When Travel Changes Who You Are

Some trips you take; others take you

Flying over the snowy mountains of Iran, photo cred: Maureen Morrissey

Some trips you take are just for fun: drinks on the beach and wonderful dinners and runs on the boardwalk and shopping.

You know, true R & R.

Some trips take you to visit family or dear friends you think of as family. These are so special it’s hard to put them into words. They add to your bank of spirit points that can often be depleted by daily life.

And some trips help you evolve as a human being.

They take you out of your comfort zone, change your worldview, and open your eyes to cultural understandings and ways of life you didn’t really know went on as your own days went on.

They enrich your soul and your palate and teach you history and geography you either didn’t learn in school or forgot you learned. They remind you of just how much you don’t know what you don’t know.

I just returned from one of those.

I took a plane ride from New York that lasted eighteen hours and landed me on the exact opposite side of the planet. I crossed the international time zone, which put me thirteen hours ahead of my loved ones; half a day into the future from my real life. A true time warp, like Rod Serling, should have been narrating.

You’re traveling through another dimension — a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s a signpost up ahead: your next stop: Singapore!”

I’m not a fan of long rambling accounts of every meal and every site visited so I won’t bore you with that. What I really want to convey is my impression of all that; the thoughts that will keep me up at night for weeks as I assimilate what I just lived through into my perspective on life going forward.

I got some good souvenirs, mainly spices and poop coffee (it’s a real thing- look it up); but the most lasting souvenirs can’t be piled on a counter for a photo. They’re safely ensconced in my brain, busy latching on to existing schema and creating new ones.

The antithesis of atrophy that aging can cause, new experiences keep my brain young; and this trip may have literally taken years off my life. In a good way.

Souvenirs you can, in fact, pile on a counter for a photo. cred: Maureen Morrissey

I guess I’ll begin with the geography and history and get it out of the way. Singapore is only a few hours by plane northwest of Australia. It’s an island country off the southern tip of mainland Asia; a former British colony only fifty-eight years independent from Malaysia.

Its population is a hub of Asian diversity, with neighborhoods such as Arab Town and Little India and Chinatown, filled with Buddhist and Hindu temples and mosques, and synagogues, which are surrounded by high concrete walls and intense security.

All within walking distance of the very impressive architecture of the commercial downtown and the harbor lined with hundreds of shipping barges.

It’s the cleanest place I’ve ever visited, and you understand why when you see constant signage admonishing you to clean up after yourself, threatening fines if you don’t return your tray to the bin after eating at one of the mall food courts.

It’s also one of the safest places I have ever traveled.

I never felt the slightest concern about my purse or my personal safety at any time of day or night. And the service everywhere we went was outstanding, from the museum ticket counters to the tiniest stores; all without tips!

We walked for miles. My travel companions were as enthusiastic as I was to see and experience everything we could possibly see and experience in the five days we would spend in the country.

The afternoons were sweltering, so we learned to use the underground network of interconnected malls when we needed some shade and AC. But for the most part, in moving from one site on our list to the next, we wandered.

Wandering is underrated.

When you roam around on your way somewhere, you get to see a place like a native instead of a tourist. It’s the real stuff of the lives of locals that happens in between the museums and light shows and Singapore Slings and Gardens by the Bay.

We stopped in a shopping mall and hawkers’ market where the residents of the area have lunch with work colleagues and shop for wedding dresses. We wound up eating dinner one night in a hole-in-the-wall Indonesian kitchen with four tables, on a narrow back street where the crowd was not, shall we say, as obviously American as we were.

We got to be temporary insiders in a story not our own. And if you’re open to it, that changes you.

We thought we were being very careful not to drink the water or eat raw vegetables, we really did. But the revenge got most of us anyway. I feel like it’s a rite of passage when you go somewhere that we Westerners consider exotic. It was worth every…well, I’ll leave that to your imagination.

In Singapore, we were very, very busy, stomach issues notwithstanding.

A favorite experience was the Night Safari, a brilliant organization of zoo animals by sleep habits. Basically, they put all the nocturnal animals in a separate location only open at night.

I love zoos and have been to many, all over the world. But seriously, after that experience, my takeaway is — why in the world would you not do it that way?

In the country of Singapore, we did a lot, wearing ourselves out to the point where we fell into bed hard every night, too tired to even process the day’s experiences before rising to start again the next morning. But we didn’t really do anything crazy or too daring or even super unique.

That, we saved for Bali.

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Novel in the Time of Covid-19

I did it! I pulled the trigger and published a novel. 

The story has been inside me for a very long time. And I have known, for as long, that I needed mind space and time to put it down and get it ready to share with you and the rest of the world.  This is why I began the book the very day after my official last day of teaching (that is a whole other post that I will definitely be writing soon). I think maybe all of the writing that I have done through the years, and there has been a lot of it (including this blog), has been preparing me to sit down and focus on this book.  This may explain how, along with dedicating many uninterrupted hours everyday, I was able to finish the first draft in just a few months.

