When Going On a Trip, Don’t Leave Your Suitcase in the Kitchen

This week has been exceptionally busy and fun, starting with a visit from my dear friend Lorna. We became lifelong friends during the few years when we were teaching partners. Our principal had an idea that we would be good for one another so he told us to go team teach English and Social Studies, with total autonomy and collaboration. When we found ourselves in the same classroom with the same goals, what resulted was an explosion of energy and magic. Not that we were perfect, by a long shot, but soon we could practically finish one another’s sentences, and pick up nuances in order to expand ideas for one another and truly challenge kids. We were teaching with joy, and it was good.  Although those years were short, we constructed a foundation for a forever kind of friendship.

Lorna lives in Prince Edward Island now, and so we cherish any time we can have together – we hadn’t had more than a few hours here and there for a very long time, so this three day chunk of time was heavenly. We spent the first day catching up, and the second day working together on some projects. The third day was just for fun. It was a great formula and it worked perfectly. We stayed up until outrageous hours of the night, woke up before the crack of dawn, and ate ice cream two days in a row – what could be better than that?

At the end of her visit I was leaving to spend a few days with my son and his family in South Dakota. And I do mean at the very end – I would actually be leaving my house before she did!  I tried to be organized and she was really supportive of me getting things done. At the scheduled hour of my departure I told her I was pretty sure I had everything I needed and if I didn’t have it with me I didn’t need it. There was a crazy moment when my husband and I were leaving and the company was staying, but we got into the car and sped off to the airport in the still-dark-and-way-too-early-morning.

A few minutes down the road my phone rang – we had left my suitcase in the kitchen. Lorna had raced up the hill to my stepdaughter’s house next door to use her phone – we no longer have a land line, so she didn’t even have a way to call us right away! We turned the car around and raced home, and there she was with the suitcase at the entrance to our very long driveway, giving us a faster getaway.

I still managed to get to the airport on time. Thank goodness she was there – I might have arrived at the airport early, sans suitcase!

So, I write this post from the kitchen in South Dakota where I have spent many happy hours. Kiersten brought the kids to the airport to pick me up, and there’s nothing better than arriving from a long journey into the arms and smiles of grandchildren!

I’m not sure of what the week will bring, but tomorrow I get to teach a home school art lesson; I’m going to have the kids play with mixing watercolors. They’ll paint donuts on the paper with plain water – lots of water so there will be surface tension, and then we’ll dab bits of colors into the water and see what happens. It will be an adventure, I’m sure. (Thanks to Lorna for the idea, AND for tripping over my suitcase.)

Life is good.

It’s All a Frame of Mind

My lack of blogging in recent weeks and months has weighed heavily on my mind, and I’ve been trying to figure out why it is now so darn hard for me to come up with ideas of what to write about. During the last school year it was practically magical how each week, there would be a great idea, just hanging there in my brain. Now? It’s just not happening that way.

I fear that now, since I spend most of my waking hours at home, my brain isn’t being offered those glimpses into situations and conversations that were the fodder for my blogging. And it is true that my activities now are more inwardly focused, quiet. It’s a big lifestyle change! I have a lot to learn about how to “be” retired, but  I’m not just hanging here like a lump, really! I traveled to Florida a week or so ago to spend a few days with my sister — the 80 degrees and sunshine did much to help my fight against the New Hampshire winter blues that I inevitably feel come February. Next week my dear friend from Canada is coming to visit for a few days, and when she leaves, I’ll fly to South Dakota for a delightful visit with family (and grandchildren)! Wow — I’ve been busier than I realized.

It’s all a frame of mind, I think. During the last year that I taught, I held blogging at the front of my brain, and so going through the days my brain would land on a situation or experience and “bookmark” it as a good topic to write about. I’ve not continued to do that, especially now that I’m concentrating on writing a poem every day, which is a much more introverted and personal mindset.

And so I shall share a recent poem with you. I drove to Massachusetts to visit my brother this past Monday (gosh, do I ever stay home?) and as I returned to New Hampshire it was dusk. Here’s what happened:

Soaring 

This evening as I traveled home,
a living haiku
danced before my eyes. 

There must have been a hundred geese
flying north
                  in a collection of chaos
that included a couple of loose strings,
halves of a V,
each disconnected from its partner.

Then, from the back, one goose flew
fast and strong,
faster and stronger than all the others
until he was at the very front of the pack
with some distance between him and the next in line.

