Monthly Archives: April 2014

Needful Pain

Today, the real became the official.
It surprised no one
     and yet
     the pain took my breath away.

A simple pass from one hand
to the other.
A simple manila envelope.
A sad smile from the recipient.

And just like that
     twenty-one years of teaching
     are officially ending.

I handed in my official letter today, informing my principal that I intend to leave teaching at the end of the year,
and will not be coming back. The letter didn’t actually say that, because wiser and cooler heads than mine have prevailed, and talked me into taking a year’s leave of absence. But I, and my principal, both know that I am not
coming back.

The tears were not entirely unexpected, but the simultaneous forming of a hollow hole in my stomach and the welling up of sadness around the hole knocked me back. It is so very strange to need something so painful. I need to leave teaching. If I stay, it will kill me a little every day. I cannot give another standardized test. I cannot do what I am being asked to do to students. It is even worse now that our state has adopted the Common Core, and developed a new test to measure student attainment of the standards.

I cannot participate in the cookie-cutting of my students.

But at the same time, leaving teaching is going to kill me.

If my life were a book, it might play out something like this:
Chapters 1-9: happy childhood
Chapters 9-10: parents divorce, slightly less happy childhood
Chapters 11-20: self-loathing, convinced of lack of self-worth
Chapters 21-42: teaching teaches me my power, and my self-worth, and that I am beautiful and smart and worthy

Teaching literally showed me who I am. I have never been so good at something as I am at teaching.

Holy shit, how do I walk away from this and stay whole?

I don’t. I don’t get to have it both ways.

But I can’t stay. Because it will kill me faster.

Music, more than anything else

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   I love food. When I talk to my family, at some point in the conversation, a recent, memorable meal or a special recipe will come up, and we’re off on the food tangent for twenty minutes. I remember what I ate for lunch at a special event eight years ago, or all the restaurants we went to when we visited Sicily. (That guy I just met ten minutes ago? No clue what his name is.)
   Smells are also often evocative. Suntan lotion (Coppertone, of course) will always bring me back to May, 1989, and lying on the beach with an evil hangover after our musical’s cast party of the night before. To this day, the smell of Southern Comfort sends me running to the bathroom.
   But it’s music, more than anything else, that transports me. My “formative musical years” are basically 1977 to 2001. From ’77 to about ’82, I was heavily influenced by what my parents were listening to: Rod Stewart, (made-up dance routine to “Do You Think I’m Sexy”…at age seven…) Gordon Lightfoot, Roger Whittaker, ABBA. That music is long car trips, jammed with my siblings in the back of my dad’s convertible du jour. Usually to Ohio. From Florida.
   Roger Whittaker was my first concert. With my mom. I got to wear a pair of her heels, and I felt totally grown-up. I think I was eleven. Say what you will, I still love all of that music.
   Shortly after that concert, though, I began my own musical awakening. Van Halen, (1984) The Police, (Synchronicity) Madonna, (“Borderline”) and Chicago (“You’re the Inspiration”) were on the radio as I entered adolescence. “Jump” and Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” will always be me and Christy, leaping off the ottoman during our dance routines, singing into our brushes.
   As things got more emotionally complicated, it was music that sang my feelings. Phil Collins’ “Against All Odds” was, I was sure, written for me after my first big break-up. “I Can Dream About You” by Dan Hartman was definitely written about that unobtainable Senior I had a huge crush on. Depeche Mode existed to let me safely plumb the depths of my darker side. Metallica and the Violent Femmes helped me scream out my rebellious side.
   The ’80’s are my era, no doubt. But the ’90’s are the background music to my exploration of what being a woman would mean. Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan, Madonna (still)–they were singing about things I was trying to navigate as a twenty-something newly launched into the grown-up career world, (sans boyfriend).
   Don Henley’s “Boys of Summer” will always be a drive up A1A in Florida, around midnight. Sunroof and windows open, warm and salty ocean breeze, cigarette resting lightly between first and second fingers of my left hand. I have just left a party where, for the first time, I realized I could have had my pick of guys. And chose to leave alone.
   And, well, on that note: Nine Inch Nails’ “Get Down, Make Love” still has the ability to make me cross-eyed with lust.
   The thing about music, about lyrics, is that they speak to us; often, they speak to us when we are at our most vulnerable. That emotional memory stays embedded in the sensory bank that is our brain, and the opening notes of the music rushes us back to that time, that place.
   I’ve often heard people lament that the world has no need for poetry anymore, as we race head-long into making money, face-down onto our electronic devices. But I’m not worried.
   As long as there are people feeling things they can’t or won’t talk about, who are connecting with the lyrics and rhythms of music, we will all be pulled in by poetry. As long as there are lyricists who are willing to write about the things we feel most deeply, and singers to add the layered emotion of sounds to those words, poetry will be there.
   Music, more than anything else, has the power to transport me.

