Waiting for the Butterflies: A Very Special Mother’s Day

“If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” (Anon.)

The above quote is taken from the Mother’s Day card my son gave to me this year. In it he writes, “The quote on this card seems to me the perfect metaphor for the metamorphosis this past year has been for you: A most unwelcome change at a time that should have been a celebratory one. Yet that change evolved, through the dutiful strength and belief you showed in the name of a future you were not certain you would have, into a renewed sense of the preciousness of life and time.”

For those of you who have followed me on SOL, you know that the “unwelcome change at a time that should have been a celebratory one” refers to the fact that I was diagnosed with late-stage cancer within two weeks of my retirement from teaching last June. The diagnosis was a shock and caused me to enter a cocoon stage that allowed me to undergo many biopsies, hospital stays, radiation and chemo treatments that would have been unbearable otherwise. In late January, when I was declared “cancer free” by my radiation doctor, I was still so well shielded by my cocoon that I was unable to experience any sense of joy in spite of the very welcome news. As the weeks passed, I worried that my feelings of happiness would never return. Everyone who learned the good news was very happy for me, while my emotions remained completely flat.

Then, an unexpected turn of events initiated a slow change in my emotions. A friend suggested that I join this blog, Two Writing Teachers, that offered a month-long challenge to teachers to blog every day for the month of March. The theme, a Slice of Life, required only that participants write about something happening in real time every day for the entire month. The other requirement for participation was to respond to at least three other writers’ blogs every day. This was a life changing experience for me for several reasons. It provided me with an instant audience for my thoughts; a community of writers who would respond to my writing every day; and a realization that I am, after all, a person who really enjoys writing. I found myself waking up every day excited about seeing who responded to my blogs and what they had to say. I felt energized to think of a new topic every day which caused me to renew my connection to my daily life in a way I hadn’t been able to since the onset of my illness.

Today, Mother’s Day, I am sitting in my zero-gravity chair in my backyard while my son, daughter and husband putter in the garden. I placed my chair where I could see all the plants in bloom and appreciate the time and effort that I and other family members have put into making this beautiful display happen. I am feeling the lovely warm breeze and the occasional drops from the sprinkler sprayed on me by the wind. I am enjoying the vivacious colors of bright yellow, coral pink, fuchsia, lavender, deep purple and soft pinks spread throughout the garden and watching the bumblebees wander lazily from blossom to blossom. I know the butterflies will be here soon.

Note: I dedicate this blog to my friend, Kathleen Sokolowski, without whose encouragement this blog would not have been written, and especially to my friends who are or have been engaged in their own struggles with cancer. May the butterflies soon visit all of you, too.


Old Neighborhood, New Friends

About a week ago I was driving in a part of my town that is off the beaten path of my usual routines.  As I drove around the area, I thought about a friend I’ll call M. who lived close by but I wasn’t sure where exactly.  More than 50 years ago, she was my neighbor in Bayville and we spent several years through junior high and high school being friends.  She attended a Catholic school and I attended a public school so our lives were very divergent, but we did occasionally spend time together.  When we grew up and had families of our own, we both moved to Huntington where we would see each other occasionally in the supermarket and have a nice chat that always ended with “We’ll have to get together sometime…,” but we never did.  So there I was, driving and thinking about her and our old neighborhood.

Yesterday I got a phone call from another friend from the same neighborhood.  He and his wife had moved close to the same area where I now live. We run into each other every several years and chat about the old neighborhood in Bayville. He called to tell me that our mutual friend and neighbor, M., had passed away and to ask if I wanted to attend her wake with him.  I was shocked and said of course I would go out of respect for our old friendship and her family. I thought it was amazing that I had been thinking so intently about her recently.

I didn’t really expect to know many people at the wake, but I did hope to encounter her older sister, her husband and her two daughters whom I’d never met. What I didn’t expect was to be greeted so warmly by her niece who was bubbling with enthusiasm about her childhood visits to her grandma, M.’s mother. She loved visiting her grandma because my mother, who lived next door, was so kind to her and her sister when they visited.  She allowed them to climb her wooden rail fence and wander around our backyard.  Then I met M.’s two daughters for the first time. They, too, were both very sweet and, amazingly, I learned that one of them now lives a few houses away from me and neither of us knew it! (I live on a busy road often used as a shortcut by drivers looking for a fast way home, so neighbors don’t tend to hang out much outside their houses.)

