Monday, January 22, 2018

Sonnet of State Secrets

As I told the State the other day, I rarely
dance but when I do I dance some Latin
sort of thing, like a salsa, in which one seems
never to stop moving, which makes it more difficult to pin
me down. My hips sometimes get tired so I have
to stop; two days later I ache but I am that much
closer to the goal, the infinite, the end-that-is-not-
the-end. The State is very goal-oriented,
hence the two questions that must be asked
of everyone with only four possible answers.
I almost always want to invent my own
responses but there you have it: no other
possibilities. Frustration ensues. Occasionally
I have thoughts of threats, murder, assassination.

The solution is to look up, to contemplate clouds, or stars
that look like lively souls in their dance to infinity.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Deep Spiral

Let me out, I scream
at this sore body,
aging, unreliable.

Let me be
pure spirit.

Let me sing like an angel,
fly in metaphor,
escape the thick boil
of sadness and despair
that some days threatens
to extinguish
the whole unhappy circus.

Will this be the time I can’t
lift myself out
pulling on some pale wan vine
of interest or blood
to drag my heavy body,
limp and persistent,
to a sunny level of life
despite the roiling clouds
shadowing my will,
the surging currents of fear,
to a place where I need not plan
but can just be
sparkling thought or song,

flying over ideas, lakes, and trees?

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Ask a Simple Question ...

I am a writer. I am a thinker who asks lots of questions. I have long felt that asking pointed critical questions was my superpower. I don’t know whether others (and by others I mean anyone who convened or sat in a meeting with me) saw me the same way. I might have wished I were the person who came up with the solutions to problems, but really, more often, I just asked simple questions that led others to contemplate solutions. You might ask for an example from the past, but I would have to say I don’t remember any specific ones.

In my own life of the mind, though, I have solved many “problems” by asking basic questions and writing about the answers. Last fall I wrote about my two courses, the advanced literacy class in particular, beginning with a question: what do I want these students to get from this class? What kind of teachers am I developing with this course, these readings, these activities? By asking those questions and writing about them, about my possible answers, I invited a universe of thought and energy, still at work today, to collaborate with me. And here I am, preparing for the spring semester, with a new syllabus and set up for each class.

A long ago example comes to mind. I engaged in a similar process long before I knew the power of writing, before I published poems or won awards for my teaching. I read a life-changing book (one of many - this happened to be Nancy Atwell’s first, In the Middle, 1989). I began using her workshop method, tweaking and adjusting and (I think), improving on it, for my students, anyway. One of the most important questions I asked myself was this: what literacy habits do I want my students to develop? From that question came daily, weekly, quarterly practices like grade conferences, poetry recitations, self-evaluation rubrics, and most importantly, greater student ownership of learning and the grading process.

As I write about those long ago developments (I left my eighth grade classroom in 2009) it occurs to me that my college students, my teacher interns, could use a bit of that student ownership of learning and the grading process. It’s especially apparent as I have just finished dealing with the usual round of emails after grades were posted. I’m starting to have a vision of the kinds of activities that will develop their skills as literacy-based content area teachers. I’m working on a way of arriving at a grade that puts responsibility squarely on them.

At the same time, I don’t want them to be able to choose NOT to engage in literacy-based teacher activities. My eighth graders came into a classroom where reading and writing were quite simply necessary and daily, like breathing and eating: no way to avoid composing sentences, finding reading material, reflecting on their writing, or responding to what they read. I’m trying to set up the 28 class meetings at Oneonta in a similar way. Every new teacher will engage in quick writes, try out book talks and lit circle roles, design RAFTs, dig for solid teaching ideas in professional journals.

My constant struggle in this course redevelopment is to make the grading work more like it did for my eighth graders, to weave in more of self-evaluation, without letting them revert to the “I worked so hard,” argument for a change of grade. I want them to demonstrate learning that has resulted in changes in behavior and more sophisticated ways of talking about their teaching and their understanding of adolescent literacy. Fourteen weeks, though, is a short time compared to 40 weeks. It would be nice if I saw each new teacher for both courses, but some of them will take the advanced course from colleagues who handle a few sections.

I must strike a balance, then between the direct method of grade determination my eighth graders used, and the truncated version I need for these short courses at college level. That is the problem I am wrestling with as the start of the spring semester comes closer.

