Where’s the joy?

I can’t remember when I noticed that one of my blogging buddies, Jess, has an interesting little paradox between her blog url https://wheresthejoy.wordpress.com/ (“Where’s the joy”) and her blog name “Where There’s Joy”. I think about it at the oddest moments, and I’ve thought about it a lot this week.

On Thursday, Sept 30, Canada recognized its first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. I spent the week sharing various videos and articles about Indigeneity, trying to give my classes enough to make them think but not so much that they ignored me completely. On the day itself, our school board shared video opening and closing remarks by Monique Manatch, Knowledge Keeper Algonquin of Barriere Lake. Her remarks, along with the remarks of our Director, Camille Williams-Taylor, highlighted the ideas of belonging and of school as a place of joy and love. 

My students were incredulous – to the point of nervous laughter. “Joy? In school?” “That is not how I would describe school.” When Ms Williams-Taylor said, ““Let’s use this land for sites where… all students’ learning spirits are set free to develop and soar,” someone snorted. After a brief discussion, I let it go, knowing we would return to this later.

This week, thanks to our less-than-stellar Covid scheduling, I have an entirely different group of kids – in a class called “Understanding Contemporary First Nation, Metis and Inuit Voices” (aka grade 11 English) which I am teaching for the first time. As they trickled into the classroom on Monday afternoon, I scrambled to remember all of their names – after all, we’d been apart for more days than we had been together. When I asked, they let me know that they hadn’t done “anything much” the previous week in honour of Truth and Reconciliation Day and, as they slowly settled in to read their books, I realized that I didn’t even need to ask them if they found joy in school: I could tell that the answer was no, at least not in this class.

In her opening, Monique Manatch told us, “The Indigenous paradigm is based on relationships. Our whole reality is based on relationships…and with relationships comes reciprocity.” Can I be in relationship with people whose names I can barely remember?* Can I use this course to build relationship? What about joy? I honestly don’t know.

Honestly, I feel wildly underprepared for this course. Oh, I’ve read a lot of books by various First Nations, Metis and Inuit authors – quite a few, frankly. I’ve participated in a virtual book club with Indigenous speakers and attended trainings with our board’s Indigenous coaches. I went to the various PD sessions, and I have done a reasonable amount of research, watching, listening, learning. In fact, I think I’ve done just the wrong amount: I know enough to know exactly how little I know. Now, I’m trying to teach English skills and Indigenous voices, and I’m pretty sure I’m failing at both. It’s humbling.

More than humbling, it’s horrifying. I don’t want to get this wrong; I can’t get this wrong. I don’t want these students to leave the course with only a surface knowledge of these important voices. I don’t want their eyes to glaze over during the Land Acknowledgement, their phones to come out when we speak of treaties and teachings. I feel caught between what I know (English skills, the curriculum documents, the trappings of our white society) and what I don’t (enough about anything outside of my own narrow culture, really). 

I want this class to be joyful – though, like Ursula LeGuin, I am stuck with the question, How is one to tell about joy? What does joy look like in the classroom? What would it mean for these students to experience joy in this classroom on this day? How do I show them that they can do hard things, learn new things, work in new ways and experience joy? How do I convince them that the joy matters as much as the grades?

I don’t know. I just don’t know. But I keep thinking about the question/answer that I find in Jess’s blog.

“Where’s the joy?” 
“Where there’s joy.” 

Wish me luck and learning and maybe love and joy as I muddle my way through this course for the first time. May I do justice to the Algonquin people on whose lands I teach and to all others whose lands were stolen in the name of nation building.

Many thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org/ who host bloggers each week.

* As someone who regularly forgets names, I would argue that I can, to some extent: I chat regularly with neighbours and coworkers whose names I have forgotten. Often I know quite a bit about them. Usually my partner or a kind colleague can enlighten me once I work up the courage to ask.

100 words

He has written 100 words.

“100!” He  puts down his pencil. “Done.”

“Not done,” I say. 

He glares. He wrote 100 words. Mostly about a dog bite. Some about a broken arm. He added the broken arm because he didn’t have 100 words about the bite.

I talk about telling a story, about narrative arc, about sensory detail and dialogue. 

Done done done. “You said 100 words.” He plays tic-tac-toe with his friend.

But… what about that dog, that bite. Was he big? Did it hurt?

