“I watched as my grandmother let down her pinned-up hair to brush it out… I brushed my grandmother’s hair, which extended long past her waist.”

It comes on the invitation of this image Joy Harjo drops into her recent work, Poet Warrior, one among the many that drift in mind as I pick up these pages bound together by living again and again.

It is the summer that we cannot spend as always we have done, leaving the city behind, at our family home on the Oregon Coast. An earthquake in Alaska has unleashed waves far away, rattling the land where our house sits on a cliff overlooking Miss Pacific. It is 1964; I am 13.

When all settles, there is a crack in the foundation of the “new addition,” and this extension to the original house has fallen away. It will take most of the summer to reunite the pieces of our home. So my mother packs four of the six of us that still spend summers in blissful idleness without summer jobs into the station wagon and takes us inland to join our cousins.

This is new for us, family together in summer. My grandmother has her own cabin, and if I’m honest, I don’t know her nearly as well as my cousins do. This is their yearly retreat together; they head to the mountains and the Metolius River away from the coast. My aunt and uncle rent one cabin, my grandmother another. Their days smell of pine and pitch and a raft floating on the calm surface of a dammed creek.

I love this heat, this opportunity to ride horses and swim, my cousins at the ready for whatever adventure, everyone coming together for dinner at the lodge. After one dinner when my grandmother has begged off, my mom asks me to go check on her, take her some food perhaps, even though each cabin has a small kitchen.

Her cabin is tucked away beneath the shade of towering pines. Juniper surrounds the back and fills the air as the day’s warmth departs. I do not want to disturb her—our relationship is a tentative one—and what if she is resting?

I gently push the door open, the room shadowed except, as I lift my eyes to the one pool of light, I see her, seated before a dressing table, her back to me. While she might be aware of me, I am held captive by her hair, a wavy silver cascade down her back, thinner near the end where strands meet her waist. I have never seen her like this, undone.

My grandmother is a formal person, a woman mysterious to me when fully clothed and readied for the day. She carries the time before my time with reserve, with dignity. But in the moment she catches my eye in the mirror, she says, “Come here, Patricia. Would you help me brush my hair?”

I tiptoe across the wood floor, reaching for the brush she hands me, the plate abandoned on a side table. And I begin. I have never seen her this way. We have never shared any moment like this. I am careful—this ritual bears no resemblance to my mother wrangling with my tangles to tame them into a braid.

My memory stops there, the strokes, the dim room, the softly closed eyes of my grandmother, her neck tipped back to me, as I guide the brush through all that silver.

(Thanks to Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for sharing ways of being in this world.)

500 Characters

Remember when essay requirements included word counts. Now it’s characters, and I think that’s better. Should “I” count as equal to identity? I don’t think so. What I have discovered is that putting boundaries on writing ups my game; there’s great power in small, in succinct, in the struggle to economize—at least for me.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

― Mark Twain

Mark Twain was right! So when I apply for the NCTE scholarship offered to members wishing to attend the Homecoming conference in Louisville this July, I know that the 500 characters must be well-chosen—they come at a cost.

This meeting is the first in-person event NCTE has offered since the world stuttered to a stop in March 2020. Yes, the organization has continued to offer high-quality professional development, to leverage the power of virtual engagement, but …if you have ever attended an in-person conference, then you are aware of the difference (and at this point, we all are).

This will be my first “Affiliate Leadership Meeting.” I’m new to leadership, and frankly, new to this state and its branch—OCTE. But I am president-elect, and “programs” chair. Through the pandemic I have worked with our amazing OCTE president to learn the ropes, make some connections, and coordinate efforts for online conferences and book clubs. It has forced me to grow.

This marks a giant step outside my comfort zone. Louisville will challenge me in new ways. And because I am being sponsored by OCTE, I feel added weight, so when I get the chance to contribute, I take it; the scholarship application grants me 500 characters to plead my case. These are the ones that make the cut:

On Friday I learn that I have received the scholarship! Does it pay for ridiculously high airfare? No. Does it defray hotel expenses? No. It does, however, pay for my registration and two meals. Most importantly, it proves that the right characters, those small marks that embody thoughts, can make a difference.

The Best Thing

The best thing I saw yesterday on a classroom wall

“What’s the best thing to happen to you today?” Austin Kleon poses this as an alternative invitation to the customary, “What happened yesterday?” and contends that our minds naturally go to the negative. But, by simply altering the expectation, we search for the good. (He rightly acknowledges that sometimes he’s got nothing—no toxic positivity spread by him!)

I begin my days early, and today is no exception. I have to deny requests to substitute on this, the last day of school, because of a scheduled dental appointment. That process starts at 5:30 a.m. Before me lies the prospect of writing this Tuesday post, I have yet to break my commitment made in March at the end of the Challenge, making reservations for NCTE’s Homecoming event, the first in person for affiliates, and dealing with a bill I received yesterday for an eye appointment test that should’ve (at least I think) been paid.

Already a “best thing” has happened: two phone employees made my day!

First I struggled with the hotel reservation for my conference. A glitch—maybe on me—wouldn’t allow me to add my state to the registration. I tried several approaches to get the green, instead of the red, “error” box, to no avail. I called the reservation contact number and met Stephanie who calmly responded, “I can help you with that.” And she did!

Next I contacted my insurance company and worked with Jamie. It wasn’t easy to sort through the problem, but step-by-step we did, and it involved a bit of collaboration and patience. When it came to the survey, something I usually complete when it involves positive personnel feedback, I gave her highest ratings and commented, “If cloning were possible, I’d recommend Jamie as a candidate.”

I have written much about gratitude toward dedicated workers who can change my mood in a heartbeat and restore eroded faith. They can also make my day—and finding the “best thing” easy to do—even at 7 a.m.

The Magic Three

“What verbs control your life?” Pádraig Ó Tuama asks this during his introduction to “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work,” from Tiana Clark’s poem featured on a recent episode of Poetry Unbound. (It’s worth a listen—if only to hear Pádraig.)


READ: I am a reader and have been since I first learned. My two older siblings dangled that key before me, already school age, me pining from my four-years-away-still perspective. But at five, that door unlocked for me, and ironically the first book I read from JK Gill’s was It Happened One Day!

TEACH: My next-favorite way to fill those rainy Portland afternoons was playing school with my siblings—I’ve written about teaching so often here already, after all this enterprise is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers, so…enough said. I continue to engage with my profession wholeheartedly: I am a professional development junkie!

MOVE: I never want to slow down even though I see it happening with each year. Despite my best intentions with my Fitbit’s haptic alerts, the time I spend reading increases while the time I spend walking, hiking, practicing yoga, swimming diminishes. I tend to castigate myself for this (as my husband can attest—so sorry, honey) and mourn the loss of my stamina after a day spent mostly afoot as a substitute. It takes me longer to recover from a three-day stint than it used to take for five!

LEARN: I only hope I never stop this; I am curious by nature, and the world offers so many opportunities! Just this morning I watched an Op-Docs feature at the New York Times, “Five Days of Fear” that reinforced how shared our humanity is, whether Polish or American, we are global residents—and caring, wondering, living humans first.

Those verbs say it all: CARE, WONDER, LIVE—the magic three!