Summertime Summertime Sum Sum Summertime

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Mid-summer Connecticut morning and I’m sitting on the back deck drinking coffee and watching my dog dig yet another hole, in search of the elusive chipmunk. Her tail wags frantically and she barely lifts her head when I call her. To her, every day is summer.

When I was a girl (yes, yes, anytime my father started a conversation with, “When I was a boy…”, I’d grind my teeth), I believed summer lasted a whole year, while school only lasted 182 days. And back then, I wasn’t responsible for clean toilets or fresh laundry. All that mattered was getting a seat on the bright orange merry-go-round at the park next door or a place in line to pay 10 cents and swim in Goldstar Pool.

From the time we got up in the morning, until my mother whistled for us to come home, we’d be on our bikes or building tree forts in the woods. Being a kid in the 1960’s meant freedom and new adventures each day.

Did bad things happen? Of course, they did, but the world (at least our small piece of it) seemed safer then. That is if you don’t count Selma and Birmingham, Vietnam and a string of assassinations whose repercussions are still being felt.

My small world felt very innocent. I could make a pilgrimage through the dense woods that backed the town park and be home for lunch unharmed. And our house bordered the other side, so I always felt the park was mine.

And the park was always packed with kids. My first crush was on Barbara, the park teacher. Manned with only a silver whistle, when she said, “Knock it off!”, you did! Her face has blurred, but I can still see her sitting on a picnic table, the coveted whistle hanging from the first lanyard I ever made.

Summer seemed one endless ride down a just-polished-with-wax-paper slide or games of P.I.G. on the cracked cement basketball court, as long as the big kids weren’t using it.

As a grandmother of 6, I understand the concerns of today’s parents. I’m not suggesting you pack a bagged lunch and let your 8-year-old pedal off into the unknown. This is one of the reasons, summer camps are flourishing.

The world has changed. It’s moved well beyond my childhood memories. And with it goes imagination, creativity and trust.

There are children in my neighborhood. I’ve seen them getting on and off the school bus. I know they exist and yet, it is quiet as I sit here writing. The birds keep me company and a lawn mower groans in the distance. Where are the children to enjoy this day?

w deb john

Maybe they are sleeping in or playing Minecraft. They could be binge-watching the first season of ‘Stranger Things’ or at Ninja Summer Camp. I do not hear anyone shouting “Ollie Ollie in Free.” No laughter through the trees.

This could make me sad or I could finish writing this post and pour the last of the coffee into my mug, a mug made at summer camp by my granddaughter. The lawn mower abruptly stops and I almost smell the cut grass, feel sweat dripping down my back.

And then, as if I conjured it myself, the sound of a basketball being dribbled. If I listen hard enough, the ball is launched from just outside the 3-point line … and then … Swish.

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At almost-82

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I was on my way to visit my mother’s sister. At almost-82 years old, she recently decided to get rid of her ancient flip phone, along with her house phone, and upgrade to a smart phone. She was having difficulty with her new ‘device’ (it’s difficult to refer to them as only a phone) and had some questions.

Before arriving, I needed to stop at the vet and drop off some dog poop. Blooming by their door were delicate yellow and red flowers. I would include a photo, but when I reached into my bag for my…device, it wasn’t there. I hate to admit this, but my stomach actually clutched! I thought through the last few minutes before leaving the house and could almost picture it on the arm of the living room chair. Shit! Or should I say “poop”.

I debated returning home, but bravely kept going. We all grew up fine without a cellie stapled to our foreheads. Right?

It was a gorgeous day, made even more so by a feeling of detachment, a lessening of something like … accountability. That is, until I realized I was going to be late to my aunt’s and pushed the hands-free button on my steering wheel to call and let her know. Ha! How’d that work out? Well, I’ll quickly go back to the vet’s office and use their phone.

Growing up, we memorized the numbers we called most often and I can still reel off all my closest friend’s childhood digits, along with my aunt’s old number which started as a word. JAckson 8-8123, the JA standing in for 52. Another aunt’s number began with MItchell 6-1212, the MI for 64. I’m soooo dating myself!

Anyway, I easily remembered her old number, but never considered memorizing her new one. Simply added it to my contact information. Oh well. Onward.

