The Clock is Ticking…

H  ow did the holidays get here so fast?

A  few weeks ago we were eating turkey

P  retty soon the stores were filled with Christmas

P  iles of gift catalogs throughout the house

Y  esterday we hung the lights outside

 

H  ow will we ever be ready in time for Christmas?

O  n December 17th we are leaving for Germany

L  ots of things to prepare for our trip

I   f only the next few days would slow down

D  estinations: Berlin, Dresden, Weimar

A  lot of miles to travel to see people we love

Y  es, it’s the trip of a lifetime

S  ee you in 2016!

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Teaching and Terrorism

Emotions and thoughts have been swirling through my mind since I heard about the acts of terrorism in Paris this past weekend. Paris is a city I love dearly, having lived there for over a year in the 70’s in my mid-twenties and returning many times to visit.

I first began reading about the banlieues (outskirts or suburbs) of Paris about a decade ago. This was not the Paris I first experienced. It had become a city of haves and have nots, with the native insiders living within the city and the outsiders/immigrants relegated to substandard lives on the outskirts of the city. These outsiders burned cars and trashed their neighborhoods as a way of expressing their frustration and anger.  Eventually things returned to the status quo and their frustration was forgotten.

This past year the news of the violence that took place at Charlie Hebdo, the French newspaper whose cartoons mocked the Muslim extremists, reminded us of that anger. The lives of several French cartoonists and journalists were taken in another outburst of hatred toward French culture. The world responded with sympathy (“I am Charlie Hebdo”) and a renewed vow to celebrate “free speech.”

But this past weekend’s events, in which local terrorists took the lives of over 100 Parisians, remind us again that this hatred is not dead. More extreme and widespread violence has just begun, and we are now wondering what to do next to contain or combat extremists throughout the world.

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This is where teaching comes into the discussion. I am so proud of my profession; moreso than ever. In the United States teachers are the ambassadors of plurality, seeking to find ways to assimilate and educate our newcomers as they arrive at our borders and in our airports.

This is not to say that all teachers welcome undocumented immigrants and their families; prejudice and scorn often rear their heads in faculty lunchrooms. But even those who do not appreciate our tolerance for immigrants understand that our nation was built on their efforts and continues to flourish in many ways because of them. They also understand that building a wall is not the best way to solve the immigrant dilemma.  Supporting the assimilation of immigrant children and their families into our culture is how our nation will continue to sustain its principles of freedom and equality.

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I have often questioned my own beliefs as a teacher of English to immigrant students over the past several decades. But I have always come to the conclusion that becoming more understanding of people from other cultures, while helping their children to become better educated and assimilated, is the only way to continue to build a foundation of trust and strength.

I am particularly proud of my fellow English as a Second Language teachers.  We are often not held in high regard in our own schools or communities because of the controversial work we do, but we are the best advocates in our educational system for making sure that all children have equal access to a good education. Education is terrorism’s worst enemy and the best weapon we have for preserving our values.

What I Learned from a Weekend Getaway in the Hudson Valley

(Above photo: Three legged Buddha at Storm King Art Center)

For the past ten years my husband and his brother and both sons, as well as a group of friends have gone camping in Fahnstock Park in New York’s Hudson Valley. They would wrap up the weekend with a trip into a nearby town, Cold Spring, where they enjoyed a hearty breakfast at The Foundry on Main St. My husband often told me how much I would like this quaint upstate town.

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On Columbus Day weekend, my daughter and I took a three-day trip to explore Cold Spring and the nearby region. We have often thought maybe the Hudson Valley would be a possible place for my daughter to live someday as she craves nature and open spaces. This was our chance to find out.

The drive was fairly short, about two and a half hours, but sadly devoid of any fall color as yet. The warmer temperatures have impacted the seasons by making the leaf turning much later in the fall. In fact, last year there was hardly any fall color at all on Long Island or in Westchester and Putnam counties. We arrived in Cold Spring and were delighted to find that the Main Street leads right down to the edge of the Hudson River where there is a gazebo and a town square filled with benches for enjoying the river and the mountain on the opposite shore.

download (1).jpegAfter sitting and enjoying the view for a half hour, we moved our luggage into our Air Bnb and set off for dinner in the local French restaurant. Guess what folks? Inflation is alive and well in the Hudson Valley! Restaurant prices were just as high as they are here in our town (Huntington) and there were no bargains in the local shops.

