Monday, February 25, 2008


I sometimes wonder what came first; the bald head or the carcass?

It’s sort of a chicken or the egg idea but you’ll have to scroll back to read

“The Unlikely Teacher” to understand my analogy. You see, I cannot decide if the Turkey Vulture adapted to the unusual features he was designed with, or if he was given them with intent.

Did God just randomly, in a funny moment, decide to make one bird with a bald head, keen sense of smell and sight and low flying abilities, leading the ugly strange creature to sort out his strengths and adapt to the life of gliding for carrion?

Or, did God think, “I need some way to get rid of decaying carcasses so let me make a bird that can easily find them and give him the tools he needs to do the job.”

Do we have gifts granted at random by God; to use or not to use?

Or did God give them with intent; purposeful in his selection?

I wonder what came first; the story or the writer?

Does it happen that we have a random gift and love for words; happening upon a thought or a story and deciding to write it?

Or were we given the gift of words and the stories we live for a purpose; for teaching, healing, finding truth and meaning?

I suppose it isn’t important to know, but rather to be who we were intended, but still, I wonder…

Saturday, February 16, 2008


“We’re taking ballroom dancing lessons.” my mother-in-law tells me on the phone. The words ballroom dancing take me straight from the conversation to my long gloves, silver shoes and crinolines. William’s Ballroom studio was my secret home away from home for many of my younger years; secret from my school, secret from my friends. It was a place where I found magic and beauty. It was a place filled with young people, infused into a different era. Perhaps the reason I was so enthralled at the time was because the onus for success was not singular; a great deal depended on your partner and the synergy between two people.

Instruction was in groups and between couples and I found the moves easy to master from the beginning. Group classes consisted of the boys and girls being taught in lines, eventually crossing the room to “take a partner.” It was fun to mix it up and dance with different people, but the real good stuff happened when paired with my regular dancing partner.

Getting into position with my partner was like slipping on a favorite pair of soft, faded jeans that knew every curve of my body and fit as a second skin. This kind of dancing is not two people moving simultaneously, but one smooth and graceful unit that needs no eye contact, no words; only music and the rhythm of each others bodies. I was not required to think or decide, but to follow and that, for me, was easy.

Private lessons were my favorite, as they met us where we were and took us higher. Our ‘routine’ was unique to us and we perfected our routines to in order to compete. I adored the long bus rides with our dancers and families to other states for weekends of camaraderie and competition.

It was elegant, sleeveless, fitted dresses that circled out at the waist over layered crinolines; long gloves, very high-heeled silver shoes, hair in a classic up-dos or long cascading curls.

It was tuxedos with shirts that matched the dresses, cuff links and highly polished black shoes.

It was competitors from flashy cities; couples with numbers on their backs and winning in their smiles.

It was hearing just the right swing song or favorite tango begin to play in the ballroom, putting the ease into my head tilted back and to the left and allowing a smile to creep onto my face.

It was hearing the winners called in order of 4th to 1st and standing in that one blazing moment of glory to accept a trophy.

“We’re learning the Rumba.” Dianne tells me and my knees immediately bend as I step into rhythm, hips responding in kind. The Rumba was my favorite dance. I chuckle to myself as I picture my in-laws in tuxedo and crinoline.

“That’s one of the hardest to get right.” I tell her, quite surprised that a teacher would pick that as a first dance. I think of watching beginning Rumba dancers, who find it near impossible to bend the knee of the foot that they are stepping on; quite opposite our natural instinct.

“Well, I can hear the beat and that’s the most important thing. Bob’s still looking for the beat.” She tells me. I picture my sweet, quiet, reserved father- in- law digging out the steps of the sexy Rumba with a sparkle in his eye and a grin on his face.

“I decided to get some CDs for us to practice,” she continued, “so I went to Wal-Mart to the music section.” I am not surprised because Dianne does not do anything half-way and the excitement in her voice tells me that this is going to be a passion to rival golf!

“I asked the boy that worked there to direct me to the Rumba section and he said ‘What’s that’?”

