The Dance

“Be the change.”  I say this to my students all the time.  Hundreds of seventh and eighth graders have heard me imploring them to take up this challenge over the almost two decades that I have been teaching and most of them have believed, at least for a little while, that they can, indeed, be the change.  

I am very convincing.  

Sometimes they try to meet this through their writing and sometimes they quite literally build something that will change some small corner of their world.  Every now and again, there is a student who knocks it out of the park:  crafting birdhouses to sell to benefit housing shelters in our city (“Houses for Homes”); raising awareness and money to support mental health initiatives locally; lobbying for and instituting a compost program in our middle school alongside another student who lobbied for and changed our use of plastic ware in the cafeteria, replacing thousands of disposable forks, knives and spoons.  They focus their adolescent bursts of energy on change and, almost always, they are successful.  In many ways, I can learn more from watching them than they will ever learn from me.

I wonder, though, about this call to be the change.  Change is everywhere and is a constant part of life, from the smallest, imperceptible changes in the natural world, to the giant shifts initiated by humans, intentionally and inadvertently.   But amidst it all, there is a need to be present. Still. Calm.  Immutable.  I ask this of my students as well:  Be still.  Look around.  Notice.  Write.  Breathe.

So, which one is it?  Or is it both?  How can we hold two things at once; two things that are, by definition, in tension with one another?  

This year has stretched beyond its twelve month allotment and the new buzzword on the block is languishing, defined by Adam Grant in a recent New York Times article as a sense of stagnation and emptiness brought about by the prolonged pandemic.  Languishing seems like it should be about resetting and recharging, but for me it has led to an overwhelming sense of failing at, well, everything, and that feeling of failure has extended into grief and loss for something unnameable that I don’t think I will ever get back.  A word that connotes swinging lazily in a hammock on a summer afternoon seems to be in the center of my own battle between presence and planning, between this moment and the moments that are to come.  Between stillness and change.  The space between those two has filled in with a malaise that is thick and encompassing, swallowing up time and space in a way that feels permanent.  

If we need to slow down and listen, to witness the swirling mass of chaos that is always surrounding us in order to find clarity, then when do we step back in to make sense of that chaos?  At what point do we see what is in front of us and also know our own power to affect change?  I think that, perhaps, the answer is knowing when to step into the chaos and attempt to alter the trajectory of our own life or the lives of others and, of course, knowing when to step back out.  It seems to be an elaborate dance, stepping into life as it happens and retreating to our own sanctuary when it is necessary.  We cannot be fully immersed in the doing all of the time and we also cannot sit on the mountaintop and pretend it does not exist.  This hokey-pokey is sometimes clumsy and out of time, but sometimes the steps fall into place perfectly, like a well choreographed waltz.

How do I ask my students to be the change and be present?  How do I ask the same of myself?  How do we hold two things at once?  Maybe the answer lies within the dance.  If we can somehow give ourselves over to the flow of energy, responding to the calls for change and the need for stillness completely and with our whole being, then our steps become natural and easy.  And, in a time of languishing, maybe the tempo just needs to slow, allowing us to hear the music that is underneath it all.  

Sea Monsters

 “There’s no bottom, no walls, just this space that goes to infinity. And one thing you realize is there are a lot of sea monsters there, but they’re tiny.”

 — Jeff Milisen, marine biologist and photographer 

I read an article this morning in the New York Times about “blackwater photography” and its impact on scientists’ understanding of marine life and evolution.  The article was fascinating and definitely will come back to haunt me this summer, if I am lucky enough to get back to the ocean.   I immediately began to filter the details of the article through my metaphor sieve. The ocean, the darkness, the close examination of minuscule beings that are almost invisible… Of course, what finally began to fester in my mind was the idea that the unknown space is filled with monsters, even teeny, tiny ones, and that the space goes on infinitely.

I feel like every time I sit down to write–and this month has been 31 every-times strung together with no break in between– I am falling backward into this dark ocean, no bottom, no walls, just this space that goes to infinity.  Like the photographer, I have my tools to catch the beauty that just might emerge with enough patience and, if I am lucky, someone else will find value in what has been captured.  While the scientists explore outwardly, my exploration is always a journey within and I am continually surprised by how deep my waters seem to go.  

No wonder my students are terrified when I bring them out in the boat, no matter how much I reassure them that the life vests will keep their head above water. Their monsters are likely much larger and looming closer to the surface, even if they seem harmless to seasoned divers. I wonder if, perhaps, I could find the equivalent of a glass bottomed boat for them? A vessel that would allow them to safely see what lives beneath the surface without asking them to jump in with both feet?

I am no longer satisfied with that safety and I appreciate that my swimming skills always seem to bring me back to the boat. I have been pushed into these waters over and over again during this past month and while I will miss the daily launch, I am certain that I will continue to investigate this vast unknown…I just hope that the monsters stay small. 

Saying Goodbye

I am such a coward when it comes to saying goodbye.  I will make every excuse known to humankind to avoid having to do the eventual, big embrace, finale.  I think it comes back to college, because, prior to that, I don’t recall having a real issue with goodbyes. 

