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.


from Flickr Mike Mozart

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 Cutts posits 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!

To Be (there), Or Not…

Do you submit short items to your college magazine? I seldom do, but when the class representative reaches out with a personal request asking for a possible update, I am moved to reply. (I know I’m not the only reluctant one.) Usually it’s a teaching anecdote I share, sometimes too long because I can go on.

Even if she doesn’t use the submission, she follows up with a friendly reaction. You know the kind: sensitive and pertinent, it indicates she’s truly read and processed what I’ve written; it honors the writer. It’s gratifying—and makes me willing to try again.

On the heels of my last anecdote, she responded, thanking me for making her smile, quoting a particular moment from the blurb, then asked if I’d consider being a member of the reunion committee, quickly assuring me that I could pick my level of involvement as there are numerous related tasks. Her closing salvo,”All this, of course, assumes that you’ll be attending.”

I did attend my 20th college reunion after much deliberation, leaving my five-year-old at home with his teenage babysitter. I had come to this motherhood role late; most alumni I spoke with at the event chuckled to say that their daughters were babysitters—not needing babysitters—at this point! That’s me: a late bloomer.

I lived an hour away from the college, and my husband wanted to go. Having reconnected with a college friend and his wife, we even had a couple to join with us in the celebration. We all agreed it was a wonderful evening. Now we live on the other side of the country and trips to Pennsylvania demand a different level of commitment. I had to tell the class secretary, after waffling a bit, that we wouldn’t be attending this May. A pang as I made my decision followed by relief.

It will be my (gulp

likely my last), but I won’t be there.

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.

Too Many Choices

“I need to take more photos,” I think, as I procrastinate writing his very blog post by searching through Google’s photo storage to find the perfect replacement header image. It is a mixed blessing to live with an amazing photographer who has chronicled the big moments in our life through images captured, and rendered the small ones significant—because he sees.

My parents weren’t photo-takers, and granted, the times were very different. The only experience around photography I recall is the Christmas that my dad bought a Polaroid camera, the eponymous Polaroid Land camera, and snapped away, eventually relinquishing it to my older siblings, and then to some closet shelf. Dad was a gadget guy, but his interest in photography, existed in the ideal rather than the real. I am a lot like my father.

When I married an avid photographer, I struggled a bit. My siblings balked at his persistence, his arranging tableaus to freeze our infrequent get-togethers. Then, when they’d see the results, they’d ooh and ahh. I, too, was churlish at first, but inevitably the joy of reflecting on moments that otherwise might have vanished, places we’d been, people we’d seen, eventually won me over. All those stories.

However, there is a downside to having endless options. We have a “gallery” wall in our living room that we purposefully had my brother design. It’s a space for display with lights that shine upon…nothing…yet.

That’s not totally true. We did make an array of wedding photos and mounted them a year after the wedding. That decision was tough enough. But now, moving forward, the selection of which photos to blow up—not inexpensive—and feature is daunting. Were it up to me, I’d pick any of them (all amazing in my view), but my husband is an artist, and he is the arbiter of excellence, his own worst critic.

So for now, we wait. I read an interesting article: a person dealing with our dilemma suggested that we select photos that we like, blow them up to 8 x 10’s, tape them to the wall, and leave them there. He wisely opined that the ones we didn’t get sick of after six months or so, were the ones to choose.

I can tell you that we made a great choice with the wedding array. Even though when my son saw it, he reacted with this: “It looks a bit shrine-y” and grinned. Still, each one of those pictures brings me great joy.

I’m willing to wait.

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.

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

Seeing and Believing

Songs in the Key of Life (thanks, Stevie Wonder)

A writing assignment I love, and reprise in various iterations every chance I get to work with fellow writers, is a variation of an idea from the amazing Jim Burke and his brilliant The English Teacher’s Companion. My copy is the early edition and in it, scattered among the gems, is a way of generating a personal essay from an adjective. The example I use most successfully when I write with my people is: “I am lucky.”

My first anecdotal support is always, “I am lucky in love,” and I begin telling the story of meeting, then re-meeting, my husband. I married him after spending maybe 14 days together, hours of expensive phone calls notwithstanding (remember those days when phone time had a real cost attached?). The day I called my parents to tell them we were heading out to a notary public’s office to make it official, I prefaced the announcement by asking my mom, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

I could almost hear her worry in that, “Oh, Patricia,” but I hurriedly reassured her and off we went. After the brief ceremony, we headed out for a long weekend on Captiva Island, but beforehand we stopped to stock up on some snacks. I was reaching for the passenger side door handle, my new husband almost to the driver’s side when the reality of what we’d done struck. I froze, our eyes met, and he saw that …what? panic, perhaps?

We were 33, two never-been-marrieds, failed-at-relationships, maybe-it’s not-in-the-cards-for-me-and-I’m-okay-with-that types, yet here we were on this boldly bright Miami street—married.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, puzzled, worried, uncertain.

“It’s forever, for the rest of our lives. It’s …”

“But,”and he paused, then spoke, “It happens one day at a time. We can do this.”

And despite the number of times we have had to reassure ourselves, to remind ourselves of the gift of another day and our ability to handle what life brings, we have done this.

Happy Anniversary, Eric, 37 years so far, with a song for every moment. I remain lucky.

San José del Cabo, January 2022

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.

Difficult Decisions

“Our” hotel, Casa Natalia, San José del Cabo

“Adios” rolls off the tongue—it’s literal translation “to God” obscured by frequent usage. Today we are headed home from a brief, but wonderful, vacation. I have written about this postponed visit before. I realize the luxury, the privilege I enjoy, and too often take for granted.

I truly had decided to avoid airplane travel unless it was absolutely necessary (and what would qualify is a question I consider), something the pandemic taught me I could mindfully do without. As soon as flying flew off the table as an option, I didn’t miss it. Environmental concern trumps almost all these days, as I was explaining to my son. So this trip compromised a principle I’d embraced.

What it also did is remind me that I can rationalize with the best of them—not a skill I’m proud of. The wedding was the “necessary” travel excuse that set this trip in motion, that and losing the money I’d paid, non-refundable, for a hotel.

Another way I salve my conscience is to say that here, 75% of the economy depends on tourism, and my husband and I are as generous as we can be with those who accommodate us. Nonetheless—rationalization 101. No way around it: we add stress to resources such as water, so I am caught in weighing my footprint one way or another.

I will say, “ Qué vayas bien,” when I leave this little piece of paradise and hope that my being here has been more a blessing than a curse, God willing.