Sunday, July 31, 2016

July Book Report: Chocolat

July seems to be the high point of my summer reading season, a month that finds me sitting on the front porch reading a book in every spare moment that I can find.  It’s summer, so there is a good amount of spare moments, sometimes enough to make an hour or two.  That means that there were several books that could have been this month’s book report.

I chose Chocolat by Joanne Harris.

There is a film based on this book and it’s charming.  The book itself is even more pleasing.  It’s the story of a beautiful stranger, Vianne, and her young daughter.  Together, they turn up in the small French town of Lansquenet just as the Lenten season has begun.  Vianne sets to work creating a small chocolate shop in the center of drab Lansquenet; the village brightens up as fascination with the shop takes hold.  

There is a bit of magic in the chocolates being made and served by Vianne.  The village priest resists and resents the pleasures of the shop.  But many of the townspeople give in to the temptations.  In a cup of chocolate or a slice of gateaux, they find greater happiness with one another.  Vianne and her daughter find community and friendship.  Vianne begins to understand the demons that have made her something of a drifter.  

And then there are the descriptions of the chocolate, so vivid that I could smell the shop as I read the story.  The book is best enjoyed with a little chocolate in the house; better yet, if that chocolate is a handmade treat that you share with your loved ones.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

12 Months of Miss Read: July

The backstory: At the start of 2016, I pulled out my very favorite Miss Read book, Village Centenary.  The novel is structured in months and each chapter explores a month in the year of a village school that is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  This year, my own school is celebrating its 250th anniversary and as we think of our past and look to our future, I thought that Miss Read would make a lovely companion for me.  For each month of 2016, I plan to read Miss Read’s reflection on the month.

Miss Read is a pseudonym for Dora Jessie Saint, an English author who wrote between 1955 and 1996.  Her novels were tales of every day life in small English towns.  Village Centenary is set in Fair Acre, an imaginary Cotswold community.  As is the case in nearly all of the Fair Acre novels, the novel is written in the first person and it is through our narrator, school teacher Miss Read, that the story unfolds.

July with Miss Read
In July, Miss Read settled on the details of a celebration of her school’s 100th anniversary.  As she planned a pageant to tell the story of the history of her school, I was at my school most days planning out our schedule for the coming school year.  School is always about planning and yet the planning must prepare for the prospect of the unexpected, so it’s a mix of planning and flexibility that makes my school days a success.  Miss Read would understand.

Miss Read’s month ends with the arrival of summer holidays.  By July, I’m well in to my summer holidays.  There are still nearly six weeks until students return to school, so I’ve still plenty of flip flop days ahead of me.  But July always has me thinking of August and that inevitably means September is on my radar.  Happily, Miss Read always provides a reminder to live in the moment.  So that is exactly what I plan to do.

Friday, July 29, 2016

I’m with Her

In 2007, Representative Nancy Pelosi was elected to the position of Speaker of the House, the first woman to serve in that capacity.  That year’s State of the Union address found me watching the first woman to sit behind the president at that address.  It was a heady moment for me, a 39 year old woman who had been waiting her whole life for the nation to fulfill its promise that equality included girls and women.  I watched Pelosi that night and felt like a few panes of the glass ceiling were ready to be shattered.

That year, I used Newsweek magazine to teach current events in my American government class.  The story that followed that State of the Union described the speech and the political leaders who were there.  It was required reading for my students as we prepared to discuss the agendas proposed by Republican and Democratic leaders.  Newsweek devoted an entire paragraph to a description of Nancy Pelosi’s appearance, right down to the color of her hair and her stylish shoes.  The appearance of the men in that room didn’t merit a mention.  For the men, the story talked about ideas.  For the one history-making woman in the room, it was the cut of her suit that mattered the most.  

I was furious and disappointed in equal measure.  How could I teach the young men and women in my classroom that it was ideas that mattered when it was clear that women’s ideas took a backseat to their hairstyles?   It was a very painful reminder that women and girls still had a long, long way to go.

Last night, 16 year-old-me watched side-by-side with my 16 year old son as a smart and accomplished woman accepted the nomination of her party to be our nation’s president.  She did it on her terms, embracing her identity as a mother and a woman and treating both as the superpowers they are.  

