Beginnings and Endings

Beginnings and endings have always been easy for me. As a young child I was constantly on the move. By the time I was 12 years old I had lived in four different states and 10 different houses. According to family lore – aka my older sister – of all my siblings, I was the first to adapt to a new place. When we moved from Southwest Louisiana to upstate New York, I was the first to lose my southern drawl and acquire a new accent. I was the first to give up eating mayonnaise on hotdogs because it repulsed my Yankee friends. My rapid adaptation to a new culture was helped by some modicum of social awareness and the general opinion that I was pretty damn cute. These traits have served me well over the years, and I may need to rely on them again soon.

My older sister has fed the myth of my popularity to all who would listen. She will never let me live this down. During the first week of school in Huntington, West Virginia – where my father had taken a job at Marshall University – I was named to the 7th grade student council while she suffered miserably in gawky adolescent angst. My sister was actively rebelling against the backwardness of her teachers, her classmates’ behind-the-times fashion choices, the poor curriculum, the “run down” school and the entire experience of leaving behind a place she loved. She was 15, awkward, and hated everything about her new environment. Even though I was affected by her negativity, I kept those opinions to myself. I got along with everyone and made true friends. Big Sister left for college three years later and only returned to West Virginia thereafter as a guest. It would be my parents’ last big move, and my and my younger siblings’ home base for the next four-and-a-half decades. My mother still lives in the Victorian house pictured above.

I have completely adapted. When people ask where I’m from, I easily respond “West Virginia,” even though it’s more complicated than that. I spent my formative years in that state and can code switch naturally. After college – West Virginia University, with a gap year in Boston – I moved to Washington DC, then applied to the Peace Corps. I was on my 17th home in 23 years and I wanted to live overseas desperately. What is it about being the newcomer that is so addicting? For years, all I had to do was show up, smile, and try to fit in. People were so nice and accepting. In some back channel of my mind I wanted to re-create that pleasant childhood experience.

In my mid-20’s I spent two years in the Peace Corps in West Africa, where I met my husband. I smiled and he showed up again and again. I was his “vision in white,” and he was my “knight in shining armor.” The fact that we’d met in West Africa meant that I had met my true match in terms of adapting to a new culture. After we married and our children were born, he became Peace Corps Country Director, and we moved back to Africa. I was more than willing to follow him overseas, to become the welcomed newcomer again. When you’re the novice, people have few expectations of you yet, and it’s possible to reinvent yourself while nobody’s paying attention. When we first arrived in West Africa, I still had the robust confidence that comes with youth. I was going to lead literary salons, host international parties, travel, and write a book. Except that I was a “trailing spouse” with two children under the age of five. I quickly learned that I needed more than good looks and wishful thinking to get by.

The year I turned 40 provided a jolting wake up. My social expectations had been shaped by Peace Corps, but I was surrounded by expats who played by different rules. The easy friendships that had always come to me without effort suddenly became tense. It seemed that my husband’s high status position – or maybe the fact that I had young children – changed people’s perceptions of me. Or maybe it was because I became the old-timer and was supposed to lead the way. It was such a struggle to adapt to others’ expectations in West Africa, that I’ve written a 400-page memoir about how difficult that sojourn was. At least one of my youthful dreams has come true.

So why, in 2017, am I seeking the newcomer experience again? On September 1st, I will be moving to Laos, Southeast Asia, for an English Language Teaching Fellowship through the U.S. Department of State. This time, I am going alone, without husband or family. Another new beginning. While I’m excited to start fresh in a new place where my professional experience might allow me to make a big difference, I am nervous that maybe I will not be able to adapt well socially. I will arrive with only one context, one role: Teacher. I will not be “the wife of ~” or “the mother of ~.” That puts more pressure on me to make friends and claim my own extracurricular identity. I think I’m ready.

Some teacher colleagues believe I’m brave and adventurous, but I’m really going back to my roots. I’m trying to recreate that familiar childhood experience of just showing up,  smiling, and expecting the best. I don’t know what the equivalent of eating hotdogs with mayonnaise will be in Laos, but I’m prepared to give up some of my comforts. I’ll be on  the lookout for unfamiliar customs, people, places and language that will shape my Fellowship year. I plan on sharing my impressions via this blog. Even though I’m not so cute any more, I’m good at new beginnings. I hope people will be interested enough in my experience to follow me on this amazing journey. Laos will be my 28th home.

Wonder Women

I was surprised I liked Wonder Woman so much! This blogger explains just why it was so appealing.

Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind….

Wonder. Woman.

I wasn’t expecting to get emotional over a movie based on a comic book character, especially one in which I was going to have to look past the sexy push-up bra and the cascade of dark, glossy locks.

But I did.