The book tells a story that somewhat mimics my own life, but not completely. It is highly fictionalized.  More exactly, it explores my wonder and astonishment that I am here at all.  As I grow older, I am developing a new perspective on history, on family, on paths chosen or not chosen, on strength of character and the capacity to be in charge of your own life.  Along with that, and pondering on the family backgrounds of many people in my personal sphere, I have come to have a stunned awareness of how connected to our pasts we are; but also how our lives will influence the next generations that we help create.

In this country, the only one I can comfortably speak to, we all have threads that lead back to somewhere else (yes, even native peoples have “immigration” stories if you go back far enough; and how fascinating!). If you find and follow them to today, you will be struck, as I am, by the sweet or horrible or dull or unbelievable things that happened to our ancestors and influenced their lives’ paths.  The African American woman who got an advanced degree in 1915 and her daughter who followed in her footsteps twenty years later; the eleven year old who came from Italy on a ship through Ellis Island alone, leaving his mother behind;  the five year old who walked with her family from El Salvador to the United States border, stepping over dead bodies and collecting coins from each country on the way; all of these are actual stories in the families of people I know personally. I have encouraged them to write these stories down, even if only for their children and grandchildren to have that personal connection to the past. 

I, on the other hand, chose to write a fiction novel and shout it to the world. If you know me, you will not at all be surprised about this.  Now I am dedicating some time to get the book into as many hands as possible. It is my goal to have people (hopefully) enjoy the stories in it; but my other goal is to get readers to think more deeply about their own “threads” and possibly write them, as well.  I would love to read them!

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Innocence Lost, Strength Found

The morning news is bad. It feeds the fear that makes me dread leaving home, on the rare occasion I am forced to go to a store to get some needed item.  I have an industrial sized can of Lysol in the cupholder of my car, and I’m not afraid to use it.

It takes me way back to my childhood, which is when I first became a news junky.  One of my earliest and strongest memories is falling asleep listening to CBS radio call the draft numbers every night, waiting for those that would demand my cousin, ten years older than me, take up arms and head to Vietnam.  Those same nights, before the numbers droned me to sleep, I would get out of bed and crack my bedroom door open just enough to watch the news, with its vivid and horrifying newsreels (maybe more so because they were in black and white) of the war in real-time.

It seems that, of late, nearly every single person I know, including all of my fourth-grade students, has joined the news junky set during this latest vivid and horrifying time.

Ugliness assaults us every time we hit the power button.  There is no escape- it’s on your phone, it’s on your laptop, it’s on your TV. “Breaking News” is constant, featuring politicians, police chiefs, scientists, doctors and big business men (I have yet to see any female CEO’s asked to comment) who solemnly and grimly state the statistics of the hour.  And it’s all bad. The amazing acts of kindness and heroism we see occasionally do not begin to soften the horror.

As I read people’s reactions on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, as I FaceTime friends and family, as I field emails and text messages from students, their parents and my colleagues, I feel a growing sense of the effect this worldwide virus is having on everyone.  It appears that this event has, in very short time, permanently changed how many of us see the world and our role in it.  A generation of human beings are suddenly feeling lost. The trajectories their lives were on, created either by intense planning or lack thereof, have been suddenly derailed by forces outside their control.

It is the first time since September 11, 2001, that the world is rocked.  And one major difference is that 9/11 occurred in one corner of the planet, while this virus is everywhere.  This is our World War II, our Great Depression, our meteor that blocked out the sun.  For the first time, many of us realize that the fabric of our lives can, in a flash so fast it is almost too hard to wrap your head around, just rip.  Into shreds.  The fact that no one can tell when we will come through to the other side (for those of us fortunate enough to do so) makes it that much more unsettling.

A few brave souls are creating videos with reworked song lyrics to lighten the mood.  Memes that show just how crazy-pants everyone is feeling are all over the internet, and many do produce a small chuckle which escapes us in spite of ourselves.  We cling to the connections we have in our lives on screens.  We zoom birthday parties and exercise classes, FaceTime happy hours and grandchildren, and WhatsApp our friends and relatives in far-off places. Even those of us who enjoy our own company are missing the face-to-face interactions that are currently not an option.  We are socially isolated while enduring this collective nightmare; and that is challenging for a species that thrives on the give-and-take that helps each of us define ourselves.

I keep hearing the phrase “the new normal” and it is making me feel some aggravation.  This is a temporary state of affairs.  The true new normal will be what people make of it once this is over.  When we can come blinking and blinded out of the darkness and back into the light of day, what will we do?  Can some of us just get back on our train and continue as if not much happened?  Will many of us, during this unexpected recess from our lives, take time to reassess our values, our career paths, our family time? Will broken and damaged relationships be repaired upon the realization that we may not, in fact, have all the time in the world to let it happen eventually or not at all?  Time will tell.

