Building a Memory

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On Friday night, with my wine glass in hand, after two long professional days and a third day working in my classroom, I announced, “I want to go to the beach this weekend!”

My husband and my visiting in-laws and I made plans to head to Popham Beach the next morning.

Happily, the forecast was accurate, and on Saturday morning we arrived at the beach to find warm, welcoming temperatures, stunning clear blue skies and gentle surf.

We walked along together, greeting other beach walkers, exclaiming about the beauty of the day, chatting about this and that. Then, slowly we drifted apart. My in-laws followed their dog’s exploratory path. My husband stopped to chat to a surf fisherman. I wandered on ahead, snapping occasional photos.

After a while, I realized that the beach was empty around me. I stopped walking and turned to face the ocean. I closed my eyes.

“Absorb this moment,” I told myself. “Feel the warmth of the sun. Feel the solidity of your feet planted in the sand. Breathe deeply and smell that fresh salty air. Feel the breeze on your skin. Listen to the wind and the steady rush of the surf. Remember this moment. Build a sure, deep memory that you can hold close as the school year begins and through the coming busy, busy days.”

I waited for several, slow moments.
Breathing.
Feeling.
Listening.
Creating a memory to sustain me.

After one more long, deep breath, I opened my eyes, and looked around. Ahead of me, other beach goers wandered and their dogs raced along happily, sniffing, exploring. High above, an osprey circled, and a few cormorants flew by, skimming the waves. 

I turned back to see my husband approaching. As he walked up to me, I slipped my hand in his, and leaned into his side briefly. Then we walked further down the beach together.

 

A Generous Morning

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI woke this morning, and shortly after my first sip of coffee, glanced out the window at the lightening sky in the east. I hadn’t been out at dawn lately, and I planned to spend much of the day in my classroom, unpacking supplies and dipping my toes into the idea of the fast approaching school year. Remembering that free time was fleeing as quickly and as surely as the birds were migrating south, I spontaneously decided to drive down to the river.

About ten minutes later, as I parked, my friend, Roger, pulled in next to me. We climbed out and exchanged greetings. Then, we wandered as we wished, absorbing the morning scenery, snapping pictures here and there. After a bit, our paths crossed near the dock.

“I miss the swallows,” Roger said, gesturing meaningfully at the mosquitos that swarmed between two bushes along the path.

“I saw a huge flock of swallows at the marsh almost two weeks ago,” I said. “It was amazing! They were everywhere! Hundreds of them!” Then I lamented, “But it seems so early for them to be heading south.” 

“I saw about fifty up on the tracks the other day,” he said, then added, “It’s the same time they left last year.” After a moment, he commented, perhaps to console me, “There’ll be a few stragglers.”

As is our habit, we next walked up to the bridge to wait for the sunrise. As we approached, the air seemed so still. Where weeks ago there were swooping swallows putting on a non-stop aerial show, today none were in sight. The sky seemed lonely.

Then, as I stepped onto the bridge, a couple of swallows approached. Just a few. I pointed them out to Roger, smiling, and then stood quietly, watching them dart and dive through the air currents, hunting insects.

Soon afterward, a movement in the sky downstream caught my eye. I looked up and saw a bird approaching in the distance.

“Something’s coming!” I said to Roger.

We both aimed our cameras toward the incoming bird.

“See it?” I asked. “I think it’s a heron!”

As it flew closer, we could see that it was indeed a great blue heron, one of my favorite birds. It landed briefly on a nearby water plane, then flew off again. I tracked its path through my lens, past an osprey (which I hadn’t even noticed) and on to a perch in a tree along the river’s edge.  Roger and I stood quietly and watched the two birds for long minutes.

Eventually, both osprey and heron flew off. The sun rose higher, lit the mist and gilded the edge of the dock. A small flock of cedar waxwings flittered and flew through the metal lattice of the bridge. Small fish jumped and flashed silver in the river.

I stood and watched it all, fully appreciating the generosity of the morning.

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A Box, A Life, Some Mysteries…

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Squatting on the concrete floor amidst the books, toys and odds and ends at our local Recycling Barn this weekend, I saw a fairly large cardboard box filled with small books. Curious, I reached over and pulled one out. It was a 2000 date book.  I pulled out another book. It was another small date book, this one dated 1987. I shuffled through the box, lifting out book after book. 2010, 1990, 1986…1941!