It is a tasty problem, though, once I have asked the basic questions about how good teachers should approach adolescent literacy in their content area classrooms. What teacherly habits do I want my students to develop now, in their internship years? What basic understandings should always manifest in their choices of texts and activities and classroom organization? My syllabi are works in progress that give me great pleasure, especially when I can deal more authentically with the determination of their grades. That is the task I turn to now.

How can my students’ progress be more apparent to them at every turn during the spring semester? How can the process of arriving at a final grade be more clear to them? I ask messy questions; I develop messy solutions that change. But I write toward clarity.

Monday, January 01, 2018

January again? What happened to that last year?

A New Year. New Questions.

I am here to dream about a new chapter in my life. I will ask new and different questions this year: some will be answered, others not. My dreaming will give birth to changes. I have first dreamed or written dreamily about every change that I can see in this living room, in this house, in my life, except for one. John is gone; I have spent some part of another year coming to terms with that loss and my grief.

But I am here, and this is now. What shall I do today? What can I create today? What love can I spread - this week, this month, this season, this year? These are good questions, the right ones to ask today, or to ask any time, for that matter.

In the past, I dreamed of beginning the new year with music, and thus the first annual New Year’s Day music fest was born. Today will be the Second Annual New Year’s Day Music Fest. My mother will have a chance to listen to Acoustic Brew and tap her foot, and perhaps even use her walker or cane to dance a bit. So there is a dream that has come to fruition.

With that embodied dream before me this afternoon, I think this morning about my hopes for the future:

I know that music will continue to hold all the threads of my loom together. The acoustic trio has brought my skills to a new level. I miss playing in an electric blues band, though. Maybe this year the right players will arrive. I will keep my eyes open so I will recognize them when I meet them.

I will keep refining my literacy courses to help each teacher better understand her role and how to accomplish it, with respect to content area and her students’ literacy/thinking skills. I continue to work on my syllabi, and they will have to be ready to go for January 18, my first day of classes, but work will continue over the summer, for next fall.

I ask the universe for help with lapsed habits I would like to return to:

I was a champion at writing 750 words a day. I want to write every day again. I’d like some of that writing to turn into a blog post, perhaps once a week. Much of my life, especially academically, has sprung from my writing in the last ten years. Such a productive habit should be at the top of my list. And some believe I could be writing songs, thus intertwining my music and my writing. I ask the universe whether that is possible. Perhaps if I re-record some of my existing originals, it will inspire me to continue from there.

In 2016, I managed, for almost 6 months to walk 3 miles a day. I am so sorry to have let this lapse. The photography, the haiku, the ideas that emerge when I walk daily are all so beautiful and fulfilling. Summer and fall of 2016 were made even more beautiful by my daily walks at Cole Park. The spectacular photos I took have adorned my television screen all day every day this year. The writing I did in June alone, when I began the habit, is still generating ideas. I felt so healthy - until I broke my arm.

Music, art, and ideas are still the defining themes of my life. I pursue auditory and visual art, beauty where I find it or can make it. I create word strings that beautify at least my own world. If I only posted my own creations - photos, blog entries, poetry - that would be a good use of social media. I can also bring more beauty into my daily life if I collaborate with my friend to paint these rooms I work in.

To feed all this creation, I will call on the beauty of nature as I walk every day, but I also wonder why I can’t be reading a book a week? I certainly have access, with New York Public Library, 4 County System. I’ll continue to listen to audiobooks as I drive to Oneonta twice a week, but it takes longer to finish them. I could watch good movies, too, one a week, perhaps, to gather my thoughts.

Last but not least, I ask the universe for help to get myself cooking at home again. I need to return to good salads, some greens, every day. I have already spent three months with no sugar in my coffee, reducing my intake to almost nothing. I have seen this have some effect on my health and weight already, haven’t I?

This may be a year of asking questions or a year of answering them, but right now, in this bitter cold, it is a time to dream, to write, to read, to view, to listen, perhaps converse, perhaps make love. I do all of this, any of this with love, openness to change, allowing questions to percolate.

Percolate? That reminds me of coffee - isn’t there another cup waiting in the kitchen?