My road curved away from this sight
and I lost the view.
Turned a corner and saw them again:
           Five large formations
       undulating, north bound geese
         round the bright full moon
 Life is good.
photo from flickr.com: sunset geese by Scorpions and Centaurs

It All Comes Back to Poetry

My book is published!

Big news today! I have taken care of all the details and can now let everyone know that my book has been published and is available for purchase! Called Every Story Has a Beginning, Middle and End, the book is a collection of nineteen poems I wrote as a reflection of the nineteen years I taught at the school in my town. You can preview it and order a copy online by clicking on the title link above.

The writing was mostly done over the span of many years, and the topics include poems about students – “War, Personally,” for example, was written about a student who was killed in Afghanistan. There are poems about the things I taught – “Current Events” and “Teaching About Vietnam #1,” poems about the things I learned – “Remembering 9/11”, and poems about the things I hoped for – “I Know What’s Best For You.” Putting the book together was fun although getting the formatting right and getting every page exactly the way I wanted it to look was “a challenge the size of Wisconsin” (quote from a former student’s graduation speech).  It was a great learning experience, I’m happy with the finished product, and I’m already thinking of what I’ll write for my next book.

I do have a young adult novel in my brain that I’m starting to work on; I think it will require a pretty long gestational time, though, since writing narrative is not something I’ve done much. It will be partly historical fiction so I have a lot of research to do. For me, the poetry comes naturally, and I’ve considered writing my novel in verse, but because of the framework/structure I’ve planned I don’t think it would work. I may use verse in the flashbacks, though. Once I get going we’ll see what happens – I’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, my New Year’s Resolution to write a poem every day remains successful! I have even managed consistently to quiet the inner critic’s voice; I don’t expect that every poem will be good, and I know that some are just plain bad. But that’s OK – all of them could become fodder for new poems later on, and I think I’ve written a few that are pretty good already.

One thing that I believe poets need to do is read other people’s poetry, and so this week I’ve read I Shall Not Be Moved by Maya Angelou, and Let Evening Come: Poems by Jane Kenyon, both borrowed from the town library.  I particularly like the title poem in this collection, which you can read here. I also checked out Kenyon’s The Boat of Quiet Hours; her poems truly resonate for me. She lived in a New Hampshire village not far from my own town, and her topics embrace the everydayness of life in New Hampshire. Some titles: “Taking Down the Tree,” “The Blue Bowl,” “Staying At Grandma’s,” and “Finding A Long Gray Hair.”  For me, her work is thought-provoking but not esoteric, inspirational but not preachy.

I have a dear friend, a sheep farmer among other things, who always says that given enough time, every conversation will eventually come back to sheep. I guess I feel that way about poetry. Given enough time . . .

Life is good.

On Being a Life-Long Learner

One thing I enjoy in my new retirement is continuing to serve on the school district’s Professional Development Committee. Representatives on the team include staff from each school in the district, a school board member, assistant superintendant, and one community member. That community seat is now mine! The PDC has two main charges: first, to manage the state’s Department of Education teacher certification process. The other is to plan and facilitate training opportunities; thus, we sponsor a Common Workshop Day each March. All teachers from the whole district are required to attend and each year’s program includes a keynote speaker and a large assortment of workshops usually organized around a theme.

For a number of years now, I have been a presenter at about every workshop session on these days. I find teaching colleagues to be fun, and I’m willing to put myself out there even if I’m not the one with the most expertise – I’m OK with telling people that I’ll find the answer if I don’t already know it. This week we met to finalize all the workshops, and we realized that we were missing some key topics, including writing instruction. I volunteered to rearrange the sessions I had planned in order to take one on in writing instruction.

As I thought about it today, though, I think I will offer up a preamble to my content on that day. In the past year I have learned more about writing than I ever learned while I was employed as a teacher of writing. Writing blog posts on a regular basis has given me far greater understanding of the common advice we teachers hear from published authors consistently: “If you want to be a good writer, then write. Write every day.”  I now understand this on a different level than I knew it before. The best thing teachers can do for their students is to have them write — every day. It doesn’t even have to be “fussy” writing — have them write in journals, with or without topic guidelines. It’s the daily experience that matters. And while students aren’t going to be as self-correcting as I am, they will still be able to recognize improvement, and success leads to more success. At the very least they will be more able to produce more writing more easily, and in less time. I think teachers should write every day, too, but I also know that teachers are already overbooked and overwhelmed — which is why I am only now practicing that song.

Through writing the blogs, I have learned how to be more succinct, how to manipulate sentences to make them better, and how to be better able to recognize and toss out the parts that aren’t good enough, no matter how fond of them I might be.