Did you see that truck…?!

It must have been really big, and traveling really fast, when it hit me. How else to explain my knees? And my back?
Oh. Wait.

12 trees (some quite small, but still requiring big holes to be dug)
1 aster, the name of which I can not remember
25 strawberries (They’re called Sparkle. How could I resist them?)
15 assorted cabbage seedlings
15 assorted kale seedlings
30 assorted scallion and onion seedlings
radish, mustard, kohlrabi, scallion, escarole, collard greens seeds
5 rugosa rose transplants
1 forsythia transplant
…and more to do tomorrow.

My knees. Holy cow, my knees. And, well, my back.

But you know, my head feels good. And my spirit. It feels great.

Because the damp earth smells amazing, and the green that’s coming more to life every second is brightening the world around me.

I’m coming to this “farmer gig” pretty late in life, and it probably won’t do any real good for my joints.
But, you know, the rest of me is pretty happy.

When there’s more energy, there is a greens tart in an olive oil crust to share (plus the awesome crackers made from the crust trimmings). It’s from Clotilde, at Chocolate and Zucchini, and it’s cooling on a rack on the counter right now. It will be tomorrow’s lunch. Tonight, it’s tormenting me with its amazing aroma.

I’ve been wearing a bandana to cover my hair while gardening. I can still feel it on my head.
Goodnight.

Do I Believe in Miracles?

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Ragged, split, and stained
my fingernails tell my truth:
     the sun was out today
     so I played in the dirt.

I clipped and I weeded,
I pulled and I planted.
     This is how I worship
     the thing so much bigger than I.

Do I believe in miracles?
I brushed crumbly soil aside
     and there was a universe of earthworms,
     a grayish-green twirl of lavender leaves.

Do I believe in magic?
The purple bud of a lilac
     pushes open its leafy casing,
     reaching toward sunlight.

Do I believe in love?
The lilies point skyward
     reddish whirling leaves
     greeting a new spring.

I kneel in the dirt,
dig my fingers deep,
     and chant,
     “Thank you.”
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My space

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One of my favorite spaces to create each time I move is my “office.” There was a time when that was a literal term. I did a lot of work at home for the literacy institute I worked for, and then the reading program that I wrote for (Hi, Janet! I love you!). Now, though, my office has a lot less to do with work and a lot more to do with writing, reading, dreaming, and staring out of the window.

The office space that I created in our Massachusetts house was lovely. The room is tiny, and its walls are a buttery yellow with white trim. I had tchotchkes and flying ladies and books in every space. It felt homey, and cozy, and comfortable. I have been sad to think about losing it, but I began to gradually move all of the bits and pieces to the New York house about a year ago, and the disassembling actually made it easier to let go.

The one thing I knew I needed so that I could pull the space together was the desk. My stepfather built the desk in my Massachusetts’ office, and as much as I love it, it won’t fit in the new room. (We’re keeping it, and Larry will have the benefit of its awesomeness now.) Larry and I talked about him building me a new one, and then yesterday, poking around in a shop in Vermont, et voila!

I don’t know exactly why the desk is so paramount, but there is something about a beautiful and serviceable writing surface (or, as in right now, typing surface) that makes me happy. This one absolutely glows in the light (well, now it does…it required a fair bit of cleaning…) and is perfectly imperfect. The surface is one large piece of pine, about three inches thick. The edges are in varying states of roughness, and at the back, there’s a chunk taken out on the left side.