Monday, May 30, 2016

My Passion for Thrift Stores

September 2015
Once I ordered lots of clothing from mail-order catalogues or from on-line stores; now I purchase almost all of my clothing second-hand at thrift stores. My clothing obsession could have ruined me financially. My discovery of the fun of second-hand stores, though, has given me a challenge that gives me much enjoyment and saves me money.
Years ago,as a young mother, I loved looking through catalogues that arrived by the gross in the mailbox. In free moments, I would turn down the corner of every page where I saw some item that I really liked. I liked looking at colors and textures of different clothing in the beautiful photographs. I tried to picture what the clothing would look like on me, but that was difficult. I usually just imagined that I would look as thin and glamorous as the model pictured in the item. Of course that was exactly what market analysts wanted me to do. I fell in line with their expectations by hoping that I would purchase the item and be miraculously twenty pounds lighter just by owning it, let alone wearing it. My mind knew that this was wrong, but still I used my credit card to order boxes and boxes of items for each new season. I would make lists of the items I wanted to buy, adding up costs and changing items occasionally. Boxes arrived, delivered by FedEx or UPS or regular US postal service. Some items didn’t fit -- or didn’t make me look thin and glamorous -- so I made regular trips to the post office for returns. I justified my purchases because I worked as a teacher. My position gave me a salary to afford them, and required me to appear in public daily with an up-to-date wardrobe.
Then one summer I learned, by reading a slim book about budgeting and credit, that I was letting money slip away from me like water. As a newly divorced person, I knew I couldn’t continue that way. At first, I simply bought less clothing. Then I recalled that I had seen a dear friend wearing some wonderful pieces. She had told me they were from the Salvation Army. I recalled that that was the store that hung items of similar colors in the windows visible from Upper Court Street where I drove so often to go into town. I loved the display and the creative approach it suggested.
By the time I actually visited the Family Store, as they called it, the store had moved to another building, so the display was no longer visible on the street. Inside, though, I found clothing massed by type and color. I could wander the aisles filling my eyes with the vibrant colors grouped together. It was a wonderful sensory experience,as I also enjoyed feeling the cloth of each piece, feeling the weave, noting the details of its construction. Now I can identify silk from several feet away. I look especially for silk, linen, 100% cotton, and cashmere items.
My second husband and I made a weekly excursion of it, as he enjoyed saving money, too. I no longer visited retail clothing stores. I now experience sticker shock when I research clothing items on-line. E-bay is the only place I will consider purchasing, and that mainly for shoes. Almost every piece of clothing I own, except for undergarments and shoes, is from a thrift store. I visit them in whatever city I go to. When I visited my son in Brooklyn recently, I made a stop at the Goodwill in the downtown area. I’ve been to several Goodwill stores in Pittsburgh, where my older son lives. I’ve discovered wonderful items at the Salvation Army in San Antonio, Texas. I look forward to investigating the thrift stores of the Emerald Coast of Florida when I visit my niece near Fort Walton Beach this winter.

Sometimes I wish I had discovered thrifting sooner.

