The Seasons of School

Slice of LIfe

A post with Slice of Life a writing community hosted by Two Writing Teachers

With the turn of the calendar from July to August I felt it. That tug every teacher feels as a new school year approaches. This year for me, the tug has been especially strong. For the past 14 years or so, my career has taken me to literacy support roles out of the classroom. But this year, I return to teaching first grade, my happy place. Unlike my first year, I have a career’s worth of experience to guide my excitement. I know the vital importance of this August work ahead of me.

June: Everything moved onto the tile awaiting the carpet cleaning.

On August first, it’s still summer, so I awake to gentle sunlight, not the pre-dawn insistence of an alarm clock. I feed the horses in leisure -time for a pat, and to scratch the barn-cats under the chin. I make a bouquet from the garden and walk the dogs…but my brain is beginning to spin with all things school.

By lunchtime I find myself on the phone with Ann, our school secretary. “Can I access my room yet?” You see, summers are the realm of custodians. They have a year’s worth of maintenance on their list, work that can’t be completed around the bustle and dodge of staff and students. The Piece de Resistance? The Waxing of the Floors. To withstand the traffic of so many feet, newly waxed hallways need time to cure. Ubiquitous hand-scrawled “Do not Enter” signs strung across hallways, make the Teachers of August crazed. “You should be able to get in by next week,” Ann said. I look at the calendar feeling the tick of the August clock in my soul.

By August 6th, I find myself headed up the mountain, my car crammed to the gills with step stools and curtains, scrub buckets and books, supplies that have been arriving in boxes for weeks, a rocking chair careening on top.

For a time, I work alone, but soon I’m joined by colleagues feeling the same urgent call. Setting up a classroom is a multi-faceted, thoughtful affair.

First comes the reaming out. Are those decades old, dog-earred materials from several teachers ago still relevant? Into the bin they go. What gems lie hidden in the cobwebby recede of this cupboard? Pull them out, wash and label them, place them in an inviting basket. For a time, every single surface is covered with piles of things. (Teachers are hoarders in secret). I find leftover cans of long dried up spray paint, and a box of funky flat assorted sized wooden rings.. (“these will be useful for something,” I imagine a teacher saying). Overflowing garbage bags and recycling bins soon make movement difficult. At this stage in the process, things are always worse before they get better. Overwhelmed, I hang curtains, so my eyes have at least one cheerful place to land.

Then there is the layout. Where should the library go, the gathering place for morning meeting? What arrangement of desks or tables best suits my instructional style, the needs of my students? Is there room for traffic flow, Can I see all corners of the room, does it still feel airy? Inviting? Can students easily and independently access materials? Are there enough places for small groups, centers, for places for other specialists and adults to work? Sweat trickles down my back as I move a table for the third time on a humid afternoon. Wobbly broken chairs and discarded tables begin to clutter the hallway, until a vision emerges.

There are alphabets to hang, supplies to organize, mailboxes, book boxes, bins, a million things to label. And there is summer too, yet to be had. But by mid August, things are coming together. The clutter is tamed. Instructional nooks abound. A cozy library awaits readers to snuggle in. Now I have the mental calm to plan.

Library Nook
Bins organized by genre, series, or topic.

Sometimes, before I go home, I turn on the friendly lamps sprinkled around the room and bask in the calm, smelling the scent of new crayons, and feeling the endless possibility of a new year yet to unfold.

I love this cycle of school years: The anticipation, the preparation and application of everything I have learned to create the best possible year, the getting to know a classroom of unique human beings, the settling in as we become a community, the hum and purpose and celebrating of growth, the problem-solving of needs, the goodbyes and closure of late June. The restorative reflection of Julys.

I am nearly ready to greet my new students. For now, I think I will just sit in the quiet and slowly sip the last cup of coffee I will likely get to finish until next June.

