Monthly Archives: June 2015

The gift of trust

IF I go to the graduation open house, it will be with you, and I promise we will not stay long, I said. I know you have other things to attend to, but no need to take two cars. It is mainly symbolic for all of us, but could be a powerful symbolism of affirmation and support. Just as they have supported us. We all are wishing one another’s graduates well, and look forward, with a little wince at the anxiety for the one recovering from the head injury, to seeing you all make us proud as you go on growing and finding your calling. Actually, I expect that sometimes they will make me a little envious.Their style has always been of the more lauded kind of success, as in class president and team captain, while yours is more along the lines of being recognized for your quiet intelligence, your willingness to listen, your slow, deep responses and careful wording. Sometimes you lean away sideways when you speak–did you know that? On one foot, diagonally leaning. yesterday I wondered if I should video that, and show you what it looked like, but didn’t want to imply criticism.

We went early, so we’d make the David Suzuki talk at eight, and right away your dad found a fellow college alum he hadn’t met before, and they brought up one of his favorite subjects for light conversation–the football glory days, and deeper conversation–theology and spirituality. The other man was darkly tanned, and his blue eyes contrasted with the brown of his handsomely weathered skin. He probably sails, I thought.

I was introduced, made my taco salad, hung around a little, then moved off among the family’s friends and relatives with whom I was not acquainted, until I saw the round, smiling face of Mary, whom I hadn’t seen in years. Had she recovered from that brain surgery years ago? Seemingly. At least she still had that gently, humorous sweetness I remembered, though her brown curly hair had been lightened, easing into grey–she smiled and lifted her hat to show me. Compared to her steady gaze I felt as if I my glance shifted often, and I wondered whether I wasn’t sufficiently “comfortable in my own skin”. Had to settle down to allow her to discern me full on, as she stood closer than most people do, and said less, smiling. She was safe to be around, even comfortable, and I stayed there until someone else came along to enjoy her company. I like it when someone takes the time to try to penetrate the mask

For a while I watched the young people play badminton in the back yard. Such a mild and innocuous celebration, a real contrast to the one I was part of after my grad, where a set of well-to-do parents lent their beachfront cottage to swimsuit clad, alcohol-sodden minors and hung around the fringes to laiser them faire ce qu’ils voulaient. Those parents were from the sixties, all grown up and well heeled, but maybe nostalgic, living vicariously through their youth. What were they thinking? Thank heaven for allowing me to avoid the worst of the stupid paths I could have walked down that night, between the fine, cold, white sand and  clumps of saw grass, passing figures in pairs giggling in the dark. Some of my better instincts were working, at least.

The sun had shone all day, all week and it felt like mid July already. Tans, cool drinks, parents borrowing grad gowns, parties popping up all over town. My son came over to me by the deck rail to inform me he was getting a drive with a swim teammate to another grad celebration. I send him off with good wishes and trust.

The next day, my daughter alluded to something she had heard–and she exhibited a certain disdain for the friend who had shared this gossip–that my son did not always make wise choices. Not being specific, and I didn’t ask. She said she wished she didn’t even know, and that her friend would mind her own business. I tried to give the friend the benefit of the doubt, having known her since she was a preschooler, and heard many a news flash inaccurately told, all in an attempt to build connections between people.

But the implication hit me hard all the same. Not making wise choices? What had she heard? I felt a kind of grief, of disappointed expectation, that my son, all of my children, really, might not sail through the temptations of youth unscathed and unfallen. Not very reasonable, but there was the hope. My imagination started working into the present, the future. But not for long, as I am naturally averse to worry and anxiety. I set aside my speculations, and slept well.

A day or so later I obliquely approached the subject of wise choices with my son. He asked what it was about, and I said I was just checking in, because he was out a lot with friends, and I knew that sometimes companions didn’t always make good choices. “Like what?” he asked. I said, like underage drinking, or weed. Though I trusted that he would be a good example, I added, and a driver, if necessary (as my parents had requested of me). But not expecting perfection, I added, and I hope that he wouldn’t feel he had to keep secrets. Unbidden, he said, lightly, on the way to his room, “I solemnly swear never to do drugs.” Which I thought was kind of him. He does not utter words lightly, so I ended in believing that the rumor was another instance of my daughter’s friend getting her facts wrong.

