Author Archives: Mary

What am I getting out of this?

Last Sunday, I called my mom as I was walking around the lake. My parents live on the East Coast, and we currently live in the mid-west. I know that they appreciate it when I call regularly, but I sometimes find it difficult to make the time. My mom said she was planning to attend a prayer group that she really didn’t want to go to. I asked her what I thought was an obvious question, “If she didn’t want to go, why didn’t she just stay home?”

She went that night, but a week later, she left a message on my voicemail. “I just wanted to thank you for suggesting that I don’t need to go to Sunday night prayer group. I realized that we always visit your grandparents in the afternoon, and I always feel rushed because I have to get to prayer group after, and I don’t really like being apart from your Dad on Sunday night, and I don’t get that much out of it. Such a simple solution to stop going, but it didn’t occur to me that I could do that until I spoke to you.”  Listening to her repeat my advice back to me, I realized how crucial that last thread about getting something out of our efforts is to how we invest our time. Currently, I am coaching a Girls on the Run team at one of the elementary schools where I teach. After a full day of work, I lead 16 third to fifth grade girls in lessons designed to empower and inspire them, to encourage them to believe in their limitless potential. We talk, we listen, and we move, and while it is exhausting, and I get home late, and it encroaches on the time I spend with my own family, it is worth it because I get so much out of it. I would like to believe it would be worth it if the girls alone got so much out of it, but I am not so sure I am that generous and unselfish, and coaching this team replenishes and inspires me. It is time well spent.

Yet, while I find it easy to recognize some of the more meaningful experiences in my life, and I was quick to dole out advice to my mom, her reflection on my advice gave me some pause. A few days later, I reached for the large book of E.B. White’s letters that I had renewed twice from the library each time thinking, I’ll surely get to it this time. I chose this compilation of letters because I had read Melissa Sweet’s juvenile biography of White, and it was so enticing and delightful, and I had recently reread Charlotte’s Web with the kids, talk about one of the most meaningful ways to spend time. However, this time when I reached for the book out of habit, I paused and thought about my conversation with my mom. I admitted that if I really wanted to read this book, I probably would have gotten to it sometime in the past six weeks. I probably would be further than page 63.  I had to ask myself the question, “What am I getting out of reading this book?” and I had to admit, “not much.” I tell my students that they should give a book they are choosing for pleasure 50 pages, if they are not pulled in by then, it is time to let it go and choose something else. Such simple advice… to stop reading. Yet, I am never able to follow my own advice. I always feel like it is some kind of innate failure when I am unable to move through a book especially if the book has been recommended by a friend.  Instead of letting go and choosing something else, I force myself to plod through the pages. I tell my students to move on when a book doesn’t capture them for several reasons. The primary one is that they have so much required reading they have to do, what they read for pleasure should simply be that, pleasurable. Further, the sooner they let go of a book that is not meaningful them, the sooner they will connect with a book that is.

I have so much admiration for E.B. White’s prose and for his stories. I doubt I will ever tire of reading Charlotte’s Web. His letters are well-written and whimsical, a treasure trove to dig through. You can sift through them like sand and find some amazing shells, but also lots of sand, and right now, it is burying me. I dig myself out and brush myself off. I gently close the book and place it aside to return to the library, maybe even on time. With my free hands, I pick up a book on writing that my best friend gave me as a birthday gift, and I wonder why it has taken me so long to open it up. Pleasurable books, moments and experiences are like glasses of water when you have just finished running. You cannot seem to get enough. You are thirsty, eager, grateful and satisfied. It is a wonderful feeling, one you can only find if you are willing to step out of the sand long enough to help yourself to a drink.


(75 minutes)

This morning, I rose before the rest of my family. I love my family dearly, and I love spending time with them, but waking up before the rest of the clan is stirring, always feels like a gift. My family is loud, and so am I. We speak in animated voices, we laugh boisterously, play our instruments vibrantly. I like to think we live loudly. My husband enjoys listening to podcasts on his small stereo while he goes about his daily tasks and cranking up the larger stereo to listen to tunes while he cooks dinner. I am grateful to him for introducing me to so much quality entertainment, humor and various avenues that challenge my brain, but while he finds it relaxing to have these avenues set the background noise for his life, I appreciate the stillness. It soothes me.

While my children sleep contentedly this morning, I boil water for tea, prep a starter mix which I hope to later turn into multi-grain bread, fix the kids some oatmeal with blueberries and put away last night’s dishes. I am a morning person. I wish I could capture the energy I have in the morning and save it in a mason jar to sip after the evening meal. Post-dinner, I’m lucky if I have enough energy to finish the dishes. When my tea is thoroughly steeped, I grab my imposing book of E.B. White’s letters, which I have been avoiding lately, choosing to read children’s novels instead. I take my treasures out to our front porch, along with the comforts of a warm blanket and two graham crackers to dunk in my tea.

Sitting on our front porch on a sunny March morning feels like a gift too. It is the perfect temperature with the blanket, and allowing myself to read the musings of White about his own family, feels good. He writes of a quirky older brother-in-law whom his father despised because while the kids adored him and his antics, he could not support his family. How could you not love a man though, who embraced every holiday with gusto, setting off firecrackers and staging elaborate settings for Halloween including a stuffed alligator with a glowing red orb in his mouth? I think I could forgive many character flaws for one who so fully embraced fun. We should all be so lucky.

As I read, I let my mind wander a little and daydream about skipping our morning responsibilities. Maybe the kids can miss Sunday school just this once, and I can extend this delicious morning. I return to my book, though, knowing time is ticking, and I will not let them skip. After I finish my tea, I put down my book and pick up my guitar. I realize that this week, I have practiced three or four times, which is actually pretty good for me. Thanks to my new teacher, my ten-year-old daughter, I have learned two new songs. I practice my new songs and am relieved that they don’t sound so bad. Hopefully, my young teacher will concur when I play for her later. After I have gone through the new songs a few times, I transition to an old favorite. I like to play, Sarah Watkins’ “Take up Your Spade” on Sunday mornings. It’s a simple song, and I’ve included the lyrics below.

