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Teacher Appreciation– Three of my All-Stars

Teachers: giving us gifts we'd likely miss on our own

Teachers: giving us gifts we’d likely miss on our own

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve picked a few of my major influencers and asked them to fill out the below Q&A.  Here are their responses.  I encourage you to reach out to your teachers and ask them to share their wisdom. They’re swamped this time of year, so this Q&A is a good way to tease out their pearls without giving them “homework.”  And I encourage you to share their answers with your peeps.  Let’s shine a collective light on those who have been the wind at our backs!  THANK YOU, TEACHERS

Now Booking 2017 Haven Writing Retreats!  Do you have a teacher you would like to sponsor, or ARE you a teacher who needs to fill up YOUR cup?  Haven has worked with many educators, and I have seen it be the very thing that has them return to their students with renewed spirit, conviction, and useful tools of inspiration.

June 7-11
June 21-25
September 6-10
September 20-24
October 18-22

#1 Nan Caldwell

Nan Caldwell (Lake Forest Country Day School, Spanish Teacher and much much more) was a huge part of the formation of  my spirit and mind.  She showed me, by her sparkling example, how I could be myself in the world, without compromising my heart.  She was the reason I spent a year in Italy, my junior year in college, which I have written about in my memoir and elsewhere, and will be talking about on my deathbed.  And she also taught me a love for languages, and took me to Spain and Portugal with our 9th grade Spanish class, which primed the pump for a lifetime of devoted travel and open-minded/hearted-ness.  Thank you, Nan! You know how much I adore you and always will.  And you know how many many young minds and spirits you have help formed. Here are her pearls of wisdom:

Q&A for Teachers.  (all questions optional but encouraged)

What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she/he has one?  You are ready to sacrifice a higher paying career for one that truly may make a difference in the world.

How did you become a teacher?  (DNA, default, other?)  It must be DNA.  I have two uncles and three aunts who are teachers.  My father followed a business career, but I’m a throwback!  I always wanted to be a teacher- even when I was little.

What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings?  (Coffee?  Gerunds?  That one kid in the back row?)  Duty!

Which battles were/are worth fighting for?  (Would love to hear some trench stories, esp if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)  I think that in today’s world it is important to help students stay grounded and focused on values. Faced with ubiquitous social media sway, it is easy for them to fall prey to materialistic and/or cruel outlooks that influence their behavior. Honesty, kindness, and generosity never go out of style, but it takes some targeted work to maintain that perspective.

What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom?  (Feel free to rip on us.  It’s the least we can do.  Fictional names, please.)  One time, I had the students draw monsters that they later had to describe in Spanish for their classmates.  One little boy drew something that looked like a monster octopus.  In his description, he said that it had tentacles coming out of his head and tentacles coming out of his body and six tentacles for legs….except he had the word for testicles!  Heh!  The kids had no idea!

If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be?  (Go ahead.  Offend us.  We really need to know.)  Let your children make mistakes.  Don’t get involved in social problems.  Offer your child some advice, but step back.  Remind them always to be kind and inclusive, no matter what.

What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students?  (My personal favorite was:  Weekly ice cream truck–  3rd grade.  Thanks, Mrs. Dino.  7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second.  Thanks, Mr. Virden.)  Food.  It works. They love games, too.  And stories!!

Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions?  (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like.  Day in the life…)  Up at 6:00, at work by 7:15.  Teaching, hall duty, study hall, recess duty, lunch duty, coaching after school, clubs, service projects, 400 emails to answer….home around 6:00.  Make dinner, eat, grade papers until around 10:00. Watch the news so that you are prepared to be a teacher the next day!

In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be?  Ditto an Ivy League education?  Ditto private schooling?   Private schools are as varied as public schools- some excellent, some not much better than a good public school.  The good ones can provide extra personal attention to the individual needs of each child.  That attention and care can usher a student to more fully explore and achieve his/her potential.
College is the right place for academically minded and socially concerned students.  I do not think that every student should feel that college is the only route to a successful career- especially if he/she is passionate about a specific field- gaming, coding, arts, trades, etc.

What is a moment in your teaching career that makes you especially proud?  (BOAST, PLEASE!  You deserve it!  Or…full disclosure.  ie: The day I nailed Suzy in the face with an eraser for picking on Matilda.)  Occasionally a former student sits down and writes a thank you letter.  Getting one of those makes every day worthwhile!

What can teachers do to prevent burn out?  (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)  Set realistic goals.  Don’t overreach and try to be super-teacher.  Take one challenge at  a time and strive for patience and good humor.

Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better?  (Here’s the soap box…)  All of society’s challenges and solutions begin with families and schools. Plain and simple.  Start there.   

What is/was your dream take-away for your students?  As a teacher of world languages, I hope to open a door through which my students can more authentically explore the history and cultures of other peoples, global issues, and our responsibilities as Americans.  We become not only better guests in other countries, but better citizens of our own.  The path of this knowledge can lead to professional and personal opportunities that are not as readily available to monolinguistic people- opportunities that may begin with friendships, jobs and travel, but ones that also have the potential to telescope toward international relations, human rights and peace.

Will books ever die? I hope not!!!  Please don’t let them!

***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI.  Sharpen your #2 pencil.  And spit out your gum.

WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!

#2 Janet Edmonds

Ms. Ed (Janet) was my boarding school English teacher (Westminster School) and I think she taught me something about Hawthorne, (“yea verily” comes to mind), though what I remember most was her love of words.  She had that English teacher wonderlust for books, liked she’d torn herself away from one to get to class, and was eager to feed us with its (and her) knowledge.  Somehow she waded through the classics with us and took us along with her.  She didn’t stand on any desks and speak in Latin…but she did hold us in the elegance of words through the ages, and often when I’m sitting alone with a book, trying to understand just what the author is trying to say, or writing one and doing the same with my own muse,  I think of her quiet countenance and take heart.  Thank you, Ms. Ed!  Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?  Love, Laura

Questions and Answers for Teachers.  

What is your definition of the “Teaching Spirit,” and how does a person know if she or he has one?

They bend and hold us so we can see the light.

They bend and hold us so we can see the light

My hunch is that answers to this question will be like fingerprints, like the unique patterns on whales’ flukes. I think you have a teaching spirit if you start teaching and find that you like it. Plenty of people start teaching and leave after a year or two, but some of them may have turned into excellent teachers had they stayed in the work. There are many factors that go into loving or liking teaching besides your subject and students. You have colleagues, managers (going by names such as the dean and the principal or headmaster), and the rules and values of the institution where you work. A problem in any of those areas can drown a teaching spirit. I loved my subject, students, and colleagues (your best teachers at that school, Laura, were also my best teachers), but as strict as I might have seemed at times (maybe you all saw through that), I could not stay on board with the conservative ethos that existed in many boarding schools in that era. I did not think it was fair or caring for some students. I fought it and I left.

How did you become a teacher?  (DNA, default, other?)

I wanted to be a teacher when I was in sixth grade because my English teacher assigned a couple of amazing novels and opened up the worlds in poems as if they were flowers with hundreds of petals blooming slowly under a warm sun. I just wanted to be able to do what she did—understand novels, stories, and poems. Of course I discovered that being serious and enthusiastic in a field did not mean I could “make” another person feel the same way. And when we got right down to the purpose of teaching and learning English in high school, what was more important than literature was strong, clear writing. I was 22 years old when I started teaching high school students, and even though I often miss it 30 years after leaving it to work in publishing, I know I wouldn’t have the nerve to try again. I would no longer dare to hope that I could teach someone who doesn’t write with even a tiny bit of ease or who sees no point in acquiring some fundamental skills. Maybe that’s the biggest problem—conveying to a student that there is some long term relevance to them about what you trying to teach.

What got you out of bed on the hard school mornings?  (Coffee?  Gerunds?  That one kid in the back row?)

A clock radio.

Which battles were/are worth fighting for?  (Would love to hear some trench stories, especially if you’re retired and won’t get in trouble!)