I then spoke with M.’s older sister and husband. We all knew each other as teenagers but she and her husband were part of the older crowd so they didn’t hang out with us at all. But we did have some shared memories of the old neighborhood and its residents. Finally I got a chance to talk with M.’s husband. Although I knew M. through her dating years, I never actually got to meet him. He explained to my companion and me what the medical condition was that brought her to such an untimely death; she was only 69. The odd thing about this event was that it seemed as though it was only yesterday since I had seen some of these people.  I felt completely comfortable being with them, sharing memories and finding out where our lives had taken us since we left the old neighborhood.  

My deceased friend’s daughter and I have now agreed to be in touch as we are practically neighbors! Back in the 50’s in the old neighborhood, we were all second-generation children of immigrants whose families had come to America to escape wars and seek a better life.  My family was German; my companion and former neighbor’s family was Italian, and my deceased friend’s family was Irish.  There was even a French family that lived next door to us.  What we each remembered was that we lived in a real neighborhood, bordered by two beaches, where everybody came from a working class family that was striving toward a better life. We remembered an almost idyllic childhood surrounded by sun and sand where we could be with our friends without much supervision. There were long summer nights of kids of all ages playing street games together because there was not much else to do.  And each of our families knew each other and looked out for each other in a way that families don’t anymore. We were a true neighborhood with all its flaws and eccentricities but we shared a common link: We were all in it together and our connections clearly were very deep. That America is sadly long gone and I really miss it.

Play Your Own Drum

This past Saturday I attended a workshop hosted by the Long Island Writing Project, a group of educators based at Nassau Community College on LI, dedicated to promoting and supporting the practice of writing in both students and teachers’ lives.  The focus of the gathering was a recently written book for educators called Teach Like a Pirate by Dave Burgess.

There was a lot of free-ranging discussion about what each of us thought about the book, which ideas we planned to add to our own bag of tricks, and so on. Eventually we strayed from the topic and began talking, as we often do, about our own “take” on what is happening in education today and how we are responding as teachers and advocates for our students. We were then asked to write for about 10 minutes in response to an excerpt that was read to us from Teach Like a Pirate entitled: The Mighty Purpose.

Here is an excerpt from my written response:

How do you take the least politically important group of learners in a school community (based on my personal experience) and turn them into people who feel positive about themselves and the society they have been thrust into? How do you accomplish this when their dislocation is usually not by their own choice, but instead a result of circumstances over which they have no control such as poverty, war, economic disadvantage and lack of education in their parents’ native countries leading them to emigrate to the United States to seek a better life for their children. This was my challenge for over twenty years as a teacher of English Language Learners (ELLs). My passion has always been to help them become part of The Big Picture. To do this meant I had to do a lot of work to have them and myself taken more seriously in the school community.

Now a recent retiree, I realize that I spent my first several difficult years just learning my trade; like most teachers I improved with time and practice. Then I entered an even more challenging stage of my job. I had to figure out how to make myself and my students become more a part of the fabric of the school by pushing myself and them into situations where we weren’t usually included.  I had my work cut out from me on many fronts. I had to advocate for translators to be included in parent-teacher conferences and to ask individual teachers to include me in their parent meetings so we could “share” vital information about the student with their parents. It meant seeking out parents on Back to School Night who traditionally skipped visiting my classroom because they felt it was more important to meet the mainstream teacher. It meant convincing parents of ELLs that being in my program was not meant to divert the student’s attention from what was going on the in the mainstream classroom but rather to provide the ELL with more support and language instruction that would result in an overall better learning experience. I could go on and on…. Last but not least, I had to learn to diplomatically work with every staff member in the school many of whom were not happy to have these students in their classes because teaching native speakers is hard enough nowadays without the complications of having a non-English speaker in your classroom.

For my  students it meant pushing them harder and harder to become a more proudly visible part of the school community. It meant, for example, prepping them to read the poems they had written on the PA system so others could hear their voices for the first time. It meant making sure that every year at The Annual Literacy Cafe, a showcase event for students’ language arts accomplishments, my students’ books and art work would be showcased as well. It mean occasional trips to the Principal’s office to show off a new project or to enable a new arrival to read in English for the first time.  It meant explaining to the students that I wanted them to strive to become better students because I knew all too well the strains and pressures they would face in middle school and high school if they began to fail academically.