He waits. I wait. Two days. Then he picks up his pencil and writes.

(Today’s exit ticket was “one thing you learned”. His response: “I’m not a bad writer even though I thought I was.”)

Well, I asked…

By the last few minutes of class on the Thursday of the first full week of school, I was losing my voice and, occasionally, my patience – and I was trying to disguise both. My brand new grade 9 students were, ahem, perhaps not as prepared for high school as students in other years – and I’m not talking about academics.

I expected this, of course. They’ve been in pandemic schooling, such as it was, for a year and a half. They haven’t been in a physical school building since April. During that same time, I watched my own child, only one year younger than the motley group in front of me, try to “multitask” by playing video games during particularly dull social studies lessons and attempt to learn while sprawling & squirming in a beanbag. I know that on-line school and in person are different beasts. But it’s September and we’re back in person and the pandemic continues, so we’ve put a bunch of 14-year-olds into classes that last two and a half hours each. Even if their teachers give them a 15 minute break during the class before mine, they still don’t get much motion. They are not prepared for this.

On Thursday, I stood in front of them as they popped out of their seats, asked to use the restroom, snuck out their phones, played tic-tac-toe during writing time and talked during instruction. Behind my mask, I bit my lower lip to hide a smile, but I knew that the chaos needed to be tamed – at least a little – before we could learn. So I asked what they needed.

“More time outside!”
“More free time!”
“Time to use our phones!
“Time to talk to our friends!”

Time time time – of course they wanted the thing I felt the least inclined to give. Time in class is too precious to waste. I harumphed. I definitely said, “Well, I’ll think about it” in the annoying way that adults say they’ll think about something when they mean “I’ll say no tomorrow.”

And then a strange thing happened: I thought about it. Thursday evening, I kept picturing S waving his hand in the air or K up and out of his seat again. I saw M sliding her phone out of the desk, eyeing me to see if I was watching. I thought about Matthew Kay’s book Not Light, But Fire and his suggestion that teachers “burn five minutes” at the beginning of class for chatting and getting to know students and their concerns. I thought of Cornelius Minor’s We Got This, which I’m rereading, and his insistence that listening is teachers’ superpower. I know that true listening means both hearing what the students are saying and responding to it by making changes in the classroom.

As I sat in front of the computer, revising Friday’s lesson plan to include the myriad things that we had not gotten to on Thursday, the students’ communication – spoken and unspoken – ran through my head. They were going to take the time they needed whether I “gave” it to them or not. They had trusted me enough to share what they thought would help them learn. My job was to listen.

I looked at the lesson plan again and added the word “apologize” to the top.

Friday, I started by telling them that I was sorry I hadn’t listened carefully the day before. I told them that it took me a while, but I had heard them, and I showed them where I had built in outdoor time, chat time & phone time. I wish I could tell you that they magically settled into their desks and learned, but they didn’t. I still ended up confiscating pushpins (no, you cannot use them to poke your friends) and telling one student that he simply had to find a way to stop wandering the room. Nevertheless, they know I heard them. I suspect that things will get better… maybe next week.

The day before the day before

It’s almost five o’clock on Tuesday evening. I am sitting at a student desk in the front of my classroom because, as it turns out, that’s where the plug is. While I know this means I will probably need to rearrange my classroom tomorrow, that’s ok. I like this view: I can see all of my bookshelves, full and mostly organized – the result of hours and hours of work. Truly, it’s not nearly enough books, but I’ve collected them by hook and by crook – a few dollars here, a used book there, an occasional email plea – so I’m please with how many I have. To walk into this room is to know we read here.

The small classroom window to my right is open and, because the door to my left is ajar, I can feel a gentle air current that’s slightly at odds with the rhythmic sound of basketballs on the court outside. A community court, I think, it has been busy all day but now the grunts and laughter seem louder because the school is quieter. I know that this quiet is telling me to go home, and I will. I will. I will.

I look up again. The bulletin boards are still largely bare and the black space stares at me, reminding me of things to come. I haven’t yet put up my posters – that’s for tomorrow. I don’t have too many and they’re not too big, but I like the pop of colour they bring and I value the welcoming words on each one. I know, too, that I must leave these boards empty for now so that my students can make this space their own. Soon they will be here and their work will fill our spaces. Soon, the room will not be mine, but ours. I wonder what it will look like? I wonder who will be in this space? I look up again, taking it in, trying to be in the moment and failing.

