CASTINE, MAINE — We are in 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 gifts are exchanged 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 impending expiration. Old year expires; a new year commences. Old shopping records fall; new ones are made.
As a culture, we love to count, especially during the season between Thanksgiving and New Year's, between the holiday which focuses us on gratitude as we look back, and the holiday that will focus us on looking forward with optimism and new purpose.
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 to think of others: How have I, or how will I, help others share in the benefits that abound?
At my elementary school recently, I 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 the year 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 becomes the history of the tribe. More than statistics or linear accrual of time, the events synchronized time and meaning.
"What would the winter count for our school look like?" I asked my students. The 4th-grade class, which is studying native Americans, contemplated their own winter count after we looked at a Lakota example.
They felt this would be remembered as the year of the New England Patriots' third Super Bowl victory, of course. 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, skiing for the first time. And then there would be the tsunami, and hurricane Katrina. Or, as one student pointed out, "disasters - and help, too." All of these students will remember their own generous initiatives responding to the year's list of disasters.
My own list would cite the year of Rosa Parks lying in state in the nation's Capitol, and a local fisherman winning a MacArthur Foundation grant for studying local fisheries.
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. 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 people, in part because we are measuring our stature as individuals according to the collective good we have accomplished as a people.
Any "winter" is more than the sum of its parts, more than just an enumeration of things that happened. Our "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?" Will this be a "Winter of Shelter," to cite a few Lakota counts. It will be if we look outward, forward, and lend a hand, as the kids at my school do.
• Todd R. Nelson is the principal of Adams School in Castine, Maine.