On Presence, Vermont Winters, and Mentor Writers

Winter this year seems to be arriving all at once. This Groundhog Day of snow on snow on snow gave me time to dig into my writer’s notebook and savor some snippets from Take Joy, Jane Yolen’s insightful and incisive book on the craft of writing.

Jane Yolen, a writer whose work I have loved ever since first reading Owl Moon, writes a poem each and every day as part of her routine as a writer. If you connect with her via email, she will send them to you. My first one arrived yesterday. It was amazing: artful, smart, creative, magical. A clarion call to inspire the writer’s muse, couched in a gathering of fairies. It contained delicious words like “freshet”, and this line, “Not a BANG, but a slow greening.” (c) Jane Yolen.  You could take this line literally, that is how spring arrives in Vermont. But I also interpreted it to refer to the creative process as well.

Her email noted she welcomed comments. So amongst a few other small comments I sent this:

Dear Jane,

This time of year I miss western Oregon where green is a year round garment, and as we speak the hellebores are waking.

She wrote back.

“But if it is green all year, how do you wake from the winter sleep into productivity?”

I have to say, at this point I was nearly falling out of my chair to think I had just had an email conversation with “THE Jane Yolen.” After I recovered from my starstruck delirium, I thought about her words. I thought about my One Little Word: Presence. I thought about a conversation I had just had with my husband Herb. He had just read aloud to me a thoughtful piece from Brain Pickings Weekly this issue being a collage of excerpts from Annie Lamott and poets Strand and Oliver (among others) on the subject of presence and awareness. We discussed on how “our” incessant focus on the future robs of us of living in the present.

Funny, how the same message can wash over you in waves-even to the point of knocking you off your feet. I realized, longing for the spring awakenings in Oregon, in a way prevented me from being fully present in the gift of Vermont winter. How often have I lived my life this way, blind to what is going on right in front of me because I am busy thinking about a future..that may never materialize in the way I hope or imagine.

Today in my inbox was another poem from Jane with a winter theme. Inspired, I gleaned from my notebook some snippets I have been collecting and here is my own poem: a celebration of winter in Vermont

Winter Dreams By Julie Burchstead

Winter panes spill light like butter, golden pools on the snow
Inviting travelers home again with their warming glow.

Winter chimneys puff out smoke, like twisted cotton threads.
Weaving gossamer tapestry in the sky over our heads.

Winter people seek good books, steaming mugs and cozy lairs,
They pull on fuzzy sweaters, curl into comfy chairs.

Winter days sleep late, are stingy with their light.
They retire early, give way too soon to night.

Winter dogs are lazy, they snore and grow fat.
They twitch and dream of chasing squirrels, a ball, perhaps a cat.

Winter dreams stretch long-into dark that’s rich and deep,
Wrapped up in PJs, downy quilts, flannel sheets, soothing sleep.

Winter villages settle in and wrap themselves up tight,
In soft white afghans knit from snowflakes, then they say Good Night.

If you are a writer, and have not read Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, (Yolen, 2006) I highly recommend heading to your local independent bookstore and adding it to your personal library as soon as you can.  You will be better for it.

Two of my favorite independent bookstores (I have personally wandered the aisles of both)

Northshire Bookstore, Manchester, Vermont

Powell’s City of Books, Portland, Oregon

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Thanks to TwoWritingTeachers Blog for the opportunity to participate in Tuesday Slice of Life

Unexpected Snowfall

For a snow lover like me, it has been the winter of discontent. I grew up in western Oregon, where snow is rare and fleeting. In Oregon, winter is a 9 month mud-season, a long yawn of wet and grey. I delighted in moving to the land of snow. I bought mittens and snowshoes. I learned about roof rakes and ergonomic snow shovels. For my first five winters here, Vermont has delivered: Currier and Ives  Christmasses and a steady succession of light fluffy snowfalls through March, and sometimes beyond. Transformative magic to keep the winter drearies away. But not this winter.

