At the Edge of a Cliff

“Where the coastline cannot be defended, the British government is trying to help communities move back from the sea.” (from “If Your House Were Falling off a Cliff, Would You Leave,” the NY Times)

“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 Yorker by 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.

Look Up

“…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:

September’s bounty

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: (the spelling of target isn’t the only error! Oregon!)

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…

…we found a frame?

Big Love

Thanks to Two Writing Teachers for encouraging all of us, each of us, to write— and providing the space, the support to make it happen.

Tomorrow is April 1, 2023, no foolin’, the start of National Poetry Month. I have yet to try my hand at poetry during #SOL23—though reading it has gotten me through some rough days.

An article in The Verge , “Bring Back Personal Blogging,” gave me the raw material for this found poem.

And yesterday’s post teasers gave me this one:

Payment Due

I put my federal tax payment in the mail yesterday; I had sent my dues to the state a couple of weeks before. Yes, I know I could authorize an online transfer of funds (Boomer!), but writing the check, going through the steps from desk to USPS, makes this act mindful.

I am happy to pay what I owe. I willingly submit to this second certainty—of death and taxes, I’ll take taxes every time. I didn’t always feel this way. When we were carefully managing our two salaries to provide for ourselves and our son and tax time rolled around, I cast my lot with a tax preparation professional who worked every angle, (and earned a fee I didn’t mind paying because it was offset by the refund).

I am also aware that so many people are struggling, that my attitude arises from a privileged position, that I am lucky, and that, by most standards, even though our household is not a wealthy one, I feel rich. I am also cognizant that our situation is subject to change; AARP magazine arrives every month.

What do my taxes do—federal first:

There are many legitimate complaints lodged against government spending—not debating that here (don’t ask me about defense spending and our deplorable persistence in human conflict)—but I accept the bill, my part of paying it.

State taxes go to similar causes:

(I still recall the bumper stickers cautioning, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”)

I could wind up in the weeds here very quickly. My trust in government, despite what I see and hear, endures. I don’t know why exactly. Naiveté probably and optimism that we will inch our way to better. I teach for that; I always have. I vote for what I think that looks like, aware that others cast opposing ballots.

I vote. And I pay my taxes.

Notes for All

“Art doesn’t belong to anybody, to any country, ” Newport Symphony director Adam Flatt declares. “Music belongs to everyone.”

We have gathered to hear the final performance of this year’s concert season. In his pre-performance chat, Flatt explains a bit behind what we will be hearing tonight, loaded with his sparkling charm and vast knowledge. He tells us that Vladimir Putin has said that in America, Russian music and literature has been canceled, then counters, “That is absolutely not true. And tonight’s program is proof.” Rachmaninoff, Piano Concerto no.2 in C minor, op. 18/Moderato/Adagio sostenuto-Pi`u animato-Tempo I/Allegro scherzando—with Hunter Noack on piano will round out the evening.

The program is diverse, as they always are here in this small coastal town. The Newport Performing Arts Center is a crown jewel, and its brilliance commands attention, but a symphony of this caliber? The rarest of gems. We are carried away on a tide of sound from Dvorak, to Respighi, to the contemporary American composer Gabriela Lena Frank’s intriguing Apu, with a range of stunning, startling instrumentation. Before intermission, the symphony gives us a gift—a heartbreakingly beautiful rendering of “Danny Boy.” Tears.

Hunter joins the symphony after intermission, and the familiar notes of Rachmaninoff fill the auditorium with waves of beauty, ebbing and flowing, bearing all of us with them. As an encore, he shares one successful pop variation of the Rachmaninoff melody. His boy-at-the-piano voice, sweet and true, performs Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself” and Hunter, a native son of Newport, invites the audience to sing along. We love it—the ovation long and strong.

Music, indeed, belongs to everyone.

Ready, Set, Go…

Morning moments:

I had a teaching job scheduled for today from a week ago. At about 4:30 yesterday afternoon, I received a text from the school secretary letting me know that she’d gotten the date wrong, that it was on May 15th, not March. (Oh, those pesky “M” months—and her job finding substitutes? don’t envy that one bit.) I text her back, “No problem. May 15 fine.” Cross the appointment off my calendar. Awake to a free day, until… I receive a notification that one of the other two schools where I’ve narrowed my subbing boundaries needs someone. Take it.(Love the school, the people, to be useful, and—I had planned to work, after all.) Remind myself: the ability to pivot matters.

Before work, I check out the website on a postcard we’ve received sent to “POSTAL CUSTOMER” asking community members to respond with opinions, “…on housing issues impacting the community and steps it can take to address them.” I am a “stakeholder;” I know the problem is a thorny one and that this community is not alone, but the factors that complicate housing in our rural, coastal, tourist-heavy area need to be addressed. There is no silver bullet. I add my input. This is what democracy looks like.

On my way to shower and get ready to go, I check my phone, realize I missed a text before bed and find this:

Beer-Can Chicken Success!

My daughter in law has executed her first beer-can chicken (doesn’t it look like a headless monarch?) after getting my recipe. Note that she is still in her jacket, so maybe my son put the bird in the over before she got home. Or did the heat go out?! I’m thinking the potatoes are a nice touch, and despite it having been more than a decade since I’ve eaten meat, red or white, I’m wearing a big smile.

