Week before Easter

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For the past month, I’ve been visiting an elementary school to write poetry with 5th graders. Last week on my way there, I got stuck behind a long line of cars trailing a school bus. Every other house or so, the bus would pull up, flutter its flashing red wings, then settle in as if roosting on eggs while someone hugs their child goodbye.

Most days when this happens, I settle in myself, but I was running late and couldn’t help but think back to the old’n days when you had to live at least a mile away from school to get a bus ride. And rather than stopping every few minutes, buses picked up gaggles of kids at assigned street corners. I know, enough of that…

Nearing the school on this day, I see a young boy walking. Or should I say, I see a boy seemingly being pushed forward from the weight of his backpack, which is almost as big as he is. His back is curved like an old man, his eyes on the road in front of his feet.

He is dressed completely in black, including the backpack. No cartoon characters or superheroes, no welcoming rainbows. The only burst of color comes from his screaming red high-tops which are savagely kicking a rock down the middle of the road. I slow way down and steer around him. If not for the sneakers, he would blend into this dreary morning.

As I pass, he doesn’t pay attention, doesn’t look up, doesn’t move out of the way, just continues kicking. I try to catch his eye, to give him a smile, some acknowledgment that I see him. Instead of looking at me, he lifts his gaze and punches toward a cloudy sky, then stops … right there in the middle of the road, then punches again and again, mouth forming words I cannot hear. It is the week before Easter and though God is probably busy, I hope he’s listening.

Much later, while waiting for a class to come back from recess, I think I see him on the playground. Those red sneakers and I can’t get him out of my head. I wish to hug him, tell him not all days are as cloudy as this one. Let him know that at this moment, I’m conjuring him whole on the page. It isn’t much, but it’s heartfelt and as holy as I get.

easter 1963 deb-john-e

Easter, maybe 1962
Deb, John, Me

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Heavenly

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(Seem to be on a food roll these past few weeks. It’s just that time of year.)

I spent this past Christmas Eve with my son and his family. He said he had a surprise for me and brought out a new pasta machine, flour, eggs and cheese. He then proceeded to make ravioli from scratch, just like his Nonie used to do for Christmas. I enjoy cooking, but never mastered the art of ravioli. Talk about making memories…

It reminded me of another time with my brother and niece who came to my house to collaborate on the making of the traditional Thanksgiving ravioli, something not attempted since Mom died. We brought out flour and eggs, ricotta and parmesan cheese from the old Italian market, Mom’s ancient rolling pin and pizza cutter, the newer macaroni machine. In the end, we made 20 of the homeliest ravioli I’ve ever seen. Mom always said the trick was in the dough, “You’ll know the dough is ready, when it is.”

I am ten, sitting on the counter in the kitchen of the old house kicking red PF Flyers, keeping beat to a song my mother hums while she cooks. She pauses to use the back of a floured hand to wipe hair from her eyes before rolling out sheets of pasta dough made from scratch.

With a practiced move, she dips her hand into a sack of flour and anoints the table. From a cracked pink bowl, she separates a handful of dough, drops it onto the floured surface and rolls a wooden pin back and forth. She shifts the thinning mound clockwise and continues to roll over its growing spread. This is fascinating to a ten-year-old child who cannot imagine how she does it, except through magic.

What happens next is something I could sell tickets to. In a manner so smooth and precise I have never been able to match it, my mother smartly scoops just the right amount of ricotta into a perfect row across the bottom edge of the dough, flips this edge up and over, then swiftly applies karate chops in between each bundle and across the top to create a seal.     

Next, with a pizza cutter (I now own), she drives the wheel up and over, down and around each perfect pocket like a race car driver on a slalom track, screeching to a halt with a huff and sigh.

I stay far back as arms and elbows fly, but as soon as the flour settles, I hop off the counter like a loyal pit crew to gently pick up each ravioli and place it at the other end of the table, counting as I go. 136, 137, 138…

        My brother, niece and I laughed a lot, reminisced even more and spoke to Mom/Nonie out-loud-at-the-ceiling, as much as to each other. Once when my brother was doing something particularly discourteous to the dough I said, “I’m going to kick your little ass!” and at the same time, we both said, “I/You sound just like Mom.”

The evening left me with thoughts of how certain foods, particularly their smell, become rooted in our lives and are able to conjure people and moments. Many of us have a relationship with food like that.

Ravioli does it for me. Growing up, for every holiday and birthday celebration, Mom would make those saucy pockets of cheese that we could barely wait to eat. Thanksgiving turkey? What’s that? Easter ham? What planet are you from?

It took us 3 ½ hours for three of us to make 20 ravioli, while Mom would make at least 150 all by herself in way less time. Heck, we needed one person to crank the macaroni machine, one person to feed the dough through and one to catch it coming out the other end. Some came out looking like lumpy faces and butts, but one ravioli looked just like hers. And it called for a toast!

That Thanksgiving, when we sat down at dinner to eat our 2 ravioli each, there was a lot of smiling and nodding and yes, a few deep sighs. Many thanks were also spoken, since I’d thought ahead and made a back-up lasagna as well.

This past Christmas Eve, there was also much talking and laughter and love. And we didn’t even wait for the next day’s dinner. We ate all 10 ravioli while standing at the counter. Mom though was probably groaning loudly since the sauce came from a jar. The ravvies though, were from Heaven!

On Pie

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It’s the Monday before Christmas. I’m so cold, my fingers aren’t working well on the keyboard. The house smells good though … like apples and cinnamon, a pie baking in the oven. As a girl, so many days I’d come home from school to a home that smelled like apple pie and unspoken love. My mom planned it that way.

I’ve never been good with pie, unless someone else baked it. My mother’s crust was simply too tasty to try and match. She attempted to show me once how she did it, but the knack didn’t stick. I remember the afternoon though …

Mom, like most good bakers – “You put a little of this, a little of that.” Then, “Ooops, well, don’t worry about it.” And then she put the forming mound of dough into an empty Wonder Bread bag.

With her left foot (not sure why, but she swore it had to be the left foot) up on a chair and a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, she began working the bag of dough on the kitchen table. “Don’t work it TOO hard,” she warned. “Eventually, you’ll get the hang of it,” she said quite seriously, all those years ago. I was laughing so much, it was hard to pay attention.

Now, I wish I had. My crust is sub-par. It’s kind of tough to mess up sliced apples with sugar and cinnamon, but for many of us, the crust makes the pie. Even though I used her old wooden roller to flatten out the dough, I didn’t have a Wonder Bread bag. Had to use a Chabaso Bakery ( http://chabaso.com/ ) bread bag and it just wasn’t the same. Maybe I should blame Chabaso.

And yes, my left foot was up on a chair. And yes, I laughed out loud while reminiscing with Mom and she was right there with me, laughing also. And the house smells heavenly. Even if the pie doesn’t taste good, I will still have the pleasure of her company while it cools.

Mom and E

In the kitchen with Mom.

 

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.

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.

snowman