Yesterday before school, I listened to a voicemail I’d saved, forgotten—not its substance, but my thinking… ahead—my friend Michele’s voice calling from last June 2nd, a last-minute invitation to an end-of-school year pizza get-together. Her voice, my smile, those tears…again:
“As science, the mothering, feeling tree is controversial. As literature for a political movement, it’s not bad, and, after all, nothing else has worked—” (from The New Yorkerby Jill Lepore, “What We Owe Our Trees”)
Yesterday I finished Brian Selznick’s latest, Big Tree. Jill Lepore cites it in her article quoted above about the impact of the latest efforts to emphasize trees’ sentience, mentioning the research that Selznick primarily relied upon (and Richard Powers, too, in his blockbuster Overstory). Her conclusion is that humanizing trees, giving them emotions, communication skills, may be the only way to save them. She dispels the idea that planting tons of trees is a remedy—so does Selznick; diversity, not monoculture, is what matters.
I began today with an article about houses set on cliffs, now compromised by pounding seas, with no end —but their own—in sight. The poignant comment by one such homeowner, “I bought with my heart, not my head,” echoes, echoes, echoes. We act that way so often, heart-over-head, and often to our detriment.
Two days ago I watched a neighbor’s shore pine tumble down the richly verdant cliffside on which our family beach house rests. I was complicit in its demise, and all I’ve done since the scream of chainsaw removed it is regret that I ever took part, that I failed to consider what we owe the trees, how our continuation on that cliff depends on the health of trees.
Our house was first built in 1934 on this particular unoccupied stretch of Oregon Coast cliff and stood unaccompanied and proud for some time. Now, of course, the street is full of houses all reveling in, “the view, the view…”
I am ashamed to admit that when family members chorused their agreement to enhance it, the view, by cutting down trees, or dramatically topping them, I posed no opposition. And while I am somewhat assuaged by the proliferation of greenery on the cliffside that in my childhood crumbled in cascades of shale to the beach below, I will not support any more arbor reduction on our bank.
Our house, our neighbors’ houses, sits on the edge of the majestic Pacific. But the ocean will come; nature will rule; we are visitors here. It’s respect we need and to value this respite on our impermanent perch. Trees are our last best defense. I owe them.
What has happened to me? Lately I don’t feel the need to travel, to go anywhere. I am happiest right here in the small town I’ve called home since I retired.
Should I feel guilty that I’ve lost my former wanderlust? Sometimes I do. Routine comforts more than new experiences entice, until I actually decide to do—like last week when my husband and I traveled to northern California for a visit. We hadn’t been there since our son’s wedding in October, 2020.
And I hadn’t visited San Francisco for 40 years! One week ago found me there on a boldly sunny, bright blue-sky day exploring:
Set amid the towering steel and glass, Salesforce Transit Center‘s City Park offers natural beauty and a space designed to steal your heart.
A winding walkway invites us to appreciate the diverse flora representing various global ecosystems.
I may not have left my heart there, but I am glad I said yes to a road trip!
“Cats love me.” Famous last words, and hyperbole, but what I said when warned by friends about the moodiness of their feline Bruiser.
“Watch out for Bruiser. He’s got personality, and he bites!” We had gone over for dinner—a birthday celebration for the two husbands—and were chatting over wine when in sauntered this well-fed ginger cat.
Our cat before Cowboy, the black and white boy who graces our home now, was a ginger. His name was Jack, and he was feisty, too. He’d fend off the ungainly attacks of our Labrador even as a tiny bundle of fur, swatting with his tiny but sharp claws before scampering beneath improbably narrow spaces between furniture and floor to escape. As Jack aged, he mellowed, but he was imperial and selective in his attention.
Now here was another ginger summoning memories of our erstwhile Jack and how, in his final years, he’d drape himself on my chest, as I read or curl between our heads as we slept, how he turned into an affectionate softie whose passing broke my heart and made me doubt I’d ever want to seek a replacement.
Bruiser sidled up on the counter beside me, and before his owner could scoop him up, we began communing, me stroking his face ignoring the cautionary words. I turned away for a moment and Bruiser struck, a lightning clutch and release. I looked down at the flash of sharp pain to see a small bubble of blood.
