Facing the Day

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

 

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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.

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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!

 

 

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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. 

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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.

 

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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. 

 

Re-Union

 

Spring is in her glory, trees bedecked in heavy pink blossoms; lilacs bursting, purple-flowered, into bloom.  The dogwoods are spectacular, delicate white and pink flowers arced across branches.  Gracious field stone houses, their proportions of another era, signal wealth in their elegant stability on large emerald lawns. Azaleas flame pink and orchid across lawns, flagrant, proud.  I even see a rhododendron beginning to bloom. In pots, in window boxes, in planters and in beds, pansies lift their elfin faces to the sun—yellow, blue, purple, white, orange—riotous and hardy.

 

“See,” the lush landscape mocks, “There is nowhere lovelier.”  

 

I am home.  No, that’s not right.  This is no longer home.  Home is Cleveland where I live with Seth and Atticus and all the animals.  I am on the Main Line, drawn by the magnet of my 40th reunion at Agnes Irwin.  Forty years?  Inconceivable. Driving roads I thought I had forgotten, I marvel at how the past swims back, unbidden.  I round a bend and think, “Oh, that’s the turn off for Patsy’s house." On Lancaster Avenue, I drive slowly, noting how storefronts have shifted, even since Mom died.  The needlepoint store Louise’s mother ran has moved across the street into The Country Cousin, where Mother took me to buy my trousseau the spring before Seth and I got married.  There is no big white horse in front of the hardware store; the building is there, but now it's a clothing store.  Mr. Fish’s clock store remains, tucked in between other unfamiliar shops.  Even the library is new, much more imposing and grander than the structure I recall from childhood.  It's a kind of archeology; reconciling past with present.  I see what exists, but translate instantly to what it used to be, seeking the contours of the familiar.

 

The Acme has been renovated, wholly unfamiliar, but still across from Our Lady of the Railroad Tracks. I leave, intending to turn right, but the car turns left, and in a moment, I have slipped between the two stone pillars that mark the Church of the Redeemer driveway.  I park, feeling guilty that I am skipping church; instead, I walk among the gravestones, finding the flat white stones of our Vauclain family plot.  I sweep some branches off of Uncle Jimmy’s gave, cluck at the discoloration of the stones, fuss that I have not thought to care for these graves since before our mother died.  I find Great-grandfather and Great-grandmother, a little farther away than Grannie and PopPop and their boys.  I find the little baby Jacques, his stone a smaller version of the others. What am I doing here in a cemetery on a Sunday morning?  I don’t quite know.  I don’t feel teary, just a little somber.  

 

I know I will head to Orchard Lane, the house we grew up in. I creep around the bend, look up at the house, our house, now painted beige.  There are no azaleas on Cooie’s Corner, no daffodils parading along the Beachboards’ iron fence.  The side yard is no longer fenced for our small dogs.  There’s a garden, but not where Mom’s garden was.  The Japanese Maple on the corner is gone, and my eyes fill with tears.  Why should that be the trigger?  It’s just a tree.   I’m about ten again, out in the yard, with Mom and Dad and Rod.  Mom is pruning or planting.  Dad is raking.  It’s a spring or autumn afternoon, the air rich with soil and the smell of cut pachysandra or burning leaves or roses climbing the lattice against the garage.  The voices of my family call across the lawn as we work together, companionable.  I blink and am fifty-seven again, stopped too long in front of a house that no longer belongs to me, worried the family that lives there now will think I am a stalker. The dome above the front door seems different, lovelier than I remember.  I see a figure move upstairs and inch forward, shaking off my reverie. 

 

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I did not come home with any sort of quest in mind, except on Friday afternoon.  When I arrived, I’d gone directly to the Bryn Mawr College archives to look up information about my grandmother, Myra, Class of ’08.  The collection closed at 4:30.  I left, knowing I will need to come back, knowing there is more to discover, crossing the campus and trying to reconcile the image of a corseted girl of twenty in petticoats and a stiff cloth skirt and shirtwaist with today’s Bryn Mawr girls lounging on the lawns in tank tops on this sultry May afternoon. 