I picture in my head a spiky haired young man with several facial piercing who knows two different dances, the mosh and the cherry picker.

“He told me they have a machine where I could place the bar code beneath and it would play the songs. What a fantastic thing that is!” She continues. “So I found a section that said ‘Mexican Music’ and I spent at least forty-five minutes pushing those CDs under and counting out my steps to try to find the beat.”

I hold in a laugh, picturing my mother-in-law doing the Rumba to Mariachi music in Wal-Mart for forty-five minutes, most likely unaware of the security cameras or the potential crowd gathering.

“You know I have to blog about this.” I tell her. She surrenders immediately.

The vision greets me several times through the day and brings a warm smile. I am envious in a funny way; not just of the dance classes but of the unbridled boldness that it would take to dance alone in Wal-Mart.

And then I wonder; would it really be so weird? There’s a Wal-Mart not far from here.

I really do miss dancing the Rumba…

Friday, February 15, 2008


Our nation has committed that no child will be left behind. Our schools have committed to proficiency for all. Our teachers are committed to student achievement.

Our measure for success?

Standardized testing.

I get it.

I know that we need to be sure that we have a way to verify the success of our methods; to be sure that standards are being met. I just wish there was a different way other than one size fits all tests.

Mastery tests are issued in elementary school and middle school to assess progress along the learning journey and to warm them up for SATs. SATs are issued to test a child’s general knowledge and become his benchmark for a successful future. These tests are intended to provide an accurate and consistent measurement of learning.

I worry about the one size fits all method of testing.

I worry about the child whose brilliance is written in musical notes or stroked with a paint brush rather than a number two pencil.

I worry about the child who locks it up when faced with the silence of the testing room; whose knowledge is strong, but thrown back behind a wall of anxiety.

I worry about the child, who is choked by the stop watch; who can compute with accuracy, but just not as fast as the “standard” child.

I worry about the child whose ideas are bigger than the test.

The writing prompt reads: You are on your way to school and you find a magic key. Tell what you do next and what the key opens.

The directions remind the child to “Think, Plan, Write, Read, Edit and Revise.” Write your opening paragraph on Tuesday night (at least 5-6 sentences) for the beginning of your story and bring back to school tomorrow. This should take 15-20 minutes. Write the middle of your story on Wednesday night (at least 5-6 sentences) and the end of your story on Thursday night (at least 5-6 sentences.)

“Hmmm.” Cadence ponders, serious expression, pencil rolling between her fingers. Her tight lips begin to widen until a slow spreading smile creases her face. One eyebrow raises as she announces, “I’ve got it!” She begins to write as fast as she can to get out the opening sentence or two, and then ponders some more. This process continues and she pauses to share her idea.

“How does this sound?” she asks, laying out her plot in hurried words and I begin to worry about how she will ever get it all written. Her imagination races forward like a freight train, unable to stop.

“It sounds so exciting!” I tell her. “Let’s see if you can get a little more down on paper.”

She writes quickly, her brain faster than her fingers and she tries phrases out loud until she plucks just the right word from her highly charged orbit. She fills the page and re-reads, making revisions, finally satisfied with her opening. It has been thirty minutes.

Night two is much of the same and I realize that the story inside of her will not fit into the next two evenings. I suggest that since she has it all written in her head, perhaps I should see if we could get an extension on the assignment. The next morning, I send a note to her teacher explaining the exciting creative process I have witnessed and request that she have the weekend to finish.

My answer comes on cheerful yellow paper, exclamation marks with smiley faces beneath. “If Cadence likes this particular prompt, certainly she can have the weekend to continue, however most should be completed in 45 minutes.”

I think of the writers I know who have taken a year, or perhaps five, to get their story to the ending. I think about trying to tell my daughter that while her story is good, she needs to cut it in half and get to the point. Wrap it up. Dissect it into three clear sections and focus on a conclusion before the timer goes off.

I hate standardized testing.

I know plenty of children will follow the training manual; select a plan, create three well designed paragraphs (5-6 sentences each) and read, edit and revise in the allotted forty five minutes.

