I Hope It’s Not Just Me

I just looked out the window and it is dark.

9:00 p.m. and pitch black!

On my morning walks, I have been noticing a change to the light, but tonight I first noticed a change to the dark. The autumn is coming. I started walking every morning in March of 2020, and now I see the sunrise every day. I used to be a sunset person, but now I am a sunrise and a sunset person. Both occurrences so important, so uniquely beautiful; one of my takeaways from the times of the pandemic is that each day is so, so precious.

I lost my Dad starting now, last year. Starting now, his health switched and he began to sound different. Starting now, he left. Starting now, this year, I see the light shifting and slanting; more golden, it delivers a punch each day. It is as if it is saying: pay attention! See me! And I do.

Aging is beautiful except for two things: your body hurts and people you love begin to die. Aging teaches you so much if you are willing to see it, just like the light, and the dark.

Tonight we had chicken and potatoes and salad. Tonight we watched a documentary about psilocybin. The dog desperately wanted chicken and potatoes and salad, or so he thought.

Tomorrow it will get dark even earlier. I am loving this strange August that is cooler and rainier than June and July. Climate change is this great, scary mystery. We never know what this season will bring, or how the weather will be affected.

With a smile I watch the change. Last year, at this time, I had no idea what changes were about to occur. A year later, now, I understand just a little bit more.

Time Traveling

It all started with Mr. Yousef on Thursday.

Or perhaps, it had been percolating for a few weeks, and Mr. Yousef crystallized it in my Principal’s office, on that Thursday.

I sat at the conference table with him, talking about attendance and truancy and COVID, and I realized how many years I have been serving students in schools like my current one. I thought, in an instant, about how confusing and terrifying being new can be: you have no idea what the schools really do, or what they are like, or how the beauty at the core of them, the children, MUST be our core commitment, despite all the pitfalls and policy changes.

The thoughts led me back to Gus Garcia Middle School, in the fall of 2007: 15 years ago.

Gus Garcia has been popping up lately as it has come to my attention that a large number of those of us who taught there and who opened that school are now administrators in Austin ISD and Elgin ISD. It is definitely true that the difficult experiences at Garcia led us to leadership.

Let’s do a roll call….Dr. Melvin Bedford, once AP, is now Principal at Austin High School. Chara Harris, once a math teacher, is now Principal of Murchison Middle School. Brandy Gratten, once an English teacher, is the Principal of Martin Middle School. Ben McCormack, once an English teacher, is the Principal of St Elmo Elementary. De’Sean Roby, once Instructional Coach, is Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Tasha Bedford, once an English teacher, is Assistant Principal of Bertha Sadler Means Middle School. Kalandra Williams, once a math teacher, is Assistant Principal of Neidig Elementary School. And me, Patience Blythe, once a science teacher, is Assistant Principal of Booker T Washington Elementary School.

As I sat in that room with Mr. Yousef, talking about attendance policy and telling him that I am known for being very, very, very aware of student attendance, I thought about those years, and why so many of us became administrators.

For many years, I have shied away from writing about the experiences I had at Gus Garcia. My issues with understanding life-work balance while working there were definitely contributing factors to my divorce in 2009. although I do believe that our marriage wouldn’t have worked no matter where either of us was working. I have shied away from it because the experiences were so intense, and so of their moment. We went through the financial crisis at that school and the election of Barack Obama; these events fundamentally changed public schools. They perhaps felt too close for real examination; I also didn’t want to upset anyone in the retelling.

But here we are, 15 years later, and schools have changed so much. In many ways they are better, and yet, the results for poor children remain the same. I wonder why that is. I have some ideas, which I will share here as the year progresses. This is my first year as an Assistant Principal, and my mentor has asked me to remember to write about it. I will.

But to go back to that meeting on Thursday afternoon with Mr. Yousef; it was one of those meetings that sends you back in time, and through time, and provides you a deep reflection on the present: that everything you have done has brought you to that exact moment in time. At that moment, we talked about truancy and withdrawing students, and I sat in that beautiful office, in that school building, and again realized that I am so lucky to have so many years of experience with which to refer.

On the day before, I was in a training for SAMA, which for those of you who are not in schools or institutional settings, is a practice of de-escalating crises that works very well. I mentioned to Wednesday’s instructor that, at Garcia, all of the teachers were trained in SAMA due to the level of need at that campus.

In other words, all roads in my mind are leading to Garcia at this moment.

It is time.

When I returned to Austin ISD in 2015 after a four-year absence, the gentleman looking at my paperwork said, “Oh. You were at Garcia. There were a lot of problems there.” I said, “Yes, there were. Whose fault do you think that was?”

Let’s dive in.

Garcia Middle School was built up on a hill, in East Austin, on the east side of 183 off Loyola Lane. It is a beautiful building that looks like a community college. The first time I went into the building, it was just a shell, and we wandered through it being told where this would be, and that. We had planning meetings in the construction trailer out front. Most of the staff had come over from Porter Middle School, which had recently been closed in South Austin.

When the school opened, it was beautiful. Huge windows let the light shine in on the east and west side. Each grade level section was painted a different color: orange, blue, and yellow. Each classroom had a plasma screen television (these were the days before Promethean boards). Each area had its own workroom with its own copier and its own computer lab (these were also the days before Chromebooks). There was a patio off the cafeteria that was planted with native plants. I was the most experienced science teacher with one year of teaching experience.

When I think about Garcia, I don’t want to enumerate its flaws and faults or describe all the things that went wrong there. To me, there is little point in dwelling on those things, and I don’t want people to feel I am pointing fingers or blaming anyone for what happened. I find it comforting and inspiring that so many of us who were young teachers there are now administrators at high-needs campuses in this area; this shows that we all learned a lot in those years, and decided to take a path that would make sure the things that happened at Garcia would never happen again under our watch.

