on us. Just when readers may guess she is advising them never to write on a beach—she shifts gears and says the writing must wait until the shoreline has had its way with our spirit.

Only at that point, Ann Morrow Lindbergh writes, something begins to happen: “The mind wakes, comes to life again. No—not in a city sense—but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach.”

And that’s precisely what Missy invites her readers to do in Beach Calling: A Devotional Journal for the Middle Years and Beyond.

After many years of mentioning Ann Morrow Lindbergh’s book to audiences, I subsequently have received emails with attached photos of pages from readers’ copies of Gift from the Sea. The margins are crowded with notes. In fact, I keep giving away my own copies to people who need to read it—and often forget and send them out into the world with my own notations and underlining still in the pages.

Ann Morrow Lindbergh was right. These beach reflections seem to keep lapping the shores of the world in unexpected ways, often connecting one person with others—as Martin suggested last week.

In Beach Calling, Missy anticipates that interaction of shore and spirit. Her publisher, Upper Room Books, designed this book with an interior spiral binding that allows the pages to lie flat—and extra pages are interspersed for journaling. Missy assumes you will want to pull out a pen or pencil and jot on these pages.

Her new Beach Calling is a terrific gift for yourself, someone you love—or to work through in a small group.

How This Connects with Missy Buchanan’s Elder Work

Longtime readers of this magazine have known Missy for more than a decade, because we have featured interviews with her—or stories about her books—every year since the debut of her hugely popular first book, Living with Purpose in a Worn Out Body (2008). Despite its somber title, that book connected in a powerful way with elderly men and women nationwide. What readers discovered in Missy’s books was utter honesty about the tough challenges of aging—coupled with a deep appreciation of the power of faith to sustain and strengthen people in their final years.

One of the early readers of her first book was Lucimarian Roberts, the mother of Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts. When Robin encouraged her mother to write an autobiography toward the end of her life, Lucimarian agreed under the condition that Missy Buchanan could be commissioned to help her pen her stories. That led to a collaboration on My Story, My Songa book that landed on best-seller lists and brought Missy twice into the Good Morning America studios. Our magazine published several stories about that collaboration. The favorite, among our readers, is this heart-felt column Missy wrote for us when Lucimarian eventually died.

Among our other Missy Buchanan stories that remain popular with readers:

In the Introduction to her new Beach Calling, Missy explains how this book connects with her overall focus on the power of spirituality to cope with the often grim realities of advanced aging.

“For almost two decades, my life and career have focused on issues of aging. As a middle-aged caregiver for my own aging parents, I went to the beach as a place of respite. I was on a beach when I first felt a nudge to write about aging faithfully. Nine books later, I also speak at senior living communities, churches and conferences across the world and regularly visit older adult friends in my community. Yet as a woman of the Boomer generation (born between 1946 and 1964), I understand why my peers resist the topic of aging and why they feel such angst at the thought of growing older. We shudder at images of physical loss and thoughts of decline and vow to do all we can to stay young. We refuse to contemplate dreadful thoughts of losing loved ones or enduring a life-changing medical crisis. But even amid our best efforts of eating right, exercising regularly, and using anti-aging products, aging comes anyway, like the unstoppable tide. I wrote Beach Calling for you, and I wrote it for me.

Taking Time to Remember Our Path

While all this talk and imagery of shorelines suggests a lazy lack of movement—in fact, the root of this invitation taps into the ancient value of pilgrimage. Shorelines aren’t about stopping. They are about remembering our path in tune with the natural cycles of the world. For Missy Buchanan, that’s connecting with the wonders of God’s unfolding Creation. For Martin Davis last week, that’s connecting with the natural cycles of our planet.

In his column, Martin wrote about remembering and reclaiming our most important values. “We can think of each as one of the values that serves to bind people across a range of belief systems—and connects us. And when we are attuned to these values, we collectively come together to celebrate and marvel at the mysteries of life we all share.”

In her book, Missy agrees with Martin’s basic premise, then she goes on—as a Christian writer—to identify this pilgrimage to the shoreline as part of a shared Christian journey.

At the root of both writers’ reflections are questions millions ask each day.

“In my earlier books, I wrote about the many ways people wrestle with these questions as they age. Baby Boomers, the readers I’m addressing in this new book, have all these same questions—but they just don’t feel they have any time to stop and think about them,” Missy said in our interview.

“I am inviting Boomers to pause and to start thinking—now—about their own spiritual perspectives on what it means to age. But, when I do suggest this in appearances I’ve made on my book tour—I hear from so many Baby Boomers who are frustrated and overwhelmed by simply working through the essentials for their own parents. I hear the whole long list: ‘I’ve got to get Mom into a better place to live;’ ‘We’ve got to figure out this transportation problem;’ ‘I spend all my time taking care of medical appointments;’ ‘Just feeding, taking care of meals, is a huge problem every day.’

“And I get that. I understand how overwhelming all of this is for families. What I’m trying to do in Beach Calling is to remind Baby Boomers—and I’m one of them, so I’m reminding myself—that we have to take time out to reflect on all of these deeper questions ourselves.”

Just some of the questions she raises in her book:

  • What possessions could easily become burdens as you age?
  • What do you fear most about aging?
  • What are you looking forward to in your later years?
  • In what ways can the second half of your life be more interesting and fulfilling than the first?
  • What can you do differently today to intentionally bolster your sense of wonder?

Toss the Book in Your Bag of Yoga Gear

“I ask a lot of questions in this book, but I did not write this to sound churchy or to feel preachy,” Missy said in our interview.