Simple ideas; carefully chosen words.

But what about the thinkers?

What about the writers, whose idea swirls around, scooping up details like leaves in the wind, gaining momentum like a tornado; unstoppable.

Do I teach her to follow the training manual?

To get to the point?

To reach a conclusion?

To think in 5-6 sentences sections?

Or do I teach her to write with her heart, passionately creating as fast as she can, only to risk receiving demerits for not reaching a conclusion?

Do we impose time pressure on other creative disciplines?

Paint quickly, crank out that masterpiece and whip it into a frame?

Or do we allow brilliance to unfold at its pace, taking our breath away in the process?

I need to teach that girl to type; to move her fingers as fast as her ideas. Perhaps she will have to produce mediocrity for the standardized tests and save her brilliance for an appreciative audience.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


“Wait wait wait!” Cadence holds up her hand like a traffic cop, silencing my impending remark. Long brown silk strands pile beside her paper, hands wiggling the pencil as fast as she is able. “Should I put a comma after ‘back’?” she asks in a hurry.

“Yes,” I answer “and you have movement there so show it to me; put it on the body.” She nods and wiggles the pencil some more. In a long pause, eyes to the ceiling, pencil tapping, Brad enters the room. “Cadence, I thought…”

“Shh, shh, shh!” She hisses, head shaking back and forth. “A-ha!” She says satisfied with her thoughts and begins to write some more.

“Okay, here’s the opening paragraph…well, it’s supposed to be only one, but I accidentally filled the page.” I smile as she begins to read aloud, pausing at her mistakes to make corrections.

The phone rings as she finishes and it is her BFF from last year who has moved to a different town. “OH- MY- GOD! I am SOOO happy you called! I miss you SOOOO much!” She squeals, jumping to her feet. I assume my position at the kitchen sink to finish the evening dishes and can see her in the reflection of the window, walking and talking. After twenty or so laps around the island, the conversation shifts from catching up to current events.

“I was just finishing a writing prompt that I had for homework…..What? You hate writing prompts? Are you kidding? I LOVE writing! I have my own blog now...
What? Oh, it’s a place where you put your writing online.”

I smile.

“Me and my mom, we’ve got writing in our blood.” She explains.

I beam.

Friday, February 08, 2008


As a novice gardener, I have learned many things through trial and error over the years and have discovered that I do not “grow” flowers, but rather coach them; they do the growing on their own. I also have come to realize that I am happiest with perennials that keep coming back in spite of my mistakes. My job is to weed out the harmful influences, keep them healthy and free of disease, and to protect and feed them. This is likewise true of my children.

In my own garden, it took me a while to learn that what is good for the Rose, is not also good for the Iris. The Rose requires rich, loose soil in order to embed its roots deeply. It needs lots of water and fertilizer, as well as mulch to protect it from the harsh freeze of winter. The Rose thrives best when carefully pruned, in order to redirect growth in the plant. Correct pruning encourages vigorous blooming and healthy new shoots. Removing dead and damaged wood allows the plant to produce healthy new canes. Occasionally, Roses require hard pruning to thrive; particularly for rejuvenating weak or neglected roses. Hard pruning builds up a strong root system and stimulates the plant to produce new, strong canes.

The Iris, on the other hand, has a thick fleshy root called a rhizome and needs to be planted in well drained, even grainy soil. It cannot tolerate excessive moisture and should be buried just beneath the surface. Once established in the ground, the Iris grows to the surface where it is exposed to the elements; surviving the harsh cold under cover from the snow. Mulch is not required and even damaging as it attracts pests and traps moisture.

In my early gardening days, I relocated a large batch of Iris to a cutting garden that I had planted in the back yard, fully expecting them to thrive in the rich soil beside the Peonies and beneath the mulch. I was not disheartened the first spring when the Irises grew but did not bloom and attributed this to the recent move and the need to settle in. In the second spring, few of the Irises came up at all and upon turning the soil, I found that the rhizomes had rotted.