Oh it’s been cold enough. Cold enough to flash-freeze coffee left in my cup after my morning commute. Cold enough to freeze and refreeze the line to our dishwasher for days at a time. Cold enough-until moisture arrives. Then weeks of unrelenting deep-freeze break just in time to ensure the precipitation falls as rain, or worse, ice.

This winter it’s like we planned the party, sent out invitations, set the table, even received confirmation of attendance, but snow has been like an unreliable guest, arriving late, leaving early, coming ill-dressed, or been a complete no-show. Lingering roadside drifts are as tired and unappealing as picked-over hors d’oeuvres left on the tray after guests have gone home.

Each morning, I scan the ten day forecast on my screen for the freshly added date.  Will it have a snowflake?  But amongst the occasional icons of clouds, rarely a snowflake appears. When one does it only teases,  revealing on arrival to be rain dressed in snow’s clothing.

Vermont weather is fickle. The turn and rise of a road, the breadth of a mountain, the proximity to a river, each and every hollow creates its own unique climate. To snow, or not to snow? My morning commute winds through several of these micro-climates. One village, one hill and valley to the next varies in snowfall by extraordinary degrees. My hollow has been the the itch that can’t get scratched. The snow falls south, or north, a bit east or west. The little we’ve had has snuck in by night, been washed by rain by day, or coated with ice.

A couple of days ago, another Judas snowflake appeared on my desktop. It showed early promise, but by last night, there were conflicting reports, diminishing chances. “An All-Day Event” the newscaster predicted….to the south. Fickle. I went to bed resigned.

This morning, I awoke to a snowy world. Fat, steady, luxurious flakes. The trees and roads are blanketed as far as the eye can see. Almost February, our first true snowfall of the season. Scarcity teaches you to savor things in a way you don’t when they are common. So I breathe in this snowfall: the hush, the graceful lines it forms on the branches, the way it has covered the gritty remains of this unreliable winter with a pristine blanket.

An unexpected gift.                                                                                        Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 10.36.21 AM

Presence: My One Little Word for 2015

In the extraordinary turn my professional life has taken me this year, I have come across the writing blogs of some extraordinary people. They have been sources of inspiration to me. I am astounded at how these gifted people can find time to live so fully in their careers, their families, and still find time to write, reflect, and inspire others. One Little Word is a reflection technique they inspired me to try. I am grateful to Ruth Ann Ayers and the contributors of Two Writing Teachers blog for this idea, and so many others.  If you are not aware of their blogs, I invite you to take a look.

http://twowritingteachers.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/annas-one-little-word-for-2015/

http://www.ruthayreswrites.com/

One Little Word works like this: Instead of making a standard list of New Year’s resolutions, choose one word to use as a lens as you live out your new year. So here, on the eve of returning back to work after two weeks of vacation, the world outside my window a frozen landscape of snow and ice, I choose my own One Little Word for 2015: Presence.

This year, no matter where I am, what I am doing, or who I am with, I seek to be fully present in the moment, the place, or with the person I am with. The world is so full of distractions, change, and things that spin outside my control. But I can control the quality of my presence, especially in the midst of stress, and make the moments I inhabit richer and better for myself and those I am with.

Presence in my Workplace:

2014 was a year of extraordinary change for me. The environment of the position I had taken after first moving to Vermont had drastically evolved over a five-year revolving-door-of-leadership. Each revolution became more personally toxic: outside the parameters of what I believe and value, professionally and personally. I began to lose my footing. I did not like the person I was becoming.  But January of 2014 brought an amazing transformation. A year ago, I began my current position (a job I have reached and aspired to my entire career). I found work with like-minded, passionate, visionary, professional people. In 12 months my experience changed from one of micro-management to trust, marginalization to collaboration, from survival mode to growth and reflection. Instead of watching years of careful work get tossed aside, I am now an agent of change in an environment where there is long-term support for practices I know make a difference.