She’s right about that. Readers can consider, or ignore, the questions at the end of these 20 reflections. The vast majority of the text is written in a prose-poem format that guides us along the shore, occasionally dropping in a few lines from the Bible, but not pushing any hard-and-fast conclusions. If you are familiar with her earlier books, then you know Missy’s approachable style. Her prose often reads as if we are strolling along a beach, or sitting above a shoreline, with her—simply talking as friends. It’s that honest, matter-of-fact style over the past decade that has won over thousands of readers.

I described that friendly approach to Missy and she told me a story.

“I gave a talk and was signing books at Story and Song, at Florida’s Amelia Island, and there were about 60 or 70 people,” she recalled in our interview. “As they came up to have me sign their books, most of them just had one copy. Then, there was this woman with 10 copies!

“I asked her, ‘Why so many?’

“She said, ‘I’m part of a beach yoga class and I’m buying one of these for everyone in my class. A few of them go to church, but not many. They don’t have to take a book, but I will offer a copy to everyone. Then, I’m going to offer to stay after the yoga class, for those who want to do it, and we will talk about one of your reflections each week.

“And I thought: That’s part of this movement we’re hearing so much about these days—what we sometimes call ‘doing church outside of church.’ Now, usually we hear about programs focused on youth or young adults or young families. Here was a woman who was just inspired to try to do something with her friends—inspired enough that she was willing to buy 10 books. And, that fits with what we’re seeing. This woman who bought the books was a Baby Boomer—I would guess between 65 and 70 and most of her friends weren’t church people. She just understood the value of trying to gather along the shore with others in an intentional way.”

That’s what Martin Davis saw along his shoreline, last week.

Along the Shore with Lucimarian Roberts

“The shore’s power is universal,” Missy said. “Since I finished writing this book, I’ve been thinking about an experience I had while I was working on the book with Lucimarian Roberts. That was a big project and I spent a lot of time with her. She enjoyed those days I was with her—especially because I had a rental car. She loved to have us get into that car so she could navigate. That way, we could go wherever she wanted. As we drove, we would talk and I always had my recorder with me wherever we went. So, these were good times we shared.

“One afternoon, we were driving along the coast near Biloxi on a road that had these parking areas every so often so cars could pull off to look out along the shore. After while, she said, ‘Would you mind pulling into one of these?’

“We did. We faced the gulf. I rolled down the windows and turned off the car. We just sat there in silence for a long time, listening to the ocean.

“After a while, I said, ‘Lucimarian, I think I understand why you and Larry decided to retire here. You could have retired anywhere, but you wanted to be near all of this.’

“And, she said, ‘The beach is where I come to grapple with life and with growing old.’

“That really stayed in my mind.”

And, if you explore this new book—it will stay in your mind, as well.

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Cover of Anne Morrow Lindbergh's Gift from the Sea

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Care to read more?

IS THIS THE FIRST YOU’VE HEARD of Gift from the Sea? Amazon still has the lovely little 50th anniversary edition on sale.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MISSY—Missy’s own website is packed with information about her work, her travels and her books. It’s simply: MissyBuchanan.com

That website also includes a front-page endorsement from Adam Hamilton, who we also have featured in ReadTheSpirit over the years. He is famous as a Christian preacher, teacher and author; and he is widely considered to be one of the nation’s most influential United Methodist pastor, these days. His endorsement begins: “Whether you are at the beach, or just wish you were, Missy Buchanan’s devotional journal for those of us in the middle years is a refreshing gift!”

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Moving Beyond Camps of Believers and Nones, What Draws Us Together on New Shorelines?

Baby Loggerhead Turtles

BABY LOGGERHEAD TURTLES along the Atlantic shore in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey on FLICKR.

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Let’s Learn from the Turtles.

EDITOR’s NOTE: Each month, veteran journalist Martin Davis contributes a column to our magazine from the perspective of the millions of Americans who answer pollsters’ questions about religious affiliation with the option: “None.” Research shows that this growing portion of our population is diverse and includes many men and women with vibrant spiritual lives. Martin’s columns have varied from baseball to the Marines to memories of JFK. Few writers, today, are exploring this realm as thoughtfully as Martin. And, we keep hearing from our readers that many are looking for such compassionate companions on this journey. Collectively, we need this kind of writing. Please, if you enjoy Martin’s column this month, share it with friends via social media, email or simply print out this column and pass it along.

Here is Martin’s latest …

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Crowd in North Carolina to watch and help baby turtles.

A NEW KIND OF CONGREGATION ALONG THE SHORE: Men, women and children are drawn to these sands to watch, encourage and help a timeless—and now endangered—migration. (WANT TO KNOW MORE? Clicking on this photo will take you to the website of the global SEE Turtles nonprofit.)

The beaches along North Carolina’s southernmost coastline play host to one of the world’s great natural shows each summer. If you’re there in June or July, walk down to the beach about an hour before sunset. Look for the crowd of people forming a line from the dunes to the ocean.

You’ll find that the crowd is separated by two lines drawn in the sand, compliments of local volunteers charged with ensuring that the baby sea turtles who emerge from their nests along the dunes this time of year enjoy safe passage to the sea. I caught one such performance on my vacation to Ocean Isle, NC, this summer.

Two things about the event stood out.

The first are the turtles themselves. That they know to hatch at dusk, and that they know how to make their way straight to the ocean, is a marvel that ignites the imagination. (The turtles are also cute, but that’s for another day.)

The second are the people who are there to cheer them on. It is exceedingly rare anymore to see people bonded by something that transcends politics, religion, race, whatever. We’re so busy tearing at each others’ throats that we’ve forgotten what it means to work together. Yet, these turtles bond us—to one another and to the greater world that we all share.