But despite the desire to not talk about the problems, the formative aspects of my three years at Garcia keep popping up. Why is that? Is it because my time at Garcia was my first experience of true leadership? Conversely, my first experience at understanding what lack of leadership can do? Perhaps.

At Garcia, we went through three principals in one year. The first one left us in December. Before she left, she held an assembly in the gym and yelled at everyone in a voice I will never forget: it was a voice of desperation, sadness, defeat, and acknowledgment that what she had done had not worked. She was replaced by an amazing changemaker who came into that school with his giant gold rings, announcements on the PA, reward systems for students and teachers, and songs in the cafeteria. He changed everything in mere weeks. The third was a principal that no one liked; she divided the cliques and friend groups. She was challenging. She broke the staff apart to rebuild it. She was the only person in my three years there who could get the students to listen to her and only her simply by asking. She could talk to them. When I decided to leave, she asked me, “So….how is Bedichek Middle School?”. I told her that I had to learn how to teach; that all I knew was how to control classes but I needed to learn the other aspects of teaching. She and other administrators there told me that there are kids who need help everywhere. They were, of course, right.

One of my takeaways from being in Title 1 public schools for so long is that people with years of experience have opinions and observations that are priceless; they are diamonds. You may not agree with everything, but there is a truth that resonates and is useful to apply to your own situation. Ultimately, experience gives us perspective so that when big changes occur, like what is happening now, we remember and know that we will make it through this, too. Younger teachers don’t know this. I didn’t know this back in 2007 at Garcia Middle School.

I had two rooms at Garcia: first one without a window, and later, one with two gorgeous windows on the second floor that I often opened each morning because the fog would roll into the classroom and I loved it. It was a very foggy place; a hilltop that was covered in cloud in the early mornings and backed up to a greenbelt that was never named as such due to where it was in the city. In the back of the room, I had a coffee maker that some other teachers used. When I wasn’t at school, which was rare, students would open the windows and throw textbooks onto the roof of the first floor.

During transitions, why do we drift backward into memory? Does it ground us somehow? Remind us that if we survived then, we will survive now? Do the memories help us interpret the realities of this moment? It is hard to say.

I don’t know what stories from Garcia will pop up here. Will it be the time we made cricket houses in the science elective and I didn’t realize that crickets eat cardboard and all the crickets escaped to be found by the custodians? Will it be how the 8th graders self-segregated in class every time you turned your back on them? Will it be the city gang truce meeting in the library? Will it be the time that student brought a giant knife in a Jordans box to kill me? Will it be the time the two boys got in a fight and one shot the other one in the face (both survived)? Will it be how the kids stashed drugs in the upstairs 7th-grade boys’ bathroom ceiling tiles and sold them at lunch? Will it be the time I was observed by the district and a boy was walking across the tops of lab tables while another was hiding in a cabinet, and others were making and sending darts into the ceiling tiles and yet, I still received a positive evaluation? Will it be the time that I wrote a blog post about advisory that somehow was picked up by a national publication and ended up on the front page of the Austin American Statesman? Or will it be completely different memories? We shall see.

If I could share one truth about serving students in Title 1 schools with anyone who would listen at this exact moment in time, it would be this; if you are not in the schools, you have no idea what happens within them, and you do not understand their importance. The importance of the schools is critical; it is key to the future of the country as a whole. The more they get broken down, under-funded, criticized, or have unfunded mandates applied to them (I am looking at you, HB 4545), the impacts on the children and adults in the schools are massive.

I remember when President Obama was elected, when Dr. Helen Johnson became principal, when TEA came in to audit our campus, and we began to talk about this new test called STAAR. It all happened there, at that campus. So many things happened there, and I can remember so many of them vividly; they were that intense and meaningful.

At that school, I wore striped knee socks every day; I had probably 10 or so pairs. The students asked me why I wore them every day, and I told them it was because I had prison tattoos on my legs and I couldn’t show them. Would I say this today? Definitely not. But the kids loved it and thought it was hilarious. They called me “Colorful” there, not Ms. Blythe, and never once questioned how someone who had been in prison could be their teacher, let alone this tall, weird, white lady. In fact, those students *insisted* that I was not white. At the time, I didn’t understand what they meant.

What is happening in the schools this year is heartbreaking: how can there be so many openings? One of the biggest things I learned at Garcia is how I cannot solve the world’s problems; I can only hope to influence a small group of people in front of me. I learned about the importance of the students in my care, and the teachers that I could help. As our year begins, my current campus has the lowest turnover rate in our district and only has one open position. That tells me a lot about our school. That tells me we can grow; we have a whole crew of caring people who chose to stay after the hardest year I have ever experienced as a public school educator.

I wish I could take you all, the general public, the Texas state legislature, the US Congress and Senate, and bring you into the schools. You would see the needs; you would meet the students and you would see how much they need access to a high-quality education delivered by caring adults. School is another form of nutrition; anyone who tells you it isn’t critical to every child has some hidden agenda that I am not interested in understanding. I wish I could bring you into these classrooms; like the time at Garcia, when I had the most bonkers class I had ever had up to that point. The students never stopped talking: I didn’t know how to help them calm down then, and I randomly, in desperation, put on a video of Charlie Chaplin. Almost instantly, they asked, “why is no one talking?” They then completely calmed down, and from then on, Charlie Chaplin videos were rewards in that class. To that end, one day I told the students that I had lost my voice and could not speak, and they had to find ways to help me communicate. All of a sudden, everyone could raise their hands before speaking.

Schools are magical and majestic. But mostly, they are critically important to the lives of children. Throughout the pandemic, the lives of children have been an afterthought. They have not been our priority. Government leaders seemed to think they would just bounce back and be fine after all of the time away from school. Those of us in the schools understand that this concept is a false assumption; the time away was damaging to so many of them, in many ways that we, as adults, will probably never truly understand.

