Skip to content

Little House in the Woods

I’m in the middle of chopping garlic for dinner when Randy says, “I’m going to go do some extermination work in the hopes that we won’t hear those critters again.”

I nod.  It would be nice not to be woken by the sounds of something chewing through the insulation in our roof.

We’re in a tiny house for the summer.  Cozy and sweet, but when you hear critters in the roof, you know they’re not so far from your head.  I (nominally) helped my husband build the house, so I’ve seen the layers, and there aren’t many.  Not enough to make me feel secure when I hear gnawing in the night.

It’s not until the screen door has shut behind Randy and I’ve heard his footsteps fade away that it occurs to me that perhaps he wasn’t talking about spraying pesticide into the eaves.  Having grown up hunting, he’s a believer in what he calls “a high-speed lead delivery system” to dispatch unwanted animals.

I keep chopping, but wonder if I should have nodded.  Maybe I should have discouraged him.  I’m a vegetarian, and don’t even like to kill ants.  I’m not sure how I feel about killing chipmunks (or maybe squirrels?) just so I can sleep securely through the night.

Now I’m aware that in addition to the bird song I’ve been hearing, I can also hear the chittering of a squirrel.  Is that what Randy is going after?

As I slide the garlic into the pan and reach for the broccoli, the chittering stops.  I stop a moment, too, to wonder: Did Randy kill it?  But, I reason, I didn’t hear anything like a gun.  My mind asks back: Would I hear it?  This is the first time we’ve had a reason to hold a grudge against animals in the area.  The chittering starts again, and I breathe more deeply, though I also don’t want the squirrel in my ceiling. With each bite I hear at night, I imagine less insulation warming the house in the winter and wonder how close the animal is to hitting our plywood ceiling.  Would it gnaw through the plywood?  Will there come a night when it might fall through the ceiling onto our bed? It’s hard to sleep when I’m trying to detail an escape plan.

In the middle of chopping zucchini, suddenly, a boom.  I regret wanting to be rid of the critters, regret being complicit in their deaths.

More chittering; a brief reprieve.

And then another boom, and silence.

The bird song begins again, but no chittering.

A few minutes later, Randy returns to the house, saying, “I wish I had better aim.”

I eye him, trying to decide whether he really missed, or whether he’s saying that because he knows I’ll be happier thinking the squirrel got away.

I decide to believe him because really, I am happier thinking the squirrel got away.  Or at least I will be until I’m awakened again tonight.


A new genre of writing

“The voice is inviting and educated, but not pretentious,” she explained to me.

I nodded, wondering how to make a catalog description inviting and educated but not pretentious, and, furthermore, if I myself was inviting and educated enough for the task.  Perhaps this was where the rose-colored glasses of our friendship would shatter and I would be revealed as not as smart or cultured as she’d always thought.

I fell into this naturally.  One minute my friend was talking about being stressed with too much work, the next I was offering my abundant, not-structured-enough-summer-vacation time to help, imagining sweeping the floor of her store or carrying mail-order packages to the post office–and then the next minute she was saying, “You’re a writer–what I really need is someone to write product descriptions for the website.  Can you come on Tuesday?”

So here it was Tuesday, and I’d dutifully, though apprehensively, showed up.  I was a few minutes late, due to last-minute studying of her website, with its already written catalog descriptions; I needed mentor texts to draw on.

“It’s fun!” she told me as she set me up at a table with beautiful, handmade goods. “You get to research the artists and different types of wood.”  (Yes, I confirmed to myself.  I’m definitely not as intellectual as she imagines.) And she handed me a painted welcome sign, suggesting I start with that.  “It’s the first product we’re selling by this artist, so you’ll get to write the artist description!” she gushed. I gulped.  I was hoping to get to do at least a little cutting and pasting.

The sign was beautiful.  A cheerful orange with daisies on the sides (Were they daisies?  Could I write that in the description if I wasn’t sure?  Should I research daisy varieties?  In the end, I decided to leave out the daisies.)

I looked at the other product descriptions on the website.  Should I start with a question?  None of the other descriptions did.  (Not educated enough?)  What about a dependent clause?  (Too pretentious?  I decided to go for it anyway.)

Painted on reclaimed barn wood, this cheerful welcome sign cheerfully greets you…

Too many cheerfuls.

Painted on reclaimed barn wood, this cheerful welcome sign sings a greeting…

Did the other descriptions include personification?