 

Throughout the two days of my reunion, I travel backwards in time, skating over the loss of my mom and dad, focusing, instead, on earlier chapters.  Patsy and Brooke and Hoppy--really, Mary, but we never call her that or think of her in that formal way--and I—Florida, Connecticut, Philadelphia and Cleveland—never didn't know each other—our lives were braided at AIS, at the Redeemer, at the Cricket Club.  These grown women grew up  knowing my family—my mom and dad and brother and sister.  And I, theirs.  

 

Over breakfast with Brooke and Patsy, I am feverish and ill.  I am so excited to see them, but I can hardly keep up my end of the conversation. Afterwards, I return to my bed at my cousin’s house. I miss the actual reunion, knowing I am too sick to manage and furious at my body for letting me down—I had looked forward to the whole weekend for weeks. Lying on my young cousin's bed--she is bunking with her sister while I stay with them--both girls are at Agnes Irwin, themselves, now in ninth and fourth grade.  I let my mind wander back in time:  our first boy-girl parties, learning to drive, going with Brooke--who got her license before I did--to summer chemistry class, being in Brooke’s wedding.  Patsy could not be at our wedding; she’d been in an accident.  Hoppy moved away in 6th grade but returned for our Senior year. Patsy was the most organized person I knew. We'd all talk on the phone for hours, to our parents’ despair.  How could we have so much to say after spending all day together?

 

I rally to go to Chris’ house for dinner.  On the terrace, Hoppy greets me across the room, "Annie K. Lotz,” she calls, her dad’s nickname for me.  We discuss her little sister’s desire to shed her nickname.  I do not want to shed my own nickname. I like being called Annie by this crowd.  Patsy tells me she has found journals from when she was thirteen in which  she referred to me as ‘Klotz’.  We talk about our dogs—Taffy was her Cocker Spaniel; Tina and Siggy were my miniature dachshunds.  We are touching our childhoods. The presence of these women in my life at this reunion that I am too ill to enjoy feels like a gift. Hoppy tells me that at my dad’s funeral, two people asked her to get involved with a project at our Church that gave her life new purpose.  I think how delighted Dad would be that he was making connections among people, even after he was gone.  It touches me that she shares this story with me.  

 

I’m deeply moved to be in the presence of about fifteen women who have known me since I was a girl. I’ve missed the ceremony in the afternoon when we honored too many of our classmates who have died, but Mrs. Kinkaid joins us at the beginning of the evening, and it is good to speak Cindy’s name, good to point to Cathy’s gorgeous face smiling up at us from the yearbook, to see Stephanie in her white blazer, Ginny standing tall, the tallest in our class for many years.  Too much loss too soon. 

 

In Chris’ cozy living room, I eat asparagus and steak next to Louise and Sarah.  We are girls again, this time smart enough to know how much long friendships matter.  Hoppy and I try to explain to Wendy, our headmistress and my friend, how wondrous CORE was.  It is a revelation to learn that our classmates, Ann and Mary, were Miss Jenkins’ nieces; if we knew that ever, we had forgotten it.  Isy and I steal a moment near the buffet.  She is remarkable in her resilience.  I ask about her mom.  “Ninety-three is not for the faint of heart,” she answers.  I am jealous of my classmates who still have their mothers, but I know, too, that their mothers are not, all of them, the versions of moms that I remember.   I want to stay forever, talking with Lynne and Leslie and Ann and Chrisy and all the others, but I am fading, feverish again.  The Episcopal boys arrive, and I recognize none of them, except the one who married Susan.  They are not boys, of course; they are-- like us--approaching sixty, but I am mystified that I missed this chapter.  The boys I hung with were theatre boys from the other boys’ school.  My classmates are pleased to welcome the guys, intoxicated again by memory, crushes, possibility, who knows what.  I, feeling headachy, leave too early, fall asleep melancholy, wake to the froth of cherry blossoms foaming on the tree beyond my window, feeling too full of feelings.