Here’s the thing: Unless you belong to a group which is un or under represented–in movies, television, books, politics, life–you probably don’t appreciate the emotions that come with finally witnessing that representation–ten feet high on a movie screen. But trust me, it’s one of the reasons there’s so much hype surrounding Wonder Woman, especially and notably, from women. It’s not that it’s not a good movie in its own right (it is), it’s that a new generation of girls and boys, sitting in…

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One way to end the school year

It was 75 degrees and sunny with low humidity and a bright breeze rustling the leaves around my suburban brick home. A perfect June day. I was sitting on the front porch after a long day’s work watching Honda vans and GMC SUVs full of kids coming home from practice in time for dinner. There were 10 days left of school year. I was trying to come up with a profound way to end the school year – maybe I could give humorous little certificates of achievement to the students, like paper plate awards that the rowing team used to do, or have a pizza party. Maybe I could return the letters they wrote me at the beginning of the year, the ones with their mission statements, and ask them to reflect on their progress as writers and critical thinkers. Maybe they could make little speeches about their goals, or we could play Two Truths and a Lie. My other class loved that game. It would be good for oral language development. I sat on the porch planning all this in my mind while drinking a rosé d’Anjou in a tiny etched glass that used to belong to my grandmother.

I want the end of the year to be meaningful and memorable because I’m leaving it all behind. I’m taking a one-year leave of absence to work as an English Language Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Embassy in Laos. I want to savor every last moment at my MCPS high school.

Instead, I spend my last days trying to grade my Required Quarterly Assessments, which some Board members thought would be a good substitute for semester exams and forced teachers to give up semester exams – and the time to grade them that was built into every high school schedule the last week of school. But ESOL RQAs are not just bubble sheets that can be run through a Scantron. They require days of practice just to expose students to the hastily-written, poorly formatted writing prompts – which this quarter included a checklist for students with misspellings [Did I organizer my writing?]. In the final days of the marking period, so many students were pulled from my class (it wasn’t random, but it sure felt that way) to take PARCC and H.S.A. tests that I gave them independent projects to work on for weeks. I was providing the same mini-lessons over and over again until each group cycled through the tests. I couldn’t move ahead with instruction, so I had to come up with extension activities for those students who weren’t testing. I knew I’d lost them when C., usually my best student, asked if she could just listen to music one day. She was so far ahead of the class that I had to say yes.

So the final days were spent trying to score the RQA exams while students sat in the classroom doing no new work. So many kids have missed so many assignments that the last week was mostly make up work. Thirteen students are failing the semester, even though I tried to save them. It is demoralizing to realize that I care more about their grades than some of them. Today I managed to give out summer reading assignments and to distribute little gifts, but I almost forgot to give out the little candies I bought and return the portfolio of work that I’d been collecting since the beginning of the year. The students opted to watch videos, play Uno and throw their folders in the trash. This is not how I want to remember my nine years as a high school ESOL teacher.

Tomorrow is a half day, and I don’t expect many students to show up. That’s good, because I have to clean out my classroom. I’m having a little lunch with my colleagues then attending a staff meeting, where we’ll celebrate the retirees and those moving on to new schools. I know my name will be on the Saying Goodbye list. I’m going to miss the daily smiles and stresses. I’m going to miss my colleagues, who are such amazingly dedicated teachers. I have so much to learn from them, and I’m grateful they’ve shared another school year with me. I hope I can come back to this place in a year. I know it seems hectic now, but in retrospect, it will seem so wonderful.

A man and a woman are walking by, with a dog on a leash and a toddler in a stroller. I wave at them. The tree branches above my head dance in a mesmerizing forward and back motion. I’m sitting on concrete steps under an American flag. I’m thinking that this is the coldest weather I’ll feel for a long time. By the end of the summer, I’ll be leaving it all behind and I know I’ll miss it.


Dirty Windows

I hadn’t slept in until sunrise for four months. Usually I’m out of the house by 6:20 am and on the way to work well before the birds start chirping. Then one April morning I woke up with brilliant light streaming in and noticed all the windows were dirty. High school teachers in my district aren’t exactly nocturnal, but sometimes it can feel that way. In November the government gives back an hour of the morning light, just before nature takes it away for the winter. Then in March we get a glimpse of the early gleaming before we Spring Forward and the mornings feel gloomy once again. I read symbolism into everything. Dirty windows equals unclear vision. If this is my time to shine, I need to see those little green buds unfurling on the trees around my house. It feels urgent this year. Maybe because I’ve accepted an English Language Teaching Fellowship for next year and am moving to Laos in August. I was offered the same Fellowship in 2014 but couldn’t accept because the timing was wrong. I’ve dreamed of this moment ever since. At school, they’re already interviewing for my replacement. I’m worried that our new president will cut off the State Department funds before I have a signed contract in my hands. Maybe because the weather started to change too early – in February – then everything froze again. The daffodils, cherry blossoms, and crocuses almost died off. Why is it that the things we wait for the longest are the best? The hope that seems most fragile is the one that nurtures us. Through the windows suddenly I see neighbors with new babies in strollers, dogs I don’t recognize, and isn’t that Hannah home from Holland with a friend? Let me go say hello.