I am 48 years old and I have waited many years for this day.  I was excited about the moment but it wasn’t until Hillary Clinton settled into her speech last night that I realized how powerful it would feel to watch a woman in this position.  I cried for most of the speech; I am that woman who wears her emotions on her sleeve.  I cried because I am weary of the ways that women are marginalized for their accomplishments; held to a standard that is higher than men and always expected to do more for less.  There is a narrow path for women in authority; it’s the unspoken rules that are the most restrictive.  Hillary’s candidacy will challenge the unspoken rules and it’s about time we acknowledge that fact.  Last night, I shed some tears of pride and relief in equal measure.   I will live on political pins and needles until November but you can bet that when our sons and daughters wake up in a nation where, as Hillary said, “a barrier has fallen and cleared the way for everyone,” I will watch with my heart in my throat and shed a few more tears.

I am proudly with Hillary.  America, let’s do this thing.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Pretty Package

A friend of mine has a birthday today and birthdays mean presents, of course.

That’s happy!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

At the Corner of Summer and Relaxation

After some early flirtation with drought, our New Jersey summer has settled into a sunny, humid heat with just enough thunderstorms to keep things lush and green.  This is the view of my backyard that I love the most.  It’s the first thing I see when I come downstairs in the morning.  As darkness settles in each evening, there are lightening bugs twinkling in this lushness, a vision that never wears out its welcome.  This view is the vision I carry in my head when I’ve grown weary of Winter’s cold and I need to warm my soul.

The summer of 2016 seems to be rushing past me.  It’s hard for me to believe that August is just around the corner.  I remind myself that there are still six weeks until the arrival of students in the hallways at school.  That’s plenty of time find an extra hour on the front porch with a good book, watch a ballgame with JT, enjoy a leisurely summer supper with my family, eat a bowl of homemade ice cream, take time for an adventure with T, and otherwise soak up all the glory of summer.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Tuesday Garden Update: July 26

At the start of July, I vowed that I would make a picture each week to accompany a Tuesday blog post about my garden.  Last week’s pictures never made it into a post because I was distracted by the horror of the RNC spectacle.  But I was out in the garden every day and in last week’s photos I can see all the evidence of the harvest soon coming my way.

Over the weekend, two of the largest tomatoes came ripe.  And with them, we’ve officially entered the delicious tomato portion of our summer.  

This week, the garden is a reflection of the past week’s sunny heat.  More tomatoes are on their way to ripening.  My zinnias have buds that hint of flowers and bouquets in my future.

Gardens are lessons in patience and careful effort.  They are a reminder that Mother Nature will not be rushed and that good things come to those who wait.  

Monday, July 25, 2016


I’m a perpetual re-reader of books, seizing up one of my favorites whenever the mood strikes me.  This month, I picked up Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons.  The book was first published in 1993 and I read it for the first time in 1994. It’s the story of the Birch family and its three generations of determined Southern women.  On my first read, I most identified with the youngest member of the family, Margaret.  She’s the narrator and a smart young woman who is finding her way in the world of 1930s Raleigh, North Carolina.  In 1994, I was 25 years old and living in Nashville, Tennessee, sorting out my next move in life.  I felt like Margaret and I had a great deal in common.

The novel is sentimental but not cloying, thanks to the humor that runs throughout the story.  Re-reading the book this summer, at the age of 48, I found myself identifying less with Margaret and more with her mother and grandmother, two independent women in an age when independent women were something of a rarity.  Like Margaret’s mother, Sophia, I’m the mother of an indulged only child.  Like Sophia, my life is shifting as my child prepares to head out into the world on his own.  Reading the novel found me thinking about the changes I’ve experienced in the last twenty-plus years.  I’m as fiercely independent as Charlie Kate, Sophia, and Margaret.  In some respects, it’s easier for me to be that way.  But though we are more common in the 21st century than the 20th century, we independent women know that there are still plenty of unspoken rules about what we can say and what we can do.  There are expectations about how we are supposed to think about our place in society; our accomplishments can still be grudgingly honored or ignored all-together.  We're supposed to ignore that.  In this way, I expect that the Birch women would find themselves right at home in 2016.

The South is practically a fourth character in the novel.  When I first read it, I was living in the South myself and I very much desired to stay there.  A job would ultimately take me to the Midwest in 1994.  I’ve lived in the Northeast since 2002, but I’ve never lost my affection for the South.  The only time in my life I’ve ever been homesick was in 1997, when I spent my last summer in Nashville and reconciled myself to a life lived outside of Dixie, at least for a while.  I’ve not yet returned to the South but this reading of Charms for the Easy Life found me homesick for the South and all of its quirky charms.  