I thank you for joining me here and reading my ramblings about grief, life, schools, and our country. I do love it so. I love its children most of all. I hope you do, too, even if you don’t have any of your own. And I do hope you think about how important school was for you, and act in kind.

Hot Days in My Mind’s Eye

It all makes sense, in a strange sort of way. The nebulous feeling; cloudlike and hanging about in the air.

Is it the pandemic? Is it the fear of constant shortage; today it is baby food, but what about tomorrow?

Is it that all the children have stayed inside for two years and now don’t know how to go outside, how to play, how to think for themselves or learn? Is it the overdependence on testing over knowledge?

Is it the fast pace of it all; Googling answers takes no time. There iss no thrill of the chase of discovery anymore. There iss too much available at the push of a button, and all the while it grows hotter and hotter outside.

I look out my window at my front garden and my front porch. Both are beautifully dotted with plants; some are in pots. My front garden is full of roses and irises and a few trees; some loofahs grow on the fence.

Yesterday it was 90 degrees in Maine; almost as warm there as here. I don’t think that has ever happened: 90 degrees in May.

I remember the winter, when I was young and more recently, and watching Frenchman’s Bay in Maine freeze over with a skin of ice; I loved watching the short and stubby icebergs form on the beach over the course of each winter; they are blue against the black-grey of the beaches. I wonder if by the time I am 60 they will be smaller, or maybe they won’t exist at all.

I remember learning about hot and cold molecules in elementary school; cold molecules are slow while hot ones move around quickly and bounce against each other like a pinball game. Is that what is happening now? The heat is rising, both physically and socio-politically, so we are bouncing against each other, rapid-fire, without any understanding of why?

An 18-year old shot and killed ten people today, in upstate New York, because he was afraid that black people will replace white people In America as its dominant culture. He is 18; his life hasn’t even started yet and it is already over, alongside the people who he murdered. He must have learned this on the internet. How is it that the internet impacts young people so differently than we who grew up without it?

The air is still today; there is no wind.

In a couple of weeks, we go to England to sprinkle my dad’s ashes in the River Dart under the Saxon Bridge and toast his spirit as it truly becomes part of the Earth that birthed him all those years ago, in 1939.

I said to my students on Friday: Lord help the teachers of the future. I am every day battling the internet for their attention. I am battling videos, texts, and Snaps; I cannot compete with the sheer size of the moving energy of the internet and its entertainment.

Will we get rid of jobs and money like in Star Trek? Perhaps, but not for a long, long time. War continues to rage in Ukraine and so many people here in the United States can’t go to the doctor, can’t read at an 8th-grade level, and can’t afford to buy a car. The United States is confusing and terrifying; why is there a baby formula shortage and why can’t people, in this situation, make their own babies’ food?

We are losing our ability to solve our own problems. Meanwhile, the temperature outside grows hotter, a problem that we feel that we cannot solve. Entertainment grabs us and holds us for mere moments that stretch to hours, days, and years. Distraction is everywhere.

Why can we not mourn quietly? Why can we not process into spaces of acceptance so that we can change what we can, accept what we cannot, and understand the wisdom to know the difference?

I missed my Dad the other day; I was sitting at ACC graduation and his face appeared in my mind’s eye; he was old like he looked just before he died. That was it: just his face. I smiled.

This is how it is, how it will be, always, forever, for as long as it is to be.

Meditations on Friendship

I have had a friend for almost twenty years who I met in the jewelry studio in Mexico, in San Miguel, in 2004, when I was a jewelry student and she was on break from art school in Philadelphia. She is from San Miguel and was visiting her mom and her friend, Billy, the teacher of the school. We met and went out to a mezcal bar and talked about talismans and teachers. We hung out for a few days and then she went back to Philly. A year or so later, I happened to be in Philly for a boyfriend’s brother’s wedding, and we saw each other again, cementing our friendship. About two years after that, I moved to Philly, seeking a geographical solution to divorce. We ended up living together in a crooked house in Point Breeze, owned by a crooked landlord in a neighborhood in the transition of gentrification that we now know became common in all big American cities.

We had our ups and downs. I am not the perfect roommate, and neither was she, but there were signs of something bigger, even then. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears, rages, and benders became not common, but predictable; if something hard happened, one of those would, too. Threats were common (“if you do this again, then I will move out”), but so were treats of dinners out or massages at the spa where she worked. There was a lot of back-and-forth, up-and-down. Then came Halloween of that year. We went to an amazing party in downtown Philly hosted by the eccentric owner of an eccentric jewelry store, and there were costumes and drag queens and performances and swingers and so much booze it could make your head spin. We went with two other friends and were having a great time until I couldn’t find my friend, and then did find her, smooching a fireman in a thong. There were men all around her, and I realized how drunk she was. My other friend who had come with us said to me, “we need to get her out of there”, and he went to go convince her to stumble off with us, and we went home. She spent the next day in her room and the adjacent bathroom, sicker with drink than anyone I had ever seen or heard before. Shortly thereafter, she got fired from the spa for hostile behavior toward a coworker and abruptly left Philly for points South.

We remained friends for a time until I made the stupid mistake of dating her brother (a dumb move never to be repeated). After that inevitably fell apart due to me not being ready for an actual relationship and him not being ready for an actual relationship as well, she was, understandably, very mad at me. A few years later, I heard from her, asking if we could be friends again. I had just moved back to Austin, where her cousin lives, and she was thinking of moving there, too. I was excited to hear from her and I still felt bad for dating her brother. She moved to Austin in the fall of the same year I did, and we began hanging out all the time again. It took a while for the same strange behaviors to begin again: the comments, the asides, the tone.

