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Lessons from Christmas Carp

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

As we are working our way through the Advent season and getting ready for Christmas, our lives are filled with festivities, yearly chores and eager anticipation of activities which may include decorating a Christmas tree, listening to carols, watching Christmas movies, baking cookies, buying presents and getting ourselves into the holiday mood. But, for me, growing up in the Czech Republic, one essential Christmas tradition was all about the Christmas carp. Yes, the bottom-feeding creature that, in my part of the world, has been elevated from the humble fish family to a status of freshwater rockstar, raised in the carp farms of South Bohemia. (A little history lesson: supposedly the tradition of the Christmas carp dates back to 1253 and the missionary activity of Vilem of Rubruk. The popularity of carp is credited to lakes being built outside of Catholic monasteries during the Middle Ages to supply fish for the Catholic tradition of fasting from eating meat on certain days.).

So, you are likely wondering, how does a carp make it from a lake to your plate? It is an arduous and emotional journey for all. A few days before Christmas we would venture out to the city market with our crocheted bags and choose two or three fish for our family. Then, we would quickly walk home and release our new family members into our bathtub (keep in mind that the majority of families had only one bathtub in their homes). Honestly, I have a convenient amnesia regarding the lack of national showering for a few days as the entire country was renting out their bathtubs to these sweet freshwater creatures.

On Christmas Eve my dad would quietly disappear (to spare us from a traumatizing farewell to our new fish friend) and would take on the unpleasant task assigned to the man of the house: putting an end to the poor carp’s life. The next we saw of our recent bathtub visitor was as fillets of fish doused in milk marinade. My favorite responsibility was breading the fish, frying it, and serving it with a slice of lemon and potato salad during Christmas dinner. As I approach the Christmas season, I am reminded that of some of the most valuable lessons I learned from my beloved carp.

Lesson number 1: Sometimes it is okay to miss out on experiences. Now and then we need to give ourselves permission to sit out and be spared from certain events. Although I used to be curious about the actual “farewell” as my dad would club the carp, I realized that my fish was much tastier without the accompanying visual images of the fish’s ultimate fate. Sometimes there are events in our life that, despite our curiosity, are better left not experienced directly. We may, in fact, benefit from leaving some experiences unlived. Living our lives with intentionality means that we are guided by the questions: What am I trying to accomplish here? What is the purpose? If we are mindlessly wandering or rushing through life, we run the risk of missing the big picture, the bigger lesson, the meaning behind our experiences. Life is not about collecting or accumulating a multitude of experiences, but rather about living selectively and processing life with clear intention and purpose in mind.

Lesson number 2: Don’t take more than you can handle. Every year I would learn this lesson over and over again. My eyes would get big as I salivated over my piece of carp, but what I would often not remember is that carp is super bony and even the smallest piece takes forever to dissect and eat. Of course, this becomes a real issue for children who cannot open their first gift on Christmas Eve until all their fish is gone. Similarly, in life, we are prone to quickly commit to activities, events, and obligations only to later realize that we have overloaded and overextended ourselves. We are then left to feel like we are headed down a one-way street towards a brick wall. An event that seemed like so much fun all of a sudden turns into a burden and something to endure instead of something to enjoy. Especially during the holiday season, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize and then decide to do one less thing. Then thoroughly enjoy that one less holiday party, one less batch of cookies to bake, one less gift to make the season of celebration. Christmas season is something to be enjoyed, not something to check off our to-do list.

Lesson number 3: Taking shortcuts rarely works out. What do ER doctors do on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic? Mini surgeries with their special tweezers as they are removing pesky carp bones lodged in the throats of folks who were trying to take the shortcut by consuming undissected bites, not taking the time to analyze each bite to deem it safe for chewing, swallowing and digesting. We can all relate to the little temptation to do something boring quickly so that we can move to the next, more enjoyable part, but that strategy of time management rarely works. Most of the time we pay for it in lost time, sometimes lost money, and often with our nerves bubbling over. Deep down inside we had a feeling that it was not a good idea to cut corners but we did it anyway, just to pay for it later. There is a false promise in shortcuts, making us believe that the process is unimportant and that reaching the end product quickly is paramount. Based on our experiences, we all know that often the course towards something can be just as enjoyable, enlightening and joy-filled as the final result.

So as we walk (yes, walk, don’t run) through this holiday season, let’s embrace each Christmas moment and experience as one of a kind because, in fact, that is what it really is. Each Christmas holiday will represent an amalgamation of the season of life in which we find ourselves, impacted by our current circumstances and the people with whom we are now close. Trying to replicate the Christmas magic of our childhood or years past will only leave us feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. Putting expectations on ourselves or others will make us vulnerable to feelings of frustration and emptiness. As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas, let us always remember the reason for the season. Veselé Vánoce a šťastný nový rok!

Who do you want to be when you grow up?

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

Who do you want to be when you grow up? This is the million dollar question.

