Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

How we measure our lives

APRIL SAUL / Staff photographer
APRIL SAUL / Staff photographer
Todd R. Nelson

is head of school at the School in Rose Valley

We have entered the season of counts. On the one hand, it is the count of the Advent calendar; on the other, the soulless countdown of spending days until Christmas, and the turn of the calendar year at New Year's.

We are preoccupied with enumerating the passage of time, expense, and our accomplishments connected mostly to consumption and the year's impending expiration. Another fiscal year draws to an end, and we prepare for the reckoning with the tax man - the annual bean count.

Thanksgiving asks us, "How have we been fortunate?" and New Year's Day, "How will I make good fortune in the future?" If there is sincerity and humility attached, they are questions that also draw us out of ourselves:

How have I, or how will I, help others share in the benefits that abound?

One year, at my former elementary school, we diverted attention to a different count. The Lakota Sioux measured the year from first snowfall to first snowfall with what they called the "winter count." They marked the passing of time and collected the important events of a year as a pictograph drawn on an animal hide. Here were the crucial moments in tribal life: "The Year the Stars Fell" (the Leonid meteor showers of 1833), or "The Winter of Compassion" (1944, the year of the founding of the National Congress of American Indians). Their counts distilled the meaning of events, threading singular moments into a tapestry that became the history of the tribe, synchronizing time and meaning.

"What would the winter count for our school look like?" I asked my fourth graders.

Some sports fan felt it would be remembered as the year of the soccer World Cup. One boy knew right away that it would always be the year of "my baby sister." For Charlotte, it would be the arrival of Amber, her new cat. For other kids, the pictograph would show making igloos, or skiing for the first time, or the start of our recycling program. Others cited natural disasters and disaster relief, continuing warfare and glimmers of peace.

My own list cited the year of Rosa Parks lying in state in the nation's Capitol, and a local fisherman winning a MacArthur grant for studying local fisheries - unexpected moments when wonders seemed natural.

As winter approaches, I'd like this to be a season in which we count a different sense of annual accomplishment, a deeper sense of capital, of collective benefit, and progress. Sure, we have passed the one-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy; of disaster and recovery. Yes, the temporal "exoskeleton" of the calendar has us marking rituals and routines of all kinds. But I look for the breakthrough, not the repeat enumeration of all that simply is coming around again.

I'd like to count the signs of hope, community, and brotherhood. We all have them, measured on the personal, family, or community scale. The measure of growth in compassion, for instance, is rarely counted or enumerated - it can't be tallied as easily as time and money - but it should be. It's a better measure of the stature of a person or a people. I wonder if I could prepare a Form 1040 enumerating my cultural capital? It would be a more complete measure of any country's GNP. Try it.

Our school "tribe" is certainly defined by more than professional sports victories, the advent of little sisters, or nature's turmoil. Nonetheless, it's still good to add up this winter's key moments because they affirm that we have a voice in determining what will be remembered in the next winter count.

Are we working toward another "Winter That Strengthened Our Voices" or a "Winter of Shelter," to cite two Lakota counts? It will be, if we look outward, forward, past the urge to refill our shopping carts, and lend a hand. And what new, fresh, hopeful qualifiers could we attach to the timbre of those voices?

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