Three Keys to Our Movement

I began writing these monthly columns nearly a year ago as a simple way to let folks understand more about people like me—people who have dared to walk away from organized religion and pursue (or not pursue) a life of spirituality on different terms. Through these stories and reflections, hopefully you have a glimpse into the many ways we view the world.

When we began this monthly series, there were no grand plans or thoughts about where it might go. Just an experiment, really, to see if anyone would even care. The response has proven a pleasant surprise to me. Editor David Crumm has encouraged me to build on the good feedback we have received by expanding on the experience of people who live outside traditional congregational life. He has challenged me to write about our values. I’ve pondered this request for some time, and was honestly ready to tell him I couldn’t.

The turtles changed all that.

To understand how, it helps to back up just a bit and ask what has given rise to the numbers of people walking away from organized religion. Once this becomes clear, you can then better understand how the experience of watching baby turtles walk to the sea has brought some clarity to my thinking about who we—the religiously unaffiliated—are, and what values we live by.

So why are people leaving organized religion? I’d like to offer up three reasons—questioning teachings, frustration with the organization, and religion’s weakening hold over society.

This list is far from authoritative, and it most certainly does an injustice to a group as large and diverse as those who are religiously unaffiliated. This short list does, however, capture a good chunk of what pollsters have been seeing for years. And they reflect well why I have moved in this direction.

Key 1: Questioning Religious Teachings

Guiding hand of a volunteer with baby turtles in North Carolina

A GUIDING HAND—A trained volunteer helps a baby turtle find its way.

In 2018, Pew dipped into its rich surveys to find out why people are religiously unaffiliated. A number of answers came forward, but the most popular was that people fundamentally question religious teachings. The survey itself doesn’t go into the specifics of the questions people are asking about church doctrine and governance, but I can venture some guesses based on my own experiences.

As one who originally set out to become a minister, I learned very quickly that religious organizations are not particularly interested in challenges to their teachings. Raised a Southern Baptist, one of the first tenets of my faith that I challenged was the notion that Christianity itself offered the one path to truth. The questions grew out of a lifetime of reading, meeting people from different cultures and traditions, and closely reading the sources of the Christian faith itself. Over time it became clear to me that not only is Christianity not the sole harbinger of truth, but that it’s difficult to even make the argument that those who were around the first couple of hundred years believed this themselves.

As I began raising this specter, I quickly learned how inhospitable religious organizations can be.

The irony, of course, is that religious communities are precisely the places where we should be raising such questions. Even as I’ve moved out of houses of worship, I’ve not stopped reaching out to religious leaders with whom I’ve remained friends about working within their communities to talk about some basic teachings, and to offer some alternative views. I’m still waiting for someone to accept the offer.

This anxiety with questions isn’t limited to the more traditionalist branches. Readers of this publication are probably not surprised to hear that conservative religious groups aren’t particularly open to hearing from pluralists. But it’s equally true that more-progressive traditions also can be painful places for people who question the teachings of these movements.

Key 2: The Institution and Hypocrisy

Baby loggerhead turtle on ocean shoreline.

SO MANY OBSTACLES! A baby faces the challenges along the shore. Photo via Wikimedia Commons and USFWS Becky Skiba.

Sojourners recently asked an important question: “White Evangelicals Have Won Political Influence, but at What Cost?” It reaches a conclusion that many people outside of religious communities are asking: How can churches so actively stand against immigrants, when Christianity’s scriptures clearly call people of faith to welcome them?

Likewise, the Catholic sex-abuse scandal has sent many people fleeing Catholicism, and kept others from participating. And why not? We now have more than two decades of headlines about sexual abuse coming to light—with little sign that Catholic leaders have decided to do much about the root causes of these patterns, especially the coverups, within their secretive hierarchy.

These are just two examples of the many hypocritical positions that have become obvious in recent years. Many, many more could be documented. It’s not true, of course, that religious organizations are the only ones who are hypocritical. Government, businesses, social groups and even individuals all display hypocrisy to one level or another. But only religious organizations couple hypocrisy with a claim to moral supremacy and the right to place an existential pressure on them to fall in line.

So long as religious organizations continue to claim the high ground, right-thinking people are going to continue to shy away from these groups when their hypocrisies are exposed.

Key 3: Losing Control

As the nation heaves under a resurgence of religious fundamentalism and explicit campaigns to create an American theocracy, it’s easy to forget that we are more likely seeing the dying gasps of a society that holds religion as central to the social fabric. There are many sources for this idea, but I recommend you begin with these short articles, starting with historian and journalist Jon Meacham in Newsweek, then The National Catholic Reporter and Psychology Today.

Historically, one can point to many moments that mark the beginning of America’s effort to marginalize religion, but I think George Marsden in his biography of Jonathan Edwards explains it best. The country was locked in a great intellectual struggle in the years leading up to the Constitution, with the science and rationalism of Ben Franklin locked in a wrestling match with the conservative religious dogma of Jonathan Edwards. Simply said, Franklin won.

Ever since then, science and reason have continued to chip away at religion as a viable organizing force in society. The works of Charles Darwin chipped away at the idea that there is a god, and that we are created by that god, and that religious organizations serve as the intermediary between god and his creation. Space travel that started in the late 1950s and continues unabated has chipped away at the idea that humans are unique. Increasingly, it looks to be just a matter of time before we discover life elsewhere. Most Americans, already accept this.

Most recently, the advent of the internet has made it increasingly difficult for people to accept the idea that any one religious group alone has access to “truth,” which in turn undermines organized religion’s ability to exercise control over society.

Backlash notwithstanding, the demographics here are clear. Organized religion’s grip on America is loosening. And it’s hard to imagine that religion will gain the upper hand anytime in the near future.