She and I and another friend went to Mexico for a week in the spring of 2018 and stayed at her mom’s gorgeous ranch outside San Miguel. During the trip, we made a lot of delicious food and drank a lot of tequila (Bloody Marias, mostly), and took walks. It was during this trip that I saw the same behaviors that she did to me aimed at her mother; I was confused as I thought she just treated me that way. At that time, I didn’t know that it happened to a lot of people. One night I was talking with her mom in the kitchen, and she came in to say that she hated the cabinets in one of the houses on the property and her mom said something flippant like, “well I had them made because I needed them, so……” and my friend responded, “well when you die, I will rip them off the wall!” and stormed out. I apologized for my friend to her own mother, blaming all the tequila.

After a couple of years, I became engaged to my husband, and my friend took me wedding dress shopping. We found the perfect non-wedding wedding dress in a small boutique in Austin. She did the flowers for the wedding and made a beautiful curtain of flowers with lights that hung behind us as we performed the ceremony. That was 2019, and life changed so rapidly after that as we moved Cody’s grandma in with us, she died the next fall, and then of course COVID started early in 2020. We saw each other fairly frequently during the early COVID times, always outside as she was very COVID-averse. I began to feel something was off then. The friend group was changing and the people around were seemingly much more affluent than what I was used to; I felt I didn’t belong. I noticed, every time I hung out with my friend and her boyfriend, that she was treating him the same way as me and her mother; she was abusive and embarrassing much of the time.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. I talked to other friends about it and they told me just to not worry, but to find new friends because friendship isn’t supposed to feel so odd. I felt every time that I was around her, that I was going to do something to upset her and then would have to deal with her wrath in some way. Last summer I went out for dinner with her and another friend and she said that she wished all of her friends weren’t 40 with kids and that she just needed to meet new friends. At a party last summer, she alienated another friend after the friend responded negatively to having her daughters jumped on by the dog. The clock was ticking.

I couldn’t figure out what was going on, except our “friendship”, if that is what it was at that time, felt terrible all the time. Every conversation was strained and I didn’t know how to make it better. She went to Mexico at the end of the summer and texted me tons of photos of her trip, telling me how much I needed to get back to Mexico (I agree, btw). I asked her to let me know when she got back, but she didn’t. I called her and texted with no response. I left her a message asking if she was ok, telling her I was a little worried and didn’t understand.

A week or two later I received a response that she needed space from our relationship. I was blindsided and also shocked because the language she used this time was almost exactly the same as the last time we had split, all those years before, after I dated her brother. I felt very sad and did not understand what had happened. I wrote her a text saying that this was a pattern in our relationship that I didn’t like and that I hoped she can find peace in her life. I received no response. I sent her a book and an email. No response.

The reason why I am adding this chapter to my Odes to Grief is that this friend is the person in the closest proximity to my friend who has cancer. This friend provides the sick friend with food almost every day, and the sick friend even lives at this friend’s cousin’s house, in the garage apartment. It is all very connected; this issue was one I was worried about when the friend cut me off without explanation. I wrote her an email saying that our social lives are so interconnected and with taking care of our sick friend, could we be cordial and see each other and would it be ok? She responded that I should never contact her again.

Like I said above, for a long time, I thought that this friend only treated me like this; I thought I had done something wrong and somehow deserved the treatment. It has taken me a long time to realize that true friendships have a core value of mutually assumed forgiveness (because we are all human). Because of how I grew up, I oftentimes assume that I have done something wrong. This is something I am working on. Over the years, I began to see that my friend treats a lot of people this way; she is an equal opportunity offender in terms of abusing people who love her. I do not know if she knows how to love others. She knows how to buy presents, host parties, and take trips, but she doesn’t know how to talk about feelings and fears or own up to her part of disagreements. She becomes hostile and full of rage or she just leaves.

The connection to the Odes of Grief is complicated, because, like I said above, this friend (I suppose, ex-friend) is the closest to my friend with cancer. She is the gatekeeper in some ways, or at least, wishes to be. She has actively excluded me and one other friend and is in the process of doing the same to a third. When our sick friend was hospitalized in the early part of this year, my ex-friend made no effort to communicate with those of us who she had decided to “write off” (a term used the other day by yet another friend trying to understand how she could help). It is fine for people to “write people off” if that is what they need to do, but when you all are part of a web of support for a friend who is dying, this is where the issues arise. One person can’t get the power to decide who knows what is going on, and who doesn’t.

The other issue in this scenario is that the sick friend (probably) has no idea that this is all happening around her and behind the scenes. But as the process of “writing people off” becomes more expansive, most likely because the stress of the situation is increasing, it is inevitable that the sick friend will begin to notice or know something. One of my concerns and guiding ideas in this process of taking care of my sick friend is that I don’t add stress to her life. I don’t want to do anything that makes her worry; the idea that she would worry that a lot of her friends are fighting feels juvenile and unnecessary.

When people die, things get weird. I already know this. I have already written about this here. I think the challenge of being around people who are dying is that, until you have done it, you don’t know how you will react. Add to that that each relationship with a dying person is unique and then you may know a little bit about how you deal with the death of loved ones, but again, until it happens, you don’t know the specific manifestation of the death of that one person. Hopefully, people have done their own work enough to know themselves; I know also that this is a false assumption.

My friend who has “written me off” (if you can’t tell, I really hate that expression. I feel like I am a line item on a ledger somewhere or something) has not done a lot of her own work. She has a hard time talking about emotions or things that are frightening. She has a hard time taking responsibility for her behaviors of hostility, rage, and manipulation. The last time we talked, she was blaming it on her childhood, which I think was a step forward. I hope there have been some other steps since. I think one of the reasons she is cutting people off is because she is having a hard time facing the situation and facing the people within the situation and she has to at least interact with the life of our dying friend so cutting people off is easier. That is my assumption, and could be totally wrong. Since she won’t speak to me, I cannot know.