A familiar book is a companion throughout life, offering comfort and lessons in equal measure.  Fittingly, this Kaye Gibbons novel is a charm, if not for an easy life, then at least for a thoughtfully-considered one.  I’ll take it.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Home Sweet Home

Later today, JT returns home.  He’s been gone two weeks and both Lucy the cat and I have missed him something fierce.  Only one of us has stood in his bedroom and cried in a forlorn fashion, perhaps because the other of us has to work and run the household even in the boy’s absence.  But man, have I felt Lucy’s angst.

Hurry home, sweet boy.  Your squad has missed you.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Grand Old Shouting Match

The first election to which I paid close attention was in 1984.  That year, I was 16 year old and excited at the prospect that the first woman might be elected Vice President.  I worked for the campaign that fall; I believed in the ideas of Walter Mondale as much as I was excited to have a woman on the ticket.  On election day, I was crushed when the returns poured in and Ronald Reagan won a landslide re-election.  My dad likes to joke that only I and Walter Mondale thought he would win that year and that even Mondale knew better in his heart of hearts.  That’s probably true.  But even though my candidate lost, I woke up the next morning still determined to believe in something greater than myself.

I was struck by this as I caught shards of the first day of the GOP convention on Monday night.  For the most part, it was a spectacle of disorder and attacks on Hillary Clinton, with nothing in the form of pro-active ideas or policies.  We know that the Republican party wants to win the election and control the Congress.  But we don’t know what they will do if they prevail.  They have a quasi-leader; but they lack leadership.  

I’ve cast many presidential election ballots since 1984.  I’ve always been blessed to truly believe in the candidate for whom I voted.  I’ve never cast a hold-your-nose or better-than-the-alternative presidential vote.  I’ll happily vote for Hillary Clinton this year.  She’s not perfect; no candidate meets that test.  She is experienced, smart, passionate about the needs of children, and level-headed.  As president, she will serve this nation well.  I know this because that’s what she has done for the last thirty years.  She wants to lead and she knows how and why she will do it.  I’ll take that over invective and accusations any day.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Still Living in Hope

This morning, I heard an NPR story about the Republican National Convention that opens today.  The interview featured Republicans in various stages of enthusiasm about their presidential candidate.  But most of them, like Paul Ryan, can’t seem to bring themselves to speak affirmatively of Donald Trump.  Instead, they say that they prefer him to Hillary Clinton.  Though I couldn’t disagree more, I feel sorry for these voters.  For all of my life, I’ve been blessed to cast presidential votes for candidates whom I actually believe in.  I’m not naive about politics or our American history, but I believe in the promise that lies at the heart of our Constitution.  That promise is more important than ever this summer, even as it it seems more elusive than I’d like. 

In a nation that feels fragile and tense as a result of gun violence at the hands of the state and our fellow citizens,  it seems especially risky to open a convention built around the idea that we should elect Donald Trump to become our next president.  The man is a thoughtless spectacle.  His rhetoric has never seemed unifying or inspiring, two things this nation badly needs right now.  He seems as self-absorbed as a middle schooler, a comparison that is gravely unfair to middle schoolers.  I won’t watch the nightly speeches at the convention, though I will read about it and listen to to much of the NPR coverage.   I’m hoping that I won’t recoil in horror as the speeches unfold, but that seems an over-optimistic stretch.

When it comes to most things in life, I live in hope.  Politics is no exception.  That attitude has nearly always worked out for me, though I suspect that the GOP convention is looking to test my patience on that front.

Saturday, July 16, 2016


It’s been my experience that once I make that first batch of summer jam, the impulse to can more things grows stronger.  It’s like my inner Laura Ingalls can’t be stopped.  JT’s favorite jam is blueberry and the stack of fresh New Jersey blueberries at my local market was more than I could resist.  Just like that, four cups of blueberries became five jars of jam.

There are charming labels to mark the completed project.  They come from an Etsy shop, of course.

The completed jars were lovely to behold.

One of the jars headed straight for the fridge for eating later this summer.  The rest will be stored in my cool basement.  Come cooler weather, JT will heap this jam on homemade biscuits.  For all of his life, blueberry jam will taste like home.  

That’s pretty sweet.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

On Two Weeks and Sixteen Years

Each year, JT spends two weeks of vacation time in the company of his other mother.  It’s a strange transition for me to go from 24-hour duty to no child responsibilities at all.  I usually enjoy the first 48 hours of my house staying clean.  As I adjust to the odd quiet in my home, I think about the future as well as the past.  