We discussed this with a local person who explained that the tourist industry has become the money making enterprise in upstate towns, to replace the disappearance of local industries. I am pretty sure that local salaries have not kept pace with inflation so I wondered how local people actually cope with the higher costs of just about everything. And there went the idea of my daughter moving to the Hudson Valley; it’s become just another place she can’t afford to live!

The next two days we spent visiting two highly acclaimed art venues in the region: Dia museum in Beacon and Storm King Sculpture Park an open-air museum located in Mountainville, NY.

dia 2.jpeg I have longed to visit both for the past decade or more, but the opportunity never presented itself. We loved both places. Dia is a former factory modernized into a state of the art major modern art installation venue. The place was a beehive of activity with many outsiders like ourselves enjoying the kind of art you can only find in a very spacious structure. Most of the art was comprised of light installations, playful explorations with space and depth, automobile scrap sculptures, and the piece de resistance, the major sculptural pieces created by Richard Serra called “the torqued ellipses.”

We concluded our art excursion with a visit to a local beer pub, and then dinner on the revitalized Main St. in Beacon.

Our second day of art involved a drive across the Hudson to Storm King which is very close to West Point. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, you arrive in a sheltered area and begin to spot the monumental sculptures that pop out of the landscape in all directions. It was exceptionally hot that day so we explored as much as we could on foot, then hopped aboard the tram which takes you around the entire site. You can get on and off at certain locations. Our goal here was to see the Andy Goldsworthy stone wall and the Richard Serra pieces.download.jpgI confess that I like the idea of Goldsworthy’s work more in concept than actuality. The wall, although well constructed, just didn’t have the same impact on me I thought it would. It’s a New England stone wall. Period. The Serra pieces installed on a hillside consisted of four large plates of steel wedged into the landscape…not at all as impressive as the Torqued Ellipses we saw the previous day in Dia. The surprise of the day was seeing a work by Maya Lin (who created the Vietnam War Memorial in D.C.). She basically transformed a hillside into undulating waves of grass.

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She is a genius at minimalism. The overall experience of seeing such awesome art in such a splendid natural setting made our pilgrimage well worth while.

Our second AirBnb was booked for two nights and turned out to be a gem. We were welcomed to a Frank Lloyd Wright knockoff home, the inside of which was decorated in very serene Asian decor. Our hostess was warm and generous and we settled into our cozy digs. The day of our departure it was raining (unexpectedly) but that didn’t prevent us from enjoying another satisfying breakfast at the Foundry, served by the world’s most genial waittress. Then we were on our way home, winding along the country roads.

We were fully satisfied that our time was well spent, but much as we liked the special beauty of the Hudson River and the low mountains snuggled along its shores, we were happy to return to our own busy hamlet, and of course, to our own beds! Could we move to the Hudson Valley? My daughter would if she could live on a small farm with llama, a pig, a couple of dogs and some chickens…and find a job to support herself. Could I live there? Much as I enjoy the mellow people and the open space, I think I have become a bona fide suburbanite used to our local beaches, our local art cinema, our wonderful library and all the culinary delights of a town full of restaurants and bars. Life may be just a little too slow-paced for me in the Hudson Valley.

Retire. Reflect. Reboot. Keeping Your Teacher Voice Alive

In an effort to keep one foot in the world of teaching (my former career was as an ENL teacher), I attend the Long Island Writing Project’s (LIWP) workshops several times a year at a nearby local community college. I have been participating in their workshops for several decades. I wrote a post a year or so ago describing these meetings as “My Happy Place.”