In my early parenting days, I thought that raising children was similar to growing flowers, provide them all with rich soil, lots of food, water and sunshine and they would bloom. By the time my first born was fully entrenched in elementary school, I realized that he was not exactly like the other flowers in his classroom garden. His first two years were with experienced gardeners who knew just what he needed to thrive, but by second grade, he became disillusioned with school altogether and told me he just wasn’t good at it. His second grade teacher was a long time Rose gardener. She provided the rich soil and mulch and drenched him with water, but he did not bloom. She took to hard pruning; the kind reserved for weak and neglected Roses, but he withered.

It was shortly thereafter that our ADHD diagnosis came; something I knew in my heart all along. His time in the garden since then has been a seasonal adventure with each transplant. He would endure pruning and mulch some years, barely surviving the season, and then the Iris gardeners would collect him up and brush him off before the rot set in, planting him where he needed to be; exposed and at the surface, thriving on being able to feel the baking of the sun and the burning of the winter freeze. In the right soil, his blooms are outstanding and shine through his art and music.

My quest for seeking the right teacher became more difficult in middle school where teams of teachers worked together. He is now in high school where he does his academic day in our town high school, and buses to an arts magnet high school in a nearby city in the afternoon where he thrives; a balance that seems to work.

My second born is a Rose. His roots are deep and strong in the rich soil and he soaks up the waters of knowledge. He blooms well in the organized, structured environment that most of his teachers offer and grows stronger with pruning. His blooms are healthy and he has strong shoots covered with thorns to protect him from harm. He moves from garden to garden each year with relative ease, knowing what to expect and surrounded by others like him.

When my youngest was born, I knew early on that I was coaching an Iris. She possesses all of the creativity and lack of focus found in my first born, and likewise needs to feel everything, living life exposed on the surface. As a seasoned mother and gardener, I know to keep her out of the deep soil and to avoid excessive moisture. I am also not persuaded by Rose gardeners who wish to prune her, believing that she would be better as a Rose or that the Rose is more desirable.

She, too, had amazing teachers in her first years, but by first grade encountered a militant Rose gardener who, in the first ten days of school, decided to tape a tracking sheet on her desk and filled it with smiles or frowns at every transition, depending on her ability to stay on track and focused. At the end of the day, the teacher and all within view could see just how short she fell, as if shaming her would help her to concentrate and conform.

This teacher had a stop light in the class room where all of the flowers clipped their name in the green zone each morning. If they fell out of stride, they moved their clips to yellow and eventually to red where a parent would be called. Our first phone call was in the early weeks of school. When I asked my Iris what she had done to go to red, she admitted that she was singing and ‘there is no singing allowed in first grade.’ I brushed the mulch off of her and told her that I loved her singing and if she had to save it up all day, I was ready for a concert when she got home.

One Monday morning, I arrived to chaperone a field trip and noticed just after arrival that my Iris was clipped to yellow. “She, she’s having a bad day already.” One boy told me in passing. My daughter looked around in a small panic to figure out what she had done wrong, when the teacher admitted that it was left there from Friday. That week she brought home a drawing of what she learned in school. It was a picture of herself kneeling next to the stoplight, clipping her name on red with one sad tear on her cheek. The caption read, ‘I learned about school rules.’

She was slow to gain fluency in reading and understands math concepts beautifully if allowed to process equations through her own style. She also has reached the age of self awareness, where she notices her differences in the classroom garden.

“Sam is so much better than me at math and reading.” She told me one evening. ‘She does it so fast and always gets her work done on time.”

“Are you not able to get your work done?” I ask her.

“I never have a chance to finish because I get distracted in thinking about something a lot. The world is full of so many amazing things that when I see or think about them, I just can’t stop! ”

I explain that while it is important to get things done and we will find ways to help her with that, she should not sell herself short. I point out that we all have been given different gifts and that for some, reading, math and focusing are easier. Some people have organized minds that are great at following a plan. But some minds are thinking minds and where would we be without them?

“The world needs both kinds of people and you are a thinker!” I tell her.

