Friday, September 30, 2011

On My Nightstand

Being as nearsighted as I am, I keep my glasses within reach when I go to bed. Yet I often have to make room for them for the top of my nightstand gets awfully crowded. Tonight I took a look at my nightstand. There’s my lamp, with its blue stained glass base and dusty shade. There’s my clunky digital clock with blue light as I don’t like the glow of red lights. My cell phone is there, not a usual place for it, but with two children having gone out this evening, I kept it close. I also see the cord from my computer stretching across to the outlet. There is a random paperclip, probably from a stack of papers I corrected in bed a few days ago, and a hair elastic which doesn’t make sense since my last hair cut makes pulling my hair into a pony tail an impossibility. There are five books stacked there too. Two classic dystopian novels I have yet to read, a book on writing, a prayer devotions book, and Nicholas Sparks’ latest novel which hasn’t been touched since school started.

Also on the nightstand is an old game boy cartridge that my puppy must have found somewhere and several pieces of paper I took away from her which include a funeral prayer card, a brochure from a summer waterpark, and an old love letter. The love letter is one of many that have been recovered. I have to admit, it’s been rather fun to see a new letter dangling from our puppy’s mouth. Retrieving them has been a strange way to go down memory lane, but it’s provided my husband and I with some laughs over the past couple of months since the puppy found our stash under our bed.

And finally, there is a pen, a small plastic box of wax that my son was given for his orthodontic needs, another small plastic case with a celtic cross charm, an area discount card we bought from the local high school’s soccer team the other day, and finally my pink crucifix that I’ve had since it hung on my bedroom wall when I was a child.

To assign some meaning to this collection of items might be interesting. What strikes me the most about the eclectic mix of “stuff” is that each item speaks to the roles I play in my life. There is a mix of teacher, wife, child, student, community member, and Christian woman right there and each night, without thinking too much about it, I push items aside to make room for my glasses. For without those within reach, without the lenses that allow me to see my way across the room, I’m unable to do anything or to be anyone to those I love.

Six Words

For Thursday, September 29, 2011

After missing two days of school this week due to a nasty head cold, I pushed myself to get up and to make the trek to work this morning. I feared I was rushing things when I felt my eyes tearing up as I walked into my classroom. It takes an awful lot of energy to teach high school and I was not sure I had enough to last me the day.

I took a deep breath as my first period class came in to take their seats. With a pile of papers I had ready to hand back, I began to talk to my students and admitted to them that although I was back physically, I was not overly sure how mentally prepared I was to be teaching them today. They smiled back at me and I took another second before we began discussing the readings they’d been assigned for homework. Thinking quickly on my feet I moved them into small groups to allow myself a chance to sit down. They were more than capable of leading discussions in their peer groups and I could poll them after awhile to make sure they’d understood the works well enough.

After a successful half period of small group work, I had the students share their short video projects with one another. I had given them the task of adding visuals to their previously assigned six word memoirs to create a 15-30 second video display, a precursor to an upcoming digital story they would craft for the culmination of our study of the memoir genre. The project would push them into learning the basics of the imovie program and give us an opportunity to discuss the power of visual rhetoric.

One by one my students came up to the front of the classroom with their laptops. After plugging in the projector and the computer speakers, the students’ pictures flashed onto the bare white wall and music hit our ears. If anyone ever questions the ability of sixteen and seventeen year olds to reach someone’s heart and soul with just six words, let me remind you of the way I was awed and amazed today.

I am not going to share examples of their chosen six words. Yet, I will say that each student’s summary of who they are or what they believe in was beautiful. Some addressed friendship. Others gave recognition to the true meaning of success. Others simply applauded individuality. Words, photographs, clip art, colors, and graphics were mixed with music and as each showcase ended, I was giddy with compliments.

I need to remember that when I am unsure of what energy I have to offer to my students, it takes only the words of a few teens, or in the case of today’s first period class, just six words from teens, to restore me.

Six words that sum up my feelings today: Teens restore my faith in everything.

For more six word memoirs, check out this website: http://www.smithmag.net/sixwords/

Nana, Grammy, and Me

For Wednesday, September 28, 2011

When I was a little girl my two grandmothers frequently visited our house for a week or more at a time. Occasionally they would both come, for example during the holidays. My mother’s mom, my Nana, believed I was old enough to tend to my own needs such as when I wanted a glass of milk. My father’s mom, my Grammy, loved spoiling me and was always quick to jump up out of her chair to pour me a glass of milk herself. So, when they were both there, I often felt caught in the middle, unsure whether or not I should ask for assistance. It was often easier to simply go without than to pit the two grandmothers against one another, which sometimes did occur despite my intentions, due to Grammy’s mischievous nature.

My Nana was a rather serious woman whereas my Grammy had some playful Irish blood in her veins. Both were loving grandmothers, but it was more fun for me when Grammy came to visit, I must admit. I remember being pampered and coddled by Grammy and being so delighted when I was once allowed to play penny poker with her, something that usually only my older brothers were privileged to do.

My Nana and Grammy were both intelligent women and both had musical skill. Nana had played the violin and Grammy loved to sing and was a natural at harmonizing. Both were delighted to have me play the piano in their presence and later, when each of them moved into nursing homes, I would often play the piano in the entertainment room and both would beam with pride and tell everyone I was their granddaughter. My Dad and I would put on regular impromptu shows at the nursing homes, something that we each continued to do in our own ways for years afterward. Dad joined a group of community singers who frequented the elderly. I joined my childrens’ dancing and scout troops who visited area nursing home residents. I even found myself playing the piano a few years’ back when Paul’s cub scout troop needed an accompanist.

When I look back at the years I had with my grandmothers I am a little sad that I did not get to know them as I entered my adult years. Having been only 11 when she died, I don’t remember enough about my Nana to give me a full picture of the woman she was, and although I was 16 when Grammy died, she’d been ill for a few years beforehand and I did not get to know her beyond my childhood years. Still, having spent time with each of them, I learned enough to recognize traits of theirs within my Mom and Dad and eventually those same traits of theirs within myself.

Like my Nana I can be prideful and stubborn, even when it hurts me to be so. I am fierce however in my devotion to my family, just as she was. My Nana was a working woman, something quite rare during her generation, and I often am grateful for the way my own Mom always supported me being a working mom even though she herself hadn’t been. She obviously had Nana in mind and knew that like her, I would have my priorities straight.

Like my Grammy, I am a bit of an antagonist and mischievous at times but I love to spoil my family and with them, I laugh hard and often. I see so much of my Gram within my Dad, and my Mom always sees it too and is quick to call him by my Grammy’s name, “Catherine”, when traits of hers manifest.

Like both of my grandmothers I am observant and thoughtful. I am musical and I am strong. I am proud to be the granddaughter of both of these two beautiful women who each left a piece of themselves within me. Someday, when it’s time for me to leave this world, I want so very much for them to find me. I want to see them both through adult eyes. I want them to know me better too. But first, I want them to each introduce me to the grandfathers I never had a chance to meet and then I’d like Nana to take out her violin. I’ll sit down at the piano and sing, and Grammy will add perfect harmony.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Before Nightfall

At the end of the day I felt chilled. This head cold was a nasty one to battle and I was at low ebb. I changed into some flannel pj bottoms and a sweatshirt and crawled into my bed. But Ziva, my six month old puppy, wasn’t agreeing to my plan. Knowing she hadn’t been outside much today, I sighed and pulled myself out of bed.

I knew I didn’t have the energy to chase her around but I also knew that unless I was outside with her, she would not stay unattended for long. Soon she’d be scratching at the door to come back inside with me. So I grabbed one of my beach chairs and sat down in the driveway where I could throw her tennis ball to her across the lawn. She happily played fetch, dropping the slimy ball into my lap, then scampered off to investigate the yard, keeping her eye on me the entire time, lest I make an escape back into the house without her.

Before long she was digging a hole in the woods. Then she decided to do a little pruning of one of our overgrown shrubs. Not caring in the least, I was content to sit and watch her. Soon she made another run onto the grass finding the tennis ball.

