Grief #SOL21 6/21

The first time I understood someone else’s grief was the second time I fell in love with a poem. The day after our beloved Calculus teacher, Doc, died of cancer, the principal announced her passing over the PA.

Doc loved teaching and, I think now, loved us. After her diagnosis, she had taken a summer trip and then decided to keep teaching for as long as she could. We would be her last class – not something we understood at all.

Sometimes, when we were struggling with a concept or deep into a problem, she’d order pizza to be delivered to the school’s back door & sneak it up to the classroom. We’d stay in and do math through lunch. No one ever complained.

Once, when my home life was falling apart, she asked me to come to her house and babysit her granddaughter. I still remember the long quiet afternoon away from home, swaying with the baby as Norah Jones sang “Don’t Know Why.”

After the principal’s dry announcement, Mrs Jackson – 9th grade Algebra – came on. In a voice that quavered at first, she began: “Do not go gentle into that good night”

With each line, each verse her voice grew stronger, until the end: “Do not go gentle into that good night./ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Was there silence then? It was high school; experience tells me that most of the students went right back to talking. But that’s not what I remember: I remember silence. I remember Dylan Thomas’s words reverberating through homeroom, through the hallways, through the school. I remember knowing that I would cry when I got home.

I had no idea that a poem could stop the world like that. I had no idea that grief could echo in empty spaces. I know now.

Now I know.

Thanks to https://twowritingteachers.org for hosting this annual challenge

Pivot

Educators in Ontario are starting 2021 by pivoting. Again. 2020 saw us pivot from what we quaintly referred to as “school” to “emergency remote learning” from April to the end of June. Then, in my school board, high school teachers started September in “quadmesters” organized into what is possibly the weirdest teaching I can imagine (and one which I still cannot describe succinctly): we teach one course for approximately four hours a day every other week. During that week, half of the class is in person one day and the other half is at home; the next day, they switch. Teaching is hybrid because the at-home cohort requires “some” synchronous connection with the in-class cohort during the day. Once both cohorts are home and have had a lunch break, they are supposed to do asynchronous learning for another hour. I’m pretty sure we used to call that homework, but whatever. The next week, we switch to a different course. Apparently, this is a mere pivot from our previous practice.

Now, as 2021 starts, we are “pivoting” again because Ontario is back in lockdown – or at least partial lockdown. First, we’re teaching fully online for three weeks. Because that doesn’t feel quite challenging enough, we are going to teach two classes a day for 112 minutes each (the two classes which we previously taught on alternating weeks for 225 minutes). The instruction must be synchronous for some amount of time that I can no longer remember, and there will still be an asynchronous component at the end of the day for those whose heads aren’t already spinning.

Also, while no one knows exactly what will happen, we’ll probably pivot back (re-pivot? un-pivot?) for the last week of January when we may or may not return to the original 2020 quadmester plan, except that this would give one course a full week of instruction and the other course none – so I may or may not be seeing the students who may or may not need something to learn. I mean, it’s not a problem because when we get there, we’ll just pivot.

But the current pivot means that all I need to do during winter break is cut my pre-planned two weeks of hybrid daily instruction plans in half, spread them over three weeks and – maybe? – two days, download and practice using a few apps (hello, colleagues who have time to practice with me) so that fully virtual learning can go smoothly, convert any planned in-person instruction to a different delivery mode, and get ready to handle any residual upset the students might be experiencing from the last time this happened – when we told them we were extending March Break & then separated them from all their friends & didn’t allow them back in the school for 5 months.

You know, pivot.

As 2020 ends and people suggest various phrases that define the year – “You’re on mute” is a fave – I vote for “pivot.” Oh, how I have come to loathe that word. To me, it implies an easy twist to a new position. Just turn a little and keep doing what you were doing. No biggie. No need to reconsider your pedagogy to take into consideration the trauma adolescents might be experiencing as the world around them goes haywire. No need to think about how that affects their ability to learn. No need to recognize that in-person, hybrid, and online education are, in many ways, entirely different beasts. No need to examine which educational practices are foundational and which are, perhaps, merely habitual. Just pivot.

So I looked it up. Because I’m a word nerd like that. And, while I regularly tell my students NOT to start essays with definitions (Dear Heaven, but they don’t need another way to avoid saying actual things), I’m going to share two of the definitions I found at dictionary.com.

Pivot
– to modify (a policy, opinion, product, etc.) while retaining some continuity with its previous version
– Basketball. to keep one foot in place while holding the ball and moving the other foot one step in any direction.