Today my younger teen daughter paid me a great compliment, one which is not erased from my memory by her soon after calling me pathetic and ridiculous (in reaction to a disappointment, I decided). She said that she liked my parenting style, that I trusted my children, and that being trusted made her feel good. This was after being picked up from a friend’s house after a sleepover. I don’t really know the family, though I could see the girl was a solid contributor to my daughters’ school volleyball team, and that the mother had a nice countenance. I told my daughter that I did feel she would make wise choices, and was old enough to discern people to know what environments were good ones. That if I felt she was making unwise choices, I would indeed bring it up. Told her I had appreciated being trusted by my parents too.

Somehow I have accomplished communicating trust, though I do my share of warning, scolding, checking up, saying no, and imagining the worst. So that’s something. I want the to be the foundation of a self-fulfilling prophesy, that our children will surpass us, including in strength of character and wisdom. I choose to believe that, or at least project a trust toward that end.

Meanwhile, soon we’ll be having our own party, and darned if the thought didn’t cross my mind of allowing some alcohol-induced merriment among us of-agers, along with volleyball, bocce, and mingling around the neighborhood pool as the young folks splash around. When do the temptations ever really go away?




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Haikus written to the sound of the dishwasher’s last run of the day

Cat’s ears turn, tail flicks
Paw stretches, bats a wrapper
Big eyes watch, and wait

(More: Cat’s Ears)

Why do you look, smile,
only when my head is turned?
Eyes flick across, miss.


Empty kitchen, clean,
except the crumbs of sweet bread
and your last cup of warm tea


I watch for you, still.
Though your heart is forgetting,
mine will never heal.


You hold out your hand,
Tilt to see the creases there
Age, dismissed, returns.


Pacific Ocean
Stretching always undersea
Igneous yoga



Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Arts, Poetry and Music, My poems


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My Lord, what a morning

“Schew” Schew!” My son is shooting laser guns at I don’t know what enemy again this morning as I empty the dishwasher, and I ask him to stop, for the second time. As usual he’s up earlier than anyone and has been listening to a “Star Wars” audiobook. “How about some music, JP, like the birds are doing outside? You can sing. All that shooting bothers me.” Reminds me of death and violence, though I know for him it’s some kind of ingrained need to prepare for action, ready his instincts, move his body, be a boy, so I should be tolerant. The mental picture I work up of boys and men cultivating gardens and making art doesn’t really cut it as an alternative to crawling through swamps with guns after aliens who have sworn to annihilate all our villages. But how about clambering over houses and schools under construction, hammering together beams and messing with clanging pipes and welding torches? Why can’t we train them all up with that instead of the killing part? “Bob the Builder” and “John Deere Machines” cartoon being a good start, but what happened to the woodworking classes beyond age twelve? Useful Lifetime Skills, make way for Common Core. Because we need masses and masses of computer programmers to feed the kind of companies my husband works for, who pore over line upon line of code and manipulate masses of cell phone user data in an attempt to gain an edge on the other company doing the same thing. As personal information slips through the floorboards and gets pilfered by…aliens. Solving the world’s problems with technology, such as, why is my computer frozen again so I can’t access my next door neighbor’s morning Instagram post, or find the phone number of my dentist, or whether someone is defrauding my bank account from Nigeria?

And I say, can we start some banks, insurance companies, and school systems where the data is minimal and kept strictly local, maybe in file cabinets or big binders, or a few offline digital systems that a thief can only access by breaking a window and opening the safe? That an employee can’t even take home on a thumb drive to sell to the highest bidder? And the NSA is complaining now that some of the social media giants want to make users happy by allowing encrypt messages that even the government can’t access. I’m trying to apply this rubric to my activities: Who can find out, anyone in the entire world with cyberskills, or only those who happen to look out their windows or over into my shopping cart or overhear my voice in real time? The decision whether to replace our back yard fence with a closed wood one or open wire grill seems silly in comparison–do I really want to keep secrets from my good and kindly neighbors when strangers already know so much?