It is my hope (and my unwavering, although at times unjustified, belief) that we will emerge from this kinder, gentler, stronger and more resilient.  Many people have not been tested in any truly significant, deep and profound way before.  Here’s hoping that our wounds heal, our scars eventually fade, and we take away important, inspirational lessons to heart.

All I can say is: hang in there, people.  This too shall pass.  I cannot wait to see you, and give you a hug!

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Time Keeps on Slipping, Slipping, Slipping into the Future….

Today is August 1st, 2014. Seven months of this year are over; meaning that just as quickly as those disappeared into the annals of history, the next five will follow and it will be 2015 when I blink.  Then it will be summer 2015 and then 2016 will be here. And so on.  Many of us middle-agers shake our heads and wonder if time seems to be going faster because each year is a smaller percentage of our time on this planet (1/53 is a LOT smaller than 1/20 after all).  I’m not sure that fact explains the feeling that the years are passing faster than you can rip off a calendar page (for those of you not in middle age, a “calendar” used to be made of paper bound together with a pretty photo for each month and it hung on the wall.  We used to actually either rip off each month or fold it over to expose the next one.  Now it’s just an ancient and quaint metaphor…oh never mind).   The reason I am not sure that it has to do with mathematical explanations is the fact that even my kindergartners despair at how fast the school year goes.  When I was five, I was not aware of things like time- each school day dragged on forever, but so did each glorious day of summer. It is a bit astounding to me that someone who has only been on this planet for a few years can sense time slipping away and moan about it.

The thing is, when I look back over these past few months that I have not sat down to write a blog entry, a LOT has happened in my personal life and in the lives of those I love.   We hosted a wedding celebration for our daughter and son-in-law; our other daughter completed year one of an incredible and incredibly challenging Master’s degree in Marine Biology; our son moved halfway across the country; our fifth grade ballroom dance team took first place in New York City’s Color of the Rainbow competition; we bought a new property as an investment and completed renovations on our current project; my first summer school job in twenty seven years is almost over; I had a wonderful long weekend visit with an “old” friend and two of her children; and lots of day trips and nights out.  My calendar (the one on my iphone- I am not a complete Bohemian) is full of those little grey dots that mean I have been very, very busy.

I have to kvell a bit about the wedding so forgive a proud mother, please.  Our backyard, which was transformed in one month from a muddy, recently-frozen mess into a serene and beautiful showcase by my amazing hubby and his crews, made a gorgeous flower-filled backdrop for the one hundred close friends and family who made the trek from all over the county and from as far away as Spain to witness and celebrate the union of two very loving and loved young people.  It was a glorious day, with rain falling all around our town but never daring to dampen our doorstep and providing us with a brilliant sunset as we ate, danced and drank our way through the night.   In short, it was perfect. Sigh.  I will admit to being a bit proud of myself for helping to put this event together.  Having it at our home meant my daughter and I had to put all the pieces together: caterer, DJ, jazz band for the cocktail hour and ceremony; drinks (I made mimosas all day long for the bridesmaids as they prepared, and ten gallons of sangria for the evening), tent rental.  I can’t even remember anymore all that we put into this; hubby and the other two kids and their significant ones also ran around like headless chickens in the hours before it all began to put the finishing touches together.  It was certainly worth it, as everyone seemed to enjoy the night.  As usual, hubby and I along with our college friends who traveled long to get here to celebrate the first wedding among our ten kids, closed down the night with memories and laughs as the sun came up.  What a good time.  Okay, kvelling over.

The summer is zooming by.  In just two weeks, I will be heading to Spain for an amazing nearly three-week journey.  I will meet another old friend and do a road trip around the northwest part of the country, then meet my daughter in Madrid and trip around for a few days before picking up hubby at the airport in Sevilla.  We plan to explore Portugal and enjoy the south of Spain where the kids live now.  I promise some cool photos and stories after the fact…and four days after we return, a new school year begins- my thirty second year in the classroom, adding approximately twenty more kiddies to the hundreds who have passed through my door.

Yep, time is slipping away at a rapid and scary pace.  But each day is a new adventure, an open door with the promise of new possibilities, when even mundane activities or quiet times add to the list of things I ponder as I drift off to sleep each night.   Maybe the truth is that the years seem to be passing so quickly because I am so busy.  I don’t have time to think about that…on to the next thing!

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It’s an EduKation

You are in a room full of five-year-olds (no this is not a nightmare, it’s my life).  Many of them are engaged in an activity or sitting and listening to you read or generally being good little kids.  Suddenly a loud noise gets your attention and you look up and, oh no, it’s that same kid again, grabbing a pencil out of someone’s hand and throwing it another kid who gets up and slugs the thrower and the friend of the kid who got hit jumps up and runs across the room and pushes the thrower and the friends of the thrower fall out of their chairs so they can get to the other kids and start hitting and…once again, welcome to life in kindergarten. 