And since this January 1st, I have learned even more. I made a resolution this year, to write a poem a day, and so far I’ve been successful. Because I love to write poetry, this resolution was not a chore, something I need to do to be a better person. This practice has been fun, and I look forward to it. But what I’m learning is that the actual daily routine has enabled me to be more easily in touch with metaphor and deeper meanings. It doesn’t even take a lot of time – some days it’s as much as a half hour, and other days it’s quite a bit less than that. My goal is not to win any awards with knock-‘em-over, top quality; my goal is to write every day, and sometimes I walk away with a first draft that goes nowhere. But sometimes I walk away with a surprise that makes me smile.

Today was one of those days.

The hardest part of my daily practice is coming up with a topic, so this morning I thought I’d write about how I really need new hair color because my gray roots are way too noticeable. I seldom think of titles first, but when I sat down at the computer the title of this one popped into my head instantly: “My Roots Are Showing.” Suddenly there was a flash of lightning in my head and I knew that the poem would seem to be about my family heritage, and then at the end I would twist it around to be about my hair. I had been looking at old family photos recently, and images of my grandmother and aunts had stuck in my brain. The poem itself still needs some polishing, but that’s OK – just having that great idea made it a good day.

My Roots Are Showing

The days are long; when I get up in the morning
I wonder about all the years gone by
so quickly.
Did my grandmother think this, too
as she went through the work of ages passed?

I look like my grandmother,
and aunts as well, certain characteristics
handed down through all those years.
Pictures declare it.

It shows in my gray
hair, like my grandmother’s before me.
I will fight this passage of time,
cover these roots,
keep myself young.

It’s the daily habit that makes that kind of thing happen. Words are powerful instruments, and the more we practice the better we get. Just write – a page a day of journaling, or whatever comes into mind. That’s the best writing instruction I have to offer. There is a connection between the pen/keyboard and the brain, and regular exercise will keep the writer fit.

Life is good.

Changing Old Habits, Forming New Ones

When I retired in June, we knew that our finances would look a lot different; I was very nervous about the drastic decrease in our cash flow. My husband assured me time and time again that it would all be OK. It turns out that we were both right. We’re doing OK with it, but it is a huge change. One effect of the change is that we have been working on finding ways to reduce costs by changing old habits. I am getting quite proficient at turning off lights, and Doug has fixed the hoses on the washing machine. Somehow they were reversed when the washer was installed, so the cold water settings were actually hot, and hot was cold. Not only were the wash load temperatures reversed from the dial indicators, but every load has been rinsing in totally hot water. No clothes were ruined, but by putting them right I know we’ll save money, and now that I know the selection dial is correct I’m choosing to do most washes in cold water as well. While we were thinking about the hot water, we’ve insulated our hot water heater, too. It’s amazing how all these little things can add up over time, and I’m sure we’ll find more ways to save as time goes forward.

But the biggest change so far is that we have cancelled our cable TV and land line phone service, and it turned out not to be as hard as we expected it to be. We kept the internet service, again reducing costs by buying our own modem to avoid the monthly rental charges. We have cell phones through another company, and had been thinking that the land line was redundant anyway, and we love it now that we don’t get all those political and non-profit fundraising calls. I also apologize – again — to my sister and friends we forgot to notify about letting the phone go! (Oops!)

For years we have had the Comcast “Triple Play” – broadband cable, phone and internet. We’re not big TV watchers; it’s mostly a habit. Doug would usually turn the TV on around dinner time, and would start to watch a show, lose interest, and go off to another room and do something else; I could easily do without TV at all, but occasionally I become hooked on a program. After seeing our Comcast bill increase by about $10 a month over the last few months due to various changes in the bundle discounts, we decided the number had crossed the line from reasonable to ridiculous, and we began to look at other options.

After several phone calls to Comcast it was clear there was not much we could do to reduce the bill by more than a few dollars – not an acceptable solution. When everything is bundled, it seems the prices of the individual services are mysterious and exceedingly expensive. So, we terminated our cable TV and phone, saving us a whopping $100 a month.

We do enjoy watching some TV, though, and we bought a new TV just a year ago, so our solution was to purchase a Mac mini computer, which comes “a la carte” with no peripherals (meaning no monitor, keyboard or mouse). We hooked it up to our TV, and now we can watch our favorite TV shows through the computer. We already had an extra wireless mouse and we bought a wireless keyboard, so we can control the TV from our seats in the living room.  The investment in the mini computer will pay for itself in about six months.

