Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What Your Children Wish You Knew

I said nothing at the time.

At a children's birthday party, one mother announced her four-year-old son had asked for trumpet lessons. Several parents complimented the boy's interest in music.

"No!" she responded. "I'm not listening to hours of trumpet practice! I told him he could learn the violin or piano."

I felt terrible for the curious boy who was intrigued by a trumpet. The sound? The shine? The keys? Only he knew. Somehow he saw himself through that instrument, but when he asked for help from the most likely person, his mother threw a pie in his face.

She taught him his dreams had to be her dreams.

No matter their age, children know about their lives, their purpose. They feel the nudge pushing them a certain way. The dream might seem odd at the time. It isn't.

When Maggie was in third grade, she wanted to learn to ice skate.

In North Carolina? I thought to myself. We weren't even in the mountainous part of the state that got subzero temperatures. Where would I ever find a frozen surface?

Still, I realized something invisible tapped her shoulder. I considered her life as a Chinese adoptee. As a toddler, the one Chinese person she saw on television was Michelle Kwan. Maggie faithfully watched her compete in the Winter Olympics, imitating her movements across our carpet. Her Famous Americans report in first grade was on the champion figure skater. One Christmas I gave her a snow globe of Kwan.

Unlikely as it first seemed, the ice skating dream had been a long time coming. Every child wants to be like someone, and Maggie identified with the only Asian face she saw in a sea of white ones.

So I asked around, discovering an indoor court at the fairgrounds was frozen for several months each winter. Cliff and I signed her up for private lessons, not sure our athletically reluctant daughter understood what she was bargaining for.

Maggie took this seriously because it was her decision, not ours. She was intrinsically motivated to succeed, earning four badges from the Ice Skating Institute for mastering a series of skills. No one else could do that for her. Alone on the ice, she won, not ribbons or trophies, but personal success.

Awards end up in cardboard boxes.

Self-confidence lives forever.

And I saw hers in action on a particular Sunday afternoon when the arena was open to the public. A small girl wobbled along by herself in the crowd and fell. Indifferent people whizzed by the sprawled beginner who could not get her footing. But Maggie saw. Zipping along with more speed than usual, she wove through the crowd until she knelt beside the child and helped her reach the rail.

There was our daughter--all skating courage. For Maggie, it was never about costumes or competition. None of that interested her. But confident skating allowed her to test herself in another way, a generous way.

That's when I understood her dream. Ice was her way of taking an inevitable first journey on her own.   

Children need to feel brave.

That's the point of parenting--helping children test their strength in ways we might not choose. We're simply required to believe. I hadn't bargained for the countless cold hours I'd spend sitting in a dimly lighted rink, but I did it. Because the dream inspired her heart, it inspired mine.

Parents need to think of their child's dreams as a boat for crossing precious early waters. Refuse to be like the mother at that birthday party who thoughtlessly sank her son's ambition.

Instead, hand over a paddle.

Or trumpet. Or ice skates.

Then stand back.

This isn't about you.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas 2016: Toddler Coat Politics

In the days approaching Christmas, life is sporadically peaceful.

While kitchen multi-tasking, I set a sheet of parchment paper on fire. No cookies were lost. Our dog Maria recently took a fall and couldn't walk, landing her at the vet's with us carrying her in by towel sling. Two weeks ago I undertook a harrowing drive through an arctic snow blast to Cincinnati so I could help my friend Laurel. Her inner-city church sponsors an annual family gift distribution and depends on volunteers. I'll be processing this experience for the rest of my life.

This spring Cliff had two ER runs because of soaring blood pressure. After hospitalization and countless tests, he's back on his feet and better than ever. Because no one loves a road map more than he does, he's traveled to North Carolina's Merlefest and visited Nova Scotia with his friend Allen. Although they covered miles of gorgeous scenery, I suspect they appreciated the pubs and Irish music best of all.

In the fall, we toured Williamsburg and Monticello for the gazillionth time. Cliff loves history; I love beautiful buildings. Because he's teased me forever about my bouts of fiery rhetoric, he scheduled a trip to Patrick Henry's farm in Scotchtown so I could stand where he wrote his "Give Me Liberty" speech. There's something reassuring in knowing I share the genetics of another writer who was not always well received but was right, nonetheless, I choose to believe. 

Maggie is considering a major in sociology or psychology. This summer she worked as a guide at the Thomas Edison Birthplace up the street and volunteered at the library's cooking class for children, meaning she can speak at length about light bulb filaments and aversions to lettuce. If there's a career in there, she'll figure it out, coupled with her devotion to campus dogs. As president of their Planned Parenthood chapter, she's attending the Million Women March in January. With Cliff's protest of Spiro Agnew's visit to Oklahoma and my being at Ohio University during the Kent State Massacre, she continues the family forays into political hot zones.

Of all the places we've lived, oddly enough we've had more company in Milan than anywhere else. We're happy but puzzled at the same time. Quiet and historic, little happens here. Nevertheless, plenty of guests have been mesmerized by our butterfly bush covered with a flurry of winged creatures two-stepping from leaf to leaf. Who could have guessed one plant could accomplish so much good? In a world where bees and butterflies are dangerously challenged, they flourish around our porch. Amazingly, one monarch actually sat for twenty minutes on my arm.

If you read my August post Crazy Corn, you know about my alarming moment with a local farmer's political views. There's plenty of crazy on both sides these days. Last weekend at that Cincinnati church, I worked alongside a volunteer whose national opinion was vastly different from mine. Rather than needlessly arguing, I searched for our common connection. Turned out, we were just two people who'd grown up in Ohio's Rust Belt and knew about lean times.

After winning his confidence, he told me he'd explained the need in this church to his affluent co-workers. One colleague responded by saying, "If you keep giving free things to those people, they'll never get jobs." He asked the man how many three-year-olds he'd ever seen buying their own coats. "I'm looking out for the innocent children who can't help their circumstances," he said to me. Who'd disagree with that point of view?

So that's my advice. Find the commonality.

Patrick Henry said: "We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means...placed in our power." Few of us can accomplish revolutionary change, but we can influence our corner of the world.

We can do something.

March. Plant a butterfly bush. Donate a toddler coat.

Do good wherever you are.