Did I wash it under running water immediately? No, I did not. I was embarrassed—I had been warned after all—so I pulled my sweater sleeve down over the spot and carried on, pushing Bruiser to the side.
By the time I got home a few hours later, my wrist was sore. I rinsed the two punctures under water, but the damage had been done. The bacteria had gained a foothold, and by the time morning came and a teaching job awaited, I was red, swollen, and sore.
“Show it to the school nurse,” my husband advised before I left the house. I eventually followed his advice; it looked worse by lunchtime.
“You need to go to urgent care right away.We’ll find somebody to cover for you.” A substitute for a substitute? I knew it wouldn’t be easy, so I demurred, said I’d leave as early as I could. And I did get away an hour early.
But Urgent Care was busy on a Friday afternoon at 2:30! After an hour-and-a-half wait, I got my tetanus shot, my antibiotics, and the wisdom of experience: rinse cat bites immediately and promptly seek medical attention—and of course, when given a pet owner’s insight, override ego and heed it!
When I finish helping a student, I look out the open classroom doorway to make sure my roaming photographers haven’t strayed too far. Standing there with a bemused expression, is one of the school counseling staff. Her daughter has just left the room, in fact, but I never worry about her. She’s one I trust. Her quiet way is not to mask deceit; she’s an observer, a kind one.
Her mother and I have never really spoken beyond the smiles as we pass in the hallway, and even then, she is less emotionally transparent than I: like mother, like daughter. But there she stands, nods, and as I approach says,” I have something to share. I hope you won’t take offense.”
My curiosity piqued, I assure her, “I really doubt it.”
She goes on with a disclaimer, allowing that kids are not supposed to be using their phones in the classroom—she knows that, but continues.”My daughter took a picture of you last Friday in yearbook and sent it to my mom, her grandmother.”
“Oh gosh,” I’m thinking,” I have had a bad experience with this already.” One child snapped a photo of me last year when I was teaching and posted it on Instagram saying how mean I am and illuminating why so many people consider cell phones a classroom catastrophe.
However, this woman’s eyes are almost dancing as she quickly adds,”I know she’s not supposed to, but it’s the sweetest thing.” Turns out her daughter then texted the clandestine photo to her grandmother saying, “This is my favorite teacher. She reminds me of you.” She only found out because her mom, the grandmother, called to let her know and said she had to let “that teacher” know.
Now I do—and I am smiling, not yet a grandmother but thinking, “Maybe someday…”
“…that transcendent experiences arise from the raw material of human biology…” These words come from a review I read this morning of Alan Lightman’s latest book, The Transcendent Brain: Spirituality in the Age of Science.
“Yes,” I nod, “that’s exactly right.”
When I awoke—again—and for the last time on Saturday morning, I knew it would be a day of challenges. It was Earth Day and the “Celebration of Life” (even now I balk at those words) for my dear friend Michele about whom I’ve written often and who died on March 12th. The event capped a week of intermittent tears, anxiety, and preparation. In the days leading up to this, a small, earnest group had worked out the glitches, staged, and rehearsed, so all would go well.
I opened my email inbox and headed straight for the poetry. Usually it’s Poem-a-Day, but that day I began with Knopf. It offered “Class Picture” by Cynthia Zarin.
Cynthia Zarin, why does that name seem so familiar? As I read the poem, that thought niggled. My eyes traveled up to the poems I have affixed to the wall before me, fixed moments of wonder, of reflection. There I found her, her name handwritten at the bottom of a poem, a column of beauty in syllables, titled, “Flowers.”
When I first read that poem, Michele had received her diagnosis and time’s passing became palpable. “Flowers” begins:
“This morning I was walking upstairs/from the kitchen, carrying your/beautiful flowers, the flowers you/brought me last night, lilies…”
Michele had shared the bounty of her spell-binding garden with so many of us, those who love her. September always brought the lilies, wild, redolent, flamboyant friend-reminders:
I will mark this moment as a “transcendent experience,” the raw material of my being. Cynthia Zarin is not a poet whose books I have, not one I know well, but on this morning when I truly need…something…there it is. All I had to do was lift my eyes.