Suddenly I am back in high school, playing basketball with my athletic younger sister at the top of our driveway. She is on the Varsity basketball team. I am terrible at basketball, and my inexpert play is not helping her improve her game. Frustrated by my inability to block effectively, she sighs, “Just… set a pick,” and she places me between her and the basket. “Spread your feet, bend your knees a little, and stand still.”

I do, and she dribbles around me again and again, her brown hair flying as she finds different ways to create space for her shots. Sometimes – often – she pivots, confusing the imaginary defense before she spins around me and shoots.

Pivot, huh? Keep one foot in place and move the other foot in any direction. Retain some continuity. It sounds easy when the government or our school board assures people that we will simply pivot to online teaching, but I know better. Pivoting isn’t an effortless turn, a round peg gliding smoothly in a round hole. I think of my sister, relentlessly seeking improvement, earning her starting position one afternoon at a time, bouncing and bouncing, turning and turning, intentionally putting obstacles between herself and the basket. She was working.

Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space where teachers can hone their writing skills – and have fun doing it!

Still, even if we had to work at it, we had fun on those afternoons, and we got better – or she did, anyway. I didn’t, but I was mostly just standing still. It wasn’t easy, but, well… I think I need to go try out a couple of new apps. I’ll try to remember to keep one foot in place, but I’m constantly stepping with the other because on Monday, we pivot.

A nighttime visitor

I was reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It isn’t a properly scary book – not like scary movies, anyway – though I suppose I wouldn’t know since I don’t watch scary movies – but it is vaguely terrifying. It’s about being a child and, well, let’s call it “menacing”: no jump scares; lots of tense terror. Whatever it was, I could not put it down because I was too afraid to stop reading.

Sometime after midnight, I gave myself a stern talking to – I was a grown woman with children for heaven’s sake. I gave myself a little leeway since my husband was away on a trip, leaving me alone in our bed, but my visiting in-laws were asleep in the guest room right next to my room. They would expect me to wake up tomorrow at a normal hour, and I needed to get some sleep.

I turned another page. And another. I could not look away from the darkness that wormed its way out of the book and into my mind. Eventually, my eyes drooped closed. I had just enough consciousness left to reach up and turn off the reading light.

As my mind slipped fretfully towards slumber, the pocket door that led into our bedroom scraped open. My eyes flew open and the rest of my body shut down: I could no more move than scream. A tall, pale figure came slowly into view, almost stumbled – just there! – hovered for a moment, then turned and glided away, scraping the door closed as it left.

My lips had gone numb; so had my fingertips. I remained paralyzed in the bed, listening for some indication that what I had just seen was real, afraid that what I’d just seen was real. After seconds, minutes, hours had passed, I raised a trembling hand to the chain above my head and pulled. The light came on, though it now seemed nearly powerless against the dark. My hand groped towards the bedside table. I found the book and opened it again.

I read all the way to the end. I cannot remember when I was finally able to sleep, when the characters were as safe as they were going to be, when pure exhaustion overtook my fear.

I stumbled down to the kitchen the next morning. Everyone was chipper, everything was bright: Grandpa Jim’s beard practically glowed white; Grandma Shirley hummed and sang while she made breakfast. Hollow-eyed, I watched, wondering if I should say anything about last night’s visitation. Would they believe me? Had I imagined it?

As we settled in to eat, Grandpa Jim started to talk, “A funny thing happened to me last night.” My head snapped up; my sense were wildly alert. Had he seen it, too? “I got up to go to the bathroom, got turned around and walked right into your bedroom before I realized it. I’m just glad I didn’t wake you up.” He returned to his granola and I stared at him for a full minute before I burst into hysterical laughter.

Not a ghost; just a grandpa.

I’ve never forgotten the book. You could do worse than to read The Ocean at the End of Lane as Halloween approaches – or anytime, really.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org for hosting this weekly gathering of writers.

In the closet

When I had my second child, I was teaching at a relatively rural high school. Sure, some of the kids lived in the town, and more lived on large properties, but a fair number lived on farms, too. There were stories of kids coming to school on snowmobiles in the winter or sneaking off to go fishing or hunting when the season opened. I am pretty firmly a city girl, so a lot of this was new to me.

This was also the school where I started working in a program euphemistically called “Student Success.” The students in my room had not, in fact, met with success. The class was small, but every student was there to catch up on at least one and usually two or more subjects which they previously had failed.