Did I teach like a pirate?  The answer is yes, but I did it my way. Burgess says it best in this excerpt, also from his book:

“Isn’t that what life is really all about?  We all have to find our own personal “drum” and then play it the best we can.  For me, I never feel  more  truly alive than when I’m standing in front of a class of students or a seminar room full of teachers….Forget about all of the things you can’t control and play your drum to the best of your abilities.  Play with all the passion, enthusiasm, and heart you can muster.  Nothing else really matters. You can offer no finer gift or higher honor to the world than to find out what your “drum” is and then play it for all it’s worth.” (P. 152)

I have retired, but I haven’t given up playing my drum.  The LIWP is a safe place that allows me to continue playing it and, in fact, encourages me to do so, for which I am ever grateful.

Taking a Well Deserved Break…Or Trying To!

There was a pervasive scent of lavender wafting through the room.  I realized it was coming from the “eye pillows” we had been given to rest our eyes.  There were about ten of us stretched out on our individual mats, but since the room was dimly lit when I entered I could not see anyone’s face. Suddenly there was the gentle “ping” of a tiny bell that signaled we were about to begin our session of “restorative yoga,” a first for me.

I was very excited about participating in this class.  I have been overly busy (of my own doing) since my recent recovery (remission) from cancer.  Probably like most cancer survivors, I am eager to get on with my life and cram as much enjoyment into it as possible.  However…I am still learning my limits.  There are days when I just collapse into my new recliner at about 5 or 5:30 pm. and become catatonic for the next hour or so. Only then do I realize how exhausted I am!  I haven’t yet learned to pace myself, but I have been learning that I do need to allow myself to rest periodically.

My hope was that I would learn some tricks in this workshop that would help me to relax in ways other than what I am used to. And that did happen. The nearly two hours of the workshop were divided into short sessions of all of us assuming different positions on our mats, cushioned by very comfortable bolsters that we placed in various strategic positions for support.  This was not the usual yoga experience.  Instead, we were encouraged to relax into the position and hold it for 10 to l5 minutes at a time.

This sounds ideal except for the fact that the real world kept intruding on my bliss.  First, the woman next to me kept shifting her position, then breathing heavily when she finally got comfortable.  The two instructors kept moving around the room or going up and down the basement stairs causing another distraction.  Then just when I thought things had finally settled down, the basement heating unit went on sounding like a jet aircraft had arrived in the room!  I concentrated on my breathing and how I had looked forward to this experience, but it wasn’t really working.  The final straw was the nearby cellphone (that belonged to my noisy neighbor, I think) that kept pinging throughout the relaxation session. I never entered that deep zone of relaxation I was hoping for.

All was not lost, however.  I did get a short foot massage from the reflexologist at the end of the session which made my feet feel wonderful.  I have been left with some neuropathy in both feet as a result of chemo, so it was wonderful to know that I still had some sensation left in both feet.  In fact, my feet felt wonderful this morning when I got up and started moving around. I’ll have to do more of that.

I don’t think I’ll ever repeat that experience, or at least not in that particular setting.  But I did learn a few new tricks I can practice myself at home.  And now I need to purchase one of those cushy bolsters for my aching body.  

Amazon.com……..here I come!

The Ospreys Are Back

Acrostic Poem for the OSPREY

O verhead an osprey swoops so close we can see its shadow on the ground
S pring is here and the ospreys have returned to this wetland to have their babies
P arenting is something they are good at; they are vigilant and patient
R escued from near extinction by caring scientists and nature lovers they now flourish
E very year they return to the same nest or rebuild one in the same spot
Y ou will not be disappointed if you take the trouble to find them!

On Friday, despite a cold, raw, cloudy day, my daughter and I set out on one of our nature walks. We were disappointed that the weather was still so unspringlike, but determined to enjoy ourselves and lift our spirits. We headed for one of our absolute favorite locations…the Lloyd Neck Causeway which links the Lloyd Neck peninsula to the Huntington mainland. Along the mile-long causeway there is a vast wetlands area on one side and a rocky beach on the other side that meets the waters of an inlet of the Long Island Sound.

No sooner had we parked than an osprey swooped right over our heads warning us not to get too close to its nest.  We watched as two pairs of ospreys soared high overhead scanning the wetlands for fish to swoop down upon. Ospreys are also known as fish hawks because of their dietary preference, and we have sometimes seen one perched in a tree fileting a large fish with its sizable talons.

