On Having Writer’s Angst

Light on the pathway. Magical.

Okay, I made that up “Writer’s Angst,” but I”m sure any writer out there will go, “Oh yea, I’ve had that.” Or something like it. I swear lately I have a deep feeling of angst every time I sit down to write. I look at my blog, and I think maybe it’s boring. I look at my stats and see that some days no one, really, NO ONE reads it. My teacher blog gets readers even when I don’t write for it, yet I insist on posting to this one. So I sit down and think about what I’ll write about that could be interesting, relateable, profound, humorous – anything that might make people glad they took the time to check in and read. And of course, with that attitude, nothing comes to mind that seems vaguely interesting. It’s the attitude.

A writer has to write. Doesn’t matter who or if anyone reads it. It doesn’t, and I need to keep that in mind. Sometimes I just seem to forget that part of who I am. I am a writer. Simple as that. But when I don’t write, what am I? A wonderer or a thinker? I don’t know. It’s the same way with photography for me lately. At times I’m an avid photographer, but lately my photos look pretty  really bad. Out of focus, weak light, poor composition. Very discouraging. So hm. What am I saying here? The things that I love to do/need to do aren’t happening and I feel like I’m losing touch with that part of myself.

I just don’t seem to be able to fit school and myself into the same life lately. I’m up at 5:00 and hit the pillow at 9:30 at night. I have time when I get home to do whatever I want to, but I’m so tired out that I don’t do much of anything. Except I still work out. And often I take walks when I get home, so I don’t really think it’s a physical tiredness. I think it’s the end of the school year and I’m overfull of thirteen-year-old energy. Yadayadayada all day long.  Some days, I come home and I don’t want to say a single word. Poor Alex. I just want to be left alone.

In two weeks I’ll be bathed in quiet. Time to re-energize, write and take some pictures. I’ve had the first line of a new project rattling around in my head for weeks. I’ll finally write it down and see where it takes me if I give it the time it needs to percolate and develop. Two. More. Weeks.

Ready.

On Failing to Choose Happiness

It’s the middle of May, and this week feels like it’s already two weeks long. Last week we finished our Common Core testing, and now we have seventeen  sixteen days of school left. Too many to do nothing and too few to do anything longterm. I think a little list is in order, because I like them so much. A good list keeps me organized. Honest. Okay, I don’t know what listing has to do with honesty and I could actually lie in a list as any other way, so forget the honest part. Here goes the list.

I’m thrilled to have such a beautiful piece of art in my garden. I smile every time I look at it!

1. Mothers’ Day: Look at the cool gift my daughters made for me! After that blog post about choosing happiness, they chose to make this for me. I could say maybe I’ve been too grouchy lately and they are giving me a hint, but I don’t think so. I think they just knew how much I’d love this. And I do. And actually, I have been a little grouchy and I’m thrilled to have this on my garden fence!

2. Food and eating: This week Avery and I started a Whole 30. This is a 30 day stretch of eating only meat, fruits and vegetables. It is not a weight-loss diet although that will probably be part of the outcome. It is a chance to reset my body after being sick and taking Prednisone and not exercising and eating sugar freely for a month.  I’ve done it once before and I felt great at the end of it.  Today is day 3 and the headache has subsided at night. Last night I slept pretty well and I have plenty of energy. Today I wasn’t grouchy like I was yesterday, so we’ll see how it goes. The hardest part for me is eating enough. I eat really well, but sometimes not enough. That’s weird, isn’t it? I’ll keep you posted on this. (P.S., in case you follow the link and decide to try this, last time I got the daily emails for $14.95 and they were sooo worth it!) Enough for now.

3. School: OMG. Those kids are crazy. The ones who are not passing and will not “Promote,” which means will not cross the stage, not that they will redo 8th grade (because really, they have to age out of middle school, and if it didn’t take the first two years, something else is needed). Those kids have quit. They (reasonably, sort of) say, “Why should I do this work? I’m not going to promote anyway.” While I get their viewpoint, the alternative, them sitting around like they’re at a social gathering, or taking little naps is already getting old after only about three days. They never choose to just stay home. They show up every day. Unless they get suspended for having a pot pipe in their backpack and get caught with it while they are loosening the handlebars on other kids’ bikes.Yesterday I called a kid’s mother about his lack of handing anything in that was finished She said to send it all home and he WOULD be bringing it back today. He did, but some of it was done in HER handwriting. I couldn’t give him points for that. When I called him on it, he said, “Well I was sitting right there beside her the whole time! I was double-tasking.” I pointed out that he can barely single task, so I knew that double tasking was not happening. I didn’t even try to teach him the word multi-task. He just shrugged. He’s joined the social gathering today. I’m working on what we’re going to do for the last sixteen days that’ll capture their interest, even if they don’t do the work.