Being a change agent, with adults in all phases of their careers, requires me to be mindful of my presence.  In usually brief windows of time,  I need to get to know my colleagues, to discover their strengths, their goals, and co-create with each a unique pathway to lift their practice. Presence demands my focus as a listener with an open heart and mind. My presence..is the pathway to trust.

Presence in my Home:

Five and a half years of living nestled in the Green Mountains of Vermont with its vibrant seasons and unique quality of life, has been a treat for the senses. But with my own retirement in sight, my already-retired husband and I, face the realization Vermont is a very expensive place to live. Coupled with distance from family and accessible coastline, and Herb’s developing condition that makes enduring long cold winters increasingly brutal..we anticipate returning west within five years. What does this have to do with presence?

Knowing my Vermont time is fleeting, being present in these remaining years is critical. I want to always remember the sparkle of snow crystals in temperature of spare degrees, the vibrancy of fire-colored leaves against intensely blue skies framed by white clapboard church steeples, the tantalizing hint of green that dresses mountains each long-awaited spring. I want to breathe Vermont in deep. Presence.

Presence in the My Life:

This year, I want to be aware of my presence in my life. Technology, though a critical part of my work, and long-distance connection to mentors and friends…can also be such an addictive time waster that pulls my presence into cyberlands of someone else’s purpose and intent. This year, I want to be more judicial and watchful of the time I spend online. I want to be present fully in my life and with those I love, creating meaning, and noticing beauty.

Note to self: Presence: To be unwrapped each and every day.

Photo credit: Flickr Commons/Tina M89

Mirror Mirror

In my bedroom, in an ancient farmhouse in eastern, central Vermont, I gaze into the beveled-glass mirror of an Eastlake dresser.  The slightly wavy reflection reveals the wrinkles and greying hair of a woman just over fifty. I think of the many times I have stood, just like this, in front of this beautiful, simply carved, handmade furniture. This mirror has reflected back all of my journeys for most of my life: moves to college, many apartments, across states and back, marriages, births, joy and sorrow, and finally this chapter in Vermont. This dresser was the first piece of furniture I ever owned, my first antique in a life-time of loving old things. But this dresser has a story is even richer than than mine, beginning long before it first reflected my pig-tailed, nine year old face for the first time.

When I was about nine,  a blue, three-speed bicycle from Sears, gave me freedom to pedal independently through the streets of my southeast Portland neighborhood to the Woodstock library. If I had a quarter, I could stop at Carl’s Texaco on the way, the one where my dad had worked as a teenager (for we then lived in the house where he had grown up), and get a stubby green-glass bottled coke from the machine. Some days, after the library, instead of going back home to 38th street,  I would keep going, my books clamped onto the rack above my rear tire. I would ride beyond Otto’s Delicattessen and McCreights Hardware, to 53rd off Woodstock, to a little dead-end street where my Grandmother occupied the downstairs of a rambling old house, renting-out the upstairs apartment to tenants.

I loved my grandmother’s house. It was like no other place in the world. Time stopped still inside her antique-filled, drape darkened rooms where dust motes lazily danced in the filtered light. Long dead relatives peered sternly from sepia toned-portraits on every wall. Soft, slightly-stale cookies always awaited in the chipped blue crock on the kitchen counter. Handmade lace, time-seasoned wood, ornate frames, high beds with carved headboards and matching dresser sets, partnered with hand-hooked flowered rugs to greet chilly feet in the morning, Grandma’s house was so different from the sibling-created chaos of my own. And always in the background was the sound of my grandmother humming in the kitchen or garden.