I sat there on the driveway and took in the sounds and sights of a day nearly ending. I heard the chipmunks and the peepers, the sound of traffic on the busy route two miles or so from our home, and watched the tops of the trees still lit by the sun. Ziva too listened to the world, barked a half-bark, then contentedly continued to sniff around the yard. Forever staying within sight of me, her eyes darted from side to side at the sound of a motorcycle coming into our neighborhood and soon, into the driveway next door.

I continued to sniffle and knew it’d soon be time to go back inside to warm myself under a blanket. But I was grateful to a puppy that pulled me outside to take in the sights and sounds of our yard before nightfall fell upon us. There’s little more I need than a rambunctious puppy and a slimy tennis ball to help me end my day with true warmth.

To Do All That We Can

For Monday, September 26, 2011

Our conversation was not a long one as we were packing up our things and heading to lunch. Feeling tired after having taught three classes in a row, I found myself sighing and admitted to one of my students, a sweet girl named Beth who I have known for three years, that I felt overwhelmed by everything on my "To Do" list. She stopped and looked at me and said, “I know how you feel”. We talked about our responsibilities and our after school activities. I had correcting to do and she had homework to do as well as some fund raising duties and college essays, and we would both be tied to attending practices and games. Managing our time is a challenge and yet we both expressed that we knew we would somehow manage to get everything done.

Later in the day, when I went to pick up my daughter Emma, she and I also fell into a conversation about managing our "To Do" list. As with Beth, she mentioned how her schedule would hopefully lighten up a little in a few weeks’ time and how she too was growing weary with everything she has on her plate.

These two conversations got me thinking of how important I believe it is that we adults show our children our own struggles with responsibilities and time management. Although it is crucial that we give our children a safe and secure environment, I do not see it as a weakness that I sometimes falter and become overwhelmed. Whether it is the added burden of illness or my tendency to take on more than I can handle at times, having young people see our strategies in regrouping or in taking time to express our feelings is healthy.

Several years ago my aunt heard from my mother all that I was doing in my life. I was teaching full time, raising three children, and actively participating in a writing group as well as performing with community theater. “I don’t know how she does it all”, my aunt told my Mom. At the time I laughed. But today I am not laughing. I am feeling overwhelmed by life and I am thinking I have too much on my plate. I am in need of developing a strategy to lighten my load so I can feel greater happiness. But if there is one thing I feel confident about in terms of my stress, it is that sharing how I am processing that stress, how I am managing my time and thinking through my responsibilities, is the right thing to do with a few young people who are going through the same thing in their lives.

I probably will never be the teacher or the mom who could always do it all. But I surely hope my students and my children will know and learn the importance of being open, honest and true in one’s journey, in one's struggles to do all that we can.

In Our Absence

For Sunday, September 25, 2011

When I am under the weather I get awfully impatient. I come by this quite naturally as I well remember the grumblings of my Dad when he was sick with a cold and the frustration of my Mom when she’d find herself getting sleepy in the middle of the day. “Nap? The only time I ever nap is when I’m ill. I have too much to do”. My brothers and sister all seem to share the same intolerance for being sick too.

Despite this, we are all quick to sympathize with another’s illness. We dispense advice quickly such as “Listen to your body”, or “Drink lots of fluids and get your rest”. We push others to “Know your limits” and to “Take care of yourself so you can take care of others”. Why is it then that we push ourselves to recover quickly and grow irritable when we lack the energy to do our normal routine when we are in need of rest ourselves?

This morning, after having spent most of Saturday in bed, I missed Sunday mass and stayed home to sleep. My husband and children went off to church, however, and upon waking up I went downstairs and saw that the three of them had the kitchen clean, laundry done and folded, garage organized, garbage taken out, and the house, all in all, looking pretty decent. It wasn’t anything surprising really, for I have long known how thoughtful my family is, but I found myself smiling and getting teary just the same.

It’s important that we take care of ourselves when we are under the weather and that we, indeed, listen to our bodies and know our limits. It’s the surest way to recovering quickly so we can be there for our loved ones. But it is certainly a blessing when our loved ones come through and remind us that it’s okay to stop and rest, that they will be happy to keep the world running in our absence.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Afraid to Blink

For Saturday, September 24, 2011

With the new school year underway, I woke up this morning and realized I’d caught my first cold of the season. I’d hoped to survive the first month of school without catching any of my students’ germs but that wasn’t the case. I spent most of the day in bed, sneezing and sleeping. I was miserable. But the worst of it was how very aware I was of the hours wasted. I thought of the work I could have been doing around the house to make up for the hectic workweek and of the correcting I had hoped to get completed. I thought of Paul’s soccer game and I realized I’d have to skip Emma’s volleyball game too. Because I was sleeping, I even missed a phone call from Sydney.

I looked over at my almost 6 month old puppy and took in all 37 pounds of her, 30 pounds heavier than when we came home with her at 8 weeks of age back in June. I thought of the summer months we’d had together and what a blur that time seemed to be now. I thought back on the past year, a difficult one in many ways, and took an extra moment to look at my face for the wear and tear that surely must be there. With my summer tan fading, there will be little to distract others from seeing the new wrinkles I’m wearing these days.

For years I have heard my parents say that the older one gets, the faster time seems to fly. Today before Sydney sent me a note about the start of her sophomore year in college and after Emma excitedly returned from her first college fair, Paul showed me a text from a friend inviting him to a bonfire after their first sixth grade dance next Friday. “A dance? For 6th graders? Do you really want to go?” I asked him. “Yes Mom. I do”, he responded.

I hate to say it, but my parents were right. Now that I’m older, time is moving so quickly. Too quickly. It’s downright scary. I can’t afford any more time spent nursing a stupid cold. How can I nap? I’m afraid if I even blink, I’m going to miss so much.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

In the Wee Small Hours

For Friday, September 23, 2011

In the wee small hours of the morning
While the whole wide world is fast asleep
You lie awake and think about the boy
And never ever think of counting sheep

When your lonely heart has learned its lesson
You'd be his if only he'd call
In the wee small hours of the morning
That's the time you miss him most of all


Although this Frank Sinatra song is tough to compete with, it is Carly Simon’s voice that I first heard singing these lyrics. Her album, My Romance, is one of my favorites, in fact. Whenever I am up late and the house is so still, these lyrics come to me.

The boy...a lonely heart...learning its lesson...the wee small hours of the morning...the time you miss him most of all.

Oh, hold the phone. Spread no rumors. There isn’t a certain someone I pine for. But yes, in those quiet moments that come every so often, there is someone I think of, someone I wonder about... hoping he’s doing okay, thinking of the last few times we saw one another and talked. He was someone who, years back, got under my skin in a complicated way. Of all the people in my life, he is one of a select few who truly challenged me. I miss him.

It’s amazing to me how every now and then, a person comes into my life, making an unbelievably intense impression, only to depart, never to be seen or heard from again. I think on this at times, wondering what it is about my life or my personality that has me experience this. I think it may be that, in life, most of the time people are so wound up in their own selves, in their own daily lives, that we just don’t stop, look, and listen to other people. Not the way we should or could anyhow. We don’t get out of our own heads long enough to stare deeply into another’s eyes, to see who is there. This is how he challenged me. He caught me off guard because he not only took time to see me, the real me, he took time to find ways to have ME see ME.

I learned so much from our friendship. And in the wee small hours of the morning, while the whole wide world is fast asleep, I lie awake and think about the man. And my heart knows it has learned its lesson. I should have had more courage to stare back into his eyes, to get under his skin, to have challenged him.

Then again, maybe I did that. Maybe that’s why he’s no longer here.

Hey you. Thanks...for everything. I still miss you.

Forever in High School

For Thursday, September 22, 2011

Whether I am at home or at work, most of my days are spent in the midst of teenagers. Sure, there are some behaviors or personalities that are challenging, but most of the young people I work with have good hearts and life affirming honesty. They are the people with whom I choose to spend my days. I witness candor and energy in my children and my students that usually rubs off on me. Most of the time, I am pretty sure that being constantly surrounded by teens keeps me young. Do you realize that being away from a high school setting for only the four years I was in college back in the late 1980s, I’ve truly never left high school?

