Friday, August 18, 2017

Friday Feature: Walk Across Connecticut

In a time where most of the news about politics and elected officials leaves me shaking my head (to say the least), it was really refreshing to read a good news piece -- or a series of them, actually -- about a politician who wants to listen to what his constituents have to say. This final entry in the series on Medium about Senator Chris Murphy's Walk Across Connecticut is short on political rhetoric and long on pictures of his home state and the people he represents. My favorite part is his reflection at the end of this piece on the advice he received from a veteran senator but, you're like me, you'll find yourself going back to the beginning to see the whole trip and read the whole story.

Wishing you a wonderful weekend, even if (or perhaps especially if) you're not walking across your state.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Celebrating in Character

Book photo: Conger Design via Pixabay
Yesterday was National Relaxation Day. Did you celebrate?

I spent the day back-to-school clothing shopping with my daughter. I don't know if it was relaxing, but it was fun. I'm grateful to have a daughter whose company I enjoy, even if it means the house is going to seem very empty when she goes back to school next week.

Last Sunday was my birthday -- my first without my mom. I relaxed and celebrated by going to church, hanging out at home working on a syllabus and going to dinner with my family. Hardly a wild and crazy birthday celebration, but it was the one I wanted this year. I got to check something off my to-do list (which counts as relaxing because it reduced my stress level!) and spend time just being with people I love.

It's funny how our ideas of things like relaxing and celebrating change over time. Sometimes, it's a matter of growing older, but more often, it has to do with personality. Introverts celebrate differently from extroverts. Mothers celebrate differently than their daughters do, and husbands have a different definition than wives.

For writers, these differences, like so many others, figure into character development. Back when Marita and Bets were teenagers, relaxing and celebrating involved things like drinking and dancing -- the wilder and crazier the better. Bets retained more of her wild child over time, but Marita's was tamed a bit by motherhood. Sure, she still loves to get dressed up and go out, preferably with Bets, but these days, Marita sets her own curfews. With a young teen daughter as her first priority, Marita always has going home at the end of the evening -- to her own home -- in the back of her mind. This governs her behavior more than her parents or any significant other ever could because it's a choice she makes about how she wants to run her life.

For Angel, celebration and family go hand in hand. Despite the fact that she's younger than Bets and Marita, for Angel, celebrations have always been quieter. She might like a party, but only if it's populated with friends and loved ones; most of the time, she's just as happy to stay home. A night out on the town needs to center on the people she goes out with, not everyone else in the room.  While Marita's idea of celebration means getting away from her parents and letting loose, Angel still feels the pain of her mother's desertion profoundly. Instead of getting away from anyone, Angel strives to hold tightly to those she loves, a part of her afraid to lose anyone else.

As I work on the third novel with these characters, I continue to learn more about them, including  how they feel, how they relax and how they celebrate. In this third book, the way in which Marita and Angel approach their lives, the expectations they have for themselves and others around them and their unmet needs all play a part. I'm not sure I set out to explore all of this when I sat down to write the next chapters of their lives, but once again, my characters have drawn me into their stories.

And, in my opinion, that's exactly what a reader should expect from a book as well.

Happy Belated National Relaxation Day. If you haven't already celebrated, maybe now's the time.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Special Invitation

This painting on the wall at camp by York artist Brett Greiman
honors donors who make Camp Pennwood possible.
Watching your kids grow up is a pretty cool thing. You see them go from helpless to tentatively trying things on their own, to a level of independence unimaginable when they were babies. Most of us get to see our kids become fully separate individuals, moving on to lives and families of their own, a bittersweet progression that leaves us both proud and nostalgic.

Those of us who are educators also get to watch other people's kids grow up, and, as with our own children, we have a special stake in the process. As these children and young adults pass through our classrooms and our schools, we get a chance to nurture them, watching as they grow and change, contributing in some small way to the separate individuals they are becoming.

If we're really lucky, we get other glimpses over the years as well. Concerts, sporting events, drama club productions. Graduations, college activities, weddings. As someone who spent most of her career at the elementary school level before moving on to teach at a college, I've had the amazing experience of meeting my elementary school graduates again in the college classroom, being a part of their lives at two very different stages.