Here’s my definition of average kindergartners:  emotional, self-centered and very short human beings anxious to please the adults they  crave love and attention from while trying to figure out what the heck is going on.  For the most part, they are schizophrenic (not in the medical sense) as they swing from sweet and cooperative to a crying mass of quivering inconsolable jelly and back with no obvious explanation.  Hmmm, sounds like me going through menopause.  All they really want is reassurance that you will keep them safe as they stretch and grow and change and experiment and discover.  After all, you are the big one in the room, designed to hold at bay all the monsters hiding in the closet and hold their hands when they need it or give them a solid shove into the next phase when you think they can take it (and hand out tissues and hugs when you’re wrong). 

But there really is no such thing as an average kindergartner and it is really an academic exercise to even describe this mythical child.  After all, the definition of average is to take the extremes, add them together, divide by the number of extremes and voilá, that’s your average.  And while kids at the extreme end of nuts as described above do exist, I firmly believe there is no such thing as a bad five-year-old.  If they act like whirling dervishes it is because they have not yet learned about balance, about socially acceptable behavior, about consequences and rewards for choices.  That may be the most important part of my job as a teacher of newbies to the public school system. And before I continue on this topic, to all of the first grade teachers and above: you are welcome.  By the time they get to you, I have taken some pretty raw material and helped shape it into a student.  Each year, the group dynamics are so different, and each year the shift happens at different times; but each year it does happen. It’s magical too.  One day I am ready to cry (again) because a bunch of tiny people are beating the stuffing out of this old lady’s nerves and then suddenly BAM the kid you thought would never come around clings to your leg at dismissal whining that he is not ready to go home and wants to do more learning.  Oh happy day and victory dance!

But what I really want to write about and share today is a phenomena that goes on in any large group of children when there is only one adult to guide them- the old adage that says the squeaky wheel gets the grease.  In the classroom, that means that the loud, noisy, obnoxious, rude, out-of-control children hear their names called constantly through the day, get most of the teacher’s time and attention, and wind up taking up a lot of energy from the adult that is supposed to help all of the children in the room.  As much as we fight it, we teachers are human and it is really a struggle to give more attention to the well-behaved kids who are following the teacher’s directions, who are getting along and being kind and sharing, who are showing a growing understanding of balance, socially acceptable behavior and rewards and consequences for choices.  Before you judge us (or at least me), spend a week in a classroom by yourself and then let me know how that goes…the truth is the “good” kids do not get told enough how good they are, no matter how I try. 

When we are lined up in the hallway walking to the gym, the majority of the class is silent, in their line spots and walking perfectly.  At the back of the line, three kids are ripping projects off of the wall and wrestling with each other and running into the open doors of classrooms to yell hi to their siblings.  I say, “I love the way everyone at the front of the line is being respectful of the other learners in the building.” But as I say it, I am glaring at the misbehaving kids and calling their names.  So who really gets my attention??  What I have learned to do and strive to do is look each of those “good” kids in the eye and say, “Johnny, you are doing such a good job walking silently down the hall, thank you. So are you, Sarah, Jazmin, Rhia, Marcos, etc. It is so great that you care about the other kids and teachers enough to let them learn and teach.”  What that does is reward the well-behaved children with eye-contact and a compliment; at the same time those who are going wild usually fall in line so I can praise them too.  This reminds me how important my words and body language are; those banshees who are acting out are highly aware of me while they are doing it. When it doesn’t work to get me to look at them and call out their names, they do what does work.  If that sounds easy-peasy, again try it before you judge me.

I have four students who are on “behavior charts.” What this means is that I am trying desperately to get them to buy into following school rules to make our classroom run more smoothly so I can actually teach and set up the environment to foster learning.  I choose one specific, measurable and observable rule and write it on a piece of paper: “Says kind words to others” or “Follows the teacher’s directions.” Every hour, I write a smiley or sad face on the paper and have a quick chat with the child. At the end of the day the paper goes home to the parents, who hopefully reward or punish accordingly. I honestly had no thought as to how this appeared to the other children until one day when one of them told me he wanted a behavior chart too.  I paused and shoved back the words on my tongue (this is for the kids who still don’t know how to behave well like you do) and went ahead and gave him one.  He, of course, received all smiley faces that day and I got pretty nervous that now I would be hearing requests from the other kids and would have to spend all day making smiley faces.  Thank goodness that did not happen, and I called his mother that evening to tell her that he was not really on a “behavior modification” program and we had a good laugh together. 