This morning the air was different. How much of that was conveyed to me subconsciously by the difference in this morning’s bird song as I rose from the pool of sleep, my soul slowly returning from that dream about escaping someone beloved but not very safe? But there was also the dingling of my small wind chimes, the shhh of the big weeping willow and fir trees, an auditory foreground outcompeting this time the distant sound of early freeway traffic several miles to the east. A clean, cool breeze off the water just audible, and the ticking of a clock.

My first thought was of mornings at my maternal grandmother’s house in New Brunswick, the thrill of waking up there on a July morning knowing the tide would be in on the river shore, where there was sand instead of the muddy, weedy ground further out. The brilliant sunshine would be warming the shallows except up under the sandstone banks where scaly fir trees leaned out. My brothers and i would bolt our cereal, argue over who got to use the big surf board first, and where was the small one, and could we go down to the river now? Annoyed at the necessity of wearing shoes through the rising hay and thistles, brushing spit bug nests along our calves and enduring the prickle of dead thistle leaves caught in between flop flop and sole. When we were little, a parent would have to accompany us for safety, and parents were in the habit of sticking around the house reading and drinking coffee or something boring like that. Grammy, or course, couldn’t come, with her stiff joints and fragile frame. Though now I wonder if we should have found a way, as I believe she would have enjoyed watching us wade, and how many memories did she have of growing up doing the same? We never asked her.

Sometimes I long so much for a river that I can’t stand it. But not just a river park, a picnic or day’s trip, a river of my own, or at least a place on the shore to put a cabin. The ocean is a necessity, of course, and should not be too far–with islands, preferably. But a river moves me. It brings so much, and washes so much away, yet holds on to everything important. Out of the shadows come the minnows, if I stand still, nibble my toes, and flip their tails in unison, flashing away as take a step in the velvety shallows. The river shrimps materialize and shoot several feet on either side as I walk and disappear again in a mist of fine sand. There may be beetles and butterflies and apples and raccoon hideaways and even a natural spring on the shore and in the woods nearby, but what can compare with a river? How can I help but feel that, having been bequeathed with the experiences of two rivers, one visited only a handful of times, and the other every summer? Both are out of range now, thousands of miles away, one owned by my aging uncle and aunt, probably later by their children, and the other even farther away, perhaps with some shoreline still in my father’s family, but I live here now.

I live here now. And as I aspire to end my sentimental journeys and laments on a note of hope and good intentions, I affirm the presence of two or three perfectly good rivers here. I only feel the need of a guide, someone who would not only not be put out but would delight in helping me get acquainted, showing me where to get my feet wet, cast a line, launch a canoe.

It occurred to me that I’d expressed some river longing other posts, such as River, and this, If I had a river, which I checked to make sure I wasn’t repeating myself too much. I noticed that the second one was written exactly one year ago today. And so I declare this day, June 11, to be River Appreciation Day. May you find your flow, see good things coming down and be able to experience a cleansing, healing, refreshment in the river of your life today.


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What doesn’t kill you either makes you stronger, or initiates a slow and inevitable death

Again I reflect on what could be going on in this huge world filled with individuals so connected in some ways that they seem like part of some huge protoplasm phagocytizing the latest presenting body, absorbing whatever is diffusing through this cultured medium, yet also so fundamentally alone, cut off, unique and mysterious, perhaps even breaking off the main body entirely. Whether that makes for freedom and independence, the establishment of a new population of adaptable organisms, or drifting vulnerability, death of the apparently unfit–are we all comfortable with that?

After the middle school class had received their tests and were getting down to them, continued from yesterdays’ work, I noticed one boy just sitting at his little table, lank hair hanging over one eye. I asked him if he had missed the previous day and so had not got a test started. He said no, he didn’t have a group. Group? You mean study group of this material? Yes. And why not? He just didn’t get a group, so wouldn’t be doing the test. Everyone was joining groups and he didn’t get in one, and didn’t want to interfere with anyone else’s. So I don’t do the work, I just read, he said. That’s what I do. Besides, there are so many questions, over eighty, on and on, and it’s too hard to read all that, I won’t be able to do it.