My daughter, now a college sophomore herself, has spent the last two summers as a counselor at a camp for kids with special needs. Last week, she invited me to Friends and Family Day. Having been cut off from similar events after her sixth grade year, I should have been excited, but my first reaction was mixed. I still had so much  to do to get ready for my impending semester and a whole unchecked to-do list on my desk.

But she wanted me to go, and that was enough.

I might have been too foolish at first to recognize this for the gift that it was, but it didn't take me long to realize my mistake. My daughter and her friends -- many of them former students of mine -- were impressive. They were poised and attentive, loving and firm. They knew their campers. They knew when to exchange a smile and when to use a firm tone. They knew almost instinctively who needed help before they needed it, and when a camper demonstrated a need, a counselor arrived in a heartbeat to meet it.

But the best part was the fact that all of this happened in a lively, fun-filled environment. These young counselors weren't just about meeting the campers' needs. They were about making sure their kids could enjoy the experience.

As proud as I was of my daughter, I didn't miss the contrast between my kids and hers. While her campers' parents had seen their children go from helpless to tentatively trying things on their own, to a level of independence unimaginable when they were babies, many of them would not get to see their kids become fully separate individuals, moving on to lives and families of their own.

What had begun as a day to watch my daughter in action quickly became a day of gratitude. I was grateful to enjoy the opportunity to see what she'd been doing all summer; grateful to see my former elementary students as engaged and compassionate young adults; grateful to see that I'd raised a child who, along with her friends, was in a position to be a leader, one who could give of her talents so freely and naturally.

And I was grateful to see the campers in action. Just like the counselors and the parents, each camper brought his or her own personality, likes, dislikes and capabilities to camp that day. While there was a definite contrast between the futures of the counselors and the campers, amid all of the differences, there was joy. Joy in the accomplishments, joy in the interactions and joy in the celebration of a summer spent together.

Photo: Rudy Anderson via Pixabay
Today, the teachers I worked with side-by-side for twenty-seven years will start a new school year. It's the earliest start our district has ever had, and my friends are ready in some ways, not ready in others. Still, I have no doubt that the teachers who played a part in shaping those camp counselors I saw last week will work their magic once again, shaping a new generation of kids who will finish school ready for a level of independence unimaginable when they first started. Along the way, I hope these kids will not only improve their knowledge, critical thinking and academic understanding, but also nurture their own gifts of compassion, kindness and social intuition.

But above all, I hope they -- students and teachers alike -- find joy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Friday Feature: Family Dinners

When I saw the photo at the top of this week's article, it reminded me of summer days when my daughter and I had picnics in the living room and watched a movie over lunch. Often those meals were takeout rather than a normal boring lunch, and she always thought it was fun (and so did I).

Throughout her life, family dinners have been the rule, not the exception. Times varied according to everyone's activities for the day, and, truth be told, sometimes the the table was cluttered with more than just food and dishes. Admittedly, scheduling these dinners got harder as she got older and, now that she is away from home for much of the year, my husband's and my dinners for two sometimes don't make it to the dinner table, where places must be set and the table must be cleared. But when my daughter comes home, she still looks forward to these meals (and so do I) so, whenever possible, we work our dinner plans around varied schedules so we can all eat together.

As an educator, I'm a big proponent of the family dinner, no matter what it looks like. I believe it keeps families connected and I think the fact that my daughter can demonstrate basic table manners and hold an intelligent conversation over a meal (to which electronic devices are not invited) has a lot to do with our informal discussions over dinner, most of which began with one simple question.

"How was your day?"

Bon app├ętit.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Are You a Book Lover?

Photo: Ninocare via Pixabay
Happy Book Lovers Day! Alexa (my Amazon Echo Dot) has been entertaining me with famous first lines from great books, some of which I've read and several of which I have not. It's been fun, and has inspired in me a desire to stop writing this post and go read a book -- probably exactly what Amazon had in mind.

As a writer, I'm often given the (good) advice to read, read, read! While I read a lot, much of it is functional reading -- things I need to read for some other reason, like course prep or critique group or things I stumble across on social media. Okay, maybe that last one isn't essential reading, but I do find some of my best Friday Features and supplemental articles for my classes on Twitter.