When Serendipity and Life Coincide

For the past ten years we have ridden a merry go round of Vermont seasons. We have planted blueberries and hostas, daylillies and apple trees, raked mountains of leaves from the lawn and mounds of snow off the roof. We built a barn (with help from neighbors), and nursed the aging neglected bones of our 1760s house back to health. It has been a good life. Vermont is Currier and Ives vistas in real time. But as I near my own retirement (My husband has been retired since we moved here), the price Vermont exacts for its bucolic offerings have begun to nag at the back of our minds. Taxes here are high and plentiful. Long, cold winters add costs of their own. Vermont places regularly in the top 5 of most expensive states for retirees.

Added to that is my mother’s advancing dementia, our yearning for flowers in March, and accessible ocean. But over the past several years we’ve watched Oregon property values rise and rise and rise. In contrast, the worth of our home here has inched…not nearly keeping pace with barn building, land clearing, and repairs. The options of what we would be swapping it for to live in the same city as my family, became more and more unappealing: One iconic Vermont farmhouse house with 12 over 12 windows and old growth pine plank floors …for a tiny, characterless, 80s ranch box. We couldn’t do it. So we planted more trees.

Then came last winter. Herb’s back issues blew up. After two spinal surgeries before mud season, came a realization. Our home was now too much to keep up with. Regular maintenance, much less keeping the relentless tangle of Vermont wilderness at bay, was something that kept TWO of us, working strong. Getting behind would quickly undo years of work.

With resignation, we began to search Zillow. Maybe there would be a needle in a haystack…a reasonable house close to family……with a decent yard and at least some nods to character. We crunched numbers and made spreadsheets. Current expenses. Projected expenses. Likely income with both of us in retirement. A range of affordablity emerged. For current Oregon housing costs…it wasn’t much. We didn’t want to do yet another fixer..or take on a foreclosure. 2 bathrooms, 3 bedrooms…a fenced yard, room to garden, and a fireplace would be nice. But numbers are numbers. Such a house, in our price point, was simply was not to be had in Eugene.

I widened the circle…then a bit more..and a bit more.

An hour south in Roseburg, Eureka! An affordable house with charm in spades. Affordable. Charming. Zero yard. For a family with four dogs and two gardeners, this would be a tricky scenario at best. Was this house a unicorn? Could there be another? And importantly, if we did find another prospect, what would living in this historically hardscrabble former logging town be like?

Enter serendipity. I knew someone who who could answer these questions-my former in-laws! A difficult divorce- decades ago, had put our relationship on hiatus for a long time. But kindred souls, a shared profession, and Facebook, had reconnected us.

On a whim that evening, after being intrigued by a few more not quite, but close sort of listings, after googling the town, and checking the mileage between Roseburg and Eugene (where my family lives) I texted my former sister in law. I shared with her our litany of hopes, of market despair, and asked her about living in Roseburg.

She texted back. We love our neighborhood, and as for houses, maybe you want to buy ours!

I had seen pictures on facebook. It was cute. In fact, it’s 1940s steeply gabled lines reminded me much of the house my where my grandmother once lived. Susan began to list the attributes. One by one, I ticked off our list. A. Perfect. Match.

“How much are you asking?” I texted back. (Dare I hope?) She proceeded to type back the amount smack dab in our sweet spot.

Today we closed the purchase.

A rekindled friendship, a spur of the moment late night text, a perfect little house filled with the energy of people I love….a deal sealed at the local McMenamins.

Sweet Serendipity!

Mark and Susan…wishing you both the very best in your new adventures across the globe. We will leave the light on for you. (You might have to step over a sleeping dog.)

New Burchstead Abode

Leaving Portland

A recent Sunday, on the hottest day of July, my brother, sister, and I packed up our mother and her things and moved her from Portland, Oregon,  the city she has lived in nearly her entire adult life-the city where we all grew up, to the city of Eugene (where my sister and brother now live).


Mom on a spring carpet of Portland cherry blossoms near the neighborhood where we grew up.

In the week prior I sifted and sorted through what remained of her lifetime of things. What to take, what to recycle, what to donate. There were surprises, like the paid-off mortgage for our family home, bought nearly 50 years ago for less than the current price of an average car; sold long before the neighborhood, like many others, became the exclusive enclave of the wealthy.