You always have that power. Always.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

Guest Blogger: Kelley Burst Singer

{From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves. 
Kelley Burst Singer, Class of ’82, flipped me upside down. Her penetrating questions about the status quo allowed me to understand the frustrations of a smart girl who thought beyond customary boundaries. In fact, she and two brave friends started a woodswomen group, inducting me during morning announcements with feathers and ashes. Whenever I looked at Kelley, mature and capable, I saw how ridiculous the girls’ uniform, pleated plaid skirt and middy blouse, truly was: a costume that made them look like indistinguishable dolls instead of vibrant leaders. For two years, I helped students crusade to change the dress code. They won. Finally.} 


So how did I land at Holland Hall Upper School as a sophomore?  It starts with my public school junior high years.

A rush of horrible film clips surfaces when I shine the memory light in that direction. I could start with the creepy art teacher who gave the state art contest award to my pretty friend with big boobs, even though we worked on the poster together.   

Or the creepier gym teacher who often asked the cheerleaders to sit on his lap.  

Then there was the time I encouraged my best friend since kindergarten to join our Red Cross club, and she decided to run for president--against me--and won. 

Through my tears of humiliated defeat, I gave up my interest in first aid and enrolled in industrial arts because I wanted to learn woodworking and car mechanics. I was the lone girl and only lasted three weeks because the teacher was deliberately mean to me every day in the traditionally male class.   

Probably the most soul-depleting experience was science class taught by my typing teacher. She had high expectations in typing, where I suffered my only B in junior high despite considerable frustration and effort. But in science, where I was eager and desperate to learn, she wasn’t at all enthusiastic.

I stared with wonder at the microscope on the counter two rows away. 

All year.  

I asked her every few class periods when we would use the amazing instrument. Finally she snapped at me so harshly that I stopped asking.

I cried to my mother that I was not happy there. I wanted something more. There had to be more. Because she had been a teacher in her pre-marriage life, she understood the system was failing me. She was a fighter for more and better for her five children, and although it made no mathematical sense to our family budget, she agreed to let me apply to Holland Hall, a private high school.
I was on fire from the moment I took the placement test.

I couldn’t believe my luck at this opportunity. After what I'd been through, it felt strange that I fit in so well. I connected with the teachers and wanted to learn. And although I made an F on my first essay and was the oldest student in French I, I loved it. It was like landing on a different planet.  

In science, not only did we get to use the microscopes, but my patient and kind biology teacher guided me after school in extra projects that probably led to my becoming a physician. Yet in that era, I had never met a woman physician. I was not even sure one existed. I would never have said aloud back then that my dream was to study science and become a doctor.

But with each semester at Holland Hall, my confidence grew through experiences woven by teachers who guided me. They were powerfully transforming times for this Oklahoma girl. 

Those teachers had strong expectations of me to succeed as an intelligent, caring, and creative human.  John Bird, Craig Benton, Karen Henry Clark, Edgar Benarrous, Doug Bromley, Ted Sloan, Didier Poulet, Carlos Tuttle, Ed Hooker, Alice Price, Gene Aker, Coach Stanley, and Coach Hawkins. Thank you for not blinking when I tested out behavior on you.  Thank you especially, Ms. Clark, for enthusiastically agreeing to be the faculty sponsor of the newly formed Wild Wilderness Woman Club. 

The lasting effect of those years was the peeling away of beliefs about my appropriate role in life.  Slowly this group of teachers challenged those illusory limitations and cajoled me to break free. I will always be grateful to my parents and my teachers for this foundational pivot in my life.


Kelley Burst Singer, MD FACP, is a practicing internist and medical director of physician quality for Park Ridge Health in Hendersonville, North Carolina. A favorite part of her job is creating a clinic experience in which a patient feels cared about. Just like the teachers in her high school did for her as a student.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Guest Blogger: Ken Levit

[From 1976-1983, I taught English and directed plays at Holland Hall Upper School in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I was twenty-four and had negligible experience. I didn't know up from down about teaching, but during those years, a handful of students changed me irrevocably. Over three decades, one way or the other, they've found me. I recently invited them to become guest bloggers, reflecting on something about their high school selves.

Ken Levit, Class of 1983, excelled at heartfelt questioning, making him a treasure. He was terrific onstage, grappling with all kinds of issues about characters, staging, and plots. I once mentioned The Rolling Stones in English class. Amazed, he asked, “You mean your Rolling Stones were our Rolling Stones?” and pinpointed a teenager's time frame for me. During another class, his frustration rising, he asked, “Can’t we read anything happy?” The Classics made no allowances for joy. Realizing, then, why student writing was wooden, I made space for personal essays where their life experiences could shine in their writing. Ken, a magnificent influence, challenged me often and well. To his everlasting credit.]


I really didn’t want to do this. I’m kind of sick of the voices in my own head about Holland Hall and high school.

I’m not sure why.

Perhaps it’s a sense of guilt that I still don’t fully appreciate. How lucky I was to go there. How I never even thanked my parents for the chance.

HH was exactly what I wanted.

At Barnard Elementary, they said the kids at HH had REALLY long arms because they carried so many books. I thought that sounded perfect for me since I loved books. Years later, I am stunned by how narrow our world was there. How cruel it could be. Maybe that’s always the case for those tough years. A Separate Peace. That’s a question I have.

I’m doing this because of the person who asked me to do it. Ms. Clark. Wow. She might have been the best teacher I ever had.

But I really couldn’t tell you why. I don’t think she ever actually taught me anything specific. There was nothing I ever learned directly from her. And it wasn’t like she ever directly intervened in my life or helped me through a personal situation. Yet somehow, somewhat mysteriously, she looms in my head in a big way.

She once did something that blew me away.

We were in class. A typical English class for us. Were there even ten of us? But we—mainly the guys—started cracking jokes about gay people, reciting descriptive names we thought were funny. It built and built. And then Ms. Clark stepped quietly to the corner and put her head in it with her back to us. It was strange. It was certainly unnerving. I think we asked her why she had done this. She said, into the wall if I remember it correctly, "Because I have friends who are gay people."

Her pain radiated. I felt it. I was ashamed of myself.

It's truly incredible that we even had to be taught that, but it was practically a foreign concept for me in 1981. But it wasn’t totally foreign either. It felt wrong even then, but she called us on it in a deep way.

What’s a good teacher?

In my current job at a private foundation, that subject arises in a clinical way. All sorts of smart folks try to create the models and the assessments. But, when I think about my great teachers at Barnard or HH or even in university and law school, there is basically one unifying feature. They were honest with us, treated us with respect and built a relationship with us.