 “Kurt, look!” I said, calling to my husband, “This box is filled with journals!” 

He walked over to join me and I handed him a journal. He riffled through the pages, then handed it back to me. Always the historian, he asked, “How far back do they go? Are there any from the 40s? I wonder if they say anything about the war.”

I dug through the box and pulled out a few of the older journals and handed them to him. We paged through, reading a few entries aloud to each other. Kurt’s speedy skim through 1943 found no references to the war.

There’s not much in here,” he said.

We kept looking. The writing was difficult to decipher at times, but a quick glance revealed that most of the information didn’t seem to be too personal. Each date had a comment about the weather and sometimes a few odds and ends notes about working, appointments, or outings.

I was fascinated by the diaries and had so many questions. Who wrote and kept all of these and how did they end up here? Based on the dates, it seemed safe to assume that the author had died or become incapacitated, but who decided to discard the journals? And at the Recycling Barn?  I was trying not to judge, but it felt a bit callous. While I could understand that the journals were no longer wanted, it seemed like there should have been a more thoughtful resting place for them. Even burning them would seem more respectful.

After a few minutes, I gathered up the journals we had pulled out and returned them to the box.

“I have to take these home,” I announced.

“All of them?” Kurt asked. “Aren’t we trying to get rid of things?”

“All of them,” I insisted, standing up and hefting the box into my arms. “There’s a whole life in this box! And besides,” I continued, “I can always bring them back next weekend.” 

Later that night, I emptied the box onto my family room floor and began to organize, sorting the diaries by year.

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not quite done sorting!

There were 86 of them, ranging from 1923 to 2013. Most of them were labeled diary or diary/memos. Some years had two diaries, while one year had 3. I didn’t know where to begin and started leafing through random books. Part of me felt guilty –intrusive. Who was I to read another person’s journals even if they seemed impersonal? Yet, another part of me felt that reading them was almost paying homage to the author and recognizing the life these small diaries represented. 

I soon discovered that, although most of the journals were written by one woman, there were several written by another woman. Also, while most days were primarily filled with everyday details, those entries were occasionally juxtaposed with startling news, personal tragedies, and world events.

I’ve barely begun to examine the journals, but my mind keeps returning to them over and over, wiggling thoughts about them like a tongue wiggles a loose tooth. Irresistible, yet slightly uncomfortable. There are so many mysteries within them. Certain names appear and reappear. Who were they? Spouses? Children? Friends? How did the two women know each other? Were they related? Why were their journals mixed together? Why are there so few in the 1970s, but the 60s were almost intact? Am I being nosey and invasive by reading them? And ultimately, what should I do with them?  

Here are a few excerpts:

“August 1943
Wednesday 4 In hospital from 10:30 to 3:30 when Dr. Mixter (?)  told me he found large brain tumor and removed it all and it wasn’t malignant. Thought she would be ok unless unexpected happened. Saw her at 7 pm and she knew me.”

“December 1941

Sunday 7 All to SS or church To Conleys for boughs and cones Japs attacked Hawaiia and declared war

Monday 8 Cool 22˚
President called for and Congress declared war on Japan.
? xmas party at church

Tuesday 9 Cloudy
Bowled at night”

 

Next to details about temperature and Sunday School, complicated world events and compelling personal experiences have been reduced to a summary sentence or two. Boughs and cones juxtaposed with bombs and war. I guess that’s about right. The mundane daily details of our lives coexist with the tragedies and the triumphs. A life can be encapsulated in a few sentences or paragraphs. Or even sometimes in a box full of diaries.

Update: After responding to Margaret, I realized I hadn’t specified that these journals were in the Swap Shop section of the Recycling Barn. I also hadn’t really thought that through myself. To clarify I didn’t dig through discards for something someone else thought was safely or privately disposed of (that would have felt really invasive!). The Swap Shop is filled with things that still have value, but are not of use to the current owner. The contents range from treasure to trash and are free for the taking. So, the books really weren’t thrown away or destined for recycling, they were offered up like an invitation. Hmmmm….

 

Reclaiming Summer

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI think the problem starts when our expectations are too high.

Have you ever heard all about a movie or a book, read rave reviews, heard friends “oooh” and “aaah”, and then you go to see it or you read it? And it’s really very good, but it can’t possibly live up to the hype and those sky-high expectations. You sort of set the bar too high. It’s typically doomed to fail. Or at least fall short.