May I please have an extension? I have some good battle stories: What it felt like when the faculty met to discuss a wonderful boy’s discipline record and whether his most recent infraction merited expulsion, and I was the only one to raise a hand saying no; Why I left . . . .

What was the funniest thing that happened in your classroom?  (Feel free to rip on us.  It’s the least we can do.  Fictional names, please.)

I need an extension for this question, too. You told me you would send a few questions, but you’ve sent term paper assignments. Did you know that? For now I will only say that the funniest things that happened with you guys in and outside of the classroom do not require any “ripping” on you—just joy and gratitude for the warmth and laughter the memories bring.

If you could give one piece of advice to parents of your students, what would it be?  (Go ahead.  Offend us.  We really need to know.)

Please, please, please try to realistically understand and love your child’s strengths as a wonderful person instead of crushing him or her with totally unrealistic demands about what college you want him or her to get in to.

What were some of your “tricks” to connect with students?  (My personal favorite was:  Weekly ice cream truck– 3rd grade.  Thanks, Mrs. Dino.  7th grade Math Hump Day cake was a close second.  Thanks, Mr. Virden.)

 May I contort and distort this question in order to retort and report, Laura? My tricks were all to avoid connecting with my students. I used pop quizzes, extra laps around the field . . . .

Why do people say that teaching is one of the hardest professions?  (Paint us a portrait, if you’d like.  Day in the life….)

Again I want more time to answer, but here’s my short answer that applies to teaching in a boarding and day school: Responsibility and discipline. Teachers are responsible for the intellectual, physical, and emotional safety of many teenage human beings. It’s a huge responsibility, and there are school rules to help ensure that safety. Violating the rules can have serious consequences such as suspension and expulsion.

In your opinion, is college all that it’s cracked up to be?  Ditto an Ivy League education?  Ditto private schooling? 

I wouldn’t want those things to go away, but I’ve long thought that a person who really wants to learn is going to learn at any institution he or she goes to. It’s the student and not the school that makes the biggest difference although graduating from a school with a widely respected name can be an advantage.

The people who have taught me what I love and how to learn more about those things, who helped me discover the things that give my life meaning are people who did not go to college or end up getting a degree.

Do you believe in the liberal arts education?  If so, why?  If not, why?

Emphatically yes and no.

What can teachers do to prevent burn out?  (ahem go on a Haven Writing Retreat in Montana ahem)

 Go on a Haven Writing Retreat. (This experience is on my bucket list.)

Any advice to law makers and administrators that you feel might change our public school systems for the better?  (Here’s the soap box…)

There are things I can’t say, but I’ll start and stop with saying that principals and superintendents who are a) afraid of parents and b) unwilling to support the decisions of teachers in classrooms over complaints of whiny parents should not be principals and superintendents. If you won’t allow teachers to insist that students behave in classrooms, there will be no learning. Grrrrrrr

What is/was your dream take-away for your students?

Realize that you are “the decider” in your life. You get to say “yes, I can” and “no, I won’t.”

Will books ever die?

Maybe in a long time, there will be few paper books. In a long time.

What will you/do you miss about teaching?

You guys.

***There’ll be a pop quiz directly following this, FYI.  Sharpen your #2 pencil.  And spit out your gum.

WE LOVE YOU AND ARE SO GRATEFUL FOR ALL THAT YOU DO/DID FOR US AND OUR CHILDREN!

#3 TERRY HAIGHT

Mr. Haight (Terry) was my grade school History and Social Studies teacher and maestro of a 50s a capella singing  group called Terry and the Terrifics, to which I attribute my still-love of singing in harmony and busting out of Shaboom and Goodnight Sweetheart around campfires.  He taught us by DOING, and perhaps this is why my teaching style is yes, instructional, but mostly, experiential.  Total immersion is the best way I know.  And I still know the difference between Ionic, Corinthian, and Doric columns, thanks to one of our Social Studies projects and my girlish moxie to ask ladies of the fine Lake Forest, IL mansions of my youth for house tours, the way t0 describe Raphaels’ lighting and spout off about it at the Louvre last winter, and got to the steps of the Parthenon, first chance I could. Thank you, Mr. Haight.  Lonnie ding dong, a lang a lang a lang…boom boom…wah dah…a doobie doobie day-ee, indeed!  Love and deep bows to you always!  Laura

Reply to questions from Laura Munson:

My replies are in no particular order and are not answers to specific questions. Rather I am writing thoughts encouraged by your questions.

I wanted to be a teacher for a long time. I worked as a camp counselor at Camp Kechuwa, run by Charlie Leake, for the summers of 1965 and 1967. Then I worked at the Hull House camp in East Troy, WI for the summer of 1968. My Father was a professor of History at Lehigh University, my maternal grandfather help found Lake Forest Day School, and my three sisters taught. So you could say there was a tradition of being an educator (and probably a tradition of enjoying summers in Ontario.)

Perhaps most important, I was a weak student and struggled with school. I wanted to make it fun to be in a classroom: A place where hard work was expected but also a place students wanted to come back to. So if there was a “Teaching Spirit” for me it was that I wanted kids to enjoy learning through doing. I remember there being plenty of nights when I’d find myself awake on the edge of my bed pretending to be teaching a class. Part of the “Spirit” was to begin the year by teaching, maybe even telling, and ending the year as a facilitator, as a Watcher of students learning.

To achieve some of this we introduced lots of ways of learning. We often had a “Social Studies Week,” listened to Amahl and the Night Visitors around Christmas, did a lot of group work focused on team play, map making, Word Games if there was extra time, singing, play reading, biography impersonations, and on we went.

Teaching was a joy, but it was hard. I had my students do lots of writing, but that meant hours of corrections and comments. If a student did poorly on a paper or test they could always retake it to improve. And effort really mattered. That meant lots of time to edit and support. There were long days. I remember right after I retired walking thorough the down town area around 11:00 AM. I couldn’t understand what all the adults were doing out and about. As a teacher there was no down time, and I’d feel guilty ducking out to get a haircut.

I taught at the Lake Forest Country Day School from 1972-1999. Aside from the students, the thing that kept me going was the advent of the computer in the classroom. And it was not just for adding up grades. I found the computer presented a more level learning ground for my students and me. “Oh, Mr. Haight. Why not try plugging it in?” “Mr. Haight. Let’s format it this way.”

I attended three summers worth of a great course of using the computer in the classroom put on by Summer Corps. I remember my right hand being so sore as I learned to use a mouse. Am I a supporter of Teacher Professional Development? YES. You should try something like a Writing Retreat. They say the Montana air and beauty will get your writing juices flowing.

I didn’t have any favorite students. I see many of them around town as they have moved back. I see some during the summer. And I see some in faint pictures wearing T-shirts and singing Terrific songs, a 50s a capella group I led with students for years.

I was fortunate to teach in a school that had a tradition of learning and expectations of excellence. We also had a terrific group of parents who supported their children but also the teachers. For parents I encourage you to learn about your child’s strengths and weaknesses, accept and support both, hug them all the time and love them madly.

THANK YOU TO ALL THREE OF YOU for indulging my questions, and for giving them your heart language and wisdom.  You inspire me.  Please consider reaching out to your teachers and shining a light on them!

 

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Long Ago: Community Entry #9

Taking a break from the writing. Reading an old time favorite. "Live the questions." --Rilke

For those of you who have been submitting to and following this “Long Ago:  Community” writing series/contest…I want to thank you.  Your supportive comments and vulnerable stories represent the staples of true community:  support, bravery, creativity, generosity, and the willingness to share. 

As I enter into the next part of my solo writing retreat to work on my novel, it brings me great joy to know that you all are here, holding These Here Hills in my absence.  My Haven Writing Retreat season will soon begin, and I have learned that if we are going to nurture and inspire other people in their self-expression, we have to begin by doing just that for ourselves.  If you are interested in joining me for a retreat, email me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com.  June is fast filling.  And August, and September are now booking.  Contest winner for Haven scholarship will be announced soon…  Submissions are closed…  For more info click here.