As we prepare to leap to middle school next year, I continue to search for an eclectic garden for my Iris. We explored an arts magnet middle school in a nearby city, but it did not feel right to her. I am praying that she finds an experienced gardener with room for all varieties. As always, I will be standing by, gloves on and trowel ready to dig her out, brush off the mulch and listen to her sing.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


I have never bought oatmeal, marshmallows or fluffernutter for my family. I have never cooked soft-boiled eggs, lima beans or liver. The things that I detested in my childhood have never made their way into my adult life. I have no problem with my kids declining a meal that they dislike, opting for a sandwich or last night’s leftovers instead. The ‘eat-it-or-else’ philosophy did not follow me into motherhood.

On the other hand, there are many rituals, traditions and practices from my upbringing that I have embraced. We were raised Roman Catholic and my mother made certain that we practiced our faith. Keeping true to the sacraments was important and my mom didn’t miss a beat marching to the rhythm of the religious calendar. While I did not embrace these practices in a deeply personal, spiritual way until much later in my life, I did not rebuke them either.

As a young girl I liked going to church, but I dreaded confession, as I was not really sure how to keep track from week to week of the transgression of my childhood. Hating my brother would be described as ‘fighting with my brother’ and I would wedge it in between ‘I lied five times and talked back to my parents.’ The truth is, I would write a mental list of palatable offenses while waiting in line to whisper into the screen in the daunting dark confessional booth. I worried that the stuff I was saying was inaccurate and wondered if being off by 3 or 5 lies could land me a place in eternal hell.

Confession was made worse, however, when the scary, dark booth was eliminated and the progressive movement in our church led us into open rooms with a small screen on a stand shielding my face from the Father’s. There was always the option of sitting in a chair directly across from the priest for face-to-face dialog. No face-to-face for this girl; not a chance.

Perhaps the single most uncomfortable practice for me came once a year; Ash Wednesday and the receiving of ashes. At a designated time that seemed to always land between school and dance class, my mom would haul us to church where we would kneel for prayer and then take our place at the alter for the priest to tell us that we came from ashes and so would return. He would dip his thumb into the ash and smudge our foreheads. It was supposed to be the sign of the cross, but to me looked more like a smudge of dirt. My mother told us not to wipe it off.

At dance class, I was keenly aware of the other girls’ foreheads and searched desperately to find one smudged like my own. I made all kinds of gestures to ‘accidentally’ rub some off, hoping to make them less obvious while maintaining my place in eternal life. If I was lucky, there would be at least one other girl smudged and less clever about the wipe-off, so that her ashes were darker and more obvious, allowing me to draw less attention.

My faith was an ebb and flow through my adolescent years and on into college where going to church was reserved for the family holidays. I had one devoutly Christian friend who dragged a whole group of us to the chapel on campus for the Ash Wednesday smudging and we did so laughing and giggling as if we were doing something outrageous.

Years later upon meeting my husband, I agreed to go to a Christmas Eve service at the Episcopal Church in the town where we lived. It was a slow uphill climb until I reached the place where I not longer felt I was ‘cheating’ on my Catholic heritage and realized that this Christian faith was so similar to my former practice. The service is basically the same, with the exception of an in service group confession. This worked just fine for me.

Through the years, I have grown deeply rooted in my church. We were married in this place, baptized our babies here and recently confirmed my oldest. My son and I serve on the alter many Sundays and I have come to love the traditions of my church. Lent is a meaningful time for me and while I have not required my children to keep Lenten practices, they have followed me along that path. In some years, I have attended Bible studies and Lenten programs and in all years I have challenged myself to deny some of life’s more evil indulgences on a pilgrimage of self purity.

The culminating week, Holy Week is filled with moving services that I have attended through the years: Palm Sunday begins the week as we stroll across the town green singing and waving palms in anticipation of the King’s arrival. The service of Tenebrae is powerful and moving; Maundy Thursday we sit quietly at the foot of a life-sized cross in the dimly lit silence of the late night watch; Good Friday service is followed by Holy Saturday where my children have had their feet washed, partaken in a last supper and heard the door of the tomb slam shut.