I recycled Mom’s Portland phone book, a nearly useless and thin shadow of the giant volume I remembered. Back in the day, the Portland phone book was so large it came in two volumes, each thicker than a fist. Our toddlerhood was measured by whether we needed just the white pages, or the yellow pages too, to boost us to proper height at the dinner table. And it wasn’t that long ago there was no need to dial an area code. Oregonians were fewer then and all shared the same one. All my growing up, there were three listings for Josts. My grandmother, my Uncle’s family, and us. Cell phones have made landlines and phone books obsolete, so who knows how many Portland Josts there are now…but as of today, none are of our family tree.

We packed up teacups, and books. We packed the cake decorating set Mom used to frost three childhoods of birthday cakes. We packed the refrigerator art of five grandchildren nearly grown themselves. And we packed boxes and boxes of family photos, snapshots of our youth, youths woven into the fabric of this city we also leave behind.


City of Portland Photo Credit: By © Steven Pavlov /, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Musings in a March Snowstorm


Cheesecake, the Capybara, warms the feet of her hen friend at Rocky Ridge Refuge. (A whole “hog” approach to foot warming).

Vermont near-spring is fickle.  It’s a season that drags its feet. One day it teases you with shirtsleeve weather. The next, it dumps two feet of snow. The past couple weeks have been classic. A recent blast of warm weather had so melted the snowpack, I was wondering if we might actually see our daffodils before May this year. But then came another deep freeze. Now a snowstorm. Those optimistic green flower tops soon will be reblanketed under more than a foot of snow. Today we, the entire state of Vermont actually, are home from school as snow falls on snow falls on snow: the biggest snowfall in a couple years in progress.


Noon, March 14, early in the storm.

In this old house, we’re ready. The larder is full. The horses blanketed. The wood is piled in the box by the stove and the snow blower waits at ready. If the wind picks up and knocks out the power, the new generator will kick on. No more being without running water. My skis are in the back of my all wheel drive car, ready for an after school jaunt down the trails on my way home from work on Thursday. We may not be out of school this year until the end of June…but for today, Herb and I, and the slumbering corgies cocoon in the still and hush of snow, on snow, on snow…and wait for spring.

Capybara Photo credit:

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Front Porch Politics

Hours home from the Women’s March in D.C., I was still absorbing the experience. Half a million or more of us were packed for hours in a claustrophobic crush of humanity, and experienced nothing but good will.


Women’s March, D.C.

Back on the bus for the last cramped nine hour leg of our trip home, Ziggy, our Rally Bus driver asked, “What’s wrong with you guys? You had no complaints! People always complain on these trips.”  His smile was large as we presented him with our “pass-the-hat” tip and a bag of homemade cookies in appreciation for his unflagging patience, wit, and humor our entire trip.

At home, I pored over news about the marches. No violence. Not in DC, not in Montpelier, in Vermont, where I now live. Not in my former hometown, Portland, Oregon, where many initially peaceful protests in recent months have  turned violent. Millions of diverse people around the world had shared their viewpoints with respect and kindness.


Montpelier, VT        Photo credit: Laura Grace Brown

And then I came to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s post. Like so many people lately, particularly those with large public followings: Author Jane Yolen, Singer Carole King, Educator Kylene Beers, Mary Chapin Carpenter had experienced hateful postings on her facebook wall and had to call people out.

“Those of you who have checked in here in the last few days may notice that certain posts and related follow up threads have been removed. These posts contained obscenities, inflammatory rhetoric, intentional falsehoods, ugly statements, provocative images and phrases that any reasonable person would find objectionable.”

These are difficult times. A friend and I were recently commiserating the weight and sadness of having family members on opposite sides of a political divide that seems a Grand Canyon of the heart.

I have been shocked by the hatefulness of posting on social media. It’s been a building issue for some time, but surrounding the recent election, it seems so much worse. I understand that fearful people do not always present their best selves. But these nasty, claws-out personalized attacks toward/between strangers are bewildering, frightening, make one feel out of balance in the world we live in.