Please enjoy this nostalgic piece about neighborhood magic by Betsy Nelson!

yrs.

Laura

The House at the End of Belvedere Road, by Betsy Nelson

 

When I was a girl growing up in the 1970’s living in a Texas town near the Louisiana border, I often visited my friend Molly’s house at the end of Belvedere Road.  Most houses on Belvedere were roomy, two-story brick traditional, enveloped by the deep green leaves of sprawling Live Oak trees and angular pine trees. But the very last house on this small-town street was not like the rest.

To begin with, it didn’t look like any of the other houses. The exterior was rough stucco, the color of French Vanilla ice cream.  It was topped off with an aged slate roof that looked like small, uniform waves, or like the curly, hard Christmas candy I found in my stocking each year.

The house was U-shaped, built around a central courtyard, shadowed by the iron balconies that lunged overhead, from the second-story bedrooms.  In the middle of the pebbled courtyard was a trickling fountain with a quirky bronze statue of an owl perched above it.  The image of this mysterious owl at his post, haunted and sometimes comforted me, as I caught glimpses of him on restless nights when I would sleep over.

Upon entering the house through the side door, into the kitchen, I would glance at the simple chalkboard hung on the wall next to the telephone, which was usually ringing or occupied.  Scribbled on the board were chalky messages or funny hand-drawn pictures, chronicling the various comings and goings of a lively family of seven children and their Mom and Dad.  If I was lucky and it was close to dinner when I visited, the kitchen would be filled with the pungent aroma of garlic and onions sautéing in preparation for some fabulous, exotic Southern dish.

Walking through the house on my way to the backyard, I would feel the warm sunlight streaming in through a wall of tall windows, as I passed the pine dining table, where twelve whitewashed, ladder back chairs stood neatly aligned, until the family would arrive and disrupt all order bringing vibrant life to the abandoned scene.

Sliding open the heavy glass doors that led to the expanse of sweet-smelling, green grass and billowy clover with bees hovering above their fragile stalks, I was met by a familiar chorus of gleeful, Southern voices and raucous laughter.  There, a throng of athletic-looking, tow-headed children of various sizes, ages and abilities, encircled a mammoth, jet-black canvas trampoline.  Calling, “Hi!” and “Come On!”, the family and a mélange of neighborhood children, jostled to make room for me there beside them.

Spindly, suntanned arms stretched out to rest on the cushioned rim careful not to get fingers caught in the coiled springs. All heads looked up at the glorified kid of the moment, the one taking his turn jumping on the trampoline.  Some could bounce high and touch their outstretched toes while suspended for a moment in the air.  Some could do flips, bounce up, land cross-legged on the canvas and bounce up again.  Others could do little more than jump shyly and roll onto the ground, holding their sides, aching from too much laughter.  Oblivious to all this, were Queenie and Greta, two silky, steel-gray and snow white, German Shepherd dogs, stretched out grandly on the cool ground in the sphere of shade beneath the mighty trampoline.

When we finished, a few of us might sneak off and clamber up the bare wooden stairs to the steaming, windowless attic of the house, to dig through the Magic Box, a deep, Chinese-red trunk, filled to overflowing with velvety and satin costumes, smelling of old perfume.  Or perhaps, with the late-evening sun beating down, we would climb onto our bikes and take off for the dusty “hills”, a bank of hard-packed dirt, nothing more than the result of a bayou that had been dug alongside the house.  Wheels whirring, our bikes glided up one side and coasted down the other until sunset streaked the sky coral pink and mustard yellow.  Then, reluctantly, we would all say bye to each other, as we would leave to return to our own homes, and anticipate the next time we would be lucky enough to visit this enchanted place on Belvedere Road.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #8

Step by step. Word by word. Page by page.

“When I am writing I am far away and when I come back I have already left”

– Pablo Neruda

I am further stepping into the wilderness of Montana and the wilderness of writing this week.  I feel so held in this haven of the blank page and snow.  If you’d like to create haven for your creativity…come to a Haven Writing Retreat here in Montana. June, August, and September retreats are now booking and filling fast.

Please enjoy this lovely entry to my “Long Ago:  Community” series/contest.  It brought me right back to the feeling of a Sunday morning in church– my first haven. 

Submissions are closed.  Winner announced mid-Feb.  Thank you to all who are sharing and reading and commenting.  We can build community from far and wide.  yrs. Laura

An Echo from the Bronx, by Alison Bolshoi

I learned about a long ago community from a very old woman, my great grandmother, although it would be decades before I understood anything she said about it.

Molly, or “Mom” as we all called her, was a tiny person who never stopped moving.  She lived every day to do things for other people, and is the only person I’ve ever met who was truly happy serving others.  You meet people who say they are, but you can still see some resentment at the corners of their mouth or the angle of their neck.  Mom was filled with joy and light.  When I showed up at her apartment, she would turn from her sewing machine with an expression of happiness on her face that told me there was no one else in the world she would rather see, at that moment, than me.  Yet everyone in my family describes the same experience when they would go see her.

Mom was a seamstress and made all my clothes until I was in high school; everything from my nightgowns to my winter coats and hats.  While she sewed, and I helped, she told me stories I didn’t understand about church and community.  She was born in 1888 and raised Roman Catholic in the Bronx, when it was still “the country” and had dirt roads and horse drawn carriages.  She described the church as an amazing place.  She met her best friend Anna there when she was a child.   She and Anna did lots of things together, including working at the church office and washing their families’ laundry in the East River.  They were poor but they didn’t seem to know it.  When they were 15, Anna made Molly an incredibly beautiful scarf, crocheted out of raw silk, which was rare material back then.

Mom also told me about dances, bake sales, fundraisers, parties for people’s anniversaries and christenings, and even wakes and funerals, which all centered around their church.  The whole church community would visit the family of the deceased throughout the three-day waking period, and bring food.  Mom told detailed stories about so many different occasions, like one night when she and my great grandfather Jim were dating, and walked to a dance at church.  Jim didn’t like that Molly wouldn’t kiss him, so he picked her up and put her inside an open garbage can.  She screamed, but as long as she didn’t move, her dress didn’t touch the sides and stayed clean.  When she finally relented and kissed him, he lifted her out and they went on to the church dance.  The theme that night was “Old Italian Love Songs” and he said, “See?  Even God said you were supposed to kiss me.”

Her stories seemed so alien to me.  We went to church, three of them, in fact, in our area, but we never talked to anyone and there were never events going on in any of them.  This was Westchester County, NY; stuffy, and for me, very fake.  The closest we got to “community” was at the sign of peace, where you turn to the person nearest you and shake their hand, muttering “Peace be with you.”  Then we’d go home and never speak to them again.

Mom’s stories stayed with me, though I didn’t understand them.  When my son was seven and announced one day, as I picked him up, that he was Christian and wanted to wear a cross and go to a church, I nearly drove my car off the road.  I hadn’t been to church in so many years, though I still felt Christian.  I was terrified.

After talking with a friend and explaining my aversion to Roman Catholicism, he suggested St. Luke’s Church, right in town, in Montclair.  I asked why that place.  He said, “They’re Episcopal, and they’re a very happy group of people.”   I said, “You mean ‘Jesus Freaks.’”  “No,” he laughed.  “It’s hard to explain.  They’re just really happy to see you.”  Hmm.

So I went.  And an amazing thing happened.  People talked to me.  Not in a pushy, nosy sort of way, but in a welcoming, interested way.  I went back.  I realized that every Sunday after services, there was a coffee hour, where people talked to each other about their everyday lives.  I saw that gay people sat with each other in pews, held hands, and even kissed at the sign of peace.  Homeless people sat next to wealthy people.  The church had a soup kitchen; a pretty famous one.  And a “Second Time Around Shop,” a thrift shop run by the old ladies in the church, who organized it.  People had parties for their anniversaries and christenings in the Assembly Hall.