As I said before, each year is very different, and this year is really different. It may or may not have much to do with the fact that I have twelve boys and six girls in my class (I am lucky to have only 18 students as compared to other kindergarten teachers who deal with thirty), and that the energy level in my room could light a small city.  But I find this year to be the second most challenging class in my thirty-one years in the classroom.  That is saying a lot.  So I needed to come up with a way to reward those little ones, who in spite of their amazing ability to behave in the midst of the daily maelstrom, were getting overlooked often.   I made a certificate called, “A Job Well Done.”  And on it I wrote an original, heartfelt poem:

Sometimes I forget to say

You do a good job every day!

I spend a lot of time in school,

Reminding kids to follow rules.

You always know just what to do,

And I am very proud of you!

I put each child’s photograph in the middle of a blue ribbon, and printed up the certificates. I was actually pleasantly surprised that I had to print up eight- I had thought it would only be two or three.  I called each child over during center time and showed each one the certificate, read it to her or him and had a little chat.  I wound up getting a bit choked up as I did this- the smile on each face was ear-to-ear, and there was more than one jumping up and down with excitement and happiness: I can’t wait to show my mom and dad! It also surprised me that the kids who led me to this fairly desperate point did not understand why they were not receiving one- how could they be so clueless at this point in the year??  And I thought I understood kids, jeez.

All in all, I am having a great school year.  Even the most draining kids are really adorable and they really do want to please, and I just have to find the key to helping them develop into the professional students they will need to be in order to thrive for at least the next ten years in school.  It’s just part of the fun and games in kindergarten.

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It’s For the Birds!

What is it about watching the winged flight of a red-tailed hawk circling the tree line or a pelican folding its wings and bucket-beak, and diving into the ocean?  Why can I sit quietly and watch the myriad birds communing at my backyard feeder when I should be doing something else,  or wait like a five-year-old on Christmas for the first hummingbird sighting of Spring?

I love animals, and always have; I used to bring cats home off of the street on a regular basis (I named them all Frisky, thanks to good commercial advertising and the fact that I watched waaaay too much television back in the 70’s) and have raised gerbils, hamsters, mice, dogs, fish, turtles and ferrets through my life.  When Hubby and I travel to new places, we really enjoy visiting zoos to see what exotic animals they host (I have a bit of a fixation on giraffes for some reason).  And how awesome is snorkeling- a peek into a world filled with mysterious, incredible, colorful and slightly scary living things?!   Still there is something so special, so magical to me about birds.

I think part of the connection with birds is an emotional one.  They can fly. That is huge.  They soar above the world looking down and choosing where and when to swoop in and check things out. They seem so free and freewheeling.  I can relate- as tied as I am to family and to my beloved teaching, I maintain an independence much like a bird does.

There are lots of birds who barely fly, or look hilariously funny flying (have you ever seen a turkey pulling itself painfully through the air a mere six feet above the ground?   Comical!), and I like those too, but the flying thing…well what could be better?  It’s probably why I used to think about getting a pilot’s license (which could still happen, even though my claustrophobic hubby would never step foot in a tiny plane with his wife at the steering wheel…).

I also find a connection to different types of birds.  The kind of bird I relate to has changed through the stages of my life, and this fact has helped me reflect on who I am, where I came from and where I find myself these days.

When I was a precocious, cussedly independent teenager dealing with a crumbling home life, I was a seagull- a scavenging, rough, tough and fiercely self-preserving type.  Seagulls get what they need, whether it is winter or summer, either by digging repeatedly in the sand or by snatching it from some unsuspecting person’s hand or by ripping open a beach bag left unattended.  They are hard to pin down, loud and proud of their winged-rat selves, stubborn and even a bit mean.  During those years of my life, I could totally relate to that.  I mean, I wasn’t all Fagan’s gang or anything, but I certainly knew how to take care of myself.

golden gate bridge seagulls bay ocean clouds snow day seagull 2 jan 3 seagull falls 2 seagull catches a fish

Now I am more of a hummingbird: quick-moving, voracious, feisty, a traveler of incredibly long distances, but dependent on a source of nourishment.  My family and my job feed me as I wing through my days.  Anyone who knows me knows to feed me when I am hungry or get out of the way; I loved to travel and explore far-off locations; and fiesty?  Yeah, no doubt about that.  And even though I have grown into a new species, the seagull is still there underneath as well.

hummingbird resting tropical plant hummingbird feeder 1

I also love the pure and simple beauty of the color patterns of male birds.  Their plumage and their proud  splendor is meant to attract female birds; but they also attract this female photographer.  Right now as it blizzards outside my window in nearly white-out conditions, I can’t wait to suit up and take my camera out and stalk the bird feeder. I just saw some blue birds I have never seen at the feeder before and I hope they stick around for a few hours.  Taking photos of birds teaches me patience, steadiness, and preparedness; all the while bringing me such surprise, joy and wonder.  I’m an avian voyeur.bird 2 bird feeder snow storm birds blizzard 5 black swan bronx zoo 25 giant woodpecker 5 hawk wash sq park 2 owl winter birds   birds blizzard 3 for contest

I love cats, dogs, giraffes, elephants, sea lions, ferrets, deer and kangaroos.  I love to watch them move, their sleek muscular frames beneath their gorgeous coats are amazing feats of nature.  But above all of them, literally and figuratively, rise the birds. The fact that scientists firmly believe they are descendents of dinosaurs just makes the cool factor leap into infinity.   The fact that there are over ten thousand species of birds in the world makes me want to travel with my camera more than ever.   Some say, in order to enjoy your life more, stop and smell the roses. I say, stop and watch the birds.