I loved every minute of it. The room was full of all kinds of kids who were there for all kinds of reasons. The small number of students meant that I could get to know them and that they could get to know one another. The fact that they had already failed a course meant that any movement forward was a success. We shared a lot, laughed a lot, and celebrated a lot.

For those same reasons, I used myriad strategies to help students stay focused, persist through difficult moments, and generally learn how to learn. One of those strategies involved using the small office/closet/storage space next to our classroom so that a student could have some quiet. This was *never* a punishment, the door was always open, and we didn’t use it often, but sometimes it was just what we needed when someone was looking for focus.

I was particularly grateful for that little space when I returned from parental leave. I was still nursing, so having a private place to pump was fantastic – no more hiding in the corner of the classroom away from the door or hoping no one looked over at me in the staff room. Ah, the luxury of my own small room. It was heaven.

Of course, I still used it with students sometimes, so I carefully packed away the various plastic bits and bobs and zipped everything back into place every time. Or almost every time. Except, apparently, for the time when K went in there to finish up a test in peace. He was a particularly exuberant kid, not known for his ability to sit still or focus for any length of time. He worked on his family farm and regularly regaled us with tales from his daily life. He loved to talk. So I wasn’t at all surprised to see K’s face at the door mere moments after he had left for the quiet room. But I was surprised that he was, momentarily, speechless. His face was red and he was hopping from foot to foot, sputtering.

Alarmed, I jumped up. “K! What is it?”

He stared at me, eyes wide with horror, “You put me in the MILKING ROOM? THE MILKING ROOM! Miss, I CAN’T WORK IN THERE!!”

I nearly fell off of my chair laughing – so did everyone else. K took a while to settle down again. Needless to say, no tests were written for the rest of that class period and that particular room was no longer in use for the rest of the school year.

The milking room. Still makes me laugh.

Many thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting the Slice of Life every week. And special thanks this week to my teachers knitting group whose storytelling led me to remember this one.

Overheated

T has his first real babysitting gig this summer. He’s watching our friend’s six year old and seven year old three mornings a week so that their mom can work. Yesterday he biked home, plopped down on the back deck and said, “that was worth WAY more than $30.” He proceeded to regale me with tales of fishing (“…and then the hook got caught in a frog and that was the end of fishing”), finding outdoor activities to entertain the kids (“she said the only thing to do outside was eat grass. That doesn’t even make sense”), feeding them (“…so I said, ‘what do you mean you don’t like it? You haven’t even tried it’ and I made them take another bite since they didn’t even give it a chance) and generally dealing with kids. I nearly bit my tongue off trying not to laugh.

He was still red-faced and sweaty – “I got over 10,000 steps and that doesn’t even count the bike ride there and back – and it’s not even 1:00!” – as I sent him inside for water and food. “I’m so hot I can barely eat,” he yelled through the still-open door. “Drink some water!” I yelled back, “and close the door!”

I grew up in South Carolina, so I made some remark about my wimpy Canadian kids (conveniently forgetting my response to winter) and casually ignored him. Wuss.

This morning, I took a long walk before it got too hot, then headed over to a friend’s house. My pre-teen slept in his attic room until moments before his buddy showed up at 11. His dad roused him & sent him off, tousled and unfed, to the local park. T didn’t have time to complain about how hot his room had been last night before they were out the door. The boys scooted around for over an hour, then took their pocket money and headed to Subway for lunch. Each of them put on a mask before heading inside.

And then: disaster. Apparently T knew that he was feeling nauseated and a little dizzy, apparently they tried to tell the guy behind the counter that T felt sick, but they’re 12 and wearing masks and… he didn’t hear them or didn’t listen until my Canadian boy sat down and threw up.

Horrified, the boys shoved their subs and sodas into a backpack and left. Then the reality set in: what if it’s covid? T’s buddy was stoic. He accompanied him home, mask on, two metres apart, making sure T was ok. When they got to our house, he came up the driveway and found me on the back deck (just getting ready to write, in fact), and blurted out what had happened. Meanwhile, T came through the house, briefly spoke with his dad, and arrived on the back deck similarly upset. “What if I have covid? I have to get tested!

