The Best Laid Plans

“But the thing worth doing well done/has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident./The pitcher cries for water to carry/and a person for work that is real.”

—Marge Piercy from “To Be of Use”

I have found my “work that is real.” I discovered it early, retired from it, and returned to it part-time as a substitute in February, 2019. Teaching.

When I see the email’s subject line, “Do you plan to work with ESS?” I am not surprised. Last summer my school district turned the management of substitute teachers over to a national outfit Employee Self-Service. As of January 2020, the system took over, but because I now knew several teachers and had found a bit of a “home” at the nearby middle school, I was fine with it.

Of course along with everyone else, my work stopped abruptly in March, a week before the scheduled spring break. Our district took some time getting itself restarted, but it did resume, continued feeding those who depended upon it, and delivered devices to those households that opted to go online. Additionally the iconic yellow school buses rattled almost empty delivering books and supplies for those who preferred that.

Just last week the local paper published its reopening guidelines for next fall. The Oregon State Department of Education has okayed three models and allows districts choice. Complicating that decision—as if we don’t already know—is the requirement for social distance: 35 square feet for each person. Lincoln County has decided on the “hybrid option,” primarily with A and B days and cohorts to accommodate both distancing and consistency of contact. The first group is scheduled to start on Thursday, September 10, the second the next day.

That, however, doesn’t help me. Substitute teachers generally don’t see much action until October anyway. That question, “Do you plan to work for ESS?” supersedes all my other concerns. The email asks us to take a survey; it consists of three items:my name, the district name, and the question,”Do you plan to return?” followed by a box for comments. The deadline is August 1, 2020.

I’m only certain as I navigate the sea of this virus that I should not return to substitute teaching. That I will turn 69 in September figures prominently in my decision, but the reality of not participating in my real work pierces my heart. There will be alternatives; I know I will find a way to be useful because necessity, invention, all that.

I procrastinated writing this post today primarily because I didn’t want to commit with written words. That’s how I know I’ve found my truth—for now. I will comment and request that when there is a vaccine, I be given another opportunity to respond. Who knows when that will be? No one— but I, like everyone else, will do my best until that time comes.

Joyful Noise

Have you ever listened to The Daily, a podcast offered Monday through Friday by the New York Times? I’m not an avid follower, but if you haven’t heard the episode from June 26, I heartily recommend it. Send your spirits soaring if they need a boost and if not, well, lucky you!

Maybe a silver lining that this time home has given me is podcasts. In the past after returning home from a day of substitute teaching, I’d want silence as I chopped vegetables for salad or otherwise prepared dinner and unwound. Occasionally I experience tinnitus which a day surrounded by school sounds exacerbates. It’s merely an annoyance, I know, and sporadic, a function of being over 60 and my history of lots of loud music, but post-school silence is golden.

I’ve awakened to a poem in my inbox for years, a quiet aubade and a habit begun over a decade ago when April brought National Poetry month. Now, however, I not only read poems delivered by the Academy of American Poets and the Writer’s Almanac (also available as a podcast) each day, but I savor the sound of The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith which she began during her tenure as United States Poet Laureate. I sit with my pen poised over my notebook and know that I’ll find something to set me writing. My journaling has blossomed with her morning reflections—five miraculous minutes.

I anticipate Friday mornings and the new feature that The Moth has incorporated into its weekly line-up, “All Together Now Fridays.” This podcast first aired in 1997 and features extraordinary storytellers. Every episode concludes with: “Have a story-worthy week.” I love that! During this enforced stay-at-home time, it offers the Friday shortened version, under half an hour, and closes with writing suggestions. Usually I’ve heard something from the storytellers that throws me into my own experiences, and I’m writing away by the conclusion. I love the FULL Moth broadcasts, but Fridays are my fix.

I listened to the June 26th episode of The Daily this morning, intrigued by both the title, “A Bit of Relief:The Long-Distance Chorus,” and the blurb that introduces a 22-year veteran Staten Island music teacher of chorus for fourth and fifth graders. I am late to this party, and I know online versions of graduations abound, but there’s something special about Gregg Breinberg.

“And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”

—from Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”

How Do You Spell…?

It’s the first time we’ve gotten together as a group since late February. The six of us met on our patio in the early evening yesterday, a belated solstice celebration. Our three houses line up side-by-side on the Oregon Coast. We have been full-time neighbors since my husband and I relocated here, “back home” for me, but the beach house front yard where we’re coming together has been in my family for eight decades. It once perched solitary, surveying wind and water and the steady flash of Yaquina Head lighthouse. We are lucky to find ourselves here.

