Culinary adventure

“Cooking is an art, but all art requires knowing something about the techniques and materials.”

—Nathan Myrhvold, former Microsoft CTO and author of Modernist Cuisine

At a restaurant during our recent vacation, my health-conscious husband ordered a black bean burger. I don’t recall him ever eating one before. For the better part of his life, he’s been a hearty meat eater. The man loves food…his reaction upon tasting this vegetarian concoction: “AMAZING! I can’t believe how good it is!”

Then, with a subtle batting of his eyes: “I wish you could make these.”

—Was that a throwing down of the gauntlet, at my very feet?

Call it inspiration, determination, seeking to please, or self-challenge, whatever: I decided on the spot. I would do this.

I’ve never made black bean burgers before.

As a rule, I don’t like veggie burgers. They’re mushy. The whole idea of a burger is, you know, substance.

And so I do my research. I find a recipe entitled “The Best Black Bean Burgers I’ve Ever Had.” Seems a reasonably good starting point (why settle for less than the best?).

It doesn’t seem too complicated, really. While I organize and prep the ingredients, however, doubts seep in…if this tastes awful or falls apart, maybe we’ll go get Mexican

I learn a couple of things in this new undertaking. It’s essential to get as much moisture as possible out of the beans. The drier they are, the better the texture, so the recipe says. Not only do they need to be drained, rinsed, and patted dry, they need to go in the oven on a baking sheet for a few minutes. I discover that cumin, smoked paprika, chili powder, and Worcestershire blended with the dried beans create a surprisingly grilled taste.

One big concern: Will the burgers hold together after baking? Sometimes my regular hamburgers don’t. Not enough bread crumbs, maybe? How did my Grannie ever make those phenomenal, flavorful burgers of my childhood? She could have sold them and made a mint. I’ve never been able to duplicate them. The scent of Worcestershire stirs the memory with a wave of intense longing…

Furthermore, I’ve decided not merely to make these black bean burgers, but to recreate the one my husband thought was so amazing. I’ve looked up the restaurant menu for the toppings: avocado, tomato, arugula, red onion, spicy mayonnaise.

— What IS spicy mayonnaise?

More Googling. Mayo mixed with hot sauce, apparently.

“Hey,” I say to my husband, who’s washing his hands after cheerfully helping to shape the patties for baking, “pick the hot sauce you want to go in this ‘spicy mayonnaise.'”

He has a whole collection of hot sauces.

He picks Texas Pete.

All righty then.

And, if nothing else turns out…we do have gorgeous homegrown tomatoes that have been given to us. They are another reason I love summer, these tomatoes. I think, as I slice into their luscious redness: We could just have cheese and tomato sandwiches in case of disaster…

My husband has also chosen Brioche buns: “The bread at the restaurant was really, really soft.”

We take the burgers out of the oven and—wonder of wonders!—they hold together when we lift them off the pan.

I put them on the buns, layer on the toppings. They’re pretty, but the final test awaits…

My husband takes a bite.

He closes his eyes.

“This is the BEST. THING. I. HAVE. EVER. HAD.”

High praise from my former give-me-steak-and-fries guy.

He eats every blessed crumb for the next three meals.

—Mission accomplished.

The black beans combined with finely chopped onion and green pepper create good texture, much like a tender hamburger.

Pretty proud of my culinary work.

*******

As an educator I could make many analogies between this experience and teaching or writing. We see effective or impactful things that we wish to duplicate. Things we’ve not tried before. It’s daunting. Risk of failure is involved. So is risk of succeeding, if you will. There’s an art and science to writing and teaching, just as with cooking. Myhrvold’s quote on knowledge of techniques and materials at the top of this post struck me as foundational; this is the beginning of process. Knowledge combined with a spirit open to experiment can yield surprising results and discoveries; what you experience and create will not be exactly like your model nor a complete replication what others have done before you. It shouldn’t be. You are making something your own. The work reflects the uniqueness of the artist.

Wishing sustained strength and inspiration to all my fellow teachers preparing to return to school with the residual effects of 2020 still lingering. Here’s to aiming for the best. And to our own learning.

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers and the Slice of Life writing community, ever a safe, nourishing place for creative strivings and growth.

Pencil wizard

Once upon a time, I said that writing is the closest thing there is to magic.

Here is why.

Magic is not, well, magic. It is a lot of work (or why would Hogwarts exist? Just saying).

Writing is a lot of work.

Work (a lot of it) makes the magic happen.

