Light Up the Sky!

Light Up the Sky


Tonight, our son has his first opening night in a high school play, Galileo.  I’m on the East Coast for work and will miss his performance, but I will be there tomorrow and Saturday and Sunday.  As I woke in an unfamiliar bed in a lovely inn this morning, I remembered the sense of excitement I always felt the morning before we opened a play—equal measures of anticipation and butterflies.


“When I was your age,” I told my son yesterday, “During tech week, I just wanted school to be over to get to rehearsal?  Do you feel like that?”

 We were packing up the make up we had staggered into CVS at 10:00 the night before: foundation, eye shadow, neutral lipsticks. I had forgotten he would need make up.

“I guess.  Sort of,” he offered. 


Our children do not always do what we love.  My daughters were gymnasts.  My son played soccer.  But theatre is in the center of the Venn diagram of our family’s overlapping interests.  Atticus’ opening night brings my own time on stage flooding back.


In First Grade I starred as Chicken Little, sporting a bright yellow ensemble, replete with tail feathers, maybe a headpiece?  I skittered onto the stage of the assembly room to announce, “The sky is falling, the sky is falling…”  Who knew I had been type cast, worrying as natural to me as breathing?  Often, I think Chicken Little and Cassandra on the ramparts of Troy are the same character, doomed to speak a truth no one wants to hear. It was good training for being a mother, a headmistress.  No matter.  From that moment, my truth was theatre.


In the summer, I went to the playhouse in Eagles Mere, watching shows again and again, thrilled to play a little blind girl in The Miracle Worker and a little no-neck monster in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  My imagination was my super power.  I lived to read and act and imagine.


In third grade, I was costumed as Sara Noble and memorized a monologue to share during my second grade teacher’s graduate school class.  My calico dress had a red and white sprig.  I carried a basket.  I felt so proud and pleased to be asked. I have no memory of my performance, but I had a clear speaking voice and was loud enough to be easily heard. In fifth grade, I lay on a construction paper beach as Karana from Island of the Blue Dolphins—by vote of the class—an odd way to cast a play. 


I love, loved, am still in love with, will always love make believe. I keep a finger puppet in my purse—a wizard dog.  You never know when some pretend play will be necessary.  I whip it out frequently on planes to quiet querulous passengers—usually children. Theatre is make-believe. I found my place there.


In the fall of tenth grade, a wise English teacher sent me to audition for Our Town at Haverford, the boys’ school my brother had gone to before he left for boarding school, before he died in a car accident in early August before he was to have gone off to college. That play confirmed my path, let me grieve because Thornton Wilder wrote a play that allowed me to begin to process my grief.

In high school, our plays were more sophisticated—real sets and costumes and lights—bright fresnels and lekos making us squint as we looked out at the audience.  I was in productions at Agnes Irwin, my own all girls’ school, but there were more plays to be in at the two all boys’ schools. Soon, I was never not in a show—a habit that led to procrastination in terms of schoolwork, but a hunger that needed to be fed, that kept me moving forward. 


I loved the process—repeated show to show, the traditions, the sense of community, the tolerance of big emotions.  First, auditions, then clumsy read-throughs, rehearsals when we might see a glimmer of what the performance could be, a surprising run through that went well, a dress rehearsal that suggested doom.  Tech Week nights were long and thrilling—we ate Oreos and Tony’s cheesesteaks—meat and onions and ketchup on long greasy buns.  We fretted occasionally about homework left undone as we lurched towards a show that would make us proud, but we were deep in, fully committed, determined to make a great play.  At home, I would wash off my stage makeup—or I wouldn’t because I liked how it made me look—mysterious, not like myself--and I’d fall into bed, deeply satisfied. 


I specialized in old ladies.  “You’re a character actress,” Mr. Worth at the boys’ school told me once, not unkindly, but not the identity I would have chosen. What ugly duckling doesn’t yearn to be the ingénue?   I felt real envy that lovely Julie played Emily in Our Town, while I played the Woman in the Balcony.  She had a love scene with Doug.  I grew to have Doug’s friendship.  In The Mousetrap, Doug gently murdered me, Mrs. Boyle, an annoying guest, several nights in a rowI wore a yellow wig as the owner of the carousel in Carousel and cackled at dreamy John Langfitt, but his character, Billy Bigelow, loved Julie Jordan—tall, gorgeous Tracey, one of my classmates.  


In that hideous straw colored wig, I heard my father whisper, “Where’s Ann?” from his seat in the front row.  My mother lent anything—props, furniture—to our theatrical endeavors.  Once, when the lights went up, my father, who had been traveling, breathed too loudly: “It’s our living room.”  And it was—sofa, end tables, grandfather clock, oriental carpet, waste basket.  I loved my mother’s generosity, her easy banter with the boys who came to load—ever so gently—our furniture into a pick-up truck.  Her generosity made me indispensable.  I loved that, too.  As Seniors, Corky and I played the two murdering sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace, running up a flight of stairs where the boys on the crew painted a warning up the steps, visible to us but invisible to the audience: WALLS WET—DON’T TOUCH.


I loved the costumes, the faint smell of perspiration clinging to the rack, a combination of old, formerly worn items mixed with baby powder and deodorant.  I could always find the missing suspenders, the errant bow tie, the slip that had fallen off its hanger.  I could sew a little, too, so I was the one to put a button back on or mend a tear. 


Before You-Tube, I learned to do age makeup from a book, blending shadows and drawing lines with eyebrow pencils to create the valleys and contours I now possess. I arranged countless pompadours, buns, twists—ironic since my own  hair is rarely styled.  I could age a classmate’s head with baby power and spray dye.  The faucets in the boys’ school gymnasium—our backstage--ran only cold water. My face felt stretched across my bones under the cold wet sponge thick with pancake make up—those round cakes were made by Ben Nye, and you had to wet the sponge the soften the cake to spread the foundation across your face. I filled my make up box—originally my brother’s red tackle box, left unclaimed in his empty room—with lipsticks and pots of cream shadow and tiny sponges.  I knew never to share mascara!  A tiny brass crane—no more than 2 inches tall—found its way to the bottom of the box—and is still there, I suspect.  A talisman whose origins are unknown.  My fingers caressed it before each performance.  The box and the heron must still be in Eagles Mere in our barn, my brother’s name, James R. Klotz, embossed in white letters on a black plastic strip.


“Five minutes,” the stage manager would call.


“Thank you, five,” we’d chorus, making our way to the wings, waiting for “Places,” for the lights to dim to black and then come up, listening to the hummed rustle of the audience begin to quiet, squinting up at the bright grid, so excited to share our work, hoping all the cues would happen as required. After, hugging in triumph, we’d drive to cast parties, where parents seemed oblivious to the keg in the front yard, the cloying smell of weed.  Because my brother had died, I was the squeaky-clean, designated driver, the one who cleaned up, kept the rest of them safe, welcomed entirely by this tribe but never pressured to indulge.  They all knew my story.  Boys who take big risks end up dead.  I took risks only on stage.


I remembered the feeling of sleeping late on Sunday morning after the last performance, stretching languorously, feeling dejected and mournful, already focused on anticipating the next production. 


Junior year, my heart broke when, during auditions for Charley’s Aunt—my beloved Doug’s last play—the director asked me to come down from the stage and sent Laura up.  He switched some others, too, and eventually said, “You are looking at the cast.”  I was in the audience, not onstage.  Even as I fled the basement, not wanting everyone to see me cry, I knew this was a cruel way to cast a play.  As I pulled out of the boys’ school’s driveway, Doug flagged me down.


“Ansky,” he said softly, “It’s my last show.  I thought you’d be in it with--I mean, I just assumed—promise me, you’ll work on it?” 


Ansky.  That was his name for me.  I melted, instantly agreeing to stage manage, ending up with 37 stitches down the side of my nose, thanks to a nail in a piece of errant scenery. And because of that accident, when Doug asked what he could do for me, I took advantage of my huge pressure bandage at the cast party I had refused to miss to ask him to take me to my prom. Packing up the contents of my mother’s house, years ago, in my old room, I found all of my programs in a box, signed with the effusions that characterize theatre kids and withered rose petals, lovingly pressed between black and white publicity shots of various productions. 


