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.

A Slice of (This Teenage) Life

Too. Many. Choices. I knew that would be our dilemma, but I didn’t know the frustration that would arise. When Dana, my friend and colleague, and I were scheduling our day, the problem of earmarked pages in similar time slots, told the tale of our NCTE Convention 2022 experience. As usual, we had some serendipitous moments, when the choice was made for us by simply being in the right place at the right time.

But overall, the final selections were brutal: FOMO exemplified.

That wasn’t the case on Saturday afternoon though. We weren’t vacillating on that one! N.02 “Amplifying Voice and Agency: Storytelling with Facing History and Ourselves and This Teenage Life Podcast,” Room 205-A ,called us both, less Scylla and Charybdis, more North-Pole magnetism. Dana had been intent on gathering resources about mental health and podcasting from the outset. I knew both of these resources because they had been invaluable to me when I spent 2020-21 teaching online…especially This Teenage Life.

I had found out about it when desperately searching for ways to build community among these students as well as some connection to me, an outsider from Oregon who was teaching in their close-knit New Jersey town. (That I had taught there for 26 years in situ and retired only three years before meant nothing to them; they didn’t know me.)

We had begun listening to the podcast featuring teens in casual conversations about topics that mattered to them in our Friday morning meetings. And listening to other teens talking to each other spurred my students into doing the same. Friday mornings were dedicated to this—talking to each other. It was awesome!

The episodes run the gamut. We began with a low stakes topic, a discussion about favorite snacks and then moved on as the teens on the podcast became familiar: “Pets,” “Comfort,” Lies Our Parents Told Us.” The options offered are vast and varied. What they share is honest connection—and teen voices, real voices.

I had to thank Molly Josephs, the founder of the podcast, for that. And there she was, sitting up front, her warm smile spreading sunshine as she looked at the gathering crowd then leaned in, placing her arm across the shoulder of the stunning teenager seated beside her.

Up I went to the front, laser-focused, wanting to say something before the session started. “Hi Molly. I’m Trish Emerson, and I just wanted to thank you for changing my teaching life when I was online with students.” She looked stunned, then rose and said, “Can I give you a hug? I hear from students all the time, but you’re the first teacher who’s reached out to tell me how the podcast worked for them.”

Hugs followed, then the presentations from both awesome presenters. It was beyond my expectations. I wanted to say goodbye, but as I expected, there was now a line…new fans. Dana urged me to wait them out. “Molly would want you to.” So I did.

We exchanged information, another hug, and a text. “I want you to come on the podcast, Trish…and consider becoming a discussion group leader, will you?”

This spring, though I haven’t asked Molly yet, I am inviting her and, fingers crossed, one of her teens, to join us for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) Spring Conference online. I know how magical their work is, and I want them to share their magic.

The next time Molly and This Teenage Life take the stage, I know I won’t be the only fangirl in the crowd!

For the Love of Pets

When the phone rings—“rings” hardly describes what phones do now—I see who it is and answer,”Hi Jim, Joann, whichever one of you, so glad you called.”

“It’s Joann.” These neighbors of ours for decades, whether I was living in the family beach house or not, have become near and dear since we relocated to the West Coast. She’s calling with a request.

These are friends who count, a couple in our close-knit group of six. We share meals and patio events, drinks and philosophies, neighborhood green space, and love, for each other and for our pets.

We have been through a lot, and that continues. Now we are all aging together. We have all lost pets, had to say goodbye ready-or-not. And this call asks me to show up tomorrow morning, that’s today, to stay with Jesse, their ailing senior rescue beagle. J & J are well-aware of the nature of their attachment to Jesse, acknowledging that he is their baby, and unapologetic.

They lost their lab several years ago, the chocolate member of this mutt-and-Jeff duo that frolicked and lazed in the easement between our two houses: Sprig and Jesse. Our dog and sundry friends’ canines joined them in a happy tumble of paws and chewed tennis balls.

Jesse remains, bi-weekly chemo treatments for cancer notwithstanding. And here we are together on this glorious Tuesday, his sonorous breathing background music to my drafting.

He has finally settled because—his beloved are not here. When they left for a doctor’s appointment that will take hours, he seemed sanguine, unfazed. Then he realized they were actually…gone, as in, not anywhere in this house.