Over time I saw what a real community this is, where wonderful, sad, magical, real things happen — like after two of my friends had a fire gut their apartment, and everyone came together and gave them furniture, dishes, clothes, money, and food.  Or when my friend Tim’s son Maurice died suddenly at age 20, and even his horse was welcome inside the church, at his funeral.  Or this year, when my best friend Monique renewed her vows with her husband Louis.  I sang the service and we all went to a wonderful party in the Assembly Hall, singing opera karaoke, and left after midnight.  It is my understanding that not all Episcopal churches are like this one.  So I feel lucky.

These are not people who shake your hand and then forget your face by the time they get to the door.  I found a Long Ago Community that’s alive right now.  And I’m in it.  I even wore Mom’s raw silk scarf, now 110 years old now, to the ceremony where I was ‘received’ by the Bishop.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #5

The only buttons I’m pushing are on the keyboard. Ahhhh…haven.

Accepting entries through Feb. 1st.  Winner announced mid-February…

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Jody Casella who blogs here. yrs. Laura

Someone’s Golden Boy, by Jody Casella

When I was seven years old my mother dragged me along on an errand to the bank downtown. In the lobby there was a display of what seemed like hundreds of dolls, each dressed in a different, lovely (to my seven-year-old eyes) outfit. A lacy ball gown. A hula skirt. Flowery nightshirt and bathrobe. It took a long inspection for me to realize it was the same doll wearing different clothes. I stared at the display longingly while my mother went about her banking business and when we left I pestered her for one of the dolls.

“Sorry,” she told me. “Those are for needy kids.”

I’m not sure I understood what that meant except that I couldn’t have a doll. And I didn’t understand it later when that Christmas, I DID get one of the dolls, the one dressed like Little Red Riding Hood. That was the year my father died and my mother was instantly a young single mother with three kids under the age of seven.

I really liked my Red Riding Hood doll. It was clear to me when I opened it that Christmas that it was the best doll from the bank lobby display. I don’t know who donated it, who sewed the darling jumper and cape and hood. It was a small thing but it meant something to me, a needy kid who didn’t know she was needy.

I’ve been thinking about that anonymous sewer lately, now that I am a million miles away from the little girl I was. Today I’m not wealthy, but certainly comfortable, living a privileged and blessed life by most people’s standards, in a small, privileged, blessed community in Ohio. I’ve got a wonderful husband and two beautiful and brilliant children. I take this life for granted, going about my day to day activities, rarely coming into contact with “needy” people and, truthfully, rarely thinking about them, unless you count writing a few donation checks to worthy charities and my yearly volunteer gig at a Christmas party for under-privileged children.

Last spring my husband and I drove our son up to the college of his dreams for a pre-orientation. We attended a few of the parent activities, mentally patted ourselves on the back for our son’s accomplishments, then left him to do his thing and took a train into New York City for a couple of days to do OUR thing. We had a blast, walking around, seeing the sites, and reconnecting with each other–parents of a soon-to-be-off-to-college boy.

One of the sites on our list was the new Ground Zero Memorial. We walked there on the last day of our trip, taking our time, hitting the neighborhoods along the way, eating a nice lunch, stopping at Starbucks, and finally arriving at the church at the edge of the site, the church that somehow was left standing after the towers fell. My husband went off to find tickets, but I lingered around the church. There was a person on the curb, leaned up against the iron gate, obviously a vagrant. He held a sign and something made me step closer.

“Please help me get home to Ohio,” said the sign.

The person holding it was a teenaged boy. He was half-asleep. Or maybe he was on drugs or drunk. That was what the cynical part of me was thinking. The mother part of me, who had just dropped off a Golden Boy son at college, teared up. Oh my God. What had happened to this boy? How had he come to be on a street corner in New York City with swarms of tourists literally stepping over him? Who was waiting for him back in Ohio? Could I help him? Should I?

Here’s the thing about my husband and me. We NEVER have any cash on us. It’s almost a joke. We are the people who have to write a check at a toll booth. That moment in front of the clearly in need boy, I had eleven dollars in my pocket. My husband had nothing. We knew we needed ten dollars for the train ride back. I looked over my shoulder at the Starbucks. Could I buy the kid a cup of coffee and a Cranberry Bliss Bar? But it was hot outside and we had just walked like, fifty blocks to get there. We were tired. We had our tickets to go into the memorial site. We needed to move on. No one else was even paying attention to this kid, this vagrant.

I am ashamed to say that I bent down and put one crumpled dollar bill in the boy’s hand. We looked at each other, and I said, “I’m sorry I can’t give you more.”

On the long drive home to Ohio my son chattered about all the cool things going on at the college, the awesome people he met, the interesting classes he would take. My husband and I were thrilled for him. Our son’s dreams were coming true! But I couldn’t stop thinking about somebody else’s son back at the church. I should’ve given him the eleven dollars at least. My husband and I could’ve hit an ATM on the way to the train station. I should’ve gone over to Starbucks. The Cranberry Bliss Bar would’ve been better than nothing. Forget that. I should’ve gone to an ATM and taken out enough money to buy him a plane ticket back to Ohio. We could’ve freaking DRIVEN him back to Ohio.

Why didn’t we help him when we had the chance? What was wrong with us?

I asked my husband this question. We lamented our actions but then started to rationalize. Maybe the boy wasn’t a needy Ohio kid. He was probably a scammer, a thief, plunked out on the sidewalk purposely manipulating out-of-town tourists.

But we can’t know that. And does it even matter?

I know we live in a country that likes to divide people into groups, label others as takers. It’s true there are takers. But I think that labeling helps us, the blessed ones, the lucky ones, feel better about ignoring those who are genuinely in need. Not only that, we mock them, show disdain for them, assume the worst. Or maybe it’s just that there is so much need that we don’t even know where to start, whom to help. We’re paralyzed. Easier to look away, to step over the kid on the street corner. There are so many of those needy people, and he’s not even the worst off.

A few hours from Ohio, some guy stopped us at a rest area and said he needed just a few dollars for gas to make it to his destination. Obvious scam, my husband and I thought, but we dug around for change and gave it to him. A few weeks later we found out that someone we went to school with died, leaving a daughter in college and in need of money for books. We wrote a check immediately and sent it to her. This Christmas we spent more time buying presents for kids we picked for our volunteer gig than we did buying for our own kids. When I heard that an acquaintance’s home was damaged by the recent hurricane, I mailed her a Home Depot gift card.

It’s not enough. It will never be enough. But once upon a time I was a needy girl who received a donated doll for Christmas, a little thing that meant a lot, and I will never step over someone else’s Golden Boy again.

—————————————————–
Jody Casella

YA Writer on the Verge

http://www.jodycasella.com/

THIN SPACE– Sept. 10, 2013
Beyond Words/Simon & Schuster

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Long Ago: Community Entry #4

The wildnerness of writing. The wilderness of January in rural Montana. Haven.

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Peggy Welsh. yrs. Laura

Summer Camp, by Peggy Welsh

My dad died a few months before I started first grade, leaving my mom with four young kids under the age of 10.   The first couple of years I didn’t realize how poor we were because I was young, we lived in a decent house and we had food to eat but as the years went by I realized there wasn’t much cash around our house.

When I was in the fifth grade I joined 4-H because it was something I could walk to and it didn’t cost much money.  I always learned new things and it was a fun way to spend time with my friends.  The one thing that did cost money was the summer camp in Jamestown, Virginia.  We all talked about it but I knew it was something I couldn’t ask for.  It seemed like the best adventure ever, getting on a bus with friends and being away from home for a whole week.   As summer drew close my friends kept asking if I could go and I kept telling them I wasn’t sure, I was embarrassed to tell them I didn’t have the money.  While they were making plans to go I became more and more envious.