Theatre gave me purpose, gave me a home, a path through all the feelings no one could talk about in our family.  The summer after Junior year, I went to Carnegie-Mellon to study theatre:  voice and movement and script analysis.  I was thirsty, insatiable to learn all I could.  But when, at summer’s end, they offered me a place in the freshman class, I turned it down.  I could not imagine missing my senior year, leaving home—and that choice, I suspect, was the first hint that I wasn’t meant to be an actor.  I didn’t want it enough, to the exclusion of every other interest.


Even after Charley’s Aunt, there were more plays: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead where I played the Player.  In college, my Lady Bracknell was reviewed as possessing the quality of flat ginger ale, a review so stinging I recall it forty years later.  I played Aunt Ev in The Miracle Worker and that brought me Seth, so, though the part stunk, the outcome was worthwhile. 


But it was in college that the real miracle happened.  I discovered that I was a director.  Only now at 58, am I approaching the age of the roles I was born to play—but to shape the experience—from auditions to strike—was the right role for me.  I discovered how much I loved collaborating with a team of designers, setting the vision, planning rehearsals, cajoling actors into taking risks, finding truth, building trust.  Before we were even married, Seth and I made a summer program for high school actors—and we ran it for 27 summers.  It was a glorious long run.  I learned I was an acting teacher, able to help my students unlock the truth and vulnerability I found it hard to access on my own.  I went from being backstage, shivering in the wings, my fingers tingling, to being front of house, notebook perched on a music stand with a blue gel dimming the clip light attached to the stand, waiting, holding my breath, so awed by the bravery of the young people on the stage. 


Then that chapter ended, too.  I became a headmistress, no longer a drama teacher. My daughters, students in the school I led, made it clear they didn’t want me near the theatre. I could watch—from a distance.  Miranda became an extraordinarily competent stage manager.  Cordelia appeared luminous as Jo in Little Women, Cassandra in Trojan Women, in play after play in college. She pursues her career as an actor every day. 


And tonight, Atticus will appear as Cosimo deMedici in Brecht’s Galileo.  My only job was to bring a case of water and some snacks to their Sunday rehearsal.  I will sit in the audience and watch, holding my breath that all goes well for him.  I will remember, too, the girl I was a long time ago, who lived from play to play


My drama self pushes against all the other roles I play.  Each spring, I make a play with the little girls in my school, a different iteration of my director self, but not a bad one.  They get costumes, but no make up.


“Light up the sky!” I say to every cast in my care.  If I squint, I imagine I can still see the fleshy streaks of make up left on the sink in the Haverford School dressing room.  I wipe it up with a scrap of toilet paper, tidy the bobby pins, and turn out the light.  I carry that girl—that useful girl—with me every day.   





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AVK and the No Good, Very Bad, Terrible, Rotten Night

Right before dinner, Atticus asks me to grab his phone upstairs.  Foolishly, I leave everything out and return to the kitchen to discover Diva, our blind rescue dog, standing on the table, having devoured the sliced Porquetta I have proudly served. I yell at her.  She does not get off the table; there are too many dishes for her to find her way.  Atticus or Seth lifts her down.  I weep in frustration, wanting to slam doors and make a dramatic exit from dinner. 


I go back to my real life tomorrow, and the combination of vertigo—a new and unwelcome development—a summer of almost no writing, nursing Seth with his knee replacement, pork-eating dogs, and the idea that my holiday—such as it was—is over—makes me feel sorry for myself and then embarrassed that I am.  More pork sliced, we sit and I fuss at Atticus about his table manners for no reason except that I have veered out of control, so why not scold my son for slurping his noodles? I glare at Seth, who eats calmly, sipping dandelion wine that our friend, Andrea, gave him today for his persistent knee pain.  Atticus refuses the pork, saying he does not like its texture.  Then, he storms from the kitchen because of my correspondence with his soccer coach about pre-season.  I envy his pique and his escape, chewing mechanically, not even tasting my little pork roast.  I feel jagged, full of frayed edges. The storm I drove through this afternoon has settled inside of me, grey clouds lowering, rain pouring so fast I cannot see clearly in between the wiper swipes. It is not a great dinner. 


I take the blueberry peach crisp I’ve made from the oven and set it on the stove. Crashing around the kitchen, I bang pot lids because I can.  I will be the thunder. The crisp starts to bubble.  I have placed it on a burner that is still on.  I hate electric stoves. Upstairs, I pick up more dog poop—it has been raining for much of the afternoon and the dogs refused to go out.  Grim, I flush it and direct a few invectives at the dogs.  I drag my suitcase from a closet and lay it on a bed in a room no one is sleeping in. In the kitchen again, I toss the remaining pork—it has bad karma now.


“Why are you so angry?” Seth asks, helping me with the dishes..


Why am I so angry?


I have no answer.  I feel teary and bleary and childish, gripped in a fit of temper that holds me in its teeth.  How can I be a writer when I am not writing?  How can I lead a school when perennial challenges feel bigger than I am?  How can I plan Miranda’s wedding in this house when it would take me a decade to Marie Kondo it to my satisfaction? How can I face Seth’s next surgery in September when everyone says the recovery for a shoulder is much worse than a knee?  How can I leave Eagles Mere before I’ve seen the bald eagle, who perches in a dead tree on our side of the lake.  Each day, I promise myself I’ll remember to walk down in the afternoon to watch for him, and today it is pouring. 


“We have left undone those things we ought to have done.”  The words of this prayer I say each summer Sunday float up.


I don't like endings much.  And I don’t care for early August, and while we’re at it, I don’t like driving in the rain or the smell of cat food or dog poop in the upstairs bedrooms or the endless piles of dishes and laundry and leftovers.  I don’t like having my in-box cluttered or having the knot hole in the ceiling above my bed spin as I lie there and try to breathe through the vertigo. I don’t like that my sit-up regime lasted only until the vertigo began, with nothing to show for those two weeks of discipline.  I don’t like that piles of unread books reproach me.  And, as long as I am wallowing, I don’t like the obligation I feel to be positive, to look for solutions, to stay optimistic.  That’s my role in our family, in my life.  Moms and leaders can’t just give into self-indulgent temper—very often.


I want to feel like curdled milk, like the wet spot on the new rug that tells me Diva has found a way around going outside. 


“I’m going to my sister’s,” I spit at Seth.


“Okay,” he answers.


I walk toward the lake, mad that the days have grown shorter without my noticing and that the sky is already dark, the air cooler.


I climb my sister’s front steps, open the door and settle into a chair, listening to my niece read bedtime stories to my great-niece.  My wise sister reminds me I am juggling a lot, that it’s okay to vent. 


“I am venting to you and to Meg,” I bleat.


My sister relaxes back into the sofa. She knows how to offer refuge, how to make silence a comforter.  She doesn’t flood people with words as I do. I find a Kleenex, sniff, sip some wine, feel tears wet on my cheek.


“The fact is that I have no more to juggle than most women, and I feel so steeped in privilege that I feel wildly guilty for feeling anything other than grateful for the circumstances of my life. Self-pity is so unbecoming,” I think inside my squally self, and in my sister’s non-judgmental calm, my rage begins to melt. 


Often I tell teary girls in the school I lead, “Have your feelings.  They’re just feelings.  They will move and change.  No harm will come to you by feeling angry or stuck or helpless or mad or jealous or envious or spiteful.  It’s like the children’s book, Going on a Bear Hunt.  You can’t go under it; you can’t go over it. You just have to go through it.  All of it.”


Time to take my own medicine.  Summer is ending.  I am mad because of all I wanted to do that I haven’t done.  Mad I forgot to watch fireflies, mad not to have seen enough hummingbirds or to have de-cluttered the front hall.  Mad that my flip flops are wet through. Mad that the dogs will never really be housebroken.  Mad that people who are fifteen will sometimes be mad at their mothers—with good reason.  I walk up the hill in the damp dark, the silvery puddles reflecting street lamps. The lights on the first floor of our house glow golden against the dark wood walls, welcoming me home.  Seth is watching a movie.  Atticus returns, carrying our old gray cat.  We eat some blueberry peach crisp.  We watch the debate, candidates interrupting each other, preening like annoying birds, women being cut off.  I allow myself to feel worried, anxious, mad about the world.  Nothing bad happens. A little later, we go up to bed.  On the spool bed that was my grandmother’s, I prop myself up on pillows—a stranger at the Ben Franklin suggested it might help with the vertigo.  My yoga teacher daughter would not approve; she has taught me to sleep flat.  But up on the pillows, nothing spins. It’s okay to accept help from time to time. I sleep. 