Here is a true story of magic moments at the end of this dystopian school year (know that I am suppressing the urge to compare virtual learning to disapparating, i.e., teleporting from place to place, or essentially vanishing). After end-of-grade testing—I said dystopian, right? What does the State expect this data to look like?—a fourth-grade teacher sent me a note:

One of my students has been writing a story in his free time. He wants to read it to the class. He knows it needs some work and I am wondering if you have any time to help him? He’s not usually motivated to write…

I made time. I would shift heaven and earth for this.

He came to my room wearing a giant grin, clutching his pencil and notebook. I recognized the cover—it’s a notebook our district distributes to teachers. His teacher must have given it to him especially for his story, for in grades 2-5, our district doesn’t use writing workshop any more (and that, Dear Readers, is a whole ‘nother tragedy for the telling on another day).

“Come in, come in!” I said. “Have a seat here beside me and read me your story.”

Without giving too much away (for the story is his): It’s a fantasy, a battle between humans and wizards, the protagonist a young wizard with power to make living things grow. The student read it all aloud and then we went back to make some changes for clarity and flow, with my asking:

“What exactly do you mean here, when…”

“What is it you are trying to tell the reader? What do you want readers to think or feel here?”

“Think of an action to add here, so readers or your audience can better see what’s happening in their minds, like we do when we watch a movie. What are you seeing here in your own mind? That’s what you need to get across.”

“What’s a better word choice here, to make the meaning clear?”

While the boy thought and elaborated aloud, I began typing the story. As I read the lines back to him, his face glowed: “Perfect! That’s amazing!”

“That is the power of revision,” I told him. “When you start writing, it’s all about getting your ideas down. When you go back to make the meaning clear, by adding these kinds of details and taking out what you don’t need, that’s where all the magic happens.”

“We’ve made a lot of changes,” the boy observed, “but it’s SO much better.”

And yet the story remained the story he wanted to write.

We’d changed city to town, people to townspeople. He made the stylistic choice to capitalize Humans. We’d added transitional phrases to keep the readers from falling out of the story. We added gestures for the young wizard when he makes vines grow (“I need to see how the wizard does this,” I explained). The student vetoed my suggestion to go ahead and incorporate “earthbending power” (a phrase borrowed from video games): “I am not ready to tell readers yet about earthbending power,” he stated. —Such a tone of authority!

“All right then! You’re the author. Save it for when the time is right in the story. Just make a note here to add earthbending power later.”

And then the word tome… “Is tome the word you want here, where you say the wizard found a tome in the laundry?”

“Yes. It’s a big book of spells.”

I blinked. “Indeed! That’s impressive. Just make sure your readers know what you mean here, that they can see and understand what you mean by tome.” It became an ancient tome of spells, hidden in a robe in the laundry, that the young wizard began to read “without realizing the power he now carried”—those are the student’s own words, not mine.

And thus I spent the last days of school this year watching the love of writing take root and flourish in the heart of a child…magical, indeed, in a year where so much felt anything but, even in some of my own writing of late.

As I write this morning, sunlight streaming in my window like all the glories of summer on the cusp, I recall my final words to this child as he carried his typed version away in a bright yellow folder: “Keep writing!”

In my mind’s narrative, I add: Young word-wizard, with earthbending power.

For that is the magic of writing.

May he cultivate it all of his life.

Imagine. Indy Sidhu. CC BY

with my thanks always to Two Writing Teachers, a community dedicated to the craft, power, and love of writing, for all Humans.

The light

Every morning
at about this time
if I’m not yet out of bed
a curious, pulsating light
enters the room

I would like to think
it’s a Muse, arriving
from celestial regions
bearing new and fragile ideas
for the taking and keeping

or that it’s some other
ethereal visitor
out there beyond
my window
illuminating
the darkness
and if so,
I want to know
why

but no,
it’s only a neighbor
on his morning jog
right on time,
between four and five o’clock
wearing a mining hat
that casts a bright beam
before him as he runs

I think, there’s a metaphor in that
a meditation, a prayer
before I rise
to face the day
in this present darkness:
Let there be a light
on my head
a means of truly seeing
all that I will encounter

not in the inadequacy of
my own shadow, falling before me
no, let it fall behind me
indiscernible in the dark

and so I watch this soft light
bobbing along my walls
permeating my closed blinds
painting pictures real and imagined
in my mind
while the Muse
(who never really leaves)
prods with a finger
or maybe it’s more of a pulling
or a whispering
or all of these

and I sigh,
throwing back the warm covers
rising to write
while it is yet night

a light
to set the day
off
and running

Statue, “Quest for Knowledge,” Washington & Jefferson College, depicting a coal miner on lunch break. Photo by “Kathy,” CC-BY.
My neighbor wears a hat akin to this on his predawn jogs.