Old frames, we’re collecting them now as we commit toward an eclectic gallery wall in our living room. This random approach follows an earlier leaning toward uniformity, but in addition to being expensive, it’s not nearly as interesting. Now my husband and I keep our eyes open—not for the art necessarily— but for the frame.
“Trish, look what I found,” my husband said, holding an aged piece of paper. It was typed, not processed, the impressions faintly visible on the back as he held it to read. “It came from behind the cardboard in that frame from ReStore, just fell out when I took it apart!”
Today’s post could go in so many different directions, couldn’t it?
If I were teaching my middle schoolers in ELA, I’d bring this artifact in as an investigative activity.I still may later this month, because it poses a challenge doesn’t it?
I’d probably start with what we know—someone’s retiring; someone else gave a speech at a luncheon. What else? She worked in Public Works in Milwaukie—I’m assuming Oregon, because we found the frame here, but a Google search says:
She loved to “thrift,” and her name was (should I use “is”?) Judy. She could spell, she could quell Lyle to a “cat’s purr.” Steve could get sidetracked, but Judy led him back around. She added her tenor to the Christmas choir and her ghostly appearance on Halloween. She had (has?) a husband Sam and sons, and over the years has developed a certain self-protective assertiveness.
But the questions we could generate, the stories we could tell, those of us reading this? There are many.
Judy was (is? I hope) loved, and remembered, and still enjoying retirement. Perhaps she’s missed her essential role in finance and gone back to school to become an accountant. Perhaps she’s opened a day care, spurred by those grandchildren the sons of hers have had. Perhaps she curates someone else’s discards at a St. Vincent de Paul. What do you think?
And what about the author of this letter? I think he’s a male, lumped in as a bad speller with Lyle and Paul as these words reveal, but my husband thinks a woman delivered this farewell. Hmm…I wonder what the students will make of it, what they will find in this voice from the past that lives on because…
It’s day four for me, and so far, so good. April is the month I give up all added sugar. It’s a funny thing, this self-imposed restraint, but it’s not new. I watched a TED Talk, one of the short ones, that I happened across when I was looking for ways to make morning “advisory” meetings more interesting to my eighth graders.
Matt Cuttsposits that if you are willing to do something for 30 days, you may just form a new, desirable habit—and prove that you CAN do something for 30 days. I’ve written about this abstinence from sugar before; that’s not at the heart of this post. I am galvanized by a challenge, especially one that is good for me.
I had just come off of 31 straight days of blogging during the Two Writing Teachers annual Slice of Life Challenge when April 1st arrived. Some of my fellow bloggers were continuing the streak, but with a focus on daily poetry writing. I am a poetry reader, get daily poems throughout the year, but a poetry writer? Not so much.
Saturday, April 1st, arrived. I had the straddling-the-fence feeling about committing to a no-added-sugar month, nothing definite. I am not a breakfast person. Gone are those days of English muffins and peanut butter, so turning away from that first meal—even if it’s pancakes or french toast—I can do that. Fruit will do it for me in a pinch.
When lunch came after my morning swim, I was ravenous, and we went to eat with friends. I surveyed the table: dolma, healthy; hummus, healthy; olives. healthy; roasted vegetables, healthy—all of it awesome—none of it out-of-compliance. But still, I wasn’t 100% in…yet. It was no big challenge to pass on the sugar cookies. My homemade caramels, spicy chocolate and sea salt vanilla bean, spiked my interest, but I refrained, still wavering.
That night we went to hear music and enjoy dinner out, and I stayed away from sauces, breads, those places where sugar often hides. So far, so good. Then came the fateful words, “Would you like to see the dessert menu?” We are a dessert eating bunch, and this place boasted on-the-premises fresh-baked cakes, homemade ice cream, assorted treats. After orders of German Chocolate cake a la mode and spumoni with gummy bears (my daughter-in-law, gotta love her), the waitress asked, “Anything for you?”
… I said, “No, thanks,” to a chorus of, “We’ll share. You can have some of mine,” generously sweet offers from one and all. In that moment I announced, “This is my month without added sugar.” The moment I said those words aloud to my extended family, the die was cast.
I am glad April is National Poetry Month—poetry poses no threat, only treats of the best kind—but most of all, I’m glad April has only 30 days!