And for the next half hour, it was incredibly eye-opening how many times I ‘reached’ for my device.

Needed to make a doctor’s appointment. Had no idea what their number was and no phone to look them up. Not to mention, no online calendar to refer to when making the appointment.

They’ve been tearing up the roads in my area lately. To avoid the mess, I thought to check the status of highway traffic. Not! Instead of feeling light, I was beginning to feel anxious. I know! How about listening to the meditation music I downloaded the other day? Check the weather? I don’t think so………

And I was one of those folks who stepped lightly into the cell phone age. Before data was available on cellies, my only requirements were – a decent camera, an alarm clock and oh yeah, at least 500 talk minutes. And I was never, ever going to text.

When I arrived at my aunt’s house, she opened a fat folder with pages of handwritten notes and questions she would later input into a Word document. She’d been having an ongoing issue with password protection and once we worked through that and a few other minor things, I wanted to show her how to add callers to her contact list.

“Oh no,” she said. “I memorize the numbers of the people I want to talk to.”

At almost-82, she also had her 10-character password memorized. When I’m her age, I hope I’m able to remember my own name!

mom-aunt g

School Days…

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April is National Poetry Month and my work schedule in schools explodes. In just this month, I have written poetry with students from 3rd grade through high school and have been doing this work since 1997. Most of the time, I love what I do!

From where I stand at the front of the classroom, a lot has changed in schools over the past 20 years. One of the biggest changes is a lack of respect for teachers. This comes not just from the students, but from their parents as well.

Parent – Why did you give my daughter a D on her test?
Teacher – She earned a D grade.
P – Did you ever think maybe you’re not a good teacher?
T – Did you ever think maybe your daughter didn’t study?

And maybe the daughter is the angry 5th grader who never sits in the right seat and routinely ignores instructions to do so. Or the oblivious 7th grader who thinks he is so funny and that we all want to watch him pantomime shooting a bird out of the sky.

As a guest in the classroom, I enjoy the creative energy that the arts enable. And I encourage this energy. Do things sometimes become rowdy? Yes, yes they do, but frequently I only have 45 minutes to get their attention, to spark their imaginations, to help them consider poetry as an invitation to breathe…and breathe deeply. To let go of the weight and the worry that too often settles on their young shoulders.

In one of my poems entitled ‘My Muse’, there is a teenage boy in Hartford. I refer to him as not wanting to be in the workshop. He sits in the back row and mostly glares at me. I’m asking the class to write about who they are as color, as nature, as a musical instrument. At the end of the period, this large and angry boy leaves me with a tiny square of paper –

I am a falcon
lord of the skies
fearless swift and mighty
a hunter like no other
who sweeps upon my prey.

And then at the end of his poem, he wrote –

I am a piano made of steel
strong and hard
but with the touch of the right key
I could become a soft symphony.

A couple weeks ago, I shared a line on FB from a poem written by a girl in 7th grade –

I am not a color because I am clear.
No one sees me.
Like the air around us
I am taken for granted.

Many thought the line was sad. Maybe it was, but also hopefully enlightening for the girl. The fact that she was able to put a ‘name’ to how she feels, to put it into words and then take those words from inside herself and speak them in the light…this can be very powerful and for some (myself included), life changing.

A 5th grader recently wrote –

Red is the feeling you get
when someone you love passes away
and you just wanna keep crying
till the words dry out.

I was pregnant at 16. Thank God, I was addicted to the written word and not drugs or alcohol. This is when I began journal writing and haven’t stopped since. Here are a few lines from a poem about my addiction –

 Then pregnant at 16,
writing became the white horse
I couldn’t kick.
I clung to that tail
through years of uncertainty
using poetry to puzzle out questions
with no answers.
While the rest of my life dissolved around me
I felt complete with a pencil in my hand.

Writing continues to make me feel whole. It allows me to breathe, whether I share my work with an audience or keep it private in a notebook. And when I ask a class  -“Who doesn’t like poetry?” – it is often those who immediately raise their hand (and sometimes both feet) who then come up to me at the end of the period, hand me their poem and ask, “Did I do it right?” And I don’t even have to read the poem to know, “Yes, it is exactly what I was hoping for.”