The other night, I had a good chat with another friend, our Switzerland-like friend who lives out of state. Switzerland she is because of her out-of-stateness, her personality, and then as a major bonus, she is a doctor who did her residency with geriatric patients. In this mix, there are three of us who have taken care of dying people: this friend, myself, and my friend Kris, our sick friend’s oldest friend and the one who first took care of her when she was first exhibiting symptoms of cancer fourteen years ago. I am not using names here because I find that people don’t like to have my analyses of them outed on the internet, so please excuse any confusion. Let’s call the Switzerland friend Suzy. Suzy and I spoke at length about the importance of prioritizing our sick friend’s care, and smoothing over any factions or ill will that may exist in the group. This is my core belief as well. The issue between me and my ex friend is not relevant to us being able to be a caring support team for our sick friend. Maybe we will heal our relationship and maybe not; that doesn’t actually matter in this context. Suzy is a new friend of my ex friend and perhaps their relationship is different than other relationships I have witnessed with this ex friend; after all, they met at different times of each other’s lives, in different places. I have hope.

The end to this long piece of writing is to close with hope. I believe that we all, and I mean we as the collective human “we”, can set aside our egos when we need to take care of people in need. I see it all the time, I have years of evidence to support my claim of this ability of our species. I believe one of the root causes of my divorce from my friend came from the fact that she has no responsibilities, no career or job, no one that depends on her or that she helps. She is blessed with wealth and so does not have the worries of most people. She has no children, so does not have that anchor. She does not need to work, so she doesn’t. She has nothing holding her in her own life, so it is natural to drift and find purchase on certain things. She has found purchase with our sick friend; it is clear to all of us that she is holding on to our friend desperately and doing everything that she can to help. Unfortunately, she is anxious and afraid and is striking out at other people who just want to do the same thing in collaboration with her.

My hope is that we can abandon ego, all ye who enter here. We are heading into a tunnel. It is up to us how we reappear on the other side.

IT’s been a while since I have written, and I apologize for that. Mostly, I apologize to my future self who is going to look back on this and say, “goddammit, why didn’t you write it ALL down, all the time, every moment?”. But such is grief. It is, to me, a fundamentally arresting force. It is also uncontrollable.

I am in the end stages of becoming certified to become an assistant principal; I am excited and intimidated about it all. I know where I want to be an assistant principal, but of course there is no guarantee that I will get exactly what I want. I am in the midst of trusting the universe and understanding I will end up where I am supposed to be. I had a vision tonight, whilst watching the end of “October Sky” (one of my favorite science nerd movies), of myself standing in front of my school as an assistant principal. I was wearing a blazer, of course, and a smile. And I realized that my dad would be so proud of me and it is a son of a bitch that I won’t be able to talk to him about it. I will only be able to thank him for it all. I remembered him teaching me my multiplication tables when I was 4-5 years old in my bedroom. He bought a poster with them and tacked it to my bedroom door.

My best friend (I am lucky to have several, but I speak of one here) who has cancer is in the midst of her own process; today she was told that she can stop taking chemo if she wants to and just take pain medicine and ride out her cancer. Apparently, it has spread to her bones now so it is pretty much everywhere, in small amounts, and she is having gnarly side effects from her chemo drugs. When we talked, I said to go for a lot of walks til the answer comes. She said she hopes the answer comes when we are eating lobster in Maine in June! I will always remember her perspective and her ability to make me laugh.

Another best friend texted today. He is also going through a huge loss, although not one that wrestles with death, but is grief nonetheless. He is on a six-month break from his husband, and told me today that he realizes he took his relationship for granted. I think this is inevitable in long-term relationships and, I think, in marriage especially. You aren’t supposed to take the other person for granted per se, but they committed to staying around with you in front of God and the law and your family and everyone, so I think everyone must take their spouse for granted at times. I suppose we only realize this, though, when they are gone.

My friend who has cancer has always taught me to be present with life and with death. That is her greatest gift to me. I learned so much about my relationship with my dad after he died. It turns out that it wasn’t what I thought it was. It wasn’t a bad relationship at all; in fact, it was one of my most consistent and valued relationships. I just let the baggage overwhelm the present beauty and the truth of it all. I miss talking to him so much it about makes me crazy sometimes. Just like my friend who is realizing he took his relationship for granted; I wonder if he is realizing that the relationship he thought he had wasn’t the one he actually had. How does that work, how do we confuse ourselves so?

My last note for tonight is about how crying makes you dehydrated and that makes me frustrated as I cry a lot and therefore, am dehydrated a lot. That in combination with living in a very sunny, dry place, makes me always thirsty, and then my anxiety takes over and wonders why I am always thirsty and if people notice how many times I go to the bathroom per day. I wonder if the anxiety that has definitely been triggered by grief is a permanent thing, or like everything else, will pass and change inevitably over time?

It is dark and quiet. I am reading a good book. Tomorrow is a new day. Love.

Let Everything Happen to You: Beauty and Terror

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Hours, I 59

Today I reflect on a day. A day that is part of a week, which is part of a long, but short, month. February. February. No month can drag on quite like it; the month that is the bridge between winter and spring. The month that has so few days, but so many of them are grey, cold, and icy.

Life feels interminable in February.

But! Tomorrow is its last day.

Reflections on loss for February:

I felt myself for the first time since October last week. I felt that I was actually a good teacher who was engaged with her students, her curriculum, and her process. I thought of this yesterday as I was driving into Austin, on a flyover between US Highway 290 and I35 North to meet a friend for brunch. I thought of a photo of me and my dad in west Texas in 1983 or so. I am wearing pink corduroy overalls, and he is wearing a cowboy hat. Neither outfit makes sense, and yet it does in this image. I am sitting on a shelf, and he is looking at me. I thought of showing this to the students and telling them about this realization of last week, and I started to cry.