I searched through the website again, finding no personification.

Painted on reclaimed barn wood, hang this one-of-a-kind sign in your entryway to welcome yourself home after a long day of errands….

Who does long days of errands anymore?  What if the buyer didn’t do any errands?

Painted on reclaimed barn wood, this one-of-a-kind sign sends a cheerful greeting to guests…

But how many guests are people having over these days? It’s cheerful for the owner too.  How can I work that in?

I agonized more over my two sentence description than I do over report cards, typing and deleting, rereading “mentor texts” over and over.

Painted on reclaimed barn wood, this one-of-a-kind sign combines rustic character with vibrant hospitality. Display it by an entryway to greet guests and add cheer as you return home from outings.

In the end, I came to love the sign. How can one spend an hour examining the details of something and not appreciate it? This is what I learned this afternoon.  Not how to write in an inviting and educated, yet not pretentious style (though perhaps I learned to approximate that, as well), but the intertwining of attention and love.

As I worry about the beginning of the school year, perhaps this is what I need to hold onto.  With careful study of details, comes appreciation.  With attention comes love. However school starts, students and I can study each other and get to know the details.  We’ll fall in love.  I didn’t know I could write catalog descriptions, but given enough time, I can.  I didn’t know if I could build community in the new (as yet unknown) “normal” of school, but now I do.





Wild Geese Chase*

I stand in the dark for a moment, then sigh and pull on my robe.  “Slice of Life,” I remember.  It’s not midnight yet.  I can still make it.

I sit at the computer, thoughts swirling.  Do I write about despair?  (“Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine”) Hope?  Spring?  Love?  Frustration?

I can’t.

Like the meditation that is so elusive these days (Oh no!  I realize.  One more thing I forgot to do today!),  my mind refuses to settle.  Too depressing.  Too complaining.  Too trite.  Too overdone.

There are a million excuses, a million reasons not to share my writing, but I choose to ignore this voice in my head.  I choose to–well, not embrace it exactly, but to live with imperfection for the night.  Tomorrow will be imperfect, too, and I will live with that, as well.

As Mary Oliver says, I do not have to be good.

Meanwhile, the world goes on.


*Thank you and apologies to Mary Oliver for the lines I’ve stolen from her beautiful poem “Wild Geese”

The Forsythia Bush

so much depends

a golden bush
of forsythias

bursting with sun

against the blue

Teacher Parade

I finish taping the sign to my back window.  It’s not nearly as fancy as some of the cars in line in front of me, but it will do.  I look around at the other cars, think about going over to say hi to friends, then decide I don’t want to be the reason the parade doesn’t start on time, so I settle into the driver’s seat instead.

Engines start.  We’re off!  The line moves slowly out of the parking lot, music blares from the sunroof of one of the cars, and I wonder who benefits more from this parade: students or teachers?

It’s the perfect day.  Sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and it’s warm enough to keep the windows rolled down.  We roll past families sitting on their front lawns holding signs of love.  I’m excited to see families, having fun driving down streets I’ve never been down before, happy to be outside.

I reach over to the passenger seat and feel around for the sandwich I packed for myself, but then we drive past another stretch of houses with families in front and I quickly pull my hand back to wave.  Anyway, I wouldn’t be able to call “Hi!” with my mouth full, so I grab bites intermittently when waiting at stop signs.

I watch my friend’s car peel away from the caravan and head in the opposite direction.  I had books for her in my car, but I’d thought I’d see her after the parade.  I’m wistful now about not saying hi before the parade started.

I have no idea what road I’m on, no idea where we are on the parade route.  I’m hoping we’re close to the end, but every road looks the same.  I keep smiling and waving to everyone I see, but my energy is waning.  Peeling off is starting to sound like a better idea.

We turn back into the school parking lot and I’m hoping that we’re done, but an email had said something about two different routes.  We must have done both by now, I think to myself, but all the other cars are staying in the line and turning in the same direction.  I consider going home anyway, but I think of the students who might be on this second route, and stay in line.

I’ve tried to resist turning on my audiobook–I wanted to give all my attention to waving at families, but I just can’t do it any longer.  The gristly details of a murder mystery float out of my speakers, and I roll up my windows, but then I can’t wave out of them, so I roll them back down and turn the volume down as low as I can, hoping no families will notice the lurid words coming out of my car.