I am not in this moment – the moment of the books and the breeze and the basketball and the blank bulletin boards. My poor system is still settling from the three fire alarms today – all accidental, all forcing us outside, forcing us to be in the now when we are desperately trying to prepare for the future, for Thursday when the students arrive.

I am back there, under the tree during a fire alarm, having an impromptu department meeting to discuss class assignments. I am in the hallways, trying to learn everyone’s names, realizing again and again the importance of faces that I cannot see. And I am already in the bookroom again, tomorrow, shelving one final box of books. I am already imagining where I will place the posters that are now on the desk in front of me. If it’s here, can they read it? Where will they sit? Who will take comfort in or find courage from these words? Who will they be, these students? Who are they now, in their homes, at their jobs, maybe on the basketball court, bouncing, bouncing and loving these last hours of summer?

Whoever they are, I hope they know that these moments right before the classroom fills, these moments are full of trembling anticipation for me, their teacher, too. Today I am in the past and in the future. Thursday – Thursday! – I will be in the moment and we will begin a new school year and the mysterious alchemy of learning and loving learning will start to work and then… magic.

One more deep breath. Now to close the windows, stop the breeze and go home.

Nervous Excitement

I’m teaching at a new school this year. Now, there are a few things you should know about this before I continue:

  1. I was at my previous school for eight years and I loved it.
  2. This was my choice. I mean, I interviewed for this position, said yes & everything. On purpose.
  3. I have moved schools before – a lot. In my twenty some years of teaching, I’ve taught at seven schools (counting overseas; not counting my practice teaching). 
  4. I am nervous every. single. time. 

Number four begs the question of why I keep moving. Well… sometimes I had a one-year contract (overseas); once I got married and moved to a different continent; twice I was ‘surplused’ (had a contract, but no placement in that school). Only once before have I intentionally decided to move. Both that time and this one I was ready for a new challenge and sought out the right opportunity: I’m going to be head of a department that the Principal is calling “Global Citizenship and Literacy” – English, Languages, History & Social Sciences – how cool is that? Does it sound like I’m trying to convince myself that this was a good decision? Yup, here I am, nervous.

So far I’ve mostly been able to pour my nerves into cleaning. First, I threw away a bunch of nasty old books that no student should have to receive as a class book along with a few frankly racist books that we really didn’t need to keep as a class set. For the first time in 13 years I have my own room, so I’ve been cleaning (paper alone took one full day – the teacher in there before me retired & pretty much left everything behind). Today I started unpacking and organizing. My mother is visiting me and a 13-year-old friend of mine is an organizing genius, so I recruited them to help me out. We worked through the morning until our eyes were red with dust and we were sneezing into our masks. We worked until we’d drunk all the water we brought and really needed lunch. We worked until we were tired enough that we were spending a lot of time talking about the books we liked and less time putting them on the shelves. There’s more to go – I have a LOT of books – but things are starting to take shape.

Wait a minute. Truth: while they threw away the dried-up pens and White-out that seemed to lurk in every drawer and cubby, or decided whether to place a book in “realistic fiction” or “Canadian”, I was in and out of the room, starting to meet my new colleagues, chatting about summer, classroom assignments, course assignments, books and pedagogy. We’re all feeling each other out, looking for commonalities, checking to see how we’ll fit together. 

“Do you think that we should all teach one book in each grade so that students have a shared experience?” No, I don’t. 

Gatsby is one of my favourite books.”
Oh, how I love Gatsby, though I no longer teach it as a class novel.

“Don’t you think that Of Mice and Men will make a “comeback” some day?”
Nope, though I’ve taught it before and I loved it for a long time. 

“I know that the students probably need to build up their literacy skills after a year and a half of Covid. What will you prioritize in your classes this year?”
That one’s easy: joy. 

“Joy?”
Yes, and laughter.

Nervous nervous nervous. Will my colleagues like me? Will my pedagogy be too “out there”? What if I can’t teach these students? (Honestly, I have worried about this at every school. You’d think I would have learned by now.) What if this doesn’t work? What if… what if… what if…

A few years ago, when students’ final project in English was to deliver a TED Talk, I used to play Kelly McGonigal’s talk, How to Make Stress Your Friend. To be honest, sometimes if students are stressy enough, I still do. Over and over, I have listened to her tell us that stress can be energizing, preparing us to meet a challenge, that it can feel like joy and challenge. Joy. This is the message I keep with me. It’s okay for me to be nervous, stressed or even – gasp – scared. This is normal. This is good. This is why I decided it was time for a change. I need to be challenged; I am ready for something new. My task now is to remember that these nerves have an upside. My journey is to find the challenge and meet it with excitement.