I tried for a little while to make the connection between the test as a tool for just finding out what he knows about U.S. history, and learning U.S. history as a way to be informed and capable of making smart decisions and not just being a pawn of the influential, and…he just looked at me quietly with those big eyes in that small, pale face. Sensing that what he got something from all this was that someone was at least noticing him, talking to him. Under cover of the quietness of everyone writing the test–as I continued, a somewhat unnatural quietness, as if there was a curiosity about this interaction, those fellow students having more background, and what was this sub on about with the boy who never did any of the work?

We started with The American Dream. It was on the test, after all, and I just told him about it, how it meant the idea that everyone had the chance to succeed through hard work, not only the rich or connected or advantaged. Could he imagine two boys, one who was told from an early age he could do just about anything if he worked hard, and the other, that he was dumb or didn’t have what it took or that the world was a messed up dog-eat-dog place and it was the luck of the draw. Which one would be more likely to succeed, if it was a matter of mindset? His hair hung over his face as he sat on a stool by mine, and I couldn’t tell his expression. Was I skating close to something painful? I imagined a quiet weeping behind that curtain, though he made no sound. Because this boy struck me as, more than anything, deeply discouraged. And usually that comes from external sources at that age, someone shutting him down somehow. He had adopted a fundamentally passive stance toward events in his life; it seemed the only form his righteous anger–if it could be so called, could take, and probably the most powerful. No one will tell me I’m doomed to be a failure–I’ll do it to myself, of my own free will!

There was so little time. Who was working with this kid? Who had time? And anyway, why bother? Survival of the fittest, right?

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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Education, Places & Experiences


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Of course I have favorites

Is it all my failures at home that have given me this advantage when it comes to dealing with students bent on offending, rebelling, sassing, dissing, and being generally, in their own minds at least, free thinkers and nobody’s fool?

There was this girl in my class the other day, and she’s sitting with her friend at a new table during group work time. One of the boys at that table is attempting to explain to her why she and her friend can’t be in that group. They have already started the assignment, are on a different topic, and there can only be groups of up to four people and that would make five. The boy’s expression shows a mixture of determination and trepidation. He’s speaking hesitantly but reasonably. The other boy looks on, believing this may not turn out well.

The girl is sitting hunched, her back against the wall, glaring, red-faced (could be sun burn). I sense the need for intervention, and approach. What’s up, I ask. I hear the boy’s explanation. I ask the girl what her name is, because she’s not noted in my seating sketch yet. She turns her glare on me. “your name?” Yes, she has heard me, and she is giving me the silent treatment.

Glares? I can handle those. So I say, “Okay, just asking. I’m not going to do anything nasty with your name, only wanted to be able to address you properly to be polite. How can I help?”

“You can’t. I’m NOT moving.” She is not quite gritting her teeth, or holding her hands in fists, but there’s the feeling of it.

I look at her friend, a girl I’d previously spoken to, whose name had been offered then on request. She awaits the verdict–she is in a support role, willing to also look a little fierce, if not openly defiant. Trying this out, maybe under a thrall a little. I look around at the students at the table. “Okay, see what you can work out.” I move away, thinking, these boys are in over their head, and here’s an incident waiting to happen. I confer with the special ed teacher, who nods, looks determined, and says, I’ll deal with it.” I’m hoping she doesn’t have her back up at all, thinking she might, suspecting she thinks that as a sub I can only make things worse. Something has to give. I wonder if a call down to admin would be a good preventative. Still, I move off, act normal, continue to check in with other groups without any indication that there’s a problem anywhere in the room.