We pass the student whose mother had emailed me to make sure their house was on the parade route.  I shout a hello and wave my hand vigorously out the window.  I decide I definitely deserve a treat when I’m done, and debate whether I’ll go out of my way to get a drive-through milkshake or go home and make myself a cup of highly caffeinated tea.

The line of cars seems to be shorter, and then the head car pulls off to the side at a stop sign.  As I drive up to the intersection, the driver calls to me, “That’s it!  You can go home!”  I’m ready, though I’m not sure which way to turn to go home.  I pick the direction that seems to lead to a larger road, hoping that it will lead me somewhere familiar.  It feels slightly anti-climactic to leave like this–no chatting about how fun it was with colleagues, no exchanging stories about what we’ve been up to.

I’m happy to have made it to the end, happy to have seen the students who waited outside for our parade to reach them.  Was it more for the teachers or the students? I don’t know.  What I do know is I’m ready for a large mug of tea and ready to be out of my car.

Then and Now

On March 1st I wore a winter coat.

The world wore shades of brown, with subtle highlights of khaki green and rusty orange.

I was tired and overwhelmed.  I wondered whether I’d be able to balance the slicing challenge with all the schoolwork and coursework hanging over me.  I considered not participating in the challenge this year.  I signed up anyway, but struggled to find words, to find inspiration, to feel like I was doing more than going through the motion.

I was tired and ready for April vacation.  Spring felt too long away.  Report cards and parent-teacher conferences felt too close.

I didn’t know the phrase social distancing.  I heard periodic news of an epidemic far away, but listened with only half an ear while I tried to figure out how to reach the students not giving enough attention in class, how to challenge the students who needed more.

My public-health-trained husband said he thought schools would close in May, or maybe April.  I scoffed and bet him a back rub for every day I was out early if it really happened.

Around the lunch table, my colleagues talked about the probability of snow days; March isn’t too late for a snow storm.  We were supposed to be getting out on a Friday.  One more snow day would move the last day to a Monday.  We all agreed that would be terrible.

Today, I ran outside for a quick walk before my next call. Halfway down the driveway I realized that I was only wearing a thin cotton shirt and a vest.  I kept walking.  The world was awash with emerald greens, golden yellows, and a blue, blue sky that sang of spring.

Did report cards get sent home to parents?  I don’t know.  I was told they would, but not a single parent has contacted me about grades.  Not a single parent has taken me up on the offer to hold a phone conference.

We’re not worried about snow days or the school year reaching into late June.  Instead, we’re worried that we won’t be able to get back to school at all this year.  Instead of needing a break, we talk about needing to see our students, needing to be back in our classrooms.

I continue to write and to post slices.  Some days the writing still feels like one more thing to do before I can go to bed, but instead of a chore it’s a pleasure.  I’ve finally remembered that it’s okay to struggle to find the words, it’s okay to struggle to find inspiration.  When I give them time, they come.

Today, I can’t imagine not slicing.

What will I do tomorrow without this wise, funny group of writers who put words to my emotions and inspire me to do the same?


The Lion in the Living Room

lion in the living roomI still remember where I was when I received the gut punch–my favorite part of my classroom, the distinguishing feature of the room, what set it apart and made me feel like the coolest teacher ever–had to go.  My principal stood at one side of the office counter and told me it had been decided.  I could arrange a place to donate it to or the custodians would carry it out to the dumpster.  I stood on the other side and stammered that I’d take care of it.  And then I left the office and cried.

It wasn’t technically mine.  It had belonged to the teacher who retired and left her wealth of classroom materials–including a full-size, taxidermist-stuffed lion–to the lucky teacher who would take over her room.  Well, actually, that was what I’d thought when I’d visited my new classroom on that first-ever visit–that the lion was included.  The second time I visited, when the lion was gone and I made inquiries, I found out that she had given it to the school librarian.

Luckily for me, the librarian had also retired that year.  The new librarian looked askance at the lion standing between her bookshelves and admitted to me she was worried about it scaring the kindergartners.  “I’ll take it back!” I offered.  And so the long-suffering custodians carefully hefted it back down the hallway to my room.

When I moved classrooms, it had come with me.  It could be seen through the school’s front windows, a testament that interesting things happened in this class.  When giving directions to my room, the secretary told visitors, “It’s the room with the lion.”   When the class did a project on Native Americans and decorated the room to look like various regions of the country, we covered the lion’s back with brown paper, tied on a shaggy beard, and gave it horns to turn it into a buffalo.