Take up Your Spade by Sarah Watkins

The sun is up, a new day is before you

The sun is up, wake your sleepy soul

The sun is up, hold on to what is yours

Take up your spade and break ground


Shake off your shoes,

Leave yesterday behind you

Shake off your shoes,

But forget not where you’ve been

Shake off your shoes,

Forgive and be forgiven

Take up your spade and break ground

Give thanks, for all that you’ve been given

Give thanks, for who you can become

Give thanks, for each moment and every crumb

Take up your spade and break ground

Break ground, break ground, break ground

The song grounds me and reminds me that there is work to be done. Yet, instead of feeling anxious or overwhelmed by the work at hand, I am comforted by the idea that all I need to be willing to do is pick up my spade and start digging. And how to do this work? With a thankful and a humble heart. Ten minutes of singing this song sometimes feels more meaningful to me than an hour and a half spent at Mass. I recently finished reading Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, yet another children’s novel that I prioritized reading over White’s letters, and in it, the father tells a story of a single sheet of paper with the secret of happiness written on it. The King desires to obtain this paper  and sends all of his men in search of it, but the wind is strong, and the paper blows away before the men can read it. It blows past a young child, who is able to see the characters inscribed on the paper, but being so young, the child cannot read, and so the wisdom of the paper is lost. Eventually, when the paper is discovered, there is only one word on it. Thankfulness.

How will I approach the work that lies before me today? The household tasks that seem like a mountain I will never see over. The myriad of teaching tasks that I try and juggle skillfully, but often feel like an amateur picking one ball off the ground after another. How will I approach the work at hand? With gratitude.

Today, it is easy to have a grateful heart. I woke up into the sacred, silent hour I cherish before those I love rose to meet their day. I read and played music, and I reminded myself what a gift it is that I can play guitar, and that playing alone in the office Dan and I share, is enough for me, that unlike my writing, where my ambitions seem to exceed my talent and effort, here I am content to learn from my child, to play the chords taught to me, to sing in the quiet as the world stirs around me and becomes loud.

The challenge is taking up the spade with gratitude on the mornings where there is barely room for a cup of tea let alone singing and reading. The mornings when I rise to noise and can’t seem to find any quiet within. My hope is that these mornings will strengthen me, so that in the mornings to come, when the demands of the day are even greater, and frustration seems to outweigh gratitude, I can close  my eyes and still find the melody.


“Take up Your Spade” by Sarah Watkins on youtube

The Art of Revision

(75 minutes)

Soon, I will start teaching creative writing to fourth and fifth graders, and so I am starting to think about what that will look like. The students will participate in the nanowrimo writing challenge to write a novel in a month. Most of November will be spent brainstorming and writing, and writing and writing. But most of the year will be spent on revising and revising and revising, and while most of the students that choose to do this project love writing, they don’t always love revising.

I love revising. Maybe it’s because I’m so happy that I’ve written something worth revising.  I love reading over my drafts and turning things upside down. Here’s where I really start to get into the story, so maybe I should just start here and cut the rest of the intro. I love playing with sentences. Sometimes you just need to say the siblings were swinging on the tire swing gazing out on the lake, but sometimes, Swinging on the tire swing, the siblings gazed upon the lake together is what you need. I love thinking of the precise word, phrase or comparison I want to use to convey my ideas. Did my dog leap, or lunge or bound out the door? Did the wind moan like a cat hoping to get inside or did it shout silent obscenities demanding the attention of all?  I love alliteration, so when I revise, I am reminded to rephrase. Yes, revision, like a pumpkin pancake, particularly pleases my palate.

See revising is fun, not tedious, and that’s what I want to share with my students. It can also be hard and messy and require us to make difficult choices. I wrote a children’s book a few years back which I am still working on trying to get published. 5,000 words I committed to the page only to learn that most children’s book for kids under the age of 8 are about 1,000 words. Taking out the first 2,000 or so words was not so hard, but after that, it was a bit painful. We need to show our students that revising is a process that all writers, even the very best, go through. We need to help them understand why writers go through this process. I think I found a way to do this.

This year, I am trying to be more diligent about working with my students on growth mindset. If you are not familiar with Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset, you may want to check out this interview with her, which specifically focuses on how teachers can help students learn by addressing mindset. I showed my 1st, 2nd and third graders a video (If the video does not come up, just type Austin’s video into the search engine on this site) called Austin’s Butterfly to help them better understand what a good critique looks like. A good critique can help us grow if we have the right mindset and can make changes in response to the critique.

Their eyes and mouths were wide with each of Austin’s revisions. They got it. Austin, a first grader, made five drafts of his butterfly. He didn’t give up after the first one because it wasn’t perfect. He listened to the specific and helpful critique provided to him, and he continued through many more drafts to create something spectacular. I can’t wait for my students to do the same. The only problem is now they all want to draw butterflies.


Update on Keeping Myself Accountable

So I must admit that my attempt to treat writing like a job and to submit one post a week was a complete failure. My brain refused to be tricked. And in terms of my initial goal of writing 15 minutes every day, I am also failing miserably. However, I realized that since I attended the writing workshop hosted by the Greater Madison Writing Project, I am writing so much more. I started this blog in June and have written four posts, that’s about one a month, not so shabby, and while I am struggling to meet my expectation of 15 minutes a day, I am writing every week, sometimes for much longer than 15 minutes, so I’ve decided to go the route of celebration and praise over punishment and shame as a means of reinforcement, and I plan to record the minutes I spent working on my own writing from post to post.