I worry about these guys. They fail all their classes, so it isn’t like one F that could be at least partially due to a teacher not reaching his or her students. They are failing everything, and they are only in eighth grade. A “D” doesn’t faze them, and I just don’t understand why. I can kid myself and say that it’s all just middle school hormone sickness and it’ll all be okay when they get to high school, but I know that isn’t true. My former colleagues who teach high school tell me so. Last spring I went to the graduation of my first seventh grade class. We sent approximately 350 students there four years ago, and only 190 graduated. The rest? Some got so far behind in credits that they were sent to the continuation school. The others? I don’t know. Lost to “independent study” perhaps.Dropped out?  It makes me sad that so many are being lost. This doesn’t begin when they get to middle school, either. They are already accustomed to failing classes when they get here. I hope it isn’t like this everywhere. If it is, we’re in serious trouble.

4. News Flash about Starbucks: I just read that people are having their bank accounts drained by hackers who go into their accounts and just keep refilling their coffee card over and over again. Apparently you can allow Starbucks to automatically refill your card via PayPal and their security is lacking a layer of protection. So wow. Delete that app! I don’t have it. I just pay cash if I ever go in there .  But if you do have it and didn’t know about this, you might want to take action before you’re hacked!

starbucks

Time to reconsider that Starbucks app? Or at least the connection of it to your bank account? Yikes!

5. Hm. It seems that there is no five. Three was so depressing, you’re undoubtedly over it by now. Have a good day and don’t let the bedbugs bite.

Incomparable

IMG_7528

Sometimes I get stuck when I sit down to write. I think about the funny profundity of Anne Lamott, or the simple honesty of my friend Sarah Fragoso or the exquisitely, pointedly profound thoughts of Jen Louden and I am stopped in my tracks. I think about things that are deeply interesting and profound to me, and then I write about what I did in the month of April. What is in my garden and how my dog interacts with the neighbor. The deep thoughts just stay in there, unmentioned.  In my estimation I come up short every time. Or almost every time. I want to write profound things, naked and unashamed of my position on almost anything, yet that’s not what comes out. And I judge myself as deficient. What happens then? I don’t write. Anything.

You don’t have to say it. I KNOW this is in no way productive or useful or anything else. All I’m doing is not writing. I get it. I’m just saying it’s what happens when I compare myself with someone I admire. I think this process can be expanded to other areas of our lives. My life. If I compare my body size or shape with that of someone I think is beautiful or who is very fit and strong, I will come up short, every time. If I compare my home or my (filthy) car or anything at all, if I am comparing I will come up short. So why don’t I compare myself to someone fatter or who has a less cute house or a dirtier car? Because what is the point? I don’t want to be that. I want to be my best self, and so I compare myself to those that I look up to. As an example, or a path to excellence, maybe. Or maybe just a way to remind myself that I’m still not good enough.

As a child someone in my family joked that I was fat, as ‘big as a barn.’ This was probably said one time, during a moment of levity and no one thought anything else about it. Except me. That one phrase, “big as a barn” haunted me from then on, even through adulthood. And I wasn’t fat. Not at all, not until I was maybe in my fifties. I’m not really sure when the fat happened because I always believed I was. So I spent a lifetime comparing myself to others. Looking at people who were larger than I, and feeling relief. Looking at people who were smaller than I and feeling ashamed. And feeling immobilized the whole time, because where does one start to change a lifetime issue? Mostly one doesn’t. One just thinks about it. All the time, like I did. Like I still do, but not so much since I started doing something about it last August.