And then it happened.  Someone sponsored my week at camp and the day before everyone was to leave, our housekeeper told me I was going.  I couldn’t believe it, I had been crying and moping around the house for days and maybe she just couldn’t stand it any longer and called someone at the  4-H office but however this particular miracle happened – I was stunned and grateful and I believe Mrs. Poe was happy to have me out of her hair for a week.  I quickly packed a bag and pulled myself together, I don’t remember how I got to the bus but I do remember how fun it was to be on a bus for 6 hours with a group of laughing, joking, silly girls.  I had one dollar to last me for the whole week of camp and I was a little nervous about that, but I figured I would just be very careful.

4-H camp was the best thing that had ever happened to me. We did crafts, went hiking, sat at camp fires and even sang Kumbaya.   At night, in the bunk house we were in no hurry to go to sleep.   I kept the girls in stitches with funny stories until the camp counselor would threaten to duct tape my mouth if I didn’t go to sleep.   One night we had a candlelight service where we put small candles on paper plates, waded out into the James river, lit our candles and sent our floating points of light out into the water – it was beautiful and magic.   We went to Jamestown on a day trip and saw the replicas of the three ships that first sailed into the new world.  Everyone was excited about going to a play called the Common Glory.   I started to worry about the cost and if I  would I be the only one left in camp if I didn’t have enough money, and I wondered what I would do.   I decided to take my one dollar and put it in the little bank at the camp store so it wouldn’t get lost and see how much it would cost to go to the play.  Now this might not seem like a big deal to anyone else but I was a worrier and even though it was a miracle that I even got to go to camp I was worried about that play.

The next day, when all the girls were going to the store to buy candy and treats I went to the little bank window and told the lady I wanted to put my dollar bill in the bank where it would be safe, to my surprise when she pulled up my name she said I already had five dollars in the account. Again, I was stunned, relieved and excited that whoever paid for my trip to camp had gone the extra mile and provided spending money, something they knew would be in short supply.   I almost burst into tears with relief as I said a silent prayer of thanks.   I knew that someone was looking out for me upstairs and thus began a lifelong practice of recognizing the hand of the Lord in my life.    I know that God answers prayers and he usually uses his angels or saints here on earth to help us along our journey.   That one special week at a little camp on the James River in southern Virginia helped build a foundation of faith that would see me though the many tough times ahead and it helped motivate me to look for opportunities to perform random acts of kindness for others – little miracles where the giver was never known.

That summer adventure that some stranger or neighbor paid for was one of the best memories of my brief childhood.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #3

My characters are in Mexico, but they have the souls of Fir trees, snow laden…

A space just opened up for my Feb. 27-March 3rd Haven Writing Retreat in Montana…  Maybe it has your name on it!  Contact me at Laura@lauramunsonauthor.com… 

I am loving your entries for my “Long Ago:  Community” writing series.  Thank you to all who are submitting.  Keep them coming!  The winner gets a scholarship to one of my Haven Writing Retreats here in Montana…where I am taking the dormancy of winter and turning it into prose this month.  Thank you for keeping These Here Hills warm in community.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.

Please enjoy this lovely piece by Lynn Trudell who blogs here.

yrs. Laura

The Christmas Tree, by Lynn Trudell

“We’re Jews,” my father would say when I begged him each December to buy me a Christmas tree.

The truth is, we weren’t anything, really. Though my father narrowly escaped Nazi-occupied Russia at the age of 14, bribing Auschwitz bound train conductors with gold pens, he left the practice of religion behind him when he came to the United States. My mother, who he met three months after arriving at Ellis Island – also a Jew in name only — agreed to marry him before a judge at City Hall. But because they were medical interns, the only night they both had off was Christmas Eve. So they tied the knot then, and ever since, celebrated the occasion of their union on the eve of the birth of Jesus, alongside the rest of the Christian world.

As you can imagine, this celebratory nod to Christ slightly confused their three children, of which I was the youngest. Every Christmas, gifts were exchanged, flowers were delivered, all kinds of delicious food was prepared, and even a few decorations were hung with care over our grand piano. But there was never a tree.

“We can call it a Chanukah bush,” I reasoned one evening at the dinner table. I was probably eight or nine at the time and convinced that if I presented my argument in the right light, my father would concede.

“There are more practical things we can spend our money on,” he said, pointing the end of his knife at my half-eaten broiled chicken breast. “Finish up,” he added, ending our discussion. His colleague, a man I will always remember for his huge stature and his odd propensity for smothering everything he ate in catsup, happened to be eating dinner at our home that night. And though I didn’t know it at the time, he was paying close attention to the conversation.

That Christmas morning, like every other morning, I opened our front door to collect the New York Times for my parents. But instead of the usual gust of crisp winter air, I was greeted by a monster-sized blue spruce leaning up against the outer glass door of our home, its branches extended wide as if waiting for an embrace.

So began the start of a new and magical era in the home of a Jewish girl who dreamed of decorating a Christmas tree. Every year after that, like clockwork, a perfectly shaped, deliciously smelling tree would arrive on our doorstep, freshly cut and awaiting my adoration.  I’d spend hours stringing popcorn through dental floss, cutting out stars of David on yellow construction paper and tossing silver tinsel over the outer branches. One year, my parents even sprung for a few colorful iridescent balls that I hung with precision on the side of the tree that faced the room. All of this fussing over a freshly cut tree made me deliriously happy through much of my childhood.

But as I grew older and my siblings moved out, the tradition grew less magical. Until one Christmas there was no longer a tree to decorate. And I didn’t miss it because I was busy making plans with my friends or traveling to visit a college boyfriend. In fact, it wasn’t until decades later that I was reminded of how a simple tree dressed in white lights and colorful ornaments could undo so much sadness.

I was thirty-four-years old, living in a beautiful home in Northern California with my two-year-old son, wishing I was dead.  It had been over three months since my husband’s accident, and though no one at the acute rehabilitation center where he lived ever said so, I knew I had already lost the man I married to the fathomless world of traumatic brain injury.

In spite of my broken heart, Christmas came anyway. And because I had a two-year old with piercing brown eyes and a penchant for pirate costumes, the members of a small non-denominational church in the town next to mine stepped up to make his Christmas, if not mine, magical.

People I didn’t know arrived at my doorstep with food and presents wrapped in colorful paper. They came with scented candles and snowman mugs and icicle lights for the outside of my home.  Then they brought the tree.  A simple green pine they propped up on an upside down cardboard box covered in red felt. When they asked if I had any ornaments to decorate it with, I told them I didn’t because I was Jewish and Jews don’t decorate Christmas trees. So they went home that night and returned the next day, each carrying an ornament for the tree they had placed on the box the day before.

That evening, Christmas Eve, my son and I laid on our backs under our sparkling tree, breathing in its earthy, citrus smelling sap.  I watched as his eyes grew big, taking in all the colors and lights that hung above our heads, and felt for the first time in months, a twinge of joy in the remote corners of my heart. It was at that moment, I think, that I realized there’s only so much room in a person’s life for sorrow. Eventually love does find its way home.

Fifteen years later, as I jot these memories down, I find myself gazing up over my computer screen at the gigantic pine tree that sits in the corner of our living room, decorated with many of the same feathery angels and beaded snowflakes that the members of that tiny church contributed to my now abundant collection of ornaments. My son is no longer a child. He’s bigger than I am and asks for dress shirts and cologne for gifts instead of toy helicopters. This year he tried to convince his eight-year-old sister that we didn’t need a tree.

“We’d be contributing to global warming,” he argues.  “And besides,” he adds as an afterthought, “we’re Jews.”

His words are a chorus to a song I’d long since forgotten. I catch my breath, wondering if my father, several years dead, is returning from the grave to finish our battle once and for all. But before I have time to respond, my eight-year-old daughter speaks for me.

“Have you lost your mind?” she shrieks with the authority of a person three times her age. “One stinkin tree is not going to make a difference.” She’s Montessori-educated, which gives her an edge. She also knows better than to touch the comment about being Jews. I, on the other hand, am ready to explain that our being Jewish is entirely beside the point. But I resist the urge because I know that one day my son will get it. He’ll understand that a tree decorated in white lights and weighted down with feathery angels – no matter where it comes from or why it’s standing in the corner of a living room — can’t help but bring joy into this world.