Fort Davis, Texas, 1983 – Two lost English people

These tears were different. These tears are acceptance tears, and tears of peace. These are tears that come with the realization that he is gone and he did a lot of amazing things for me and was a complicated person who made a lot of bad decisions. These tears are also an acknowledgment that my relationship with him was not the relationship I thought we had when he was alive. I was always mad at him, disappointed in him, judgemental of his behavior, questioning why he did all the things he did. In death, I realized how much I talked to him. I would call him, randomly, all the time, and talk for about 5-6 minutes each time. Then he would say something like, “well this must be costing you a fortune!” to get off the phone.

The hardest thing about death, for me, as the obviously loquacious person that I am, is that I can never speak to my lost friends again.

Sometimes, at night, I go outside and sit on a hard surface and talk to my friend Meredith. I have no idea why it has to be a rock or a road or a sidewalk. I look up into the sky, into the stars, and talk to her until I hear her laughing at me. She always laughed at me, with me, she always thought I was the best person, the most knowledgeable about education and school, and she was always one of my best friends. At 52, she counted on me, and I was only in my twenties. She laughed at the absurdity of it all, she wrote me all the time (all of her emails are saved of course). She died back in 2011. When she was dying, she complained about the British being imperialists who tried to take over the world. This was clearly aimed at me. She also told me, over and over again, how much she loved her children.

Today I thought about my Dad, and I visited my friend Patty who is my quilting friend and the mom of one of my best friends, Ann. Patty recently was diagnosed with cancer as well, although they caught it early and everyone is very hopeful. I had to see her today and give her a hug and a kiss and we went through bins of fabric that she had inherited from a friend’s grandmother who just went into a residential home for people with dementia. I went through tubs and tubs of fabric and I watched her and her daughter play fight about her inability to use the Costco website.

Afterward, I drove up the highway, on my way home, to see my friend who tomorrow goes in for the first dose of her last possible chemotherapy. First of the last. We talked and ate cheese and walked and chatted with Sarah, her friend and owner of the big house, and ate spicy Thai food with Marie that made all of our lips burn but was delicious. We laughed and talked about weddings and old friends. She said she thinks tomorrow will be fine and is not worried.

Earlier, I found Marie in the road as she was on the phone with me. We are dealing with a hard situation in this mix which I will enumerate later, but today we drove to the UT Campus and sat on the steps of the Texas Memorial Museum in the sunshine and talked about losing our friend, and what we want for her and for our friendships. Marie is so strong and wise it is daily amazing to me. She was born across from a special star, I am sure, and inherits this wisdom and palpable love from her mother, Ruth. We talked about how maybe we will take care of her in Denton, at Marie’s house, and she will be comfortable. I don’t want her to be in any pain or any worry.

Such a strange time on this Earth. In one place on its surface, there is a war brewing. In another, there is hateful rhetoric spewing from a small man in a wood-paneled office in downtown Austin. In another, my friend is celebrating her 5th anniversary with her sweet boyfriend in New Jersey. In another, my friend is planning her first restaurant. In yet another, I sit at a table, in the dark, typing away, as my husband eats dinner 4 hours north in Grapevine.

We are all part of this world, and yet are alone and floating within it at any given moment. Some of us read poetry, and some of us listen to music. Some of us ride horses, drive trucks, sing, or dance. Some play sports, some walk in the woods. Some watch television. Some sleep. Some watch the sunrise, some the sunset. Every day the sun rises in the east and sets in the west; I see it rise through the boughs of my 200-year-old post oak tree when I walk home from my early morning walk with my dog.

The light changes each day; as I get older, I notice how each day is different. I never noticed that when I was younger.

Tonight, I looked at the lighted windows of my friend’s apartment while I talked to my friend Marie in the street. I looked at the silhouetted branches of trees, the muted colors of the curtains, the outline of lamps. I thought about her sitting up there, facing all of this. I thought of all the things we have done together and all that I have learned from her; I thought of the time she had a steroid reaction and I drove full-speed through tiny Texas coastal towns in our friend Jenny’s brokedown car, and how we had to get out on the side of the road and pee and how I ran into a hospital yelling, “HELP ME MY FRIEND HAS CANCER” only to be looked at strangely by all present. I thought about being on the jetties in the wind, about hearing her story, about going to the Barbican in London, and her chastising me for always having horrible shoes to walk around in. I thought about her laughing, laughing, laughing.

I hear my dad’s voice in my head, but the sound of it is fading. I will always be able to see his face and to remember my memories of him, and I hope I will always recall his distinctive voice. But I don’t know. All I can hear of Meredith now is her laugh, and the one time she told me “it was a really great wedding” after my first wedding, which she paid for.

Hugs to you and yours wherever you are in our strange world. xx P

All the Boats in the Harbor

I grew up in the summers on a large island off the coast of Maine. If you are a longtime reader of this blog, you well know this. I grew up on Mount Desert Island, and lived there until about 5 years ago, when I returned to Austin, Texas.

Mount Desert Island (MDI) is a tourism community that attracts 2 million people in a normal summer; our year-round population is a smidge less than 10,000. There are many funny comments from tourists that islanders have to endure, and lately, one has been sticking in my memory.

I can see Bar Harbor in the summer clearly in my mind’s eye. There are pleasure boats, whale boats, lobster boats, and dinghies moored there, bobbing up and down in the water, as the currents and the winds shift. Bar Harbor is an open harbor so really is only used in the summer, due to its lack of protection from winter storms. Tourists often look out into that harbor and see all the boats on their moorings, with the mainland beyond, and ask: “how do they get all the boats to face the same direction?”

Whenever this particular question is uttered, we laugh, albeit inwardly. Of course, it is the water currents, not the mooring, that determine how the boats set in the water.

