All the Bests

Are you tired of “best” lists yet? It’s not that I resent them exactly, but…maybe partially. For me a taking-stock generally happens as September arrives because I’m a teacher—and if I’m rethinking my year, that’s the time to do it.

But this Tuesday bids me to consider that this is my last blog post of 2022. A measure of pride attaches to the fact that I have posted each and every Tuesday since I committed to do so after last March’s month-long challenge. For many who participate with the wonderful Two Writing Teachers blogging invitations, my feat hardly bears notice. They have been posting for years. And I haven’t even finished a full year of Tuesdays—but I have every intention of doing so.

I have reviewed my post list since January 1, hoping to find a clear “best of” lineup to no avail. Once during a class I was taking with Tom Romano, he unabashedly admitted that he finds revision really difficult because when he reads over what he’s written, he loves almost all of it. I wanted to nod my head in agreement, but he’s Tom Romano and I—am clearly not!

This morning I opened the notebook I started last year on January first—how the two coincided I have no idea—and found the first poem I affixed to page six, “Holding the Light,”by Stuart Kestenbaum. Are you familiar with it?

All five stanzas make my heart sing, but it’s the last two that sent me on a postcard, thanking me for my annual donation yesterday. (That’s another thing that happens at the year’s end: pleas for financial support, and the hard decisions that arise from making a choice among so many worthy causes.)

“it all comes down to this:/In our imperfect world/we are meant to repair/and stitch together/what beauty there is, stitch it/with compassion and wire./See how everything/we have made gathers/the light inside itself/and overflows? A blessing.”

I cannot choose my “bests” because why? I love so many poems, so many books, so many and so much. That will have to be good enough.

Joy in Pairs

Happy Birthday, Twins!

Last year’s celebration !

Mom’s half-hearted attempts to move my twin brother Nick and his twin sister Anita’s birthday celebrations to the mid-year point, June 20th, to make it an almost-summer event rather than the collision-with-Christmas that it inevitably became…Six kids, economic wherewithal, loving parents, lots of letters to Santa, failed.

Now…how to distinguish the 20th? That was a challenge. Birthday traditions at our house involved mom making our favorite dinners. That meant double-duty for her with the twins amid the maelstrom of preparation for the annual Christmas Eve party our parents hosted. Alongside the lobster and oysters, the stuffing and turkey, mom would have to manage twin dinners that changed as taste buds evolved. I do remember beef stroganoff and chipped beef, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding—variations on a theme. Fortunately, my mom could cook!

Their birthday cakes, old-fashioned white cake prepared by Helen Bernhardt’s bakery on Portland’s east side, never varied. Dark chocolate frosting and filling, four layers tall, with piped names and decorations—classic. Double delight!

But what made it special? The 20th became—hear the trumpets blow—the day we got our Christmas tree. I remember almost nothing of the actual process of selecting it. What sticks with me is the corner where it stood in our living room in its red-and-green metal stand overlaid with a decorated green felt tree skirt, the boxes of ornaments covering the floor, the strings of lights and finding the culprit bulbs that shut down all the rest as Nat King Cole and Andy Williams crooned from the stereo speakers in the dining room.

When the lights were finally lit, mirrored in the nearby picture window, amid the strands of silver that had fallen to the carpet, the twins sat in their footie pajamas, basking in what made their birthday the most celebrated of all.

Happy Birthday, Nick and Anita! I’m so glad you came—then and now.

Coming of Age

“Lyft Driver has accepted your ride,” so my traveling day has officially begun. In a few hours I will be heading out for the Raleigh-Durham airport after a family-filled trip across country to celebrate my great-nephew’s bar mitzvah.

When the invitation came, I didn’t hesitate one bit. His mom, my niece- by-marriage, has always been a favorite of mine. She is a strong-willed, brilliant, and beautiful woman now, mother of two boys, whom I miss seeing as we are live on separate coasts. Five years ago, just as my husband and I were heading to Oregon beginning our retirement journey, she, her husband, and sons left New Jersey for North Carolina. Five years ago, my great-nephew was eight—and I never thought of him as my “great-nephew.” He was just Ben, or “Benjo,” a little kid.