Tangible Rewards

Last night, I was reading Dr. Andrea Bonior’s latest book, Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World. Andrea is a good friend of mine, and the book comes out on 20th of this month, and so I am reading an advanced copy. Does that make me feel cool? The answer is yes. Do I feel cool that I have a friend who wrote another awesome book? (Yes, this is her second book, and yes, I feel cool.) Does it make me feel like I need to step up my game a little as a writer knowing that Andrea in addition to having her second book published also maintains a practice, teaches psychology at Georgetown, raises three kids and every once in a while makes a dress? Yes, and I’m not kidding about the dress. Andrea’s book is really interesting. In it, she explores the greatest minds in the field of psychology, and she explains, in her warm, witty, down to earth way, how their studies, ideas and experiments apply to our lives today. I’m so enjoying reading this book, one because it’s interesting and it makes me think, and two because I miss Andrea dearly, and when I read it, I feel like she is right next to me, and we are talking over tea.

In her book, Andrea asks, “Have you ever started a blog, only to have it gradually peter out after a few months despite your best intentions?” (Bonior 49) Now, I feel like she might actually be talking to me. As the readers of this blog may remember, I set a simple intention at the start of the summer to write for 15 minutes every day. At first, I discovered that it wasn’t so hard to fit this time in. I was excited to write and thrilled that I was sticking to my intention, and I often found that once I started writing, I wrote for much longer than 15 minutes. I just needed the push to get started. And then we took a vacation, and I missed a day, but I still wrote, so I thought maybe missing a day here or there wasn’t such a big deal. And then we returned from vacation, and I was determined to get the house organized before the school year started, and I skipped a few more days. And then the school year started, and on my first morning before heading to work, I made the time to write for 15 minutes, and I thought, “I can do this. I can make this a part of my routine,” but the next morning came, and I didn’t write, and that day was followed by another, and before I knew it, an entire week had passed, and I hadn’t written anything for myself. Andrea looks at this in her book too. She discusses William James’ work on the formation of habits. If we want to create new, positive habits, we need to start with “a strong and decisive…initiative” (Bonior 28). She goes on to say that anyone seeking sobriety or charting a new exercise regimen, knows well that “one day’s fall of the wagon can feel as if it’s done more to destroy your new positive habit than the six months of practice you put in to establish it” (Bonior 28). I’ve struggled with food most of my life, and I know how difficult it can be to make healthy choices consistently. However, shouldn’t committing to writing and actually practicing the art of writing be a little different? It is something I love, and it makes me feel good, so why is it so difficult to form a habit where I do it every day? Andrea’s got an answer to this too. Working off the ideas of B.F. Skinner, she explains that the reason that I, or you, might not be blogging, and here I would say that you can substitute whatever your passion is, writing, playing music, painting etc., is because our passion is not paired with tangible reinforcement. Our jobs offer a paycheck every two weeks, whereas our passions offer “vague good feeling(s)” (Bonior 49). If we stop showing up for work, there will be real and immediate consequences whereas “Aunt Edna” might miss our blog posts, but she will probably get over it.

I am sitting in a coffee shop right now while my kids practice aikido across the street. My intention when I left the house this morning was to do work, work-work. It’s September. I am a resource teacher, and I am swamped. I have students to serve, and I need to figure out how, when and where I will serve them, and then I need to communicate that message to my principals, the other teachers within my building, and the families of the students I work with. During the school week, I am teaching and nurturing and putting out fires, and some days I don’t feel like I have the time or space to think. Two nights ago, I was up most of the night because I couldn’t turn my brain off. It was processing all the things that had happened during the day, and there were so many things. But the day after that pretty much all-nighter, I was completely drained and stressed and less productive than I probably would have been after a good sleep. I was cranky and didn’t even really want to be around my kids. At the dinner table, my husband asked me if I had acquired a street parking permit for our car, and I chewed him out. I could have said no, or not yet, or I am not sure when I will be able to take care of that as I am so overwhelmed at work right now, but I spewed fire at him for asking and suggesting it was my responsibility rather than his. I was not my best self, and my family doesn’t deserve that, and my students don’t deserve that, and I don’t deserve that. So last night, I forced myself to stop checking work email after 8 pm. I took a walk with my neighbor and friend, and I vented as we looked on the stillness of the bay, so calm and peaceful compared to the turmoil I was feeling inside. I was so tired, I felt like a shell of a person. Later that night, I read Andrea’s book until I grew tired and fell asleep. I woke up at 2 am, but instead of turning on a screen or allowing my mind to endlessly cycle through the issues of the week, I read some more before I fell asleep again. I woke up again at 6 and repeated the process. I was refreshed and rested, Mary 7.0, and halfway through a really good book.

In my first blog post, I shared that I felt haunted by the fact that I had done zero personal writing during the course of last school year. This morning, as I dropped my children off at the aikido dojo and walked to this lovely coffee shop, I thought about Andrea’s words, and I looked at my failure to create a positive daily ritual of writing from another lens. I know that writing enriches my soul, my life and my interactions with others. It causes me to reflect and think and makes me a better version of myself. You would think that would be enough to motivate me to do it every day. After reading Andrea’s musings on B.F. Skinner, I’m comforted, though, by the realization, that to my brain, these rewards are not always enough. They are “vague” and out of reach, and their intangibility causes me to focus on the other parts of my life that have ‘real’ and immediate rewards or consequences. This year, I inspired ten students to write their own book by telling them if they accomplished their goal, they would receive a published copy of their book. This was a huge motivator for them, and I was amazed at how they tackled this task with gusto. However, sometimes, their writing slowed down a little or ceased completely, and during those times, I met with them, helped them talk through their ideas and encouraged them to keep going. At the end of the year, they received their tangible reward, their very own book.

Today, I made the choice to write for myself, but how do I maintain the habit of daily writing? What can I learn from William James, B.F. Skinner, Dr. Andrea Bonior and my students? In order to create a daily ritual of writing, I need to be consistent. I need to make time for my passion, in this case writing, every day. Ideally, I need to pair my passion with a tangible reward. Since I currently do not get paid for my writing, the tangible reward piece feels more difficult. However, perhaps I could treat this blog a little more like a job and give myself a deadline. If I write for 15 minutes every day, I should be able to publish at least one post a week. To create a new positive habit, I need to declare my intention boldly, so here I am saying that I commit to writing one blog post a week. Does that suit you, “Aunt Edna?”