So back to the writing of non-profound things, I get that that’s okay. That once in a while a gem tumbles out onto the screen. I understand that I don’t have to apologize for what I write, that those who want to read it will and the rest won’t. No big deal. But the issue here is that I don’t want my self-deprecation to get in the way of me writing, because I need to write, and I grow clearer and fuller as a result of doing so.

I am pretty sure I’m not the only person who does this comparing thing. I think we have created a culture of comparison. If we didn’t find ourselves less than someone else, why would we buy the next latest (unnecessary but oh, so cool and expensive) thing? A bigger TV or faster computer or bigger house? If we are satisfied with ourselves, if we love ourselves as we are, accepting our faults as just part of who we are, as not even faults, we might not spend the money needed to keep our culture moving. So our insecurity is fostered, capitalized on and we keep spending, hoping always that the next thing we buy will be just the thing to make us feel okay about ourselves.

I think this is true. And I fall for it. Not buying stuff so much, but I compare myself with others and come up short. So I go watch TV rather than making art, or read a book rather than writing one. Or I eat something that is guaranteed to keep me falling short in the cute body comparisons. And life just ticks along.  I’d like to say I’m going to change this today, because obviously it’s not serving me, but it’s also been part of me for a long time. I can be aware of it and maybe change little pieces of it until maybe someday I notice that a shift has happened. I hope that happens, anyway, but in the meantime, I just have to own it and accept it. Love it as I learn to love the rest of myself.

Debriefing April


It’s the first of May. A memorable date for me, but I won’t address that quite yet. First, a debrief of the last month. During the month of March, I posted in this blog every single day. I loved doing it, the urgency of getting it done or fail the challenge.  l loved seeing what I’d find to write about each day and I loved knowing that people were reading and responding to what I’d written. That eased off this month. I did some journal work using Natalie Goldberg’s memoir book, but I only wrote a few posts. I plan to rectify that in May.

Exercise This month my exercise routine completely fell apart. I got sick in the second week of the month and a little cold rapidly became pneumonia. It has taken an inordinately long time to recover my strength. So, I will go back to the gym on Tuesday next. I feel like I’m beginning again from scratch, but I hope I’ll be surprised by how quickly I gain my strength back. So there’s that.

Garden My garden is beautiful now. The potted plants we positioned around in the beds were a stroke of genius. They are colorful and already established so don’t need a whole lot of water. They give a beautifu balance to the yard that I didn’t expect when they were all clustered together on the patio. I’m planning to do some more container gardening, as it’s an interesting challenge to me. The other day I saw a fig tree planted in a pot, so I’m thinking about doing that next. I’m also trying to figure out where to plant some Concord grapes.

My dog isn’t looking avidly at the plants. She’s waiting for a sound from behind the fence, where she has her own little “Home Improvement” friendship going on.

Books I managed to read several books this month, for some reason. I kind of lost interest in listerning to books on Audible because they tend to take my life over completely. So this month I read paper books. I read several YA books, including “A Time of Angels,” by Karen Hesse, “Along For the Ride,” by Sarah Dessen, “Fat Angie,” by E.E. Charlton-Trujillo. I think there may have been more, but I’ve forgotten what they were. I enjoyed them all a lot. There is something about a good YA book that really appeals to me. I’m thinking that the novel in progress that lies gasping for air on my laptop might best become a YA book. Because I think it already is and I just didn’t realize it.

School Or should I say “Testing.” For the past week we have been taking the Smarter Balanced tests in my classroom. We’re using the iPads which is a mixed pleasure. While they mostly work fine, and the plug-in keyboards are adequate, they are also problematic. They freeze, or don’t recognize the test codes sometimes. I’m sure I could troubleshoot it but in the heat of the moment I just trade out for another iPad and hope it’ll workThere’s a funny thing that happens at the onset of each testing session. The kids begin noisy, just talking. Then, as we get into the process by collecting phones, passing out ID numbers and logging in, the talk turns to a kind of desperation.” Ms. Jacobs, it doesn’t recognize the test session!” “Ms. Jacobs, approve me, PLEASE!”. In a few minutes someone will raise their hand to tell me “This thing froze! Look, (tap,tap,tap) Nothing!!” And a minute later, “Ms. Jacobs, what does this even mean???” I look forward to this being over and going back to  the usual routine. As for the test, I don’t want to risk censure by saying anything about it. But. It’s not designed for my students, is all I’ll say. On another note, the beginning English learners were practicing verbs this week. We all made rolly kids to put in their vocabulary notebooks. I get way more enjoyment from this project then they seem to, for some reason. Here are some of my rolly kids:

This is an idea I found on Pinterest, and I just love it. I think the original was done with emotions, not actions and I adapted it. Don’t you just love the little swim fins?