Well, I’ve started to think that summer can be like that for teachers. We expect extraordinary things from our summers. I, for instance, somehow think that miraculously, I will be able to accomplish every single thing that was pushed to the side, ignored or neglected during the school year–investing time into relationships, self-care, choice reading, household maintenance, exercise, etc and finding time to rest and rejuvenate. Not to mention reading professional books, attending PD, catching up on current kid lit, etc.

I’m in the midst of my much-anticipated summer, and I feel like much of it has already slipped by me and thedaysaregatheringmomentum, hurtlingfasterandfastertowardfall, and, inthemeantime, verylittlehasdisappearedfrommymulti-page “To Do This Summer” listandI’mstillwaitingtoslideintothatsummergroove,butinsteadofrelaxing, I’mstartingtofeelstressedbythepassingdays(OMGit’salmostAugustalready!). Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!

I realize that this is slightly ridiculous, but it feels very real. My self talk has also taken on a frantic, and perhaps toxic, tone:

“Time’s a wastin’! Hurry up! Recharge! Rest! Relax! Quickly now! Oh, and don’t forget that list. Clean! Sort! Organize! Or at least clean out your office–which really is a disgrace. That grass isn’t going to mow itself, you know, and the gardens are out of control. Have you read that book yet? What’s the last thing you wrote? Did you retype and synthesize your notes from the June Reading Institute? How about that reading camp? How are you doing with that,huh? Are you relaxed yet?”

Ugh. Even as I write this, I realize how messed up this all is. Or how messed up I am. There are so many things that I “need” to do, that all too often, I end up overwhelmed and do nothing. It feels like summer is my one chance to get it all done–sort of like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But time’s passing and I’m not getting much done….What? Wait! Hold on a second! Do you hear that? Listen carefully.  (click below)

Oh, yeah. That feels like the soundtrack of my summer…the sound of summer passing. The constant sense that time is running out and when that timer buzzes, at the end of summer, what will I have to show for this long stretch of carefree golden days? Because, before you know it, that moment will arrive. The buzzer will go off.  And I’ll need to reveal my answer to the the ultimate final jeopardy question: How was your summer?

So today I’m asking myself– How do I want to answer that question at the end of this summer? I still have more than a month of summer break. That’s lots of time. Really it is. (Though I am NOT counting the days and I have asked the librarians to please NOT tell me when my books are due–I don’t want to know what date is only three weeks away!) I’m the one choosing to give that anxiety-inducing music rent-free space in my head. I’m in charge of my self-talk. And when it comes down to it, many, if not most, of my expectations are self-imposed. The “List Police” aren’t going to come knocking on my door come September if there are unfinished items on my, let’s face it, ridiculously impossibly long to-do list. So, what is most important to me this summer? 

I don’t have all the answers yet, but starting today, I’m reclaiming my summer. I’m going to shift my focus and alter that self-talk. I’m going to choose the soundtrack for my summer, and I can guarantee, it’s NOT going to be the Jeopardy challenge song. I’m going to look for the fun in the seeming drudgery (Thanks, humbleswede!) and make a conscious decision to plan some summer fun and to set thoughtful goals and priorities for myself (Thanks, cmargocs!). I’m going to revise that “To Do” list into something more reasonable and become an active agent in creating a really nice summer for myself. I’m not aiming for a bestseller or a blockbuster, more like a feel good beach read. That feels pretty do-able.

In the meantime, I’m still considering my new summer theme song. Any suggestions?

 

 

 

 

An Unexpected Gift of Poetry

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One of my favorite activities at the end of the school year is our poetry jam. We invite families to come in to the classroom, listen to poetry that students have written, and then create poetry together at a variety of centers. We inevitably have a great turnout, and the room is a happy hum of poetry celebration.

This year, the grandfather of one of my students stood by the doorway, a bulky, silent presence. I hadn’t met him before, but his granddaughter had mentioned he’d be coming. He’d slipped into the room right before the students read their poetry, and now remained standing (poised for quick exit?), while she was busy buzzing around the room without him, working with other students and parents. He seemed content where he was, watching the activity, but I suspected that he, like so many adults, was probably uncomfortable with poems and poetry writing. He struck me as the quintessential Mainer–hard-working, somewhat taciturn, with deep ties to the land and community about him. Quiet and strong. 

After glancing about the room to ensure that everyone else was happily occupied, I walked over to introduce myself to him.