I like it a lot. All of the networks provide programming of the shows we want to watch, so we’re really not missing anything, and we can watch at our convenience rather than scheduled program times. The biggest change is in how we watch the news. There are no streaming live news programs available – at least I haven’t found any yet. Instead of a news program, we scan the headlines and then select which stories we wish to know more about and either read it on the screen or click on the story’s video. The good part about being selective in the news stories we watch is that Doug doesn’t become furious at the political stuff that drives him crazy! It is still rather awkward for us to view the news this way, but it’s getting easier.

The best thing of all, though, was a complete surprise. We now spend time together reading! I have always been an avid reader, but Doug wasn’t. Over our years together, he gradually started reading when we traveled, and since some of our trips have been long, he has read quite a few good books. He has now decided that reading is a good thing!  With TV not quite so easy anymore, even though it’s there and sometimes we do choose to watch, we mostly will sit in the living room and talk and read. I recently finished reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing, and now Doug has started it. What? We’re reading the same books and talking about them? I think I died and went to heaven.

Life is good!

A Christmas Gift, Three Years in the Making

The work area of my new space -- I love it.

I am the kind of person who gets a lot of ideas, many of which are grandiose and crazy – at least, that’s what my husband thinks. He cringes when he hears me say, “I have an idea . . .” because he knows it means he is going to have to build something or tear something apart to transform it into something else. He’s really very good natured about it all, though.

We moved into our present home in 2003; it’s very small, and I would do my school work at the kitchen table – grading student work, lesson planning, etc. Three years ago he agreed to my biggest idea yet: we could winterize our seldom-used one season porch and make it into an office for me. It’s a 12 x 12 foot space – plenty of room, with windows overlooking the yard and some of our garden areas. He got to work right away, replacing the old broken windows with new ones, and installing a new entry door to replace the screen door, since this would be the new entrance to our home.

That’s when we ran into trouble. In the winter, when deep snow covered the roof, the door wouldn’t open because the roof would sag. Work stopped while we figured out how to fix it in a way that would not only allow the door to open, but would also make the roof safe. The problem was compounded by the fact that the rafters also interfered with the door opening even when there was no snow. My husband is a very handy guy, but this problem was tough; he’s also not one to ask for help, so time passed and the cobwebs started to grow in the corners.

I tried to remain patient, but it was tough; I needed a work space! At one point, in frustration, I moved the kitchen table out of the house, bought a couple of two-drawer file cabinets and a ready-made countertop and turned the kitchen into a makeshift office. We ate in the living room. Still no solution to the door problem.

Last June, this is what it looked like! Yikes!

Then, a year ago, I visited my sister in Florida and discovered that she had a front door that opened to the outside. Aha!

We special ordered a new door, Doug was able to reinforce the roof fairly easily, and work (sort of) began again. Winter arrived, and it was just not possible to work out on the porch in the freezing cold.

By the time the ground thawed and the thermometer rose, all energy was focused on my retirement, scheduled for the end of the school year in June. The week I was officially retired, we started in on the renovations with new vigor. I cut and placed insulation in the walls – both the foam core and batts. Doug focused on the carpentry, putting up the bead board walls, bookshelves, and window trim. I painted everything as he worked.  Then we had another interruption: our vacation, our “Great Adventure” – the cross country journey we had been planning for nearly two years as the celebration of my retirement. We left the porch as neat as we could get it, and set out on what turned out to be a true great adventure lasting nearly three months.

We arrived home in October, and thankfully the weather remained warm enough that we could still work on the porch/office project. The climax of the work took place over a few days when Doug ventured up to the roof and removed the metal roofing, leaving the porch open to the sky. He placed foam core insulation which I had cut to size into the rafters, and batts on top of that. It was much easier to do this from the top down rather than struggling from the bottom up for several reasons. There was no ceiling, only rafters and metal roofing, and dripping condensation was a significant problem when it rained. We didn’t want to install the new ceiling before the insulation went in, and we had to fix the whole problem of moisture getting in there and ruining the new construction. Once the insulation was in place, new plywood went down, a layer of plastic and the metal roofing, which I had pressure washed. Fortunately we had no rain for the duration of that work!

Next , back inside now, the new ceiling went up, and the details of caulking, trim work, sanding, and painting moved the project forward.  We finished the room just in time for the Christmas tree to go up, and for the holiday snow village to be displayed in the curio cabinet, now out of the barn for the first time since 2003.

It was the best Christmas gift ever – my very own creative space. Office, art studio, reading room, library, whatever it might be called.

Life is good. Very good.

Family: It Matters

This may have been my first family reunion -- I was not even two yet!