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Long Ago: Community Entry #2

“There are certainly times when my own everyday life seems to retreat so the life of the story can take me over. That is why a writer often needs space and time, so that he or she can abandon ordinary life and “live” with the characters.” –Margaret Mahy

The solace of the Montana woods fuels the muse...

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book. And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you. Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability. This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present. I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills. Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments.

The “Long Ago: Community” series is also a contest. The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana. So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here. We all seek community somehow. Let us know how community finds its way back to you. Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject. Please enjoy this lovely piece by Donna Jones Koppelman who blogs here. yrs. Laura

LONG AGO: COMMUNITY on the Outer Banks, by Donna Jones Koppelman

As a child, our family spent a great deal of time on the Outer Banks.  The house was in Buxton, near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, and we spent glorious summer days exploring the beach.  At that time, the area had only a small number of vacationers, and we would often go days without seeing others on the beach.  We had each other and the sea for companionship, and it was splendid.

For excitement, my siblings and I would walk up to the local tackle shop and admire the fishing lures.  Every so often, the man at the register would say the magic words, “Tell your daddy there’s action at the pier.”  We would run back to the cottage, give Dad the news, and then beg to come along.

Some days, we could see schools of fish, thick and dark in the water, and we’d pull the fish in one after another. Other days, a school of particularly large fish hung out by the pier to tempt us.  Often, one lucky fisherman or woman had caught something particularly large or unique.

Yes, sir, if there was action forty years ago on the Outer Banks, it was most likely on a pier.  Even if the fish weren’t biting, the pier acted as a gathering spot, a news center, and a social hub.

I don’t know if elderly people liked this particular pier or the population drifted toward the older and wiser set, but I remember my dad was always the young whippersnapper.  All the fishermen knew him by name, and he knew theirs.  But more importantly, they knew each other by their catches.  “Big Fred here caught the biggest shark anybody’s ever landed,” “One time Walter caught a marlin with a Rolex watch in his belly” and “Your daddy can clean a bluefish quicker and cleaner than a man twice his age.”  I knew which old woman had been hungry enough to stew an octopus, which men fished from their boats when the wind changed, who fed his cat fresh fish every night,  and where all their children had moved off to.

I learned a lot about life from these folks.  When I asked to pet a particularly charming  fish swimming around in a cooler, I was told, “Back off my supper, kid, this ain’t no damn aquarium.”   For the first time, I saw people who fished to eat, not for the sport of it.  And they all seemed pretty happy and content with that life.   I learned about sun damage long before anyone else talked about it.  These folks looked way older than their actual ages due to the lines and patterns of wrinkles that covered their faces and the backs of their hands,but I liked how it showed the world all they had seen and done.

These salty old men taught me how to read the sky for storms, how the wind direction affected the tide and the odds of catching certain kinds of fish.  They recalled in vivid detail the damages of every major hurricane of their lives, and described the year they got the ‘light lines’.    I learned that on a pier on the Outer Banks, a girl was treated no differently than a boy.

Back in my traditional southern hometown, I would have been told to stand back at a safe distance.  But here amongst these men and women, I baited slippery hooks and grabbed wriggly fish off a line because I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how.

But that community also valued safety.  They scolded my dad when they heard he had gone flounder gigging alone.  “Son, respect the water.”   They reminded him to “Straighten up those kids while you can”  and  “Make sure your kids know how to work.  If a man knows how to work, he can do anything.”   Old Fred used to say to me, “Do your sums and master that primer.”  I always agreed, but I had no idea he spoke of math and reading.

Every time we came to the pier, there was big news of some kind.  Mostly, it had to do with who had caught what in our absence, but often local politics and gossip crept into the conversations.  I realized that tourism had another side to it. Houses were springing up all over the place.  “Bigger than any fool needs,” they said.  I came to appreciate the simplicity of their living.  They might fish for hours, but when it came time to go home, they took what they needed for their dinner.  Then they shared the rest. That’s how they approached the picturesque coastlines of the Outer Banks, too.  “They can come and look all they want,” one woman used to say, “but don’t cover up our pretty beach with a house that sits empty most of the year.”

Once, after a hurricane, the piergoers stood around quietly until the regular crowd had gathered.  No one so much as opened a tackle box until they saw that everyone was okay.   Then they finally relaxed and resumed the usual joking and chatter.  They all agreed they had much to clean up and repair after the storm, but they had to eat, didn’t they?  But I knew they just needed to lay their eyes on their friends.  Even as a youngster, I saw how much they meant to each other.

One day I watched a woman give away some fresh fish.  “Go ahead,” she had insisted. “I have what I need for tonight.”

Even though I only saw them in the summertime, that community set the standard for me.  As an adult, when my husband and I searched for a place to raise our children,  we looked for a community like that pier on the Outer Banks, and we found it.  When my fourth baby was born, neighbors and friends brought us dinner for forty-four nights in a row.  And you know, I have brought them all dinner, too. Never have I caught that dinner on a hook, but I learned from those people on the pier the importance of sharing with my community.

Recently, I visited the pier closest to our home on the Outer Banks.  It is our favorite summer hang-out. The ten cent boiled shrimp, the cold beer specials, and the nightly beach band make it the perfect evening destination.   We sit at tables and eat together, catching up on the local politics and news that another house is coming up “bigger than any fool needs”.  Most of us don’t fish for our supper, we nod at the waitress to bring us the special.  Some of us know each other by name, and some of us know each other by the beer we drink, the food we favor, or the band that brings us out.  But it’s still a community.  We scans the crowd after a big storm to make sure all the familiar faces are there.  We still teach each other’s children things as they scamper around the deck.  “Don’t eat the tail of the shrimp. Pinch it off, like that.”  And “Respect the water, son.”   We talk about Hurricane Isabel and more recently, Hurricanes Irene and Sandy.

“We take care of each other around here,” someone always says.  “We look in on our neighbors.”

Because that’s what a good community does, and I am extraordinarily blessed to be a part of it.

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Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Long Ago: Community Entry #1

As you may know, I am spending the month of January in the dormancy of winter, working on a book.  And, like last year at this time, I am offering my blog to you.  Last year we looked into our Breaking Points and found community and grace in grief and vulnerability.  This year we are looking into our past, and finding the weaving of community that stitches us to our present.  I will be posting these pieces at These Here Hills.  Their authors will be happy to receive and respond to your comments. 

The “Long Ago:  Community” series is also a contest.  The winner will receive a scholarship to one of my upcoming Haven writing retreats in Montana.  So breathe deeply into a cherished memory of yesterday and today and share with us here.  We all seek community somehow.  Let us know how community finds its way back to you.  Here is the blog post I wrote about this subject.  Please enjoy this lovely piece by Mary Novaria.  yrs. Laura

The Saltwater Cure, by Mary Novaria

“The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too impatient.  One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.”

 –Anne Morrow Lindbergh

My mother grew up in a town by the sea. Her mother did as well. The women who came before them were mostly born and buried in Ireland, surrounded by the sea—except for a few who managed to escape the poor and inhospitable place in the 1880s. Born in Ballyvourney, or Baile Bhuirne in Gaelic, meaning “Town of the Beloved,” my great grandmother Nora crossed the Atlantic to the port of Boston on the SS Pavonia when she was 17 years old. Just a few years prior, my other great grandmother, Katherine, had arrived via the SS Samaria at the tender age of 15 from the County Limerick town of Abbeyfeale. Years later whenaher children began to pool their funds so they could send her back for a visit, Katherine told them not to bother, that she certainly had no intention of returning, however briefly. Her aversion to Ireland surely was fed by bitter recollections of famine, hardship and death in a land that later would be romanticized, idealized even, by my mother’s generation and my own.

I think about their blood—Nora’s and Katherine’s—running through my own. Even more so, I think of the sea, the punishing Atlantic that carried them humbly in steerage class to Boston, where they’d meet their mates (also from Ireland) and launch our family’s journey in America. Were they cold? Racked with seasickness? Were they frightened? Alone? I like to imagine there were shipboard romances, but I suspect there were not.