The LIWP is the organization that supported me as a teacher of writing for both college freshman ( my night job) and primary school ENLs (my day job). It has always been a warm and welcoming place, and remains so. Their workshops helped me to develop my “teacher voice” as well as my “writing voice.” I have yet to experience a professional development program that is as teacher-centered as the LIWP.

So I found myself, this past Saturday, attending the kick-off session of the Fall series: Writing for Change. I had no particular goal in mind; I just wanted to renew my friendships and check out the latest ideas for teaching writing. The session was presented by Katherine Schulten, editor of the NY Times Learning Program.

Katherine quickly engaged us by asking us a series of questions to which we responded with “quick writes.” The series of questions was designed to get us to move from the general to the specific in our quick writes. The final prompt: What is it that you’d really like to address in your teacher voice at this time? intrigued me,

I surprised myself by responding that I wanted to use my “teacher voice” to reach out to retired teachers. When I first retired, four years ago, it made me sad to think there was no place I could apply all the knowledge and skills I had learned over 25 years as a teacher of English as a New Language….or even just as a teacher…period.

In the first year after my retirement, a new friend at the LIWP encouraged me to join the TWT blog site, and I am so glad I did.  I cherish my participation in this online writing community comprised of teachers all over the nation and some abroad. It has become a pleasant discipline to crank out a blog each week, and to write every single day during their March Challenge.

Through writing a blog, sharing my blog and commenting on others’ blogs, I know I have grown as a writer. I have come to realize that writing about teaching is still something that I can do, and is the principal way I have managed to keep myself relevant in the world of teaching and writing. It was just a matter of time before I realized that I’d like to take my experience to a new level and focus on the voices of retired teachers. This workshop definitely triggered that desire.

I haven’t yet figured out how to do this, but I know there must be a bunch of you out there who’d like to keep your teacher voice alive and well in your retirement life. Could we perhaps have our own blog site? Is there a way to add to the TWT experience a place for those of us who are retired? (Of course we are already welcome to participate Slices each week for the Sliceof Life). For starters, perhaps once a month, we retirees could write in response to a prompt and share our responses with each other. (Yes, I am referring to the tried and true methods of the Long Island Writing Project.)

For now I’d like to label this idea “Retire. Reflect. Reboot!” Any thoughts??? I’d love to hear them.

Barbara

Between Seasons

Today (Sunday) was a perfect fall day.  Yet it still feels like we have one foot in summer because the humidity remained unseasonably high.  We have yet to close our in-ground pool, put away the lawn furniture, cover the grill, empty the flower pots of annual flowers, and, of course, the most dreaded task…. rake the leaves.

But there are definite signs of a seasonal shift. The squirrels almost become like crack addicts in their frenzy of gathering and hiding acorns. They scamper from dawn to dusk, walking on the edge of fences, across the backyard on electric and telephone wires, and up and down the surrounding trees.

Leaves are already accumulating in my neighbor’s front yard, dropped by the grand oak tree that grows on the border between her property and ours. For now most of the leaves are on her property, thank goodness.

Daylight is disappearing.  By 7 o’clock, the sky becomes dark.  We haven’t really adjusted to this change and are still in full swing as the sun goes down, wondering “where did the time go?” Kids are no longer in the park past 5 o’clock.  Instead they are at home on their smart phones or computers.

The crickets have been deafening of late. They serenade us at night if we happen to be outdoors finishing a task, or just popping out to bring out the garbage or steal a glance at the “harvest” moon.

(Fall moon 2018, known as harvest moon)

I am making a promise to myself to try to notice when they stop singing. Most of our outdoor plants are on their way out.  Many have been savaged either by slugs or moths who chomp through them at night when we’re not looking.

The occasional goldfinch still shows up for a dip in our backyard bird bath. The sunflowers have come and gone, so they won’t be around much longer.

We haven’t seen the cardinals for weeks, nor the titmice or woodpeckers.  We stopped feeding them mid-summer when we realized a rat was showing up for the food, so the cacophony of birds that delighted us with the arrival of spring has dwindled to nearly nothing.  We miss their songs which have been replaced by the chattering of busy squirrels burying their acorns throughout the day.