I realize that with the exception of those of us who work in a high school setting, the idea of “never leaving high school” is one that is quite horrific perhaps to most people. I even heard a particular anchor on the news the other day say that no amount of money in the world could ever make her return to high school ever again. I have witnessed enough unhappiness in teens to understand where these folks are coming from. People can be quick to say that those four years in secondary school were not the best years of their lives, that those years were really tough to endure. I share with my students who struggle that life after high school offers them so many options and a freedom they have yet to taste. I ask them to "hold on" when they want to lose themselves in despair, or when they tell me they never want to go to college. I tell them what they need to hear, that after graduation they will find the world beyond high school.

But my own high school years were great fun. I won’t be joining the ranks of those who hold onto their high school “glory days”, who think that life after high school never measured up to those years spent in that setting, who forever live in the past of days gone by, but I do think that part of the reason I enjoy teaching high school is because I was pretty happy, safe, and content in my own high school years. The years were not perfect; I had my ups and downs; but generally, yes, I had a good time.

In July when I went to my 25th class reunion I had the chance to spend time with some of the people who made up my world from the age of 14 to 18. However, with the exception of one of my dearest friends, Ann Marie “Ree”, I strangely did not hang out with the people I was closest to back then. There were several folks from “my old crowd”, but the night went by so quickly that I didn’t feel I had enough time to catch up with them. And a few of my best friends did not attend the reunion and I’m not sure why. Still, I treasured the time spent with several other classmates. The beauty and joy of dinner time spent with Kelly, Renee, Amy, and Ree made the evening so worth it; how good it was to hear of their families and life milestones. Later when I got up my nerve to go talk with Steve and his wife Debbie, I was reminded of how important it is that we take risks to reconnect with people who share our special love of our hometown. It seems that each reunion I attend, I have a special unexpected reunion with a particular classmate. This past July, the time I spent talking casually with Steve and Debbie was the highlight of my night. The simplicity of talking about our kids and their school years, a few moments spent reliving memories of Steve scaring me with drives down Dead Man’s Curve, and Deb’s mention of watching over my Dad when she now sees him in town touched me the most.

Back in my classroom, I see teens living their high school experience each day. I envision them older, at their own 25th class reunion someday. I think of the men and women they will grow to be and I often consider the possibilities for their own memories of high school. I do worry for some who struggle with the social scene and I try to tell them that even though they are young, I can see in them the beautiful amazing adults they are going to become.

Sure, being surrounded by teens can easily remind me that it has been more than a couple of decades since I was their age. I am growing older. But in many respects, I’ve never left high school. And as weird as it may sound to some folks, I am more than okay with that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Of Mice and Men

Yesterday afternoon, when Paul and Emma were each working on homework at the dining room table, I came into the room and heard what sounded like footsteps on the second floor. Knowing only the three of us were at home, I stopped in my tracks and asked, “Who is upstairs?!” Our first thought was that it was our puppy. But then Paul spotted Ziva outside. “Could it be Boo?” I wondered. Our cat, Boo, at 17 pounds could easily have made the noise jumping off a bureau or bed, but still, we were not certain of the source of the noise.

Feeling pretty confident however that it was nothing to worry about, I slipped into what is normal play between me and the kids.

“Go look Emma”.

“Mom, no. I am doing my math”.

“Paul, you go look”.

“Mom!”


Paul is used to me putting him up to what I call “Man of the House” tasks. If his Dad isn’t home, he’s the “Man of the House” after all, and with that title comes the distinct responsibilities of putting spiders outside, disposing of the occasional dead mouse that Boo has caught, or any other chore that, quite honestly, is a little “icky” for us girls to do. To his credit, he’s a good sport, and I’d even go so far as to say he is a bit proud to help us damsels in distress. He is a gentleman.

Of course, he is only eleven years old. I still have to nag him to do his daily chores. He and Emma are expected to do several household tasks throughout the week. Emptying the cat box, taking out the garbage, cleaning bathrooms, vacuuming, laundry, making supper, or reorganizing a shelf or drawer are some of those chores of maintenance and of course, doing the daily dishes is also necessary. That seems to be the one chore that Paul dislikes the most. He’s content with emptying the dishwasher but ask him to load it up and to do a few dishes by hand and suddenly he’s sighing BIG sighs and scrunching up his face in disgust. He picks up dirty utensils like they contain poison and if you’re not watching him closely, he’ll try to duck out of the room before having to touch the pot that has spaghetti sauce on the side.

Ask him to clean up a half-eaten mouse and he’s proud to protect the ladies of the house. Ask him to go seek out what has made a noise upstairs and he’ll bravely head towards danger. With tasks like these he becomes a noble “Man of the House”. However, ask him to load the dishwasher and well, you see my little boy, That’s okay though. Last week he learned how to do laundry and laughed when I told him it was okay to get a little of the detergent on his hands. After all, it’s soap. I figure I have a little more time to help him become a full fledged “Man of the House”, overcoming his nausea when getting his hands dirty.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On a Crowded Couch

Okay, I admit. I am a television junkie. I made the mistake of assuming the same of my teenage students but years back, the masses told me that no, they have better things to do with their time, namely to communicate with others on social media sites or to play games on their computers. I do hear of more and more teens, however, who are watching TV shows but most are finding series on Hulu or Netflix. According to one research study, "One in six families now owns five televisions, and two thirds have three sets or more", yet it's suggested that individual family members are watching TV in separate rooms of a single house (Parentdish.com). Gone are the days apparently when families all gather together in front of a TV set at a designated time to watch shows together each weekday night, or so I am led to believe. Thinking of how enjoyable I find TV time with my family, I sure hope I am wrong about that.

With the invention of the DVR, I do see my children opting to tape their favorite shows to watch at a later date when they can fast-forward through the annoying commercials and view a 60 minute show in less than 40 minutes. I do this too at times, but to me there is nothing more relaxing at the end of the day than to plop on the couch with my fleece blanket and to enjoy the camaraderie of my family while we see what has happened to Leonard and Sheldon, or as we laugh over the hilarious predicaments Gloria or Phil have gotten themselves into. In fact when it came time to name our new puppy, the characters from one of our family’s favorite television shows (NCIS) came to mind: Jethro Gibbs, Tony, Abby, Ducky, McGee, and Ziva. (Our furry baby Ziva will get to meet Ziva the NCIS agent tonight... if she keeps her eyes open on the TV while she snuggles up against me).

The level of enjoyment watching TV is raised when others are laughing or gasping together. I do admit that I am sometimes hushed when I am caught talking back to the TV or when I tell characters what to do, but overall, I think my family would agree with me that our TV time is family bonding time. Some of us have our own shows that we cannot watch without another. Eric and Paul have "Chuck" for example. We all watch "Survivor" and "Amazing Race". Emma and I try to catch "How I Met Your Mother" together so we can laugh and express our love for Barney, and we all watch the aforementioned NCIS. Before the end of the series LOST, I'd also go to school each week where several of us watching the show would take time to share our reactions to the latest episode. Are we all wasting our time in front of what I grew up hearing others call "The Boob Tube"?! Maybe, but I doubt it. It's not as important the activity we're doing together, rather it's the time we're taking to be with one another.

So this week, being Fall premiere week, I am returning home each evening happy to have a few hours with my favorite people watching favorite characters. No matter how hectic my days are from 7am-7pm, they end with comedy or a touching drama on TV and with relaxing comfort of family and pets on a crowded couch.

The Kick I Needed

For Monday, September 19, 2011

As my workday was coming to a close I got thinking of heading home and what I had next to do. There was the trip to the post office I needed to make and the video I had to find before Thursday’s class. Emma would need a ride to her volleyball game and luckily, I knew I had a pot roast in the crock pot. However, there was one item on my “To DO” list that had me nervous. At 6:00pm, I would be starting my first cardio-kickboxing class.

I’d signed up for the class a month ago when, after receiving the paper catalogue of classes being offered through the town’s adult education program, I’d spotted the course which would be held for six weeks at a nearby school. I thought of how I’d lost some weight since July and how I’d enjoyed walking, kayaking, and swimming in the summer months, but how with school starting back up, I was bound to be less motivated or simply crunched for time at the end of the day. I wanted to continue on my “Get Fit” journey. So before I could talk myself out of it, I signed up and paid for the course.