Drinking coffee with God

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Upon awakening each day, I practice my own type of meditation. I consider what I’d like to accomplish, who I’d like to see. And I express how grateful I am for all I’ve been blessed with. I used to ‘meditate’ while still tucked in, but lately, it doesn’t happen until the dog has been let out and the coffee ready. And then, gesturing out the front window I say, “Thank you, God, for this day.”

And this day is dazzling white with a fat blue sky. Smoke lifts from the chimney of the house across the street and a snow plow labors by. My car is under so much snow, it will not see the road today, but I have no schools or appointments to get to, so I thank him for that also. And we talk.

One time, I asked him what was up with the nearly indestructible plastic packaging that comes with batteries and small tech items. He laughed so hard, coffee sprayed from his nose. God loves a good joke!

Once, I asked my mother what she prayed about. She said, “Mostly, I ask God to watch over my family and sometimes, we talk about recipes.

Usually, my conversations are about being thankful…for family, for friends…and lately, I am overwhelmed with the love and kindness they show back.

I also appreciate the work I do, the lives I touch and the knowing it makes a difference. Oh, and crunchy Cheetos.

Awhile back, I saw a handmade sign on the side of the road. It said, “What if you wake tomorrow and all you have left is what you were thankful for today?” I’d like to think I could handle it.

Looking out the window, I search the tree branches for the bird whose song will be stuck in my head for the rest of the day. I smile at the snowman I built yesterday – my purple wool hat still set at a jaunty angle on his head, one wine cork eye already missing.

The wind is a bit harsh, blowing the wooden chimes into a frenzy. The dog has settled in beside me and is lightly snoring. God reaches over and scratches behind her ears. Her tail wags and it is moments like these when I am overwhelmed with gratitude. God gives me that “Oh, shucks” look and stirs more sugar into his mug.

Like me, God is comfortable with silence, so we both simply look out the window and breathe. Eventually, God smiles and nods, asks if there is any more of the apple pie I made yesterday. I cut us a piece to share and even though it is still morning, I add whipped cream. A little something extra to go with our coffee.

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I awake…

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I started this awhile back. It was meant to be a poem, but:

I awake to a quiet house, no refrigerator hum, no whirring fan, no buzzing alarm.  Only the gentle splash of rain through summer leaves, the distant rumble of thunder.  For the third time in less than a week, the power is out.  It feels cozy though, beneath this light comforter – one leg tangled in the sheets, the other searching for my husband.  I consider closing my eyes and attempting to recapture the wisp of the dream I’d been having, but the dog has seen me stretch and comes over to investigate.  Her day has begun; so should mine.

The dog heads straight for the back door and I follow to let her out, flipping a switch to brighten the dining room, then laugh at myself.  No power, no lights.  I do the same thing walking into the bathroom, shaking my head as I pee in semi-darkness, remembering not to flush, since the backyard pump requires electricity to move the water out of the well and into our toilet.

Thinking only about a cup of coffee, I ‘turn off’ the bathroom light and head toward the kitchen to put a pot on, then shake my head again.  This time, less good-humoredly.  I’ll have to drive to Dunkin Donuts, which means I must do something with my hair, though it probably needs a blow torch (and a working outlet).  A hat will do and thank God for drive-thrus.

On the quiet drive into town, I figure the power will probably be back on by the time I return.  No big deal.  The faucets will flow and I’ll take a long, hot shower. My husband will probably be awake, checking the news on his iPad. He’ll thank me for the glazed doughnut I’ll buy for him.

I think about the day ahead – shopping, a visit with my grandchildren, a lunch meeting. The rain is letting up.

Yes, the power is back when I return home. I switch on the TV for a local weather report.  There on the screen is a photo from Syria of a soldier cradling a small naked child.  They are surrounded by burning rubble and destruction. Tears streak the black on both their faces.   The child’s head bleeds and one sleeve of the soldier’s uniform is torn off.  Their eyes are unfocused, as if unaware of the camera, yet their gaze lingers like the long arms of black smoke that billow behind, ready to lift them from the screen and gently set them down in my living room, where after this morning rain ends, it’s going to be a beautiful day.

Cheers!