Spring Break starts today and now I finally have time to reflect on all the changes this year will bring. April is not the cruelest month, but I’ve got to get those windows cleaned.

Breaking the trance of busyness

Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings blog is one of my favorite sites for inspiration. I find in it solace when the daily news seems so bleak. Today’s blog discusses the wisdom of Herman Hesse, writing a hundred years before all humanity became obsessed with the 24/7 news cycle. In today’s world when we all seem to be more interested in staring at screens than talking to each other, this could not be more relevant:

“Just try it once — a tree, or at least a considerable section of sky, is to be seen anywhere. It does not even have to be blue sky; in some way or another the light of the sun always makes itself felt. Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed if you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights, to contemplate nature and the city streets, to appreciate the inexhaustible fun of daily life. From there on to the fully trained artistic eye is the smaller half of the journey; the principal thing is the beginning, the opening of the eyes.”

My immigrant students are certainly nervous in this climate of fear and hatred that has been unleashed since Inauguration Day. I see it in the increased physical aggression between the newcomers and those who’ve been here longer, I hear it in the little murmurs from the back of the classroom. Sometimes it’s overt. One of my (nonimmigrant) students wears an anti-Trump button pinned to his lapel. They stand now for the Pledge – I think I have taught them that the flag is a symbol for an entire country, not just for one man.

But back to busyness and inattention. I am one of the worst victims of this disease. It’s usually at this time of year, when the weather starts to turn, that I immerse myself in activities after school – rowing, coaching, writer’s groups, extracurricular activities. I can’t seem to say no to doing everything. I volunteer my time to the point of exhaustion. I think I need to take up the Hessian approach to seeking out the small joys, stopping to smell the flowers or listening to the “prattle of children.” (Well, I have the pleasure of that little joy every day – and my Spanish has improved dramatically.)

It’s supposed to snow tomorrow, but the daffodils, the forsythia and even the cherry trees are already blooming. I anticipate a particularly joyful day when they call a snow emergency and I am forced to stay home with nothing to do and nowhere to go. I am looking forward to a snow day so that I can “… seek out each day as many as possible of the small joys, and thriftily save up the larger, more demanding pleasures for holidays and appropriate hours. It is the small joys first of all that are granted us for recreation, for daily relief and disburdenment, not the great ones.” Thank you Brain Pickings for today’s inspiration. I think we all need a day of disburdenment.

Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you.

What I learned from Rice Dressing

When my husband Frank and I first set up house together 26 years ago I knew that we would have greater challenges to face than what to serve for dinner. I grew up in a large family where my mother miraculously prepared a well-balanced dinner for nine people every night. It wasn’t gourmet but it was predictably bland and coordinated with military precision. He came from a small, Italian family with a mother who would drive 25 miles just to get a single ingredient to make a new recipe and a father who had once been a cook in the Navy. His grandfather owned a little deli in Rhode Island, the kind where sausages and cheese hung from the ceiling and kids at school made fun of him because his sandwiches dripped through the foil (but they would eagerly trade him their baloney on white bread for his Italian cold cuts). Frank intuitively knew how to make every meal taste delicious. I had no repertoire and usually burned things.  So early in our marriage it was easy to defer to him on all things kitchen related. Except for one sacrosanct family recipe: rice dressing.

My family devoured this special Cajun side dish at every holiday meal growing up, either stuffed inside a turkey or served from an overflowing bowl that my brothers fought over. On our first wedding anniversary my mother gave Frank and me a simple, framed copy of her mother’s recipe, handwritten in Grandmère’s illegible script. “About 1 ½ pounds of ground meat… I cook it for about 1 hour with salt and pepper… add onions, green pepper and celery with red hot sauce… add cooked rice, stir up mixing well…” My grandmother died when I was very young, but I proudly carried on the Cajun tradition. Every holiday, I would cook the rice dressing days in advance so that I could be out of Frank’s way while he roasted the meat to perfection and created a gravy to die for. For years, I had that one dish to remind me that I was still competent at something in the kitchen.

When we first moved in together I tried to cook pasta his way, which of course was the only way.  You see, I married a perfectionist. We used to call it spaghetti or macaroni growing up. I didn’t know anything about cuts like ziti or rigatoni. He reminded me that his pasta was far superior to anything I made. And he was right. So I boiled the water and added salt, set the timer and sat down to grade papers. Invariably Frank would go into the kitchen and take over. The few times he didn’t intervene, the pasta would stick together because I’d forgotten to stir it. Or I’d mess up the al dente timing. My husband didn’t finish my sentences; he finished my projects. And not just in the kitchen. At first I really liked it. In fact, all my friends and family really liked it too. But they say that the things that attract you at the beginning of a relationship can sometimes repel you later. That was the case with me. This year I’ve finally come to grips with it.