Back to the Turtles

These changes in the role of faith in people’s lives are nothing short of earth shattering. Until the mid-19th century, few people questioned the idea that a god actually created the world. Today, most people rightly reject the notion of Creationism outright.

As Americans continue to press to expand the promise of individual freedom to all peoples, the ability of religious organizations to control moral discussions in the country fades. Especially when nearly half of people who are active in a faith tradition (US Catholics and evangelicals) are still largely denying women leadership roles. These positions undercut religious organizations’ authority.

As the organizations crumble, the nation’s shared values have also undergone an upheaval. And those who no longer attend church or recognize its authority are the ones trying to discover the values and morals that will unite us moving forward.

This brings me back to the turtles.

Religion has long been the backing that holds the fabric of society together because belief in god was nearly ubiquitous. With that belief eroding, the same fabric that brings people together to cheer on baby turtles is the one that is uniting people who no longer participate in religious organizations.

These ideals, or values, can succinctly be named:

  1. Belief in transcendence
  2. Mutual respect born of the realization that humans are not the pinnacle of life
  3. Humility
  4. Love

Over the next four months, I hope to explore these values in more depth. We can think of each as one of the values that serves to bind people across a range of belief systems—and connects us. And when we are attuned to these values, we collectively come together to celebrate and marvel at the mysteries of life we all share.  In short, embracing these values grants you to one of the best seats at the beach, watching with others the wonder of life that is unfolding and reaching and climbing all around us.

In the Spirit of the Sea Turtles

This list is aspirational. These are ideals I have come to believe that the religiously unaffiliated need to embrace to guard against the extremes that an organized-religion-free understanding of life can generate. Narcissism on one end of the spectrum, and hedonism on the other. It’s also a list born of a lifetime of living in, among, and around people of faith and non-faith; church-goers and church-rejecters.

Most important, however, this is a list that does not advocate for the destruction of religious traditions in favor of something new. Rather, it’s an invitation for religious organizations to learn from what those who have left their doors have to teach them. An invitation to join with those living outside organized religion to reach a higher level of understanding. And it’s an invitation to the religiously unaffiliated to see in people within religious institutions a kindred spirit, interested in the same questions as us.

In the spirit of the sea turtles—I invite you to walk with me.

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New appointment gives author, scholar Anni Reinking a role in looking for hidden bias in early childhood education

EDITOR’S NOTE—We are celebrating with author and scholar Anni Reinking as she has been selected to serve on a new statewide assessment team in Illinois to shape the future of early childhood education at the university level—with influence that likely will extend nationwide.

The effort is funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, named for the famous former owner and publisher of The Chicago Tribune. (Among journalists, McCormick is especially remembered these days at the centennial of World War I for his role as a foreign correspondent, including interviewing Tsar Nicholas II before his assassination. McCormick later founded one of the most famous journalism schools in the world at Northwestern, north of Chicago. He had a life-long passion for improving education.)

Anni becomes one of two early childhood experts and faculty members chosen to serve from the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville School of Education, Health and Human Behavior (SEHHB) Department of Teaching and Learning.

We asked Anni to write about the importance of this new team’s work.

Here is her story …

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“The function of the university is not simply to teach breadwinning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”
W. E. B. Dubois

By ANNI REINKING
Author of Not Just Black and White

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The secret of civilization is often within hidden curriculum in classrooms.

For generations, students in the majority “figure out” how to “do” school. They have figured out the secret to be successful in a society that values grades, values who you know, and more recently in history, values the results of standardized tests. All of these “secrets” are often invisible to marginalized groups due to hidden curriculum and historically based institutional racism.

However, in the field of education, professionals have focused on competency based education as a way to combat the hiding of “secrets to civilization.”

I am one of those professionals. Recently I was asked to be on the leadership team of a statewide competency based education (CBE) assessment team for university early childhood programs. As a lifelong educator and social justice advocate focused in the field of education, this work is one more way I can be part of the work to advance the education of marginalized populations.

What is CBE? FAQs

Q: What is CBE?

A: The foundation of CBE focuses on content mastery of real-world skills.

Q: Why is this important, especially for marginalized populations?

A: Because grades do not represent who a student is, what the student knows, or how culturally responsive the classroom environment is to the student’s funds of knowledge. CBE is a student-centered practice. It moves away from standardized tests, which are often problematic and biased against marginalized populations. Teachers who utilize CBE in a classroom co-create goals with students, create personalized learning environments, and build deep relationships through conversations focused on learning.

Q: Is there research?

A: Yes, research includes work completed at NYU (Nolan, 2019) focused on CBE, culturally responsive teaching, and reaching underserved (marginalized) students.

Here are two of the key findings:

  1. For students of color, this approach can mean learning in an environment where one can experience being seen, valued, welcomed, supported, and held to exciting expectations. It also means students regularly engage teachers and school leaders who are willing to look at and work on their own beliefs, biases, and expectations, and strive to improve their cultural competency—the ability to be aware of one’s own cultural, social, racial identity and perspectives, and the ability to interact effectively with others who are not like yourself, however you define that difference.
  2. Transparency is a paramount value. Students’ learning goals and criteria for success should be shared from the outset—or co-created with learners. “Shared” does not mean “handed out.” Taking time to build shared understanding is crucial. This time helps students learn how to learn. It ensures there’s no secret path that some students innately know but others never figure out.

For generations there has been a secret to learning and a secret to being part of civilization. The secret code if often hidden from underserved (marginalized) populations. However, work continues to unhide curriculum and create environments where students feel heard, seen, and valued. One of those paths is CBE.