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This morning when I woke up at five, an hour before the alarm was supposed to go off, my brain was already going a million miles an hour. This happens to me fairly often, and it occurs at different times of the day and night. 

Sometimes it will happen when I am driving in my car.  I openly admit, and only because it is not illegal and would be difficult to prove if it were, that my daily twenty-five mile commute is done by robo-me.  What I mean is that I get in my car, pull out of the driveway, go deep into my head and come to as I’m getting off of the highway thirty minutes later two blocks from work.  During that thought-coma, I ponder all of the things that worry me or that I want to change, or I rehash conversations and events that happened recently, or I imagine conversations that I should have had or wish I had had.  It’s a little scary when I realize I have arrived and have no recall of actually making the drive.  I always say a little prayer of thanks to the gods of auto-pilot and swear I will never do it again.

Often this happens when I am trying to fall asleep late at night, with the six a.m. alarm looming.  Just knowing that can make it even worse, since I then get frantic as my brain won’t shut off and the hours of sleep slip away.  Occasionally, and this is the worst, my brain will wake me up in the middle of the night and not shut off.  I know that at 2 a.m. there is nothing I can do to solve problems, talk to people, complete tasks; but it doesn’t stop those worries from chasing themselves around like my two cats are doing right now.   When this happens, I wind up think-yelling at myself: STOPPPPP, STOPPPP, SLEEEEEP, SLEEEEP…and after a while I can usually doze off again.

I have decided that these thoughts are actually fixations. This is me obsessing over the little things in my life that I cannot contemplate while actually living my life;  and so they wait on the sidelines not too patiently shoving each other to get to the front of the line and as soon as I lie down or sit down for a quiet moment, BAM!  The party starts.  Idle hands are the devils’ work?  I think this is a cute phrase that means downtime is obsession time.  Do I keep myself so busy on purpose, unconsciously so I do not have time or energy to spend on thinking?  I do not like the idea of that- the idea that I am running from my thoughts and worries by constantly doing.  I prefer the mantra I will sleep when I’m dead to explain how I can still go go go at my age without winding up in a mental institution. 

I just wish there were more hours in the day, so I could do everything I want to do and still have lots of downtime to think about it all.  Hmm, let me ponder that….

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The Perfect Dress

I’m on a mission.  Now, for some of you this may be very familiar territory- you have an event/party/special evening and you want a new and fun dress to wear.  You love it and you live for it and you use phrases like “shop ‘til you drop” or “chaaaarge” or “retail therapy” with familiarity and ease.  I have to be honest: I did not embrace shopping or even wearing  nice clothes until just a few years ago, and the fact that I now want a stunning Mother-of-the-Bride dress that will look good with my pale coloring, fit my body, not look too young or too frumpy, have the right amount of special details and not offend the color of the rest of the bridal party’s dresses, I’m in a bit of a tizzy.

Until relatively recently, clothes were just not a priority for me.  Growing up in the 70’s, it was all about patched or hole-y jeans, over-sized men’s shirts or tank tops, feathered earrings and sneakers.  When I went away to college, I continued that trend because I was used to it. There was also no money for buying duds, and my friends were not that into it either, so no problem.  Even as a teacher, I did not have a clue what professional dress meant, and I am embarrassed to look back at photographs of those years.  I always felt that I wanted to be appreciated for my brains and not my looks, and I did not understand things like social protocol and the issue of first impressions. It was not until my twin girls became teenagers, and would ask me if I was “really going to leave the house looking like that,” that I began to pay more attention to styles and fashion.  And in the last few years, I will also admit, I have come to love my clothes and shoes, and although I buy everything on sale, I am proud that you might not know that to look at me.