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The Guest Book--Sarah Blake's and Our Own

Some books shake us, make us tremble, hold us in their fierce grip, force a reckoning.  I finish Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book on the settee of our wide porch on this brilliant July day facing the lake that feels like a part of me, like a muscle or a bone or a ligament that connects one part of me to another.  I loved this story and the writing, which is breathtaking, and the hurts and secrets and linen closet in an island cottage full of the detritus of generations. It is a New York story, an island in Maine story—those are not my plot lines.  We do not have lobster much in Eagles Mere.  And yet.  And yet, I recognize the people--the women playing particular roles, the summer rituals persisting from one generation to the next, the water—for us, a lake, not the ocean. I recognize Evie’s fierce desire to protect a house, to claim it as a part of my identity, to keep it safe for children my children have not yet had.  I recognize her reluctance to be practical or to share, the pull a place can have.

Reg and Len are outsiders, and I recognize them, too, as I consider the ways in which we exclude and include in this house, in this town, in our family, in our country—different versions of a history that feels too familiar.


“I never need to write my own memoir about Eagles Mere,” I tell my sister.  “Sarah Blake has already written it much better than I ever could.” I am melancholy, sad to have missed the opportunity to write such a luminous novel.


“But you will write your own story, our story” my sister offers, just as if she were giving me a hand up as we used to scramble up the steep incline from a hike to Haystacks.  There she stands, smiling--my older sister, the image of our mother, elegant and confident, more certain of herself than I have ever known her.  She lives here all the time, not just summers. We have changed, the two of us, shifted the way we interact. It’s as if, when our mother died, we realized it was time to lay down squabbling that had comfortably defined our dynamic, separated by seven years. Without our mother as referee, we realized we had been on the same side all along, tucked into our pew at church each Sunday, our mother in between us in the prayers. She is here in birdsong, in the doe that steps neatly into my sister’s yard this morning as I print a document, in the hummingbirds that visit our feeders, in the glorious mountain sunsets..  Our mother did not like to referee.  We, my sister and I, are conscious of how lucky we are to have each other, to have this place we love, this place that connects us to our past and future.


We are here, all of us, in Eagles Mere, generations of ghosts knocking about, contentedly and less contentedly, in this house, on this lake. Our brother.  Our mother’s brothers. Our grandparents.  Our children, my sister’s grand children. We are all here walking to the Sweet Shop for ice cream cones—mint chocolate chip. We are playing Pinball, ping pong, tennis, breathing in the smell of ashes in the fire place, walking softly on the emerald moss along the Laurel Path, the sound of the water lapping at the dock in the fog.  “Mist before seven; clear by eleven,” intones my sister, her voice an echo of our mother’s.


On the way into the house to write this at my mother’s desk, which was once my brother’s desk, I stop at Grannie’s desk—even my children who never knew their great-grandmother—call it Grannie’s desk. The green leather guestbook lies on the ancient blotter underneath the Book of Common Prayer that I, by accident, purloined from our church last week and must return tomorrow.  In between the guest book—my mother’s quavery hand unmistakable in blue Flair, noting who came and went each season—are four hankies I am pressing like flowers I used to press with Mommy to make books each summer.  Carefully, I would glue the pressed flowers or feathers to construction paper, and together, we would label each page and attach the pages with brass brads she always seemed to have a store of.  If I look hard enough, I would not be surprised to come upon those little albums tucked into a drawer or shelved between books no one has opened for fifty years.  And a trove of brads, themselves, may lurk in an unopened drawer. 


This summer, we have had three bedrooms painted, have thrown away a lot of old clothes, have swept and dusted and arranged for new carpet to be installed and to fix the pinball machine. Our daughter will be married here next summer, thirty-five Augusts after her father and I were married here.  What to keep and what to toss?  I am in the middle, looking forward and back, full of love.

And when I am tired of ministering to this old house, there is the porch waiting full of rockers and a settee and a hammock, and a book like The Guest House, which makes me weep and murmur, “I know them. I know them all.”

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The Myth of Sisyphus or the Hot Mess Express

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a little found poem based on the words of the wonderful women at The Heads Network Leadership Seminar at my own Alma Mater, Agnes Irwin.


Right before I left, the rain was coming, so I made preparations.


I inspected my new house, the one we thought was once big enough

Like my job that was once,

like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right,

But I may have outgrown both house and job.


What could this new chapter be?

I’ve come here to Rosemont to look to the future

My future.

Me: caretaker and mother and school leader and teacher and jack of all trades and the one who gets the job done—

Me, who keeps pushing boulders up endless hills,

who comforts the sick

and kisses the boo-boos

and manages everything with my lopsided grin.


“Do not pass this way again,” the policeman said to my black staff—

What kind of messages do we send? 

Old ones of exclusion, racism, “You do not belong.”

But we do, all of us.


I’ve come to this gorgeous school to remember, to imagine, to foresee, to dream big, but

Nothing is clear yet.

I can’t see my future.

The crystal ball feels cloudy.


But to prepare to see it,

to come to this conference,


Moved 60 clay oil lamps out of the way

Kissed my puppy on the forehead

Didn’t kiss my toddler, who was mercifully sleeping,

Caught the dog, offered the job,

Fixed myself up,

Picked out my daughter’s outfits because my husband doesn’t trust himself

And I don’t trust him either.

I left sub plans for conjugating verb forms,

Repotted my plants,

Watched the pre-K mermaid show.

I scooted around on my new scooter—40 is the new 20, right?

The right age to scoot!

Scoot around, scoot into a new school?  A new role?  Maybe.


I pranced around.

Watched Nature Cats,

Consulted my bishop,

Crowned Mrs. Lynch the Duchess of Rosemont,

Confirmed that Grand-friends really is a word—sort of,

Tried to watch the Warriors Game,

Was directed in a play by a bossy senior,

Told my spouse to bring back vegemite,

Adjudicated a debate between Daniel Tiger and the Prince of Egypt


Talked to the school attorney about an employee who is leaving badly.

Smug, we know none in this room would ever leave badly. 


I suggested oblique memes were not an appropriate campaign strategy, though

    Since we see it, we can be it—no, that’s not right


I sent an email to launch a network

Feared I might conflate three quick emails—I should not write three quick emails--

Read an email about Game of Thrones from a first grade parent,

Sent a disappointing email--

Detentions are coming for the chrome books left behind.

Tried to delete the email I sent by accident--

And then another one.  Sigh.


I listened to a Kindergartener read Scooby Doo Bakes a Cake with hard words like Zoiks and Jeepers!


Helped my Uber driver find my house—what was that about?

Drank my coffee alone in the car,

Sat in a very small plane on a tarmac, waiting.

My husband lied to me.


We waited to drop fuel because the plane weighed too much

What exactly is it that I am waiting for?

Just tell me, but until I have clarity, I


Celebrated my new role, was just appointed to a new job.

Went to a baby shower.

All these changes.

I’m excited, I’m terrified.

What am I afraid of?


Will I be bullied by these strange women into considering a chapter I fear considering.

Very likely. 

I started to cry and then got it together.

Of course you did. 


My state, Tennessee, ranks 49th out of 50 in status of women

Ladies, we have some work to do.

Please go to school today and make good choices, dear.

Like wearing underpants—hooray!


Do you think Mommy could do that job?

Mommy has goals and aspirations, too.

Why, yes, she does. 


I don’t even remember what I was doing.

It was so early.

It was too late.

I may have packed too many shoes.


I listened to a petition that suggests we use cameras to catch litterers and then throw them out of school.

While I was here, they had a tornado.

My dress flew over my head.


I snuck out on my Great Sloth’s Rumpus in the Rainforest

Backed out of my office to avoid the conversation about inviting parents on trips

Frantically texted my idea in the shower--

No, no—not in the shower—the idea I had in the shower, but I might text from the shower—if I could.

Because I do so much.


I am like a waiter from a cartoon, the plates piled in a pyramid above my head.

I don’t drop one—ever—though there is no such thing as balance.