I was a snoopy child. Curious. Grandma’s closets and drawers and old albums never disappointed. They were treasure troves of things from another time, another place. My Grandmother, Olive Irene Brown Jost was an Easterner. Not just that, but a Canadian, whose Great Grandparents, still loyal to the British Monarch, had fled the fledgling independence of the young United States, north, to the tiny Quebec village of Ayer’s Cliff on the shores of Lake Massawippi. On the hills above, they established farms along a road still called Brown’s Hill, their names are now etched in marble on the stones in the tiny cemetery behind a creaky iron gate; Joshua, Lestina, Frederick, Caroline. I had grown up on stories of birch trees, and homemade maple syrup, sleigh rides, the work of feeding a noon table-full of hungry farm help, and snow deep enough to cover windows, things exotic and alien to my urban Oregon childhood.

One particular afternoon, while refreshing after my bike-ride, with milk and cookies in the kitchen, Grandma mentioned her tenants had recently moved out. The upstairs was empty! The apartment! A new territory  to explore! “Grandma, could I go and see the upstairs?” Permission granted, I set off up the usually prohibited staircase off the dark and chilly hallway to the rooms above. There was something exciting about seeing these rooms, furnished as they were with odd cast-offs, most many times coated with various layers of paint. The rooms beckoned of independence, of becoming a grown-up..playing house for real. I fantasized about living there, wandering through thScreen Shot 2014-09-02 at 7.09.08 AMe kitchen, the living room…into the bedroom…and there I saw it, the most beautiful dresser I had ever seen. It had three drawers with ornate brass pulls and a tall carved mirror atop. I couldn’t wait to ask grandma about it. She explained it had been in her family for as long as she could remember. It had come west from Canada after her parents, who by then had settled on the shores of Lake Massawippi, had both passed away. Then to my astonishment, she said, when I was twelve, it could be mine!

Three years later, it arrived into my upstairs bedroom now on NE Couch street, and was settled onto the baby blue carpet, surrounded by freshly painted purple walls adorned with horse posters. Over time my reflected pigtails gave way to a Dorothy Hamill wedge, pictures of horses were replaced by Argus posters with pithy quotes and photographs. Everyday since, the mirror has reflected my life. With our move to Vermont, this old dresser has come full circle almost, arriving within a few hundred miles of where its story began, where the timbers from which it was crafted, began as trees, weathering New England seasons. In these past few years I have driven a sleigh, eaten maple syrup homemade by a friend, passed several cycles of New England seasons including a winter with snow nearly up to the windows.

When I gaze into the mirror, I sometimes wish I could see the ghosts of reflections past, my grandmother’s steady brown eyes.  More than just a piece of furniture, this old dresser contains my past that connects me with my future. Full circle.

Note: This week, September 4th, celebrates the 114th anniversary of Olive Irene Brown Jost’s birth.

 

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Archives: The Colors of Manhattan

Photo Credit:  Bahman Farzad EXPLORED! NYC

Photo Credit: Bahman Farzad
EXPLORED! NYC

Note: In 2012 I left Vermont and spent an amazing week  in Manhattan attending TCWRP’s Writing Coaching Institute at Columbia University. My colleagues and I traveled daily to NYC schools to learn the ins and outs of coaching teachers in Calkins’ Writing Workshop methodology from mentor staff from TC. It was a life-changing experience for me in all sorts of ways. Twice before, I had visited Manhattan in the brief way one does as a tourist for a day or two, but I had never experienced the city in the day to day way as a worker and subway commuter.  The following essay came out of this experience.

 

Manhattan is like a Jackson Pollock painting.