The boys were doing an elaborate dance to maintain their distance, and T’s friend still had his mask on. Both of them were sweating. T was upset that he might have gotten people sick. “I have the symptoms!” he moaned, “I’m really tired!” I was trying to get T to sit down. His friend was trying to call his parents but his cell phone only works on wifi and he didn’t have our password. After a chaotic minute or two passed, I managed to get my hand onto my child’s forehead. As I suspected: cool & clammy. “Heat exhaustion,” I proclaimed, and both boys looked at me doubtfully. Still, I held my ground, and moments later one boy was outside with a telephone and the other inside with a glass of water.

Parents came to pick up T’s buddy, arrangements were made for the left-behind bike, mid-day movies were approved, and everyone was fine. Within the hour, T declared heat exhaustion a pretty good deal: he got to stay in during the day, be on a screen, drink lemonade and eat ice cream. He even dangled the idea that maybe he shouldn’t babysit tomorrow because it’s still going to be really hot, and he might get overheated again. “The problem is,” he said, “I’m so hot that sometimes I just have to play it cool.” I groaned and told him that he’s still babysitting.

As I sat down to write again, I found myself reflecting: T’s friend thought this was the moment that he had been exposed to the very disease we’ve upended society to avoid, but he didn’t leave and he didn’t panic. He brought T home and made sure he was ok. He kept himself as safe as he could and took care of his friend. He even made sure T had his lunch before heading home with his dad.

That is a friend indeed. We’ll keep that kid around.

The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

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Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

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Relax

Kindergarten naptime followed a routine so clear that I can remember it more than 40 years later. First, all of the children went to the box and got out one of the colorful sleeping mats. Then, we put them in a circle on the taped lines. Something calming and comforting came next – did Mrs. Kay read to us? sing? I can’t quite remember, probably because I was getting sleepy. What I remember very clearly, however, is the final step: relaxation check.

We lay very still on our mats and relaxed. Mrs. Kay, whom I adored, walked quietly around the circle, gently picking up the hand of one kindergartner after another. If we were relaxed, our arm would fall easily back to the ground. By the time she was finished, most of us were asleep.

Except for me. Oh, I was plenty tired – I’d started kindergarten “early” and was the youngest in the class, so I needed my rest – but the relaxation check drove me to distraction. I simply could not remember if I was supposed to keep my arm up or let it fall down when Mrs. Kay lifted it. I would settle onto the mat, and my senses would go on high alert. I listened for my beloved teacher’s soft step and strained to hear if the other children were letting their arms drop or keeping them up. As Mrs. Kay approached, my body tensed. I held my breath. Would I get it right? Up or down? Up or down?

I must have figured this out over time. I know I napped because I remember waking up. It’s possible, even likely, that these anxious moments only occurred for a week or two near the beginning of the year, but emotion makes memory and I remember the desperation of wanting to relax in the right way more than I remember relaxing.

This memory surfaced as I read aloud to the kids tonight and my older son postured and played and then stuck his arm straight up in the air. “Settle your body,” I said and he giggled, then relaxed into the story.

After the kids were in bed, I immediately started thinking about just a few more things that I needed to get done. “Settle,” I told myself sternly, “relax.” But somehow I’m forever back in kindergarten, wanting to please, wanting to sleep, trying to remember whether my arm should be up or down. Up or down? Up or down?

If only Mrs. Kay were here to shake my arm gently, lean down to me and whisper in my ear, “It’s ok, Mandy. Let go. You can sleep now. ”

 

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Dutch Baby

My younger son trudges sleepily into the kitchen, still snuggled in a brown minky blanket. “‘Morning, Mama,” he says, as he shuffles over to give me a hug. Up close, he contemplates me for a moment, then apparently decides to go for it, “Can you make us a Dutch baby this morning?”

It’s Tuesday, but COVID19 and closed schools mean there’s no particular rush to get out the door, so it’s easy for me to say yes, even though I made this yesterday. I stretch away from the kitchen island where I was trying to sneak in a little work before the kids woke. Then, I begin a series of actions so familiar that I do them without thinking.

I wash my hands and turn to the oven: preheat to 425. Open the drawer by the stove and pull out the middle-sized bowl. Scoop half a cup of flour – no need to be too precise – and use the same measure for half a cup of milk. Find a fork. Mix – or not. Crack in four eggs and mix again.

Shoot! I forgot – again – to put the pan in the oven. Ah well, there’s still time. My son picks his head up from the counter as he sees me rummaging for a pan. “Can you use the small one?” I produce our smaller cast iron skillet, “Sure.” Lately, he’s liked a denser pancake; for a while we used the bigger skillet to get really airy ones.