I am sure-footed, mountain goats look to me for inspiration.


And now all these women,

these heads,

tall and small, gracious and graceful,

who make me guffaw,

are dressed up like fortune tellers--bright earrings and shawls--

To tell me they see this vision of me—a new version, new vision,

New possibility.


A long time ago, a mentor or guide

Took a bet on my future

So do we, by your sides.

Facing the Day

5:30 I hit snooze, shutting out the day, turning off obligations.



5:42 Seth’s lineament, smeared on his shoulder, wakes my nose.  He smells like a Bengal Spice tea bag, pungent. Would that it offered some relief.  Other mornings, the sound of his Hypervolt massager, shooting heat and vibrations into his broken joint, rouses me.


 5:45 I stumble to the bathroom.  Snow again. I like the frost traced at the top corner of the mullioned window in our upstairs hall. 


5:52  Mouth minty, robed and slipper-ed, I test for pain, placing my right foot down the first step, left foot meeting it, like a bulky toddler.  The flight is long. My slag glass lamp glows from the dining room, where Seth has put it on a timer, so I do not fall.  Angry, my knee protests.  I lean on the bannister, feeling older than 58.  When did I stop trusting my body?


5:55  The cats, like creatures in a flipbook, streak by, hungry. 


5:56  I push the swinging door into the kitchen, my right hand pressing on the light.  Diva, always the first dog awake, blinks, stumpy tail waggling, her left eye newly cloudy.  I open the back door, the cold barging in.  Maisie uncurls from her bed on my coat, yips, squeezes her tall skinniness out the dog door.  Sclepi, our original rescue dog, waits to emerge from her bed until breakfast has been served.


6:00  I drop a pinch of flakes into Shark’s tank, pull open the tabs of three cans of wet cat food, dump the gelatinous fishbits into bowls. Rinse, recycle tins.


6:04 I measure three scoops of dog food into their bowls, fill their water bowl, spill coffee beans into the grinder.  I press the grinder with my palm, feeling vibrations.  I add water to the pot, turn it on. Wait.


6:14  Next, I empty the dishwasher. Why do I hate sorting silverware? I water the paper white bulbs set in low glass vases, the pebbles shiny once the water hits them.  They are spicy, too, but different from Seth’s shoulder or the smell of the ground coffee.  I rinse the cat food from the sink, pour the oatmeal into the saucepan, set the timer. I stir between words, watch light begin the sneak underneath the edge of dark out the East-facing kitchen window. 


6:10 The carafe full enough, I whisk it out and fill my mug—risk taker, aren’t I?  Once I dump in the half and half, I carry the cup, my phone, my journal to the family room, to my chair.  Morning words, by hand, in that chair.  I wrap routine around me like a quilt.


6:16  Ding. The timer bleats.  Oatmeal requires stirring.  Without a timer, I forget and feel furious when the burning smell reaches me, so, resolved, I set the timer for five minutes, maybe six, trading interruptions of my thoughts for acrid frustration and a pot’s ruination.


6:22  I write again, check my email check, check the weather. 


6: 28 Check the oatmeal. Turn it off.  Relief.


6:30  I plan my English class, think about the lesson, cruise through Facebook, organize the day, get distracted and open up a piece of writing I had set aside.


7:03  Chagrinned, I hobble upstairs, late again, wake our son, our exchange daughter, my suffering husband, dress myself and choose my earrings, comb my hair, descend again.


7:25 Make our breakfasts: oatmeal, toast, another swig of coffee, cut bananas, blueberries, all these tasks, this elaborate choreography before we even leave the house.   


7:45  Late and cross, I let my tension spill onto them all—dogs, cats, fish, husband, children.  Coats, mittens, hats, boots, lanyards.  We manage, finally, to leave the house.  To start the day.  


Headlines: The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak and Congresswomen Wearing White

a piece inspired by my recent on-line writing class in which we were asked to write something inspired by recent headlines!




Traveling, I often feel encased in bubble wrap, as if, despite a glimpse of the snowy Connecticut hills that remind me I’ve traveled East, I could be anywhere, and this time, in the airports—Cleveland-Hartford-Hartford-Dulles-Cleveland—I do not see any television monitors, do not hear the news.  My husband, chiding, occasionally inquires, “You getting your news from Facebook again?”  Sometimes, I am.  In the  airport, right before I need to board my flight,I look up headlines just to see what is going on in the world. I read about hummingbirds--iridescent warriors, evolving to exist—like mothers, I think, snapping shut my laptop, like all women.  We must evolve, keep pace, adapt.  This morning, my Twitter feed is full of women in white, congresswomen in protest, nodding, in solidarity, to the suffragettes, who insisted that women be permitted to vote.  Flawed, those suffragettes, certainly—mostly white and wealthy, they were not “intersectional,” did not even know what that word meant, but they refused to be ignored.  But women of all classes did own white shirtwaists—there’s that, at least. Those feisty women made the world—men—take notice.  They were the kind of indomitable visionaries who started schools like the one I lead.  They were not nothing.  And I wake, feeling cautiously optimistic about evolution, about change.  I am afraid to read much more about hummingbirds because I adore them and maybe, after reading the whole article, I would hate or fear them.  It’s not very brave to stop reading, to get my news from headlines and pictures.  Some days, though, waking up in unfamiliar hotel rooms that smell musty and make me feel as if I am floating, untethered, it is my own best evolutionary—read, survival—practice. Did I pack anything white? 

A Meditation on Hankies



Those who know me well know that, by any measure, I am a lousy housekeeper.  And I am a lover of handkerchiefs, small white squares that I wear daily, tucked into the stretchy band of my Mickey Mouse watch.


Tonight, I am thinking of Margaret, who kept the house that I grew up in clean and tidy.  I see her in our kitchen, ironing deftly, the smell of starch and warm cotton familiar, homey, collars and sleeves giving up their wrinkles at her expert hands.


Margaret Grace McShane Tate ironed with confidence, skill, certainty.  I admired her brisk, confident movements.  She never seemed annoyed by my chatter.


Ironing eludes me.  It seems I put more wrinkles into garments than I take out.   Except for hankies.


My friend, Diane, a colleague from my New York school, ironed her Laura Ashley blouses for fun.  Fun?  I cannot imagine.


The snow day allows me to make soup—a domestic talent I do possess—and catch up on the hankies.  I bring the pile of clean, crumpled hankies up from the basement, clear a space on the counter, plug in the iron, douse the hankies with water to dampen them, lay dishtowel on the counter, find the spray starch and begin.


I can just manage ironing a square.  Spritz, spritz, run the iron round the corners, fold in half, iron down the fold, fold again, finish off the quarter.  Add to the damp finished stack.


My mother always had a hankie up her sleeve or in her purse.  When she died, I took a pile from her drawer; they smelled like her.


Now, I search for them at antique fairs in the summer, at flea markets. I like white ones the most, with a lace edge, but nothing too fancy because I use them—not to blow my nose, of course, but to wipe my leaking left eye. 


The eye doctor says it’s an allergy and the allergist says it’s an eye problem, but it runs, all seasons, and hankies are gentler than Kleenex.


When Jane died last summer, Maggie laid some costume jewelry, scarves and hankies out in the bedroom.  I tucked several hankies into my bag, bringing a little bit of Brooklyn Jane home to Ohio.


In my mother’s dresser, made from the doors of the Baldwin Locomotive Company her grandfather ran, I’ve devoted a whole drawer to my hankies.


They could do with sorting.


Some are too fragile for every day use, the fine cotton full of holes, but it’s hard for me to toss them, so they remain at the back of the drawer. 


Several have ink stains on them, proof that they occasionally end up in the bottom of my book-bag, in close proximity to an uncapped pen.


After the white ones, ones with red edges are my favorites.  The loud floral ones get neglected, left in the drawer, pristine.


When one of my girls gets married—one of my students—and I am invited to the wedding, I give her a bride’s hankie.  They are harder to find these days, very expensive and ornate.


Some I own are still stitched onto the cardboard backing that held them. I think about old general stores whose unsold stock was bought up and spread across the country.


 My sister gave me a set of white hankies stitched with metallic thread, unused, on our wedding day.  I used my nail scissors to cut one from its cardboard, slid it gently from underneath a ribbon. I suspect it was as old as the dress I wore, my grandmother’s dress, from 1912.