A few summers ago, on a pleasant July night, I was taking a walk in our neighborhood with our then third grader, holding an empty pickle jar in our hands, trying to catch a few lighting bugs. (No, we did not catch any, in case you’re wondering). There must have been something about the warm, relaxing breeze that opened the door to the deeper questions of life to surface, such as, what do you want to do when you grow up? Filled with curiosity, I asked whether he was still interested in becoming a firefighter which seemed as an understandably popular choice for an adventure-seeking third-grade boy. The conversation continued, admittedly fueled by my incessant questions.  With his big brown eyes, he finally looked at me and resolutely announced, perhaps just trying to stop the flood of the existential interrogation.  “ Well… you just never know what life will bring your way.” While my curiosity was dismissed and went unsatisfied, I realized that I couldn’t agree with him more.

Yes,  it’s true we never know what life will bring our way. Careers change; interests shift or morph into yet another variation. Our hopes, goals, and aspirations may fade, often unrealized like blowing bubbles that vanish into the air and eventually burst into nothingness. We all have experienced those moments of pivotal turns, crushed dreams, and unexpected detours, trying to navigate the life for which we did not prepare. Many times, feeling shook up and disoriented, we search and grasp for scripts and recipes to guide our next decision. But deep down inside, we know there are no how-to books or tutorials that would speak into our jumbled circumstances. So, what is left then, when the question of what do you want to do when you grow up feels so daunting? Perhaps we’re not asking our children the right question. What about this?… Who do you want to be when you grow up? What kind of person are you hoping to become? At the core of our parenting efforts, we return to the essential all-supporting and all-encompassing foundation of character. Those collective virtues of wisdom, kindness, humility, selflessness, and too many other qualities to name, form the bedrock of character that sustains us through the uncertain circumstances of life.  What do our children do when no one is looking, when the work is not being graded and trophies are not dispensed? What do our children say behind our backs when we’re not listening? What do our children do when they’ve been wronged and are tempted to seek revenge or when there are no immediate or obvious payoffs or rewards for doing the right thing.  All those moments of decision-making represent the opportunity to make choices that develop and ultimately reflect character.

So the real question guiding our parenting and the developmental path taken by our children ought not to be “What do you want to be (or do) when you grow up?” but rather “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”  In the long run, being always precedes doing.  Who you are will determine what you do.

Our third-grader was correct. While we cannot completely prepare our children for the right career or vocation, we can equip them for the ups and downs of life, twisting, hilly (or mountainous) stretches of the road, as they journey towards character with us by their side. We are the shepherds of their souls, keeping watch, guiding and loving on them all the way in firm yet gentle ways.

Would you like to further explore the topic of character together? Come and join us at St. James Academy on October 18 at 9:30. We will talk about the journey towards character through creating your family mission statement. We’d love to have you join us.

Register for “Character Matters: Raising Your Child for the Ultimate Success”

SJA Celebrates 60 Years!

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SJA’s 60th birthday will be marked by a celebration tonight honoring the artwork and musical talent of SJA students. From the beginning in 1821 to the reestablishment in 1957, the Academy has followed the Episcopal tradition of recognizing the gifts that each child brings to the world. Known as one of the most prestigious schools in Baltimore County, students are offered opportunities to explore academics, the arts, and athletics. The programs provided to students enhance and open young minds to think beyond the classroom and into the world.

“The future of St. James Academy is flourishing. Our school community is one of reflection and innovation and is an ideal environment for children to learn, grow, and blossom into young people. This celebration marks the success of St. James Academy and showcases the whole community,” said Karl Adler, Head of School. Our Artist-in-Residence, Mr. Eli Hess, will culminate the evening with his installation of Geomtree. Mr. Hess has collaborated with students to create an outstanding piece of artwork.

The Middle School Program at St. James Academy

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By: Suzanne Fischer-Huettner, SJA Parent 

With the holiday approaching and application deadlines looming I hear chatter in the halls of St. James from both students and parents trying to decide whether to continue at St. James for middle school or move to another school in search of the perfect fit.  We all want the best experience for our child and in the Baltimore area there are so many excellence schools to fit every personality and learning style.  My daughter Bella started St. James in Kindergarten and elementary school years were filled with laughter, learning, nurturing and a personalized approach to her needs and abilities.  She tried every sport, sang, acted, learned chess and jumped at every chance to join in whatever activity was presented.  By fifth grade, we could clearly see she was growing into a pre-teen and expected to be treated differently.  She was coming out of her shell and needed a school that would challenge her personally and academically while still providing the small community feel we have come to love.  She wanted to be respected for her abilities, continue to try new things, pull away from the younger kids and given the freedom and independence she and her friends have clearly earned.

The middle school program at St. James accomplishes those goals and so much more.  My husband and I kept hearing about the International Baccalaureate program but honestly did not understand what that truly meant until Bella was immersed in it.  Even though she spends her days in Northern Baltimore County she is exposed to racial, cultural and religious differences through speakers, her academic classes and open discussions.  She travels around the world not only learning facts and dates but instead learning the reason behind religious differences, wars, tragedy and celebrations.  She is given the opportunity to express her opinions even if they go against the norm and has been challenged to articulate her beliefs through spoken and written word. Read More