Like my students, I also need a teacher, and I think my teachers are all of you, my dear friends, who read this blog. What is your passion, and how do you make time for it? Do you sometimes get stuck like me and fail to make time for your passion? How do you unstick yourself? (It would be oh so awesome, if you could reply.)

“The Princess Who Saved Herself”

A few weeks ago, I went to watch my nine-year-old daughter, Anna, launch her rocket at the rocket camp she had attended all week. Using paper towel rolls, recycled vegetable cartons and markers, she had spent her afternoons that week creating something she hoped to propel into the sky. She used a purple plastic Easter egg for her rocket’s cone. My knowledge of rockets is limited, and I referred to the top piece as a dome until Anna corrected me, a paper towel roll for the body tube and a piece of black garbage bag to construct her parachute. She called her rocket Monkey’s Success, which she wrote in large black letters on the rocket’s paper towel frame. She was nervous the day of the launch hoping her parachute would release and slightly more nervous when some of her fellow launchers witnessed their rockets collide cone first with the earth. On her first launch, though, her rocket soared into the sky, and the parachute released gracefully.

After the first round of launchings, the students were given the option to launch again with a more powerful engine. This time around, a few of the rockets sailed incredibly high, much higher than the previous round of launches, but some did not return, lost to the school’s rooftop or the forest beyond the field.

I watched Anna’s eyes follow one of her campmate’s rocket as it disappeared, and then I watched as her instructor asked her if she intended to launch again. She shook her head no. I walked over to her. “You don’t want to launch again?”

She hesitated. “I don’t think so.”


“What if it doesn’t come back?”

I put my arm around her. Her rocket was safe in her arms. She could walk away with it, take it home, show it to her papa and display it in her room. I understood her hesitation. I had some hesitation myself. I know what it is like to pour your heart and energy into something only to see it destroyed. She had tangible evidence of her effort, and I was about to counsel her to do something that might change that outcome. I took a deep breath. “You did such a good job making this rocket, and I know you are so proud of it. I am so proud of you. Your rocket is amazing. I know how much you want to be able to take it home, and you are right, if you launch it again, it may not come back to you, but on the other hand, all the work you did this week was in preparation for this day. A rocket’s purpose is to launch, not to be on display. There are many opportunities to make rockets, but there are fewer opportunities to launch them. It would be such a shame to lose your rocket, but I think it would be a bigger shame to deny yourself the opportunity to see your rocket reach its full potential.”

Her eyes, still conveyed doubt, but I could tell that she wanted to try. She inhaled, and said, “Here goes nothing,” and I crossed my fingers and hoped her rocket would return to her. Monkey’s Success soared into the air, past the tallest pines, much higher than expected. She had made a smaller rocket compared with some of the others, and when paired with a powerful engine, it leapt into the air outdistancing some of the previous rockets by a good twenty or thirty feet. The garbage bag parachute released beautifully, and Anna released her breath knowing her rocket would not come crashing to the ground. Monkey’s Success was returning to the earth and to Anna, but it was headed toward the other end of the field, close to the treetops, too close to the treetops, and instead of falling into her outstretched arms, it found its landing pad in the uppermost branches of a maple tree.

We ran over to see if we could retrieve it. The rocket was pretty high up, and there appeared to be no direct route to it. I’m not an expert on climbing trees, but I can recognize a good climbing tree versus a bad one. In the former, one branch leads to another and then to another practically beckoning to climb aboard. This tree was not beckoning. One of the boys in her class started to climb anyway. “I’m really good at climbing,” he said, and I admired his confidence, but then he started to shake, and I kindly explained to him that Anna didn’t want anyone damaging limbs over her rocket, and so he came down. Anna and I surveyed the tree thinking about what we might do, looking at each other, each hoping the other held a solution we ourselves could not see. And then, a dad of one of the other campers came over and started climbing the tree. He was wearing dress slacks and leather loafers while I was wearing shorts and hiking sandals, and while it’s possible he could have been the same age as me, he seemed at least five years my senior. I wondered why he thought he was better suited to make the climb.

As I watched him start to climb, my mind drifted to a time earlier this year, when the trees were bare and the ground was frozen, and the kids and I were taking Cato, our dog, for a walk by the lake. They asked me if they could walk on the frozen ice. We live on Monona Bay, and the water is still and shallow, and for much of the winter, it is frozen solid, so solid that people sit on the lake, set up tents and ice fish, so solid that my son, Sea Bass, and I can walk across the lake to his school on the other side, so solid that you can ice skate comfortably. I said no to their request, though, because even though it was still quite cold, winter was making way for spring, and the average daily temperature was rising. I was concerned that the lake wasn’t solid enough for safe passage. However, the kids desperately wanted to skate and play, and I, like any good parent would, gave into their pleas and assurances that it was solid and safe. They ran, slid and skated in their shoes, falling over and laughing, laughing so loud, you could barely hear the crack, but the sound of Anna’s boots connecting with the water was unmistakable, and the laughing quickly turned to yelling. Anna, wearing her winter coat and boots, was waist deep. She knows how to swim, but it was the middle of Wisconsin winter, and the air was bitter cold, and the water was even worse. Although the water appeared to be quite shallow where she had fallen, she could not stand. She was cold and scared and unsure of what to do next. I wanted to run to her, but I held Cato’s leash, and the possible unpleasant consequences of releasing our 65-pound pit-bull were of real concern as well.