The little girls at school always ask why I have a tissue at my wrist.  I explain about handkerchiefs.


Friends who know me well know of my collection, my obsession, and sometimes give me lovely new additions. Sara sent me two this week; she had found them cleaning out her father’s house. They are both Liberty prints, never taken from their plastic. I adore them.


Now, if I appear without one, colleagues ask about their absence.  Habit carries with it expectation.  Hence, the need to iron. 


My husband finds my handkerchiefs littered about the house; I take them off when I am cooking or when I get home.  They exasperate him.


Sometimes, I wear the same one two days in a row, if I haven’t used it for my eye.


Occasionally, I’ll lend one to a crying child—or grown up.


I was particularly close to my younger daughter’s class; for their graduation, I went on E-bay and found lots and lots of hankies.  I laundered them and ironed them and gave each girl her own. 


We bought an old treadle sewing machine once, and in one of the drawers, nestled several hankies.  Who owned them? What had her life been like?


The other day, Emily, my massage therapist, returned one to me that I had left behind.  I was so glad not to have realized its loss before it came back to me.

Mrs. Shihadeh in Eagles Mere had a tiny shop, and when I was a little girl, sometimes we bought hankies there—ones with cats or ducks or bunnies on them, mostly. 


In Europe, linen stores still sell hankies, arranged in long, flat drawers.  I bought one in Bruges when I was fourteen.  It’s scratchy.


When did women start carrying hankies and when did they stop?  It’s an affectation, I know, an anachronistic touch, but I like it, like this way of reaching back into the past.


If I ever go to Ireland, I will look for a handkerchief and wear it at my wrist and think about Margaret, who kept our house clean, who loved me, and whose ironing inspires me still.


Beyond Number


Here is a list of the things I wish I had thought to count over this fleeting Christmas Season, weeks full of family and feelings and the need to prepare meals and wrap packages and try to keep chaos at bay and keep people happy and, and, and…Anticipation, someone told me, is 9/10 of delight.  We build up this season, this holiday, and then, whoosh, it is finished, leaving only the obligations of the New Year and a large number of ungraded 9th grade English exams. Here’s to algorithms that solve for love and longing and to family and to moments that are too brief and math facts that defy memorization and to resolutions that inspire rather than punish and to moments of calm in a sea of drama that allow tired mother/writers to collect their thoughts. Here is a list of all I didn’t count:


The number of times I loaded and emptied the dishwasher and the number of dishes washed.

The number of pots of coffee made and drank—thank you, new Cuisinart Coffee Maker.

The number of clementines or “oh, my darlings” as Kerro calls them, peeled and eaten. They remind me of my father-in-law, a December treat we all enjoy.

The number of presents wrapped and the number of times I lost the end of the Scotch Tape until I bought two new dispensers at Target.

The number of emergency runs to Target or CVS or the supermarket.

The number of bags of trash filled with recycling—wrapping paper, cardboard, bottles, carry out containers that make me worry about our own family’s impact on the environment.

The number of twinkle lights Seth puts up—only because an alum told me her father keeps track.

The number of pine needles that dropped off our Douglas fir Christmas tree each day--a tree that suffered from male pattern baldness upon arriving in our living room.

The number of times someone shouted, “Hello, Mr. Christmas!” to the mechanism Seth has to turn on the lights on the tree.

The number of ornaments we did not put up because this was a “less is more” holiday, due to injuries and lack of time.

The number of times I caught the little cat drinking water out of the bowl in which paper white narcissus bulbs were nestled—and the number of times I refilled the water.

The number of times I was glad we hadn’t set up the crèche because of my mistrust of that same small cat.

The number of times my husband sighed or groaned in pain and my increasingly limited repertoire of helpful things to say in response to his agony.

The number of socks given and received by family members as gifts.

The number of times I thought, “I should write about that,” but forgot to write down what that was.

The number of cans of cat food dispensed each day to three hungry, yet finicky, cats.

The number of pieces of kibble that fell on the ground when I dropped the container of dry cat food, most of which were devoured by the grateful dogs.

The number of times anyone volunteered to take the three dogs for a walk—were there any?

The number of times I wished for a quiet moment to watch The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Season Two.

The number of times I watched our son being patient and kind and helpful and was slightly awed by his capacity to switch between sulking teen and gracious human in a heartbeat.

The number of miles between Shaker Heights and Manhattan.

The extraordinary number of bizarre decorations at Stan Hywett Hall.

The amount of joy brought to us all by Cordelia’s gift of a Hypervolt. which we have all applied to every muscle we possess.

The number of times I wished I could talk to my mom on Christmas Day.

The number of times I admired another family’s holiday card and longed to be the kind of well-organized family that still produced one.

The number of times I rued the mess in our house and the impossibility of ever containing the piles.

The moments of swift conflagration between family members followed rapidly by moments of generosity and forgiveness.

The moments of wonder that passed without my pausing to breathe them in.

The number of times memories of other Christmases floated up.

The number of suitcases and bags, packed, unpacked, repacked and moved across several states.

The number of times a child told me to “Calm down,” which made me feel significantly less calm.

The number of moments I have already forgotten that I wish I had recorded.


Goodbye, Dear Friend

garden jlr.png


Last weekend, I went to Brooklyn to celebrate the life of my friend and mentor, Jane.  An inevitable fact of aging is those I love, who are older than I, sometimes die.  Jane died too soon, and I was glad her service was a few months after her death to give me some time to compose myself. 


On the July morning that Maggie called me to tell me Jane had died, torrential rains beat on the roof. I was numb, rattling around our big house in Eagles Mere like a ball bearing without destination.  Our son had an orthodontist appointment down the mountain.  Determined not to let the lozenge of my grief keep me from my routine, I got into the car with him , but as I navigated each familiar curve of our descent, tears began to leak from my eyes.  I swiped at them with the back of one hand, worried I would scare my son.  I felt the urge to howl, primal, at the injustice of losing Jane.  The orthodontist swiftly fixed the broken wire, and Atticus and I drove into Williamsport to Otto’s, my favorite independent bookstore.


Atticus treated me gently, as if I were a glass ornament. At the counter, I smiled damply at the woman and forged ahead.


“My friend died,” I announced, “and she always recommended books to me.  I need the titles she would recommend.”


The lady looked at me as if I had escaped from an asylum.  She smiled warily.


“I need your best first-run fiction,” I blundered on, tears spilling again.  “I need the best recent titles you have.”


Jane, you see, had always recommended titles. We both devoured books for pleasure, writing back and forth to each other. Every month or so, her email was full of suggestions, “Ansy, you simply must read Pachinko….” And I did. What would I do without her?

My friend, Alisa, a salesperson I’ve come to know over the years, came into the front of the store. Her kind eyes made my tears flow faster.  I blurted out my sad news again, and she glided to the shelves, plucking one hardback after the other.  No questions, just the meeting of my urgent need.  I stood next to her, holding the books, as if, in their weight, I could weight Jane, herself, to the earth.  We left with a shopping bag full of books:  Harry’s Trees, Asymetry, which I had sent to Jane a few days before; the new Charles Frazer, Southernmost, and Mrs. Osmond and Homegoing, both of which Jane had recommended in the spring.  I held the heavy bag, amulet against loss. 


So it was a good thing to have a few months between that day and the Saturday celebration about ten days ago.  I went to Jane and Thor’s house in August to say goodbye to the place where I imagine them together, to walk in their small garden, a garden full of flowers and herbs and rocket arugla that Jane smuggled into the country from Sicily.  For years, she gave me cuttings from her garden to root in Eagles Mere; some years they flourished; other years, they perished.  I saw, that summer afternoon in the garden, the Chapin English department, my dear colleagues of twenty years.  We often traveled to 12 Second Place for parties in the early summer, Jane and Thor entertaining us with sumptuous food and sparkling conversation.  I was paying homage, standing in that garden, to all of us, to the decades that we had spent together.


In the chapel at Packer-Collegiate School, I was overwhelmed by the Tiffany glass windows, by the presence of former students and colleagues, feelings coursing through me so fast, I could neither name or track them


But at the end, after all the tributes and the hugs and the exquisite cheese and crackers, I left lighter, as if Jane, in her death, had wrapped me in a web of love—all those people from my own past, from Jane’s life, gathered to remember her, to remind us of her care. And, when I arrived home, my stack of new books from Otto’s were waiting in the dining room where I had piled them in August.  I am ready to read them now. 