Yet, over this past weekend, knowing the first class date was here, I could feel the anxiety growing. I was still excited for the course and knew it was a good idea for me to take it, but the usual worries I have over such things began surfacing. Would I be the clumsiest woman there? Would I be able to get through the 60 minute class? Would I be embarrassed? Yikes. What had I gone and done?!

I arrived home with two hours to spare before the class. I ate an early dinner, whined about being overwhelmed, and admitted to my panic to friends online. They calmed me down and Deanna’s mention of kickboxing hottie, actor John Cusack, made me smile. I found my yoga capris and a tee shirt and put on my sneakers so as to mentally prepare. I grabbed a water bottle and headed out the door.

In the parking lot I met a young woman who was also new to the town’s adult ed offerings. She and I quickly found the gym and met our instructor. Denise said there would be a total of seven in the class. A few other young women trickled in. I was now surrounded by four young women in their 20s, all rather slender, two of whom I’d later describe to my husband as “Skinny Minnies”. In fact I looked at one very tall and thin young woman and had all I could do not to say to myself, “Oh come on! Go home and enjoy some dessert! Like you need to be here!” Instead, I looked at these four young woman and simply sighed to myself, “Oh crap”.

Luckily for me, two other women closer to my age did show up. And when introductions were given and the warm ups began, I realized I was by no means the least coordinated or conditioned woman there. I learned the four punch moves and the four kicks rather quickly and kept up with my instructor and the two Skinny Minnies. By 6:20pm I was feeling pretty good about myself.

The instructor smiled and supported us all. Smiling even when I am in pain is a regular habit of mine, so I continued to smile back at her and to give her thumbs up when she occasionally asked for the sign that we were all doing okay. We took a few water breaks and she got the music going and we began doing different routines. She offered three or four different levels of modifications for the routines and although my kicks were lower and my jumps were tame in comparison to the tall legged Amazon whose slice of cake I wanted to steal, I did pretty well to keep up with everyone for the duration of the class.

In the final 15 minutes, Denise had us do core work. This began with a walk and some stretches of our arms and shoulders. Then we each grabbed a mat and she taught us the proper way to do crunches. I rested on my mat and looked up at the ceiling lights and thought, “I’m almost through this class. I did it!” More core work exercises followed with the plank and some stretches and head/neck rolls. And then we were done.

We gathered up our water bottles and car keys and headed out of the gym. I thanked Denise and she smiled and reassured me, “It will get easier”. I chuckled wondering if she knew somehow how nervous I’d been to come tonight. But as if to reassure her that I would be back next week I replied, “Oh, I know it will”. I drove home with the windows open on what was a brisk night and I was quick to pop a few ibuprofen when I came in the door.

But I was smiling. I had survived the first class. And I will go back for more.

Monday, September 19, 2011

God’s Plan

For Sunday, September 18, 2011

I was once again inspired to write today today after listening to the words of my parish priest. Father Paul spoke of mornings and how many times we wake up on the “wrong side of the bed” and begin our day in a sluggish place. He encouraged us to do our best to renew our thinking in the morning or even in the afternoon or night when we feel the day has gone poorly or has even been lost. He reminded us that even in our days or lives’ late hours, there is still time to be renewed in our faith.

The homily’s discussion moved me. Although I have had hours or days when I have struggled with my own faith, I am one of those Father Paul spoke of, a person who has had a pretty strong devotion to God “since my brow was first wiped at baptism”. In fact, I remember playing “church” when I was little, the way many children play school (although I did that too). I used to pull off the day bed’s long cushions and place them in the floor of our den to set up “pews” for my stuffed animals and dolls to sit in, and having borrowed a copy of our church’s paper missalette, I’d poise myself at the front of the room and do the readings. I even took small oyster crackers from the kitchen to use as the communion hosts. I’d sing the responsorial psalms, the alleluias, and various hymns too. In fact, I was quite disappointed to learn that being a Catholic woman, I could not hope to become a priest someday. I did not have any desire to become a nun for they were not the ones who gave the homilies. Sure, this was all role play for an imaginative child who would later develop other games and play “office”, “taxi”, “newspaper reporter”, and “detective”, but even at a young age I felt a stirring, a desire to be in church, to be close to God.

As I entered school I would lead a group of my classmates home once a week for our faith formation classes which for a few years were taught by my Mom. We’d come home after school and be greeted with snacks then have an hour of prayers and activities. Later my friends and I went to CCD at our church. I remember having rich discussions with my teachers and never minding the time spent there. Being let out of school early on holy days to go to the stations of the cross for example was part of a comforting routine in my childhood. I joined a youth group and had a hearty group of friends from both my church and others in town. Going to church and church activities was something a healthy percentage of children and adults did in town.

However, in the years I have raised my own children, it’s been quite apparent that they are in the minority at their schools. The practice of receiving the sacraments of baptism, Holy Communion, Reconciliation or Confirmation is looked upon as unfamiliar or even strange. To my knowledge, my children have never been discriminated against for being Catholic and have not been teased for going to church, but they have not had a large peer group of friends who share those practices either. In fact, the world seems to be quite secular nowadays. And both in the school where I teach and where my own children go to school, calling oneself an “atheist” is as natural a practice as calling oneself a teenager. My daughter often says that she is asked many questions when the subject of church comes up. She handles her peers’ inquiries with honesty and that makes me proud. I’ve often told her that God is working through her. I truly believe that her peers’ curiosity is a gracious gift and that the way Emma handles that curiosity is part of God’s plan.

So today, Father Paul’s talk on how a person may be led back to their faith in God or how he or she may come to know God’s love after the wisdom of the years pass, gave me comfort. What I have had since being a small child may wane in others but it can take only a single moment in time for a person’s faith to become present. The intensity at which it appears may more than make up for the tardiness in which it arrives. So, perhaps I can stop worrying so much over those who seem to have walked away from weekly mass or who are tempted to. Perhaps I can relax and instead work on strengthening my own path in life as I am quite sure God expects more from me. I’m hopeful the seeds I have planted will take root someday but maybe it’s for the best now that I let go and let God. For surely, God’s plan for the children I have raised, both my three at home and the thousands I’ve met in the classroom, is far wiser than my own.

Remembering Fourth Grade at Forty-Three

For Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fourth grade year brought many challenges. When my parents decided to move from the house where I’d lived for my first nine years to a home across town, it was necessary for me to move to a new elementary school also. For the first time I was looked at with scrutiny rather than being just “one of the guys” who had grown up with everyone in my class. At my new school I was placed in an advanced reading group and I felt intimidated by the eye rolls and comments from fifth grade girls in my group who indeed had to wonder who exactly was this “new kid” being promoted to the fifth grade for reading and who was being so kindly praised by their teachers. If things could not be more uncomfortable, fourth graders also began square dancing with the boys! Just when I thought I would run away from home to return to my old neighborhood to hide out forever, a girl named Carolyn entered my life. She was a godsend. Easy to befriend, Carolyn had a sweet smile and sharing the same silly sense of humor, the two of us quickly fell into fits of giggles, time and time again.

Through the rest of elementary school and even into middle school when I was reunited with friends from my old school, our friendship was strong. We roomed together at music camp, began riding bikes around town together, and made up creative games which we played for hours. Time with “CG” was always easy going and full of laughter. Whether we were talking about boys or doing our Howie Mandel impersonations, we frequently giggled so much that we lost our breath.

In high school, Carolyn and I remained friends, but we spent less time with one another due to friendships with others and our different interests. Carolyn became quite an athlete while I threw myself into more and more music and theater groups. Still, we came together at concerts, show choir competitions, and plays.

Today is Carolyn’s 43rd birthday. Although I have been 43 years old since March, there is a funny feeling I have thinking today that Carolyn is this age. I realize we all grow older and I have surely seen Carolyn over the years at various times, but when I think of Carolyn I still imagine her as that little blonde nine year old girl with the cute smile and the adorable giggle. She was a friend who set my world right again and who offered me a warm hand of friendship when I needed it the most.