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Dr. Anni K. Reinking is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE). She is also the co-president of the Illinois Division of Early Childhood, president of the Illinois Association of Early Childhood Teacher Educators, co-chair of the Sharing A Vision conference, and a faculty lead on a statewide committee working on competency based, technology-embedded assessments. She is the author of numerous articles and three books:

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What does a daily practice of compassionate spirituality look like? Extending a reassuring arm to a stranger

 

EDITOR’S NOTE—Regular readers love Ben Pratt’s simple stories and have been sharing these gems across social media for years—as inspiring illustrations of life’s daily challenges. In this week’s Cover Story, famous Zen teacher Marc Lesser reflects on how a daily focus on compassionate spirituality can transform entire companies and communities. Those principles run deep into the roots of human civilization and are as relevant as the challenges men and women face today. What Ben Pratt adds to this week’s theme is—quite simply—a small slice of a life defined by compassionate spirituality.

Q: What do these vast, timeless principles look like on a daily basis?
A: Like an outstretched arm.

Here is Ben’s story …

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Contributing Columnist

A few weeks ago, my wife Judith and I attended Jubilee at Arena Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, in Washington, DC.

Jubilee is about the world-renowned Fisk Jubilee Singers, who were first organized in 1871 and went on to shatter racial barriers in the U.S. and abroad, entertaining kings and queens. For more than a century, the bold a cappella African-American ensemble, born on the campus of Fisk University, has blended their rich voices together sharing a heritage of suffering, strength and endurance.

The DC theater was crowded with every hue of human skin, eager for the glorious singing to begin.

While I was in route to the rest room, a middle-aged woman, who was seated along the wall, surprised me by reaching toward me as I was about to pass her. She waved a hand, flagging me to stop.

“My husband is in the restroom and he is blind. He may need some help finding his way back here. Would you help him?”

I smiled and said I would.

When I entered the restroom, I saw him and waited quietly at a distance while he conducted his business. Then, as he was rearranging his clothes at the sink and taking up his white cane to depart—I spoke:

“Sir, a lovely lady outside said you might need an arm to get back to her. May I offer my arm?”

“Sir, I would be honored by your assistance,” he responded.

He reached out his free hand and I placed my arm within reach.

We walked quietly back to meet his wife.

“Thank you,” she said with a big smile.

“You are welcome,” I said, “but I am the one who thanks you for trusting me with this respectful task.”

We smiled and parted.

Yes, it is a simple story, a simple deed, as simple as offering a cup of cool water.

A stranger helped a stranger across all that could have divided us. I was surprised by a woman I would never have noticed. Then, I went on to surprise her husband.

As you read this story, in your mind’s eye, how do you envision the three of us in that theater and that restroom on that night of Jubilee? Would you have even noticed us? Made eye contact? Dared to speak? Pause? Extend an arm?

In these times of suspicion and discord, daring to extend an arm is as natural to me now as my daily recitation of the Prayer of St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Injury, let me sow pardon
Doubt, let me sow faith
Despair, let me sow hope …
Amen!

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Care to read more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Benjamin Pratt’s columns and books have been shared internationally and used in small groups from New Zealand to New York City. Among his many books, displayed on his Amazon author page, is Guide for Caregivers: Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down.

In that book, Ben writes more about the Prayer of St. Francis. We have an excerpt from that section of the book, which includes a longer version of the prayer.

The Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt is a retired pastoral counselor with 40 years of experience working with men and women facing a wide range of stresses and tragedies. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and a retired member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. He travels widely to work with groups, conferences and other events. He has been a keynote speaker and is a veteran of designing workshops and weekend retreats, which he has conducted nationwide. He writes regularly for ReadTheSpirit online magazine and also has been a featured columnist at the website for the popular Day1 radio network.

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Marc Lesser’s ‘Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader’ fuses ancient wisdom with cutting-edge business

Marc Lesser author of Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader

“If what we did is woo woo—I want more of that!”
An initially skeptical participant in one of Marc Lesser’s sessions for business leaders—who turned into a supporter after the retreat

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Marc Lesser is famous for forging a pattern of spiritual practices for daily living that fuses ideas from both the ancient and the newest sources of wisdom. A Zen teacher, his programs and books draw on the tradition of Gautama Buddha that originated centuries before the dawn of Christianity. Then, working on a cutting-edge Google team in 2007, he and Chade-Meng Tan co-created the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute (SIYLI).

Since that launch, both Lesser and Meng have moved on to many other projects based on their vocation of doing good things every day to help change the world. That includes Marc’s blog, which on July 8 told the story of an almost hostile group of executives who had invited him to hold a session at their business retreat. The skeptical men and women expected him to turn around their dysfunctional retreat with a 90-minute session of group reflection.

As he has done countless times over the years, Marc did step up to the challenge. As he walked into the room, this group was so frustrated—they had collectively fired their business facilitator just before Marc’s session.

Yet, despite the odds, Marc managed to reset the group’s attitude in that brief session. How did he do it? As he tells the story, Marc simply opened his toolbox of Zen practices and people responded, despite their skepticism.

Here’s how Marc describes the response he received three days later from one participant:

Three days after the retreat one of the board members, the CEO of a venture capital firm in Washington, D.C., sent me an email: She said she’d felt concerned when she’d heard about my proposed quiet time and was both cautious and curious about meditation practice. She usually strongly resisted anything that smacked of being “New Age,” or as she put it, “woo woo.” She concluded: “If what we did is woo woo—I want more of that!”