 

Schools expand to hold generations. Each era has its own specific memories, memories that are distinct to a particular time—1978, for me. Our music, our teachers, our boys, our parties, our escapes.  1908 for Grannie at Bryn Mawr and before that, Agnes Irwin, the school we shared.  2018 for my cousin’s two daughters, Our school belong to all of us.  Time compresses, expands, shimmers.  Spring at home is exquisite, fleeting. I revel in memory.

 

 

In the Company of Women:  Leap and the Net Will Appear

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I spent the weekend in the company of forty-six formidable women.  They came to our school for a Women’s Leadership Seminar sponsored by The Heads Network.  All week I felt slightly giddy, as if I were planning a party.  Arriving on Friday afternoon, they hailed from California and Tennessee, from New York City and Winnipeg. They came because someone had suggested they attend, because they may want to be Heads, because they were curious.  Over two days, we covered many topics: school finance, governance, fundraising, navigating the search process, balancing multiple constituencies, interviewing basics, making a transition with one’s family, the statistics on women in headship—advantages and obstacles and percentages.  We immersed ourselves in possibility, listening to one another’s stories, taking each other seriously but also laughing, interspersing poetry with practicality.  There’s a peculiar intimacy that comes from being strangers—perhaps aware of how finite our time together was, we risked more?  Perhaps there’s a freedom born of being in a group who will not be there to judge you Monday morning. 

 

As the hostess, it was my job and privilege to set the tone.  I loved welcoming people to our school, seeing the beautiful 90-year old building through other people’s more forgiving eyes.  I see forlorn bulletin boards and all the projects on my wish lift.  Our California guests perceive a school rich in tradition. What we do in it every day to educate girls is more cutting-edge than our space suggests.  But over the weekend, I looked around with new pride, surveying our gracious elegance with satisfaction.  This is a school that has been educating girls for almost a century and a quarter; I’m proud of our legacy.

 

Perhaps that’s why the weekend moved me.  We are in the business of offering opportunity—to the girls and young women at Laurel School.  And, in my service to The Heads Network, our leadership seminar seeks to do the same for aspiring women leaders; our time together allows us to lift up out of our every day lives and carve a small amount of space and time to dream into the future.  With children, it’s easy to imagine all they will become.  Adults feel more anchored by location and circumstance; it’s hard to imagine leaving places where we’ve put down roots, where we are valued, where we know the drill. To contemplate leaving aging parents or asking our spouses or partners to consider a move can weigh us down, keep us tethered to what we know.

 

All weekend I thought of a quotation by Apollinaire that I used in the speech I gave on the occasion of my installation as tenth head of Laurel School:

 

“Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, we're afraid!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
"We can't, We will fall!" they responded.
"Come to the edge," he said.
And so they came.
And he pushed them.
And they flew.”

We are all of us afraid, I think.  Especially of that which we cannot know.  Over the weekend, those of us serving on the faculty encouraged our mentees women to take flight.  They are not scrawny baby birds, tentative and clumsy, demanding worms.  They are glorious accomplished women, ready to glide, soar, climb, seek—but we all need encouragement. . 

 

At the last session, I gave each participant many small cards suspended on a ring.  On each card is a word or phrase I associate with leadership along with some blank cards for women to use to write down their own words—terms or ideas that I might have missed. I’ve learned that leadership is deeply personal, distinct.  What works for me may not work for a colleague.  We learn from one another, refine our practice, grow from mistakes, incorporate feedback from colleagues, seek mentors.  Our leadership evolves. 