We’re talking about “Covid conversations,”the ones we probably wouldn’t have if we were out and about in the world, busy doing. Bob has brought a New Yorker magazine with him (in addition to macaroni salad!), the one with a Roz Chast cartoon on the cover. Curiosity piqued, I ask, “”What’s up with that?” He opens to an article featuring a movie-star-magnetic face. It’s about monetizing baseball, when that began, and the face is Lou Gehrig’s. He reads this from the opening page:

“As long as you have stars and scores, you have an industry. Hot-dog venders and parking lot attendants will be out of work, but most of the business can go on.”

He pauses and says, “So how do you spell vendors?” And I proceed to spell it the way I’ve just written it: V-E-N-D-O-R-S. (I have blogged here about our participation in an annual spelling-bee fundraiser, so maybe not so Covid-convo?!) He slaps the magazine and quips,”Why can’t they get a decent editor at the New Yorker?” Laughter. He had asked his wife Michele the same spelling question the night before, sleep capturing them both before any resolution.

Michele asks Google because here we all are, the team, wide-awake. The response comes quickly:

Google search results, screen shot

There you have it—only posers or New Yorker authors! Mystery solved.

Ah, friendship, I have missed your physical proximity, the real-time conversations. We are so lucky to be here.

The Pen Is Mighty

My newly-hired teaching teammate Christin and I had traveled to South Africa with the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and its South African Initiative. It was 2004, 10 years since that country held its first democratic elections and the formal end to apartheid. When Rutgers offered this opportunity via the GSE newsletter, I jumped on it.

We had been studying the American civil rights movement in eighth grade book clubs. Earlier that year, I had taken our students to a performance of Sharon Katz and the Peace Train; it had galvanized me to learn more. My students felt the same. Christin had been to South Africa and was eager to return. I wrote a grant to a local foundation promising an eighth grade project with community involvement to secure funding, and I got it.

I often tell my students that writing has power. Writing was my ticket to South Africa—not once, but twice. It was when I returned from my first trip though that that intrepid act changed everything. I learned that Linda Biehl, the mother of Amy Biehl, was visiting New York City fundraising for the Biehl Foundation.

We had learned Amy’s story while we were in South Africa and had briefly visited the Foundation. She had been killed in the last violent days before the first election, dragged from her vehicle, stabbed and stoned. She had been naive perhaps but innocent, there working to assist South Africans in their fight to end apartheid. She had intended to fly home to the US the next day to begin graduate work at Rutgers.

In her stead her parents embraced Amy’s passion for a better world, forgave her killers through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and engaged tirelessly in the transformation their daughter had envisioned. We wanted to involve our students in this cause and foster awareness of the common struggle for human and civil rights across the globe.

You can read more about Amy and the Foundation and its current work here. In 2004, however, Linda was instrumental in the Foundation and meeting her personally was unlikely; she was extremely busy. When I learned that she would be in New York, I wrote her an email introducing myself and explaining our mission. For whatever reason, she agreed to meet with us for an hour on Sunday morning, 10 a.m.

Meeting her changed everything for us. We now had a personal relationship to underpin our commitment, to sustain us whenever fundraising enthusiasm flagged, either our students’ or ours. We maintained our connection throughout our years-long involvement with the Foundation, raising substantial support to pay for children to attend school and after-school programs in Cape Town.

All because of a few well-chosen words.

(Thanks to the ISOLATION JOURNALS for this invitation to write. If you need a place for inspiration, please check it out.)

Of Like Minds

Above is yesterday’s journal entry as I reflect on my recent completion of Lisa Brennan-Jobs memoir Small Fry. There’s nothing particularly significant about it; I’m sure I’m not the only one who fixates on one small, insignificant moment of a larger story just because a published author has represented a similar experience.

This morning I get an email from my sister. Our communications are spotty since she moved to Acapulco over two years ago—within months of my relocation to the west coast. (So much for my dreams of us spending a lot more time together.) I provide her with a US address, though, so bank statements always precipitate some monthly email back-and-forth. She’s contemplating her derailed summer visit, something that still lives in limbo, but has fingers crossed. She misses her granddaughters so, and is talking about them and her lingering hopes. She writes:”Remember the coffee plant below Fairfax with MJB on a wall, backed in forest green?  Years ago, I told the girls it turned out to be an omen for me…”

I get chills because, even though we live countries apart, we have both thought about that same coffee plant visible from our childhood home perched in the northwest hills in the last 24 hours and for both of us it was an omen of a sort. (We have never discussed this, I swear. I was always a bit embarrassed truthfully.) Yet, here it is, both included in a conversation with her grandchildren and in my daily writing.