Tres Chic

For Friday, September 16, 2011

After a full work week I had mixed feelings about making the trek to Darcy’s 40 minutes away. I would have loved to have pulled up a seat out on the sunny deck to simply read or nap. But I knew that in an hour’s time I would not regret the trip. Besides, Emma was joining me today! The girl who never pierced her ears and who before today had never dyed her hair, was getting lowlights, shades of a darker color added in to her already beautifully hued hair. I would get highlights and go lighter and feel “brighter”. I knew I had to summon the energy. The trip would be worth it.

It was. It’s amazing how uplifting a trip to the hairdresser’s can be. Emma’s eyes widened with glee as she saw her darker head of hair. A change is fun, necessary even, once in a while. We drove home, stopping for supper along the way. We laughed over how we each stole glances of ourselves in car windows on our way to the restaurant and complimented one another on our “new looks”. Feeling freshly chic, we arrived home looking forward to our big entrance when we would awe the boys. Unfortunately a ringing phone and a rush to answer it would interfere with that grand plan, but alas, the boys did eventually give us the attention we felt we were warranted.

The next day, Emma would don a new dress and her new hair at the Homecoming Dance whereas I would pull on an old pair of jeans for my son’s soccer game. But the venue did not matter, we each held our heads a little higher, our smiles a little brighter. The confidence a trip to Darcy’s adds to our life may be silly, but it’s real.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sharing Stories

For Thursday, September 15, 2011

I hadn’t planned on sharing stories of my brother John today but after assigning my class to read an excerpt from Annie Dillard’s memoir, An American Childhood, I did just that. I’d begun telling my AP students of how I had grown up with four older siblings and how being between 10 and 16 years younger, my childhood was greatly influenced by the four who had come before me. The stories of my brother, and more specifically, the reasons John had not been trusted to babysit me when I was little, made my students chuckle. By the time the bell to change classes rang, we were all laughing and sharing stories of our own American childhoods.

I absolutely love the genre of memoir. I love reading memoirs and I enjoy writing them. That is probably quite obvious to anyone who happens upon my blog, for on here I share daily recollections of my past or present. But I think what I find to be the most interesting aspect of reading memoirs is the way in which another person’s story allows us to connect. Being able to hear someone’s tales we all find common ground. We stop and reflect on the adventures, big or small, that make up the minutes, hours, days of our lives, and we smile learning that we all celebrate and struggle through similar occurrences.

In 2006, William Zinsser, author of the classic guide On Writing Well, talked about the challenges of writing memoirs. Zinsser shared his opinion that since the 1990’s many memoirs have focused on victimhood, rather than forgiveness. He also commented (his books) “are about small episodes that were not objectively "important" but that were important to me. Because they were important to me they also struck an emotional chord with readers, touching a universal truth that was important to them” (From The American Scholar 2006).

Reading his words, I began thinking of this blog and of how writing in this way has allowed me to create a memoir in various pieces. It has been fun to share the “small episodes” of my life and more enjoyable have been the ways in which, after reading my blog posts, others have shared with me their own stories. As Zinsser suggests, I am now supposed to, “Read them through and see what they tell...what patterns emerge. They will tell you what your memoir is about and what it's not about. They will tell you what's primary and what's secondary, what's interesting and what's not, what's emotional, what's important, what's funny, what's unusual, what's worth pursing and expanding. You'll begin to glimpse your story's narrative shape and the road you want to take”.

Maybe I’ll eventually look at the pieces I’ve created here in that analytical way. And all I’ll have to do is put the pieces together to form my story’s “narrative shape”. But I don’t know. I’m in no rush. I think of the puzzle makers in my family. Although there is pride as the last puzzle piece is placed in that last blank spot, and although there is admiration of the completed picture, I know that the true enjoyment of puzzle making is within the process of building the puzzle.

My former students have often come back to visit or have written to tell me they still remember the day I told them a particular story and that’s when I know that it’s not so much the funny tale I told one day in class, it’s more that I dared to share something that gave them a window into who I truly am, where I came from, or how I came to be “me”. My students are now selecting a memoir book to read and they have begun crafting their own memoir piece which will be shared with classmates, first in writing workshop groups and later through the creation of a digital story project when they'll record their personal history story and add visuals and perhaps music. The unit will end with a digital story showcase day. It's always one of my favorite days of the school year for the films of everyone's memoir pieces are masterful year after year. How could they not be? Making those connections with others is a beautiful part of life. We are nothing without our stories.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Last Five Minutes

For Wednesday, September 14, 2011

It was one of those afternoons. An afternoon when I can’t get into my car fast enough for the drive home. A day when I clench the steering wheel so tight my fingers turn white. A day when I tell myself, “Breathe”. It takes about twenty-five minutes to drive home. It’s a good thing it doesn’t take twenty. I sorely needed those last five minutes today.

In the last five minutes of my drive home I passed by the school where my two girls attended fourth, fifth, and sixth grade. The school closed before my son would have gone there. Instead he stayed at the school he’d attended since kindergarten. I was more than okay with that, however, as it has always been my favorite school in the district.

Passing the closed school however, I got thinking of my three children. I thought of how each of them have thrived in school. They were surrounded by a loving community of teachers, coaches, neighbors, and friends. They worked hard to meet our expectation that they tried hard to do their best in school while making time for fun and relaxation too. Passing the closed school I thought of the various experiences school life has brought to my childrens’ lives: Involvement with instrumental and vocal music, theater, student council activities, and community service.

As I came into the town where I live I passed by the store where we always order our delivery pizza. I passed by the plaza where my son gets his hair cut and where we used to go to rent videos. I passed by our local grocery store where we frequently stop to buy milk and bread during the workweek and by the old antique shop which used to house the cutest little ice cream shop when the kids were little. I drove into our development where my children have gone trick-or-treating and where they knock on the doors of our dear neighbors every time there’s another school fundraiser. I drove into the cul-de-sac where our kids bike and walk the dog and finally, down the driveway to our home. This is the community that helped raise our children. And a wonderful little community it is.

The last five minutes of my drive home from work reminded me of what is most important when it comes to the raising of children. Politics and the newest packaging on what’s "best" for our children pales in comparison to the people, the community that raises them.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Literature and Film

For Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I love many aspects of being a teacher. But one of my favorites is introducing my students to old films they have never seen before. I could say the same of stories, novels, and plays that I bring to their attention, but with some new courses that I teach, including Literature and Film, Horrific Tales, and Dystopian Literature, I have had more opportunities to use films to highlight some pieces of literature that would otherwise be sacrificed for the sake of time in what are now a series of one semester courses. This morning I am showing An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a 25 minute 1962 French film based on the short story by Ambrose Bierce which was first published in 1891. The film won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards. I learned recently that it was also once an episode of The Twilight Zone on tv.

The students are not used to seeing black and white film. They are not accustomed to watching films with little to no dialogue, with only sound and a little music provided with the action of the story. For example, when the main character in the story begins to laugh in delight that he is “a living man”, my teens grow a little uncomfortable, begin looking around at one another as if wondering if they can give in to their temptation to laugh too. Those who have read the story for homework know what is coming up in the ending of the film. Those who did not do their homework are shocked at the ending and in their confusion they whisper questions to one another, “What happened?!

After the film concludes we discuss the film. We review the story, the characters, the shocking ending, and the different tools used by the writer as well as the film production team to bring the story to life. But I first begin our talk by asking them, “What did you think of that?” It’s their reaction to the grainy footage, the twangy guitar plucked song during the “escape”, the tweeting of the birds in the final scene, and the muffled voices of Peyton’s executioners that garner some of the best comments from the class.