Now, butter in the skillet – 1 Tbsp? 2? I don’t know or care: I just eyeball it – and skillet in the oven to preheat while the butter melts.

A few minutes later, I pull the pan out, swirl the melted butter to coat the bottom and sides, and scrape in the eggy mixture. Everything goes into the oven, and I head back to my seat to finish a few final minutes of my own work before the parenting work takes over for the day.

My mind wanders briefly to my high school friend, Julia, whose blog post nearly a decade ago brought this recipe into our house. I regularly think of her while I cook this. It’s funny, I muse, the people who change our lives. So often, I think about the big picture: “Who was your biggest influence? Who is your hero? Which person changed your life?” When I answer, I rarely think of my daily routine, the small things that make up the bulk of my life. But how many times have I made Dutch babies in the last decade? Easily a hundred; probably many more. I bet my boys will grow up to make these for their families. Our lives are better because of Julia. I doubt she even knows. Later today I will make tagine and think of my friend Erin, remember a moment in her mother’s kitchen when she showed me how accessible couscous recipes really are; then, as I add salt, I will think of an ex-boyfriend’s mother who told me once that when she’s cooking soups or stews she usually adds as much salt as she thinks she’ll need and then just a little more. Works like a charm.

My older son straggles into the kitchen, bed-headed and groggy. “Dutch baby? Sweet!” he  plunks himself down in a seat at the table.

The 9-year-old has set up vigil in front of the oven. He loves to watch this simple pancake puff to enormous proportions. Somehow, the flour, milk & egg transform themselves into a glorious airy breakfast concoction in a mere 12 minutes. Soon enough, perfection:

 

Perfection in the form of a puff pancake. What a gift! And who knows? Maybe you will read this post, make a Dutch baby for breakfast someday soon, and find that your life has changed just a little bit, too.

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Mango

Every time I eat a mango, I’m transported back to an afternoon in Strasbourg, France. My friends and I had spent our junior year abroad perfecting not only our French but also the art of the picnic lunch. We would pool our money and visit an epicerie for some cheese, saucisson, fruit and, naturellement, chocolate. Then we would stop at a boulangerie for a baguette and wander towards a park somewhere, maybe along the river Ill, maybe in the Orangerie. For this particular picnic someone- not me – had chosen a mango as one of our fruits.

I knew what a mango was, or at least I felt like I did. I had the sense that I liked it, but I couldn’t remember eating one. This seems odd now, not having had mango, but at the time, mango was an exotic fruit and could not be easily procured at the grocery store. This was a time before we expected so much to be available so often, when the one Vietnamese restaurant in my small town billed itself as “Chinese” but made Vietnamese if you asked. Coconut came only in plastic bags, shredded and sugary, and no one had even imagined pomegranate juice.  I knew what a mango was, but only in a distant way.

We settled onto the grass – had we brought a blanket? did we sit on our lightweight sweaters? I can’t remember – and laughed as we tore chunks from the baguette and wrapped the crusty goodness around soft Brie. Someone cut some slices from the mango and passed them around.

The smooth orange flesh of the fruit slid across my tongue and my eyes widened. Sunshine. Laughter. Something like distilled happiness. I swallowed and glanced around. What magic was this? I took another bite of the sweet, tangy fruit. Again, I was gone. Where was I? I closed my eyes. Happiness, happiness and so warm. I felt tears well up. What on earth was happening to me?

I retreated into my own sphere, still with my friends but far from them, too; far from France, far from the moment. I savoured the sweet smoothness and heard the echoes of bird calls. I breathed deeply, overwhelmed, and then… just like that, I knew: Panama. I had eaten mango when we lived in Panama, the country we left when I was only three years old. The country I couldn’t remember at all. It was the only explanation – those sounds, those senses, that feeling of freedom.

Another deep breath and I was back with my friends. I didn’t say a thing about what I’d experienced. What would I say? Who would believe that a single taste could have such power? I didn’t even know how to describe it. Instead, I laughed and chatted and walked back to classes when we finished our lunch. That night, I called my mom. I asked my mother: did we eat mango? did we eat mango in Panama? “Oh yes,” she was matter-of-fact, “you loved them, but Daddy is allergic to their skins, so I never looked for them when we came home.”

Mango. Now I can have them almost any time I want. In fact, I just had one with lunch. And for a moment, I was 19 and in France, I was 3 and in Panama. And then I was in my kitchen again.

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