Fresh starts

My grandmother, top left, and her students on the steps of the Old El, around 1930.

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

September signals summer’s end, and the arrival of fall. And while it’s hard to leave those beautiful, sunny days behind, autumn offers beauty all her own. Evenings are cooler, mosquitoes disappear, harvesting begins.

The changing seasons are always a reminder of the many endings and beginnings we experience, and how life and time on earth includes many passages, changes, as well as fresh starts.

Most obvious and relevant this time of year is the return to school. Remember the nervous excitement of the new school year? Moving to the next grade? Meeting the new teachers?

The night before, we carefully selected and laid out the 1st-day-of-school outfit. The next morning, freshly scrubbed, we armed ourselves with new crayons, folders, and sharp pencils. We squeezed our summer feet into our school shoes and climbed the steep school bus steps. We were ready. Determined to impress our new teachers. Excited for a fresh start.

I remember in our childhood games, if we really blew a pitch or missed a goal or struck out, we would cry, “Do over!” Most often we were met with a few grumbles and eventual agreement. Occasionally I encouraged some “do overs” as a parent and even in my classroom.

If one of our children responded to a parental request with immediate attitude, I sometimes said, “Okay, I want you to walk out of the room, come back in, and let’s try that again.” Often it was a relief to our children, and it felt like they learned something. Of course, we couldn’t use the “do over” every time, but now and then, opportunity for a fresh start was sometimes allowed.

I used “do overs” on occasion in the classroom, too. “Hey, let’s try that again. And think about how you are talking.” Yup. Usually, a student would tuck his or her head, recognize the behavior or words that needed correcting, and immediately comply, allowing our work and discussions to continue.

And it isn’t just kids that need the opportunity for forgiveness and a fresh start. We all need the chance to try a discussion or activity again, to try a different approach to resolve a conflict or difficult situation, to have a do-over.

Sometimes it’s hard to admit that something isn’t working. Changes in life and changes in thinking happen regularly. And just because we’ve shifted direction on a project or change the way we view a situation doesn’t mean we’ve failed. It is really another form of fresh start. Sometimes that might mean adjusting or changing our goals. Or mending a fence or setting new boundaries in a relationship.

A quote by Mary Pickford touches on the importance of starting over. “You may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for the thing that we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down.”

It’s a Fine Life.


By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

The garden is in its full glory. The hydrangea bushes droop with blossoms; the black-eyed Susans smile throughout the beds; the zinnias sing in riotous colors. Gardeners everywhere tuck their spades and scissors in their pockets, stand up and stretch, and breathe deeply.

Gardening is a creative practice in patience and persistence. Victories and failures. Joys and sorrows.
Gardens present their caretakers with occasional opportunities to pause and appreciate the beauty of their work and the bounty they receive.

Committing to a garden is much like this journey of life. For both gardens and relationships to thrive, they demand consistent care and attention. If we become inattentive and look away for too long, weeds invade and take over.

We have been working on our gardens, expanding them, adjusting them, weeding them for over 30 years.

We are strictly flower gardeners. We have tried fruits and vegetables throughout the decades but have found our best success with perennial and annual flowers.

Surprises happen in our gardens.

Sometimes they are aggravating: the mulberry trees which vigorously emerge along the picket fence; the blue jay that dives for my head as I walk below the redbud tree; the poison ivy creeping silently under the daylilies.

But more often the surprises are pleasant: a cedar waxwing feeding its young in the spirea; the resurrection of a rosebush we thought dead; a tiny bunny who darts from space to space as we water.

Similarly, unexpected things happen all the time in our lives. Sometimes they are heartbreaking: hard words with family or friends; a troubling test result; or the loss of a relationship. But then a friend we haven’t seen in years knocks at our door; a new restaurant opens down the street; we rock a new grandbaby.

In my experience, things eventually come back in balance and life rights itself.

My friends Bob and Rachel gave me the book “Inciting Joy” a month ago. I heard the author, Ross Gay, read some of his poetry on an NPR program where he described how joy felt to him. This gift, this book of essays, tackles the reality that joy is never in isolation. That sorrow is never far away. He reminds us that both are a part of life. Both can and do exist within “the same room.”

So true, but it’s a challenge to embrace joy while sorrow clouds our view. To live fully, we must persist in seeking the sun, sowing new seeds, improving the soil.

Whatever this life brings, the sun rises and sets, the cardinal sings his beautiful song, the roses emit their intoxicating fragrance.

Like my morning walk through the garden, each day offers opportunities to pull some weeds. To clean up parts of our life that we have neglected. To care for and nurture our loved ones.

It also offers a chance to try some new plants. To greet someone warmly. To be fully in the moment.

It’s a Fine Life.

Building a legacy

By Kathy Oswalt-Forsythe

When our time on this earth is over, what will we leave behind? Did we make a difference in some way for our community and those around us? How will we be remembered?

Jon Kachniewicz and Dave Smith, long-time Vicksburg High School track and field coaches, have begun that type of reflection and are just beginning to realize the impact of their many years of coaching.

Kachniewicz has coached track for VHS for 47 years; Smith for 26. Kachniewicz was a beginning teacher and coach when Smith was a high school athlete competing for Loy Norrix, where he still holds the record for the 300 hurdles.

The two’s admiration for each other and their very different coaching styles is clear.

“Years ago, when Dave took over the program, he asked me to join him. I said, ‘Are you crazy? Are you sure that’s a good idea?’ I still remember that conversation,” says Kachniewicz.

Kachniewicz is a master communicator. When he talks to someone, he is all in. As a recipient of his focus and undivided attention, it feels that at that moment you are all that matters. “Everyone deserves that, especially kids,” he says.

Whether in his classroom or on the field, Smith is the hub of the wheel. He is continually surrounded by kids who adore him and work hard to please him. “I set a high bar,” says Smith, “and most of the time, kids reach it.”

Since that time, the two created a legendary program, stressing discipline, consistency, and work ethic.

Kachniewicz emphasizes the discipline involved in running. “No, working out for track isn’t fun, and it’s something we talk with our athletes about—we stress how important it is to do the right thing and commit.”

Smith shares a more personal story, saying, “Working with Jon and creating our program changed my life. We work with great kids and have had great success.”

Yes they have. During their span with Vicksburg’s program, the team has produced at least six state champions, six conference championships, and five regional championships. The two have also been recognized and honored by their colleagues.

Vicksburg’s Athletic Director Michael Roy says, “If we loaded all the qualities for a perfect coach in a 3-D printer and pressed the button, it would print out these two men. They are outstanding and the type of adults who should be working with young people.”

I concur.

Today, Kachniewicz and Smith assist the team as volunteers—a situation that pleases head coach Cody Caswell. “Being an athlete for them is one of the most prominent memories I have from high school sports. They had a huge impact on why I chose to go into coaching. I started my coaching career with them the year after I graduated, and I will always be honored to work with them.”

In a recent photo, Kachneiwicz and Smith stand proudly behind some of their former athletes, now current Vicksburg track and field coaches. Besides Caswell, Sawyer Duncan is head coach for Vicksburg Middle School’s track team, Zak Haines coaches sprinters, Lucas Wolthuis is the girls track coach, Jacob Klimp helps at the middle school, and Chris Chesser coaches jumping events and sprinters.

“I couldn’t be prouder of them,” says Smith as he examines the picture of the men. “They are from some of the best teams we ever had, and they believe and practice what we find important.”

Kachneiwicz and Smith are both amazed and humbled by the realization of the lasting effects of their guidance and coaching.

Brick by brick, conversation by conversation, Kachneiwicz and Smith have created a living legacy.

It’s a Fine Life.