The sea was releasing them from somewhere as much as drawing them toward anyplace else. And so it is for me when I stand barefoot on the shore. Just as I have idealized my ancestors’ birthplace, so have I affixed some grand and majestic qualities to the sea. I wouldn’t be the first though, would I? How dare I, really, when others—Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Rumi, the Psalmist—have said pretty much all there is to say? And yet I do stand there feeling not only a connection to these women who came across—women I have never met in life, but perchance in spirit once before or, hopefully, in the future—but I am bonded to the ocean. Is it because of them I feel most at home by the sea? Or is it the sea that ties me to these women?

Their sea allowed them to escape. I doubt they looked upon the Atlantic—from either shore—as anything more than utilitarian, a place for men to fish or go off to war and, for Nora and Katherine, a means to an end, a way to get from there to here.

My life is not their life. I have never sent a man off to sea, or relied on it for my livelihood. When I flee it is by choice, running toward happiness and not, very often, from misery. My sea is my escape. I don’t have to board a steamship or slip into a kayak to be lost in it, although I do love to get my feet wet. Always have, and that must be innate. Unlike my mother and my grandmother, I was not raised in a town by the sea, unless you count Lake Michigan, which some call the “inland sea.” I don’t count it, though, because it is not salty and the preservative nature of salt somehow seems essential to my connection with the ocean.

Isak Dinesen, the Danish author best known for Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast, once wrote, “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.” It’s been a mantra of mine for many years now, as appropriate in the Pacific as it is in the Atlantic. In the four corners of this country and on foreign shores, I can count on the steady, healing presence of the ocean whether its mood is angry or light, its countenance threatening or playful, its color Caribbean blue or a steely New Hampshire gray. She’s a faithful friend, the sea. She listens and soothes. She reminds me of the relative smallness of my problems and nothing else seems as monumental or important as I tend to make it before I ground myself on her shore.

In 1905, my father’s father crossed to New York at age 18 to escape Northern Ireland, eloping with an older neighbor girl against his mother’s wishes. Five years later, he would return briefly to County Tyrone, a widower entrusting his four-year-old daughter Rose to the care of his sister in the family homestead. Charles returned to New York where he married my grandmother and had four more children, including my dad, who was the youngest. More than my grandmother or my father’s other siblings, it’s his half-sister Rose who’s forever lodged in my heart. All I know of her I’ve learned in the twelve years since my father’s death, from genealogy research and conversations with long lost family–still living on the homestead–in Tyrone, and Rose’s granddaughter, Marie, in New Jersey, the cousin I never knew I had.

I have nearly wept at Rose’s abandonment by my grandfather, a man I never knew and of whom my father rarely spoke. I’ve decided, perhaps unfairly, that he must have been another of Ireland’s angry, mean drunks, remote and authoritarian, harsh with his children. But what do I know of his pain for losing his first love? Still, it is Rose’s pain that resonates within me. What was it like, that voyage from New York to the port of Londonderry? In steerage, of course. They departed less than two months after Rose’s mother died. Was my grandfather loving and protective of her? Or was he off drinking with the men, anesthetizing his grief, leaving his daughter in the care of unfamiliar women? Did she have any idea her father was about to walk out of her life for the next fifteen years? That when she returned to New York as a young woman of 19, her father would have four more children with a new wife, including my dad, the youngest, at three years old? Whenever I picture Rose, I see her standing on the deck of that ship, tiny and alone, and I always wonder if she had a warm enough coat.

I never met Rose. I’ve never met her granddaughter, my cousin Marie, in person, although we’ve corresponded since we found each other several years ago. We share blood and history and, naturally, our love of the sea. It wouldn’t surprise me if Rose wasn’t too crazy about the sea, considering it separated her from her father for most of her life, but I don’t know. I’ll have to ask Marie about that.

I don’t recall my grandmother ever coming to the beach with us, as near as it was to her home. She was fair, redheaded and freckled and perhaps knew better than to subject herself to the sun. My mom has always loved being near the water; even on the water in a sizable boat was okay. But she’s never been comfortable in the water since she was caught in the undertow, nearly drowning at Plum Island, when she was three years old. You can bet I’ve carried that bit of trauma within my mother-self, always cautious with my kids at the shore.

More than six decades after my mom nearly drowned, our family gathered at Plum Island to fling my dad’s ashes into the sea—the same sea that once delivered our forebears to this shore, now somehow uniting for eternity ash and blood and sea water. I close my eyes and recall the salty spray of the Atlantic that day and imagine sweat and tears and sea. I wonder how many tears have been shed over the comings and goings of the sea. I picture Nora, Katherine, Rose—and me. I marvel that, through the sea, I am inextricably tied, like the most expert sailing knot, to these unmet, beloved women and I am in awe. Within that awe lies the truth: You can’t have a love affair with the sea without having the requisite amount of respect for its cataclysmic capabilities. You can’t see only its power to heal without knowing its authority to destroy. Therein is the reminder of its magnificent ability to give and to take. And that even after its most turbulent seizures the sea returns to a semblance of calm, leaving little treasures for us to pick up from the sand.

Mary Novaria lives between two slices of bread, trying to maintain her sanity, a sense of humor and some semblance of grace.  She is writing a sandwich
generation memoir. Find her blog, A Work in Progress, at
www.marynovaria.com or www.facebook.com/Mimsy811

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Filed under Blog series-- Long Ago: Community, My Posts

Filling Station

As seen on Huffington Post 50

When I was little, one of the things I most loved to do with my father was go to the gas station.  A child of the early 1900s, he called it the “filling station” and he always made sure that he had at least a half a tank of gas.  He took the filling station very seriously.  Shopped around for the best prices.  Knew the attendants and shot the breeze with them—Chicago Lake Effect weather, price of beans and corn down in central Illinois, the youth these days.  I kept my mouth shut and listened to the
soothing sound of his part scorn/part idolatry of it all.

And when we were back on the road, I memorized the lyrics and Big Band tunes on his a.m. radio station, “The Music of Your Life.”  This was safety to me.  The thought of women in white gloves, hats and heels, and smart cocktail dresses, and men in suits with slicked hair and doffed fedoras and overcoats…dancing in sync on a parquet dance floor with an orchestra and a cocktail waiting for them back at the small round table in a lowball glass.  I agreed:  what was wrong with the youth these days….sitting in ponchos and bell bottoms, smoking pot, talking about free love and war mongering?  I wanted his youth.  And I found it at the filling station.

I used to go there just to smell the gasoline, to see the rainbows of fuel in the wet pavement after a good old fashioned Midwestern thunderstorm, to see if the guy behind the counter might chat me up if I bought a Hershey’s bar or a bottle of Coke.  Over the years, I became friends with that guy.  His name was Bud.  He used to give me little plastic animals.  One time he gave me a whole tube full of Noah’s Arc plastic animals, who gladly joined my china figurines collection that I played with religiously (and now more religiously), in wooden structures I made in shop class.  I’m not sure what happened to Bud, but I do remember the look he gave me when I tried to buy beer in sixth grade.  Part scorn/part iconic.  The youth these days.

***

Now I live in a small mountain town in Montana.  I drive a big gas-guzzling truck because here…it’s justified, given the roads we travel and the creatures who travel it with us.  Thusly, I spend a lot of time at the gas station.  I go there for gas.  I go there for a carton of
milk.  I go there for elk meat.  I go there for box wine.  I go there for conversation.  Now my Bud is a guy called Murray.  For months he called me Laurie.  NOBODY calls me Laurie.  One day I got up the courage to tell this kind man with the Peace tattoo and the Jerry Garcia hair and the kind smile:  “I’m Laura.  Not Laurie.”  He looked at me in what I would come to know was mock-befuddlement, and belted out, “Hey, Munson!”