California Spiritual Fusion

Marc Lesser’s fourth and newest book is Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader: Lessons from Google and a Zen Monastery Kitchen. Marc has been writing about this idea of combining mindfulness and contemplative practices with business principles since 2005, which is before the launch of Google’s SIYLI. That first book 14 years ago was called, ZBA: Zen of Business Administration—How Zen Practice Can Transform Your Work And Your Life.

In this case, the background of that publication is relevant because this really is a story of California fusion.

Marc was following in the footsteps of pioneering Buddhist teacher Geri Larkin, who had stirred national interest in this idea of combining Buddhist and business principles in her landmark 1999 book, Building a Business the Buddhist Way. That first volume of Geri’s work was published by Celestial Arts, an imprint of Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California—most famous for producing the mega-best-seller What Color Is Your Parachute. Ten Speed later was bought by Random House, so now it is part of the Big Five group of imprints that dominate publishing. Over the years, Geri went on to publish with several other houses, including another Big Five imprint: HarperOne.

As he aspired to become an author, Marc was picked up by another spiritually minded publishing house with origins in the San Francisco Bay area. New World Library began in Oakland and now is headquartered about 30 miles north of the bay in Novato.

Since 2005, Marc has remained with his original publisher. That has been a smart move for Marc, because the team at New World is steeped in the kind of fusion he is trying to teach. For more than 40 years, New World Library has been devoted to understanding the complex interweaving of spirituality and culture in America. (Curious? Take a quick look at their online booklist.)

Here’s how New World’s Monique Muhlenkamp describes Marc’s new book with spot-on context about this ancient and cutting-edge interweaving. Monique writes:

“In recent years, mindfulness has exploded in popularity, but an individual’s interest in mindfulness does not necessarily translate into them becoming a mindful leader. Understanding mindfulness can be challenging; even more difficult is embodying and regularly practicing it in everyday life. Of course, ancient practices weren’t developed in order to improve business. They are meant to shift our consciousness and way of being in the world. Yet these practices are essential to mindful leadership and to creating the type of supportive organizational culture that allows business and people to thrive. Grounded in the depth and simplicity of his experience of leading a Zen monastery kitchen, Marc Lesser unpacks the richness of these practices and makes them accessible to our daily life.”

DISARMING HUMOR AND HUMILITY

One reason people feel they are instantly connecting with Marc is that he is authentically interested in talking with them—and brings both a disarming humility and a sense of humor to the conversation.

In our interview about his book, I asked about how he has accumulated so much Zen wisdom over the many years—despite all the traveling and working in so many high-stress organizations. I expected that he might answer by talking about his work at Google.

Nope.

“I had the best training while working in the Zen kitchen,” he said. Marc literally worked his way up from serving as dishwasher at the Tassajara Zen monastery. (The great sage Sunryu Suzuki founded Tassajara in 1967, just four years before his death.)

“You learn a lot about life’s basic questions when you’re asking them over a kitchen counter, trying to prepare enough carrots to feed 150 people!” After he ascended various rungs in the hierarchy of cooks, he eventually wound up as head chef.

Maintaining a humble self assessment is a core principle in his book, especially in a chapter titled “Don’t Be an Expert.”

In our interview, Marc explained, “One of the things I appreciate about Zen practice—and especially the Zen tradition in which I was trained—is that, Number 1, it has a sense of humor about itself and, Number 2, it ultimately wants to negate itself,” he said.

“Explain more about that,” I prompted. “Buddhism and Zen in particular are different than other religious traditions in a number of ways. For example, Buddhism isn’t about worshipping a deity. Buddhism is more about what might be called compassionate searching or questioning. So, explain your phrase ‘sense of negation.'”

He said, “That sense of negation is a recognition that Zen, or we might say religion in general, is essentially a place holder for permission to ask questions: What does it mean to be a human being? Why is being human so difficult? Why have greed, hate and delusion been so popular for thousands of years? Why do they remain exceedingly popular today? And what can we learn by asking these questions?

“And we ask: What’s the role of a simple, profound several-thousand-year-old practice like meditation? This is a practice of just stopping and seeing what happens when we bring our full attention to an inquiry of what’s happening with our bodies, our minds and our hearts.

“To me, that’s my core training—and that training has come through the Zen kitchen and also from my pathway in the world.”

‘DON’T BE AN EXPERT’

Evidence of Marc’s authenticity as a writer and teacher is his acknowledgment that he is playing only one part in a long tradition. The “Don’t Be an Expert” chapter ends with an homage to Ram Dass’s landmark Be Here Now in 1971—a unique book that influenced countless lives. Our online magazine has published several interviews with Ram Dass over the years, including this one in 2013.

In other words: In buying a Marc Lesser book, or attending a Marc Lesser event, Marc makes it clear that you’re not encountering some new, trademarked system that he has whipped up in his kitchen. You’re tapping into a timeless line of wisdom.

Marc points out that, when he was only a 19-year-old kid, Ram Dass already was conveying this wisdom to his new generation. Why was the message of Be Here Now so surprising?

“It presented the possibility of finding a meaningful life by going beyond conventional ways of seeing ourselves and the world,” Marc writes in his new book. “I was introduced to the concept of not being an expert, of beginner’s mind, through what Ram Dass called ‘the most exquisite paradox’—as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all. When you relax thinking that you already know, there are many more possibilities. This practice is simply about making a sincere effort to listen without grasping, to respond without reacting, to be wiling to learn from each person and each situation.”

‘THE GREAT CONNECTOR’

In our interview, Marc pointed out that, while his Zen practice draws on several millennia of spiritual wisdom, much of that wisdom is also resurfacing in current research in broad fields such as psychology and sociology and in specific topics such as leadership. The fusion he is encouraging is surfacing naturally in global culture.