That’s a pretty basic thing: caring relationships built on honesty and mutual respect. If I learned that, it’s even better than the long arms.


Ken Levit is Executive Director of George Kaiser Family Foundation.

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Monday, November 7, 2016

For Want of a Nail: How Women Succeed

Cliff and I faced buying a new car recently. We drove several and talked with the salesman. When things started sounding serious, he called in the money person. She presented options. The conversation finally ended.

He handed us his business card.

She scribbled her phone number on a post-it note.

Over several days, Cliff called both of them with questions. They were equally friendly and knowledgeable. The paperwork began. When we returned to sign, we didn't see him at all. We sat in her office: Holly Brownell, Finance Manager.

I remained silent until the last T was crossed.

Then I leaned across her desk and said, "Holly, here's the most important thing to me. You need business cards, and you need them now."

She froze.

I explained that for someone with her title, a colored paper square did not inspire confidence and made her seem slipshod. An after thought. It was an unspoken indictment of professionalism.

I asked her to realize the message she was sending, not only to adults, but to children sitting in her office with their parents. It showed a boy that women did not qualify for the same status--especially in an environment where all the men had cards. It showed girls they had no right to expect the same privileges. They could aspire to the title but not the respect.

A business card, all 2 x 3.5 inches, confirms equal status.

It forces the point.

The dreams of children begin with something small, something tangible. Who can say what little girl will be inspired as a woman pulls that bright card from the drawer?

Holly understood and said she'd get right on it. "And I expect you to send me one," I said as I left her office. She did, too. She told me she was proud to have them and said, "It's because of you, Karen."

That's the charge for all women. To rally, to advocate, to challenge, to cheer each other on. We have a collective mission. Not every success is played out in mile-high venues. But each inch forward expands the reward column. Nothing that supports women is insignificant.

The powerful proverb "For want of a nail" illustrates the value of small, necessary things.

Nails count.

So does every Holly.    

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Monday, October 10, 2016

Something's in the Details

If you look up the expression, it's either God or the Devil in those details.

It was God in my house. My mother always said, "Anything worth doing is worth doing well." She ironed sheets and pillowcases, each bed made with six inches of top sheet folded neatly over the blanket. Her garden was an elaborate summer production of caged tomato plants clipped to topiary perfection.

You won't be surprised, then, to know I scrubbed and ironed Maggie's toddler shoelaces."Why, Mama?" she asked when I sent her off for the Tide-To-Go pen to erase grass stains.

Cliff used to question my decisions, too. In our first year of marriage, he decided it was the Devil smirking at him from my detail quest. No sofa was correctly placed until I insisted he relocate it again and again and again. Every time we moved to another city, the new yard needed one more shrub or cluster of something fluffy. Then another. Then something tall by the oak...

One night as we watched the evening weather report, I pointed to the map and said, "There. Right there. See how the yellow encircles the blue? That's the print I'm looking for in a shower curtain."

"Karen," he sighed. "There's medicine for this." 


Details can be maddening. Except when they're not.

When we moved to Milan a year ago, many unopened boxes sat in a storage room jumble. So Halloween passed undecorated. No one said a word. It was clear I was inundated at that point. But I felt the emptiness of an unheralded holiday. I'm pretty sure they did, too.

Knowing Maggie would arrive Friday for her college fall break, I organized the decor. With her garden witch swinging in salute by the garage, I could see we needed more details beneath her, true to my mother's logic. We added chrysanthemums and pumpkins in several colors. "She's back! My witch!" Maggie said joyfully as she pulled in the driveway. 

Cliff smiled when his lighted spooky houses emerged from their cardboard shadows to reside on a burlap landscape. Every year we recount the tales behind each accessory. The three of us are a solitary unit, having lost familiar connections over the years of moving from one state to the next. Our details are our relatives, revisiting us like familiar cousins.

And the smiling pumpkin, purchased by my mother for Maggie's first Halloween, glows beside her bed through the night while she's home.

Cliff carried those boxes without being asked. He patiently dug holes to plant the flowers. He drove me through the countryside to find perfect pumpkins.

No eye rolling or sighing or questioning.

Some details are as precious as breath itself. In a life's landscape, they're the stepping stones whispering behind us, all the while assuring us we can step forward. Safely.

Nothing matters more.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cliff: The Pied Piper

In my years with Cliff, I've seen this happen numerous times in public places.

A tearful child will walk up to him and announce: "I can't find my mommy."

Cliff gets down on his knee and says, "We'll find her." Then he takes that small hand and looks for the information counter or customer service. Cliff stays right there, holding on until the mother arrives.

He never knows these children. He doesn't wear an official badge.

They see him and know he's the guy. It's some kind of attraction thing, a nameless but constant lifeline to seekers of all shapes and sizes.

Shortly after we moved here, he tackled the picket fence. I call it the infinity fence because he can never get to the end of it. There's always one more rotten rail or picket to replace. No matter how long he paints, there's a missed edge that requires attention.

One afternoon a local we didn't know stopped by with his grandson. "Need a hand?" he asked, as Cliff struggled with the new gate. Over two hours later, Darrell, Hayden, and Cliff were finished (and friends for life, by the sound of all the good-natured joking). Cliff asked, "What do I owe you?"

"Nothing," Darrell said. "Consider it your Welcome to Milan gift."

He's returned several times to help with difficulties that crop up in a 150-year-old house.

He was here once to relocate two doors, but it ended up involving mice.

I don't know how long they'd been around when I finally spotted their presence. Cliff was running errands, so I asked Darrell if I had guessed correctly. He agreed and looked in the basement for a nest, thinking they were climbing up the wall into the kitchen.

"Set some traps and get rid of them," he said casually and turned to leave.

"I don't want them to die," I replied, the tears starting.

He turned back and changed his tone. "Now, Karen, I know you write children's books and want to make friends with the mice, but that can't happen. You don't want them to settle in and have babies."

So I told Cliff, who headed for the hardware store. He did not return with mousetraps. He bought a contraption that lured them in and snapped its doors shut so he could release them unharmed.

Night after night, it worked like a charm.

When we reported our successes to Darrell, he slyly asked, "Are you marking them? It might be the same darned mouse over and over." 

When Cliff related all this to Maggie and how he took them to the creek at the bottom of the hill, she was amused and created a scenario about their encampment in the woods.

"Look! It's Aunt Louise come home to us!" they'd shout, leaping up from their tiny campfire.