Ospreys have made a remarkable comeback from near-extinction following the introduction, in 1945, of the pesticide DDT used to eradicate agricultural pests. The chemical made the egg shells so fragile the ospreys were unable to produce full-term offspring. When the blunder was finally discovered, nature lovers raised a hue and cry and conservationists went to great lengths to ban DDT. IN 1972 DDT was banned by the Environmental Protection Agency.  (Wildlife Journal Junior)


In 1981 there were 8000 breeding pairs of ospreys.  By 1994 that number had risen to 14, 246 pairs. In many wetland areas of Nassau and Suffolk counties, you can see the tall poles erected by local conservationists with platforms built expressly so that ospreys can build their giant nests upon them.

And so, my daughter and I look forward to their return each year because it is a small miracle that they are still here. We were richly rewarded for our effort to get out and welcome them back. We will visit them often during the coming breeding season.

Rites of Spring: Family Gardening on Easter Sunday

I am an avid member of The Church of Nature of which I am the founder. Membership in this faith only requires that you dedicate a portion of your life to the preservation, enjoyment and appreciation of nature. Throughout my life my most joyful, fulfilling spiritual moments have been connected to nature in some way.

On Easter Sunday my family had brunch and exchanged Easter baskets. My Brooklyn-based son joined us for the weekend and my daughter took the day off from her bookstore job so we could all be together. And how did we choose to spend our day? We all worked in the yard for several hours during the afternoon before going out for dinner. It was the kind of day that lent itself to such work: cool, intermittently sunny and cloudy, and breezy. My husband and son worked very hard to clear a patch of land bordering our neighbor’s front yard which was filled with ivy and not much else. My daughter had expressed a desire to have her own flower garden to plant and attend to. She had lived for seven years in sunny Santa Cruz California where she had planted a yard full of blooming beauties before she left to return home seven years later. My son has his own little cultivated plot in the front yard of the brownstone he lives in with his girlfriend. His landlord and passersby all delight in his artfully arranged plantings.

How did we all become such avid gardeners? My interest grew gradually and didn’t really begin until we bought our first home with a yard full of random plants, including bamboo! My husband and I worked hard for several years to rearrange plants we liked, to eliminate those we didn’t, and to add what we thought would bring us pleasure without too much maintenance. By the time our back and front yards were planted with perennials that delighted us every year during all seasons, it was time to move to a bigger home. The night before our move I ran out of the house and sliced off a piece of each of our two peonies to bring with us. Those two peonies are my greatest pleasure every spring.

Our current yard presents us with many challenges. There are several gigantic pine trees which tower over everything, as well as several oak trees which shower their gifts upon us during every season except winter, and a backyard made of concrete left by the previous owner. We also have a very sandy hill that starts about 50 feet from the back of our house which was nearly barren when we arrived and now is full of thriving rhododendron and azalea bushes and junipers which are as tall as trees. After 15 years of living in this, our second home, we still haven’t quite figured out the best way to cultivate this property.

So there we were, on Easter Sunday, with our rakes, shovels, wheelbarrows and garden gloves removing the unwanted ivy, trimming the damage off our plantings from a very punishing winter, and preparing the soil for a new small flower garden. As we worked together, I thought all day about how Easter is traditionally a day for renewal and rejoicing about a new beginning and how we were, in our own way, participating in the spirit of that annual celebration.

A Day in the Life of a Newly Retired Senior Citizen

Today, while standing on line at Wild By Nature to get my pricey fresh produce and whole grain substitutes for pasta, I learned from the checkout girl that I am eligible for a senior citizen discount. I’ve been shopping there for a while so I wondered why no one had ever mentioned it to me sooner. It’s 10% off the total which does add up, especially when the wild (previously frozen) salmon is $16.99 per pound.

When I retired last June, I really had no idea what it would be like to not have a job. I was worried about not having anything meaningful to do. Boy, was I naive! (Many of you by now know I was immediately diagnosed with late-stage cancer, treated for it and declared cancer-free two months ago.) The past two months I have spent learning about retirement. Here’s what I’ve learned: I don’t know how I had time to work! Many seniors say this and now I know what they mean. Let’s consider a typical day for me now.

Today, Monday, I got up around 10 am (we are nightowls in my house) and ate a quick breakfast of a peanut butter and blueberry jam toasted English muffin. As soon as I tossed that down the hatch, I woke up my daughter who had asked me to accompany her to a visit to her new orthopedist for her problematic knee and shoulder. We both quickly got dressed, tidied up the kitchen a bit and off we went.