Then he followed me around as I narrated and reassured, “I’m making another cup of coffee; I’m getting ice water. It’ll be okay, Jesse. They’ll be back soon. Get comfortable, little guy.“ Disbelieving, he perched at the top of the stairs pointing balefully with his gray muzzle.

Trips outside to scout, woebegone, accusatory looks when the effort to find his “peeps” failed, and finally sleep, because what else is left?

What I know for sure is that he is not alone in feeling that a part of him is missing. His parents are surely experiencing the same absence. Soon, though, the family will be together again.

Then I will walk my own dog on the beach, thankful to be welcomed home.

Where are they?
Escape to Dreamland

Lucky Guess

Wordle, just like the game craze Words with Friends, had passed me by. I am surrounded by game-players, those who love Bananagrams and Scrabble, and cards, who generally love to play. However, I am not that girl.

I am a sore loser, aware of it, embarrassed by it, but boggled by changing it. I know I don’t have a monopoly on poor sportsmanship; my husband is quick to tell anyone who suggests a game, that playing with me is a risk. He swears that we almost divorced over a game of Probe.

But I gave Wordle a try, a toe-in-the-water, perhaps because no one had to know. I could let the tiles fall where they may, and only I would be the wiser. And I liked it! No purist, I used a pad and pencil and pondered. When I admitted that I had started playing, I owned up to my tactics. My son shared that the guy who invented the game, Josh Wardle, recommends my old-fashioned strategy, so…

I have embraced it so wholeheartedly now, after 14 days, that it is what I use to lull myself to sleep when I’ve awakened in the middle of the night. Conjuring five-letter words that might be the perfect start to next day’s Wordle is better than counting sheep!

On Sunday morning, day 12, I awakened ready to go. I warmed up to the Wordle with my routine: read emails, write in my notebook, read some articles, listen to Poetry Unbound and The Slowdown. Then it was time. I opened it up, that field of possibility, a bingo-board grid above a keyboard, empty and waiting.

During the night, I had chosen “PROUD” as my starter. As any Wordle pro will tell you, it’s not a great choice: no N,S,T,L,or E, but an “R” and two vowels, and hey, what do I have to lose, really? I typed it in, and before I hit “enter,” I stopped. What made me do it, I can’t tell you. I undid my choice, tile-by-tile, and typed, “M-E-T-A-L.” I don’t know where the word came from. I know it hadn’t been one of my put-me-to-sleep words.

I looked at it, “metal,” with its e and a and t and l, m the only semi-outlier, and I pressed enter—little skill involved. Square-by-square, it came up green. I had gotten the Wordle in one! A rippling “genius” banner flashed across the screen. I felt like I had when I hit my first—and only ever—hole-in-one on the eighth hole during a golf match. I had just hit my Wordle hole-in-one.

The next day, it took me all six tries, and the banner’s “Phew!” said it all.

The Morning After

Feline Finale

Cowboy keeps my seat warm.

Are we really doing this? Is it really our last post? I don’t know whether to applaud or groan. These mornings together have brought us closer, haven’t they? But it looks like the time has come for me to say a few words. Let me settle in…

I have been here as you raced to the keyboard and have joined you after rummaging through my food dish so conveniently placed in the corner of your desk because…the dog! After a few strolls from end-to-end of the L-shaped haven you call your office, inspecting carefully for anything out of order (I love your disorder is what I’m saying),I have curled in your lap, ready to write.

Then there have been those days when you scooped me up with your spatula-hands, abandoning me to the warm spot you were leaving, unable to find the right words. After some clattering in the kitchen, some strolls around the house, you returned, scooped me up again so we could resettle. “Now you’re ready,” I realized, as your fingers began their erratic dance upon the keyboard. (I do love to dance myself though you keep deterring me!)

Since I have been here for you throughout the Slice of Life Challenge—SOL#22 you call it—it seems only fair that I, your favorite feline fan Cowboy, am featured in the finale post.

I want to thank your faithful readers for their comments, for their attention. (I know how loved I feel when I get yours, as your hand rests on my side and your fingers move through my silky fur, even if only for a moment.) I know how happy it made you, how it kept you going through those, “What can I write about?” moments.