Along the harbor road the seasons are noticeably changing.  The exotic birds (herons, egrets) have moved on to warmer places, but the cormorants are perched in groups on the boats still anchored there.  Goldenrod is abundant everywhere we look, and the bees are grateful for that.

Almost without noticing, at home we have switched from summer fare to more substantial grub. We have eaten yams a few times lately, as well as roasted chicken and potatoes.

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At the supermarket I find myself eyeing the pork loins and meatloaf mix.  The occasional mojito at a nearby happy hour has vanished and isreplaced by red wines and frothy beers. Suddenly, we crave pumpkin soup, baked apples, cauliflower, baked squash and apple cider.

As a family we are mostly winter people.  My husband craves the silence of winter and the relief from tedious outdoor chores including mowing the grass and doing the necessary pool and yard maintenance.

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My daughter loves winter walks in the park nearby and along the shores of our coast.  Together we’ve learned to identify several species of ducks, but there’s so much more we need to learn. My son is congenitally biased toward winter holidays, his favorites being Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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I love brisk autumn and winter walks, when the bones of the landscape become visible.  When there are no leaves to obstruct the view of the horizon. When you come across an abandoned osprey nest and wonder where its former inhabitants have gone and whether they will come back.

Ancient humans were much more in tune with the change of seasons. Their survival depended on it. Many of their remaining ruins remind us of how important the movement of the sun was for them, as they were aligned to capture the summer and winter solstices.

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(Summer solstice dagger at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico)

I am fascinated by how, for centuries, we moved almost unconsciously into the next season as we adapted to the changes.  How much longer will we have actual distinct seasons…or will we suffer extreme weather in our winters and summers? Will we be driven back into a deeper awareness of the seasons because our lives will again depend on that awareness?

 

 

 

First, Do No Harm

This is the second time I’ve participated in a reading/discussion group based on the theme of Literature, Compassion and Health Care.  Our group meets at the Walt Whitman Birthplace Site in Melville, New York and is facilitated by a physician/poet Dr. Jack Coulehan.  The aura of Whitman magically pervades the site and all its multitudinous activities, including our discussion group.

Whitman was a very compassionate person.  He spent several years during the Civil War at the bedsides of severely wounded soldiers consoling them during their darkest hours. Before volunteering for this job, he already had a fine-tuned affinity for humanity, reflected in his poetry.  His Civil War experiences served to further deepen his compassion for mankind.

The small size of our discussion group, about ten participants, allows us to have a “conversation” about the assigned reading: No Apparent Distress, by Rachel Pearson (2017) and Regeneration by Pat Barker (1993). In addition, about a dozen or so poems are also on the reading list,  several of them written by Dr. (Jack) Coulehan who is a published poet.

The author of No Apparent Distress wrote about her personal experiences with patients while training to become a physician. Since much of her early training took place in a student-run clinic in south Texas, as well as in a hospital for the poor and indigent, her experiences are colored by the poverty, poor education and discrimination her patients have suffered in addition to their physical and mental ailments.

The readings we are assigned and the discussions that follow are very relevant to the battle now taking place between Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act and Trump’s efforts to dismantle it piece by piece.  As the average citizen becomes poorer in America, and as the poor become even worse off than they already were vis a vis their health care,  we are heading toward the brink. With our current piecemeal, pay-as-you-go health care system in place, only a select group of middle class citizens with good jobs that provide low-cost, comprehensive health-care plans can afford to purchase a health care plan.  Others are forced to pay high premiums for their health-care insurance. We collectively fear for those who will increasingly be priced out of any kind of health care. Many people are now in more dire straits than they were a few years ago when the Affordable Health Care Act was passed.

As yet our group has only touched the surface of the body of issues that arise within our present health care system. As a four-year cancer survivor, I can all too easily remember the fear and anxiety I experienced regarding my health care and diagnosis. But because I am a retired teacher with an affordable health care plan in place,  I probably received the best care a middle-class person can get in the United States. I was lucky and survived.