COVID has now been raging for months: it feels like forever. I remember I said I was going to write here every day, and that never materialized. I have now decided to be more patient and gentle with myself, and write whenever I feel that I can. There are all sorts of below-the-surface water currents at work, causing us all to drift on this invisible tide.

Right now, schools are supposed to open as normal, and there is no plan for teacher or staff protection. The President wants the whole country to re-open, and periodically shrieks about the stock market and the NASDAQ, as if that means anything to 15 million unemployed people. The Texas governor issued a mask order last week, in the midst of a fury of anti-mask propaganda. I canceled my Facebook account yesterday: well, I put it on a 7 day hiatus, but after reading articles like this one, I am fairly certain I am on the path to permanently deleting it next week. I was in a meeting last week and described the feeling of being in the Upside Down, if the Upside Down was made of molasses; it is as if we are in a crazy parallel reality where truth is not valued, science has been relegated to the side lines, and time seems to move very strangely.

I don’t know what else to say except that times feel dark, and strange, and scary, and it is very hot (at least we have air conditioning!). I have been sewing almost obsessively, and watercoloring scenes from my life for a new quilt. I will share some of those when I have a few more ready. Some memories are good, some poignant, some sad; very much like the life they reflect.

I have been emailing with an old boyfriend from 20 years ago, and I think we have been comfort for each other in these strange days. Cody and I seem to not be a consistent comfort to each other, but I read an article about that, too. I feel very grateful for my friends at this time, for my dog Oscar, for my family in England who I can FaceTime with, and for the myriad stories I can engage with on television and in books. I spend a lot of time in contemplation and reflection, thinking about all the stages of my life, and of other’s lives, and how many, definite chapters we all experience. Life marches on despite our existence in the vacuum of COVID-19.

In some ways, this time reminds me of working in the studio in Northeast Harbor very late at night in the winters, when it was so dark outside that I couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet out of the front window, where the lights shone. I remember the blackness of the branches of the trees, the sound of the winter wind, the deep glow of electric light in a sea of winter black. None of us can see where this goes or when it ends, although many of us would like to know.

Despite the looks of the boats in harbors worldwide, there is no one undercurrent pulling us in one direction or another. There is, unfortunately, tension and mis-management, megalomania, fear, the unknown, wishes, rebellion, new ideas, anger, and a bit of hope. I just bought some very bright fabric to make quilts for the many babies that I know are on their way into this crazy world.

Back to sewing. With love, P

Date: 8 July 2020

Worldwide Cases: 12,009,301

Worldwide Deaths: 548,822

Worldwide Mortality Rate: 4.57%

United States Cases: 3,110,000

United States Deaths: 134,000

United States Mortality Rate: 4.30%

Gardening – A Personal History

When I was a little girl, my mom and her best friend (our neighbor, Shari,) would send all the kids outside on summer days to thin the carrots. We were taught at a very young age how to thin carrots, and lettuce, and basil plants. We would sit for what felt like forever, but which most likely was about 15 minutes. I remember looking down at rows of tiny, fernlike plants in perfect lines in the dirt, figuring out which ones to pluck, and which ones to leave alone. 

 

During those same years, we would be wicked children and steal Shari’s lavender flowers and run up into the woods to our fort, which we had built out of scrap wood and plastic sheeting. We covered it with pine boughs for camouflage, and built a lookout up in a tree. Erica and I decided that it smelled terrible, due to the combination of Maine rain and the plastic sheeting, and we would make air freshener by smashing the lavender flowers in an old saucer on the floor of the fort. I remember desperately wanting to live up there, thinking it was a place in which all four of us could finally be free, but never having the guts to do so. 

 

When we were kids, in Maine, in the summer, the only time of the year when it is warm-ish in Maine, we were sent out of the house after breakfast and asked to only come back for dinner. We were not allowed to come into the house during the day, as the moms were busy making bread and jam and, probably, watching some television. In those days, we climbed trees, made canoes and kayaks into playgrounds, and took said canoes and kayaks out into the ocean, always wearing life jackets and staying close to shore, because even we knew that the ocean, given a chance, will kill you with its cold temperatures and hidden currents. We knew that each year people died in the ocean for failing to understand its power. If you respected the ocean, however, and stayed close to shore, you could scoot along the ironstone rocks over to the MDI Biological Laboratory and open up the fish cages on the docks, gazing down at the tiny sharks and horseshoe crabs, sea urchins and hundreds of starfish. We would gaze down at these creatures for as long as we could until we were spotted and chased back into the canoe by wary, and kid-weary, graduate students. 

 

These stories, I hope, provide the background for why, even as I now live in Texas, that I interact with and build my garden each and every day. I started gardening in the early 2000s when I worked at Whole Foods and would bring home dying plants from the 5 cent shelf. I lived in an old house in the French Place neighborhood, just east of Hyde Park, that had a beautiful front yard just perfect for a first garden. I remember the neighborhood cats would always mess with my plants, and at the time, I did not yet understand the interesting role of a housecat in the garden. (Hint: they think you made it for them). My first real garden was in the Hudson Valley of New York in 2006, when I somehow ended up living in Croton-on-Hudson and spent a few days before I had a job digging out a 30-by-10 foot space in the sun at the top of a hill for a garden. I remember digging and scraping, gazing down at the Croton River, with the Hudson River beyond, and a giant tree at the river’s edge in which lived baby eagles. It was glorious. The rest of the property was consumed by Kudzu, which, if you have never seen, you should Google. There were two rose bushes, which I hacked down to nubs in early March, and then thought I had killed, only to watch them leap into action come April; they exploded with blossoms. In the garden, I planted all the basics and watched my first corn crop grow sky-high, trapping a family of woodchucks one at a time, and releasing them in the park across the river. 