A few minutes later I see that the SpEd teacher has worked her magic and the girl is gone from the boys’ table. She’s working out in the commons with two other girls. Since there are three educators including the instructional assistant, I stroll out to check in on the three groups out there. The girl is looking relaxed. I offer a few thoughts on how each group might include indigenous peoples’ angles on their Washington state history research on transportation, women’s roles, child rearing, industry. Remind them that these social studies concepts were realities not invented by the colonists. They are all open, but prefer to consider the state history part from the twentieth century on. There are no kids with indigenous roots in this group, I think.

I am smiling at the girl, along with the others in turn as I ask questions, offer suggestions. Suddenly she says, “I’m sorry I yelled at you in there.” Which is not, strictly speaking, what happened, but that’s how it felt to her, apparently. So obviously she was all set to yell. “I was just mad at them for not letting us in their group.” I reassure her that I know she had nothing against me personally. “But thank you; that’s sweet–I forgive you.”

I try to be professional when I’m working with students. Try to convey an equal interest, equal warmth, equal approach to intervention or disciplinary actions, equal respect. But to admit the truth, I really look forward to the opportunity to interact with strong willed students. Yes, I have some strong willed children on my own, and am not as alert to the need for staying on my best game at home, in being patient, in holding my ground while being empathetic, in giving frustrated children space. But it seems I’ve learned a few things along the way even so. And so now I feel so responsible to use that, to offer that, to allowing myself to be in that challenging place where I handle things in a way that really does some good for students like this. They are students who offend, and no one thanks them for that. They have their reasons for being mean, rude, defiant, difficult, touchy, and so few adults have the inclination to ask them what those are, to come alongside and understand, then work to help these kids discover and practice ways to harness their strength in a direction that helps them succeed.



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Last summer in the nest

Last night I almost bought a one way ticket for my oldest son to fly across the continent. Only reason I didn’t was that my computer froze, and I’ll really do it tonight. I go over the steps in my mind to prepare for his launch into college studies–assembling essential belongings such as passport, clothing for east coast weather, a few special things from home to set up in his room, his laptop. I wonder what he’ll want to bring besides. Driving him to the airport, saying good bye in that low key, heartfelt way we have, and walking back to the car feeling both bereft at that gut maternal level, and happy for him. Happy he’s found a good quality small college with the program he wants and affordable costs, happy that he’s eager to continue studying after a few months of summer–he told me he really thinks he’ll enjoy it. Happy he’ll be near my family, especially now that my parents are nearing their eighties. Happy that he looks forward to immersing in a Canadian environment, but will also meet folks from all over. Happy that he seems pretty put together and should be able to make wise choices in the midst of the inevitable segment of the student population who won’t.

Then we drive home. Will I be flooded with memories, want to write to him right away? What will be the shifts that will take place in our family with my second child, a daughter, now being the eldest, holder of (by the) the other driver’s license and attending local community college for her final year? And how will it be for my youngest son, who so enjoyed spending time with his brother, roomed with him for years? Will he become better friends with his nearest sister? Will they reach out to one another more in his absence, have a new sense of the impermanence of all things?

I guess I’ll pack away the rest of his things, not having the luxury of keeping his bedroom the same for his return–it’s only part of a garage, and shared. Suddenly my youngest will have a space of his own–the one who has been shunted from one corner to another, without shelves, toy storage, a real closet, or much in the way of expecting any of those things. Now he’ll be able to set up a table for Legos, have a mattress off the floor. I’ll paint his room, fix it up sweet.

How will we be at keeping in touch? Will we video conference, email, talk on the phone? Will he find it easy to be away from home, or will he be home sick at times? Is it a good idea to make that memory book of our family life, home town, friends and homeschool days, or will that make it harder?

My sister-in-law once exclaimed that it was too bad that just when her kids were becoming such nice people, they had to leave. We’ve had our rough times, but it seems that’s true–this young man is becoming such a pleasure to talk to, and more helpful around the house, kinder to his siblings. My daughter told me that her good friend, who has also known my son since they were small–her brother is a good friend of my son’s–that she was amazed at how much nicer my son was. Said he hardly talked to her before, or showed any interest in being friendly, was now really nice. She used to be intimidated by him. Funny how that is.