From a distance, vibrant, outrageous, larger than life, straining to escape its frame with sheer pulsing energy. Yet, when one gets up close, eye to eye, each splash of color has its own voice, a story, unique in texture, timbre, and defining edges.
There is the bright orange of connection. A reliably emphatic. “Good Morning, Happy Day to you!”, rising song-like without fail, from a smiling-eyed Korean woman tucked behind the counter of a tiny grocery on 7th, where I purchased a bottled Starbucks and a yogurt on my way to PS41 each morning this week.
Right alongside is a rich brown of quiet. Impossible- yet real, on a Brownstone-lined street, iron railings shiny with a century’s layers of black paint, tiny gardens of restful green belying the cacophony of traffic just a block away, the only sound my own footsteps, and the droning wheels of my rolling suitcase as it tagged along.
There is the sooty grey of weariness. Heavy, defining the droop and sag of woman whose tiredness has seeped into her bones, spilling over into the heavy bags at her feet, as the subway car jerked and lurched and screeched past stop after stop.
There is the regal purple of academia. It hangs in clouds around the parapets and giant gothic lamps adorning the brick houses of learning at Columbia. It swirls with the promise of youthful voices, of futures, and tradition. Its steps have purpose and vigor, and carry one toward hope. Like magic dust, its power lingered on my coat even after I left.
There is the screaming yellow of noise. Cars honking, brakes screeching, voices of every language punctuating and pulsing with joy and anger, and energy. Sirens and helicopters, jet planes and construction. The rhythmic beat of feet. Noise that jolts and boils, and grinds, funnels down into the subways, even into the night, and yet, above it danced the reedy notes of a saxophone, soulful a moment, then gone.
There is the crippling, paralyzing, harsh red of fear. Panic! Arising alone from the subway, (Why, the same one as yesterday!) yet nothing is familiar, not a building, not one sign. The clock ticks. I walk two blocks one way, then another….heart pounds…deep breath. Lost? But then realization (I am after all, still in Manhattan). A cooler head prevails. (Just walk a little farther) There. There is the Shoe repair! And there, the tiny grocery! (The woman behind the counter has no idea how healing was her hello, this red, fear-filled morning) my heart finally quiet as I slip past the security guard, into school, on time.
There is the blue of leaving. Seas of people, oceans of sound, muted by a rolled up window. The car inches forward, anonymous in a pulsing wave of traffic, flowing finally across the bridge. The city lies once more contained, the river, like a frame, bright splotches of color in our rear-view mirror.
Manhattan is like a Pollock painting.

Safe Harbor: Reflections from Portland, OR

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 10.22.40 AMI have been “home” this past 10 days in Portland, Oregon (as much as a person can be home in a place they have not lived in for a long, long time). The quietude of my years in Vermont have erased much of my city savvy. Portland’s noise seems more jarring, the concrete harder.  Brand new construction, all angles and glass, replace the familiar craftsman lines of vanished homes in the neighborhoods where I grew up. I feel a bit adrift, like my compass does not read true.

Was this a bit what Leon felt, his first day in my first grade so many years ago? Leon, a child of artists, raised in moss-hung forests along the creek,  his life rich in creativity, poor in ammenities (no phone, no TV).  We had earlier toured the cafeteria, our kindly cook aquainting my new students about lunchtime procedures. I checked in to see how they were doing. In a room swimming with children, amidst flowing channels of purposeful chaos, only Leon stood still. Wide-eyed,  brown hair tumbling past his shoulders, arms clutching his lunchbox from home he exclaimed, “I am lost in a sea of color!” I took his small hand. We walked to the table where his classmates had settled, and soon through the doors that spilled out into the play fields, to the shade of ancient trees. Safe Harbor.

Today, I made my way across the city to connect with my youngest son. Isaac works downtown. I navigated traffic and pedestrians, bridges, bicycles, and one-way streets finally finding a berth for my borrowed car in the shady recesses of a multi-level garage. Once parked, I continued on foot. Across the street I watched a flotilla of preschoolers, their tiny hands mooring them to a central line, like so many small skiffs towed through the crowded river of sidewalk. Teachers like pilot boats, gently guiding all to their destination. Safe Harbor. I remember Isaac’s hands once also so tiny. My ability to steer him away from danger once seemed so sure.

Our journey has contained twists and unexpected turns. Lately, there has been much distance and time between common ports. Calm seas too eerily quiet, and communication too often down. Parenting this bearded son has me feeling more like a lighthouse. Watchful, yet distant. Hoping he will see the shine of my light, the constancy of my caring. “Beware of the rocks, Isaac. Beware of the rocks.” Find. Safe. Harbor.