“The beautiful thing right now is that more and more research evidence is coming to us showing that a principle like vulnerability is an important quality in all relationships—and is essential for anyone in a leadership or management role,” Marc said in our interview.

“So, I’m not alone in saying that we all need to be a bit more humble, a bit more vulnerable and transparent. That’s emerging in a profound way from the latest research, as well.

“The great connector is that all people really want to find clarity and connection in their lives. People who are dealing with the struggles and opportunities in our world are ready for this message.”

Care to Learn More?

VISIT MARC’s WEBSITE and you can sign up for free email notice of his columns.

You’ll find all four of Marc’s books listed on his Amazon author page.

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Bill and Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann invite all of us to envision the best of community care in ‘Dying Well’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Click the book’s cover to visit its Amazon page.

Take heed of the eight words on the first page of this memoir: “This book is verily an event of community.”

In one sentence, that’s a great summary of Dying Well: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann—right down to that fourth word evoking the era of Chaucer, “verily.” Nationally known peace activist, theologian and author Bill Wylie-Kellermann is the husband and chronicler of his late wife Jeanie’s robust life as a journalist and social-justice activist, as well as her unique journey toward death. In “verily” on the first page, Bill is signaling to readers that this book is as much about memory as it is about the cutting-edge activism that is so close to the heart of this family.

Dying Well is a profound love story about the two writer-activists who led a tumultuous life at the barricades of many justice issues—and then shared in an equally inspiring, seven-year odyssey toward Jeanie’s home-based death.

Remembering Our Families

This book certainly is all of that—but it also is an invitation for readers to remember. Remember a real love story you’ve known of an impassioned couple who become equally passionate parents. Remember the best of family life. And remember—when the arc of life is closing its path in this tangible world—remember how loving families used to care for the dying and then the mourners in the humble surroundings of home.

“As readers experience our story, many of them are going to remember things about their own families. In our collective memory—in our community memory—we all know a lot more about family life and the eventual process of death and dying than we realize,” Bill Wylie-Kellermann said in an interview about his book. “Talk to your relatives, especially the older people, and you’ll find we are not that far removed from vigils for loved ones that were held in parlors, back before the funeral industry took over most of this process from us. These family-based and community-based stories of caring for the dying, right up through the vigil and funeral—that’s a memory only a generation or two removed from most of us.

“This whole process once was something we all did for ourselves, along with the community. That was true all over the country. These memories are still in our bones. We still can choose to come together as family and community in ways that once were so natural for us. This story isn’t as much about pushing some new agenda as it is remembering the power of community and family.”

Love Jumps Off the Page

“Reading these pages, the love will jump right off the page,” writes their daughter, the writer-activist Lydia Wylie-Kellermann in her Foreword to the book.

“This is indeed a book about my mom, about community, and about dying in a culture of death,” Lydia writes. “But it is also a very real story about the ones who care for the dying—who walk beside in all the ups and downs, laugher and tears, living and dying.”

She sums up her Foreword in these words: “This is a gift you hold in your hands, a love letter, a story. I give thanks for all those who love the dying—some of the most important and courageous work there is. And so often lonely, thankless and long. I hope that within these pages, we all find a bit of your own story and a friend on the journey.”

‘Flashes of Raw Beauty’

One early reviewer, the author Laurel Dykstra, describe the book’s mix of letters, poetry and stories as “flashes of raw beauty and abject brilliance.”

The theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, “Of course all of us are precious in God’s sight. But some of ‘all of us’ stand out because of their freedom, their courage and their tenacity. We call them ‘saints.’ Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann was one such. She embodied gospel passion that led her beyond herself to a rich network of justice and restoration.”

Bonnie Anderson of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, writes, “Jeanie and Bill Wylie-Kellermann created a template for the rooted in love and community, supported by courage and faith. The words seem simple, living them is not.”

The Larger Meaning of Resurrection

The book’s subtitle has caught the eyes of many readers: The Resurrected Life of Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann. That’s especially true as they read the first line of the book’s description on Amazon: “A loving memoir about the life, illness, death and resurrection freedom of Christian mother, writer and community activist Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann.”

Bill is nationally known as a theologian who has taught over the years at a number of seminaries. Together, Bill and Jeanie taught an expansive view of the Christian meaning of resurrection.

“Most people may think of resurrection as something that happens after death, and they talk about it only related to terminal moments in life,” Bill said in our interview. “We see resurrection as a way of life, the risks you take in life to pursue the work you need to do. In many ways, resurrection is about freedom to live because you feel a freedom to die. Jesus talks about this so clearly as he calls people to discipleship. Jesus tells his followers: Nobody can take my life; I lay it down freely. That freedom changes everything about our ways of living.

“Jeanie lived that freedom and was able to take all kinds of risks, political and otherwise, that were rooted in her understanding—our understanding together—of what resurrection means.

“I hope that readers of this book will realize that dying well is related to the freedom to die, which includes the struggle to live. I want people to think of her resurrected life not only in the sense of eternity or communal memory—but also in terms of how we can live our lives now in the resurrection.”

A Call to Action

This book should come with a warning label. As a result of reading this book, you’re likely to have new conversations with your own friends and family. Together, you may decide to make some changes, perhaps to do something different with those in your community than you’ve dared to do before. The book is a call to action.

“When we faced Jeanie’s diagnosis, we accepted lots of advice about how to do this from the many people in our community and overall it was very helpful,” Bill said. “All too often, I see people trying to organize caregiving with just one or two people who will try to shoulder the entire burden. That’s a very hard way to do this. Reading this book, I think you’ll come away inspired to reach out and ask a larger circle of people to come together. you need lots of people to lean on in such a journey. Our society isn’t organized in that way. We’re too timid about reaching out and asking others to help.