I learned about Frank’s handiness early on. He’d been a forester in Maine – which of course was a big selling point while we were dating – but we were living in Manhattan at the time, and there weren’t too many trees to identify, or logging roads to manage. He liked to organize and fix things. He was very handy. But a Mr. Fix-It with no garage and no truck has to find an outlet. There was only so much you could do in a 600 square-foot apartment in New York City. Frank started to cook more regularly. He bought a Romertopf clay oven and made delicious Tandoori chicken. We got a pressure cooker that could give us a kid-friendly beef bourgignon in 15 minutes. We got a rice cooker and he started going to all the Asian stores and asking the salesladies for their advice: Jasmine rice from Thailand or short grain Japanese rice grown in California? I developed a gourmet pot belly.

Friends would invite us for dinner and express delight that Frank fixed things that they didn’t even know were broken – stovetop fans, pictures that were hung crookedly, chairs that squeaked.  “Can you believe she tries to slice meat with those dull knives?” he would exclaim as we left. He started to travel with a knife sharpener. His skills made me very popular in a new way with my old friends. I basked in his reflected glory.

But then his helpfulness started spilling into my domain. If I started laundry on a Sunday night and stepped away, he would put the clothes in the dryer then take them out and fold them all wrong. Neatly, though. I can’t say I look forward to doing laundry, but there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a job you start. Before I realized what was happening, he took over other chores as well. If I slacked off for a moment, he would be putting a second coat of polish on the shoes that I left out, or re-cleaning a stainless steel pot I’d washed because it wasn’t shiny enough. Who doesn’t like shiny pots? I didn’t complain. But it has made me kind of lazy. “You know that tea kettle you mentioned wanting to buy?” he said. “Well I went out and bought a better one.” He would produce the Number One rated item that Consumer Reports or Cooks Illustrated or America’s Test Kitchen agreed on. Don’t get me wrong – it was a great choice but I was deprived of the shopping experience.

“I wish my husband would do those things,” said my neighbor when I complained.

As the kids got older and I got busy with coaching and after-school projects, Frank started cooking regularly again. There’s nothing better than coming home to a hot meal after a 12-hour day spent almost entirely with teenagers. I was really appreciative that I didn’t have to make any decisions about food.

A few days before Thanksgiving this year, I asked him to pick up a green pepper and some ground beef. I had to work the Wednesday before and he didn’t. “I’m going to start the rice dressing tonight,” I said. He texted a few times from the supermarket. “The recipe calls for a mixture of ground beef and ground pork,” he said. “They have ground pork here already mixed with beef. Should I get some?” “Sure,” I texted back. It was annoying that he had checked Grandmère’s recipe – and knew it better than I did. I’d never followed it exactly, preferring my own version of the family specialty. Also because it called for “gizzards” which I think should be outlawed. “It calls for hot sauce,” he said. “Can I use Sriracha instead of Tabasco?” Noooo! That was just too much a departure from the Cajun roots and respect for my family tradition, as if he’d slapped me in the face.

When he arrived home, I’d cleared the accumulated junk mail off the kitchen counter, washed the special platters and serving utensils so they’d be ready for the next day. I’d made a cake. I’d arranged the flowers, found the right decorations, napkins and silverware. I’d just sat down, put my feet up and was enjoying my first sip of wine, when Frank walked in with bags of groceries.  “You look tired,” he said. “Do you want me to start the rice dressing?” What woman wouldn’t want to hear those words?

I considered for a moment. He had established dominance in the kitchen years earlier, he’d already taken away my autonomy in simple household maintenance, he’d usurped my domestic roles of laundry, dry cleaning and shoe repair. I didn’t mind giving up those chores. But my old-fashioned traditional rice dressing recipe? Could I relinquish my last vestige of kitchen competence? My self-esteem?

“That would be wonderful,” I said. All my fight was gone. Deep in my heart I knew that if he said ‘start,’ he would most likely finish it. Because he finishes all my projects. And he does them to perfection. So for the first time 26 years , I allowed myself to relax on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving. My husband cooked my grandmother’s rice dressing recipe completely on his own without any pretense of checking with me. And guess what? It was delicious. I sulked a little when he got all the credit, but I had time to read a few chapters of my book and go for a walk in the woods. He’d one-upped me with the only meal I was confident I could make. And I didn’t care any more. In fact it was a relief.

When you are married for so many years, you learn to figure out your boundaries. It’s like doing a little dance forward and backwards without stepping on any toes. I had to step all the way back and relinquish control of my final family recipe to realize that my pride had just gotten in the way. What I learned from rice dressing is to truly appreciate that my husband’s competence has allowed me the freedom to pursue my own dreams.