When people talk about “signs,” about visiting psychics, about the “other world,” the spiritual one, I balk. What I do know for sure is that we have uncanny connections with those we love right here on earth. That’s heaven for me.

A Break in Tradition

I knew it was coming when I saw the Facebook post from the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) yesterday afternoon. Then this morning the National Council of Teachers of English sent an email to all members announcing that the annual convention would go virtual after an 110-year face-to-face run.

In the grand scheme of all that the world is dealing with (I tear as I type those words: no words can do justice), it’s a negligible loss, but it is a loss, one added to the endlessly mounting pile. I’ve written about the value of coming together with devoted educators, the hive of learning that professional organizations afford their members before.

As I exited the closing session in Baltimore, 2019, I received a blank notebook

When “things come together,” when there is union such as the convergence of two rivers, the flow joining to create a stronger body able to carve its way through rock over time, the apparently immovable remade, a fateful choice for a convention theme: confluencia!

And these words stored on its once-blank pages:

It’s great to not to be finished EVER!

I’m clinging to that.

Gone, but Not Forgotten

What’s in My Journal

by William Stafford

Odd things, like a button drawer. Mean
Thing, fishhooks, barbs in your hand.
But marbles too. A genius for being agreeable.
Junkyard crucifixes, voluptuous
discards. Space for knickknacks, and for
Alaska. Evidence to hang me, or to beatify.
Clues that lead nowhere, that never connected
anyway. Deliberate obfuscation, the kind
that takes genius. Chasms in character.
Loud omissions. Mornings that yawn above
a new grave. Pages you know exist
but you can’t find them. Someone’s terribly
inevitable life story, maybe mine.

“What’s In My Journal” by William Stafford, from Crossing Unmarked Snow © Harper Collins, 1981.

This poem by William Stafford would welcome our class on the first day we returned from winter break in January. By that time, my students and I had been journaling together since our first day in September although we called it a “writer’s notebook” or a “commonplace book.” Yes, I know they aren’t interchangeable, but the spirit behind them is similar: to chronicle a life.

On one of our summer trips from New Jersey to Oregon, my son Sam was maybe eight, we decided to spend a glorious sunny day in Portland before driving to our final destination, the Oregon Coast. I wanted Sam to see some of my favorite childhood haunts and that included Macleay Park, the Lower trail.

(photo Wikimedia Commons)

When we had claimed our rental car at the airport, the agent warned us about the recent rash of car thefts targeting rental vehicle. I registered what he said, but in that cavalier way of a native returning home. My mind was fixed on wooing my son with west coast wonder. It was only after we’d returned to our parked car in the wooded lot, the beauty of a day spent among trees and birds and unfamiliar terrain buoying our spirits, that I noticed the sign the front bumper kissed, the warning clear: make sure all cars are locked and valuables secured.

I had taken my wallet, a stroke of luck, but everything from the car had been stolen. Stunned, I stood there chiding myself. Nothing remained, and then I heard Sam’s small voice at my elbow, “Mommy, my journal’s gone.” Along with clothes, and an electronic game that had gotten him through the cross-country flight, a wetsuit for braving the Pacific, Sam had lost his journal.

Clothes and games, the other items that as the trip unfolded we realized we’d lost, could be replaced, but the “agreeable,” amenable stories and drawings of his young life so far were gone. I bought a replacement journal, its crisp blank pages begging for attention, but Sam experienced in the concrete: “Pages you know exist/ but you can’t find them” —what we all know as we return to the pages we’ve written that show us who we are, warts and all, the “terribly inevitable life’s story,” that those words, those moments, are in the wind.

When the Isolation Journals prompt for yesterday asks to “Write a journal entry about why you journal,” I remember that day, and all the writing days that have followed for the both of us as we continue to live and to record.

Room for Growth

Because it’s only a memory now, the reality of moving into this house and the first catawampus days—oh, let’s be honest—weeks, I can only feel grateful. The move itself involved less than two miles, but the emotional distance, immeasurable. Sometimes I think moving up the street was more difficult. This was our second move in less than two years, and there was some anxiety around it, no NIMH data necessary.