“For me, this is a proclamation of the Gospel—the good news of Jesus—which I believe is incarnational and multi-faceted. Telling you about Jeanie’s life and death is my way of proclaiming the Gospel and sharing this good news with you and your community.”

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Care to learn more?

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

You can learn more about Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s work at his personal website.

Lydia Wylie-Kellermann is the editor of Geez magazine and the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.net.

Then, if you’re interested in the challenges of caregiving—and millions of American families are—then you need to know: We wrote the book on that!

Popular writer and pastoral counselor Benjamin Pratt wrote the book that’s become an inspiring, reassuring and, in some sections, downright funny: Guide for CaregiversKeeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down.

Over the years, Read the Spirit Books and Front Edge Publishing have published a number of books that are useful for small group discussion—or that you could give as gifts to breast cancer survivors and their families.

In a special column for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Front Edge marketing director Susan Stitt wrote about four books we have published, including Ben Pratt’s book, that are helping readers and their families cope with cancer. Her column also highlights two books we publish that help families and friends after a death.

 

 

 

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Henry Brinton: When a story is better than a sermon …

Victorian townhouses along the river in Occoquan, Virginia, home of Harley Camden, protagonist of the novel City of Peace.

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By HENRY BRINTON
Contributing Columnist

About 10 years ago, an imam walked into my office at Fairfax Presbyterian Church with a Christmas present. He was the leader of the nearby Turkish mosque, a man with a big smile and a warm spirit.

Margaret Johnson, a member of the Ezher Bloom Mosque in Chantilly, Virginia, interviews Henry Brinton about the interfaith themes in his novel City of Peace in April 2019.

He and I became friends and went on to lead two clergy trips to Turkey, a country with a rich history of interfaith relations. When the rulers of Spain expelled its Jews in 1492, Turkey welcomed them. And while there have been interfaith conflicts over the years, Jews, Christians and Muslims have lived together in peace through much of Turkish history. Back in the US, members of the mosque have helped us to feed the homeless on cold winter nights, and we have celebrated the end of Ramadan together under a tent in our church parking lot.

I often preach about the importance of interfaith cooperation, but I find that sermons have their limits. People naturally push back against sermons—a common expression is, “Don’t preach at me.” And interfaith events can be easily declined by those who don’t want to leave the comfort of their religious traditions.

Now I’m trying a new vehicle for interfaith dialogue: the novel.

Not that this story-telling approach is original to me. Jesus didn’t give lectures on heaven, but taught through parables such as, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). And Jewish rabbis continued this approach through midrash aggadah, an approach to biblical interpretation that centers on the story or characters of the biblical law.

In line with this tradition, I am delivering a message about the need for deeper interfaith relations, especially in a time of Muslim bans and terrorist threats, through my novel City of Peace. In it, a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden is sent to Occoquan, Virginia. Soon after his arrival, he is asked—as the only clergy in town—to visit a prisoner named Muhammad Bayati, an Iraqi immigrant accused of murdering his daughter.

After introducing himself, Harley tells Muhammad that he has recently lost his own daughter and wife. Looking Muhammad in the eyes to gauge his reaction, he says, “They were killed by terrorists at the Brussels airport.”

Muhammad’s eyes well up, which is not the reaction Harley expects. “I was informed of your loss,” he says. “You have my sympathy.” Harley thanks him but feels a little off balance.

“You may know that the Qur’an says that whoever kills a person unjustly, it is as though he has killed all mankind,” says Muhammad. “I condemn the killers of your wife and daughter.”

The two men go on to talk about justice, God, and even Jesus—a prophet for Muhammad and the messiah for Harley. Then Harley says, “Our Bible says that God is love.”

Muhammad cocks his head slightly and replies, “That is different from our understanding. We have many names for God, but love is not among them.” He knows that “All-Compassionate” is one of the 99 names for God, but so is “The Distressor.” In Islam, none of these attributes of God is identical to God’s essence.

“For Christians, love is at the core of who God is,” explains Harley. “God reveals his love by sending Jesus. And the response we are supposed to make is to love one another.”

“I would agree with that,” says Muhammad. “Loving God does require that we love the people around us.” Harley begins to see that he and Muhammad have much in common, and that he is wrong to be prejudiced against someone with a commitment to love of God and neighbor.

This, then, is a portion of my parable, my midrash aggadah. Church members who have little interest in interfaith relations are attracted to the whodunnit aspect of the story, and are learning about Muslim attitudes through Muhammad, a multidimensional and sympathetic character. Readers identify better with Harley, a flawed and grieving man, than they do with a minister in robes.

But a story is no guarantee of interfaith harmony. When I presented City of Peace to members of the Turkish mosque, one woman complained that I had slighted Islam by saying love was absent from the names it gave God. But after a long discussion between two imams, one said, “On this point, Pastor Brinton is correct.” Whew. I was relieved.

Novels can ignite important conversations about matters of faith and morality, and they can get people talking outside the walls of the church. Such conversations can lead to new visions for our life together, and draw people together around values that are common to diverse faiths and cultures.

I don’t plan on giving up the pulpit, but I am glad to have discovered a less preachy way of preaching.

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Care to learn more?

You’ll enjoy our March cover story about Henry and his new novel.

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More about Henry

HENRY G. BRINTON is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia, and has written on religion and culture for The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, and Huffington Post.

A frequent speaker at workshops and conferences, he is the author or co-author of books including The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality.—and a new cozy mystery called City of Peace.

Married with two adult children, he enjoys boating on the Potomac River and competing in endurance sports such as marathons.

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