I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to rely on health care services delivered by the overworked and underpaid providers who serve the poor. Pearson provides several examples of how the poor can simply die for lack of appropriate or sufficient treatment as well as lack of consistency  in their care takers.

This is such an important conversation we are having, it ought to be made available to everyone so that we can all become better informed about the forces that drive our healthcare system including how changes are brought about, and what could be done to improve our health care.  Perhaps this goal could be achieved through a required course in high-schools or colleges (similar to the Health classes now offered to teen agers concerning reproduction) or in libraries which now serve as our community centers, or through churches and other non-profit institutions.

At the moment I feel very privileged. Privileged to be alive following a fourth-stage cancer diagnosis; privileged to not have to worry very much about my healthcare bills and the quality of my care; privileged to have the time in my life to participate in this unique seminar; and privileged to be able to share this experience with the Two Writing Teachers  blogging community which includes teachers from all over the United States and beyond.

In the United States we are still a long way from providing health care as the “right” of every individual.    What will it take to achieve that ideal?

What I Will Miss/Won’t Miss About Summer

What I Won’t Miss About Summer…

Mosquitoes

Mosquitoes

Humidity

Mosquitoes

Crowded beaches

And….mosquitoes!

 

                                 What I Will Miss About Summer…

Grilling food outdoors

A dip in the Long Island Sound at high tide

Watching osprey feed their young

Floating in our pool

Margaritas and Mojitos

Hot dogs and Italian ices at Bonanza’s

Fireflies!

 

Yes, you figured it out.  I am a “winter” person who also enjoys fall and spring (which seem to be disappearing each year). What are you?

 

Not Taking Things for Granted

Today I am writing in response to an article by Neal Tognazzini  in this Sunday’s Week in Review section of the New York Times.  The gist of the article is about how we hurry through life, mostly taking things for granted, until something happens to give us pause and rethink the way we’ve been living. This has happened to so many of us.

For me “the something” was fourth-stage metastasized cancer. Four summers ago, I had just retired and was looking forward to my new life when it was suddenly hijacked by an extreme cancer diagnosis. I survived… and like so many survivors, was determined to never again take anything for granted. This article provoked some new thoughts on taking things for granted and how important it is to be able to put some things on the back burner so we can live our lives.

These things we take for granted can include a family we care about and that cares about us; a comfortable home that no one is trying to take from us; a job that affords us a paycheck to buy the things we want and need from week to week, year to year; the luxury of coming home after work to have a tasty, healthy meal and a couple hours to do what brings us pleasure….taking a walk, hanging out with family members, watching our favorite shows on tv.

So, what if you had none of the things I’ve mentioned? No possibility of a satisfying, well paying job in the near future or perhaps in your lifetime. No idea where certain members of your family are, and no hope of finding them. You do not own a home and never will be able to afford to. You are not even sure your “home” will be there when you return to it. Nourishing food is out of the question due to droughts, famine, or an ongoing combat situation. These are all extremely disorienting factors in the lives of so many people.

Tognazzini, writes about learning he has squamous cell cancer, but will survive:

“I came to realize that being oriented–having one’s bearings–requires being located somewhere, and that being located somewhere requires having some ground to stand on. What we take for granted is that ground.”

These words caused me to think about the thousands of children around the world who have left their homes with their families in search of “having some ground to stand on.” Many refugees have lost family members and/or their homes, however humble they might have been. They are stateless…without location. They belong nowhere. These children can never take a meal for granted, often don’t know where they are going or if they will have shelter when they get there. They are at the mercy of climate change, failed economies, malevolent leaders, uneducated parents, global indifference. There is no way they can imagine a future without loss and suffering. There is no guarantee they will find any ground to stand on.

In the coming days, weeks, months and years, teachers will encounter children and parents who do not have a safe, secure home; who cannot take the next meal for granted; who do not know when they will next see a loved one torn from them. For many kids, going to school in America is the first time in their lives they will have consistency and “some ground to stand on.” As teachers we must transcend politics and prejudice. We must model compassion and concern for others. We must make an effort to help the disenfranchised.  By providing support, encouragement and a safe environment for learning we can make a huge difference in someone’s life.  Every human being deserves this.