Train Friend: All I Want You to Know



I take the train from Union Station in DC to Penn Station--the Acela, much sleeker than the clunky trains in which I once chugged up and down the Northeast Corridor, back and forth to college.  Seth and I took an overnight train home from DC after Passover one year, pulling into Penn Station and brushing our teeth in our tiny berth sink and heading straight to school for me, to work from him.  I like trains, like the past they evoke.  I find them more relaxing than planes.  In the station, I photograph the pigeons, who do not belong in a train station, but there they are. I muse about my family’s history—Great-grandfather changed the course of locomotive history with the compression engine feature he designed.  But that was long ago. I think of 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, its art deco feel, cavernous ceilings, a building designed to show that men were mightier than nature.  Ha.  I think of Witness and Harrison Ford, and how I never used a bathroom at 30th Street after that film.  There was a pretzel/hot dog stand in the corner by the exit Mom and I used, and often, we would buy a hotdog—limp, delicious, covered in onions and ketchup or a soft pretzel slathered in brown mustard.  She was always waiting for me at the top of the stairs when I got home from college, her small frame enveloped in her gray-green Loden coat, a woolen fedora jaunty on her dark hair. I think of meeting people at Grand Central by the clock.  I love the coming and going of a train station, making up stories about the people I observe. 


This summer day, I heave my suitcase and my tote bag onto the train, tuck myself into a foursome, a table in between the seats.  It seems I have chosen wrong since I’m facing backwards, but I don’t mind.  I have my journal and a book and plenty of dreaming to occupy me as I gaze out the window.  The seats next to me and across from me stay empty until you arrive. 


You sit caddy-corner from me, across the table.  I estimate you are in your late twenties or early thirties. You are beautiful. I marvel at how elegant and put together you appear—hair tidy, nails manicured.  Never have I felt so effortlessly elegant, but then I stop myself.  Why should I assume your appearance is effortless? We both pull out our laptops and begin to work.  After some time, you bend deftly underneath our shared table and plug in a charging cable.  I feel relieved that you have found the outlet; I had forgotten that I would need to charge things.  I bend, too, and plug in.


How did our conversation begin? We smiled at one another, made a few remarks; it’s the casual easy banter of train strangers, born of shared circumstance, knowing we have no obligations to the future. I learned you have a little girl; she is twenty months.  You will meet your girlfriends in NYC for a girl weekend.  It turns out you are thirty-two.


Somehow, we meandered into a conversation about parenting, about marriage and our in- laws. You shared the pressure you feel of balancing work and school—you are getting an MBA in addition to working a big job and raising your daughter.  I feel protective of you—you sag a bit beneath the burden of the many cultural and gender expectations in your life.  Your husband and your in-laws have many thoughts about the woman you are supposed to be. Those expectations get set early in our marriages; they can make it hard to breathe. We talked about how strange it feels to be the “other” in our spouse’s family.  We absorb dynamics we may not fully understand. I told you that I run a girls’ school, that my two daughters are grown up.  Looking at you, with everything in front of you, my heart squeezes.  There are so many things I want you, a total stranger, to know. Here is my list—for you and for so many young women in my life:


  • ·You are enough—your efforts are enough. 


  • ·Make women friends who are older that you, who don’t know your spouse or your in-laws—but who will affirm you, your choices, your hopes.


  • ·Control, in excess, isn’t good for our daughters. That said, neither is juice.


  • With food, avoid the forbidden fruit approach—don’t make too big a deal out of any food—it doesn’t end well.


  • You know your child better than anyone else—I learned that from our first pediatrician. 


  • Trust your instincts.


  • We are plagued by FB posts from other moms whose tidy vegan children eat only kumquats while our progeny snarf down Mac and cheese—Annie’s not Kraft, of course.  This makes us feel like “less than” mothers.  But remember, those FB moms are carefully curating the version of their children that we see—those posts are designed to make us feel inadequate.  And their children still have tantrums and whine in public and melt down at 5:00 p.m. 


  • Avoid judg-y moms. They are a vexation to the spirit


  • Keep being brave in conversations with your spouse. Pretending things will change when take avoidance to a high art is folly. 


  • The work of raising children and caring for a home works best when shared.  If you’re keeping score, your partner isn’t doing enough.


  • Make times for friends who nourish you. Thank them. 


  • Self-care matters.  And you don't need to feel guilty for making time for yourself—it’s essential.


  • In-laws can be tricky on both sides. There are old habits that claim us.  Our spouse may regress to his or her adolescent self; so might we. 



  • A hotel room is always worth it when visiting family for longer than a weekend. It offers a respite, clean towels and a nicely made bed.


  • Keep asking questions and seeking role models who live the way you want to.


  • Be brave.  Courage is how we fight fear. Too often, I have not said what I needed to say for fear—but fear is a trap; fight it. 


The train jolts unexpectedly; suddenly we lurch along, captive on an amusement park ride we did not sign up for—like marriage.  We expected a smooth journey, a gorgeous wedding, happy times; we never anticipate the bumps.  We pass through the backsides of towns, seeing laundry lines and rubbish, detritus and neglected buildings, paint peeling, windows broken—it’s not a pretty view, but the grittiness is interesting, real, alive. 


I see the Art Museum on my left as we jostle through Philadelphia, my old hometown.  We discover we have a colleague in common!  We are not strangers anymore. 


Our conversation turns to screen time, another topic where absolutes do not help us.  We marvel at toddlers who can swipe their mothers’ I-phone screens.   We swim, temporarily, in guilt, considering, all we can do wrong to wreck our kids.  Yet, magically, we don’t.  They are more resilient than we fear. 


It is hard to raise children without having our own families near by.  It is hard to manage aging parents and the compromises that marriage requires. It is hard to manage expectations—our own and those that others have for us.


Eventually, we pull into Penn Station, lug our baggage out of the train and through the corridors to the huge, much less lovely, street level.  It’s time to part. 


“You’ve inspired me,” I tell my new friend.  I’m going to write a blog about our talk.  A few days later, we become Facebook friends.  A few months later, I recall our conversation.  In a quiet Wisconsin dawn, far away from the East Coast, I think of you and hope, on this autumn morning, that you are well, that you are managing, taking care of yourself and your little girl, that you remember you, flawed and glorious like all of us, are enough. 


A Tree Leaves the Circle



A few Saturdays ago, I drove around the circle late in the afternoon and realized, with horror, that our apple tree had been cut down. I had noticed the tree company’s trucks around the school’s campus that Saturday.  They come each year to trim limbs and to check on the health of every tree, but it had never occurred to me that the apple tree would be there in the morning and be gone by afternoon..


In its place was a bare clearing, the stump raw.  I parked the car and chastised myself for my quick tears.  I loved that tree, loved how it marked the seasons—tulle pink blossoms the spring, rosy apples in late summer, etched bare branches stretching out against the winter sky.  It had a sense of dignity in its clearing on our circle, an agelessness.


Just two weeks ago, a whole herd of deer stood under it in lavender evening—three does and two late-drop fawns, still spotted, all munching apples and gazing, unafraid, as I passed with our three dogs. When they were little, Atticus, our son, and our neighbor, Shea, would gather up the apples—entirely unfertilized—and make apple bread.  As soon as he saw the tree was gone, Atticus texted Shea to share the terrible news. 


“Absolutely dead,” my facilities director reported when I asked on Monday.  “Sounded like a bass drum when they tapped on it; it had to come down.”  Of course it did. Safety is the most important thing in a school.  But, a small rebellious voice inside my head wondered—it was set back far from the street; it couldn’t have fallen on anyone.


“Did they do an environmental impact study?” my son demanded.  He, too, was bereft at the tree’s sudden disappearance.  “What about all the squirrels and the deer who relied on that tree—and the rabbits?”  His indignation was a thin disguise for grief.


“We could plant a new apple tree,” my facilities director suggests.  I nod.  It will be decades before a sapling can grow large enough to fill the empty space, sturdy enough for a child to climb.