But I can sit at the desk, tucked in the bay window of the room, and watch the sun sink behind the mountain to the north. I can sit at the desk and watch deer and wild turkeys cross from the hill behind the house to the woods across the street. From my vantage point, surrounded by windows on three sides, I can watch the headlights of cars approach and pass, briefly illuminating the darkness. I can watch the twin fir trees wave as the wind buffets the house.

And I can see the pool. Swamp? Frog-breeding ground?
We really need to decide what we’re doing about that…

But that’s okay. Because I have my desk.

Gray Sky Reflection

Coffee’s steam curls toward the drafty window
as I sit and watch the spruce boughs
bobbling in the wind.

The barn sits heavy on the greening ground
as the gunmetal sky presses down
waiting to rain.

Leaf buds on roses turn toward the light
as Spring makes its way northward
warming the daffodils.

Mornings

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I love morning on my own terms. The dogs wake me up between 5:30 and 7 (It’s a wide window. They’re dogs. What can I say?) and I make coffee and read, or go outside and take pictures, or sit and watch and listen to the birds. Once the first cup of coffee is done, it’s time to think about breakfast.

This morning is altered slightly. In between going outside to take pictures and say hello to the tiny leaves that are starting to unfurl on some of the plants and my first cup of coffee, I popped a ham in the oven. We’re going to the neighbors’ for Easter dinner (Howdy, Neighbors!) and I’m not sure how long the ham will take. I’m using this glaze from Dave Lieberman:
http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/dave-lieberman/dijon-maple-glazed-spiral-ham-recipe.html The ham is a boneless, brined, smoked ham from a local farm, Caton Acres, up Saranac way. We’ve bought half hogs from them a few times, and are always really happy with the meat. I wish I was going to be serving it with something I had grown, but it’s still too early for that. Hopefully not this time next year, though.
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I’ve been walking and staring at our property since the other day, and have been mentally placing new trees and shrubs. I also bought the supplies to build a small greenhouse, based on the model in Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman’s book, The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook. (You can see the plans at fourseasonfarm.com.) I’m excited about this next step, since it will do wonders to extend our season. Maybe I’ll join in the competition to grow the season’s earliest tomatoes.

One recipe to share today, from The Kitchn. http://www.thekitchn.com/recipe-breakfast-polenta-squares-with-spinach-bacon-breakfast-recipes-from-the-kitchn-200887I I love polenta for its versatility and its comfort-food vibe. This recipe highlights both, with the polenta cooked in a bread pudding/casserole-type dish. It couldn’t be any easier, and I was thinking that you could change up the ingredients to make a few different versions. Make it vegetarian with sauteed chard and mushrooms (make sure to cook most of the moisture out of the mushrooms) or swap the spinach for sauteed kale. In summer, any hearty green, mixed with tomatoes and corn, would be lovely. You could mix up the meats, too: cooked chicken sausage, chorizo, prosciutto, guanciale, bacon, salami…you get the picture. This is definitely one to play with.
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Happy Easter, to those of you who celebrate!

Divestment and a Coconut Curry

I have spent the last 18 years collecting books for my classroom.

One person can collect a lot of books in 18 years.

Now that I’m leaving teaching, it seems insane and somewhat criminal not to make sure that most of the books wind up in the hands of students. I started this process last year, filling many boxes with books that students could take from, and then passing on the remainder to colleagues and the school down the road from our home. But I still have probably 2,000 left.

I started the divestment process in earnest today. I have already filled five boxes from the “realistic fiction” section, and still have all of the other genres to go. The kids will get first dibs on most of the titles, but I’m setting aside some literature circle books and author sets for the teacher who will take my place. (Fingers crossed that it’s a certain someone I know…) I am also keeping a fair number of them, on the off-chance that I decide to go back to the classroom. My deal with myself is that if I haven’t returned to teaching in two years, I will get rid of most of the rest of them.