We didn’t have to wait long to see the doctor and were in and out in under an hour. My daughter was given a cortisone shot in her problematic knee. so she asked me to drive her home to rest. I had a few errands to do so I headed for town after dropping her at home. First I drove to the German bakeshop to pick up some chocolate bunnies but I had forgotten they are closed on Mondays. I continued up the road to the local beer distributor where I got a kindly man with a Mexican accent who works there to help me find beers with chocolate for my husband. He’s a beer enthusiast and would rather find a good chocolate stout in his Easter basket than candy.

From there I drove on to the local Marshall’s where I returned some flip-flops which I loved but decided I couldn’t keep because the thong between the toes was too painful rubbing against them. I cast my eyes around the store a bit, told myself I needed to get home and left the store. On the way back home I stopped at the bank to deposit a check and get some of that great free $$$ that comes out of those automatic machines.

I had two stops left to make. I headed across town to the local Wild By Nature, our pricey health food store. I go there for certain things I can’t get anywhere else and which my doctor has told me I should be eating to restore my immune system and my health. I cruised around the store for about 45 minutes…there are always a lot of temptations there…bought what I needed and many things that I thought I needed, like that salmon, and got back into my car.

On the way home I swung by the pharmacy to pick up the medication the doctor was supposed to have electronically ordered for my daughter’s knee pain. They checked and found out that he had reordered a medication she had told him made her sick. I guess he forgot or wasn’t listening to what she said. (Not so unusual these days, sigh.)

Finally I reached home at about 2:30. Then I had to unload the groceries and put them all away. By that time I was starving. My daughter asked for a bowl of the chicken soup I had made over the weekend so we feasted on that and sea salt chips with artichoke hummus. Yum!

Next I had a huge basket of laundry to do, so I carried that downstairs to the laundry room, sorted out the whites and darks and got a load of jeans underway. Then I came across the basket of towels I hadn’t had a chance to fold the previous day so I hauled that basket upstairs to the bedroom to fold them.

Suddenly I heard the mailman’s truck going up the street and I knew that in about 5 or 10 minutes he would be delivering our mail. I had wanted to send an Easter card to my son and his girlfriend living in Brooklyn, but it needed to be sent today to get there before she leaves for Boston on Friday to see her family for Passover. I ran up to the bedroom again where I keep my stash of cards, dashed off a quick message, sealed the envelope and stamped it. The mailman was only two houses away!

At that point my daughter suggested we take a walk since the sun was trying to make an appearance on this otherwise cloudy day. She felt she needed to walk her knee a bit and I am under orders from my doctor to exercise an hour a day! Off we went to the park which I have written about in several posts this month. We were amazed by the burst of activity we found there. All the creatures were in the process of mating. The ducks and even the gulls were beating their wings against the water in a mating display of some sort. The swan was sitting peacefully on her giant mud nest with her neck wrapped tightly around her body and tucked in so you couldn’t see her head. The muskrat we spotted last year was back! My daughter saw him scoot across the pond and under some rocks at the edge. And then…the piece de resistance! She also spotted the gargantuan snapping turtle in the shallow part of the pond. I noticed that he was accompanied by another turtle and he was trying to mount her. It was quite a sight, but he did not succeed. My daughter wondered what it must be like to have no other choice than each other to mate with every year in this small pond.

I walked an additional loop around the pond and we returned home. At this point we were both tired. Actually, I was exhausted as I often am by 4 or 5 pm so I sat on my recliner in the living room and looked at a few magazines. But I soon realized I was too tired to even do that, so I closed my eyes and the fatigue washed over me like a blanket. About an hour later, I opened my eyes and realized it was getting late and I needed to get dinner ready.

Putting together dinner involved chopping minicukes and tomatoes for cucumber salad; getting a baking pan ready for the frozen rosemary dusted red potatoes that would go in the oven, and rinsing and seasoning the wild salmon I had bought earlier. In addition, I had bought a delicious looking garlic focaccia bread for my husband and daughter to also put in the oven. I had to settle for fresh string beans with olive oil and lemon. No extra carbs for me…cancer loves carbohydrates!

My husband arrived home at 7, just when dinner was nearly ready. We ate, I cleared the table and put some leftovers in the fridge. I stacked the dirty dishes for him to wash. He always does the dinner dishes unless he has another chore to do.

I had one task left for the day…to write this post. I knew I would be too tired to write anything after an hour or two of tv, so I am sitting here typing my final words for this amazing month of writing we’ve all been doing.

Wait! I just realized I never unloaded the washing machine so I must do that before I change into my pjs so my daughter will have some jeans to wear tomorrow. A day of multitasking…which I am sure will sound familiar to many of you. They say a woman’s work is never done. I can add, “Not even in retirement!”