Good Morning, World! It’s a new day.

Join the Club

Photo from Pixabay

Club Day! That’s what our local middle school, grades 6-8, has implemented on Fridays as incentive for the students who have completed all their work during the week and managed to avoid behavior infractions.

In the past I’ve been assigned to be in the “Catch-Up” rooms as a substitute; I’ve never handled a club before—and they run the gamut: gardening; movies; cartoonists; D & D (Dungeons and Dragons); photography; digital design; travel… For my maiden voyage, I will be leading the Outdoor Club. I look at the attendance sheet and see almost 50 kids listed, but so many of them will not show up; they have missing work.

When S—, a seventh grader I have worked with in several classes before, enters, I am happy to see him. He is bright, sensitive, engaged and quirky, my favorite kind of kid. He also stands apart from the crowd, marches to his own drummer. He gives me a big smile and comes right over to say hi as the room fills.

He tells me that he’s just been over at the nearby primary school, housing grades k-2, for a field trip, explains that he goes over there to read to the kindergarteners as part of his program. Pride, that’s what I hear, and delight, the joy that comes from doing something purposeful, helpful.

“Ms. Emerson, I was reading this picture book to them, and we were talking about it. The kids kept getting closer, scooching until they were touching my feet. They were into it. And a little bit later…” At this he pauses, rummages through his papers, and extracts a small pink piece of paper. Upon closer examination, he holds the heart of a five-year old, with jaggedy edges, its shape barely discernible. “I’m keeping this,” he announces. “Isn’t it great?”

I think of the shoebox full of “hearts” in various forms that I saved to move with me across the country. I realize that this is the best education has to offer: a feeling of capability, of purpose, of connection with others in pursuit of understanding.

This should be the work, not what so many are missing.

Turning It Around

As soon as I turn left at the stop sign, my course is clear. I have opted for a trip to the library rather than heading straight home from a day of substitute teaching. It is also a measure of optimism. A day I had faced with some trepidation went well. Same kids, different outcome: middle school.

I have so few truly bad experiences, days where class after class goes badly, in my small town school where I sub often and know so many of the students. I become, not a regular teacher but at least, a regular feature. When I taught full-time those horrible, no-good, very bad days could be put in perspective and in the context of on-going relationship building; equanimity was easier.

Yesterday marked the beginning of a four-day stint with one class, and was the first to follow a rotten day from the previous week. But it went well. I happily avoided being with the exact same configurations of young people that had been disastrous, and it was a different day. I was able to reason with, even laugh with, my challenging charges, to enjoy the connections I was deepening with these adolescents. Our day one? A good start!

My turn toward the library to pick up books on hold was proof positive: I was looking ahead with optimism rather than behind with regret. Our local library is the best take-out joint in town. It provides food for growth of all kinds. It is on my list of most-visited happy places.

I easily find a parking space in the lot, grab the book I am returning from the back seat, and head toward the side door. A mother and her daughter are heading my way. I take note but don’t really attend until we are facing each other in the crosswalk. The girl pauses, tilts her head, smiles and bubbles, “You were my music teacher!” There is nothing but joy in her recognition. Her mom has stopped a bit ahead of her and is looking back at us. She, too, is grinning.

“Yes. I’m the one,” I answer. “I’m so happy to see you here—at the library!” We share big smiles, small waves, and continue on our way. My left turn was the right one, of that I am positive.

Worth Noting

Where do you find recipes? I have been a fan of the New York Times Cooking site for quite some time well before people had to subscribe in 2017. That is definitely the trick with a successful site launch: Get people hooked on the product; then begin charging for it.

When we lived in New Jersey, we got the weekend edition of the paper in print. It fed our desire to know throughout the week until Saturday bought a new pile of print to our front door. And the Sunday magazine in print was food for my soul as well as always featuring some food possibilities for the rest of me, too!

I kept a binder, or did my best, as the clippings and tear outs accumulated faster than the sleeves in which to store them.

Now I collect so many recipes in so many places—my eyes are definitely bigger than my stomach! But I have my favorites while still dreaming big! Pinterest stores them in categories: “Pasta Perfection,” Eggs-actly,” “SWEET”—you get the picture.

My recent rotation regular is naan, my faithful guide to exquisite, pillowy perfection by Meera Sodha:

Notice the stars?!

The truth is, as much as I love the Cooking recipes, I usually ignore the comments. I am in the minority though. This morning as I began writing research, I discovered:

Often I begin reading responses to discover that the person commenting has altered the recipe so dramatically that the reason I was drawn to it in the first place has disappeared. Other readers have occasionally voiced the same complaint.

But I am not a fan of kneading when a dough hook will do, and my mixer stands ready. For Sodha’s Naan, “Sam” saved the day:

There are 258 notes accompanying this recipe, 76 of them deemed “most helpful.” Sam’s is third on that list and first in my heart! And I am living proof that, as the introduction claims, “Once you make the recipe two or three times you’ll never buy naan again.”

Not all comments are created equal!