I especially want to thank the TwoWritingTeachers for sponsoring and cheerleading for you throughout this March madness (and I say that in the best way). I know you would’ve been sitting at your desk without the challenge while I curled in your lap, but you wouldn’t have felt as purr-sonally proud as you do today, right now.

Thanks for making March the cat’s meow!

Reading the Room

What I see in front of me:

My embosser, a gift from a student, who loved my book talks—and my extensive classroom library. She never let me forget that day in class.

You almost have to have seen my Language Arts classroom to understand. The 20-or-so desks for the eighth graders were arranged in a myriad of ways, depending on the day and what we were doing. As I told them, desks have legs for a reason—you can move them. And move them they did, but to be fair, the space was limited, bounded by our books, books on shelves, and in crates, books everywhere!

Students found the rug in the front where we’d conduct “chalk talks” a likely spot for collaboration, the rug flanked by shelves, poetry and memoir. Some of them would try to escape detection behind the wall of double-sided shelves standing on the other side of the room. But I was a roamer by nature, so books didn’t provide that kind of successful escape for long.

On this day, the kids were observing that they could really use some more space, space to spread out when I denied them hall access (seldom, but…hard to monitor the hall and classroom; they had to earn it!). It’s true, they were bounded by books.

“You know,” Jack began, “if you got rid of some of these books…” He cast the bait and waited.

You know, Jack, ” I countered, “I’d rather get rid of some of you than any one of these books! They are my babies.”

I jest, but seriously, eighth graders? There were days…Everyone laughed.

A few months later, Shannon brought me a smallish box that had surprising heft. “Ms. Emerson, I got you the perfect gift,” she said, beaming. “Open it now!”

She grabbed a book (they’re everywhere, remember?), took a gold seal, inserted it inside the round mouth and pressed. What emerged?

“It’ll look like an award-winner,” Shannon pronounced.

My embosser, with seals of gold and blue (our school colors). She was right: the perfect gift.

Something Beautiful?

Do you diigo? Is there a social bookmarking tool you use? How do you use it? Diigo has been a part of my digital life for close to a decade, yet I learn only today that, “The name “Diigo” is an acronym from “Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff”.[2]” Thanks, Wikipedia.

I’m scrutinizing it with some intent because I know I marked an article from online Smithsonian Magazine,“Colorado Composts Its First Human Remains.” As I enter my seventh decade, I think about cleaning up after myself, leaving my workspace better than I found it. I am curious about the tags I have, overall, breadcrumbs in my digital forest.

Today I am specifically looking for my end-of-life tags, a relatively new one finding itself among other “ends:” end-of-semester, end-of-class, end-of-year and reflective of where I am now—in no hurry, to be certain, but realistic. As early as 2014, the New York Times, made my diigo with “A Project to Turn Corpses into Compost.” Ever a fan of alliteration, this drew my attention.

I have been planting this seed in the fertile minds of my husband and son, hoping it will take root, and I will continue to nurture. Of course, I won’t be here to see it mature, but as diigo attests, it is not a passing fancy. With this Colorado feature and a local news broadcast of the “reintegration”ceremony, my last wishes are gaining plausibility. Oregon has legalized human composting, the third state to do so, and this is where I live—and where I’ll likely die, so…

Have you read the picture book Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney? It has always stayed with me, the ending:

"When I grow up," I tell her, "I too will go to 
faraway places and come home to live by the sea." 

"That is all very well, little Alice, " says my 
aunt, "but there is a third thing you must do." 
"What is that?" I ask. 

"You must do something to make the world more 
beautiful . " 

I have gone to faraway places. I have come home to live by the sea. And that third thing? I don’t know that how I exit will do this, I would hope I’ve lived a life that, at the very least, did no harm, but I’ve signed up for Recompose. And maybe…something beautiful will grow.

Santana’s in the House

The stage is set for…Santana!

How did you spend your Sunday evening? I attended my first large concert at the Matthew Knight Arena with Carlos Santana and his astounding musicians. When my friend invited me, I didn’t even consider the venue’s 12,000 person capacity. Truthfully, the pandemic’s comprehensive hold faded.