"Who's that man?" they'd ask.

"I don't know, but he has Ritz crackers!" Aunt Louise would explain to a chorus of ooohs. "Under his sink is a cottage where you can get peanut butter. You reach for it, and the doors shut tight so you can eat in peace and get a good night's sleep."

They nod enviously.

"Then he wakes you up in the morning and carries you home!"

They ask how to find this storybook place.

"I'm not sure, but you have to climb a hill," she replies.

I don't know if mice distinguish north from south, but they could end up at Marcia's instead. She can get Ritz crackers and peanut butter.

But she won't have Cliff. To the everlasting regret of those dreamers at the encampment.

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Saturday, September 10, 2016


My mother-in-law Mary Jo and I had one common reference point: Cliff. Her son, my husband.

Even then, we would have disagreed across the board on his welfare. Pick a topic, any topic. We were decidedly different women.

However, I did learn something valuable from her.

She told me once about a lost opportunity with her oldest granddaughter. She'd always planned to take the little girl to a local restaurant known for its afternoon teas. All lace and frills and classical music, she thought it would be fun, a treasured memory.

But she never got around to it and didn't seem to know why. I urged her to follow through, even though the girl was in college at this point. "Take her by surprise," I suggested. "There's still time. She's not too old for your attention."

But she didn't. She chose to carry that regret.

In all fairness, I understand what she didn't say and probably couldn't have accepted anyway. My
mother-in-law lived a paralyzing life of restraint, suspicion, traversing a never-ending trail of domestic sharp edges marked by her husband's edicts and selected Old Testament scriptures for warning signs.

Cliff has always called the situation "walking on eggshells." He would know, having grown up in that house.

So I did my best to avoid taking moments for granted when we brought Maggie home from China. Give her life's lovely details, became my mantra.

One day my mother Betty was in our living room, watching as I sat on the staircase beside Maggie. At 18 months, she wanted to descend on her own. Terrified to hold the rail and walk down, she bravely scooted on her bottom, gripping my hand in hers. It took quite a while.

Carrying her down would have been so much quicker.

But we would have missed so much, too--her squealing giggles, her wiggling confidence when we reached the last step. My mother clapped for her.

"Honey," my mother said, "you're a much better mother than I ever was." I shook my head and reminded her of that beautiful, spotless house. "Dust covers everything in here," I admitted.

"Our house never had to be that clean," she said.

Again, regret. Watching us, step by step, had offered a silent space for perspective on years of lost experiences. But also, a surprising glimpse of me as a mother. I understood, then, she clapped for me as well.

So this summer, as I looked at the blank expanse of our garden, I thought about what to plant and remembered showing Maggie, when she was a toddler, how to make snapdragons "talk" by squeezing the petals at a garden store. She was as enchanted as I had been when my mother, who grew an annual bed of snaps, as she called them, showed me. Sweet alyssum always graced the edges.

Easy as it would have been, I never planted them for Maggie. I was focused on creating some other floral effect.

So this summer I planted snaps and alyssum for Maggie. They weren't as lusciously perfect as my mother's, but at least I didn't stop in my tracks because my collegiate daughter is long past yard playing.

They simply grow for her.

And for Mary Jo and Betty, their regrets buried beneath the summer blossoms.

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Friday, August 12, 2016

Crazy Corn

I'm a Midwestern girl through and through, having lived in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. With all three states side-by-side on the American map, I grew up believing we were the cornfield coastline. Folks in seashore states gazed at the ocean from their lawn chairs, but on my relatives' farms, outdoor seating faced the fields.

We watched corn.

Far more than a scenic landscape, it was an unspoken religious experience, rewarded with abundance in good times if we were lucky. Yet we knew natural catastrophes could destroy those fields at any moment. Every growing season was a test of faith.

Our cupboards held agricultural rosaries of a sort. I inherited my grandmother's dish for baking cornbread shaped like tiny ears of corn. My mother gave me dishes for the sole purpose of eating corn on the cob. I suppose these were our mystical trinkets to encourage the blessings of a golden harvest.

One of my earliest memories, when I was probably three, involved my grandparents' cornfield. I rocked alone in a wooden swing while a rainstorm approached. Advancing black clouds erased the blue sky, as the wind rhythmically lifted and leveled the green rows. Like ocean waves, the shooshing stalks and leaves rustled and crashed before me. When thunder rolled in and lightning cracked overhead, I thought the whole field was coming to get me.

Fear paralyzed me until my grandmother threw open the porch door, holding tightly as the wind tried snatching it from her right hand. "Get yourself in here, Chicken Little!" she called, stretching her other hand toward me. I ran and buried my face in her apron. "There now. Don't fret. Granny's got you," she said.

I was never afraid of stormy cornfields again.

Until yesterday.

I stopped to buy corn at a roadside stand on my way home from town. The farmer and I spoke pleasantly about crops and weather. Nice as you please, he placed perfect ears in a bag, mentioning he'd never seen me before. My explanation of our recent move from St. Paul, Minnesota, must have triggered a link in his brain to the perils of big cities because his kind demeanor disappeared.

He quit making eye contact, stepped away, and began speaking of our nation's decline. His voice grew increasingly louder as he waved his arms and rattled on about drugs and Muslim men with six wives each whose sole purpose for sneaking into the United States was to brainwash their children into killing Christians until no white people would have enough power to set things right again.

American citizens would have no food or shelter or medical care because the Muslims would seize it all.

I glanced at the cornfield behind him, fearing an ugly wind was about to bend those stalks and their taunting leaves at me. But the sun was shining on the motionless rows of corn, corn waiting for me to collect my courage. When he paused to breathe from his tirade, I took a chance.

His thundering hatred wasn't going to get me.

I said something he never could have seen coming.

I told him my husband had retired from a school with many Muslim families who were nothing like he described. I said my daughter had Muslim friends who were delightful, considerate, and studious. He turned deathly silent. I was certain he'd never known a Muslim or anyone who had actually encountered one. He struggled to fit my truth into his red-hot paradigm. 

I paid him, wished him well, and walked toward my car. Unfortunately he stepped in front of me, winding himself back up in a rant about abortion. I was momentarily frozen, wondering how to escape his menacing rhetoric.

Then I remembered my grandmother holding the door in the storm, calling me in to safety. She couldn't help me now. I had to save myself, and all I had was corn--the only thing he and I had in common.