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It’s Sunday, early October, a chill and drizzly day perfect for curling up on the couch with hubby and dog to finish rereading ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ or watch an old movie. Or … to meet some close friends at a nearby vineyard (Gouveia Vineyard) for a tasting and camaraderie (hmmm, why does camaraderie not end with a ‘y’).

I’ve known one of these women since 3rd grade, when I hit her brother with a dirt bomb and made him cry. We’ve been best friends ever since. Two others were met in 7th grade when we bonded on the horse trails behind the school, where kids would clump to share cigarettes stolen from their parents or the occasional Dixie cup of various liquors, again swiped from their parents and mixed into a toxic brew.

As the ‘Daughters of Diminished Capacity’, we get together as regularly as we are able – to vacation, to celebrate birthdays and holidays, to mourn the deaths of parents, a brother, one of us (this one is for you, Kris) and to simply be with friends who let you be comfortable with who you are. Someday, we’ll create an elder commune on a beach facing west. We’ll toast each glorious sunset with a glass of wine (or Ensure) and be thankful for each other.

This visit to the vineyard was in part to celebrate a post-wedding bachelorette party for Rachel. The vineyard only serves wine (but, of course) and you bring everything else. We managed to grab a table by the windows and spent the next ten or so minutes laying out food. As Daughters, we’ve gotten good at this kind of thing and were the only table with flowers and a checkered tablecloth.

Conversation ranged from honeymoons to grandchildren, from politics to how messed up our grandchildren’s lives will be if Trump is elected, to how good the cheese tasted with homemade fig and cherry brandy jam. And throughout, our laughter was the cushion we fell back on, again and again.

Outside, the 360-degree view was outstanding … an October appetizer. The changing leaves, the smoke from a fire pit, an early evening mist.

We asked a young woman to take our picture and I wondered what she was thinking looking at us through the camera. Did she think us old? Probably. Yet, later when I scrolled through the pics she took, I thought how blessed we all are to be friends, to enjoy these times together, to be as young as we’ll ever be again. Cheers!

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Itsy Bitsy Spider…NOT

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A spider lives within the window of my writing room. About a month ago, I noticed a sprawling, messy web from the bottom frame tracking to a piece of coral that sits on the inner sill. And there, inside the tracking a black spider’s head was poking out.

I’m careful not to kill spiders. It’s one of those things my mother warned me about, like how moths are the souls of our ancestors and should never be killed (just in case it was Papa paying a visit). Spiders bring good luck, she’d say when catching one in a coffee can to return to nature. I do the same. Or at least try to.

Spider webs are a different story. I’m not at all a fan and wiped it clean from the sill, then attempted to lure the spider out of its hiding place. She was smart though and stayed put. I hoped without her web, she’d go away.

The next morning, another messy web (I now know it’s called a ‘tangle web’) even larger than the first, was back in the window. I thought maybe I’d dreamed about wiping it away and wiped again, then went and looked up spider webs in my dream interpretation book. They symbolize creativity, which is a good thing in a writing room. They may also indicate feeling out of control. Well…not a bad thing in a writing room.

The next morning, again. This time though, I snuck up on the window with my own coffee can, hoping to catch the spider out of the tracking. And there she was, a bit larger and hairier than I’d imagined. She saw me coming with all of her eyes and took cover.

And we’ve been at it ever since. I wonder what she thinks when she comes out each morning and has to start all over again. I would think she’d be hungry by now, but when I went online to find out if we should be wearing armor for protection, I read that spiders sometimes eat their own webs. Handy, though it defeats the purpose and lacks protein!

On the first website I visited, I was greeted by a smiling arachnid bouncing on a silk thread with over-sized, creepy eyeballs that bounced along with him. Each of his eight legs pointed to a different link. I clicked on ‘Spider Poetry’ and wasn’t impressed.

There are ‘only’ about 46,000 species on Earth and new ones are found quite often. After looking through many disturbing photos that are likely to keep me armor’d and awake at night, I decided my spider wasn’t so bad after all. At least she stayed in the window. And spiders are actually quite fascinating.  I could write a short story just on the construction of their webs, which in addition to eating are used both for offense and defense.

And if nothing else, my spider is certainly industrious (messy, but industrious). I’ve decided to let her be, as long as she doesn’t invite any friends over for dinner.

Now, if only she could talk…