Friday, May 27, 2016

A Tribute to Angel Mary

May 25, 2016

My older sister, Mary (Angel Mary, in the bosom of the family): what would I do without her? As fragile as she may seem sometimes, she has been a rock for me. She has been a model to prepare me, at every age, for the next era, though no one would see that influence in the outward facts of my life’s path.
Her influence began early. Photographs in family albums show her reading on the sofa; I must have seen that happening often. The year that she was a sixth grader, I was in kindergarten. I didn’t know it then, but I was falling in love with learning. Mary played a role in that love affair. She and I shared a bedroom, much to her chagrin. I was a messy child, given to building nests behind the door or cities of blocks under my bed, cities which then gathered dust and resisted easy cleaning. I did not suffer one block to be moved and defended them strongly. I wet the bed, and didn’t pick up after myself, contrasting sharply with Mary’s neat habits. She, the well-behaved second born, contrasted sharply, in turn, with our older brother, who was a handful. Hence, her nickname - Angel Mary. She endured me because she had no choice.
That forbearance, though, didn’t keep her from the kindness of talking to me in the dark as we were falling asleep. She was excited by subjects she was learning about in her sixth grade classroom, so occasionally she would tell me about her studies. I don’t remember the specifics, except for a vague recollection of basic anatomy, biology, and botany lessons. I do remember the excitement and engagement in her voice that transmitted such passion to me. I’m sure that passion is what carried me through the formidable work of field research, a dissertation, and a doctorate in my fifties. Thanks, Mary!
Mary tutored me, without intending to, in coordination of color, fabric, clothing, and accessories. She sewed match-y match-y clothing for herself, and for me and our little sister, Liz. She made me change my clothes before the school bus came if my choices did not fit her aesthetic. One of her Christmas presents to me was a razor set, when I was old enough (but not motivated) to shave my legs. I resented her guidance fiercely, innate rebel that I was, but she saved me from myself in many instances. I might have been more of a nerdy outcast than I already was if she had not lent me some of her fashion sense by sheer force of big sister insistence. It helped that she was pretty: fine-boned and thin, with tiny wrists, ankles, and fingers that I admired surreptitiously.
Mary the high school student got good grades, wore fashionable carefully-tailored clothing, styled her hair in perfect sixties’ smoothness (think Breck advertisement models - remember them?), and was involved in class politics and activities. I, too, kept up my grades when I entered high school six years after her - it was easy for me, inflicted as I was with unquenchable curiosity. Fashion styles and political winds changed drastically, though, between 1966 and 1970. Wearing my bell-bottom jeans, with long unstyled waves of brown hair and a center part, I became politically involved, though not in school activities the same way Mary had. Instead, I read TIME magazine (cover to cover every week - thank you, dear parents, for the subscriptions you kept up), new ones like Psychology Today and Ms., and then wrote letters to the New York Times about the women’s liberation movement.
Mary, of course, had moved on to college and then marriage to a Vietnam veteran who became like a brother to me. Our paths diverged for a while. Then she, mother of two girls and a boy, joined me the night before I went in the hospital to have my first baby. We were making a bed, I complaining about how uncomfortable I felt at almost the full 9 months. In the other room, our families ignored us and ate pizza in our Friday night routine. It was the calm before the storm, as I became a parent that weekend: the universe shifted, tilted, and turned upside down. Luckily, she was able to spare me a few minutes here and there (by then she was teaching full time) to help me with Caesarian section recovery, breastfeeding issues, and sleep deprivation.
Mary and I were mothers together, and also teachers, she in second grade for most of her long career, I in middle school for most of mine. She switched from social work, a job she got right out of college before babies arrived. We began to have recurring conversations about how to fix some of the more vexing problems of school management, curriculum planning, and instructional design. “When we open our own school, … “ was the refrain we returned to so often. It was no surprise to May when I decided to resign from my classroom and study for a doctorate in education. It was no surprise to me when Mary became the cheerleader of my family support group.
Before that, though, when my first marriage collapsed, Mary helped when she could. Her three children were teens: I knew she was busy; she knew I was depressed. My approach to depression was different from hers, but she provided some needed therapy, taking me to the cheap movie theater for something funny or trucking me way the hell down the Vestal Parkway to Kohl’s to buy outfits she thought looked good on me (she has never given up on my fashion sense - some of them even looked good to me). She was frightened by my involvement in internet dating, but asked me about memorable meetings. When one love affair broke up in a spectacular way after three difficult years, she was the first person I called, the one to come down the hill to my house to console me, the one to insist that he give back a recent gift she’d given to him - one of her beautiful pottery mugs.
Although we experienced menopause in different ways, Mary was also a guide for me as I entered this next phase of womanhood. She nudged me to discuss pre-menopause, hormone replacement therapy, and regular mammograms with my Ob-Gyn. Her hot flashes had become debilitating, while mine were at first horribly annoying but less and less so. I always resisted chemical solutions that helped her, but our conversations about what was new in the field were more important than our differences of opinion.
Her artistry as a potter has become another topic of our conversations, as I have advanced with my music, art, and writing. We discuss her designs, the newest pieces out of the kiln, my song arrangements, a recently published letter to the editor, the latest band, or the draft of a speech I’ll deliver in Albany. I advise her on pricing pieces for annual sales in spring and fall.
When John, my great love, found me in 2008, she rejoiced along with me. They conversed as artists and collaborated on some design ideas. One morning, over coffee at her house, John said, “Mary, I had a dream about some leaves you put on mug handles.” He drew his idea, later sculpting them with clay for Mary to try out. Thus began a series of discussions, as Mary began to know and love John as a friend.
When I had to greet Mary with the news that John’s suffering with a lung ailment led him to choose a dignified death, she fought it, and argued with him as much as she felt she could. It may have been harder for her to accept his end, for she had not had the chance, as I had, to discuss with John his beliefs and approach to the metaphysics of existence. She has mourned him with me: we are sisters in grief.
We are also sisters in caring for our aging mother, Maddy, who in her mid-nineties requires emotional strength and creative problem-solving of her caregivers. We meet each Friday morning to vent, talk out solutions, cry a little, plan, and to take care of each other. We’ve come a long way from the sisters fighting about sharing a bedroom.