I held up my bag and said, "In this heat, I need to get this refrigerated so I don't lose the goodness."

This was a man who would have argued bitterly about any reasonable thing I said.

But not about corn.

He stepped aside to let me pass.

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Saturday, July 30, 2016

Finding a Flashlight

I know what you're thinking.

My last post spotlighted the flaw in Maggie's first grade language arts program and her teacher who  couldn't/wouldn't/didn't care to offer options.

So how did Cliff and I turn things around? 

It took years.

There's rarely a quick fix where children are concerned.

We knew being turned off to reading would be a major stumbling block for the rest of her life unless we helped her overcome it.

We had to re-connect her to the book magic she'd once known.

So on Saturdays, Cliff let her wander the branch library shelves without regard to reading levels. That's how she learned to approach the school library, discovering more titles about similar subjects. She went through a rock phase, repeatedly bringing home the same three books for months. She started a rock collection on our carport ledge. We never drilled her on geologic terms. We never organized the piles.

They were hers to experience however she chose.

We asked her to write thank you notes when she received gifts. Even though her spelling was occasionally vague, people were often so charmed that they wrote back to her. She discovered writing linked her to a reciprocal happiness.

She helped me write grocery lists. When she couldn't imagine how to spell something, I encouraged her to draw a picture of the word. Perched in the shopping cart seat, she read the list out loud to me and marked off items as we found them.

When getting ready for school became a daily scramble, Cliff suggested she design a morning checklist. He attached them to a Hello Kitty clipboard kept at her bedside. She loved tracking her activities, right down to waving goodbye to me.

Every. Single. Night. we read to her.

When I began writing Sweet Moon Baby, I often held her on my lap at the computer. By watching me write, she learned the value of words and punctuation. We read the pages out loud together, discussing the choices. She saw and heard  how reading and writing happen. We congratulated ourselves for every improvement to the tale.

One of Maggie's favorite TV shows was Scooby Doo. From writing with me, she understood a story needed a problem and a solution. These shows had a definite plot line she could follow, noting how the characters interacted to catch the villain through ensuing hijinx.

So by golly, we wrote our own episodes. Maggie brainstormed mysteries, usually centered around a favorite thing that could go missing. We rummaged through closets to gather props and costumes. Rehearsals happened in our kitchen because its open floor plan provided space for our Siberian husky, who played Scooby, to run with us from clue to clue. Cliff was the appreciative audience for our hijinx. (I was always Velma, by the way.)

But at school, she remained mired in weekly soul-crushing reading assessments, making literature a force-fed academic operation.

Finally I told her how I used to hide when my mother, who wanted me to be more athletic, sent me outside to play. I'd slip out with a novel and a snack and hide in the backseat of our garaged car to read. Maggie thought it was funny but a great idea. So I placed Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie in the back of our SUV in the carport. I told her I couldn't read it because I was afraid the dog might die. She volunteered to find out for me. I supplied pillows and snacks. I sent out a flashlight because evenings were coming early. She loved spending hours in her fort with a book she came to love with all her heart. She eagerly delivered plot reports at dinner until she finished. At the end, she proudly assured me the dog didn't die, adding, "Read it. You'll like it, Mom."

Even better news? She took more novels to her backseat reading fort.

When we moved to Minnesota, where DiCamillo lives, Maggie and I attended her author events. Our daughter experienced the real person who wrote the novel that turned a corner for her. Far more than a charming story, it carried her to a new level of confidence. Her world bloomed.

She's been reading ever since.

In short, Cliff and I removed the drudgery of skill and drill language arts programs where only ONE acceptable way is allowed. 

Sometimes schools and teachers get it wrong. They funnel everyone through the system, insisting perfect scores on multiple-choice tests are the ultimate goal of reading.  If you're lucky enough to have a round child who fails to fit their square hole, consider yourself blessed.

Try and try again to support that young heart.

Point toward the magic that defies the A or B or C response.

Because a child's dynamic future is greater than any of the above.

Find a flashlight.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fill-in-the-Blank Education

I haven't taught in more than twenty years, but I think about classrooms all the time. I've decided there are two ways to teach.

Focus on the answers.

Or focus on the students.

Either way earns the same paycheck.

I once worked with an English teacher who was a fascinating person but gave mind-numbing tests and assignments. She bragged about her multi-paged exams that were a snap to grade. They read, as one colleague joked: The ____ of the ____ is the ____.

"Does that tell you if they really understand Shakespeare?" I asked her.

She shrugged and said, "At least they've read it." But I knew many of them hadn't. Secretly they read Cliffs Notes to grasp the plot points for daily quizzes. Then, prior to the test, they memorized all her classroom pronouncements: "The three themes in Hamlet are...."

No muss no fuss.

I saw the effects of breezy teaching on Maggie when she entered first grade and brought home the Power Book, announcing it was her nightly homework and had to be done at a desk with a lamp.  Faithfully she set up shop at my grandparents' hundred-year-old radio stand upon arrival from school each day. Every page had an illustrated three-sentence story with three follow-up questions to be written precisely like the sentences. It went something like this:

Jenny likes apples.
Jenny climbs the apple tree.
Jenny picks four apples.

What does Jenny like?
What does Jenny climb?
How many apples does Jenny pick?

By Thanksgiving, she'd stacked up perfect scores but complained about the monotony of these stories, pointing out they weren't really stories at all. Keep in mind, this was a girl who, at three years old, pointed to punctuation marks on the page of the picture book I was reading to her and asked, "What are these things?" One night when she was five, she interrupted my reading aloud and flipped several pages back and forth, asking, "Wouldn't it better if this picture came before that one?" She was absolutely right. She also liked creating different endings to her favorite books.

"She has the stuff of an English major," I told Cliff early on.

So we were devastated that her classroom language arts program was an annoying grind that overlooked any sense of independent thinking or imagination. Because of his administrative role at the school, he suggested I speak with the teacher about our concerns and a possible approach to re-engage her mind.

I met with the teacher and proposed that Maggie write her own scenario with an illustration and questions. I assured him she was capable of writing more than three sentences. He stared at me and said that would be inappropriate because it wasn't the point of the program. There would be no way to assess her work because she couldn't be adequately compared to her classmates. "How would we determine her reading level?" he asked.

I recently asked Maggie what she remembered about the Power Book. She said, "It was the first time I understood why people hate school."

So there you have it.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Thomas Edison Returns Home

I heard the sirens in the town square on June 7th, signaling the parade was beginning for Thomas Edison.

