Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.

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.

Mending

I had my first check-up for my broken foot.

“Ah,” said the orthopedist, displaying the X-rays, “this is excellent progress.”

I breathed a little more freely.

I knew it was better. I’d walked on it a little at home—just a little—without the boot, without pain, even though I wasn’t supposed to.

What concerned me most was … well … I am growing older. All I did was fall off of three garage steps and the bone just snapped.

Are my bones becoming fragile?

“It’s a common break,” said the tech. “What’s not common is the complete break. Usually it’s a fracture. Yours is a hurty one.”

“Yeah, it hurt plenty in the beginning,” I replied, “but not now. This progress means my bones are good and healthy, right?” Translation: I’m not decrepit, yet?

“They’re very good,” smiled the orthopedist. Who looks about fifteen.

He graduated me to an orthopedic shoe. But still no driving for four more weeks. State law says not while I require “medical equipment” on my gas foot.

<sigh>

But, I have good bones.

I examined them up on the screen. Marveled at how much the broken one had already knitted itself back together in just three weeks. Amazing how bones can even do that.

“That’s the best part of this particular field,” said the orthopedist. “Getting to watch people heal. Oh, and you can walk some in the house without the shoe. Movement stimulates bone growth.”

He looked at me knowingly.

I just smiled.

Walk to knit, knit to walk …

Rather meta of us, don’t you think, my little metatarsal.

Not another hand turkey

Last week ended with a professional development session. One of those “compliance” types for which it’s hard to muster enthusiasm. I’ve led professional development under some tough circumstances—like, for an entire staff on the last day before winter break, when snowflakes began billowing on the other side of the window—so I know how hard it can be. I attempt to make whatever PD I do as inspirational and practical as I can for teachers (in the case of the snowfall, it was “Bye! Vacation starts now!”).

But this time, I was an attendee. The whole week had been out of whack between the holiday on Monday and my battling a minor illness. I was happy to see the end arrive despite some trepidation about this PD session.

Especially when we participants were asked to draw hand turkeys.

For real? I sighed. Is this in any way productive? 

I couldn’t recall the last time I did this. In my early elementary years, surely.  I tried to remember helping my own children trace their little hands in autumns past.

But I complied. I penciled the outline of my hand onto white paper.

We attendees were then told to write “something we’re proud of” on each of the four so-called tail feathers. These things could be personal, professional, or both.

Well, this was kinda different. The four things came to me pretty quickly:

My blog. It was born as a way of making myself write regularly, evidence of “walking the walk” as a teacher-writer. I can’t stand before colleagues and profess my love of writing or testify to its impact if I’m not doing it on a regular basis. That’s how the blog started; it soon became a keeping-place of memories and reflections, a patchwork quilt of my life now and long ago. Not to mention that it threw the doors wide open for meeting other teacher-writer and reader friends who’ve enriched my days immeasurably. That I’ve sustained it for nearly three years feels like a true achievement.

Coaching. My daily work. I collaborate with K-5 teachers on English Language Arts instruction.There’s a different ebb and flow to it each year.  The work can be like riding a train and watching the landscape zip by at an alarming rate. It’s sometimes like trying to irrigate monotonous, barren deserts. There’s a lot of new expectations of my teaching colleagues this year, new curriculum, newly-tweaked standards (again). With new and greater demands on top of all the old ones, it’s easy for a teacher to feel constrained, paralyzed. Every time I can help simplify, problem-solve, or streamline the work of classroom teachers, I feel like the “flow” gets better for them and for their students. We ALL grow.

My sons. I am so proud of who they are and where they are in life. Both of them are working on seminary degrees, one in music, the other in graduate divinity studies. One knew his path from early childhood, the other took the long way round, but both have chosen paths of service. On this note, my heart becomes too full for words. . . .

The Facebook devotional.  I don’t have a Facebook account (preferring Twitter) but my husband does. He’s had it for years and has never written a post. Last week, out of the blue, he said: “I need your help.” He’s a pastor. For three decades now he’s tirelessly served churches and communities. He’s married people, buried them, held their hands during their darkest times, laughed and rejoiced with them in the better ones. And ministry is changing; social media is a way to reach out . . . so, enter me.  Would I help him craft a short devotional post each day? It’s a small thing, really, but if the words help someone, or give them hope . . . then to me it’s a way of giving back. See, November marks three years since my husband was diagnosed with ocular melanoma. He lost his eye, but he’s alive. He’s here. Cancer-free. Every day is a celebration. There’s always, always, always something to be thankful for . . . yes, I’ll help him share it each day.

I suppose the professional development presenters may have wondered why I kept working on my hand turkey throughout the entire session. They may have thought I’d tuned them out. I hadn’t. I was listening. What they had to say was actually quite helpful. I processed it all as I added more and more detail to my turkey—let’s hope the facilitators thought I was sketchnoting. One thing just kept leading to another until I realized that the words on the tail feathers represented more than things I was simply proud of. This is the work of my hands, I mused, as I wrote and drew with one hand inside the outline of the other. Each thing I’ve listed is an opportunity, a piece of life’s work given to me.

—Gifts. 

Pride wasn’t the appropriate sentiment. Not even close.

I draped my turkey in a banner bearing the word “Gratitude.”

Isn’t that where the personal and professional roads should converge, anyway? Or the point of origin from which they radiate?

It is for me.

It is from this crossroads of gratitude that I wish you professional and personal joy, in all the work of your hands.

Happy Thanksgiving.