May 4, 2016
I recently took up a practice I’ve done before: I use cash for daily expenses, keeping the bills in dedicated envelopes in my purse or desk drawer. At the beginning of each month, I withdraw a set amount from the bank, split among 5, 10, and 20 dollar bills. At home I set out my envelopes. Each one is labelled for a different purpose: groceries, restaurant, gas, hair, and of course, Salvation Army, among others. The monthly amount is also written on the envelope to remind me as I divvy up the cash.
Talking with my mother, I learned that she had used a similar system during her short term as an unmarried working girl in Rochester. I had learned it, though, from an on-line site called Cheapskate. I was newly-divorced in the mid-nineties, slowly getting control of running a household on one income. I did not recall ever creating a budget in the couple of years between grad school and marriage. After the wedding in the late seventies, we were both working and operated as if we had unlimited income. We mistook paying bills for creating and following a budget - a common mistakes of young couples who don’t want to talk about money.
The envelope system works to keep me from spending money that might appear to be discretionary. The process requires, as any budget does, paying close attention to every expense, noting its frequency and adding up a true total for expenditures, whether on a weekly, monthly, semi-annual, annual, or irregular basis. Many finance counselors advise us to keep a log of our spending in order to encourage this sort of careful consideration. As I did so, I realized that much of my spending was with a debit card. Plastic, we all know, hides what we are actually spending, the real value of what is slipping away. Money that will be needed for semi-annual, annual, or seasonal expenses could disappear from a bank account, to be missed when the bill comes due from the fuel oil company or car insurer.
As a widow, similar to my situation as a divorced mother, I know I need to rein in day-to-day spending to match my limited income. Switching to cash makes the limits of my spending power more concrete and visible. I know I will need groceries and gasoline during the week, throughout the month, so I estimate, with evidence, what I will need and put that amount in the appropriate envelope. I also keep limited amounts for restaurants and thrift stores in my purse. In my desk at home, I save up cash for my periodic hair appointments, my seasonal firewood purchase, my dental and vision care. I have no need to continually draw on my bank account using the debit card. My account stays full, with no leaks.
As promised in the Cheapskate documents, the envelope system makes me feel rich, gives me a feeling of abundance. I don’t have to wonder whether I can afford to visit the new thrift shop on Hooper Road: I can see the cash (or lack thereof) in the appropriate envelope. If I don’t have any left for this month, that temporary set-back will only last until the next month - I don’t have to feel forever poor. More importantly, I haven’t cut into the cash I’ll need to fill the furnace with fuel oil in December or to pay the mortgage on the first of the next month and the next and the next.
I also set up many electronic payments to happen automatically, or semi-automatically, if, like the electric bill or cell phone, they vary slightly from month to month. I have greatly reduced my overall monthly expenses by eliminating some of those that used to seem necessary, like cable television or land-line telephone. I have become acutely aware of what comes in and what goes out.

I never want money, love of money, or fear of poverty, to control my life. A simple trick with cash and envelopes empowers me to control money, instead.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Finally, a Poem

I know, I know, it's been a long time since I posted.
A long and snowy winter and then a shorter, milder one.
Enormous life change in between; I'm still recovering.
I try to walk every day now, since the temperatures are rising.
Here's the poem that came to me as I walked on Thursday, the last day of March.
I would describe the style as being like Frost; would you? Frost would, of course, spend a good deal more time on rhyme than I...

I need to feel this wind against my cheek;
I need to press this mud beneath my boot.
This air I breathe brings life to all my cells.
This walk I take is more than just a walk.

This movement of my legs awakens me,
reminds me of what I have left to do.
Great dreams are built on notions less than these.
Thus, I move to re-invent myself.

For there are sonnets still that I must write
and paintings great that I must still produce
and always music filling up the night
And always particles sent out to space.

The universe will bless my every step
and so I must continue to set forth
on paths that may be new or may be old
until, within my heart, the spark grows cold.