Now most every time I come into my gas station, there’s Murray saying, “Hey, Munson!”  I love this man.  Over the years, I’ve told him
jokes, we’ve shaken our heads over national tragedies playing out on the corner television.  He’s bought me a box of wine here and there.  He even gave me a glass horse figurine that he picked up at a consignment shop.  It’s clear with cobalt blue inside.  It sits next to another glass horse figurine that is almost identical, only I bought it for a lot of money at a glass-blowing factory in Venice.  The one I bought is on its knees, struggling to get up, neck craning and stretching.  The one Murray gave me…is just a little bit more on its feet.  I repeat:  I love this man.

A friend once told me, when I was new to Montana, that there are saints everywhere.  “Pay attention,” he said.  “They will stun you with their loving hearts.  Just when you least expect it.”

Well the other day, amidst all the holiday scrambling—sitting on the living room rug in a fit of wrapping paper, scissors, ribbons, and tape, my son entered the room and requested a ride to the ski resort in the town where we live.  Maybe you’ve noticed something about the kids these days:  they don’t make plans.  They text.  They walk in and demand things last minute, like your whole world revolves around their social life and their techno needs, even if it’s good clean fun like skiing.  I’ve got pretty amazing kids.  Kids who listen to NPR and write in journals and ring the Salvation Army bell.  Still…it’s different than it used to be and I’ve learned that being a mother requires some level of going with their flow, lest we be in constant conflict.  So I ditched the wrapping paper, and stuffed my night-shirt tails into my yoga pants, donned my Sorels, and with neither underwear nor bra, I grabbed my big parka and hit the road with my son.

You know that thing they say about always making sure to wear clean underwear?  Well…here’s what happened:

In the car on our way up the mountain, my son realized he had no money for his standard grilled cheese lunch at the Summit House.  I looked around for my purse, and there was no purse.  Which meant there was no money.  I always leave my purse in the car.  I was perplexed.  I said something to the tune of “Blame it on the holidaze.”  But then I realized that I had no license, and that just the other day I realized my registration had expired.  Blame it on the holidaze?  And my insurance card was expired.  And…then I looked at my gas gauge…and it was low.  Really low.  I always keep at least a half a tank of gas, just like my father.  And no cell phone to boot. This was so entirely not like me.  Holidaze?

I scanned the car for an errant twenty, or at least a five.  And there under the teacher gifts yet to be delivered on the dash, were two fives.  “Here, I’ll take one and you take the other,” my son said.

“I don’t know if I have enough gas to drive the ten miles home.  And my purse must be at home, so I have to go home in order to get money in order to get gas.”  I didn’t tell him about the part where I was driving totally illegally.  Not in unclean underwear, mind you…but in NO underwear.  Etc.  “Can’t you borrow some cash?” I said.

But there I was, teaching my child to be a mooch.  I humbly took the remaining five.  “Don’t worry, Mom.  That’s a gallon of gas.  And a gallon of gas goes fifteen miles.  We live ten miles from here and you probably have at least enough to get home and back to the gas station.”  He smiled, all faith.

For some reason, I bid him fondly adieu, feeling like a combo of Debbie Reynolds the later years, and Carrie Fisher, ditto.  What happened to me? I thought.  Two seconds ago I was in a twin set and khakis, fresh from the gym, with exfoliated skin and lunch plans. Now I am one beat-up Suburban away from bag lady with no buttons to push, and only an accelerator from which to hope for power. And then I remembered what my friend said about saints being everywhere.  And I thought of Murray.

So I pulled into my gas station on fumes, rehearsing what I could possibly say that wouldn’t be a total breach in customer privileges.  After all…what have I ever given him, except for a kiss on the cheek once when he told me that I was one of his favorite customers.  This after I’d spilled my guts about a particular glich in a particular relationship with a particular persona non-grata—also a customer of this said gas station.

Needless to say…I felt like the worst mooch ever.  Because I was about to ask him to spot me some cash.

I threw my shoulders back like my father used to do in facing an awkward situation.  Walked in.

“Hey, Munson,” he belted out.  “How’s it going?”

“Well…” I confessed, “Not so great, Murray.  I need gas.  And I don’t have any dough on me.  And I’m wondering…if I could borrow a few bucks to get home, so I can grab my purse, so I can come back and fill my tank and reimburse you.”  I looked past his Peace tattoo and into his kind eyes.  “I feel horrible, Murray.”

It’s a great experience going from the false power of button-pushing and bitching about little things like the holiday rush and the price of gas…to actually knowing that you are one step away from standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign, just to get home.  Where is our power, really?  Not in buttons.  I can tell you that.  It’s in making those connections with real live people over the course of time. It’s about looking in their eyes and past their tattoos and into their hearts.  And sometimes, it’s about asking for help.

Of course Murray spotted me that cash.  Saints are like that.

Look around.  Pay attention.  Chat with the people at your local filling station.  And be filled.

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Filed under Little Hymns to Montana, My Posts

Journal a life.

I have always had a journal– back to 4th grade (see the pink patent leather with the lock and the word PRIVATE). The early ones are about boys and best friends. The middle ones are about being afraid to die and being afraid to live and being afraid in general– mostly of myself. Oh, and also about boys. And God. And the more recent ones are all written from the hot cramped cabins of airplanes. I’m a claustrophobe who hates to fly– the one pretending she’s blithely involved in the NYT crossword puzzle, but who is in reality, sitting there begging the heavens for smooth skies and a safe landing. To the tune of: Please don’t let anything scary happen. Please don’t let anything scary happen. And I travel a lot. So if anyone ever reads my journals from the last ten or so years of my life, they will put me in the annals of crazytown. Each entry is written as if the plane’s going down and I need to say just…one…last…thing about life and what it is to be human and mortal.

I’ve kept them all. But I’ve never re-read them. I’m too afraid to see that I haven’t changed or learned anything. Or am still complaining about THAT thing which I should have figured out how to get over years ago. I’m too afraid to see the broken record that is me. Or too sad to see big dreams unrealized. Or remember all the years I spent suffering for something that actually DOES come my way– good, bad, or indifferent.

I’m not sure what purpose the journal serves. I just know that it is my lover, best friend, confidant, safe house. I can feel them in the box in my writing room closet, sitting there with all my history and hysteria; I can hear the many voices of me and feel the pulse that drives them to want to write my story in those private pages. I love them. Even when I don’t love myself.

The other day, for some reason…I missed them. So I braved it and took them out, spread them on the staircase and ran my hands over them. Each of them like long lost loved ones with whom, upon first sight, you pick up exactly where you left off. I was suddenly hungry for my earlier selves, and dared myself to dig in. A summer in Spain looked like a good place to start. I took that Asian silk wrapped journal from a head shop in my childhood town (back when there were head shops), and opened it in the middle. Read the words, “If God is so good then…” and slammed the book closed. Couldn’t do it. Italy–that was a good year. I opened that journal, covered in marbleized Italian paper. “I hate Americans. All they care about is…” Slammed that one shut too. Maybe one from sixth grade instead. “I’m in my treehouse hiding.” Nope. Instead I decided to just lay my hands on them and thank the words that I needed to spring…knowing that they somehow needed to spring and believing they helped…and took a picture.

In that moment, I have never been more certain that the past is the past, and is meant to be left behind. It was a powerful exercise. It reminded me that I have spent a lot of my life in deep thought, moving around a pen to the tune of my emotions in a little book that lives somewhere close. Until it is full. And then it goes into a box in a closet for safe keeping. I’m proud of that. That’s where all those words belong. In a box.

I think someday, if and when I’m an old woman, maybe I might be brave enough to go back and see who I’ve been all these years. Until then, I write in my journals where I am free to be exactly who I am without anyone’s judgement but my own. Maybe that nails it: when I am writing in my journal, I am not a self-critic. I am not crafting story. I can be my most despicable and dreamy self. And who wants to re-visit that? Not me. Not yet.

I invite you to do the same. Collect all your journals and spread them out. Bask in them for a bit. Read some if you must. And put them back from whence they came. Send me the photo.

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Filed under A Place For Writers To Share, My Posts