We exchanged names and a few pleasantries, and then I asked, “Would you like to write a poem?”

“No,” he replied slowly. Almost thoughtfully.

“Well, have you ever written poetry before?” I asked, in full ambassador mode.

“Yes,” he said. “After I came back from the war.”

Then his voice shifted to a sort of dreamy cadence….”I wrote about lying on the grass under a big oak tree…looking up through the green leaves and branches above me… I wrote about wondering how many birds have nested in this tree…How many animals have made their home in its branches? …And how many children have played in those same branches? …And I hoped my own children and eventually my grandchildren would climb in this tree. …And then, I wondered, after I died, … how long would this tree live… and still provide a home and comfort.”

“Oh,” I said, after a brief moment in which I recalibrated my initial impressions, “that was lovely.”

He told me then about some of his experiences during his service: He was shot in the head, shoulder, thigh and ankle. To this day, it’s still uncomfortable for him to sit, especially in hard chairs intended for much smaller individuals, which is why he was standing.  

Then, at one point, his voice changed again, slowed and deepened, and he said,
I heard the thunder,
then knew it was gunfire.
I heard the screams,
then night fell.
When morning came,
I woke
and wondered
why I had survived.”

Clearly, these words were deeply etched within him. Their power echoed within me. After a moment, I blinked and cleared my throat.

“You’re a wonderful poet, ” I finally said. “Have you shared your poems with your granddaughter or with anyone else in your family?”

“No,” he said. Then he elaborated, in true Maine fashion, “I’ve been working.”

We talked for quite some time, about his school experiences (not positive), his work (long and hard), his family (much beloved). Later in the conversation, he told me that he had shared some of his writing with a veteran’s organization.

Eventually, I realized I’d totally abandoned my classroom responsibilities. I thanked him for coming and for sharing his words with me, and told him how much I’d enjoyed our conversation. Reluctantly, I wandered away to circulate amongst the parents and children, my mind still lingering on our conversation. On the inaccuracies of first impressions. On war. On poetry. 

Two days later, on the last day of school, his granddaughter handed me an envelope. In it her grandfather had enclosed some of his writing. It was about time and change and family. It was beautiful and thoughtful. Once again, I was deeply moved by this unexpected poet and his unexpected gift.

A Long Flight

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hThe end of school came in with a typical whirlwind of activity and a few delightful-but-tiring extras thrown in–an accumulation of a couple of weeks of nonstop activity and lots of people. I packed up my classroom on Friday and limped out of the school year. On Sunday, I took off for NYC and a wonderful, intense week of learning at Teacher’s College Summer Reading Institute.

By the end of the week, I was a limp dishrag, ready to hoist the white flag (and to mix a few metaphors along the way), and in search of solitary confinement. But it was time to head to Ohio for a visit with family and friends. 

I hate flying, and typically dread the entire experience, but as I boarded the plane, it occurred to me that this flight was going to be my last chance for solitude and relative inactivity for the next 4 or 5 days.

“It might even be nice!” I thought, looking forward to peace, quiet and some solid reading time.

Then my seat mate arrived.

She was a lovely, young woman, excited to be heading back from a trip to Germany to visit her parents and looking forward to her reunion with her boyfriend, and their new apartment, and the upcoming trip with his family, which she’d promised them a year ago that she would go on and it meant she had to leave Germany early, but…

Ding! 

She paused to glance down at an incoming text.

“Oh, my family just went to the vineyards without me! Why would they do that after I left!?”

She then burbled on at greater length about her family, her boyfriend, her recent trip, her upcoming trip. She was lovely and sweet, but oy!

She finally paused and asked me, “What do you do?”

“I’m a teacher.”

“Oh, what grade?” she asked.

“Fourth,” I replied.

She turned her body fully toward me, her face alight.

“Oh! My fourth grade teacher saved my life!” she exclaimed. Then she went on and on… about how she thought she’d wanted to be a teacher, and about an experience she’d had working in a classroom when she was in school in England (with a long detour to explain why she’d attended middle school and high school in England) and how wonderful it was but it just wasn’t for her, but the kids made her this wonderful book and she still has it and it was wonderful ….

Then she repeated, “I just loved my fourth grade teacher! She saved my life! Really, she did! She was the first person to bring my attention difficulties to my parents’ attention.” (Which, to be honest, made me wonder how much attention her parents had been paying. I also heroically restrained myself from suggesting that her prior teachers had probably noticed something as well.)