A bit of legacy poem

For Day Twenty-Six of National Poetry Month

Testament 

I cannot measure
how much time remains
in the hourglass
of my days

sand grains
steadily trickling
more than half
already gone

yet still refining
polishing
my existence

with words

let them be
the worry-stone
worn smooth
slid into the pockets
of those I encounter
a cool indented
presence of calm
for the holding

let them be a beckoning
a turning inward
toward crystals
forming in the geode void
the amelioration
of hollow places

let them be
like the curious folk remedy
of my childhood
jars of strange white peach rings
with heart-colored centers
floating in witch hazel
(which has nothing to do
with magic; the etymology of the name is
pliable)
cure for bruises and
what ails you

let my words be
a gauge for life-giving rain
collected
yet flowing on
and on
a good measure
pressed and shaken
poured out

a testament of love
for the new life

coming

Habit acrostic

with thanks to Ruth Ayres at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, for reiterating this truth: “Habit is essential for writers. If we develop a habit that allows us to enter into writing, then we will write more often.” She encourages the “magic” community to pay attention to the routines that make blog writing happen.

I am a morning writer. I love the rich, dark silence of the sleeping world around me, the freedom to hear my own uncluttered thoughts, the anticipation of gifts from the burgeoning day. I love the neighbor’s rooster, how his loud crowing wafts through the stillness; there are a few roosters in this neighborhood and sometimes they echo each other in a chorus of wild, rustic, joyful aliveness. It is a song of my soul. For a second, I have a sense of my young grandfather a hundred years ago, preparing for his farm chores, walking the fertile land he cultivated and loved all of his life, as darkness turns to light.

And so I write.

An acrostic, for Day Sixteen of National Poetry Month

Hallowed
Are these moments
Before the dawn
Immersed in words
The breathings of my being

If you are looking to write more or to develop a blogging habit, consider joining the vibrant community
at SOS – Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Digging for awe: Golden shovel poems

I recently wrote a post for the CCIRA Professional Development Blog on the sometimes spirit-crushing work of literacy education. I will not list all of the contributing factors here; I will just say that there are many, especially during this long year of COVID-19. Prior to to writing the post, when asked what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

As I wrote, and as is usually the case, the path became clearer: Make room for awe.

That is my guiding “one little word” (OLW) for the year, see. And maybe for the rest of my life…

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who will continue teaching virtually until the year ends in June, for students whose parents have chosen this option. She spoke of awe in regard to the Google Classroom chat feature: “So many more kids share their thoughts this way, more I’ve ever seen in person. I’m in awe of how much they have to say and how they encourage each other. We use the chat all the time now.”

This means students are writing more, which makes my heart sing. If ever there is a conduit for awe, it is writing.

Example: Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? Who credits her childhood teachers and her school for valuing this kind of expressive, artistic, move-the-mountains writing?

I’ve been lamenting the loss of meaningful writing in elementary schools in my corner of the world, just when it it’s most needed—the writing workshop model having fallen out of favor in the last few years for an embedded, formulaic approach around a topic at a time. That is another whole story; suffice it to say that I am in awe of teachers and students finding their way back to writing that matters.

All of which brings me to Golden Shovel poems. It’s a form I’ve been playing with for about a year. It holds great appeal on a number of levels, practical, creative, metaphorical…the idea of mining for the nuggets of gold, the diamonds that lie within, often so unexpected, yet so important.

A teacher might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying, even a line a classmate has written—anything, really. Not necessarily as a response to the work itself, but latching onto any line that strikes them with its beauty, or pierces their hearts with its poignance, or stirs their souls with its power, to create something new and personally meaningful from it. Make room for awe…

Try digging with the Golden Shovel yourself. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem (or the beginning word, if you prefer). Your poem may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.

I chose this line from Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

And this one, from the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

And so I pass the Golden Shovel.

Here’s to the awe of your own discoveries.

Happy digging.