Still, in spite of my growing skills, when I have a major event to dress for (and my daughter’s wedding is as major as it gets) I feel out of my element. Part of my problem is that I have no one to go with me to help me judge what I try on.  My kids live far away and the friends I would trust to give helpful advice either live too far away or are too busy .  So I am on my own, at the mercy of saleswomen who, in my experience, tend to agree with everything you say, even if you flip flop drastically on your opinions (Me: “I love this!” Saleswoman: “Oh, it’s perfect.” Me: “Wait, I don’t think I like it after all.” Saleswoman: “Yes, I see your point.”).  No help at all…

For the last couple of weeks, I have been searching online for the perfect dress;  or at least for an idea about the perfect dress.  I do not usually like shopping for clothes online. I need to try things on and see how they live on me.  I have a friend who takes online shopping to unimaginable heights; it’s almost like a religion to her.  She buys a million things, has them delivered, tries everything on in the comfort of her own home, and then returns all the rejects directly to the store. This has several advantages: she receives reward points that she gets to keep even if she returns the items and, as anyone who shops in Bloomies or Nordstrom or Macy’s knows, points are AWESOME.  She receives discounts and coupons for all the shopping she does, and sometimes she is able to use these to the point where really expensive items are practically free.  I think of her the way I think of those “extreme coupon”  people: it’s a part-time job with occasionally huge payoffs.  Not sure how it comes out in the end as far as cost-benefit, but it makes her feel good. My mother, who lives within walking distance from Macy’s in New York City, is such a loyal customer that they pretty much pay her to shop there.  The woman can basically walk out of Macy’s with bags of great stuff for twenty-five dollars.  Ask my son, a major beneficiary of grandma’s Macy’s habit.  But as far as I am concerned, online shopping is just useful for narrowing down choices on which stores to visit.  I am one of those bodies that must see what an outfit looks like on; things that look great on the hanger can actually look horrible on me; and things that look weird on the hanger can be the best fit and style ever.

So today I went to a small shop in a nearby town on the recommendation of a friend.  I feel ambivalent about boutiques.   Immediately I think: exclusive=expensive, and small=few choices.  This is not only discriminatory on my part (I guess I have Big Box disease), but it is almost always wrong.  Case in point is the place I went today. The shop owner has been at this place for over forty years; she has a ton of beautiful choices and many color swatches to choose from.  She has a tailor that works for her for many years that can do fittings for a reasonable cost.  I found a great dress at a really good price and a beautiful color.  Since this is just my first actual try-on I cannot commit to it yet- serious dresses are like serious relationships; you should not get into one without checking out the competition first.  It’s a big commitment because I want to shine as mother-of-the-bride; and because the photo albums will be there forever to document my choice.  So it has to be just perfect. I emailed a photo to my daughters and my shopping-mania friend to get their thoughts. I will keep you posted!

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Just Say Snow

Well, it’s just the beginning of February, and here I am snowed in again.  This is the second no-school-snow-day of this week, and according to the rodent in Pennsylvania, we still have six more weeks of winter to go.  Don’t get me wrong, I love winter and I love snow.  It’s so pretty to look at and photograph; it’s so fun to play in and ski in; it’s all good because it doesn’t last more than a few months.  The problem is I’m bored.  When we were stuck home two days ago, I did all the laundry, straightened up some closets, rearranged some cabinets.  By ten o’clock this morning I had already done more of that, and now the house is in pretty good shape.  I have some phone calls still to make, but other than that, I’m about ready to jump out of my skin. 

I mean, how much time can I spend responding to Facebook messages  or reading one of the four novels I am in the middle of?  How many batches of chili and cookies can I make (and try not to eat)?   How many blog entries can I write??  I am fortunate to live in a home large enough to spend time in lots of different rooms, so “stir crazy” does not feel like an appropriate term. I think of people in small apartments on the twelfth floor when I think of stir crazy.   But spending all day in pajamas (because, after all, why get dressed?  No one is going to come over and I’m not going anywhere), looking out the windows, does feel a bit claustrophobic.  I am pretty sure this feeling is all in my mind.  Many people I know love to spend all day in pajamas reading books or watching movies.  But I get to feeling like ants in my pants; so maybe it is a physical thing for me as well.

I know what I need: a plan.  I need to think through this day the way I think about the days when I go to work.  On those days, I am pretty tightly scheduled from the second I wake up to the minute I lay back down late at night.  Very little down time for this girl on most days, and I love it.  The only usual exception to this is Sunday, and because it is an exception, I really enjoy it.  But this week, I had two Sundays in a row, then a Monday and now another Sunday.  Too many Sundays spoil this cook’s broth; or something like that.  Even in the summer, when I am not working, I have a plan for each day. I guess it is because these are unexpected days off that I am struggling.  I know, many of you are thinking, boo hoo poor thing has another day off.  I feel for you if you had to go out and brave these elements and maybe spend hours getting to work while I sit home moaning and groaning.  If I could trade places with you, I believe I would.  I’m just that nutty, I guess. (And it goes almost without saying that everyone wishes she/he was a teacher on snow days and holidays…not so much during the school year).

So, here’s the plan, which I am fleshing out as I write:

 1) Finish and post this blog…

2) Take a shower and get dressed;  it might fake me out that I might actually be able to get out and go somewhere….