I remember how much I loathe Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree—that spoiled boy and the selfless martyr mother of a tree, handing herself over bit by bit until she is dead.  Maybe it’s better to have our tree gone all at once, instead of witnessing her slow decline.  But the vacant landscape feels jarring.  I used to tease my son about how much he hated change; we got a new refrigerator and he mourned the old one; he did not want to paint his room or switch his comforter.  He liked things the way they were, predictable. When it comes to disappeared trees, I’m not as adaptable or as willing to embrace change as I pretend I am.


That same week, our school celebrated its ninetieth birthday on Lyman Circle.  The original property had been an apple orchard.  I wondered, as I passed the strange new bare spot, if this tree had been one of those original apple orchard’s trees.  In 1926, Sarah Lyman had brought members of her faculty out from Euclid Avenue to see the land.  It was a muddy day.  The teachers saw a sodden orchard, but Sarah Lyman saw a school.  We see what we want to see.  We can’t always see everything. 


To my eyes, the tree was healthy, bright green leaves shooting from dignified limbs, apples freely given.  But we cannot always know what’s inside.  As an English teacher, I have taught girls for decades to trace the imagery of appearance versus reality through plays and novels.  Truth isn’t always easy to perceive.  And truth, as an absolute, is elusive.  The tree company assessed the tree’s health and determined it had to go.  I regarded the tree as an old friend, vestige of an earlier era, part of our family’s story here, aging, certainly, but not ready to be chopped down.  Change is hard and takes time to get used to.  I’ll miss the gracious lady and her apples. I think I’m glad I never knew that she was dying. 


Tomorrow, Atticus and his dad are going apple picking.  I’m going to be with other heads of school.  We’ll talk about the state of girls’ schools, the opportunities and obligations, the responsibility we feel to nurture girls, to offer sustenance and shade and beauty and all the lessons of the natural and human world.  Tomorrow night, perhaps I’ll make an apple pie—in honor of our lost tree, in honor of what she offered, in honor of all the work yet to be done and the trees yet to plant.


Finding Our We: A Fourth of July Talk in Eagles Mere


For a number of years, I have spoken at our July 4th ceremony, following our parade. I “retired” from this gig last year, but share my remarks here. 



Happy 4th of July, Eagles Mere.  When the invitation came to speak today, at first, I wanted to decline.  I waited a few days before saying yes.  I am worried about our country and I couldn’t think what I might say. And now a thunderstorm threatens to eclipse me, anyway.

My heart feels heavy these days about how we are doing as a country.

My son, however, reminded me that, in my work as the Head of a girls’ school, I talk all day long about concepts like civic responsibility and giving back and duty—I was busted by a thirteen year old.  So, here I am on this anniversary of our country’s declaration of independence from another country, whose system of government and the behavior of a tyrannical King felt intolerable.

Because I am an English teacher, I went back to the words of the Declaration of Independence to inspire me, particularly this phrase, the very end of the declaration:  “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

What might that mean today?  What does mutual mean?

Right—both of us.

Pledge means promise.

“Pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes—“

Do you think they meant only money?  Or could fortune mean something else?

I think it could also mean destiny, what happens next—because there were no guarantees about what might happen, how hard the struggle for independence might be—and, in fact, was.

“And our sacred honor”—You know that sacred means holy—but honor is a word we don’t talk about enough any more. To behave honorably means to do the right thing, even when no one is watching, to do what’s right instead of what’s easy, to hold oneself to the highest standards of integrity and justice and morality and faith, if you are a person of faith—it’s like having a tiny version of Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder all the time.

Those are the words with which those flawed, oh-so-human, white Protestant men ended our Declaration of Independence.  They didn’t know much about inclusion—they didn’t see women or people of color or immigrants as equals—even though they were, actually, all immigrants.  They were operating from a fundamental platform of privilege—and yet, they were doing the best they could to establish a democracy, to seek change for a common good—and they understood there was risk involved.  They did not know how things would turn out.

I often wonder if they were frightened, those men who disagreed and fought and fussed in Philadelphia—they actually wrote another document the year before they wrote the dec—we don’t read that one very much, but remembering that it existed reminded me of two things I wanted to share with you today

1)  Writing anything in a group is a terrible idea—it’s really hard to get people to agree—John Dickinson and Thomas Jefferson, in particular, had a hard time compromising…Jefferson won.

2)  The group of signers believed in their ideals, in their hope for a future that was different from what they knew.  They were willing to put their lives on the line for those beliefs—with no guarantee that things would work out—because there are no guarantees when we try to do something new and hard; the point of risk-taking is that it implies risk.  When we play it safe, we do not change or grow or stretch or even learn.  Sacrifice is hard.

We talk a lot in our country about how it is a privilege to disagree—and it is.  Sometimes we forget the back end of privilege—that is obligation and responsibility.

These days, we’ve seen some nasty habits develop, which worries me for the children in our audience. Some politicians and regular people and even some people in this very crowd have fallen into a pattern of demonizing anyone with whom they disagree—of hating the person along with what that person thinks.  That feels dangerous to me.  And cowardly. 

We have fallen far from pledging our lives, our honor and our sacred trust—we have forgotten that, at our best, we are all on the same side, this country’s side—and that our own personal gain must come way after the good of the country, but we have different ideas about what is best for our country—very different ideas, and we are out of practice about how to disagree respectfully. 

The internet doesn’t help—it’s too fast, too easy to write things that we can’t take back—and we also get, from social media, a false sense of the speed with which the work of government generally happens—there ought to be process and checks and balances and due process and time for legislators to take the pulse of their constituents..  Real government is the opposite of Twitter.

In my school, civil discourse is a term we often reference—but don’t always know how to do.  It’s a concept the founding fathers understood—and wrestled with.  They debated fiercely among themselves—Dickinson and Jefferson had spirited disagreements about how hard to push the British king, what tone to take.  They kept coming back to the conversation in order to get to a place where their egos stopped getting in the way, and they found what they thought was the approach that would best serve the whole new country, the common good.  Of course, Hamilton and Burr debated all through their adulthood—that one didn't end so well.

I’m thinking our country needs a big dose of the kind of civility that has nothing to do with behaving properly at tea parties or kissing relatives you don’t particularly care for—and, by they way, no child should ever be forced to kiss anybody—the civility that centers on engaging passionately in debate with people you respect, but with whom you may not agree.  Wikipedia reminds us that civility is “the action of working together productively to reach a common goal—robust, even passionate engagement framed in respect for differing views”—civility doesn’t mean being polite or sweeping disagreement under the rug—it’s about listening and using reason and structuring persuasive arguments and pursuing a common goal.  It’s not impulsive or driven by ego.  It might even require you to be vulnerable enough to change your mind.

These days, it is tempting to live in an echo chamber of our own devising.  It requires enormous discipline to really listen without planning a rebuttal, which we have already decided is obviously the more correct response! 

There are consequences for our nation when divisiveness reigns—moments when some feel ashamed to be American and some feel jubilant and paint the name of the President across the side of their barns.  While historians consider the long arc of history, much of the tension in our nation remains unresolved—tensions linger from the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement, Viet Nam—conflict rarely gets wrapped up tidily in a bow. But passive and mad and judge-y don’t effect change—it takes a long time to work our way to shared understandings, but we can neither despair, give up, retreat, take refuge under the lemonade table over there or brag or declare victory or act superior and emboldened. 

We are not tumbleweeds—We have agency and the opportunity to work towards a better, shared vision of our nation.

Some moments in history last longer than we want them, too, but over a long period of time, their impact may seem less than what some of us fear.  That sustained effort will be required to forge a path forward is hard for us to understand in the quicksilver pace of our world—enduring truths run counter to all we know and experience today.

Those guys who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were privileged.  Like them, all of us on this mountaintop are privileged, regardless of the amount of money in our bank accounts.  We are privileged to be near an exquisite lake in a small town so pristine it can feel almost Utopian, privileged to be able hold ourselves apart from the news and the world for a time.  It is good to rest, to celebrate, to come together for a parade that features dachshunds and kazoos and fire trucks, to wear red, white and blue and smirk a little, but also to love dressing up a little and coming together year after year. 

And then, it is good to keep working to make the world better, to protest or publish extraordinary magazine covers or call our senators and congressmen, or register people to vote, or vote ourselves—which we must—because that is both a privilege and a responsibility that should never be squandered.