Mary Chapin Carpenter, whose witty and often lyrical wordsmithing , has been a constant backdrop for my life continued:

porch2012_9“I consider my social media platforms to be a 21st Century version of a front porch. In that spirit, those who traffic in ugly, hateful, derogatory and diminishing words are not welcome here.

In peace, love and music ~ mcc”

I embrace Mary’s front porch analogy. Porches are places we share as invited guests. They are intimate spaces where we can look each other in the eye. We tend to bring our better selves to face to face meetings, when our words are shared to the rhythm of rockers,


D.C. Police 1/21/17

sweetened by sweating glasses of iced tea, and tempered by the combined wisdom of our company.

It was much like that in the recent marches. We were all guests sharing the “front porch” of the cities in which we marched. We were intergenerational, interdemonimational, multicultural, and diversely gendered. We shared our hopes, fears, and the rawest concerns of our hearts on proffered signs, often in such intimacy, we could hear each other’s  breathing. And there was nothing but peace.


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Airhorn Messages From the Universe


“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.”  – Latin Proverb

This is the precept for today, January 10, from 365 Days of Wonder. Mr. Browne’s Precepts: A Quote For Every Day of the Year About Courage, Friendship, Love and Kindness, by R. J. Pallacio.

Sometimes I am simply blown away at how the universe has a way, despite our best efforts be oblivious, to steer us in the direction we need to go. Gently at first, dropping hints like cherry blossom petals…but never afraid to lean on the horn like a truck driver when petals aren’t up to the task. This precept is hitting me like the horn.

Just before the holiday break, inbetween my work with students, in groups and classrooms, I snatched a few minutes to peek into our school book fair. I perused the picture books, then looked for compelling titles for my small group of reluctant middle grade readers. From a side table, a flash of blue caught my eye. The book cover bore the singular picture of Auggie, the main character from R.J. Palacio’s 2016 book Wonder. (Note to you dear reader: If you have not yet read Wonder,  find a copy and read it now. It will change your life.)

Once you have read Wonder, you will recall Auggie (the main character) has a teacher named Mr. Browne who has the habit of posting precepts in his classroom. This book, offers up one of “Mr. Browne’s” precepts for each day of the year.

As people everywhere are peering into this yet shiny new year, wondering what it will hold, many are setting goals and choosing words like navigational stars to steer by. I have done that in the past. I like the open-endedness of a word. It can be applied in so many ways. It is not as confining as a resolution. But I have always been more of a precept sort of gal. In my budding days identifying as a writer, I collected them in a green notebook I carried everywhere, tucking them in among poems, quotes, and other oddments I considered ‘writerly”.

But though I have always been drawn to writing, I have never been especially good at the discipline. My muse is fierce when she shows up, but unreliable. If I wait for her appearance, I just don’t write. What we don’t do, we don’t get better doing. As a teacher of writing especially, I need to walk the talk. This year, I decided, one of the ways I was going to hold myself accountable, was to make sure I write something for each Tuesday’s Slice of Life.

I waited this week for something to speak to me. (Hey, Muse, it’s me, Julie.) Much was going on. I volunteered at our local warming shelter (it has been bitterly cold in Vermont). I have been collaborating in reading and writing workshops with my colleagues. I have been calling my senators. I restrung my mandolin. But no flame of inspiration sparked from those experiences. Then my eyes landed on the fat blue book, the one that had been sitting on the corner of my desk since December. That’s it, I thought.  If inspiration doesn’t find me, I can use a precept to guide me. So I opened the book.

“If the wind will not serve, take to the oars.”

This message could not be more perfect. Thanks, universe. My ears are still ringing…but I hear ya.