 

Today, my garden is bigger than ever. My husband and I bought a 5-acre parcel with an old house on it about 3 years ago, and we steadily carve it, sculpt it, hack away at it with each passing week. When we bought the place, the house was shrouded on three sides by overgrown hackberry and yaupon trees, and you couldn’t even see the giant brick barns. Most of the property was also overgrown with hackberry, but now, there are trails through 1.5 acres of it. We discovered a giant, old, rambling post oak that was buttressed to the point of being choked by hackberry and mesquite. We chopped those down, cleared the site, and got married underneath it. This year, it roared back into beauteous growth and is covered with healthy, green leaves. 

 

What is the magic of gardening? Is it the soil itself, the rhythm and ritual of planting seeds and transplanting plants from one pot to another? Is it the mystery of spring when plants, hidden for months, peep out of the ground and then, seemingly in an instant, are three feet high and rising toward to ever stronger sun? Is it planting tomato plants and then noticing the baby, green tomatoes hanging on to every stem? Is it the sound of the wind, and the songs of birds, and the whisper of shifting branches? Is it wild thunderstorms that shake the house but don’t rattle the tiniest of seedlings, somehow holding on to their spot of the good earth? It is all these things, and more. It is planting wildflower seeds, afraid that none will sprout because they are notoriously finicky, and then having 5 appear! It is the first return of hummingbirds and listening to them fight over the feeder, and watching their ruby-throated gem-quality magic feeding on the geraniums by the kitchen window. It is the butterflies feeding on sap, and your puppy chasing them on the wind. It is the orchard, once dormant and cold, unfurling with green leaves, and the trees growing taller each day. 

 

I say to myself each year that I must spend 20 minutes a day in the garden, and I usually make that happen. Sometimes I plant, sometimes I weed, and sometimes I just wander. On especially lovely days, I just listen to the birds and the bees and the trees. So many trees. When I was a little girl in Maine, we used to listen to the locust trees along the driveway creak in the wind, and were always afraid they would crash down! And they never did; they bent, but never broke, not yet, anyway. 

 

There are so many lessons in gardening and being out of doors. Those lessons are patience and calm, tolerance, beauty, an appreciation of color, and soft sounds. Nothing beats the sound of wind running through grasses that are waist-high, or the feeling of the sun on your shoulders or face on a summer day, or the cool crisp chill on your shins in the mornings of spring. I check my bees each morning, taking them food, and telling them of the weather. Sometimes, on those mornings, it is yet still cool, crisp, almost cold as the dew touches my feet. 
If I could recommend gardening, and I do, to everyone, I would say remember the first line of “Desiderata” – “GO PLACIDLY amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”. All the answers are there; in this world of ours, when we all are able to move so fast, it is a wonderful thing to do something intentionally that is so slow, so colorful, so practical, so beautiful, so calming. I hope you have a wonderful day in your garden.

 

Date: 28 April 2020

Cases: 3,116,398

United States: 1,012,582

Deaths: 217,153

Mortality Rate: 6.968%

United States Mortality Rate: 5.888%

An Aside

I woke up late today; it is raining, and I always oversleep on rainy days.

I went outside to take the puppy out and check on the bees. I gathered their sugar syrup feeder jars and chatted with them, noticing that they were irritated this morning and kept flying at my head, buzzing away. I assume they were annoyed with me sleeping in and annoyed that today will be cold and rainy, again.

I walked back to the house and noticed that some of the sunflowers are about to bloom. I noticed a mockingbird scraping her bill on an old piece of oak from the post oak that we took down last year. I heard birds sing and watched them balance on the power lines. The wind lightly blew, and it was cool, but not cold.

I smiled, realizing that if there wasn’t a global pandemic that threatens not only health, but economy and democracy, this morning would be have been purely gorgeous. And it is, of course, actually that.

I wish there was more information, anecdotal or otherwise, from the Spanish Flu Pandemic. I would like to read peoples’ stories and learn how the process developed, what turns the pandemic took, how people responded, and then how it ended. Perhaps I should go to the library…oh, wait.

I was really down yesterday: worried about everything. I was sad and angry and wistful and full of grief, all at the same time. It lifted sometime in the evening when I started sewing, so that is a lesson in an of itself.

This morning, this perfect morning, I will make some toast and get back to it. I am sitting at my table looking at my favorite Mola that I brought back from my zany trip to Panama 5 years ago, I am drinking tea, I am listening to the neighbor’s rooster crow from his little cell. The puppy is sniffing and snuffling around. Cody is sleeping. I can see the roses through the front windows, and the blooms of the Jerusalem Sage as well, and beyond that, the neighbor’s giant red barn.

There is peace in these moments; in this time, many gifts.

Date: 18 April 2020

Cases: 2,273,986

United States: 706,832

Deaths: 156,076

Mortality Rate: 6.683%

 

 

 

It feels like waiting while revolving in circles – like a strange carousel.

Tomorrow, the Governor of Texas is slated to give a speech, about what we don’t know.

Today, the superintendent announced that we won’t go back to school this year. This makes me feel sad, but I understand, I think, that it is temporary.

This is such a strange time, during which it seems that no one knows anything and people are dying right and left. Some people want the economy to get back in its groove but everyone is afraid. It seems like everyone in charge is flailing, and, in the meantime, all of us just wait.

I spent today calling students and gardening, playing with my puppy, and wondering about the world at large. I tried to decide if I should cancel my flights for the summer, or hold out hope that it may all turn out ok. I learned from American Airlines that I can cancel up to the day before and rebook anytime before December 2021. December 2021? What will happen by then?

Today’s Guide to Opening Up America Again *

*I never want to hear the word “again” used in a political slogan ever *again*.

22 million people have applied for unemployment 

 

Date: 16 April 2020

Cases: 2,158,033

United States: 671,151

Deaths: 144,211

Mortality Rate: 6.682%