I could see that despite being scared and cold, she was okay, so I told her to stay calm while I tied Cato to a tree. A man walking by on the bike path noticed our predicament and stopped to help us, and in this situation I was grateful to him because we were in need of another hand. He could see that I was struggling with two kids, one stuck in the ice, one standing precariously on the same ice, and one large, anxious dog. He walked over to the lake and held out his hand to Anna. She maneuvered to the side, and he held her there. I tied Cato up and told Sea Bass not to move from his spot, as he, unlike Anna, could not swim, and the idea of him falling in was truly terrifying. The stranger and I pulled Anna out of the water, and I told Anna to walk straight home and get in the shower. She was shivering, scared and so cold, but I had to get Sebastian and Cato, and she did as she was told.

I made it home as quickly as I could and found her still fumbling with her clothes about to step in the shower. I helped her turn on the hot water and get in. I could see that she had been crying, but she had calmed herself down, and I told her how sorry I was that I had allowed her to walk on the lake. I also told her how brave she was, and how proud I was of how she handled the situation. I kissed her forehead and told her that she had a really good story to tell her friends back in Maryland, and she laughed a little. Now, when she tells the story of this day, she laughs a lot and tells it with pride. However, even though I helped pull her out of the lake, even though I coached her through the situation, even though I helped her find perspective and strength when she was feeling broken, it is the stranger that she credits with saving her.

Maybe it’s a little silly, but I didn’t want someone else rushing to her rescue this time. I was here, and there was nothing preventing me from helping her solve this problem, no anxious dog, no younger sibling at risk of drowning, nothing but this man positioning himself as a knight in shining armor, trying to show off under the guise of helping. When Anna was three, princess culture permeated the air we breathed. We never let her watch a Disney movie, yet she knew the name of all the Disney princesses, and when she wanted to dress up like a princess, we pushed back a little, pushed back more than we pushed back in later years when her brother chose to dress up as Spiderman, Hulk or Ironman. When she said she wanted to be a princess, we told her a princess was not a career choice, and quite frankly, princesses were boring because they didn’t do anything. In hindsight, our response may have been a bit extreme and complicated for a three year old to grasp, but could you blame us? Her friends were watching movies where the heroine’s main happiness in life came from falling in love with a man. Moreover, the princesses, all looked the same. Yes, in more recent Disney movies, the princesses had various skin tones, but they were all skinny, small-nosed, large-eyed, straight-haired girls who personified the American standard of beauty. Ironically, Anna’s nursery school wouldn’t allow the boys to play fight or bring any type of fake sword to school, but Anna and her friends were allowed to dress up as Disney princesses, pretend to get married, and say they wanted to be a princess when they grew up. Somehow, no one seemed to think this was a problem.

I remember one time I went to the store to pick up a birthday card for one of Anna’s friends. The cards were separated for the birthday girl and for the birthday boy. Those shopping for the birthday boy could choose cards decorated with superheroes, animals, trains, cars and trucks. The cards were every color of the rainbow. If you were shopping for a girl, the cards came in one color, I’m sure you can guess which one, and they were covered with princesses and Barbie with the occasional flower or butterfly.

This was the culture we were raising our little girl in. I was so glad when I read Peggy Orenstein’s Cinderella Ate My Daughter, and I no longer felt like I was alone. She justified my feelings and fears about raising a daughter in a society obsessed with princesses. According to Peggy, in order to counter such a toxic culture, we had to be prepared. We had to stare it straight down. We had to fight back.

I didn’t want to take away Anna’s right to make believe and imaginative play, so we drew a careful line in the sand between embracing her creative self and discouraging the idolization of girls valued for their beauty and luck with love. More simply, she still dressed up as a princess, but it was a princess of her own design rather than a character whose role was already prescribed. We told her she was beautiful, but we also told her she was smart and strong. We banned Disney films from our home, and instead tried to find alternative shows and movies, which showed girls doing things in life, choosing things, following their passions. Fortunately for us, while Disney seems stuck in 1950, animation and film have evolved so much since then, and we found excellent shows for Anna. We fell in love with Hayao Miyasaki, whose films are spectacular and beautifully crafted, and whose protagonists are often strong girls and women. One of Anna’s favorites at age three was Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is about a young witch, who must leave her family and forge her own path. We watched Avatar, The Last Airbender, whose female characters are as vivid, strong and capable as the male characters. To this day, this show remains one of the best I’ve ever seen. We discovered Bamboo Blade, a Japanese anime about a co-ed kendo team, which focuses mostly on the female players. All of these shows portrayed girls Anna’s age that she could identify with and relate to, girls with dreams and aspirations, girls who wanted to be more than someone’s wife or mother.

We played Jonathon Coulton’s “The Princess Who Saved Herself,” loud and often in our house; “She had a pet snake, she bought a red guitar, and she ate a whole cake.” This princess tames a dragon, who she later invites to tea, and she and the dragon form a band with a reformed witch. Prince Phillip calls, but the princess hangs up on him. It’s an adorably clever song, and it offered us a way to bridge the world of princesses to the world we hoped Anna would build for herself.

In addition to banning Disney, we banned Barbie dolls. A friend of our family tried to giver Anna a Barbie doll when she was two, and I told her we could not accept it. It was one of the many weird, gendered presents Anna received during her early years of life, gifts that made me question how the giver could not recognize that in giving the gift they were limiting her, suggesting that because she was a girl, she must like certain things. I remember feeling awkward and uncomfortable when the Barbie was offered by one of our family friends, wondering if I was overacting, particularly since this occurred in my childhood home, the same home where playing with Barbie dolls was one of my favorite things to do as a child. Now, looking back on that moment, I’m so glad I had the courage to politely decline the gift. Barbie, just like the Disney princesses, conforms to a certain standard of beauty, in Barbie’s case, an impossible standard. It’s probably not fair to blame my years of playing Barbie on the eating disorder I later developed, but it’s also not unreasonable to think that there might be some connection.

When Anna was four, instead of buying her a Barbie doll, I crocheted her a Kiki doll with the help of a friend. I decided that if I couldn’t find the doll I envisioned for her, I would create one. I made Kiki a broom so she could fly wherever she wanted. Five years later, Anna still sleeps with Kiki.