In high school, we dragged out the departures to college, the military, and all the life that was waiting for us by going to party after party after party, all of them ending with a dwindling dozen or so of us, sitting in a yard or field, nostalgically retelling stories and making promises that somehow bound us to one another for life.  Each night, there was a new round of goodbyes for the person or persons who would be leaving the next day, and, each night, we had a little bit more silence from the space made by those who had just left.  I don’t recall where I was in the lineup, but it was solidly in the middle.  I had said a fair number of farewells, but there was still a small group remaining to bid me my own.  

Leaving college was different.  I was left.  I stood in the middle of New Hampshire Avenue late on a summer afternoon, wrapped in the arms of my two best friends, squeezed so tightly it was impossible for any air to move between us.  David went in one direction, Marjorie went in the other and I was left to walk back up the stairs to the now far too big apartment and finish out the summer alone.  There is so much story in just writing those names…but that was before the leaving.  The leaving was the end.  Despite our promises, that was it. 

After that, the reality of saying goodbye was unveiled for the ugly truth that it is:  the end of what is known and a leap of faith into the future.  The farther I got away from college, the more goodbyes I endured, each putting my faith in its place and showing me that distance is hard and life is defined primarily by those in close proximity.  I moved a lot as an adult, before finally settling into my current space, and with each move I left behind people and made promises.  Saying goodbye became harder and harder the more life reaffirmed that most goodbyes were final.  (There are a few exceptions…well, just one, really.)  Now, when I know that someone is going to leave, I try to find ways to leave first, even if it is just slipping quietly through the side door when no one is looking.

I have another goodbye coming and this one will test my faith, once again. I am grateful that I have years of knowing how to do this poorly so that maybe this time I can do it well.

Vacation…Day One

I have mastered the art of doing nothing.  Or at least, that’s what it looks like to the people who share my home.  I have been sitting most of the day, relishing this Monday when I do not have to be up, moving, focused and productive; when I do not have to shower, pay attention to my clothing choices, put in contacts and don a mask.  When it is okay to do things out of order and backwards and sometimes not at all.

What do they see?  Mama in her chair, warm coffee cup cradled in her hands, gazing out the window.

What is really happening?  Me, wondering if the tree that attracts so many woodpeckers this year is slowly dying and will need to be visited by an arborist who may, or may not, decide to forever alter our landscape.  

What do they see?  Mama doing dishes and making a fresh pot of coffee, music playing quietly to keep her company.

What is really happening?  I am dancing to live music, completely absorbed in the energy that only live music can create.  It is the best energy and cannot be found anywhere else.  I’ve looked.  

A few hours later?  Mama on the couch, transfixed by the computer and a little oblivious to the gentle racket that surrounds her.  Another cup of coffee sits nearby.  

What is on the screen?  Bukowski.  Sweet, sweet Bukowski and his incredible ability to articulate the pain and loneliness of human existence, wrapped in words, lines, stanzas that transform that pain into art and connection.

A nap.  Unnecessary for my not-really-tired-and-well-caffeinated body but since I can, I will.

A light dream, mostly directed by my conscious and not my subconscious, considering alternative paths that could allow for a change of our location, of our daily rhythms, of our life. 

Monday afternoon and I resist the urge to regret the missed opportunities of this day.  The sun is beginning to chase away winter’s return and I am still in my pajamas.  Smaller voices beckon me to participate and I know that it is time to join the fray, wholeheartedly and with my full attention.

Bucking the Triumphant Narrative

Demons come in all shapes and sizes

some are rock giants that rise from the earth and loom mightily

           casting a warning shadow signalling the destruction about to come

and others are soft and small, like gremlins 

           just before they reach that magic hour

At my age, it is impolite to not know your demons

   (especially those determined buggers who have hung on for so many years)

Not only is it impolite

It is downright rude to ignore them when they show up,

on time and dressed to the nines, 

          to big, family dinners

          once-in-a-lifetime events

          or even the edges of the mundane and simple day-to-day

There are those who fight their demons

          draped in battle gear

          armed to the teeth

          with the iron will to kill or be killed

And there are those who befriend this enemy

         welcoming the familiar 

         hoping to find common ground

         still not convinced this is a true adversary

The triumphant narrative slays the demon every time

          on Oprah and Dr. Phil

recruiting warriors to take up arms and stand naked

truths exposed 

stepping out into thin air,

trusting the path to materialize at the last moment

But when the screen goes blank–

when the real world reemerges–

and the warrior is a simple woman, no spear or shield,

the demons do not dissipate into a puff of smoke 

          and no one is walking off into a sunset

Rather they rise again from the ashes, phoenix and all

to wait patiently for their next moment.

There Is Always A Way

No computer….on my phone.

No time…excuse me, I’ll be right back.

No ideas….look around.

My mother’s house, my brother and his family in town, my husband at home (recovering from his 2nd vaccination).

Celebrating the exodus from egypt.