Have you ever attended a bar mitzvah? This one, after so long away from both the ceremony itself and the preparation that surrounds any watershed moment like it, flooded me with memories. My eyes filled almost immediately as he accepted his Tallith, the traditional prayer shawl that is given to mark attaining majority age, on the bimah, the place in front of the congregation where the service takes place.

Temples vary in their practices depending on the type. Ours was very liberal, so I, as a non-Jew, was still able to participate, to speak when an opportunity was given to the parents. My husband deferred to me. It, too, was in December—December 2001 in the long shadow of September 11th. Sam, like all those members of his Hebrew class, were right to feel the weight of adulthood. The entire country was staggering under it. Those memories came to me.

Jewish music surprised me when I first began attending regularly; it all sounded so bleak. “That’s because it’s written in the minor key,” my husband explained. Ben’s service was conducted by a rabbi with a strong, melodic voice carrying the prayers and song on a tide of celebration despite the woeful timbre. And despite my years away, the most familiar came back to me, toes tingling, hums buzzing in my chest.

I held my breath as Ben grappled with his Torah portion, the story of Jacob and Esau particularly poignant as it reflected the sibling rivalry he knows all too well. Ben handled his commentary deftly, acknowledging that passing time might give him the ability to mend the relationship with his brother, “even if I can’t imagine it now,” as we chuckled.

I felt the prickle of tears as the ceremony concluded. And I feel them again, as we get ready to leave. We are all growing older.

Another Sweet Moment (Sponsored by NCTE)

Friday had been a long, full day of one amazing presentation after another. Did we even eat lunch? I’m not sure. What I know is that the morning opened with an inspiring and galvanizing chat—I say that because the cozy, just-friends-talking-together-with-open-hearts mood Nic Stone created with her manner despite the packed arena—set the warm and purposeful tone.

Now it was the final session: I.24, “Mentor Texts as Lighthouses: Using Real-World Texts to Guide and Inspire Young Writers, Room 208-A.” Early in my online pandemic teaching, I had joined Rebekah O’Dell’s subscription-based group, now called “Moving Writers,” based on the long-running website of the same name. (If you have never visited the site and are interested in middle and high school best literacy practices, you should.)

Rebekah and her colleague Allison Marchetti had shaped much of what I think about and how I approach literary analysis and in their latest book, A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts, had provided many practical lessons to use with my students. I was excited to be in the same room with my mentors. But…I was tired, and hungry, and teeming with ideas from an already-packed schedule.

A round table beckoned with friendly faces beaming as I took a seat. The person on my right reached into a bag she’d been carrying, extracted a handful of something, and placed them in the center of the table. “Would anyone like a caramel?”

I do my best to avoid sugar and don’t eat much at these conventions—time is so wonky—but as I watched eager hands reach into the center, the pile disappearing, my mouth watered. There was one left, a jaunty, paper-wrapped concoction—mine!

Oh my golly, what a burst of sweet and spicy. “What is this one? I’ve never tasted anything quite so delicious.” Kathrine, I learned her name, explained that this recipe was for a certain chocolate caramel. “But the heat…where does that come from? I want this recipe…I’ll make them; it won’t be wasted, I promise.”

I learned she was from Vermont. I joked that if this teaching thing didn’t work out for her, we could start a caramel-making enterprise, call it “Coast-to-Coast Caramels.” (Vermont-Oregon, right?)

The ALAN Workshop brought us together again. You can even see her in the background of the book-filled photo in my header, and I made sure we exchanged information. No doubt she thought I was crazy-ish, but those caramels were a powerful force! I wondered if I’d ever hear from her.

One week later, an unfamiliar email address sharing a document entitled, “Chocolate Caramel Recipe” with the greeting, “Here’s the chocolate-caramel recipe. Enjoy!” Kathrine had delivered. And as a teacher librarian, she had included the source, so I promptly bought the e-book.

This, too, is the unexpected treat of in-person professional development; we can connect. Thanks, Kathrine, there are many caramels in my future. The NCTE Convention in Anaheim was sweeter because you were there!