Santana has not been a mainstay in my playlists, but I knew a bit of Carlos’ story. At 21 he emerged as a star performer on Woodstock’s stage, and the rest is history. Last night he ushered me into his fold of ardent admirers. The iconic image of Bob Marley shining from his t-shirt, underscored his commitment to the music of the people.

He dedicated this stellar performance to his mother whose birthday it was and said she told him the most important words: “Eso no es para ti.” This is not for you. She was cautioning him to eschew drugs, the high life, which had ensnared so many in the music world—and elsewhere. But the message resonated for the audience. He added, “None of that for me. I’m in this for the long haul.” At 74, and going strong, riding those sustained guitar notes as distinctly as ever, no one could disagree.

He ended his encore with his uplifting message: Love, no fear, peace, and JOY. I’m in.

A Tree in Time

Baby tree comes home to root…

What is that noise? It’s not the rain, though insistent rainfall has accompanied me throughout the day. It’s an Oregon Coast December, so nothing but cozy-familiar there.

I have been making chili, a go-to for this vegetarian, and perfect for these winter afternoons, but I’m at the simmer stage when this sound pierces my consciousness. And it does not desist. It emanates from behind our back fence, and I recognize it even if I can’t yet name it. A trip to the backyard slider door confirms it as a column of smoke rises and melds with the gray weather. It’s a chainsaw! And then I see it. No—it’s what I don’t see that strikes me first: dual pine trees whose tops had spread their needly boughs beyond our yard, blocking the proximity of our neighbors.

What I do see—all too clearly now—is those neighbors’ roofs and back porch lights. We live in a closely-packed retirement community, but those pines afforded us evergreen deception. I grabbed my coat and raced out the back fence. The damage had been done. Where the trees once stood twin fresh-cut stumps bared faces to the rain.

I pursued the trail of the tree service to the street behind us and asked them “Why?” The man gently told me that one of the trees needed to come down, was sick. “And the other one?” I countered. “She was worried it would fall over in the wind when she wasn’t here and damage her neighbor’s property.”

There was nothing I could do. The mighty trees had been fallen, leaving sawdust, raw wood, and a hole where green once stood.

I rued their passing as loud lights on house backs blared, disrupting my early morning backyard reveries. I told my son how sad I was, how true the saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”

Yesterday he brought me a tree, a Japanese maple, and planted it in the corner. Soon, he assures me, it will rise above our fence line and spread its leafy arms. “Will I live long enough to see that?” I ask, only half in jest. “Yes, mom,” he forbears. “Next spring…you’ll see.”

Thank you, Sam, my landscape-genius son. Patience he is cultivating in me. I will wait.

Close Reading

Even though I have been a reader for a long time, I had never been a member of a book club. Yes, I had been invited to attend one or two with friends who thought I might be interested, but the fit never felt right—too much wine, not enough book; too much book, not enough life.

Last September my good friend Michele invited me to join her group—one that has ebbed and flowed here for almost 20 years. It was perhaps not the best time to initiate new members as the group was meeting virtually, but she and I have been sharing titles for years. Frankly I was flattered to be asked.

My maiden voyage was to be the October meeting when, as luck would have it, the club usually would have had their weekend retreat (Covid canceled that; Delta was its name!) to decide on the selections for the upcoming year. “No pressure,” I was assured numerous times, but I needed to submit a couple—maybe three—titles for consideration before we were to meet, with book reviews, something for the group members to read beforehand.

Michele explained how the Zoom version would work, now in its second year, and answered my questions, providing a bit of bio for the members I did not already know. Nine of us, were I to join, would comprise the “Inner Journeys” reading sisters.

To that first meeting, I brought Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Though I love them both, my enthusiasm for Ozeki carried the day and was our selection for February. Best of all, the Inner Journeys tribe welcomed me with open hearts—and minds, readers all.

Each one of the books we’ve read and discussed is better for my having shared it with others, different perspectives and insights deepening my own understanding. I struggle to be a critical reader; I admire anyone who can craft words and publish, but I have learned that even a book I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, is richer for the opinions of others.

Monday we discuss Klara and the Sun. I can’t wait!