Photo: Golden shovels. Alachua County. CC-BY

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

Writing

With special thanks to Dr. Kim Johnson who hosted Ethical ELA’s Open Write last week with the invitation to compose “Your Life’s Table of Contents” poems. There is no formula, just lots of freedom; Kim said: “I started thinking about how I might write a table of contents organizing the poems I have written over these past few years, in verse…Imagine you are creating a collection of your own work, and try your hand at an organizing poem to be a table of contents or any other feature of a book.

My poem is based on a timeline of my writing history, starting at age 6.

My Life’s Writing Anthology

Bible story plagiarized
in blocky big letters
on lined newsprint paper

All About Me
carefully rendered detail
teacher-praised

Myth of Shoeani
on the origin
of shoes

Dr. Heartbeat, Dr. Heartbeat
a play composed
around four words
heart
lion
clock
—I forget the fourth

The Poetry Years
of rainbows
friendships
love
loss
even a baby dragon
rhythms of my soul
attempting to understand
itself

A short story
a mystery
a secret
a little girl
kept safe

All-nighter
research paper
on the function of 
King Claudius
in Hamlet
—still tied two of my best friends
for the highest marks in class

Oral tradition
of grandparents
put to paper
for the first time

Novel ideas
captured in notebooks
beginning to live
even if 
they haven’t breathed
in a while

Critical research
on children’s fantasy lit
taking the last of my strength
and the humanities prize

Short stories
hammered out
within word counts
for competitions

Mentor texts
for students
and teachers
learning how to write
and to love
memoir
essay
story
fantasy
poetry

The blog:
the archive
the scrapbook
of my writing life
my love letter
to words
and the world

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 23, I am writing around a word beginning with letter w. How could it NOT be “writing”?

Snowball

Is there a childhood toy that stands out in your memory? For me, that’s Snowball.

He’s one of my first experiences with loss.

*******

Kindergarten. Show-and-Tell. It is my favorite part of the day and today I am especially excited: I’ve brought Snowball, my toy dog. He sleeps with me every night, he eats with me, he does everything with me except take a bath, because Mama says that will ruin him.

This is Snowball, I tell my friends, sitting in a circle on the rug for Show-and-Tell.

I hold him up.

Oooooos and aaaahhhhs, because Snowball is so beautiful. His yellow ears and tail are made of ‘real’ fur. One ear has a little bit of ketchup on it from falling into my plate while I was eating fries. His stuffed body is woolly white, which is why I’ve named him Snowball.

I tell my friends: I saw him on a shelf at the store and Grandma bought him.

They all want to hold him and stroke his silky ears.

When recess comes, I decide to take Snowball out to the playground.

We have a really tall sliding board on our playground. It’s red and silver, not so shiny.

We take turns. I hand Snowball to a friend and climb, climb, climb to the top of the slide. Whoosh! It’s almost too fast, but SO fun. I make sure to hold my feet high for sailing over the mud puddle at the bottom, that worn-out place made by many, many feet landing there.

An idea: Snowball should have a turn.

Hey, Snowball wants to slide! I say.

My friends hop up and down. Let him slide! Let him slide!

Susan E. is standing beside me. When I climb up and I let him go, you catch him for me, I tell her.

I will! says Susan E. She moves toward the bottom of the slide.

I walk around to the tall, tall ladder. You will LOVE this! I tell Snowball. I give him a squeeze.

I climb, climb, climb, hanging onto the rail with one hand, onto Snowball with the other.

At the landing, I call down to Susan E.:

Are you ready?

Yes! She leans over the puddle with her hands held out.

I’m gonna count to three and let him go!

Okay! Susan E. shouts up.

One

two

three…

here he comes!

I release him.

Snowball slides so fast, so much faster than me…bumpity-bump…

Susan! calls a friend from the sandbox.

Susan E. turns her head.

—Susan! I cry from the top of the slide.

But it’s too late.

NOOOOOO!

With a soft splash, Snowball lands in the mud puddle.

—SNOWBALL! I slide down like a crazy person, scrambling, clawing…

Susan E. stands there, frozen. Then I’m sorry! I’m sorry!

I lift Snowball out of the puddle. He’s soaked through. His woolly white body is gray-brown; dirty water drips from his beautiful silky ears. They’re flat against his head, silky no more.

Sobbing, I carry him back to the classroom. I wrap and wrap him in paper towels. I cry the whole walk home after school.

Mama, I think. Mama will fix him.

When I get home, I pull the wet paper towels off to show her Snowball’s mushy, muddy body.