I’m feeling pretty exhausted as I write this; my Aunt Priscilla passed away this week, and my husband and I made two round trips to Massachusetts in 26 hours in order to participate in the calling hours and services. As sad as it always is when someone we love dies, it’s also great to see family we haven’t seen in a long time; thus, it was a day of both tears and laughter.

Aunt Priscilla had been married to my Uncle Warren for sixty-six years, and I learned this morning that they met in kindergarten! They were married in the same church where the funeral was held, living always in the same community where my own dad was raised. I have seen photos of that wedding – my dad was in the bridal party, and it must have been stunning; Aunt Priscilla was truly beautiful. They were married in 1945, when Uncle Warren returned from the war.

As the story was told to me years ago, Uncle Warren turned 21 on the day Pearl Harbor was bombed (December 7, 1941) and he enlisted in the Marines the very next day, serving on a battleship in the South Pacific during the war. My dad was the oldest in the family and he enlisted, too, and was accepted into the Army’s 10th Mountain Division. Dad apparently lied about his age because he was too old for the special forces — he would have been 34 on Pearl Harbor day, but he did it, serving in the Po Valley in Italy until he was injured and sent home. It matters — I’m very proud of both my dad and my uncle; a number of years ago I began researching the details of my dad’s service. He died in 1977, before I ever had a chance to find out a lot of things about him. I learned a few things from the military records, and then I asked Uncle Warren if he could add anything that he might remember. I was shocked when he told me, “You know, Marilyn, I’ve learned more from you about what he did during the war than I ever knew before. We never talked about it.”

My uncle and my dad – and the majority of other Shaw relatives – are introverts, and just don’t talk about themselves. How sad that so many of their stories have remained untold. We do have some stories preserved, though.

I love this photo of my grandparents.

My grandfather wrote his autobiography and my cousin Val made sure to give copies to those of us who wanted them – you bet I was first in line for that! And there are many old family photos – I have a photo from my grandparents’ wedding at the start of the 20th century, and even photos of my great grandparents back into the 19th century. It matters.

Today my cousin Bruce had his camera with him, and that made me chuckle. A keen interest in photography seems to be a family trait; my dad always had a camera nearby and as much as I tried to ignore it when I was growing up, his slides have been a gift I appreciate more and more as the years go by. I, too, have a camera with me everywhere I go.

I got to see several cousins at this family gathering, and I always love that; my dad’s side of the family has always been special to me. I cherish many wonderful memories of family events, especially all those cook-outs in the pine grove at our grandparents’ home. I didn’t know it when I was a child, but all those outings, picnics, sleepovers, birthday parties and Thanksgivings gave me a rock solid love and appreciation of family that have carried me throughout my whole life. I’ve always thought of “us cousins” as the third, and youngest, generation that began with our grandparents. Inside my own head I think of all those family dinners when our children’s table held maybe six or eight or more of us, and we giggled and teased and had so much fun — that’s where I still fit. That’s my first identity and it holds a place in my brain where all my values and virtues and rules of the road originate.

Cousins: Douglas, Dexter, and me, in 1953 in front of Grampy's garden

The Shaw family was large – my dad was the oldest of eight, and I was one of many cousins, too many to count, even, and most of them were right around my own age: Bruce and Dexter and Douglas and Monica and Claire and Caryl and Dennis, and others. As we all grew up and had our own families, and our parents aged and passed away, we have not remained as connected as we used to be. I will always be sad that my own children never got to have the kinds of “big family” memories that I treasure, but I will also remain ever thankful that I am part of this clan, as are my own children and grandchildren, even if they don’t have those memories. I try to tell the stories as often as I can; I, too, am an introvert, but I understand that those strong threads of family can make a difference, holding us tight and binding us together even when geography and time get in the way. It matters.

The pastor of the church, in his remarks about Aunt Priscilla this morning, told us things about her that I never knew, and it all matters. Rev. Starr also gave a reading at the cemetery that I loved, and he kindly emailed me a copy, which I copy for you here. I tried to find out who wrote it, and it is apparently not certain but often attributed to Henry Van Dyke.

“I am standing upon the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until, at last, she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.  Then someone at my side says:  ‘There, she is gone.’ Gone where? Gone from my sight.  But that is all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side.  And she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port. Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says:  ‘There, she is gone’ there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout:  ‘Here she comes!’  And that is dying.”

It was a metaphor that truly resonated with me, since I grew up in the town where my mother also grew up, on the ocean. Her father, my grandfather, was a fisherman, sailing out over that horizon on a regular basis. It matters.

Life is good.