The bronze replica of him holding a light bulb, that is.

Almost seven feet tall and weighing 900 pounds, he rode on a flatbed truck behind an escort of police, sheriff, and fire department vehicles. In the small village of Milan, it was a big deal in the middle of the day. Families showed up. Couples walked over with their dogs. I stood at the edge and eavesdropped about the years required to gain a place for Edison in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall. To represent Ohio, he had to win the vote over the Wright Brothers, Olympian Jesse Owens, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

A pretty good group of rivals, if you ask me. Go Ohio.

The parade stopped at the house where he was born in 1847. The story goes that Edison had a life long appreciation of Milan, where he lived until he was seven years old. I could well imagine how many petitions, phone calls and meetings were required to gain recognition for our hometown boy. As folks lined up to have their pictures taken with the statue, none of that sticky red tape mattered anymore.  

The statue's champion seems to have been another native son, Don Gfell, who stood on the truck and acknowledged all the local patrons who contributed to the cause. I don't know Don, but he owns Sights and Sounds of Edison, an antique shop specializing in all things, well, Edison. His brother Tom, who I do know, speaks proudly of Don's lifelong appreciation of the famous man.

Every valuable effort takes someone to believe, to convince, to persist. In fact, Edison himself said: Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

When the last picture was taken, the parade moved on to the Milan Public Library where the statue will summer until heading to Washington.

Because parades are panoramic events, it would have been easy to miss the charming moment I spotted in all the hoopla.

As the truck turned the corner, Don swayed. Reaching up to balance himself, his hand rested over Edison's.

There it was.

Just two Milan boys, side by side, headed down Front Street together. I couldn't resist smiling. For both of them.

Edison also said: What you are will show in what you do. 

You don't have to be an acclaimed inventor to accomplish something great.  

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Seven out of Ten

Sometimes you can see trouble coming.

You've got seconds to make a decision that will haunt you forever, no matter which way it goes.

It happened to me last spring.

I was taking Maggie to a friend's house in Woodbury, and we had to travel I-94 across St. Paul in Friday rush-hour traffic. Ahead of me a mother duck and her babies were crossing the road.

A bumper-to-bumper line of cars raced to my left. Braking suddenly would surely create a crash behind me. If I veered right, I'd hit the gravel shoulder and likely fly down the embankment into a ditch. I began to cry. Maggie grabbed my arm, whispering, "Mom, you don't have a choice."

People could have been critically injured if I dodged the ducks. People could have died. So I didn't swerve.

I'm forever sorry for what happened to those ducks.

When I told the story to a therapist friend, she said sometimes a bad thing had to happen to avoid something even worse from happening. She reminded me that animals died every spring in Minnesota as they crossed roads from one pond to the next.

With all my heart, I've tried to make amends. If you've read my posts about the snowy owl who visited our property once we moved to Ohio, you'll understand that I imagined he was my sign from the natural world that I'd been forgiven. The spirits of all creatures great and small recognized my plight that day on I-94 and accepted my apology.

As Maggie would say, "There always has to be a story with you, Mom, even if there is none."

As Cliff would say, "Karen, random stuff just happens. It doesn't mean anything." 

I have never accepted this.

That's why I got excited this spring when our next-door neighbor Kathy told me a duck had built a nest under her patio evergreen. Believing it was another chance for my redemption, I avoided that side of the house when I walked Maria. I made Cliff whisper when we were in the driveway. I checked periodically with Kathy, who stopped using the door near the nest, to see if she was a grandmother yet.

I imagined I'd soon see a line of ducklings waddling down the street to the creek. I guess I thought I'd be their crossing guard. I must have envisioned a rainbow cresting over our houses with unicorns circling Kathy and me in appreciation for our goodness and mercy.

Instead, the ducks vanished one night.

Kathy told me that, by the looks of it, seven eggs had hatched according to plan. Crestfallen, I asked questions, wanting an easy answer, skirting the reality that had probably occurred.

I didn't get the cute parade I'd wanted. They didn't pose for me, all sweet feet and fuzz. I didn't get to post their photo on Facebook and write a storybook final chapter on my blog to eradicate last spring's duckling tragedy.

That mother duck next door made peace with what she got and marched her offspring to the water. Seven babies were good odds. She needed to get on with raising them. And if something harder had occurred, she cut her losses and moved away until next spring--without dwelling on what she couldn't control.

Unfortunate things happen. Even in fairy tales, giants kill, princesses lie, children vanish.

No matter how much I might want it to be true, ducks do not wear blue bonnets and toddle around for my amusement.

They do not, in fact, consider me at all.

Good for them.

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Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Definitional Distress

Words, definitions in particular, have gotten me in trouble for as long as I can remember.

My earliest language mishap began with organized religion, kicking off an uneasy relationship that continues to this day, although I excelled in some areas of church life.

As a child, I loved winning glow-in-the-dark crosses for memorizing scripture. (I had no idea what the words meant; I was just a trinket pack rat.) When white gloves were vanishing from women's fashions, I kept wearing mine to church. (Congregants called my mother to compliment my stylistic values; I simply loved anything that smacked of costuming.)  

But when I refused to buckle under the brimstone, as a six-year-old, the die was cast. When religion turned into a true-false test, instead of a multiple choice exam, I learned what it meant to stand alone.   

This all happened when we moved to Middletown, Ohio. Carla, the girl my age who lived across the street, attended the Crawford Street Church of God. It was two blocks away, and we walked to Sunday school together. My dad was raised Methodist. My mother grew up in a country church that was more church than any particular denomination. I'm sure they couldn't see much harm in a little girl going to a nearby church with a new friend. 

I was a model participant at first. Teachers loved putting me on stage to recite the Books of the Bible from memory. With my curly hair and patent leather perfection, I was no doubt adorable.

Until it went bad.

Sunday school always began with an assembly in the children's wing. We sat in miniature pews while the minister delivered a brief sermon usually based on a biblical story. We sang a song, my favorite being Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man, and we dropped our coins into the offering basket.

One morning, the pastor spoke on the evils of smoking and drinking, habits of the Devil. People who participated in these acts were sinners who needed help. They were dangerous and would lead us down the road to damnation. He asked us to file forward and sign an oath to never smoke or drink. This would keep us safe because the Devil couldn't get in our hearts.

Row by row, the little lambs signed up.

Not me.

I refused.