And now I had to get rid of it.

My sweet husband hatched a plan: he came to the school after hours with wood, built a crate around the lion, and wheeled the lion out to his truck.  Lifting the crate onto the top of the truck was a challenge, but a well-timed passerby offered his help at just the right time, and my husband was able to drive the lion to our house, where it took up residence in our living room.

I felt some guilt.  The lion wasn’t technically mine.  Was it stealing to bring it home?  Was it stealing if it would have been thrown in a dumpster had I not brought it home?  This is just temporary, I rationalized.  Some day I would be in a school again that let me have the lion in my classroom.  That’s how I would know I’d found my forever (work) home.

And so the lion stayed in our living room, where my husband took glee in telling visitors that his Great-Grandpa Hemingway had shot it.  It traveled with us in a moving van when we moved to Maine.  There wasn’t room in the classroom where I was a long-term sub, so it sat in our dining room, providing interesting dinner conversation and a photo backdrop, as guests stuck various body parts (and once a baby) in its mouth and pretended to be eaten.  It traveled with us again in a moving van when we moved back to Connecticut.  My classroom now doesn’t even have enough room for all my bookshelves, let alone the lion, so it’s behind the sofa in our living room again.  When new book club members come to my house, the other members hurry to be in the living room so they can see the new member’s face as she first spots the lion.

It’s been long enough that I sometimes forget my dream, that someday I’ll have a classroom where I can share my lion with students again.

Except that last week, I started videotaping myself for virtual lessons. My husband has been working from our office, so I’ve been working in our living room.  The plug for my computer is near the couch, so I sit on the floor and lean against the sofa.  And I noticed that the height of the video is just right so behind me in the screen is my lion.

It’s not the classroom I dreamed of, but it makes me happy that the lion is back where he belongs.


The water rushes past,
hurtling toward the waterfall,
the stream churning,
then plummeting with a roar,
before dashing on again,
white caps mad with urgency.

In the lee of a little island,
a patch of water sits,
gently swaying,
maintaining its calm
as the stream rushes by.

I wish I could be that patch of water.

Some days there is sun

Some days

.     I get out for a walk before the rain comes

.     long overdue items get crossed off my list

.     I remember to let the steam escape before leaning into the oven

.     new technology works

.    a virtual party connects me to a community bigger than I would have found in person.

Some days

.     things are okay.

Renegade Flower Gathering

Andrew came through the door carrying branches covered in vibrant, golden flowers: forsythia!

As the hostess put them in a vase, and the rest of us exclaimed at seeing the first forsythia blooms of the spring, he explained that his wife had brought the branches inside to force them.

“I’ve done that before,” Corinne reminisced.  It turns out that she likes to deliver flowers to friends’ houses on May Day, but she doesn’t grow all the flowers, or even buy them.  Rather, she is a stealth gatherer, plotting out areas with enough blooms that a few missing flowers won’t be noticed–“Sometimes it’s forsythia from bushes that need trimming, sometimes it’s daffodils from a huge field–it depends on what’s flowering that year,” she told us.  To gather the flowers, she gets up before dawn, so no one sees her.

I think of that now as I walk to the post office.  I notice the bushes of forsythia brimming, spilling over, and think, Maybe these would be good bushes to trim a little off.  I notice how close they are to houses and wonder, What time of day could I collect some and not be caught?

Across the street from the post office is a huge bush, with branches arcing in all directions.  This could be it, I think.  This might be the bush to trim.  I have sharpie and address book in my bag, but no cutting shears.  Could I break off a couple branches with my hands? I wonder.  I’ve never tried ripping forsythia branches.  I don’t know how strong they are.  I imagine breaking off a few branches and placing them gently in my bag to carry home.  It’s not a busy street.  There doesn’t seem to be anyone around to see.  I’d have to do it after leaving the post office.  I imagine myself walking into the post office, branches of bright, yellow flowers sticking up from my bag.  Not very sneaky.

I imagine myself carrying the flowers on my walk back home: tall branches bobbing slightly in time with my stride, the strikingly golden flowers waving hello to anyone I might pass.  Perhaps at night, I think.

At night, my focus has shifted to my to do list.  Before dawn, I’m too sleepy.  When I next walk past forsythias I have to admit to myself: I am only a stealth-gatherer-wannabe.