 

Years ago, my husband helped me make these talismans, souvenirs of the seminar.  I had the idea, but, as has happened so many times in my life, my husband helped me translate a grand vision, to make my vision real.  He is a problem solver, a question asker, an interpreter.  I am better for his ability to complement, enhance, sometimes poke holes in my thinking; he helps me get clearer. Often, I start in the middle describing some dilemma I face at school.  Mostly patient, he walks me back to the starting point, so he can understand what I am saying in order to help.  I often assume he is in my head with me, particularly when I am tired. But I’m a better leader because he is beside me. 

 

I shared with the women sitting on the floor of our living room my story of becoming a headmistress.  I cited several mentors who saw something in me, who prompted me towards the next step.  I didn’t think about revealing my marriage as my greatest source of strength until after everyone had gone back out into the rainy night, headed to the hotel.

 

The seminar ended in the gymnasium.  We offered a brief comment about our time together, tossing a ball of ribbon across the circle to make a web, a metaphor for the connections we’d established.  We admired the ribbon’s shimmering colors, lifting it high and then releasing it, allowing it to flutter to the ground.  So much about leadership has to do with trust. 

 

Off the women went, headed back into their lives, buoyed, we, the teachers, hoped, by inspiration, by our faith in them.  But after they had left, I sat on the floor of the gym rolling up the tangled mass of ribbon.  It was a frustrating task; we’d find an end, but it was easily lost.  Knots felt insoluble. A few times, in our frustration, we had to cut an end loose and start again.  Metaphors abounded.  There was Julia, a headmistress friend I’ve known since she, herself, was a girl and a student in the summer theatre that Seth and I started together decades ago.  And there was my son, too, who has never known a mother who was not a Head of School.  Across a chilly parking lot in our lovely cluttered home waited my husband—my partner, mentor, best friend. 

 

The personal and professional work of leadership cannot be easily disentangled.  “Surround yourself with support,” we urged the women.  After they left, I reveled in the support I too often take for granted: my husband, son, daughters, friends, colleagues. The architecture of my own web of support seemed suddenly visible, like a spider web whose form is revealed by the drops of dew affixed to it—surprisingly sturdy, intricate, exquisite.

 

Despite this enduring winter, I note the forsythia buds on the hedge in the parking lot starting to swell, glimpses of bright yellow barely visible, the buds still furled.  Spring’s arrival is inexorable, which gives me hope.  The women we met this weekend will surge forward, too, each, at her own pace. Their growth can no more be halted than we can stop the hedges from bursting into bloom.  The sunny blaze will dazzle, take center stage, then subside until next spring. That thought fills me with optimism despite the chill in the air.  These women, too, will have their season, their glory, one day soon.

Birds of a Feather: For My Headmistress Flock

I have been spending time with a gaggle of headmistresses in Savannah.  We come, bedraggled, like birds whose wings are weighted with the gunk of February.  Despite our pastel shades, we are falsely cheery, greeting each other with shrill chirps, though we are besieged by personnel dramas and enrollment predictions and facilities that demand continuous care. We fall upon one another, hungry birds around the feeder, craving camaraderie, war stories, some confirmation of reality.  These are our people, our flock—these other wise heads whose good ideas are manna when we share, with quiet urgency, the dilemmas we face in our own schools.  We could talk and talk and do until we retire by 8:45, drawn by our unread email, our own families left untended for a few days, drawn by the idea of a made bed in a sterile room where we do not have to be in charge of anything.

 

Today, on a large screen, photos bloomed of heads I loved, now gone:  Stephanie, of course, and Joanne; Bob Klarsch, an old Eagles Mere friend; Clayton, who I knew first as Linda’s friend, always so kind, and then Dick Unsworth, my first head at NMH, social justice warrior, elder statesman.  Dick’s face stayed on the screen as Bessie and her eloquent preacher husband, Tom, murmured blessings.  Lives well-lived.  People who led schools with grace and courage and dignity.  And I knew all but one of them.  When Stephanie’s face lit the screen, I was unprepared  for the shock of seeing her, so full of life and love, so beautiful in her Harpeth Hall headshot that looked as if it could have been taken yesterday.  Except it wasn’t.  It was probably taken a few months ago, maybe even more than a year ago, but it is less than a month ago that she died.

