The Taking of Palmyra by ISIS and My Peonies: Taking Back the World, One Garden at a Time

Yesterday (Friday)  it was all over the news.  ISIS had captured Palmyra, an oasis in the Syrian desert.  Visiting my son in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn on Saturday for a post-Mother’s Day celebration, I asked him to describe Palmyra to me; he had visited there several years ago just before the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions.  He told me that this oasis in the middle of the vast deserts of Syria allowed it to become a cultural crossroads.  In a moving article in Saturday’s  New York Times, its author, Patrick Symmes, explains that Palmyra was “a crucial nexus on the Silk Road, a trading post where Arab caravans disgorged their precious cargoes from the East,” turning this spot into a “kind of dry Venice, a hub of exchange that enriched everyone involved.” Here, under layers of desert, lie the ruins of civilizations preceding the arrival of the Romans, and the area is abundant in Roman ruins as well. Though Symmes and my son called it the “Venice of the Desert,” neither of them spoke of seeing gardens there. To me the very name, Palmyra, is evocative of palms, and perhaps the ancient gardens of those who were fortunate enough to flourish there and grow them. I will have to do some research to catch up on the history of a place I know nothing about.  My son is devastated that, one by one, the ancient cities and monuments he has visited in the Middle East, are being plundered and erased from memory. Mr. Symmes, although deeply despairing of the depth of destruction, urges us to be even more concerned about its people, and rightfully so.

What can we ordinary people, here in the West, do about all this death and destruction?

Meanwhile, back in Brooklyn we hovered over my son’s new garden, started a year ago, from the shambles of what was probably once a well-tended garden that had been neglected for years.  We talked about the fading shoots and leaves of the bulbs that had all bloomed and disappeared, as well as the new sprouts just beginning to make their presence known in the soil.  We also joked about the awkward evergreen which sits  in the middle of it all, taking up too much space and casting a shadow over all the new arrivals.  He has been judiciously pruning it back, hoping not to capture the wrath of his landlady who cherishes any weed of yore still growing there.

I am filled with love and pride that he is cultivating a garden. He, who has been so caught up in the world the past decade, working beyond his limits at times, to make a place and a future for himself. He has traveled far and wide, including Africa and the Middle East,  but now seems content to tend his garden and settle into a slightly more sedentary life with his lovely partner.  He now knows more about specific plants than I do and was able to take us on a walk in his neighborhood pointing out his favorites in  the well and not-so-well tended gardens in each front yard on his street.

My daughter, too, has caught the bug…or is it a gene?  She had lived in the Bay Area of California along the coast for 7 years, and like me, had become infatuated with the lusciousness of whatever grows there including birds of paradise, lavender bushes the size of small Volkswagons, scented eucalypus trees and majestic redwoods.  In reaction to the turmoil in her life, she, too, turned to gardening and created her own oasis of calm and beauty.  She introduced me to native California blooms, succulents and the everyday beauty of ice plants growing along the slopes of the Pacific and blooming gorgeously in early spring.  When she left California several years ago, she was heartbroken at having to leave behind her garden which she had cultivated with so much love and pride.

Now she has her own garden again.  At our home on LI, her brother generously cleared a plot of land overgrown with ivy and brambles one beautiful day in early spring.  Since then she has planted jack o’lantern flowers, African daisies, red and yellow sunflowers and a multitude of other plants that will attract butterflies and bees.  Like her brother, she goes immediately after a workday to tend her garden and soothe her nerves.  Every day we chat about what is growing, what seems to be thriving and how beautiful it will all be in a month or two.

We are not alone in this endeavor to cultivate gardens.  We have friends both near and far-flung who are lovingly tending their own gardens.  Every Christmas our Canadian friends send us a Christmas card with a photo of their latest horticultural triumph.  In Oakland and Santa Cruz, California we have friends who have lemon and orange trees in their yards and hummingbirds in their gardens.  A nearby friend on LI creates a Monet-like painting of pinks and violets on her patio, choosing her plants carefully and lovingly to achieve just the right combination.

Today, as I write this post, I am sitting next to my white peony whose blooms we have all been patiently awaiting.  She is the showgirl of our backyard garden and flaunts her huge white petals in front of the dainty, humble mini-irises that were the stars until they were eclipsed by this extravagant display.  I think there are many reasons for this renewed interest in horticulture.  I believe there is such an overload of information from the media and social media about a world that is disturbingly rearranging itself while we wait to see what is left…that we are seeking, each in our own way, to create our own oasis of peace and contemplation.  We are eager for our prizes to bloom; sad when they disappear; hopeful they will return; and certain that no matter what happens, our gardens will be here to protect us from the bad news that seems to be encroaching on our space each and every day…and, perhaps, to remind us that hope will bloom eternal, even for those under siege in the faraway deserts of Syria.


My Daughter, My Hero

This past Sunday, my husband, my daughter and I participated in the 3rd annual Congenital Heart Disease Walk that took place at Sunken Meadow Park on Long Isand.  This was the third time we participated and we are looking forward to “walking” again in the October NYC walkathon for the same cause.

Our daughter was born with congenital heart disease, but the severity of her condition was not apparent at first.  At birth a slight heart murmur was detected, but since she was “thriving” in the medical lingo of the time, no action was taken.  Five years later, just before she started kindergarten, I did as was told to do: I brought her in for a checkup at St. Francis Hospital. Following the visit, I was asked if I could “stick around for a bit” since something was unclear on her echocardiogram.  That “something” turned out to be subaortic stenosis, a life-threatening condition.  So in the fall of that year, Christine went to school for a couple of weeks to meet her new teacher and classmates and then left to have open-heart surgery.  She did not return until January.

I could go on for pages and pages about what ensued; I’ve even thought about writing a book with her or about her.  On Sunday we celebrated the fact that she is the survivor of 5 open-heart surgeries, the most recent ones having taken place three months apart nearly three years ago.  She has, therefore,  had open-heart surgery almost every 5-7 years of her life. Imagine trying to live your life with that kind of interruption every five to seven years.  Imagine the impact on your family, your school years, your ability to maintain friendships and to obtain and keep a job.  Never mind the impact such a life has on your heart and mind. We have been through all the psychological ups and downs of living such a life; to say it hasn’t been easy is the understatement of the century.  But despite all the fears and anxiety, pain and suffering, worry and wondering, we are still an intact family with a daughter who is a super-hero to us all.

I have learned so many things from her bravery, her moments of doubt, her refusal to give up on some of her dreams (which included graduating high school on time and attending the University of California at Santa Cruz, both of which she accomplished through sheer willpower). Despite her many ordeals she says she is grateful that she can leave the hospital and resume her life, while so many other patients never get that chance.

We have learned as a family to make the most of every day, to not dwell on the dark side since to do so takes energy we need for better things, and to be compassionate toward others as well as ourselves. I wouldn’t wish her life or ours on anyone, but as she always tells me: “If this has to be my life, at least I have you as my mother.”   Need I say more?

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.…… 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.