About Me

Thanks for being here! I am a mom of three (two girls, 15 and 13, and one boy, 9) and a teacher of many (thousands during my more than 17 years teaching high school English and Spanish in Philadelphia). Forever a student, I love learning - whether through talking to others, reading, watching movies and documentaries, or traveling. I also love running (slowly), hiking, and practicing yoga!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Rooftop Dreaming

Camas para sueños (Beds for dreams) (1985) by Carmen Lomas Garza (1948-)
Smithsonian American Art Museum
I first saw Camas para sueños nearly five years ago when I was visiting Austin, Texas to attend a conference (and to see my dear friend Crary). On my lunch break I wandered down Congress Street and came across the Mexic-Arte Museum (http://mexic-artemuseum.org/), which was hosting an exhibit on Photography of the Mexican Revolution. After passing through the exhibit, I found in the gift shop a print of Camas para sueños, which I bought for the girls. Ok, it was also for me. The print now hangs, framed, where all can see it in our home. 

I especially love Camas para sueños because it reminds me of my sister and the dreaming we used to do as kids. Out my second-floor bedroom window in the 206 East Park Avenue home was a roof onto which I used to climb. Though I could never have put into words then the reason for my rooftop escapades all those evenings, I know now that they were essential. The roof was above the kitchen, where my mom would be, her steady presence allowing me to dream. 

My house now, too, has a roof to climb out on -- the one above the screened porch out back -- though the window air conditioning units make it difficult to do in the summer. That's ok, though. Summer has its own escapes. It is the fall, with all its demands of work and school, that makes time on the roof most inviting, and needed. I look forward to those evenings when we climb out, lie on our backs, and gaze at the towering pine tree above, and, beyond that, the stars. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Two Birds, Two Stories

I first thought I could write again about a month ago, and I knew what I was going to write about: Joseph and I had found a young, wounded sparrow outside our home, and we had saved it. That morning, before the sparrow, we had biked (Joseph in a seat on the back) to my parents' house about five miles away. There, I had sat on the bed where I last said goodbye to my mom and cried. That is, I cried for about 10 seconds until Joseph started squeezing my cheeks and making silly faces, screaming, "Don't cry! Stop crying!" I stopped -- laughed, even -- and we got ready to ride home, but I was still so sad.  

We were three houses away from our own home when we encountered the sparrow spinning in desperate circles on the sidewalk. We stopped, wondering what to do. This sparrow was clearly in trouble. 

Eventually, thinking of the cats that lived just down the street, I gathered a shoebox and some soft hand towels and placed the sparrow on the safety of our back screened-in porch. A quick drive to pick up the girls from basketball camp and we were back, the girls now joining in the concern and excitement. Grace called her cousin Emma, who said, "You should take it to Cedar Run." This wildlife refuge, just down the street from her home in Medford, had a hospital for treating wounded animals. Of course! I called. They would take her.
Animal lovers Joseph, Genevieve, and Grace. 

Forty minutes later, we drove the winding road through the woods that led to Cedar Run. The sparrow sat calmly now in its box on Genevieve's lap, then Grace's. When, after I had parked the car, I leaned over the box to check on her, the sparrow seemed to meet my gaze with a trusting look. Take care of me. Or, perhaps, it was resignation, and a question. This is out of my control. Will you take care of me, or hurt me?

It felt good carrying her into the hospital. We filled out some paperwork, passed the sparrow to them, and left. They seemed to know exactly what to do. 

That night, I thought about the sparrow, and how it had fallen onto my path so wounded and small. And I thought about how I had felt better after doing this small, good thing. I was ready to write. It felt good -- maybe great, even -- to make that decision. Thank you, little sparrow, I thought. 

But it was not to be. "Starting to doubt u only get what u can handle," was the text from one of my closest friends this week, telling me of a terrible crisis in her family that threatened to put her over the edge (it came on the heels of several other crises), "Wondering, what next?" Her words brought me back to the reason I never wrote the sparrow story. 

The night I planned to write, I arrived home from the movies with the kids, feeling happy. I would put them to bed and sit down at the computer. The feeling of that little sparrow, its heart beating fast, in my hands, the satisfaction of helping it...  

My thoughts, along with me, and the kids, came to an abrupt halt at the bottom of our front porch stairs. There, right in front of us, was a dead bird. It was actually on our welcome mat, I kid you not.  It was black, and its feet stuck straight up in the air, stiffly. I looked behind me to see if someone was playing a joke on me. Joseph and Genevieve were waiting for my reaction. When I didn't say anything, Joseph started talking, an innocent three-year-old's words, but ones that cut me to the core. "It's dead, Mom, see? It's eyes are open, but it's dead. That means it's never coming back. It's dead, forever." Genevieve continued to watch me closely, and Joseph kept talking, both of them close behind as I carried the bird to the back yard to bury it. "Are you ok, mom?" Genevieve asked. 

I didn't write that night. I went to bed early, right after the kids, and dreamed in fits. In one dream, I was in my childhood home, and my mom was there, only it wasn't really my mom -- I realized this even in the dream -- and, feeling badly, I tried to lock myself in a bathroom so I wouldn't have to see her. 