And so, I process, a little at a time. It’s a time to return to a discipline of prayer as I let go, we all let go and send this young man off to new tasks, relationships, hopes, and plans.


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An unexpected journey

I’m still susceptible to those bad boys. My charming, soft-hearted, intelligent, and highly skilled mate having that element of beastiness (not to say beastliness) that appeals to this day. He relates to Shrek, though I assure him that most folks aren’t ready for the real Fiona. He is not a tame husband, though I appear to keep testing that. I know he likes that feistiness about me too, though at first it appeared otherwise. Fresh from spiritual revival he was, a genuine experience of God, but also an inclination toward seeing some sort of reproduction of is mother’s excellent example of the Christian wife. Myself fresh from my own deepened spiritual life and hoping not to reproduce my own mother’s excellent example of the beasty wife. And so we got a little off track from our true natures. At least I can speak for myself in that.

One of the things I discovered over the years is that he likes to be teased, the more pointed the better (avoiding any real sensitivities, of course). Putting the challenge right back in his face, the most welcome defense a good offense. As in, “Honey, didn’t you get the kitchen clean?” “No, my dear, I had better things to do, so I called the help, but they were booked, so I’m waiting for you to fill in.” He loves it. And it sure is more fun than taking offense and feeling like a failure. Though I still have my suspicions that the righteous way is more service oriented and humble. I trust that my heavenly father has the longer view and more room for a meandering kind of growth, through my various stages of unadulterated self.

As a teacher, likewise, as I explained in the staff room yesterday, I find it easier to deal with equanimity with the kid who slams his books on the table and says, “I’m not doing this–this is stupid!” than the one who asks me how to do something every five minutes and whines that it’s too hard. I can relate to the first, and also there’s a strong will there, which I think is a very useful thing, something that can be directed. But the second is sounding an awful lot like a victim, and that’s the part of me I don’t like. Not very fond, either, of the complete conformist who only aims to achieve an acceptable task completion score.

Take the boy I’d been warned about on the phone by his teacher that morning before classes started, in case he wasn’t removed from the classroom for the day as requested, as he didn’t deal with subs well. He came in with a slam, snatched the paper handout I gave him with a “What’s this? I don’t want to do this!” And so it began, and somehow it turned out all right, and I wish I knew exactly why so I could package the formula and sell it to the trainers from the insurance company, not to mention pressing the same buttons the next time it happens to me. I guess it had to do with not being shocked and awed, treating him as if he had something worth contributing to the discussion about ways to earn a living, and doing some waiting it out or as the trainer said, giving him sometime and space. On the question about which was “goods” and which “services,” clarifying that the weed would be the goods and the dealing, services. And trusting him, when he said he couldn’t work with the rest of the class (corroborated by others) to take a few fellow students into the common area outside the classroom and work there. When I checked in, he referred to me to the others as a “homey.” For which I asked a definition and found that it means one accepted into one’s group. I said thank you, and that I’d noticed he had been pretty mad when he came in. He assured me that he hadn’t been mad at me, and I said I hadn’t thought so, and wandered back into the classroom.

Who needs fire walking, or tight ropes, or handstands on rings, when you can teach middle school? Lots of falls, years of practice, thrills and spills and a sense of accomplishment/relief when things work. And that there’s always the next challenge, and life is short.

And that weird balance between trying to “keep control” and admit that it’s in their hands, and making that appeal to their better nature. Today was tough–I was in a classroom with high, hard walls and windows, all echoing so that every voice had the feeling of three, and what seventh grade boy or girl can resist joining a cacophony of three? About half of the former and a fourth of the latter, in my estimation. All I could  hope for was for things to keep moving along, and for those so inclined to be able to learn something and get their assignment done, and to fairly distribute the consequences for not, per policy. And to maintain equanimity. Though one kid said I had to stop being nice because nice doesn’t work with those kids. Yes I felt that at the end of each class, no matter how raucous, I wanted to be able to smile and say thanks and have a great day, to have them still believe what I’d told them in the beginning, that I love subbing in middle school classes. There are a lot of bad boys. Next time I’ll write about the fierce girls.




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