My teacher whispered a plea; I shook my head.

One by one, the room emptied until I was alone with the minister, who asked why I wouldn't sign.

My eyes filled with tears as I explained that my parents smoked and drank sometimes. (Remember it was the 1950s--the height of sophisticated evening cocktails and cigarettes.) I didn't think they were bad people.

Nor were they dangerous.

People under the influence of the Devil wouldn't serve as scout leaders. They wouldn't volunteer at the school. They wouldn't plant geraniums. They wouldn't give me a birthday cake with pink roses. They wouldn't spend every other weekend driving to Illinois to care for their aging parents.

I didn't want to smoke or drink myself, but I wouldn't sign a paper that defined my parents as evil.

To his credit, he said he understood, that I didn't have to sign, and that I could go on to class. Of course, I'll never know what he really thought. Was he amazed that a little girl resisted his belief system? Was he able to see the potential damage of pitting a child against her parents? Was he convinced that my family was in league with the Devil and sent to test him?

I remember my Sunday school teacher had nothing to say to me for a long time after that.

I could stop here, but I'm inclined to point out this was the beginning of my forays into oppositional defining.

As a high school teacher, the last faculty meeting I attended ended with a list of student names written on the board. We were asked if this was "the kind of element" we should have in our school. I knew some of those kids well. They were edgy types, the kind who would give you an unexpected opinion that set off a firestorm of discussion in class, not necessarily a negative thing. I suspect most of them were smokers and drinkers, too, but that never struck me as outrageous behavior for teenagers. Were they dealers? Thieves? I didn't know, and no one told us that during the meeting.

The ones I knew on that list were not bad people. As far as I could tell, they did not represent an element aligned with the Devil. They were just smart teenagers who knew how to get under the skin of adults who required adherence to a prescribed standard.

I couldn't embrace this simmering definition of a new order. I wouldn't speak against these kids.

If we were marching against this list now, what would be the next Element of the Day?

I thought it over for several months. The implications were enormous, not that I hadn't been considering my career options for a while anyway.

I resigned that summer.

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Sunday, May 22, 2016

Fences and Gates

Our dog Maria and her two puppies were discovered at a dump on a northern Minnesota reservation. A woman up there took them in. She works with a Twin Cities' shelter that periodically picks up her animals because they're more likely to find homes in Minneapolis/St. Paul than in a remote rural area.

They knew the puppies would be easy to place, once their fuzzy-bear faces appeared on the shelter's website.

But Maria would remain behind. In poor health and clearly starving, no one thought she'd survive.

The shelter employee, named Maggie, loaded all the dogs but found she couldn't drive away with Maria's penetrating eyes staring at the van. So she got out and promised she'd take the dog home and nurse her back to health, if possible.

It was possible.

About a year later, her dramatic eyes and story on their website captured my heart. We brought her home at Christmas. They told me she was a good dog with a sweet nature, but when she wanted something, she wouldn't give up until it was hers.

I had no idea.

All our dogs have been different in their own ways. But Maria alternates between being the most grateful and the most stubborn one ever. Upon her arrival at our house, she understood within minutes not to get on the furniture or to pull things off the counter. She made no move to chew up or knock over anything. She's escaped out the front door twice but had no intention of leaving the property. She's not interested in life on the run again.

Sometimes I can sense her apology, her eyes saying: "Excuse me, please." Still, other times I'm sure she's saying, "Absolutely not," like the hot day we walked along the Mississippi, and she unceremoniously flopped down under the first shade tree, with no plan to move until she was good and ready.

Friends, vets, groomers, and neighbors adore her, remarking on her gentle disposition.

But she's determined to have her way with me.

If she senses I'm too distracted elsewhere in the house, she'll trot to my office and sit. "Maria wants you to write her a story," Cliff calls out to me. She'll stay there until I arrive. I'm not sure my writing life is important to her, but curling up beside me at the desk clearly matters. Our togetherness becomes an impenetrable fence, insuring I'm hers alone as she sleeps on the rug beneath us.  

She also lives to ride in the car with me. The destination isn't important. Being beside me is the prize. She never tires of the miles as she watches out the window. Trees, trucks, towers--all intensely interesting because we're passing them together.

Make no mistake about it; she has to be in front. Forced to sit in the back, she'll squeeze between the seats, inching herself forever forward, draped across the storage compartment and gearshift, oblivious to danger.  

Finally Cliff bought a barrier to keep her securely behind us, convinced this netted gate would hold her at bay.

It didn't.

After a few miles, she barreled forward, straining against entrapment, however uncomfortable. No matter what, she would get where she wanted to be.

Into that van.

Into my office.

Into the front seat.

That same will allowed her to survive the reservation, running and hiding--without food or shelter. Alone with her pups. 

We all have a history that builds our character or breaks us.

We learn to create a fence that protects what we value.

We learn to crush a gate in order to belong.   

Even if it's just by a nose, we're there nevertheless. In our rightful place.

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Friday, May 13, 2016

Happy Solitary Mother's Day

I was a late bloomer to being celebrated on Mother's Day. A mother for the first time at 45, I imagine I expected more than the usual cards and flowers. Because I have a big imagination, I probably envisioned a gigantic balloon drop with cheers and applause.

That was almost 20 years ago. So who knows anymore.

As it turned out this year, I spent most of Mother's Day on my own. Maggie called from college to apologize for being so distracted by final papers and exams that she forgot about the card she'd bought 2 weeks ago. I assured her no apology was needed. Cliff was in the hospital and insisted when visiting hours were over I should go home and do something special.

So I did.

Standing in our kitchen, I swooped a spoon in circles above my head and finished the pint of ice cream in our freezer.

Then I went on with my chores. As I passed by the dining room window, I saw it--the motherhood legacy, the generational mark of daughters and mothers who love each other forever, long after gifts and cards are even possible.

The garden of this house we moved to holds a statue of Mary, the supreme mother, left behind by the previous owners, who I assume were catholic. I don't know how many years she's graced that spot, but even though we're not catholic, we resisted moving her. Heaven knows what kind of misfortune might rain down on us for such an injustice.

It makes perfect sense now that Cliff and I transplanted the flowers we'd moved from Minnesota around her base last August. The yellow day lilies that bordered my grandmother's Illinois farmhouse, and probably originated from her mother's house up the road, had been faithfully moved and moved again by her daughter, my mother, who loved them dearly. Because my mother loved them, I loved them. I actually remember them blooming at the farm when I was a little girl.