As the semester continues I’ll show more old films and we’ll view modern movies too as we review various story adaptations. Our unit on Hamlet is one of my favorites. As we read Shakespeare’s play, we view a few scenes from various productions. Everyone has their own “favorite Hamlet” and idea of who makes the “best Ophelia”. It’s one of the perks of my job to bring these young people to the movies as if we’re all traveling together to an old fashioned cinema perhaps, as they develop an appreciation for the creative minds of the past and present, those who so artfully interpreted the words of some classic authors. It’s wonderful to have the means to share my appreciation of literature and film with young people. I cannot help but smile.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Enjoying Eden

For Monday, September 12, 2011

After losing my nearly 17 year old dog Charlie last February, I went several months returning to a dogless home. Her absence was surely felt. For years Charlie had greeted me at the end of a long day at work. She reminded me of the simple joys. She greeted me with reminders that I was her reason for being. She excitedly wagged her tail and followed me around the house as I unpacked my bag. When I came home angry, she knew how to make me smile. When I was happy, she was the first to see my joy. When I felt like a failure, she challenged me. Oh how I miss my sweet girl. Her presence, her love, her protection meant everything to me. She was so much more than just my dog.

As the school year came to a close, I was overjoyed to bring a new puppy home. She quickly acclimated to our family and we all had a glorious summer together. Two weeks ago, we all returned to our normal fall routine. Ziva would now be left home to await our arrival at the end of our day.

Sitting on the deck with my 5 month old puppy has become my favorite after-work activity. I can’t get home quickly enough. The weather here this September has been beautiful, allowing for these late afternoon rests together. We sit and cuddle or sometimes, I sit and we play fetch from my perch. I sometimes bring out my computer thinking I’ll write or connect with friends or family, but most of the time, my lap is free for her to find.

After about an hour with Ziva on the deck, I head inside to prepare dinner. There is sometimes a trip in the car to pick up Emma but Ziva usually joins me, enjoying the ride. I watch her choose to sit and watch me driving instead of looking out the window and I smile. As with my 17 years with Charlie, this time with Ziva is a treasure; there is simply nothing like having a sweet furry girl waiting for my company again at the end of the day.

"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace."
- Milan Kundera

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gentle Voice

This morning I woke up before my alarm went off. Before getting up to dress for Sunday mass, I took a moment to cozy up to my husband who was still sleeping. I kissed him softly and took a deep breath.

On this ten year anniversary of September 11th 2001, with all of that date's horrific happenings and unimaginable losses, I am overwhelmed in thinking of how to discuss the day here. In my classroom and with family and friends, I’ve joined in the sharing of “Where was I when I first heard the news” stories, and I’ve visited a few websites which have shared the voices of those who suffered personal loss of a loved one who died that day. I’ve listened to politicians and the media discuss the threat of a new attack and yes, despite mixed feelings, I turned on the History Channel today and for an hour, I revisited the videos of the towers collapsing and the faces of the innocent victims and the day's brave heroes.

9-11 taught me how naive I’d been to think that unspeakable cruelty, mass destruction, and such astonishingly wide-spread pain and fear could not happen to the United States of America. As I took my two little girls, ages 9 and 6, onto the living room couch in an attempt to explain to them why their school teachers had been so quiet and sad that day in school, and as I heard my almost 2 year old son playing in the other room, I worried and wondered, “In what kind of world would my husband and I be raising them?”

In the days, weeks, and months that followed September 11, 2001, I found myself unable to read or watch what now seemed to be ridiculous coverage of Hollywood celebrities. I was nauseated by shows like Entertainment Tonight and magazines like People which featured reporters asking actors and actresses frivolous questions. I never looked at celebrity-hood the same way ever again. Those who deserve to walk on red carpets and who deserve our admiration and awe will forever be those ordinary men and women who serve their fellow man. I think of the first responders who ran up the buildings to save lives and the brave passengers of United Flight 93, such as Todd Beamer, who after learning via cell phone of the attacks on the WTC, joined others in a plan to burst into the cockpit and who fought with the terrorists over the controls for the plane that would later crash into that Pennsylvania field, preventing another attack in Washington D.C.

In the wake of 9-11, stories of goodness, sacrifice, and the overall beauty of humanity emerged. The preciousness of life and the preservation of serving others was now being highlighted on the evening news. I’d never been to New York prior to 2001 but in the past ten years I have gone three times, first with my daughter Sydney. Then with both of my daughters. Then with all three children and my husband. My daughter Emma and I plan to return again in two months’ time. Visiting Ground Zero and The Little Church that Stood several times now, I’ve offered up prayers and I’ve given thanks to the lessons I’ve learned from the tragic day’s events.

This morning at Sunday mass, our choir first sang “Gentle Voice”, a lovely song by Susan and Lee Dengler which speaks of how “Far above the noise of life...Jesus (is) gently calling “Come unto me”. We raised our own voices gently as we sang to the congregation and then more powerfully and with strength as we led the congregation in singing “America the Beautiful” at the end of mass. I am glad this ten year anniversary fell on a Sunday. It allowed me to be with my loved ones all day long, while in some small way, allowing me to serve others.

As I shut off the lights and head up to bed to begin another workweek, I am going to once again take a deep breath. For if I learned anything in the decade following September 11th, 2001, it is that none of us truly knows what tomorrow will bring. All that is in our control is this moment right now. Savor it. Offer it up to God. Somehow, make it count. It’ll take me just one moment to send an “I love you” message to my now 19 year old daughter at college, and moments later Emma, Paul, and Eric will once again each receive a big hug and a gentle kiss. I will say another prayer before I crawl into bed, a prayer that above the noise of life, we will all make out the gentle voice that calls to us in our times of need.

"Gentle Voice"

Far above the noise of life,

There’s a voice that is gently calling.

“Leave behind your cares and strife.

Come to me, I will give you rest.


Bring your fear, and bring your pain.

Bring your anger, and bring your worry.
”
Do you hear the voice of Jesus
 gently calling, “Come unto me.”

Gentle voice, so meek and mild,

Gentle words of understanding.

“You are my beloved child.

Come to me, I will give you rest.


Bring your grief, and bring your cares.

Bring you heartaches, and bring your sorrow.
”
Do you hear the voice of Jesus
Gently calling, “Come unto me”?

Gentle voice so full of love,

Gentle words so rich in mercy.

“You are my beloved child.

Come to me. I will give you rest.”

A Girl of My Dreams

For Saturday, September 10, 2011

Earlier in the day Emma arrived home after her volleyball game and my husband suggested to us both that we go shopping. Yes, believe it or not, that’s actually what happened; he prodded my daughter and I into going shopping!! You see, Eric realized that time would be short this week with school and knowing Emma wanted a new homecoming dress, he knew that the two of us girls should go looking for that dress over the weekend. (What a sweet Dad, huh?!) That meant, Emma and I had to decide whether to go tonight or tomorrow. It was decided we’d go tonight. So off we went to the mall, roughly 35 minutes away.

The shopping trip was most efficient! We were in and out of one store in less than fifteen minutes having not seen much of anything. The second store brought success in just a half hour’s time! With her dress purchased, we went to buy a few candles then decided we weren’t really in the mood for any more shopping. So being hungry, we headed to one of our favorite restaurants, Panera.

Enjoying our meal, we fell into an easy conversation. But truth be told, it’s rare that our conversations are anything but easy. We talked about events of the past week and we talked about the future. We talked about dreams and we talked about reality, and how to make dreams a reality. We talked about the importance of having back-up plans but the greater importance of allowing our paths in life to unfold in due time. I shared with her my belief that people rarely regret the things they do in life, but that they most always regret the things they do not do. She gave me her own perspective and her insightful words warmed my heart.

Next week she’ll don a new dress and have a delightful time at her school’s homecoming. She will be beautiful indeed. But tonight I sat across the table from that beautiful young lady whose intelligence, sensitivity, warmth, charm, wit, and self-assuredness needed nothing special to wear. Throughout the sixteen years of her life, Emma’s radiance has always served to remind me of the importance of making our dreams a reality. Eric, Sydney, Paul, and Emma. My dreams came true fourfold.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

In No Need of Fixing

For Friday, September 9, 2011

A few weeks ago a friend mentioned how she would like to save money to have Lasik eye surgery so as to be able to toss her contacts and her glasses away. Hearing her, my husband was quick to tell her how I don’t want that surgery, that I am frightened of something going wrong during the procedure. That’s very true. But I also have to admit that when you’ve been as nearsighted as I have been for all these years, you also get quite accustomed to how the world looks when you wake up in the morning, or how the lights at night spread into beautiful orbs when you take off your glasses for a few minutes. The Christmas tree each December is especially beautiful. If I were to get that surgery, I’d never see that particular vision of beauty again.