The room that would become our bedroom is what my husband tackled first. In less time than it has taken for any other paint color/carpet decision, he had begun work on our retreat from the rest of the house. Meanwhile, we put our mattress on the scrupulously vacuumed and thoroughly cleaned spare bedroom floor. The unfamiliar light from community-maintained fixtures shone through the aged blinds onto the bed during that first month. I didn’t care, truthfully; I was exhausted by a long-term substitute gig with second graders (note to self: never again!).

Each morning I’d go off to work while my husband performed his magic at the other end of the house, relieved that I could leave the it behind. I’d come home, barely keep myself awake ’til 8 when I could ease myself onto the floor once again. By the end of the month and a half it took to get everything the way he wanted it, the light outside had become friendly, predictable, my clothes in various containers, the lack of an intentional, here’s-where-I’ll-put-that space only underscored our new life of possibility.

When I look back at that transition, I smile. That room has its own personality now: shades of blue, crisp sheets, bed off the floor, favorite art, red cabinet, still spare but home. And I am grateful for it all, especially for my husband who made it happen.

(prompt inspired by THE ISOLATION JOURNALS)

Try Our Take-Out

When the phone rings on a Tuesday afternoon, I’m noncommittal about answering. So many robocalls these days, but there it sits, handy. The number registers as in-state even if there’s no name attached. Curious, I answer.

“This is the Newport Public Library,” follows my “Hello.” It turns out they have been holding a book for me, one I requested way back before they shut down, a collection of poetry by Carl Phillips Wild Is the Wind, better yet, they are calling to let me make an appointment to pick it up.


“Hooray!” is my first thought, then “When did this option become available?” I voice neither, but I eagerly schedule my pickup for the next day.  I am down to one remaining borrow on my Hoopla account, yet it’s only May 5th—not a good sign. The money I have spent on ebooks, and the workout my ancient Nook color has borne with some resistance, attest to the fact that, unlike others who are struggling to read, to focus during this time, I can still escape with the best of them! And escape (therapy) I must!

I show up within the 30 minute window but barely because, guess what? I was reading. The librarian loves that when I explain my near-miss. Both of us muffled by brightly decorated, non-medical face masks, chat over a book cart and at least six feet of distance. She lets me know that, if I request a book from the local branch, I can repeat our exchange every week, but only once, she cautions. With this news, my heart races—not sorry, no lie.

Yesterday I get another call, but I’m too late to answer. Again a number without a name, but I call back, and yes, it’s the Newport Public Library. Time to schedule a pick-up. (Good thing, too. Yesterday I used my last Hoopla ebook borrow: The Opposite of Everything by Joshilyn Jackson).

Tomorrow’s the day. Here’s my list. I love my library!Screen Shot 2020-05-12 at 8.09.02 AM

Human Links

That it’s Tuesday took me by surprise; learning the actual name of the 24-hour period we call a day happens more and more. That is one of the effects I’ve noted as our stay-at-home period lengthens. No longer are my hours circumscribed by a day in someone’s classroom filling in for a missing teacher. I am the one missing.

Several weeks ago a good friend introduced me to Suleika Jaouad and The Isolation Journals project via Instagram. Avid New York Times reader that I am, I still had somehow missed her brilliant, moving “Life Interrupted: The 100 Days Project” which is to be published recast next February (can we all keep breathing and being ’til February 2021, please?) as Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted

But The Isolation Journals has provided me with the writing push when I sat frozen, pen-in-hand. Jaouad has enlisted the creative support of musicians and writers—thanks to one post, I learned about the rare talent of Jon Batiste who now dominates my Spotify rotation. (Recently Stephen Colbert featured his “Scores Your Chores”playlist. You should check it out.)

I apologize for all these links and realize that many of them will sit idle, but hey, I had to try because truly, the creative selves that we are will not be denied. A young man who was tapped for West Point from a nearby high school in 2016, the local newspaper headline announces, is “doing extraordinary things.” Cadet Easton Smith, determined to help during this global pandemic, retreated to his “girlfriend’s dad’s basement on Cape Cod” and emerged 15 hours later with a design for a “unique, inexpensive ventilator.” The human being is a wonderful, awful thing. We are seeing both amplified.

Despite the muddling of days and the mundane tasks that often fill the landscape before us, many of us find ourselves exploring inside—our insides. And that gives me hope. I’ll take this time to show up, to be present, missing as little as possible. I know I’m not alone.