"You only get what you can handle," some say, and maybe there's truth in it ("If He brings you to it, He'll bring you through it! That's what I always say!" I overheard a woman at church saying once). But to be honest I've always hated this saying, and I think that any thinking person can clearly see that some people do get more than they can handle. I don't know why. 

Still, the human heart can handle a lot. My heart can. And though I often feel like the sparrow in my hands that day, helpless in the face of a universe that will do with me what it pleases, I'm going to keep trying for that deeper trust, the one that says Take care of me and then believes, deep down, that Someone will. 

Photo of a young sparrow (http://www.wunderground.com)
"Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows." - Matthew 10: 29-31

Friday, August 15, 2014

When You Can't Hit a Winner

Grace at tennis camp
The girls just finished a week of tennis camp with their cousins, a summer tradition now for three years. Their head coach is Dave Okun, who was also a coach to my sister and me growing up. Though I haven't played tennis seriously since high school (my sister still plays), all those hours I spent on the court are a part of me. Dropping the girls at tennis camp feels different than dropping them at basketball, or soccer. The thwack of ball hitting racket has an emotional resonance with me still that  is tied to my memories of my parents (many time champions of the "Married Couples" tournament at the Haddon Field Club) and my youth. 

The truth is, though, that although at one point I was a promising tennis player, despite my hours of lessons and clinics, I never became that good, because I turned into an emotional basket-case on the court. Really.  Once I hit the big time (read: varsity high school tennis), I played with a desperate fear not to lose rather than any over-whelming desire to win. It is still a little embarrassing to me, so much so that a few years ago when I was invited to the Hall of Fame dinner for a teammate who was being inducted (Kim Lamania--she was amazing), I contemplated, for a moment, not going, because it meant reliving all those feelings. I know this is ridiculous. Nobody, nobody at all, has thought about this for even one second other than me. This is probably true for all teenage anxieties. All life anxieties, perhaps. 

A good coach, if you listen to him, will tell you this. I wasn't ready to listen all those years ago, which is a shame, because I'm sure Dave and many others were giving me all kinds of wonderful advice.  I know he did, actually, because when I picked the girls up at camp the other day I noticed a painting that one of Dave's players had done. There were two, in fact, and both quoted Dave. One read,"If you can't hit a winner, don't hit a loser," and the other, "Make a decision." 

I don't know what this year ahead will be like but I know that, since my mom died, something has fundamentally shifted in me. Or perhaps I am the same but the ground beneath me has shifted, and now I have a different view. I find Dave's words very wise, so much so that I think I'm going to live by them for a bit. For the day by day, "If you can't hit a winner, don't hit a loser," (i.e. get out of bed, be kind, do some work, breathe) and for the long-term, "Make a decision"  (i.e. LIVE). For though I never quite mastered it in tournament play, I still remember that wonderful feeling of hitting the ball right in the sweet spot, the power of my arms, my legs, all of me, making a decision and doing something about it. Though you were never guaranteed that it would happen, when it did, it was magic.  

Friday, August 8, 2014

My Light is Shining Bright

My mom in LBI during the summer, 2012. 
My mom and dad recited e.e. cumming's poem I carry your heart ... to each other at their wedding 43 years ago, and for the last few months of my mom's life I noticed that my dad had placed the tattered paperback they had read from on her bedside table. I noted this to my mom one evening in early April as I sat beside her on the bed. "Yes ... I always loved Walt Whitman," she answered, slowly and in that slightly non sequitur way conversations with her had begun to have. "O Captain! My Captain!" I quoted, laughing that with all my years of studying literature this was all I could produce. My mom continued, "My light is shining bright." I reached for my dad's Ipad to search for the full poem and wrote in O Captain! My Captain! My light is shining bright. I may have also typed in Walt Whitman. Up popped his poem Miracles, below.


Walt Whitman1819 - 1892
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles, 
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, 
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, 
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of
   the water, 
Or stand under trees in the woods, 
Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night
   with any one I love, 
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest, 
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, 
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer
Or animals feeding in the fields, 
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, 
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so
   quiet and bright, 
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring; 
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, 
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with
   the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—
   the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

I do not know why this poem appeared instead of Whitman's more famous O Captain! My Captain!, though I imagine it was the line "the stars shining so quiet and bright." As my mom and I lay side by side for the rest of the evening, mostly in silence, I thought of the poem and my desire for a miracle. I was praying then, and continued to pray until the end, for a miracle to save my mom. I believed it could happen. On Sunday, the day before she died, I thought, "Maybe, just maybe, it will happen on my birthday (April 10th)." Instead, that was the day of her funeral. What does one do with this?

Well, I have started running again. Also, doing yoga. On Mother's Day weekend my sister, dad, and I, knowing it would be hard, came to the beach, and I was able to "wade with naked feet just along the edge of the water," as Whitman wrote. As I waded, dolphins appeared along the shore and swam along, playfully. The waves caught the sunlight just so and I tried to capture how beautiful it was with a photograph, but I couldn't. And as I walked my mom's line came to me and I kept repeating it over and over and over:"My light is shining bright, My light is shining bright, My light is shining bright." What does one do with such a miracle?
Me, my dad, and my sister in LBI Mother's Day Weekend. I love these people.

Mom, your light shined so brightly. We miss you.  We always will.