3) Make all those phone calls that I mentioned…

4) Make chili and cookies (and try not to eat them) …

5) Shovel off the back patio if the ice is not too thick

6) Create some new lessons and activities and put them on teacherspayteachers.com

7) Work on my photography projects that I am trying to find a way to sell

8) Do my daily at-home workout of planks and squats

That all should take me until early afternoon and maybe by then, I can at least take a walk or go to the store.   Okay, good, now I feel better.  Off I go! 

bird feeder snow storm

snow day 3  jan 3

snow day 5  jan 3

snow day 7  jan 3

snow day deer 1

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Together They Grow to See the Light

Today we celebrate, honor and remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is certainly a far different world than it was when he died in 1968. Some may be unaware that he left us a troubled man, worried about our future as a human race. He saw war and greed becoming the new religion; he all but predicted the current issues of some of the wealthiest among us climbing the backs of the working poor, and the dark desire to keep much of the populace ignorant and out of reach of life’s dreams.   He personified the truth that sometimes it takes just one person to stand and say “no more” and cause the earth to shake and try to right itself.  There are still, shockingly, many people who think that Martin Luther King Jr. was on a mission to help only those of color improve their lives.  To those people I say: Martin Luther King Jr. was a big-picture man; he saw that righting wrongs was good and necessary for all of humanity and not just one group.

As a child of holocaust refugees and survivors, I have lived the effects of racism; born into a family that lost nearly all of its members, as well as all of its worldly goods, due to its membership in a religion.  My father was anxious to the point of paranoia that we should fit in our adopted country by speaking only English at home; he made it known to us that he did not want racial slurs thrown at his family.  In a way, we were lucky because our light skin and hair and our blue and green eyes were a good camouflage, even in our working class neighborhood mostly filled with immigrants from around the world.

 It did not work so well for me, when in 1971 I was sent to an” experimental” school that I later found out was an attempt  to integrate poor black kids from Jamaica with working class white kids from Forest Hills.  What did I know as an unaware ten year old, other than that I was going to make new friends and try new types of learning?  The answer to that question is nothing at all, until the day that I was accosted by the girls from Jamaica and told to get my white ass out of their school. I clearly remember looking at my own pale arm and placing it next to my best friend Diedre’s arm and noticing for the first time that they were different colors. And I clearly remember her getting up and backing away from me with a look of fear in her eyes.  I began to cry hysterically because of that; but the administration and my mother both thought it was because of the racist bullying and asked me why I had never told anyone that I was the last white kid in the school. Truth is, I had no idea.  Tough way to learn about racism, but it has given me a perspective that others do not have.

When I teach my kindergartners about Martin Luther King Jr., I try to be very, very careful.  I do not want to introduce oblivious five-year-olds to the idea of treating people different based on the way they look (although I have heard some racist remarks from a variety of kids at this age that are learned at home).  So I actually begin in September to talk about, in five-year-old language, judging and treating someone based on the content of their character.   I talk about how wonderful it is that each of us is unique in every way- the things we like to eat, the things we are good at, the types of families we come from, the way we look.  I talk about how important it is to treat others with respect no matter who they are; and that their opinions, different than our own, can help us learn something new if we just listen.  The week of MLK’s birthday, I show them the Dr. Seuss video The Sneetches, his politically charged and very pointed jab at treating people different just because they have “no stars upon thars.”   At this young age, they seem to get it; and I hope with every fiber of my being that this understanding sticks in the face of their future experiences. I know that most of them will face discrimination or be part of a group that is discriminating, and I dream that some part of their baby memories will kick in and they will wind up being agents of change.  A teacher can dream…

One side-diatribe that I have to throw in here: there is a phrase that irks me that is commonly used- reverse discrimination.  In general, white people use this when they are the victims, and it is generally understood to mean just that.  I say that the phrase itself perpetuates racism. There is no such thing as reverse discrimination by definition.  From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary- discrimination:  the practice of unfairly treating a person or group of people differently from other people or groups of people. Nowhere does it say that this is directed at one specific group of people. So please, if you get anything out of my rant today, take this phrase out of your vocabulary.

The title of this blog comes from a song, written in 1954 and recorded in 1956 by Pete Seeger, 1957 by Sammy Davis Jr and popularized in 1972 by Three Dog Night.   It was originally penned to honor the court decision destroying segregation in schools and its words tell the story of wonder at this very first, hard-won move towards equality in our country:

The ink is black, the page is white

Together we learn to read and write

A child is black, a child is white

The whole world looks upon the sight, a beautiful sight


And now a child can understand

That this is the law of all the land, all the land

 The world is black, the world is white

It turns by day and then by night

A child is black, a child is white

Together they grow to see the light, to see the light

I hope that today, in honor of this visionary lost way too early, we take a few minutes to see the light.  

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