When I came home from cleaning, after buying lunch for my amazing helpers (Thanks, Mom), my own children were hanging around, savouring the last days of summer. “How are you feeling, Mom?” they wanted to know. “Nervous,” I said, “Nervous and excited.” 

Every week I blog with Two Writing Teachers. Maybe this is the year that you, too, should join this supportive community and become a teacher who writes.

The day he was born

I was running back upstairs for something – well, “running” is probably a generous term, let’s go with “waddling quickly.” I was waddling quickly back upstairs for something when my water broke. I had heard that sometimes women can’t tell for sure if their water has broken, but this was unmistakable. Andre was about to leave for work, but instead we called the midwife. “Well,” she shrugged, “statistics tell us that you’ll have a baby in the next 24 hours. Let me know when you’re in labour.” Before she hung up she suggested keeping busy. We decided Andre might as well go to work and get things organized before the baby came. I had a coffee date planned with a pregnant friend – they’re the most forgiving when it comes to last-minute “I can’t come; I’m in labour” cancellations – and she had invited her friend Kate – also pregnant – who she wanted me to meet. I told them my water had broken but that I was still up for meeting if they were. “We can always leave if my contractions start,” I said. They were both game.

I waddled the four blocks down to the coffee shop to meet the girls. Before we went in, we decided to walk a few more blocks to the grocery store to buy a pack of Depends. I immediately put on a pair, then gave the package to Lindsay, who was due in a few weeks. She put two in her bag and gave the rest to Kate, who had a few months to go. That taken care of, we went to Bridgehead. 

We laughed and talked. Kate, my new friend, was delightful. (Our two babies, who met before they were born, are now in the same class at school.) We gloried in the last hot days of August, knowing that none of us would be teaching this semester, that our commitments lay elsewhere. I relaxed into the moment before the beginning, before everything changed, before this new life entered our world. For a few hours, I lived fully in liminal space.

Then the occasional twinge of something that I had been feeling became more clearly a twinge of… maybe a contraction? It was time to go. As we left, I tried to hug Lindsay – whose baby would arrive a few weeks later, bigger at birth than my baby who’d had time to grow outside of the womb. Our giant bellies made the hug impossible and we laughed again. Someone passing by wanted a picture. “When are you due?” he asked as he snapped the shot. I replied casually, “Oh, I’m actually in labour now.”

How I wish I had a picture of his face. How I wish I had the picture he took of us, laughing, our bellies so big we couldn’t wrap our arms around each other. Still, I doubt a picture would have captured the joy of that moment; probably better to hold the image in my mind.

A few hours later, the liminal space was gone, and our second child arrived.

Happy birthday, Mr. 11. You make our world better.

Thanks to the generous hosting of Two Writing Teachers, I write a slice of life every Tuesday. You’re invited, too.

Editing

I’m sitting at the kitchen table, staring intently at my laptop, when my husband walks by. “Editing?” he says, and chuckles. He always knows. He swears that I have a special editing face – different from my writing face or even my crossword face. “Sometimes,” he says, “it’s as though you are staring at a very messy room that *someone* is going to have to clean up, and you know it’s probably going to be you. Other times, your face lights up with the glee of someone who just figured out the last pieces of a puzzle.”

This probably explains why I spent several hours today editing other people’s essays. In fact, my last comment ended with “I think I’ve edited until my eyeballs crossed. I have to go.” 

Now, the astute reader may notice that it is early August and school doesn’t start around here until September. No problem. To get my editing fix, I help a friend out with her business; part of the job is editing application essays for top business schools. I like it so much that sometimes I forget to submit my invoices. I strongly prefer editing to invoicing. So, yes, I actively seek out more essays than my own students provide me. I recognize that this is not normal behaviour.