The one and only practice that I have not made ritual is Ash Wednesday. Unlike the Catholic practice, the Imposition of Ashes in the Episcopal Church is done during a service; a full service; a Collect, Psalm, Two Reading, Gospel, Sermon and Communion Service. The services are at 6:30am, 12:00 noon, or 7:30 in the evening. Ashes never seemed terribly convenient and I excused myself with the justification that I kept many of the other practices.

“Mom, why is it called Ash Wednesday?” Cadence asked, as we discussed our commitments for the Lenten weeks. I explained about the burning of last year’s palms and about the ashes to ashes message. “Why don’t we do that?” my nine-year-old asked me, really wondering. “Can we go get ashes today?”

“We’ll see.” I answer, thinking about 7:30pm. I have committed to a meeting at the middle school to help in planning the eighth grade dinner dance. As the rainy, dreary day rolls along, I feel increasingly like I am coming down with a cold and cannot seem to get warm. By the days end, I wrestle with fatigue and a headache and decide to beg out of the school meeting. Brad is late coming home and I have fed the kids and flopped on the couch under a blanket, wishing it was late enough to go to bed.

At 7:00, Cadence notices the time and asks when we are going to get ashes. I explain that I am not feeling well and disappointment washes over her. “Maybe Dad will take you.” I offer, knowing the chance of this is slim. I hear him faltering through his explanation in the kitchen, that although he has just walked in the door, he is far from finished and needs to sit down to work. “But Dad, it’s for Jesus.” Cadences pleads before returning next to me on the couch.

“Any luck?” I ask, watching her mouth tighten and head shake no. I can see through her to her mind, still twirling to figure out how she will get to the church. “Do I need to take you?” I ask.

“It’s for Jesus.” She answers and runs off to fetch her coat.

We arrive a couple of minutes into the service and move our way right up to the front, sitting on the right side opposite our usual spot on the left. Cadence opens a prayer book and we find our place as she follows along. The church is dotted with twenty or so people and the familiar is strangely new in the darkness of evening with the prayers altered for the day. We move through the first reading to Psalm 103 with the congregation singing a refrain, “The Lord remembers that we are but dust.”

Cadences forehead scrunches as we sing, and she looks up at me confused. “I don’t get this.” She whispers, pointing to the refrain. I begin to explain the ashes to ashes theory and she interrupts, “not that… this.” She says, pointing repeatedly at the last two words, ‘but dust.’ A moment later I realize that she does not see the word ‘but’ as the word ‘only’; rather she sees it as ‘butt’.

“We are butt dust?” She whispers, not sure if she should be shocked or laughing. I suppress a giggle and am reminded that while she is remarkably mature, she is still only nine. Cadence is completely tuned into the sermon, given by our British female priest, Angela. The time finally comes to move silently to the alter to kneel for ashes. I watch Angela to the left dip her index finger into the bowl and pointedly make a neat black cross on the heads of one after another. Then I see the people turn to leave from Father Hank’s side on the right. Father Hank does nothing half way. He is known for drenching sweet babies at Baptism and it comes as no surprise that he is going big with the ashes; really big; hairline to the bridge of your nose big. I watch as he dips his thumb, painting what could never be mistaken for a smudge of dirt, but clearly a large cross on forehead after forehead and I secretly wish we sat in our usual spot on the left.

Cadence is first and she looks up at me, her little face glowing and freckled with specs of ash beneath the cross. I turn to her after receiving my ashes and she smiles and nods with satisfaction. She makes her way around the church during the Peace, shaking hands saying “Peace be with you.” Back in the pew next to me, we open the Hymnal to sing. “Is it still there?” She asks. I smile and nod.

On the way home, I tell Cadence that the very last thing I wanted to do this evening was to get off the couch to come to church, but I am grateful that she brought me. “Will it still be on my head tomorrow?” She asks.

“Maybe a little.” I answer, thinking back to dance class. “Will that bother you to go to school with ashes?”

“No way. I want them there.” She answers. “It’s for Jesus.”