It’s also an option to talk, to really talk through tough topics with the goal of seeking understanding as we listen and learn, not with the goal of convincing another person that our point of view is the better one. 

It’s a privilege not to take a stand, not to get involved—don’t give into that type of entitlement— it’s beneath us as Eagles Merians.  I encourage each of us to be a citizen.  You might offend someone and someone might offend you.  That’s okay, even likely.  But stay in the game.  Keep working to be worthy of those lofty 17th c. ideals.  For me, action is the antidote to apathy.  Hope is essential; it has always been elemental.  Despair is a luxury we can ill afford.

Don’t ask a child what she wants to be when she grows up; ask her what she wants to do—then, model the doing of what you believe in for her and with her—what we say matters, what we do matters even more.  We can all do things that matter.  Let’s get on with it.

In a moment, there are Lemonade and cookies for the children.

Let us thank those involved with putting the parade together for us. And honor Johnnie Voorhees, who started this parade during the darkest days of WWII, a tradition that has continued ever since.

Finally, I want to tell you about a new Poet-tree sponsored by Endless Arts, who seek to infuse our Eagles Mere summer with poetry. We hope every organization in town will find a way to embrace poetry — parents could read poems to their children, all of us could write poetry and read it and join in some of the activities Endless Art offers.

A great place to start is the poetry tree across the street in front of The Common Good, and you’ll find waterproof paper and decorative pens. Then hang your poem from the tree. Maybe it is a poem you’ve written or maybe one you love. Look for poems in other places, such as the Laurel Path and at the beach...

The poem I’ll share in advance of the story is by gay journalist, abolitionist, civil war nurse, Walt Whitman—I am glad to have his voice with us on this Fourth of July!


I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics,

each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work,

or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat,

the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench,

the hatter singing

as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song,

the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning,

or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother,

or of the young wife at work,

or of the girl sewing or washing,

 Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—

at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.


I hope you will raise your voices with Whitman--Sing loud this 4th of July! 





The King and I



My father followed pro sports as if it were his job.  In fact, he often didn't have a job, but income not with standing, he had season tickets to the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers, Eagles. He was a fanatic. My childhood memories of time with my dad include watching him shave—I was afraid of how the shaving cream transformed him--doing errands with him on Saturday mornings—he kept Archway cookies underneath the seat of his car—raisin, which I detested--and driving into Philadelphia, holding Daddy’s hand as we made our way to our seats. I’d try to understand whichever game I was watching, while Dad, listening to his transistor radio, juggled food and his stats sheets and pretty much ignored me.  They were odd evenings.  I remember being cold at football, overwhelmed by noise in arenas, tired at baseball.  By high school, I had stopped going.  I never went to a football game in college and never felt I'd missed out. 


The man I married, a mid-westerner raised in Ann Arbor, follows both college and pro basketball and watches football if Michigan is playing. His interest in basketball meant I could sit near him on our fold-out futon in our NYC apartment; I liked how fast moving the sport was, how watching it on TV made it easier to see the plays.  In the 1990’s, we’d watch the Bulls.  I liked Scottie Pippen’s face, was interested in what outrageous thing Dennis Rodman might do next and what color his hair would be.



Now, our son, thirteen, is a Clevelander and one obsessed with basketball.  For the past several years, he has hung out with the older girls on the basketball at the school I lead. He played briefly on his own school’s intramural team, but preferred practicing with the high school girls at my school.  This past year, he was promoted to Manager.  In spending several hours a day with our team—from November to March—he learned the game.  He and his dad watch basketball on TV. The two of them go to games, enjoying a male camaraderie unusual in our female-dominated family on the campus of an all girls’ school. He acquired Cavs jerseys; he gave Cavs jerseys to his sisters one Christmas.  He made a Cavs shrine in his bedroom with photos of LeBron and Kyrie.  These days, dressed in Cavs pajama bottoms, he plays a basketball game continuously on his Switch called NBA2K18.  He watches a funny web series called Game of Zones on his phone.  He quotes stats and trivia about the players, about other players and other teams.  A few weeks ago, we bought a hoop, and my husband put it up outside in the school parking lot, so our son could shoot baskets in the evenings and on weekends.  He is not yet as tall as he wants to be, but he is determined.  I wish he had really known my dad, who died when Atticus was only five.  I think about the pleasure my dad might have taken in a grandson who loved sports. 


As I write, it’s Game One of the NBA finals.  The game’s end will be a heartbreaker, but I don’t know that yet.  LeBron James, the King, forward of the Cleveland Cavaliers, is on the floor, bonked into by Draymond Green.  My son, transfixed, is muttering, “I knew it,” in private conversation with the commentators as they ponder the foul against LeBron.  Basketball thrums, the background to my life as the mother of this son.  He is knowledgeable.  He is loyal.  He is interested.  Because it matters to him, my own interest has perked up.   I know the players’ names now; I ask questions, which my boy answers. How old are they?  Where did they grow up?  I feel a surge of pride when the Cavs take the lead, a clench of misery when we give up the ball or when Steph Curry shoots and scores a three at the end of the first quarter. Basketball is part of the rhythm of my daily life—at least post-season. 


Two years ago, when we won the championship against our nemesis, the Golden State Warriors, I was in California at a meeting.  In enemy territory, I felt both jubilant and lonely.  No one else was happy that the former steel town we call home had enticed the King to return to his roots to win an NBA championship for us.  Victory is sweet—and it doesn’t happen all that often in our city. We cling to hope.  This year, there are rumors that LeBron will leave again if the Cavs don’t clinch another championship.  The team got rebuilt mid-season, and there has been a lot of grumbling. People don’t seem to like the coach.  Everyone’s a critic.  Billboards on the highway proclaim that the Sixers want LeBron. “Don’t leave us again,” I whimper to myself.  “We need you.  Our whole region needs you. My son needs you.”  I love the huge black and white photo of LeBron that is painted on a building down town, arms spread, clapping up the dust, so his hands don’t lose the ball, 23 blazing.  I like that he is a symbol of hope and possibility and dreams that come true.


But what if we can’t beat the Warriors in this series?  What will happen to us? And when did I begin to include myself in the collective WE of the Cleveland Cavaliers?  I worry, sometimes, that LeBron plays alone too much, that he comes alive in the third quarter, that he should pass more, but he also awes me.  He’s remarkable. His wingspan dazzles.  I watch his face, try to read his expressions when the camera zooms in. When one of my students spent weeks in a local hospital rehabilitation center last fall, we hung out in the Cavs lounge—sometimes I wondered if they might show up.  I was sad when Kyrie left the team.  I marvel at J.R.’s tattoos—and now I’m fretting that the team won’t forgive him because of what happened in the last seconds of that first game. I’m glad Kevin Love has completed his concussion protocol.  I like Larry Nance, Jr. because I listened to his sister coach a team my girls played against, and she was kind and tough and tall and had a beautiful speaking voice.  LeBron’s kids go to a nearby private school.  I hear he is a great dad.  I find myself hoping his son will go to my son’s school for high school—if so, maybe I could meet the King. 


I struggle with the fact that Steph Curry, point guard for the Warriors, is a great ballplayer.  My husband reminds me of this fact fairly often, but it feels disloyal to acknowledge his prowess. Because he was born in Akron, I want him to be on our side.  Imagine if he and LeBron both played for the Cavs.  My husband explains it doesn’t work that way.  I hate how Steph’s mouth guard hangs from his lip, hate that he sinks every shot he takes, hate that he is as good for his team as LeBron is for ours, hate that he must be pretty smart because he went to Davidson, hate that I can’t just hate him purely…Then I shake my head at myself.  LeBron and Steph are celebrity athletes, demi-gods.  I have relationship with either one of them, no reason to spend so much time thinking about them.  I know almost nothing about basketball.  But I love watching my son watch the games, love the times I have seen him, dancing crazily, on the Jumbo Tron at the Q, thrilled to be part of something larger than himself.  Is that what hooked my dad?  Referred glory?  Maybe. 


To my astonishment, somewhere along the line, I have become a fan.  I hope my dad is watching.  Maybe not, though.  In my mind, cheering for our home team is required.  The Sixers are yesterday’s team, Dad.  Whatever it takes, we Cavs fans are all in.