Writers are always trying to find a balance between reading and writing. With limited time to take in the words on the page and still find time to put our own words on a (different) page, one or the other invariably suffers.

Days like Book Lovers Day give me a great excuse to step away from the computer or the textbook and pick up something I want to read for fun. These days, there's a lot of crossover between what I read for work and what I read for fun, which is a good sign that I love what I do. Unfortunately, it also means I don't read many novels.

Like most book lovers, I have a large pool (it stopped being a stack years ago) of TBR (to-be-read) books, something I find both comforting (there's always something to read) and overwhelming (I'll never get through all of these!) This pool, while doing nothing to deter me from accumulating more books, whether from the library, a bookstore or online, has made me a pickier reader. I used to think I had to finish every book I started. Now, books get anywhere from ten to fifty pages to make their case. If they don't manage to do so within that time frame, I move on to a different book.

If you're a book lover, you probably don't need much of a nudge to celebrate this day with a good book. And, while I know most book lovers have their own TBR stack, on the off-chance that you're looking for your next book escape, I'll close with the opening line from Casting the First Stone.

I wouldn't want to leave you book-less on Book Lovers Day.

"Marita Mercer adjusted the icicle-thin strap of her leopard print camisole and 
then tugged once, twice, three times."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Exit Summer, Enter Lists

According to, today is Beach Party Day. (It's also Particularly Preposterous Packaging Day, which I find much too funny).

Outside my window, it's cloudy and gray, which is just one of the reasons I'd much rather be at the beach (party or no party). But, alas, it's August.

August is list month.

Yes, I'm aware that it was August for much of last week, too, but last Monday, it was still July. I could still deny. Today, it is inarguably August. The calendar above my desk proclaims, "Today is going to be a great day!"

I might believe it if I were at the beach.

Nah. I still believe it. I'm one of those people who thinks it's up to me to decide how my day goes and, since it's August, that means lists.

Lists of things I need to do before the semester starts. Phone calls. Appointments. Shopping lists. Class planning.

You know. All the stuff I was supposed to be checking off those other lists all summer.

And I have been. But now it's time to take stock of what I have done and what I have left to do.

That first part is very important. It's all too easy to focus only on what remains to be done (a battle I fight every day, but am getting better at winning). When we do this, we lose heart, and the energy we need to attack the lists is depleted by guilt and frustration. If we've spent the summer exploring -- which, by definition, requires going off the path, taking detours and finding new possibilities -- it's easy to feel as though we haven't accomplished much.

Photo: Jules Roman via Pixabay
But we have. Or, at least I know I have. An hour of writing here, an hour of class planning there, an hour (broken up into fifteen minute increments) of nagging my daughter to create her back-to-school list.

So, as I sit down to create the lists that will create my road map for the next three weeks, I'm going to add one more list to the pile, one that evokes memories of September essays.

What I did on my summer vacation.

It might make me long for more of the same, but, hey. It's Beach Party Day. A vicarious celebration is better than none at all.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Friday Feature: Planting Seeds

Have you ever gotten to the end of the day and wondered what you did all day?

Yeah. Me too.

As an educator, one of my favorite quotes is this one from Robert Louis Stevenson:

Teachers plant seeds daily, having faith that, one day, those seeds will sprout and, collectively, a forest will spring up. But, on a day to day basis, the view is seeds and soil, with an occasional sprout to keep hope alive. 

The fact is, that's how it is for most of us, most days. Whether we're parents, business people or creative artists, each day, we show up and we plant seeds.

In this article in Inc., Josh Linkner asserts that this is what successful people do. Planting seeds is part of the process -- a necessary part of the process, not just of being professional, but of being human.

So, whether you have a green thumb or, like me, leave the gardening to others with more talent in that area, you probably plant seeds every day, whether through teaching, training or even  conversation. Even on the days you feel as though the weed are closing in, there is probably some morsel of good that you've done. 

Next time you wonder what you've done all day, think about those seeds. You never know when -- or where -- they might take root.