 

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Then several of us hug and dab our eyes and shake away the gloom and go out to explore Savannah.  Except after our tour of SCAD, Kathryn and I never find the ferry stop, so our explorations end with quesadillas in a bar followed by a long talk with Penny and a nap.  Then dinner.  The second night we drop our guards even further.  I share some things I’m worrying about, and Wendy and Joan and Nanci advise me, and I feel better.  We weave through conversations, pulling threads, buoying one another’s spirits.  Nesting—in a way.  We know how to care-take, we school heads.  We take care of one another, of the children in our schools, of their families, of our faculty and staff, of buildings that require deferred maintenances, of our boards and cranky neighbors and our own families and pets.  We find worms and feed demanding gaping mouths one day after the next after the nest; we teach the young to fly.  We fix nests destroyed by storms.  We are in constant motion, we bird-like busy heads.  In this space designed for restoration, we, briefly, rest on a branch, allow others to perceive the weight of all we  carry in our tired beaks:  worms, floss, twigs, mud.

 

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“Set down, set down,” commands Lady Anne in her famous monologue in Richard III, but heads of school too rarely feel we have permission to set burdens down for long.  Except when we’re with our flock, with that V of geese that know, intuitively, how to form, re-form, rest, and fly again.  One drops from our formation; we take a new shape.  We stutter, rest, rise, fly up, head North towards home, towards spring. 

Fighting the Gray

Dear Faculty and Staff,

All week I have felt afflicted by a malaise—part dread, part fatigue—that transcends the characteristic February blues.  It's safe to say, despite way too much time on the Internet, I have not “processed” the Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  In all my scrolling, I cannot tell you what I seek.  I did not think I could feel worse after Newtown, but I do because it no longer feels like a freak occurrence to have children killed in school, to have teachers give up their lives to try to protect children

I have spoken several times to the Upper School, urging them if they see something to say something.  It feels hollow.  I have no real reassurance to offer.  We have practiced an evacuation drill and learned, that morning, of places in the building that did not hear the alert. We put the broken speakers on a list to repair as soon as possible.  The drill, itself, frightened adults and children. As we walked down Lyman Blvd. towards Fairmount on that curiously balmy day , an older man walking a dog murmured, “I’m so sorry you have to do this.”  Me, too.  We did not come to work in schools because we ever considered whether or not we would need to stand between a shooter’s bullets and the children in our care.  We did not, very long ago, consider how we would evacuate children or lock down or shelter in place if there were to be an active shooter in our schools. And now we do.  I am heartened by the sparks of activism we see young people expressing in Florida and across the country.  I am proud of their eloquence and passion and worried that their efforts will not be powerful enough to effect change.  I told the Upper School faculty on Thursday that we will, as a school, support our girls in joining national protests.  We must.  We want them to live the mission and values of this school; that means raising them up to use their voices and to seek change.  We will, of course, not compel any student to take part in those protests.  I'd like to believe all parties could join together in agreeing it makes sense to restrict the purchase of the kind of weapons that are designed to kill as many people as possible, but I recognize in this polarized climate that my wish may be naïve.  Perhaps students, idealistic, brave, hopeful, will  prevail.  History shows us how many movements—lunch counter sit-ins, the courageous youth who resisted during WWII, Kent State—began in the hands of young people.

Contributing to my sorrow is the fact that last week, a colleague of mine, the Head of Harpeth Hall School, died very quickly.  Stephanie’s breast cancer, vanquished fourteen years ago, returned.  By the time they figured out why she was feeling poorly, it was too late.  She leaves a daughter who is a sophomore in her school and a whole school who loved her.  The swiftness of her death feels like whiplash; just this morning, I realized we were supposed to present together at a conference in June about how we’ve undertaken facilities master plans. 