Our imperfections in life do not always need fixing. In fact, I believe, it is those so-called flawed parts of me that give me my identity. My poor eyesight. My thin straight hair. The shape of my eyebrows, inherited from my Dad. My birthmark. My bent toes. One knee that resembles the shape of my father’s and one that resembles the shape of my Mom’s. The bump on my top lip, the only remaining scar from a bike accident with my brother when I was eight years old. I could get all of these “fixed”, but why would I want to?

There are days when I am sad and there are days when I get anxious. I also have times when I am really annoyed with people. But more often than not, my annoyance comes from others not acknowledging how the imperfections in our lives and in our selves make us who we are. We do not always need to be changed. We need simply TO BE. Supported. Acknowledged. Celebrated. Accepted. So I would like those people to please take a long look at themselves in the mirror, to gaze at their own reflection and to realize that the person looking back is a result of years and years of living life and following their own paths. And please, let me follow my own. Try to accept that I don’t need fixing. No, I am simply on my own journey. I may stumble and not see the path the way you do, but I am working to find my own way. Just as I choose not to get that eye surgery, I choose not to lose the vision of the beauty I see in this world through this particular set of eyes and in this particular point of view I have. I am my own beautiful flawed self. I am healthy and happy at my core, even on my sad days.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Rebecca

For Thursday, September 8, 2011

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again"
--First line of the novel Rebecca by Daphne duMaurier

Although I am not into the recent trend of modern vampire stories, I have long loved Gothic literature and when I find a good love story intertwined with Gothic characteristics, I am most happy. As an English teacher, my sharing of works by classic authors such as Daphne duMaurier or modern writers such as Audrey Niffenegger or Diane Setterfield find a place. My students themselves begin to enjoy the stories of creepy castles, mysterious and suspenseful atmospheres, high, even overwrought emotions of the breathless and often lonely oppressed heroines, and the romance of what is often a “first love” experienced in the works.

So in my Horrific Tales class, as an introduction to the Gothic Tradition, I read to my students the first chapter of Daphne duMaurier’s novel, Rebecca. The novel is a long time favorite of mine. I remember reading the book as a teen and special ordering my own copy of it from the town library. In fact, the novel title eventually became my daughter’s middle name, although I must say that I wished her to become nothing like that title character! My students point out the way in which duMaurier established the Gothic setting in her first chapter and we then begin watching the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock’s movie of the same name. The film starring Laurence Olivier quickly grabs the teenagers’ interest. They are amused by the character of busy-body Mrs. Hopper and especially by the creepy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers. The mystery of Maxim deWinter and his late wife intrigues them. The students become a bit protective of the new Mrs. deWinter, the innocent young woman whom Maxim marries a year after Rebecca’s death (played by actress Joan Fontaine) and are entertained by the strange “Ben” who occupies the little boathouse that the new Mrs. deWinter stumbles onto.

Although I have seen the movie many times, I find myself absorbed in the watching of the film, year after year. Each time I view it, I find additional subtleties in Oliver or Fontaine’s characterizations and I find new ways to observe the beautiful movie sets. I chuckle over the ways in which the driving scenes would be filmed quite differently given today’s technology and the changes in film-making, and I cannot help but stare in awe at the beauty of Fontaine and the handsomeness of Olivier. I find I have easily memorized much of the story’s dialogue, but I enjoy seeing how my new students are reacting to the 70 year old drama. Pleasingly, they are sad to find their class period ending and are happy to come back next time to finish the movie.

I would love to add my name to the list of contemporary authors who borrow from the Gothic style. I am again reminded it’s time for me to get back to the novel I have begun writing. All these years later, it is amazing that Rebecca continues to serve as such an inspiration for me.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

At Full Throttle

For Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The other morning I woke up an hour before I needed to get up to begin my day. After seeing the time, I fell back asleep. I then had a terrible nightmare. My husband was driving in icy road conditions and as we approached a big green bridge, he came close to rear ending a sand truck. In my dream, being in the passenger seat, I told my husband to slow down, but before I could get the words out completely, our car went off the road and off the bridge, about to plunge into the icy river below. I braced for the impact; my arms wrapped around my head, and then....I woke up.
Grateful it had been a dream, I instinctively looked at my alarm clock. My alarm had not gone off and it was a half hour later than it usually is when I hop in the shower. I jumped up and we all made it out of the house in time, but I could not stop thinking that I was once again sliding off a bridge. The entire day I braced myself for another crash.

In the middle of my work day, I went to the bathroom and I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. I was well put together. My eyes looked tired but that is nothing new. I’ve long burned the candle at both ends. My mouth easily formed a smile but I know that I have long been an actress. Perhaps there has never been a better time for me to put those theatrical skills to work. Because, I don’t feel “right”. I know we all go through life’s ups and downs and that, “This too shall pass” but, I’m sad.

There. I said it. I am sad, and at the risk of sounding like a child throwing a tantrum, the rest of the world is continuing on as normal and that doesn’t seem quite fair. Well, of course it would continue on, and of course it should. I am expected to also. There hasn’t been a death announced in the obituaries, there is no visible scar on my face, I have not had a health scare, my children are fine, there is no REASON for my despair that the naked eye can see. With the unscheduled days of summer behind me, I have been thrown back into the hectic pace, and I’m now expected to be professional and to be “on” for lessons and the day-to-day communications with students, their parents, my coworkers, and administrators. I am back, going full throttle as I have always done each school year. But this September is different for me. Although I always mourn the loss of summer, this year I have new anxieties and a raw awareness of the passing of time. I keep screeching to a stop at different moments in my day and even at night when I should be sleeping. I keep slamming on the brakes, but they aren’t working. And maybe that is for the best. I don’t know.

When I slam on those brakes during a quiet moment at school or anytime when I feel the need to be honest with myself, I know that I am grieving and bouncing from those various stages of grief without any logical progression, without any sensible timing. I imagine my journey as a pinball machine. I have control of the side buttons propelling the flippers inside to push the ball around, but I can not foretell where that ball will go or for how long the ball will be in motion before I have to hit those buttons again. I have to stay there, ready to hit those flippers each time the ball gets close to dropping and I am transfixed by the point total increasing, likening the points to the passage of time, and I have all I can do not to force the machine into “TILT” just to make it all stop. The flashing lights, the noises of man versus machine, the crazy and foolish expense of those quarters being dropped in to buy more time...

I’ve always hated driving on icy roads and I have never liked arcades much. And I absolutely hate being sad.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

In a Hot Pink Dress

This morning I pulled on a skirt I'd just purchased a few months back and paired it with a sleeveless blouse I'd bought at the same time. The pieces coordinated nicely but I wasn't happy with my reflection in the mirror. Then it hit me, these clothes were TOO BIG. I went back into my closet thinking, "I wonder...". I reached to the back of closet to my dresses and pulled out a hot pink sheath I had not worn in two years (at least). When the zipper went up smoothly I started to feel giddy. I took a step back, glanced in the mirror and whispered, "YES!"

As with any healthy pregnancy, I gained some weight with each of my three children. It was bound to happen of course and a small sacrifice to have three healthy babies. But although I couldn't return to the slender figure I had in high school, and although I am in agreement with my husband that becoming a Mom gave me some nice new curves, the past 10 years have been a challenge for me. On maternity leave with my youngest, I became a powerhouse pushing the stroller up the big hills of our development each day. I returned to work after my 10 months at home feeling and looking great. But then the stress of being a working mom hit me again. Juggling the demands of more responsibility at work and the schedules of three busy children, I cut some corners with quick convenience foods and fell onto the couch too often thinking, "I've worked hard enough; I deserve this bowl of ice cream". The numbers on the scale started going up but more unsettling was that my body confidence was going down. I thought of joining a gym or an exercise class but I would find an excuse not to follow through with exercise, time after time. I did walk however, kayaked in the summer, and pushed myself out the door in the winter to snowshoe on trails in my backyard, but I skipped breakfast, made poor choices at meal times, and didn't watch my portion sizes.