She continued, “We loved her. And she loved us.” She paused dramatically, then said, “She loved us so much that she taught us the next year, too!”

uh huh

Eventually, after I had a pretty good picture of the past year or so of her life, with some childhood details sketched in as well, she trailed off and we began taxiing down the runway.

Taking-off is the hardest part of any flight for me. My go-to strategy is to bury myself in a puzzle book of sorts, typically word games. So, I buried myself in my crossword, trying to pretend I wasn’t on a plane (my go-to strategy). I entered my zone of intense concentration.

Midway through our ascent, a voice penetrated my carefully constructed zone. I ripped my focus from my puzzle book and looked around.

“Excuse me. Excuse me…”

I turned toward my seat mate. Yes, she was talking to me.

“I’m sorry to bother you, but I thought since you’re a teacher, you’d  have seen a lot of this and know.” She pushed her finger into her right eyelid and bent closer to me.

“Do you think I have pink eye?” she asked.

I stared at her, slightly bemused. “What?”

“Do you think I have pink eye?” she repeated, jabbing her finger toward her eye again.

Finally, I replied, noncommittally, “Well, your eye lid is slightly red.”

“I know!” she enthused. “It’s been bothering me all day and it feels funny. So I was wondering if you think it might be pink eye.” She looked at me expectantly, leaning closer.

I stared back at her.

“No,” I finally said slowly and decisively, still struggling to make sense of the moment, “it is not pink eye.”

“Oh, phew!” she said, exhaling, and leaning back into her seat, looking mightily relieved.

Phew?! Phew?! Like I’m the authority and this potential problem is now solved?

I turned back to my puzzle book and went back to pretending I wasn’t on a plane, hoping that she really didn’t have pink eye.

It was going to be a long flight.

On TC, Bathrooms, and a Little Bit of Magic

11454297503_e27946e4ff_hI’m at the TC Summer Reading Institute in NYC right now. It’s pretty wonderful. I could write about the amazing sense of community, the energy and the powerful learning. I could write about how excited I am to be here, and about new practices I’m dying to implement in my classroom. I could write about the long, rich conversations with my colleagues. But I’m still processing all of that, so instead, I’m going to write about a bathroom. Really. I’m actually totally fascinated by the bathroom down the hall from my morning session. 

Don’t dismiss this too quickly. Bathrooms are pretty important here. There’s a limited time to move between sessions, so knowing where the not-too-busy bathrooms are is pretty critical. The bathroom I’m focused on isn’t very busy, and I get a total kick out of it. 

The first time I walked into this bathroom, I thought, Oh, this is pretty small. It must be a one-person bathroom. (Again, this is important knowledge!) But then I walked further and around the corner a whole row of stalls appeared.

Oh! I stopped in my tracks. It’s like a Harry Potter bathroom! I thought (or maybe I said aloud.) It was love at first sight. Now, I use that bathroom exclusively in the morning, and every time I use it, I turn the corner and I’m thrilled all over again. (Clearly, it doesn’t take much to entertain me.)

I wasn’t sure if I was going to post today, but then I thought, Hey, I can write about the bathroom! Part of me asked, Are you sure about that? But the other fuzzy over-stimulated and a wee bit tired part said, Yeah! It’ll be fun! Then I thought, Oh. I should take a picture. Wait … Can I take pictures? What if someone walks in while I’m taking them? That would seem pretty odd, if not downright sketchy.

I thought for a minute. Hey, it’s all in the service of a slice! Why not? So, I finally whipped out my cell phone. I took my photos (which don’t give the full effect because I was not willing to hold the door open, stand in the hall and take the first picture) and opened the door to leave. A woman tried to enter at the same time.

“Oh!” she said, seeing the cramped quarters and stepping back. ” I’m sorry. This must be a one person bathroom.”

“No!” I said. “Look! It’s fabulous! It’s like a Harry Potter bathroom!” I gestured around the corner. Obediently she looked.

“Oh,” she said. Then she feel silent.

“Isn’t it great!?” I enthused.

She nodded silently. Somewhat disappointed by her apathetic response, I moved around her to leave the bathroom.

In retrospect, she may have been aback by my enthusiasm, but perhaps she was simply awed by the wonder of the bathroom. I prefer to think it was the latter.

Either way, I’ve discovered my own little piece of magic at TC.

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