Beginning 2017-Slice of Life

I began this new year reading, rocked in the arms of the giant peonies of my new favorite chair from Craigslist, while the peonies in my garden slumber under a blanket of snow. As 2017 opens to spin its own tale, I finished the last pages of The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill. A tangle of dogs at my feet, I sat book closed, holding the story close to my heart. It’s a fairy tale perhaps. There are monsters and dragons, and witches and common folk, but it is not at first apparent who truly wears sheep’s clothing. That is only revealed, as the story unfolds, and the intentions of the characters come to light through their words and deeds. Amidst birth and death, joy and sorrow, amidst the messiness of finding one’s way, it’s also a story of families, those we are born to, those we create…and the inter-connections of each. But bookmost of all, like all fairy tales, this story is steeped in magic. It is a reminder that each of us needs to be mindful of the source of our own power, and the purpose toward which we focus it. An apt tale for these times. In 2017, may we acknowledge and honor our family- in all its extended forms and expressions. In our joy, may we also be mindful of sorrow. May we not make assumptions about those who are different, before knowing their hearts. May we keep ours eyes open for those in sheep’s clothing, and use our magic for the good of all. Happy New Year!


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If you would like to purchase this amazing book, I always recommend local bookstores. Here in Vermont, I love Northshire in Manchester, and Misty Valley in Chester-the two closest to my home and school.

But Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon will always be the one closest to my heart. Powell’s is the bookstore I grew up with. All the independent reading phases of my life I have cherished browsing the rooms and shelves of this incredible bookstore, for both new titles and great used book finds. These days, I make it a point to visit whenever I am back on the West Coast, but they do mail order too!


Failures in Communication in Vermont

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 10.22.40 AMLiving and working in the rolling mountains of Vermont is a bucolic pleasure. Especially this time of year when the foliage is approaching full autumnal splendor. But the hills and hollows wreak a special havoc on cell phone communication. I work as a Literacy Coach in six schools, in a district that covers a cool 460 square miles. As I am rarely at my home desk, email or my cell phone are the best way to reach me…well, sort of.  Yesterday, a reading specialist from a school not so far away as a crow flies, but a meandering journey over hill and dale by car, asked to connect via phone. In the room at the school where I was scheduled and have a “visiting” office, I have sometimes received messages on my phone, so I thought I was set. The time my colleague said she would call passed. Then a message popped up. I tried to return the call. It dropped. She called back as I was walking through the hall to find better reception. Awkward, as the staff meeting had just focused on cell phone use…for students, but still, we need to model the good behavior we expect. I had to ask the secretary for a district phone book, a lovely lady who was busier than usual as it was picture day and she was flying solo. I remade the call from the staffroom landline and it went to voicemail. I emailed to see if we might try a Google Hangout-but my colleague’s little school has a cranky internet connection. It was in a mood already today.

Holy Smokes!  I am thinking smoke signals, carved stone tablets floated across rivers (Remember the comic BC?), the pony express….even good old snail mail might be more efficient.

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I do remember when I moved here from the West Coast, I felt like I had moved to Mayberry (as in the fictitious TV town set in a time when things were kinder, simpler, quieter, and slower). Experiences like this reaffirm that I have.  And it is ok with me.

“A Tick of the Year Clock”

This morning I began my day reading Jane Yolen’s poem Moving Through the Farmers’ Fair ©.  A lovely line from her first stanza spoke to me, so I borrowed it for my title. As I was reading, writing, and waiting for my coffee to brew, Mark Breen, our VPR weatherman, declared today would inch into heat more fitting for early August than September. The morning yet in foggy chill, my fresh cuppa finally in hand, I filled with dread.

I am done with heat. I am done with days where humidity and the added warmth of school-packed bodies make me drip in my professional clothes. Early September is always hot, yet every year it catches me by surprise.

Septembers baked in Oregon, where long-sleeved school clothes and Buster Browns, so new and tempting, comfortable on the leafy walk to Meriwether Lewis Elementary, became sweatboxes by afternoon, quickly discarded…abandoned until October.

Septembers sweltered in Texas, in the wrong-side-of-the-tracks school of my early teaching days. 100 plus degrees and nearly 100 percent humidity. No air-conditioning. The first school days started and ended thirty minutes early to beat the worst of the heat. A psychological token really. My west-coast conditioned body wilted well before noon, when I passed out ice-cubes to listless children, the clock ticking so slowly toward dismissal.