But… let me tell you about the joys of editing. Some essays just need a quick grammar check. Conveniently, I am quite good at grammar. Grammar editing provides a quick hit of rule-following pleasure. Yes, all the subjects and verbs agree, even the complicated ones. No, no modifiers are left dangling. All the commas are in place. I feel like I’ve placed the perfect dab of whipped cream on top of a sundae. “Ah… done!” Then, there are essays that need to be cut down to fit a word count. This is the joy of a complicated word game. Can I find one word that will take the place of two – or, gasp, three? What must stay to communicate information? Personality? If I rearrange this sentence, can I eliminate a phrase? Finishing one of these essays feels like ending a well played Scrabble game – no waste anywhere. Often, I can return the essay to the author with the magnanimous phrase, “You’re now xx words below the limit; feel free, to put a few back in.” True satisfaction. Sometimes, I get essays that are very early drafts. These usually fall into categories like “heartfelt but disorganized” – which I handle with care as I help the author find a way to put structure onto their passion or their strong voice – “wordy” – allowing me to delete with unbridled glee – or “overgeneralized” – where I suggest paragraphs that would benefit from a solid anecdote, and sometimes amuse myself by imagining wild situations just to get their juices flowing. “Tell me more,” I write, “Did you get interested in EdTech over a revelatory grilled cheese? When you got that promotion did you samba through the office? Bring in a pinata? Call your mom?” Occasionally, I giggle as I edit. 

My favourite essays – wait, who am I kidding? I like them all – are the ones where something is just off. These essays are organized and have anecdotes and ideas, but something – something – isn’t working. Sometimes I just sort of know the problem. Essay drift, for example, happens all the time. Aha! I think, they started off talking about feeling lonely in high school and ended up talking about a rafting trip. How are these related? My job is to help the author find their throughline. “Is this what you are trying to say?” I ask, “Or maybe this?” Some writers are nervous about revealing themselves, though that’s what applications require. These essays titillate without ever fulfilling their promise. I finish reading and feel kind of like my date stood me up – or worse, like I’m not sure if my date is a mild mannered accountant or a big game hunter and I’m not sure what to do. Who are you?I want to say. I need something else to know what’s important to you. As I write my comments, I try to discover the sticking points, the places where I think that the author is hiding a little. Passive voice, a sudden dearth of detail, maybe a wonky transition – these clues help me figure out where things are missing.

In the end, editing for me is about growing a story. None of these application essays are headed for publication, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter. Each essay, each anecdote is another attempt to put someone’s ideas in order and share them with the world. I find deep pleasure in helping them make their written words match their inner thoughts. 

When September comes, I will offer my students the same care and attention that I offer to the young people applying for business school. I will offer them suggestions, convince them that grammar is a tool, assure them that they can write and rewrite until they are happy with the result. I will tell them it’s okay to ask for help, that all sorts of writers have editors. I hope that this will be part of what convinces them that their stories matter. 

And, of course, I will enjoy the editing.

Come, join us! Writing is fun. (So is editing.)

Ambulance

We spend most of our time in the back part of our house in the kitchen, but this morning, something made me glance out the front door. Across the street – right in front of Pina & Mario’s place – was an ambulance. 

I didn’t really think much of it at first; my in-laws are visiting for the first time since the pandemic began and I had other things on my mind. And yet… Pina and Mario aren’t young. I checked again. The ambulance was still there.

What is the difference between nosy and concerned? On our street, I honestly don’t always know. Mike, who lives next door and keeps treats in his pockets for everyone’s dogs, knows everything and often keeps us all abreast of what’s happening. The house on our other side, split into three apartments, has housed a series of delightful young couples – one by one they’ve left to get married and have children, leaving me happy that at least my kids haven’t made them rethink their plans. Two real estate agents live on the block – in different houses – and each of them is enthusiastically nosy in her own way. Across the street, baby V and their parents and grandparents occupy one house. I’ve been trying to teach V to say “truck” whenever we cross paths. So far, all we’ve got is enthusiastic raspberries and grins, but we’re getting there. Alex and Tessa used to babysit for our kids before they went to university, so we keep up with them via their mom. The couple next to Mario & Pina share gardening tips, and this year they gave me four hot pepper plants; the couple next to them has a very energetic dog, which means that they often pause in front of Mike’s. Two doors down from us is a family with two girls, both one year younger than my two boys; three doors beyond that, the corner house includes two boys who are nearly the same ages as my two: our families tumble over each other quite regularly. We live in a neighborhood where I feel comfortable running out to borrow an egg or a half cup of sugar. We don’t necessarily hang out together, but we know each other.