Honey, I can’t fix him, she says. He is ruined.

ruined

ruined

ruined

—Can’t you just put him in the washer and dryer? I am crying so hard that I can hardly speak.

It is my fault.

my fault

my fault

She shakes her head. He’s not meant to be washed that way. He’d probably come apart.

She says we have to throw him away.

I beg, I cry, but Mama says there isn’t any choice. It has to be done.

I wrap Snowball back in the muddy paper towels. I hold him close one last time, shaking with terribleness. I am sorry, Snowball. I am so sorry. I will always love you.

I lay him in the trashcan.

I cry in my bed all night long. Snowball is not there, will never be there again, to comfort me.

*******

Is it childish that, five decades later, writing the memory, I still cry...

I once drew him for students during writing workshop, when they asked if I had a picture. Even the ketchup on his ear.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 19, I am writing around a word beginning with letter s.

Let there be awe (OLW 2021)

Like many writers I am in the habit of selecting One Little Word (also known as One Word) at the beginning of a new year. It is a lens through which to view the craft of writing and, to me, the craft of living. A well-chosen OLW can guide to deeper meanings, connections, and creativity; it is a reflective tool, a restorative practice, sometimes a call to action. One little word can be a mighty force of reckoning.

In an earlier post, I wrote about not being in the frame of mind to choose a word for 2021 until I stumbled upon this quote in my planner. Surely I saw it there before, this tiny, tiny print, like a microscopic footnote, at the bottom of January 1st:

Experiencing awe (the feeling of being in the presence of something bigger than you) can improve your physical health and make you more altruistic. Intentionally create awe this month by spending time in nature, meditating, volunteering, etc.

It was like a shaft of sunlight through barren, tangled trees, an electric jolt through the settling-winter numbness of my brain.

Awe. It is familiar. One can’t be a writer, a reader, be around children, savor the healing mysteries of nature, have faith in Almighty God, without experiencing it. I’d never thought about awe improving physical health; certainly that stems from its effects on mental, emotional, spiritual health. Never thought about awe as a source of altruism, having the power to shift focus away from self to promoting the well-being of others. I certainly never thought about intentionally creating awe. Inviting awe, yes. I want to fling all the windows and doors of my entire being open for it. But creating it? I mean, isn’t awe a response to encountering the extraordinary, something much bigger than me? Am I capable of intentionally creating it? Seems a curious choice of words for something so spontaneously generated.

I sat looking at my planner, wondering…knowing in that moment awe had chosen me and there was nothing for it but to bow in reverential submission.

Immediately, I began to expect.

I can’t imagine all the ways awe will present itself this year. Trying to imagine kind of defeats the purpose. It’s more of a recognizing in the moment thing. I just know that awe is coming.

Truth of the matter…it’s all around, if I stop, if I am still enough, to sense it. If I let it be the lens through which to view the craft and artistry of being alive.

Awe is a matter of perspective…we can see it, if we try. It is tucked inside the ordinary. It lives in moments and outlasts time. It is tiny as coding in cells, as vast as the universe. The big picture book containing all of our life’s stories, for they are intertwined.

Keeping the heart open for it might even lead to a hand in creating it.

My sketch representing AWE in response to Carol Varsalona’s recent #K12ArtChat.
Can you see the word in the landscape?


I decided to run the sketch through the Deep Art Effects app.
The following were my favorite styles.
Wishing you AWE in 2021.
Be on the lookout for it.
Maybe make it happen.

*******

with thanks to the awesome community at Two Writing Teachers
and to Carol Varsalona for the sketch inspiration
.

My most recent posts on the power of words:

Spiritual Word Journey – reflecting on being chosen by “awe”
When – a poem-prayer lament, composed of one word on each line


More on “awe” to come.

Breakaway poem play

At SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, Ruth encourages playing with paragraphing and line breaks, as “a simple break changes the sound and, sometimes, the meaning.”

I am resharing this memoir poem I wrote a few months ago, wherein I played with line breaks. I am still playing with them.

This is one of my favorites. For many reasons. A scene I witnessed last year, during my husband’s recovery:

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game’s in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching,
her arms, her hands
almost too small
to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other
like a whole world
passing.

Photo: Marcus BalcherCC BY-SA

More fun wordplay in my post title: A hinged basketball hoop that bends downward with a slam dunk and springs back into place is called a breakaway rim.

If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join the open-hearted group at
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
#sosmagic

Also celebrating poems and poets in the vibrant Poetry Friday community – many thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Roundup at Reflections on the Teche.