 

 

 

A Three Corgi Walk

For some people, putting on socks is just something you do. It is a mindless task that usually occurs sometime after brushing your teeth, and just before tugging on your footwear du jour. Socks are simply a mundane part of the ritual of getting dressed with no hidden agenda. But when you live in a house with three corgis, the act of pulling on socks is code. Code for W-A-L-K.

My toe is barely tucked into the first sock when Peach, the lone girl of the Corgi trio, suddenly arouses from a flounce of pillows and locks me into her gaze. AJ’s eyes flicker open, mid-under-the-coffee-table-slumber. Andy’s ear cocks toward me, honing in on the sound like a radar.

Soon all three are a knot of movement and whine at my feet, a triple question mark of anticipation. Walk?

I pull on my shoes  and work my way through their excitement. The wide plank floors click with a crescendo of dancing doggy toenails. Long bodies bend like commas, as they dash around the edge of the old pine table, the sound now hushed by carpet. Their  treasured “cookie” jar forgotten as we pass through the kitchen. Corgi feet scuttle across the slate of the mud-room and the screen door makes its usual screeching complaint and slam as we go through. I snap each bouncing dog onto the end of a leash. And so it begins.

Down the hill we go past our ancient grey house on the tangled bank.

Past the murky pond where sometimes we startle turtles mid lazy-amble across the road.

Into the leafy tunnel, where giant trees overhang,  creating a respite of cool, and night haven for fireflies.

Andy lopes.

IMG_0938Apple Jacks trots.

Peach paces like a Standardbred off to the finish.

Until… Squirrel!

As one they charge. GO!

The squirrel dashes but leash ends check Corgi enthusiasm with a jolt. It’s a familiar game again replayed, doggy optimism barely dimmed.

“Next time!” they always say.

I gather leashes woven together like a maypole. Corgis look up at me. WALK!

We march up the hill.

Past the little log house where chickens bob and scratch,  and we sometimes stop to purchase eggs with yolks as orange as summer sun.

Past the farm stand with doors open wide to a bounty of tomatoes, zucchini, and honey, and jam to be bought on your honor, by putting coins into a jar.

We smell the sharp scent of silage, summer grass becoming winter fodder, and black and white cows flicking flies with ropy tails as we go by.

Past the house with a swinging sign, “Breeding Pygmy Goats of structure and style”  (But we never see them).

Past Old Allyn’s neglected garden drooping peonies into the road.

Past the quartet of tiny yappers who vent their jealousy about our freedom.

Past the tiny brook, sparkling star-like in the sun.

Past the stone wall, the old brick schoolhouse, and the stump at the end of a drive where sometimes there are things you can take under a sign that reads. “Free.”

Finally, we reach the end. Our street opens to a vista overlooking a field and a barn, and the road to wider ambitions.

We stop and look, then turn around.

Homeward bound.

Andy’s lope has a bit less swing, AJ’s trot a bit less bounce, Peach’s pace is a bit less determined.

The Corgis pant and their tongues begin to loll.

We detour to the creek.

We pass the sights in reverse.

No cows in the field as we pass this time. Where did they go?

Too early for fireflies, but we are thankful for the cool of verdant tree tunnel.

We pass the pond, no turtles in the road.

Grey Gables is just ahead.  The hill feels so much taller going up.

The graveled driveway crunches under our feet.

Once again, HOME.

Leashes are unsnapped and rehung.

The Corgis snake around the screen door, pad across the mudroom.

I hear the slosh and splash of water, and dog tags clanging against the bowl as they all drink their fill.

Then it is silent.

Where have they gone?

Peach is draped across the couch, Andy has collapsed under the table, and AJ slumps against the woodbox.

I take off my shoes and not one dog stirs.

N-A-P.