At age five, we signed Anna up for kendo, something she had a strong desire to do after seeing the kick-ass girls on Bamboo Blade. She was learning this beautiful martial art, wearing the same uniform as the boys, men, women and other girls participating in the sport, learning discipline in training her body and finding pleasure in its movement. Anna no longer dresses up as a princess, that phase faded fast, but she still loves to dress up and she loves doing her hair, but she also likes swimming and playing soccer, riding her bike, cooking, reading, drawing…Her options are not limited.

And so, we signed her up for rocket camp even though she was a little hesitant about the idea. We signed her up because girls and women are still underrepresented in science an engineering and because we believe that part of changing that is offering opportunity and exposure, and because well, it’s just awesome to create and launch a rocket, and we knew she would love it once she got there, which she did. And here we were at rocket camp with a prince trying to come to our rescue, and as the prince climbed up the tree, I wasn’t sorry to see the limbs of the tree waver a bit along with his determination. His daughter yelled from the base of the tree, “Dad, what about your bad neck?” I told him what I had told the little boy, Anna would not want someone risking limbs or in this case risking their neck for her rocket’s retrieval.

I meant what I said. I didn’t want him to get hurt on our account, but I also didn’t want him seizing the headline of our story. I didn’t want him teaching my daughter that she needed him to come along and fix things. So, I was glad when he climbed down. I inhaled and looked over at Anna and said, “Here goes nothing.” I started to climb, and Anna later told me that the man chuckled a bit as I climbed. But again, I was wearing comfortable slacks and sandals, I didn’t have a bad neck, and I had a little more invested in this than he did. It was clear that I would not reach the bough that the rocket had landed on. It was too high, but I asked Anna to pass me a large stick, which she did, and I batted at the rocket like a piñata hoping it would not break into various pieces but rather that I could free it from its captivity and return it to its creator, and when I gave it a good shake and the rocket moved a little, the man stopped laughing, and Anna started smiling, or at least that’s what I imagined happened as I was focused on not falling out of the tree and developing a bad neck of my own. I caught part of the parachute string with the stick and gently lifted it up and over a branch and I sent the rocket flying on its final flight into my daughter’s arms. “We did it,” I said to her.

“Thank you,” she said to me, smiling wildly. We were the victors. We had looked at the problem together and saved her rocket and ourselves.