 
Fun What’s fun? I haven’t seen so much of that lately.  I just am too tired when I get home. Having said that, I’ll contradict myself.  Yesterday we had our Spring Festival and Open House at school. It was a command performance for us, three hours of it. Although I was a little ruffled at having to work such a long day, the event was really fun. We raise money for the Art Club  and the Parents club with this event. We had a variety of amazing food, games and student performances. I had the opportunity to hang out with some students I had many years ago, which is aways really fun for me. And then we went home, tired, but content.

Last weekend I attended a  “Wine and Paint” event which was given by a favorite artist of mine, Caitlin Schwerin. I went alone and made new friends there, which was fun. We all made approximately the same painting, and I just loved it. It really made me yearn to know how to paint. For reals. Here is my painting:

It’s all a work in progress. Every time!

Here I am with my little painting. Notice the empty wine glass? Surprise! I don’t even drink but I did have a lovely glass of wine while I indulged my painterly bent.

 
So, It’s May First, the 23rd anniversary of the shooting at Lindhurst, my intro to teaching. This year, for the first time, I have been able to recognize it and say a prayer for all those involved, and go on with my day. My immersion in the rut of painful recollection has subsided. I thank Lisa Guerke Weikel for the spirit work that helped pull me past that place.

This weekend I’m going to a garden tour (which no one wants to attend with me because they all think it sounds boring.) and on Sunday I’m taking my oldest grandchild on a shopping trip that she has planned. She loves to research, and according to her mother, she has it planned down to what stores we’ll visit, and in what order. Game on! I’m not a good shopper so help like this is a good thing, in my opinion.

Okay, then. That pretty much sums up April. I hope that May has dawned in a delicious way for you. Do you have anything you’re especially looking forward to this month? I’d love to hear about it!

Choose Happiness

Last weekend I spied this little vignette on the fence of the nursery, and it hit me like a revelation. “Choose Happiness?” Of course! Just make the choice, it’s all within my power. I just have to choose.  I was all about putting something like this on my fence, because if I”m reminded, I’ll probably always make the right choice. Or mostly, anyway.

But then this morning I started off really grouchy. I was mad at my son because he came home too late, or didn’t come home too late but didn’t come inside because his key didn’t work in the lock which I thought was bullshit, except I tried it and it really didn’t work. I was pretty annoyingly grouchy about that. Then I got an email from the furniture store that ordered all new cushions for my expensive new couch that looked terrible almost immediately after I got it, saying that the cushions had been in for a week but they’d been too busy to tell me. And now I have to pick them up on a weekday at the shipping place, before 4:30 P.M. and I don’t get to town before 5:00, so they might just as well be in Cincinnati for as much good as that’ll do me.

And then I thought, “Choose Happiness.” Right. Like just twist your heart and mind around that idea, and become happy. That wasn’t happening. Nope. I was too justified in my grouchiness, in the grievous wrongs that had (not really) been done to me. So I took a figurative step back and thought that maybe I have to do something other than just choose. Maybe I have to create an environment or do an action in which I can choose happiness. So I went out for a walk, and here’s what I found:

The bridge over the channel, all wet with puddles from the rain that has fallen in the last two days.

A big house that’s way too orange for its own good.

The path of the greenway that I didn’t realize existed in my neighborhood.

Some very odd and interesting plants that I’d never looked at up close.

After I walked for half an hour or so, I decided that even more persuasion was necessary, so I got in my car and went to meet some friends for early morning coffee.

I found this bit of deliciousness to further my search for happiness.

I found this bit of deliciousness to further my search for happiness.

On my way home I stopped and bought donuts for my son and left them on the counter with a note of apology for my grumpy outburst. Even if his actions weren’t perfect, I didn’t have to be such a grouch about it. Like who did that help? Right, nobody. Then while I was out for coffee, the furniture store lady emailed me back and offered to have the sofa cushions picked up for me during the week, so I can get them next Saturday. That’ll work just fine. No problem there, either.  It all works out. It does.