Yesterday, I spoke on a panel in the Key Bank tower about how to make our schools more inclusive, more welcoming of many kinds of teachers, children and families.  I looked out at this bright-eyed group of mostly young people, who want to teach.  Never have I wavered in my own passion for teaching, for making a difference.  It is a privilege to spend time in the presence of children, in the presence of our smart, resilient, creative, funny, brave colleagues.  But this month has been heavy.  It’s important to make space for all of our feelings, for joy and possibility and for feel and the overwhelming sense of responsibility we all feel.  Take time this weekend to check in with how you are feeling.  Do something for yourself—you do so much for other people every day at school.  Give yourself permission to take a nap, go for a run, linger over a cup of coffee, order pizza instead of doing the laundry or prepping another lesson.  Take care of yourself.  Reach out to an old friend.  It’s my best friend, Meg, with whom I started my teaching career at Northfield Mount Hermon in 1982, who I called this week.  Being connected helps us feel less lonely.  Don’t wait.  Maxine, a minister who preaches in our little summer church in Eagles Mere, closes many services with these words from Henri Frédéric Amiel:

“Life is short. We don't have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.”

I want us to focus on what is essential in school—learning, empowering girls to change the world, to claim their voices and to be kind.

In the midst of all this gray, I feel fortunate to be among you, to have the Early Learners agog in my office on Friday, to spend time with the girls in African-American Roots and in 8th grade English.  Thank you for the privilege of working with you.  Thank you for the million ways in which you buoy me.   

avk

 

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Be Mine

We are in the basement, my mother and I, at her workbench.  It’s after supper.  I am sitting on a high stool.  Mom is standing.  I smell sawdust and WD40.  The cluttered surface, lit by a low hanging bulb, is a bright island in the shadowy cellar. Mom shakes the small can of paint and pries the lid off with a screwdriver.The paint, lustrous, reminds me of a bowl of cream for a kitten.

 

“This way,” Mom instructs, dipping a narrow paint brush a third of the way into the paint.  “You always paint with the grain of the wood; that makes the finish smoother.  Now, you try.”

 

I tuck my teeth over my bottom lip, clasping the brush.  I feel nervous, trusted.  Mom had made a Valentine’s Day box for me, and in a few days, I would take it into my classroom and it would hold all the first grade Valentines.  Other moms made fancy cookies or ruffled homemade Valentines with doilies and glitter.  My mom made the box! And the box was perfect.  Square, with a rounded slot cut in the top and two brass hinges that allowed the top to open once all the Valentines had been deposited.  We would use it every year until we were too old to exchange Valentines.  Girls would say, “Ann, will you bring in your box again?” And I would nod, thinking, “My mom’s box—that she made.”  

 

“That's the girl.Smooth strokes.  Good job.”  Mom’s praise is sweet as a conversational heart—the orange ones are my favorites.  Be Mine.At six, I could read and knew already that being a good reader was my superpower.  

 

Once two coats of white paint had dried, Mom would help me stencil a red Cupid on the top.  We had heart stencils, too.  I didn’t trust myself to keep the lines steady, but Mom explained that we could trace the outline with a bright red magic marker.The red lines reminded me of red hots—spicy, warm, sweet.

 

My fingertips still recall the feel of the satin finish on that wooden box, how triumphant I felt as I carried it into Mrs. Beesinger’s classroom.

 

“Did you make that?” Patsy asked, awed.

 

“My mom did,” I answered, bursting.  My mom was a carpenter. She showed her love with sandpaper and wood glue and drills and jigsaws.  

 

Is it any surprise my husband loves to make things, too?  That he is happiest with a project involving clamps and sawdust?  That the smell of hardware stores reminds me of my mother and my husband and fills me with love in the middle of February?

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