Pondering Priorities

Last Friday evening, I sat on a picnic bench at the Union terrace overlooking Lake Mendota and watched the sun set over windy surf. All were bathed in amber light…the black lab jumping off the dock and fetching his retriever stick, the wind-surfer determined to make the most of the day’s gales, my six-year-old as he illustrated his own version of Where the Wild Things Are in chalk across the Union floor, my nine-year-old as she befriended an adorable toddler who was more than happy to have the attention of a “big girl,” my three-month-old nephew as he nestled in the arms of his mother as she fed him dinner, my husband, my in-laws, and I, as we sat and chatted about how we had spent the day. As a teacher, who chooses to take the summer off, I came from a full day of “summer” while the adults around me, with the exception of my newly retired mother-in-law, had come from a full day of work. My sister-in-law, working through a round of vet school rotations, rose before the sunrise. As she cradled my nephew and breathed him in, I am reminded that my “summer” is a luxury to be grateful for, and I soak it in with the sun. I don’t expect to get much sympathy from those of you working 45 plus hour work weeks all summer long. However, if you’ve ever lived an incredibly busy, demanding life, and then suddenly find yourself with a little more time on your hands, if you are newly retired, or your life situation changes because you find yourself out of work, I am hoping perhaps, you can emphasize with the time of transition, the period of metamorphosis when you are moving from one phase to another, forced to consider how you will spend your time and energy. As I sit in the Wisconsin sun, I am seeking sojourn in this spot like the others who chose to come here tonight. As I look around me, I wonder if any of them, like me, are pondering their priorities.
Last summer, my family moved to Madison from Maryland. I bid farewell to my old school district and was looking for a new position. Finding meaningful work was a top priority as was helping my children embrace and enjoy life in a new city. Unpacking and organizing our life also made the list, but to be honest, didn’t rank as high. The summer moved quickly, and at its end, I still found myself surrounded by boxes, papers and pictures. Beyond the kitchen cabinets, nothing seemed to be where it was supposed to be, and things were certainly not where I thought I would find them when I looked for them. It took me six months before I found my iron. Somehow, even though, it felt like we had purged so many things before leaving Maryland, we still seem to be surrounded by clutter. This summer, I decided it would be different. A year has passed since our original disembarkment. My kids have made friends and adjusted to our life here. I found meaningful work, and while that requires attention, it lacks the emotional energy required by job hunting and preparing for interviews. Now that we are a bit more settled, maybe that organized lifestyle that has always felt beyond my grasp will actually be attainable. Maybe, if I just take a small piece of my day and dedicate it to housecleaning and home improvement projects, I can pave the way to a more organized life. Without realizing it, I had created summer resolutions.
So, as I sat on the terrace and drank a glass of Wisconsin’s finest, I took stock of my resolutions in relation to my day. What had I accomplished? I woke with the intent of organizing our home office space and finally finishing my closet’s transition from winter to summer clothes. Yes, I recognize how embarrassing this is considering it is July. I imagine that by the time this conversion is complete it will be sweater weather again. And what progress had I made today? Let’s just say, I failed to unpack even a pair of sandals.
Where did I go wrong? I got off to a good start. I woke up and finished the dishes, which I left the night before, so that my family and I could watch a movie together. Then, I went for a run, showered and fixed breakfast for myself and the kids and packed lunch for my husband. The kids and I biked to their swim lessons, and while they swam, I wrote. In my earlier post, I shared that I am committed to writing for 15 minutes every day, and I am proud to share that I have been sticking to this commitment. I wrote until the kids finished their lessons. After swimming, I figured we could go home and do some chores, but the kids asked if we could play on the playground, and since all we had waiting for us at home were house cleaning tasks and home improvement projects, we diverted and turned the pool’s small playground into our own personal airlines. We soared on the climbing gym, flying to Mexico through Canada, I imagine the first passengers to take this route. Anna, who just returned from a trip to Alaska with her grandmother, brought her papa back an ulu, an Eskimo knife, and experienced her first taste of airport security when she tried to bring it on the plane. When, the slide became the security checkpoint, I was informed that because my bag contained a knife, present from our earlier snack, I absolutely could not take it on the plane. At this point, I was forced to provide a credit card, in the form of a piece of wood mulch. After we, and by we, I mean me, grew tired of playing airplane, we tackled the monkey bars. Anna is adept at the bars, but Bass was a little scared, so we encouraged him, holding his legs for him and promising not to let go until he was ready. Before we left, he was swinging proudly and independently. I never could do the monkey bars as a kid, but today I successfully moved one bar’s length, which felt like an accomplishment.
We continued to play on the playground while two more groups of kids went through their swim lessons. Again, the only thing waiting for us at home were those chores and projects I mentioned earlier, and they were probably not worth rushing for. I decided that not having to rush is worth relishing in itself. Eventually, we tired of playing, and we biked home and fixed lunch on our patio, chatting with our neighbor, Sue, who was working in her garage. We share a driveway with Sue, and the patio is just the space at the top of the driveway which we converted to a sitting space by setting up a small table and a few chairs and keeping our car at the lower end of the driveway instead of in the garage for the summer. Sue is also our landlord, and when we first used the top of the driveway as a congregating space, we intended only to do it for the day, and to put everything back in its place when we finished, which is what many landlords would want. Sue, though, commented on how she loved how we were using the space as a patio, shared how she thinks we should keep it like that all summer and added her own porch chairs to the mix. So on this day, she joined us for lunch, and we took in the gorgeous day together, enjoying our grub and watching the birds eat theirs as they picked berries off the tree branches hanging above us.
After lunch, I thought it might be sensible to tackle some chores, but Anna desperately wanted to give a geology demonstration, which she did with gusto. She savored the audience and even made her demonstration interactive by creating a digging station for Bass and I where we could find treasure that she had discovered just ten minutes before in our yard, but had now transferred to a bucket of dirt. Sea Bass loved the activity and was eager for his turn to hunt. He also put on a skateboarding show, which mostly involved him moving from one side of the driveway to another and then jumping off and holding his arms out to take a bow. When the kids have a captive audience, their shows are never short, but again, I was in no rush. I had nowhere else to be. The housecleaning tasks hovered over me a little as I realized the time was ticking away, and my morning resolutions probably wouldn’t get done. However, I could give my kids’ my full attention. I could give them the gift of my time. I could focus on the detail of every rock we discovered. Today, time was our treasure.
After lunch, I could feel myself in need of a reboot. The kids asked if they could watch a show, but I said no. Sea Bass came up with the idea to fly his kite in the park across the street, and Anna went along with him, albeit grudgingly, but she went. As they played across the street, I drifted in and out of sweet slumber, the sounds of their laughter drifting in with the wind. I peeked out our porch window a few times, and I was glad I had forced Anna to go, as flying a kite is really a two person operation. I was proud of her for jumping into the fun and cheering Sea Bass on as he tried to raise his kite off the ground.
After they flew kites, Sebastian saw his friends, our neighbors, playing across the street at the park, and he went out to join them. Anna and I played with Kiki, the doll I made her when she was four, finding an outfit for her from her assortment of handmade clothes and fixing her hair. This is something Anna had asked to do yesterday, and I was glad we were making the time to do it. She really doesn’t play with dolls that often, but I know the days of dressing dolls are probably numbered. After Kiki was clad in a fresh ensemble, we decided to go swimming and went out searching for Sebastian. He and his buddies were climbing a tree. They had discovered the perfect tree fort. It was slightly precarious as part of the branches rested over the lake, but I used a stick to assess the water depth as “not that deep,” and reminded the kids not to go to the outermost parts of the tree, which they sort of paid attention to. I talked with my neighbor and watched the kids create a fictional world together in this tree on the lake, and I realized how much I loved seeing them engage in this kind of play, how glad I was that Anna, at 9, didn’t consider herself too old for this kind of play. Lately, on the playground I noticed that she won’t always join in until I join in, and I’m realizing that maybe she’s decided that if mom’s not too old, she can’t be either.
After conquering worlds and defeating pirates, we went swimming. Sea Bass showed off his new strokes and skills, and Anna put me in charge of judging lots of handstands, like hundreds of handstands. We splashed and joked around and swam into the late afternoon.
We returned home and showered, and I walked Cato, our dog and called my dad. I inquired about his day and shared how we had spent ours, how good it felt to play with the kids all day, but how the household chores and projects weighed on me a little, and I felt like perhaps I should have accomplished more.
I didn’t step foot in the office, but I managed to load a set of dishes in the dishwasher before Grandma came over with little Cousin Ben. I pushed his stroller as we walked to the terrace to meet the rest of the family. Sea Bass and I made faces at Ben and got him to smile at us. As Ben drifted off to sleep sucking his thumb, I was reminded of when Anna and Bass were that small.
As I sat on the terrace and watched the orange sun bathe itself in the lake, I reflected on my residual guilt at not accomplishing more with my day. And then, I walked to the water’s edge and washed my hands of the residue. I left it all there on the terrace floor…the sweeping, the laundry, the papers on the dining room table, the boxes in the office closet, the shoes in my bedroom, the shelf that’s supposed to help me be more organized, the shelf I failed to put together, the dog food I didn’t buy, the car I failed to rent for our upcoming vacation, the checks I failed to deposit, the bills I failed to pay, the package I failed to send…I submerged my hands in the lake water and shook them out vigorously, letting my to do list and its accompanying guilt burden Lake Mendota for a moment.
I recast my day in the sun’s golden glory. I reflected on how I flew to Mexico through Canada and mustered the courage to do one monkey bar and in doing so helped my son find the courage to do them all. I braided a doll’s hair as Anna asked me if it was okay that she sometimes pretended that Kiki and Rufus, her pet wolf, were real. I assured her that it was and told her that they are as real as she makes them. I listened as she shared how disappointed she was with her swimming “report card,” which they give at the end of swimming lessons, and I told her that she should be proud of herself because she had tried her best and made progress. It’s the growth that matters. Sometimes, one monkey bar is a triumph. Sometimes, ignoring the tasks, is the accomplishment.
The sun has set, and tomorrow is a new day. Tempting as it is, I can’t let all those tasks sink to the bottom of Lake Mendota forever, but maybe I can leave some of them on its shores for a little longer, realizing that time is indeed a treasure, and one day, just as my nephew’s sweet face brought me back to an earlier time, I will recollect these summers, and when I do, what will my mind drift to?
I imagine it won’t be how productive I was…