That ambulance had me worried. I decided to knit on the front porch. I settled in, trying not to imagine myself as a nosy middle-aged lady. The baby sweater was mostly finished, so I patiently wove in the ends and pretended not to watch Mario & Pina’s house. Eventually, Pina came out, well-dressed, fumbling with her purse. She passed behind the ambulance and disappeared. My heart dropped: Mario. It was Mario. 

I waited. The ambulance didn’t move and I tried not to wonder too hard if that meant that they were treating him or if that meant something much worse. No way to know. I concentrated on my sweater.

Mario and Pina have lived on our block for 52 years, longer than anyone else. They bought their house for $34,000 when she was 22 and he was 25. They can tell you how much most of the houses on the block have sold for over the years, and Mario shakes his head when he recounts various neighbours’ renovation antics or inappropriate landscaping choices. He may never forgive the couple that turned their front yard into a driveway to a garage under the house. “Under!” He shakes his head with disgust. Mario himself is always on the go and prides himself on his yard. He mows and sweeps incessantly all summer, then comes out with a snow blower and cleans his sidewalk and driveway, day in and day out, all winter. And yet, Pina is the gardener. Last year she insisted on giving me some of her Rose of Sharon; the year before she took me on a tour of her (immense) backyard vegetable garden. They raised their children here; now their granddaughter – one year older than my oldest – visits every Saturday.

The minutes passed quietly. Pina pulled out in her car and drove off. Moments later, the ambulance followed, no siren. I finished weaving in the ends, then went inside to wet and block the sweater. 

After that, my day filled up: there were children to feed and errands to run. I checked things off my to-do list and immediately added others. The baby sweater dried; I spoke with friends.

After dinner, my partner gently said that it was ok to go over and see if they needed anything. I didn’t want to intrude, but I was worried. I decided he was right. We rang the bell and waited, not sure what to expect. After a few moments, Pina’s face appeared at the door. Through my mask, I asked if Mario was ok. “I saw the ambulance this morning,” I babbled, “and then I saw you.” She stared. “I can bring food,” I offered. 

Food. They are Italian. Their family is in town. I suspect that they never, ever lack for food.

Pina’s eyes darted left, right and then opened wide with understanding. The ambulance! She had left! No, no, Mario was fine. She, too, had wondered and worried about the ambulance. She watched it out her living room window: what was it doing in front of her house? Perhaps it was there for neighbours? Maybe the driver needed a rest? She didn’t want to be nosy, so she had waited inside, but eventually she had to leave the house. Flustered, she had fumbled for her keys as she made her way down the front walk. She did not know that the ambulance had followed after her. Mario, whose knee was bothering him, had uncharacteristically spent most of the day inside. 

They are both fine. 

We looked at each other, and our eyes filled with tears. “Come in! Come in!” Pina insisted. I did. We sat at her kitchen table and talked about our neighbors: is Mike well? Isn’t it a shame that the neighbours don’t sit on the porch anymore? Have I seen how her granddaughter has grown? My son is so tall! I declined the offer of coffee. Mario insisted on showing me around the house because he was fine – fine, except for his knee, but what can you expect? This is what it means to get old. There was their wedding picture, Pina’s train spread out forever and ever. They were so young. “Do you know when we bought this house?” asks Mario, full of good spirits, laughing because I thought he was sick (or worse) and he is not. “We were so 22 and 25! Let me tell you about the neighbourhood…”

And I listen to his stories again. Nosy? Maybe. But at least for tonight, everyone on our street is ok. 

Confessions of a former mermaid

Getting this cottage for the week was pure luck, a bonus in a summer that we’ve otherwise spent far too close to home. It’s rustic (read: bring your own drinking water; wood stove for heat; don’t even think about a dishwasher or laundry), but the screened in back porch might be the most perfect place in the world: We’re practically inside the trees, their branches swaying and soughing around us, the lake glimmering up through their trunks. I could stay here forever.

View from the porch

I won’t of course, because my children choose a different definition of perfection: the dock and anchored floating platform mere metres below this porch. I could sit here, away from the sun and the bugs, all day, but their bliss is the water. 