We are not free until everyone is free.

Jews today, holding all of the generations in our hands.

There is always a way.

March Metaphor

The weather is giving me a metaphor on a silver platter and I am reluctant to take it. If it was yesterday, with the bright sunshine and the unusual warmth, I would be delighted, but today it is grey, dark clouds opening up periodically to soak those with unfortunate timing. Earlier, there were reports of cloud to ground lightning strikes and the county has been under a high-wind advisory since late last night. The threat of something ominous seems to lurk just outside my window, sending a few dry leaves that had been holding on throughout the winter tumbling through the sky. The birds that were feasting on the treasures in the field outside my window are nowhere to be seen today, and the wind occasionally kicks up hard enough to rattle the double paned glass.

The wind is trying to blow winter back in for one last hurrah and the warmth from yesterday’s sun is barely a memory. Today is such a huge transition, both in school and with our weather, and both are conspiring to give me a full blown headache. Our break begins in just a few hours, giving a clear demarcation between hybrid teaching and “full return” (although I will still have close to 20% of my students at home every day). It is also the end of one marking period and the start of our 4th and final quarter of this year. Today is a huge transition. We are leaving behind the year of pandemic teaching and beginning to think about how to end. How to bring closure to the year and, for my 8th graders, closure to their middle school life. The final marking period will be full of endings, as it always is, but this one feels different. And I guess it should feel different.  But I don’t want it to feel like a winter storm muscling its way back into a space where it is no longer welcome.  I want it to feel like the morning daffodils poking up and beckoning a new beginning.

And Poof…It is Gone.

I am at a loss for what to write and I have hit my Slice Of Life wall, as so many of us do during this month of March challenge.  My family is returning from a brief trip and I want to be fully prepared for their return.  I am sitting next to a pile of clean laundry that needs folding.  The dog sleeps, finally, on my left leg, having exhausted himself in the two hours after I came home, using up all the energy he collected during his exceptionally quiet day.  I have competing lists in my head….all the things I wanted to do while I had four days to myself and all that I did do during the four days I had to myself.  It is a battle of regret and appreciation. 

And now, I want to write…but I also need to fold the laundry, pick up a pizza, make the bed & put the dishes away.  I have had all the time in the world and now I am out of it. 

Making Lists

Here are all the things that are unclear:

  1. I do not know where I will be teaching next year.
  2. I do not know what I will be teaching next year.
  3. I do not know how I will be teaching next year (because I do not know what I will be teaching).
  4. I do not know how to pack up my classroom (because I do not know where I will be teaching next year).
  5. I do not know how to reflect on a year of pandemic teaching…and I don’t know how to not reflect on my teaching.
  6. I do not know how to revisit successful lessons and make them better, when I don’t know where or what or how I will be teaching.
  7. I do not know how to reimagine failed lessons, when I don’t know where or what or how I will be teaching.
  8. I do not know what to do with my books.
  9. I do not know what to do with my books.
  10. I do not know how to envision my twentieth year of teaching.

Here are the things that are clear:

  1. My school is changing our English Language Arts program.
  2. The important details are unclear, but it is clear that they are changing and shifting and redefining.
  3. They are primarily focused on roles and schedules, not curricula and pedagogy.
  4. My school is changing our master schedule, which likely drove the change to our ELA program.
  5. The important details are unclear, but it is clear that they are changing and shifting and redefining.
  6. They are primarily focused on big picture issues, not pesky details that have the potential to derail the entire endeavor.
  7. My school is undergoing a major capital project, demolishing three-quarters of our building over the next two years.
  8. The important details are unclear, but it is clear that they are changing and shifting and redefining.
  9. They are primarily focused on moving forward in a time when maybe it would be better to pause.
  10. They are administrators, not teachers and definitely not students.

What to do with uncertainty:

  1. Breathe.
  2. Let go.
  3. Focus on what is in my control.
  4. Consider possibilities.
  5. Find moments of positivity.
  6. Laugh at the absurdity.
  7. Allow for sadness.
  8. Keep an open mind.
  9. Let go.
  10. Breathe.

Rough Draft of Late Day Poem

Depending on when you met me…

you might find me sitting quietly on my mat

eyes closed

legs crossed

power flowing through my chakras

Depending on when you met me…

you might hear my voice

booming across the room

not drowned out by the sounds

but enhanced by the energy

Depending on if you saw me–really saw me…

you might see the either or both of me that phoebe sings about

or gloria’s survivor or the woman demanding aretha’s respect

you might see what the music has found

Depending on when you met me…

you could be a customer, an investor, a homeless mother of three

you could be five years old and filling out your Boys & Girls Club card for the first time

you could be finding your voice in the poem you never thought you’d write

Depending on if you know me…

you would understand that my world can start and stop with the right song

or that the perfect symphony can be found in the early morning woods

or that words pushed together “just so” find a permanent place inside of me

Depending on when you met me…

i am utterly forgettable

fading into the background with no voice


i have gathered you up

brought you along on my journey