So, in the end, I think I did choose happiness, just by choosing the actions that I know will lead me to that feeling. Walking, taking some photos, meeting friends are all happiness catalysts for me.  I’m so glad to recognize them so I can employ them at will. Because there will definitely come a time that I need to choose again, and this time I’ll know what that choosing entails.  What about you? Do you have happiness catalysts? What are they?

Saturday Morning, Feeling Strong(er) and Writing

Well, it’s been a week. I woke up last Sunday with the beginning of a cold and by Wednesday it was pneumonia. Viral, and not earth-shattering, but I was so sick, a whole body sick. Not like my head is stuffed up but otherwise I feel fine. Nope, it was a lay on the couch and watch a Law and Order Marathon all day sick. To tell you the truth, I got tired of the delicious soup, and I gave some away and I still have some. So maybe next time I could temper the quantities. When you have a contagious infirmity you should probably make less soup. Dinner parties are pretty much out of the question!

Anyway, on Wednesday I went to the doctor and she put me on a 10 day Prednisone taper and now I feel so much better. I’m barely sleeping and full of energy, but I guess that’s the way it goes. From 0 to 60 overnight. So, I’m working in my yard a little. My son Alex has been moving the huge flower pots around, and I’ve been directing him. Like that Lowe’s ad that says “Here’s how to move a refrigerator with one finger.” That’s how I’m moving pots of geraniums. It’s pretty great, actually. I’m missing the gym, but that’ll come back.

And I’ve been writing. I’ve been doing the multitude of exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s book about writing memoir. It’s called Old Friend From Far Away and really has me going. Here is a piece of advice from that book that really spoke to me: “You will want your memoir to have tension and drive, to let people know you were alive on this Earth. This willingness to write with fear and danger at your side is the beginning of how to give your writing a friction that draws in your reader. They will trust you.You have a right to write it. Throw it out, rip it up, swallow it down. Build up a capacity to bear up, don’t let fear ruin your writing life. Hide your notebook in a good place.” Think about Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. She tells some really unflattering stories about herself and her behavior, and you don’t judge her because she is honest about it all. She lays out the whole coming to grips with herself thing. That’s what Natalie is talking about.

Or consider this blog post by Jen Louden, which includes a video of her talking about taking care of herself while she’s writing some hard honesty. It’s obviously grueling, yet there are ways to help yourself through it, and it is critical that you do it. I’m not quite there yet, but if I want to write memoir, I have to be willing to do hard things, so it’s on my list. I’m looking for a good place to hide my notebook!

Okay, I’m out. I’m watching the sun as it travels across my garden today, looking for just the right place for a new plant I bought at the farmer’s market today. It’s a Chinese May Apple, apparently somewhat rare. For what I paid it should be blooming gold nuggets. Wish me luck with it! If it grows it’ll be a winner.

Chinese May Apple. I know this isn’t a stellar photo of it, but it shows the little flowers pretty well. Apparently it’ll get 10″ leaves, and be a couple of feet high. Fingers crossed!

Have a great weekend. May you do whatever your heart desires, with those you love.

Sick on Tuesday (and Wednesday), Special Soup

Today is the third day in a row that I’ve been sick. I finally took a day off work and it’s a good thing I did, as I’m coughing so dramatically that it’d be embarrassing to be at school. I was sick yesterday, too, but I went to school. Several students suggested that I should stay home today. They didn’t know how right they were!

Today I’m craving a spicy rich soup, full of meat and vegetables. Since nothing like what I want is available in a can or otherwise pre-prepared, I’m making it. I am really good at making soup. That may sound like bragging, or it may  just represent an understanding of what I am good at. Either way, today I’m going to show you how I make this delicious soup. It varies every time, so no ingredients are absolute. Other than the roasted poblano peppers and the dried New Mexico chiles grown in the holy dirt of Chimayo, New Mexico. So here goes.