Some, I will keep forever. Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson; Winger, by Andrew Smith; Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz; The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak; A Northern Light, by Jennifer Donnelly, all of John Green’s books…the list is actually pretty long. Some books are meant to be read over and over again, and I have encountered many, many of these books in the amazing world of young adult fiction. It is one of the things in my life for which I am most grateful: that I had a career that led me to such amazing places.

And now I’m getting weepy, so let’s talk curry. This one, in particular: http://www.rachaelraymag.com/recipe/coconut-chicken-curry/

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There will be no Rachael Ray bashing on this blog.  Along with my family, she taught me to cook and I will be forever thankful for that.  The fact that she isn’t a trained chef is what still makes her food so approachable, in my opinion.  And no one who has ever eaten one of her recipes in my house has complained, so she must be doing something right.

I didn’t change too much to this recipe.  I had regular coconut milk, so used it (creamy and silky and coconutty…light, schmight–use the full fat, unless you’re on a diet).  I didn’t have sweet potatoes, but I did have cauliflower and regular potatoes, so I chopped those up and used them instead; I put them in when the recipe called for the sweets.  I added chopped dried apricots with the vegetables.  (This recipe could easily be vegetarian; use the sweet potatoes, cauliflower, and potatoes, and you’ll have a filling, spicy, fragrant meal.)

I also added shredded coconut as a garnish, along with chives and micro-greens (no basil in these parts yet).  Oh…and I goofed and added 2 tablespoons of brown sugar, instead of 2 tsp.  But they weren’t packed, because apparently it’s still winter here (Snow!  This morning!  Dammit!) and my brown sugar is as hard as a rock.  I had to chisel it out, which is probably why I got distracted and used too much.

The extra sugar wasn’t a bad thing, though, because I used a spicy curry powder; the two balanced each other brilliantly.  The house smelled like a cozy Indian restaurant, and it was nice to have a big bowlful of warm for dinner.  Since, as I mentioned, it’s still frigging winter here.  Not that I mind, or anything.

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Emotion and Pimples

I am as unsettled as the wind today,
     laughing loudly with students,
crying to a song on the way home.

Rage hits after I’m accosted by a colleague
who complains about the same things always,
but does nothing.
     (Except keep me stranded long enough
     that I’m now loading boxes
     into my car in a hurricane.)

  Euphoria
       sadness
     irritation
          a fit of giggles.

I am buffeted like
   last autumn’s leaves.

They told us
   in that fifth grade assembly about
     “growing up”
that with age would come
stability
   and fewer pimples.

I’m still waiting.
     (For both.)

People I don’t know are follow…oh…

I was all excited this afternoon when I checked my email to see that two people I don’t know are following me.  I clicked on their blog links…and they’re both selling things.  Welcome to the consumertastic world, right?  Oh, well.

I’ve been reading  a lot of Mary Oliver’s poetry lately.  Her poem “The Summer Day” inspired my most recent tattoo, and there is something about her precise use of words as she lets us in to see what she has been observing that is right where I need to be.  I read “Whelks” the other night, and cried, and had to read it again four times.  Here’s a link to another blogger who has posted it.  http://beautyfromchaos.wordpress.com/2009/03/25/whelks/  (The line that has the word “shanking” should be read “shaking.”)

The lines that walloped me are:

All my life
I have been restless –
I have felt there is something
more wonderful than gloss –
than wholeness –
than staying at home.
I have not been sure what it is.

I have, at various times in my life, felt this…urgency.  This need to be doing something different from what I am doing.  Sometimes it was related to my love life, sometimes to my career, and sometimes to…well, “I have not been sure what it is.”  The love life part of the equation went away when my husband and I connected, but the others have never disappeared.  They diminish and surge, but are never truly gone.  And I have always wondered, “What’s wrong with me?”  While it’s perfectly human to want, I’ve often thought, “Greedy girl–you have a great life.  Why can’t you be happy and content?”

And now I know that I’m not alone.

Mary Oliver Teaches Me to See

I watched the wind today

     blowing the browned and crunchy leaves,

          sending winter’s refuse skittering.

Trees’ bare branches shook,

     clicked and clattered against each other,

         squirrels tightrope-walked, no nets.

Spring is coming on

     in soft red streamers of maple leaves

         and sun-bursts of forsythia.