Living the Dream, Then Dying for It

(NY Times, August 7, 2018. Story by Rakmini Callimachi)

With so much bad news in abundance, I was recently drawn to an article in the New York Times about a young American couple who decided to take a “gap year” from their very busy lives to experience “living in real time.” Both very accomplished Georgetown graduates, they met, fell in love, and began to share a dream. Some say she was very influenced by his lifestyle of global wandering and living on the edge. Others might say they were a perfect match to pursue their dream together.

FRANCE Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan began their trip in July 2017. They reached Europe in December.CreditSimplycycling.org

I was hooked on their story. Their dream was to wander the globe to experience the goodness of humanity.

“There’s magic out there, in this great big beautiful world,” wrote Jay Austin who, along with his partner, Lauren Geoghegan, gave his two weeks’ notice last year before shipping his bicycle to Africa.

Their story struck a very deep chord in me since I have a son who has very similar aspirations.  A graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, he has also wandered off the grid alone on several occasions in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.  He has that gene that provokes him to explore and have experiences that the more timid among us can only imagine.

As his mother, I first experienced this genetic disposition when he was 16 and made a serious argument to me and his Dad for going to Africa to visit the camp of a young researcher (and his wife and child) to study the wild dog population of the Okavanga Delta in Botswana, Africa. Eventually I agreed for several reasons: He was a “mature” 16 year old who usually made smart decisions;  he had a good “connection” to a situation that would offer him this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity; he was persistent and stubborn about going on this adventure. While I understood his desire to experience an adventure with an uncertain outcome as I had done the same in my early 20’s when I set out to explore Europe on my own with nothing but a backpack in the mid-70’s, Africa clearly presented more potential for danger.

As I watched him turn away from us, his family, to walk down the ramp to his plane bound for South Africa, my thoughts were: I may never see him again, but if he dies, he will die doing what he loves and what he has chosen to do.  It was a deal I had to make with myself to accept the uncertainty of what lay ahead. In fact, he did have several life-threatening experiences with lions and hyenas, but his levelheadedness got him out of both jams. Now, when I tell his story, I describe it as his “walk-about”…the Aboriginal practice of a young man setting out alone into the wilderness to “become a man.”

On social media, the two adventurers reported having many ups and downs on the road, but mostly they continued to be motivated by the generosity and kindness of strangers they met along the way. This is the point of such adventures…for them and for my son who experienced many acts of kindness on their journeys.

But unlike my son’s adventures thus far, theirs did not have a happy ending.  A few days after their one year anniversary of being on the road while on a biking tour in Tajikistan, a random carload of young Islamic extremists spotted their cycling group as they drove by them, made a quick u-turn, and mowed them down deliberately. The NY Times showed a picture of the young murderers who reveled in their luck at having killed a group of “infidels.”

This could have been my son and his girlfriend/partner, or your son or daughter. I think often of the two sets of parents and wonder how they are processing what happened to their children. Do they take comfort in knowing that they were chasing their dream, doing what they most wanted to do in life? Or do they wish they had urged them to be more cautious; perhaps even advising them not to be so trustworthy or to avoid certain places. If they were like my son, their words of caution would probably have fallen on deaf ears. He always finds more reasons to explore than not. After all, the world is an enormous, enticing place that beckons to be experienced. I understand that and feel the same way, but as a young woman, I was more cautious.

Have circumstances nowadays changed to make such a journey more dangerous than ever before? Or were there always dangers associated with extreme traveling? How do we feel about the tension between exploring the untamed world vs. living a life of greater security and less bliss? How would I now feel if my son had died while pursuing his dream? As teachers and/or parents, should we encourage young adults to follow their dreams?

There are no right or wrong answers; the answers depend on the individuals themselves.  Everyone has to make choices about how they want to live, and sometimes how they want to die.  This couple shared a short-lived, but amazing  dream together…of their own choosing and my heart goes out to their families.