Prioritizing Passion

I am a writer and a teacher of writing. This year, I helped ten students write and publish their own novels, a feat I am extremely proud of, but I have a confession to make, I failed to write even a simple journal entry. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote a lot. Emails, feedback on students’ writing, proposals, requests, job applications, more feedback on students’ writing.  And it’s not that I think that kind of writing doesn’t count because it does. In the right context, that kind of writing can be essential, transformative and impactful, but it is not the only kind of writing that I want to do.  My ten young writers searched for content within, and then used their imaginations and intellect to weave those ideas into stories. The writing they did was driven by passion.

My students inspired me to sign up for a week-long writing workshop organized by the Greater Madison Writing Project. My hope was that by participating in the workshop at the beginning of the summer, it would be just the push I needed to put the content within me on paper. I also wanted to learn how to become a better teacher of writing, but my motivation for attending extended beyond my classroom. Ironically, through the course of the week, I was reminded that my personal and professional writing goals are not conflicting. Rather, they go hand in hand. I have a tendency to complicate things sometimes by overthinking. In this case, it boiled down simply to this core belief; I become a better teacher of writing by writing. And by sharing my writing with others, conferencing, receiving feedback etc.,…but it starts by simply writing.

The concept is simple, but the application is hard. I look back on this past school year, and the fact that I failed to do any writing haunts me. To be fair, I returned to work full-time at a new job, teaching several subjects and age groups which I had previously never taught before at two different schools, while raising two kids in a new city. I had a lot of material at my fingertips, but I never transferred it to the page.

I have watched my friends find and nurture their passions over the years. Ali is a dear friend of mine who I met when our kids attended a cooperative nursery school together.  In my son’s second year at the school, we started meeting weekly for crafting playdates. Our three- year-olds played while Andrea, another pre-school mom, taught us how to sew. I learned a few sewing basics, but to be honest, after our sessions, I still couldn’t thread a bobbin. Ali, on the other hand, bought a sewing machine and started following design blogs and visiting second hand shops picking up pieces she thought had potential. She created her own design blog, and somehow in her world of parenting two kids, and homeschooling one, she finds time to make posts, and the posts are good.

When my family and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, I discovered that our house was sandwiched in between the houses of two crafty and talented women who enjoy making things with their hands. Once again, I found such pleasure in gathering with these women, not so much because I have a passion or latent talent for sewing, but because I found it life-giving to be surrounded by women exploring their interests, taking time to work on something that they love and learning from each other.

Last week’s writing workshop, just like my crafting circles, was also life-giving. I once again found myself surrounded by inspiring people exploring their passions and learning from each other. For me, it held particular importance because it was a conscious choice to prioritize what I am passionate about and potentially have some talent for over learning something new from someone else’s talent. Don’t get me wrong, I hope I continue to learn new things from highly motivated and passionate people until I die. I still haven’t given up hope that I might learn to ski one day, but there’s a subtle difference between pursuing the creative desires on your heart and being in the company of others while they pursue theirs.  Every day since last week’s conference, I have woken up with a new energy in my life and a renewed sense of purpose and meaning. I think I know how Ali felt when she bought her first sewing machine. I think the reason she can blog in the midst of all the other things she has to do, the reason why she still finds time to turn a tossed out piece of furniture into a masterpiece is because it is her passion. For a long time, I think I have known that writing is mine, but I’ve never made my passion a priority.

Until now.

Last week, I engaged in daily, active, fresh writing with a passionate, dedicated, supportive group of colleagues. I shared my writing with these colleagues, and they told me I should start a blog, that if I put my writing on display for the world, they would read it. I was excited and inspired and a little intimidated. I didn’t share with them that I don’t even have a Facebook page. I don’t know what will come of my daily writing. The idea of putting something raw and incomplete before the world, like planting a seed without being sure of what will grow, is a little scary, but I’m going to try. I tell my students that writing leads to self-discovery if they are willing to make themselves vulnerable. How can I ask them to do this if I am unwilling to do the same?

The concept is simple, but the application is hard.

Maybe, I need to simplify the application. Maybe, I need to do what I do for my struggling students. I need to set a reasonable goal and provide scaffolds to make it attainable. I can’t attend a writing workshop every week. With two elementary-age kids and a full time job, I can’t set aside entire mornings in a coffee shop and just write.  But, I think I can write for 15 minutes every day. I can allow myself the same grace that I offer to my students, which is the reminder that writing does not always have to be good. Sometimes, it will feel quite messy. Perhaps, if I do that, maybe those 15 minutes will turn into something more. I imagine, though, that somedays it will be a struggle just to piece together those 15 minutes. My hope is that the more I practice, the more routine it will become.

I may not write a novel, but maybe I can create a pocketful of prose.

What are your passions? How do you make them a priority?