Even in New England, the home of quintessential fall: strings of crisp, colorful days, rarely marred by rain; late summer flexes its muscle, the aging prizefighter against up-comer fall.

What I have heard some Vermonter’s call “Judas trees” betray the calendar. “An early Fall!” these flamboyant trees exclaim, red outliers amidst their neighbor’s still summer green. I have learned not to listen. Humid afternoons do begin to relax into cooler nights and pleasanter sleep. But misty mornings birth false hope as temperatures inexorably chug once more into sweaty discomfort.Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 8.42.53 PM

Somehow I forget this each year: Summer’s tenacity. I forget how it holds on so fiercely, ticking out its final minutes, just before the alarm, and we wake into fall.

Change is hard. It is not easy to let go. Not for seasons. Not for us. Recent headlines in the news, photographs that rip hearts in two, confirm this. We cling to outdated social definitions, to laws and practices that no longer make sense, to what feels comfortable, even when the climate of our lives, our world has changed. We have such a hard time opening to new ideas, new ways of seeing, to new seasons in our lives. We find ways to ignore the what we choose not to see, but no matter how hard we hold on, time ticks on.

In late July I adopted a frightened small mule from a rescue. Given time, consistency and attention, Gus has been making great progress in trust. He will now stand and let me brush him, something he was too terrified to tolerate at first. The rescue I IMG_0579adopted him from asked me to share some pictures. I sent some, along with some bits of video. After they posted a clip on their site, a commenter said, “It takes a grandmothery type.” After my initial shock from the fact the comment was in reference to me (though likely meant in the kindest sense) I realized, no matter how I feel on the inside, my life has shifted seasons. I am now entering the fall season of my life.  Perhaps, If I embrace my inner grandmother, I can savor and be fully present in this part of my journey, before my winter comes.

This week the stunted apple tree Herb and I rescued from overgrowth has begun IMG_0605giving up apples. The corgis are slow to respond our calls as they snarfle the bank for prized windfalls. They finally trot in, a jaunty parade of four, green apples jawed like tennis balls, then head to their beds to enjoy their treat. I will soon climb the stairs to my own bed this warmish night, I will drape my favorite fall sweater over the chair. Ready. Ready for the tick of the clock year. Ready for change.

To Build a Barn

Build a barn you say?

First you need a field.

The deer know the best ones

where sweet grass grows

and the sun warms gentle slopes.

Where leafy trees offer afternoon shade

and moonlight coaxes fireflies

to weave their trails of light.

You need the dream of a barn

scrawled from your armchair

on the back of an old envelope

while the snow falls deep.

Your steps last August

measured out width and breadth

across the flat ground tucked into maples

the neighbor taps for syrup

come spring.

You need the tower of pines

straight and true,

strengthened by seasons of growth.

Lumber for posts and beams and planks and frame.

Felled by the logger.

Shaped by the sawyer.

Righted by the builder.

A tree’s trade.

Life in the woods,

for a new one in the field-just down the road.

As a barn to stand the test of time.

You need the hands of neighbors

who bring their tools, their time,

their knowledge of how things fit-and how things work.

Knowledge from a lifetime of learning, not from ivy covered halls.

Knowledge that needs no signatured-paper to mark its worth.

Many hands, many shoulders, and much sweat

build a barn.

There are those who stop in the road.

“Whatcha building?” they say. “Oh, a barn?”

They reach into their memories of barns,

of sweet-scented hay,

earthy manure,

and well-oiled leather.

They talk of July hayfields

the contented ache of young muscles,

the drip of sweat,

the prickle of the last bale tossed high

into a loft stacked to the rafters.

They remember laughter

and stories told

as the day gave up its heat,

and dust motes floated lazily in barn-filtered light.
Building a barn, you say?

When the last board is set,

the last nail hammered home,

you need the breath of a mare,

the swish of a tail,

the slow munch of hay.

You need a nicker in the morning when the doors are swung wide,

as the mare ambles into the dew-kissed field

where twin fawns yet sleep

near the barn.

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