I, too, love the water. We lived in Panama when I was a toddler, so I grew up swimming in the ocean. In early elementary school in Texas, after I passed the deep water swim test, I decided to walk to the pool by myself. After all, I reasoned, I was now allowed to swim alone and the pool was just down this street…somewhere. I made it to the pool, but the lifeguards, unimpressed by my bravado, called my mother to come get me before I got to swim. Years later, as we drove from Texas to California, our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean filled me with glee. Our parents, probably tired of driving with three little girls and a dog, stopped the car almost immediately, and I stripped down to my underwear and ran into the ocean. 

Soon enough I joined a swim team and, when we moved again, another. Summertime saw me in the water for hours every day, often heading home only long enough to eat lunch and go back. I swam so much that one summer my blond hair turned chlorine-green. For a while, I even swam on a year-round team, waking in the wee hours of winter to dive into a pool and swim before school. By the end of high school I was a lifeguard and a swim coach, a job I continued into college. I scuba-dived on vacations and snorkeled while pregnant with my eldest. I once joked that I was half-mermaid, as at home in the water as I was on land.

These days, I’m no mermaid. We’ve been at this cottage for three days, and I have yet to go in the water. Oh, I’ve let my feet hang over the edge of the dock and wiggled my toes as fish swim by, wondering if they should risk a nibble. I’ve kayaked the entire perimeter of this small lake. I even tried stand-up paddle boarding. But actual swimming? Nope.

Yesterday our friends came for a visit and, as the fathers splashed and swam with the kids, my fellow mom and I sat and watched. I was wearing my bathing suit, but I declined even a direct invitation to join them in the water. I was completely content on land.

When did this happen? When did I become one of the moms who sits and chats instead of playing? Was there a day? A month? If I looked back carefully, could I pinpoint the last summer that I went into the water willingly? When did going into the water turn from joy to job? It’s not like I’m worried about my hair (it air-dries just fine) or my makeup (I stopped wearing it during covid, in part to encourage my students to turn on their cameras regardless of their concerns about appearance). I tease my family that I cannot trust Canadian-born people to accurately assess water temperature – their warm is not the same as mine – and it’s true that Canadian lakes, even small ones, are not as warm as South Carolina lakes, but I can tell that this one is not especially cold. So why don’t I go in? I honestly don’t know, but even thinking about it, recognizing the change, I’m not tempted. To be fair to myself, I’ve already swum across one lake this summer, and I have every intention of swimming across this one before we leave. Maybe tomorrow, I think, maybe then I’ll go in.

I might, but I’m not sure. Even as I sit here, remembering my former mermaid self, I feel no sense of loss. I’m happy on this perfect porch, letting the wind caress me, feet up, hair down, appreciating the smooth silver surface of the lake from a place of quiet.

With gratitude to Two Writing Teachers for creating this place where teachers can practice the craft of writing.

Advice when I can’t quite write

“You should write about writer’s block,” says Mr. 13 as he shoves more popcorn into his mouth.

“Nobody wants to read about that,” I reply.

“I don’t know,” he says, “I mean, you’ve been trying to write for a long time today. Aren’t you supposed to write about your life?”

In the not-at-all distant background, Mr. 10 is experimenting on the piano that hasn’t been tuned since before Covid. He has not yet found his way to a tune; I’m not convinced that’s his goal. The random notes are not helping me concentrate.

“You could just publish what you already wrote.” Mr. 13 is still trying to help.

I make a face. “It’s not good enough.”

“Mom,” he is exasperated, “you wouldn’t let me say that. Maybe you need to just publish it and be done.”

But I can’t. The funny story about how today I left the pan of oil on a warm element and set off the fire alarm just isn’t that funny. The Golden Shovel poem about being lonely isn’t that poem-y. The lines I’ve captured in my notebook have potential, but they seem intent on remaining kernels of ideas rather than full-fledged pieces.

The piano continues in the background, discordant, unpredictable, distracting.

Shall I write about being 13? Missing my family? Waiting and waiting for the Canada-US border to open? I could write a memory. I want to be funny, but I’m not feeling funny. I’m just feeling off and this house is full of noise.

Maybe today I can give myself grace. It’s summer. I am taking things in, noticing, walking, being. Maybe today I can accept that what I’m writing is what I’m writing which is this. This is what I’m writing. And it is enough.

“I think you were right,” I say to my son as he heads to bed. “I wrote about writer’s block. It was good enough.”

He smiles. “Good night. Love you, Mom.”