Here are my ingredients today:
1 beef shank with bone. (I think I need that marrow because I’m sick.)
1 beef roast. Could be tri-tip or chuck roast. Today Round roast was cheapest so I got that.
1 big leek, finely sliced
4 Roma tomatoes, roasted in the skillet
2 cloves of garlic, roasted in the skillet
1/2 yellow onion, roasted in the skillet
4 carrots, all different colors, roasted in the skillet
2 Serrano chiles, roasted in the skillet
1 “Oriental Beauty” yam, cubed and peeled. You don’t have to peel it: I did because this variety has a very thick skin. If I was using garnets I probably would not peel it. But I’m in love with the flavor of this variety of yam, so there. I threw away some vitamins.
3 Poblano chiles, roasted over an open flame
about 3 Tablespoons dried crushed New Mexico chiles
about 1 Tablespoon of Kosher salt
4 zucchinis, cut in chunks
Chopped cilantro, as much as you like
Avocado and queso fresco and sour cream as garnishes, if desired
OPTIONAL , really good: black beans, either home cooked or from a can. Two cans of them.

1. Cut up the tri-tip or other meat into about 1 1/2 inch cubes. While you are working on that, put the beef shank in to brown until it’s nice and crisp and the marrow looks soft. Then brown the rest of  the meat quickly in a hot skillet, using a little bacon fat or olive oil to moisten the pan. Use a high heat and stir it frequently. Don’t let it cool down as it will begin to lose its juices, and you want that to happen in the soup pot. Browning it before adding it to the soup gives it a nice flavor that it won’t have if you just put it in raw. Also only brown a little bit at a time. It doesn’t like to be crowded – it’ll give up its juices too soon. Here’s about how much to put in the pan at once:

It will probably take several batches of meat browning to get done. It’s worth it, don’t ruin it by crowding the skillet.

2. Cover the meat with water (or other broth if you have it Sometimes I use organic chicken broth, but today I don’t have any.) Turn the stove onto medium heat to get the broth going.

3. Now, the vegetables.Put the poblanos over the gas flame to roast. If you cook with electric heat, you can use a skillet without any oil or water in it. While they are roasting, slice the leek and toss it in with the meat. Using tongs or the stem of the chiles, turn them until all sides are roasted black and the skin looks loose. After they are roasted, toss them in a plastic vegetable bag and cover them wit a dish towel and set them aside to cool. They should look like this:

The charred skin will come off very easily with a butter knife. Just hold the chile and slide the knife along its side. The skin will come right off. Then cut off the tops, remove the seeds and membranes and cut the peppers up. Like this:

4. Next, roast the rest of the vegetables. I think that any vegetable tastes better roasted, so I just roast them all. Again, the skillet should be dry and you just keep moving them around as they turn blackish. They will taste so rich! Put all but the tomatoes and tomatillo and Serrano chiles right into the soup. Cut the tops off the Serranos, and remove the seeds. Then chop them into the soup. They are quite spicy, so you do want to remove the seeds. And don’t touch your eyes after you do it. Don’t the vegetables look delicious?! I will roast the zucchini by itself later, and add it to the soup right close to the end so it doesn’t turn to mush.

5. Put the tomatoes and tomatillo into the food processor and make them into a chunky puree. Saute this by putting a (very) little olive oil into your skillet. When it is hot, pour in the tomato puree. stir it until it changes color, for about three minutes. It will begin a pinkish color and will turn darker red. Then add it to the soup.

6. Add the dried chiles and salt and cilantro. Now, just relax and let the magic happen. Simmer it for as long as you have, at least 2 hours. Or you can put it all in the crock pot for a few hours. Maybe on low for 6 or high for 4? You’ll need to experiment with that. I’d just use those times and then see if it’s ready.

7. To serve, I chop up the avocado, and crumble some queso fresco. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkle of avocado and queso fresco. If you are not a dairy eater, just leave the last part out. If you are touchy about spiciness, then be sure to use the sour cream or regular heavy cream. It cuts the burn, while leaving the flavor.

Does this sound like too much work? It does take a little flurry of work, but the relaxing afterwards and the deliciousness later are worth it, in my humble opinion. Now I can go relax and focus on getting better. Here’s the end result:

There is nothing blue about this soup. It’s reflection that I didn’t see as I took the photo. It’s too late to change it now, so you’ll just have to ignore that part. Thanks.

If you have a great way of making homemade soup, please let me know!