Anyone who knows me well, knows I am a clotheshorse. I absolutely love fashion and although I don't like to go shopping too often, knowing I need to save my money and my time for more important things, I also acknowledge the fact that looking good on the outside makes me feel good on the inside. Seeing my weight increase, I fought against the urge not to buy anything new until I dropped the weight because I knew I had to look stylish lest I lost all confidence. But this past month, a wonderful new place to shop has opened up for me...my own closet! Having dropped eight pounds over the summer, "What was old is new again!" Blouses are fitting better, smaller skirts and dresses that haven't seen the light of day for awhile are once again making appearances. I am a little regretful of having bought stylish new clothes in those larger sizes, but I am excited to be getting back into those smaller numbers and will happily send those bigger clothes packing.

I am not sure why my motivation and dedication couldn't have found me sooner, perhaps in time for my 25th class reunion this past July for example?! But I will not think on that for too long. I am back on track now and looking forward to the continuation of this healthy wellness plan. No crash diets, no tricks, just day to day accountability in the form of a food journal, a stronger commitment to regular exercise that is fun and family friendly, and a stable "lose one pound a week" goal. I'm anxious to begin the kickboxing class I signed up for this fall, and I am excited to show my new puppy those snowshoeing trails once again this winter. Before the snow flies however, the wii and I will renew our friendship and my kettle bell and I will go after Michelle Obama's gorgeous arms!

But for today, I will pat myself on the back for the accomplishment of those eight pounds lost in two months' time and I'll celebrate the several "You look great!" exclamations I received today as I walked confidently down the halls at work in my hot pink dress. I am not sure what I'll wear to work tomorrow but I have the greatest accessory already picked out, my big smile. I have more to lose, but this girl is feeling good in her own skin again!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Unwavering Devotion

The other day, Mom and Dad left home to spend the day at their camp on the lake, 15 minutes outside of town. They packed their dinner in the cooler. Dad had prepared one of my sister’s recipes, “tuna cakes”, in the morning before leaving. Upon their arrival at camp, Dad lit a fire in the stove to warm it up a bit (“Old folks can't seem to take the cold”, Dad told me), and Mom made the salad and peeled the potatoes. “We made a good pair”, Dad said. I know he was referring to their meal preparation, but that’s an understatement if I ever heard one. In their early eighties, Mom and Dad have made a great pair and have been one another’s lifeline, for over 60 years.

In 1951, my parents were married and left their hometown city in the southern part of the state where each of them had lived for over 23 years. They took a huge risk leaving all they knew, but followed the job Dad had been offered, and made their home in a small community which back then took an entire day’s journey to reach. They rented a little apartment and created a home for themselves. My four siblings arrived in 1952, 1954, 1956, and 1958. My parents saved their money then bought a home, and despite their initial plan to live in that town for “Just five years”, they raised their family in that same community. They still reside there, all these years later.

For all of their married life, there were budgets and penny pinching. “Children of The Depression”, my homemaker mother was a clever and resourceful woman, and Dad was incredibly handy in taking care of the home and in building a camp at the lake with only the help of his four young children. The camp was built as my Mom was expecting me. I came along in 1968 and soon, two of my siblings were finishing their high school years. By the time I was eight years old, each of my siblings had moved out of the house. Mom and Dad began helping out with their new grandchildren and each with an aging mother, Mom and Dad frequently were the caregivers for my elderly grandmothers. For years, Nana and Grammy each spent a great amount of time, convalescing at our home. I know those years were not easy. They were juggling many challenges.

Through the years my parents have lovingly put one another first. Mom watches over Dad’s diet and activities, making sure he does not overdo. Dad, in turn, keeps his eye on Mom. Their worry over one another was always apparent to me growing up. Small gestures, big gestures, they took care of one another, without fail. All these years later, I am still touched by emails they send which share with us children their days at camp, listening to the loons, preparing meals side by side. Dad tells us Mom continues to beat him playing Scrabble, and it’s very apparent that they continue to worry over one another. They continue to make “a good, (no, a great) pair”.

Life throws us many challenges. Some are more difficult to face than others. My parents, side-by-side, struggled through many hardships over the course of their marriage, but never faltered in displaying, to each of us five children, their unwavering devotion to us and to one another. As they age, the challenges for them continue. But for richer or for poorer, through sickness and in health, those vows are unbreakable. Mom has always been Dad’s sweetheart and Dad has always been Mom’s knight in shining armor. And I am so blessed to have witnessed their love and to be their daughter.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

“Suffer me that I may speak; and after that I have spoken, mock on"

I believe in working to increase sensitivity and understanding for the diversity we have in our country and in our world. I work very hard to do my best to be open minded and celebrate the various ways we, as human beings, find our way in and through life. Life is not easy for anyone. But it seems again that I am having to work much too hard to feel supported in return when it comes to my own chosen path, more specifically, my own strong belief in God and my devoted love for my own religious affiliation, the Roman Catholic Church. Quite frankly, we Christians (Non Catholics and Catholics alike) are too often being made fun of for who we are and what we believe. My disappointment and frustration in others brings tears to my eyes. They are tears of sadness and tears of anger, truth be told. Why must Catholics or Christians be such a common punching bag for others?

You have to understand. I’ve grown up hearing that others turned away from the church due to harsh treatment from nuns in the 50s or 60s or strict parents who made them miss out on Sunday skiing trips with friends to attend Mass. I listen patiently as others tell me of all the wrongdoings of leaders in the church. I hate such stories but I try to be understanding of such. I have been a bit of an anomaly to some, in that I have not strayed from the Catholic church in my 43 years. I remain humble but I regularly reflect on my life as a Catholic Christian woman and as is true to my personality (not necessarily my Catholic background), I scrutinize every facet of my life and work to “do better”. I know I am a “work in progress” and I try hard to be patient with myself, but I will probably never change and continue to be this way for the rest of my life. Some would be quick to call my way of living as oppression from that stereotypical “Catholic guilt”. But I don’t know. That’s just me. That’s how I am “built”.

I am tired, however, of hearing and reading of others who don’t extend to Catholics or Christians that same level of sensitivity, understanding, and open mindedness. I do not make fun of non church-goers, agnostics, or atheists, but more and more, I am feeling the effects of those who look at my belief in God or my weekly attendance at Mass as simple minded, foolish, and/or laughable. I realize that faith is a gift and that not everyone has received that gift and that I must be patient, but how do I continue to practice my faith while darting in and out of the way of those forcefully thrown daggers that continue to threaten all that I love and care about? Why is the way I live my life as a Christian Catholic woman so hard in 2011? And what hope can I have that my own children, as they grow to become adults and make their own decisions around faith, church, and being Catholic, will fight as hard as I have against the crowd to remain believers and devoted church goers, when their peers and the world at large scoff at them for being so traditional and old-fashioned, “naive” or “blind”? This troubles me greatly. Where are those fighters for the faith voicing opposition against the noise of the crowd?

This morning at Mass, Father Paul did not speak on this subject at Mass but he did make the point that our going to church gives us that help we need to live our lives with spiritual humanity and guidance. Just as we call a plumber for help with pipes in our house or an electrician for expertise in connecting power, our going to church gives us compassionate and educated guidance in making sense of our lives and our connection to God. I remember hearing from people that they don’t need that guidance in the form of a weekly homily given by a priest on Sunday morning. Well, okay. But I know one thing, I do need direction, help, and support.

No creation of Man is perfect, including the church of any religious affiliation. There’s always room for critique and questions of the Catholic church or any other house of worship. I accept this wholeheartedly. But I have to wonder what is truly at the bottom of the hearts of those who spend so much time mocking the faith and devotion of church goers, or those who enter church life. After all, every joke that is made in life, has at its heart, a sprinkling of insecurity. Does it not? How I wish I could somehow use both my gift of faith and my other talents to make more of a difference in increasing others’ acceptance of those who have faith and perhaps even encourage some to renew their own attendance at a weekly Mass at the church of their own choosing.

“Suffer me that I may speak; and after that I have spoken, mock on.” Job 21:3