I also transplanted my mother's beloved purple irises she'd carried from state to state. While day lilies are easy, spontaneous flowers, irises have always seemed more subtle, more elegant, less likely to bloom once transplanted. That my mother loved them has always puzzled me. I can't ask her now either.

You'd think these flowers would have given up. They've been dropped in to and dug from every kind of soil, carted in boxes and buckets, suffered blistering heat, survived tornadoes, and shivered through brutal winters.

Yet, they bloom on.

I don't know why or how these tenuous bulbs have that kind of determination after all the hazardous decades.

Then I walked by our pantry window. To my surprise, the bleeding heart we'd also transplanted, and forgotten about over the winter, was blooming. This flower was my daughter's favorite, perhaps for its stunning pink blossom, perhaps for its resonant name, perhaps for its legacy to the statue beside it. (Read my post, The Happiness of Lady Chang, from May 24, 2014.) I knew Maggie would be pleased when she returned from college for the summer and found those perfect, nodding flowers.

There was my Mother's Day: a celebration for them, the women who mothered me and for the daughter who earned me the title. In those splendid flowers. A celebration of them, not me. The flowers represented 3 generations of devoted mothers and daughters, carefully continuing an unspoken tradition.

Through countless obstacles, with hope and patience, a mother's faith in her child never lessens. It bends and recovers. It gives however much is asked. And an appreciative daughter plants and re-plants those tenuous bulbs of the flowers her mother fancied.

Not to fill a garden space. But to honor her mother.

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Monday, May 2, 2016


I'm hardly a geographical expert. Far from it.

In fact, I have a spatial dyslexia that often leads me astray. Left? Right? Both look the same to me. So I've developed a sensory view of places, a directional rhythm. Consequently, I find an ebb and flow in every place I've lived. Each town has a feel to it, depending on how its streets are laid out.

These pathways, earmarked by a drug store, a bus stop, an iron fence, serve as my visual cues in the event I'm lost.

Which I will be.


Tulsa, Oklahoma was a north/south and east/west grid of straight lines either named or numbered with nothing much getting in the way. Racine, Wisconsin's streets curved around Lake Michigan and the river. Rockford, Illinois was split down the center by State Street, with avenues branching left or right and sometimes inexplicably changing names.

But Winston-Salem was unlike any map I'd lived in.

When Maggie was three years old, we moved to its suburbs in North Carolina. Neighborhoods were pockets of cul de sacs that wound through wooded housing developments. To go anywhere, I circled through and up and out of rhododendrons and dogwoods, forever driving in figure 8's among green fluff.

And all that bobbing and weaving led to parkways bordered by more forests. Again and again I was caught in a traffic roundabout that applied to no one but me.

Behind me in her car seat, Maggie rode patiently, listening to me talk out loud to myself as I pondered my street map. I flipped it upside down and right side up, trying to decide which road looped where. I'd recite the street names in order, attempting to memorize which ones split from or led to Peacehaven, the apparent center of our Southern universe.   

And I was forever stopping to ask for directions. Maggie took it all in, perched in the backseat.

One day, at my wit's end after I'd wrongly driven in a circle for the third time, she said, "Mama, turn left on Peacehaven," with the sweetest sense of certainty she could muster.

Of course. She'd heard that street named so often that EVERYTHING had to involve Peacehaven. She'd also figured out that left and right were my eternal weak points, too, so she was choosing for me.

In all honesty, she was right at least 50 percent of the time.

But the thing that overwhelmed me was her toddler's determination to help me.

"Thank you, sweetheart," I answered.

All these years later, she remains my best GPS. Whenever I'm about to give up, the memory of her precious voice hovers above my despair or my disappointment, calling me to the center of myself, leading me to Peacehaven.

And I go on.

Not because I'm any more certain of the leftness or rightness, but because I know she believes I can set myself straight.

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Friday, April 8, 2016

Purple, Overnight

When you get to be my age, you know a lot.

You're adept at sizing up a situation or people, based on decades of observation.

Still, sometimes you get it wrong.

You simply couldn't see it coming. Literally.

Since August we've lived next door to Rob and Beth, straight off the Hallmark rack of ideal neighbors--friendly, helpful, considerate.

When you live side by side with people, you see their seasonal rhythms. Fall pumpkins and corn shocks. Christmas lights around trees. Easter eggs dangling from branches. Rob and Beth were out there like clockwork for every season, no matter the weather.

But most of all, I watched Rob mow and mow and mow the yard. Grass was his baby, trimmed for all it was worth. Lush, weedless, leaf-free. Irresistibly ready for golfers or picnickers, had they been waiting in the wings.

Some might call it obsessive, but I saw it as meticulous. He was dutifully motivated to maintain an evenly clipped surface, the ultimate goal of a lawn.

Imagine my surprise when spring approached and leafy shoots randomly emerged in that level expanse.  First they bloomed into mounds of white snowdrops. Then yellow crocuses arrived, a pretty poem of pastel commas and periods across that quiet, green page. I smiled every time Maria and I passed by on afternoon walks. Although snowflakes occasionally blew around us, those colorful dots were reminders of awaiting warmth.

Then overnight the purples exploded like gorgeous asterisks. I was astonished. They say dogs are color blind, but Maria instantly stuck her nose in those blooms. According to Dog Theory, she knew this shocking brightness might herald something as momentous as a pork chop or a rib bone. In her own way, she appreciated the glory.

For days I watched cars slow down in front of their yard. It was impossible not to be amazed.

I had no idea that sedate lawn held so much passion.

I would have assumed the scattered flowers would disrupt Rob's manicured beauty. The slow mowing eventually required to avoid the leaves would be a nuisance to his steady back and forth pace. At least, that's what I would have assumed after watching him zip up and down his long lot.

I would have assumed wrong.

When I asked about the flowers, he told me they'd been planting bulbs for twenty years and that daffodils and tulips would follow the crocuses. He said they'd planted so many that they'd forgotten where they all were and surprised themselves each year.

"Beth and I love spring," he added. He didn't say more.

No need.

You just never know how much you don't know yet.

P.S. For those of you who admire the previous posts from my former students, I know this piece by me feels out-of-order. In truth, the first wave of their responses came sequentially. While more have promised to write, we've reached a lull. But I'll tell you this. Their reflections have taken my breath away each time. Like unexpected purple crocuses. Overnight.

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