For a bit, I’m at sixes and sevens when the boy is absent.  The time feels different.  These days, I wonder if this is what it will be like when JT leaves for college.  When he was younger, college seemed so far away.  But this summer we’ve started to visit schools and talk about it in a way that is no longer unreal.  My nephew C is getting ready to move away from home and start college in the fall.  More than anything else, that process has set JT to thinking about his next steps.  Suddenly, life as a mama with an empty nest feels less like a distant prospect and more like a distinct possibility.

So two weeks are now less an apparition in our usual life but a preview of what will soon be the story of my days.  Weird.  Quiet.  It feels untethered to be without responsibilities.  Sure, the laundry is caught up and the food bill is dramatically reduced.  But the sound of a 16 year old moving up and down the stairs has faded and I find that I miss it.

The cats feel his absence as much as I do.  Lucy is troubled, standing in the doorway of JT’s bedroom and looking at me like I’ve really screwed something up.  Tiger, pretty needy in the first place, follows me around begging for extra time in a comfy lap.  It’s like the three of us still think that this little boy is the center of our universe.

Reality is that the boy at the center of our world is well on his way to adulthood, more a man than a boy.  

He makes the journey with our love overflowing from his pockets.  I won’t say that we don’t miss the little boy.  We do.  But we’re excited to see what he will do in the world.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tuesday Garden Update: July 12

After a truckload of sunlight and heat last week, Mother Nature sent us bountiful rains to start the weekend.  The garden is loving it.

There are tomatoes growing like mad.

Zinnias are coming along nicely.

There are hot peppers about ready for picking.

Fertilizer has been added; next up is a little 3:1 water/nonfat milk treatment to treat blight.  I await a bountiful harvest of flowers, tomatoes, squash, peppers, and basil.

That’s happy!

Strawberry Jam

One of my local produce markets smells like ripe strawberries when you walk in the front door.  That’s the official cue: the jam season is upon us.

T and I piled our cart full of strawberries and lemon and set to work on Sunday and Monday  We make a lemon berry jam that is delicious.  Last year, we made more than a dozen jars and we ran out at Christmas.  This year, we plan to have even more jam at the ready for gifts.  

By the time we finished on Monday night, we had 23 jars of lemon berry jam just like these two jars.

Homemade jam is delicious.  Come a cold day in December,  this jam thick on a slice of bread brings back the delicious taste of summer.  That's happy!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Requirements of July

In a regular event of the summer season,  rarely get past the 4th of July without making up a batch of homemade potato salad.  I use my grandmother’s recipe —— chilled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, a small amount of diced Visalia onion, dollops of mayo and mustard, and salt and pepper.  I’ve never known the amounts, so I play that by ear.  It sounds simple but it is well beyond delicious; the only potato salad that I truly love.  This year, it was present for our 4th of July celebration.

That could only signal one thing: macaroni salad was next.

My version is a variation of this Pioneer Woman recipe.  Mine includes green onion, fresh red pepper, diced carrots, and black olives.  

I use the PW dressing, sans pickle juice and with a bit less sugar.

I let it set in the fridge for a few hours and then we gobble it up.

Summer tastes delicious!

Saturday, July 09, 2016

I Live in Hope

The violence of this week has been unsettling and demoralizing.  Just when I feel our nation may be able to make progress, we seem to take violent steps backward.  I’m at a loss.  

My world view has always been to live in hope.  I know of no other way forward.  But a week like this one can make it hard to find that hope.

For me, nature’s unrestrained beauty is restorative.    So I visit familiar trails and search for hope, fragile and weary though it is.

If I look long enough, it is there.  And so I live in hope.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

My Dirty Laundry

Most of the working moms I know require their children to wash their own clothes but I’m not good at sharing the machines.  So JT collects and transports the laundry up and down the stairs but I wash and fold it.  During the school year, I wash at least one load of clothes a day.  I rarely miss a day of washing because doing so would find me hopelessly behind.  I’d hate for the authorities to search though piles of dirty laundry to find our partially-clad bodies.  So I am a fairly vigilant one-load-a-day-or-else kind of gal.

During the school year, between school, athletic practice, and various showers to ease the stench of adolescence, JT easily rolls through three sets of clothes on a daily basis.  When school and daily practices end, the laundry load eases considerably and I can afford to take a day (or two or three!) off.  I’m practically giddy with the freedom.  

So it was that Wednesday morning found me searching through my laundry baskets for a clean pair of underwear.  I’d taken off so many days from my washing responsibilities that I had fallen behind.   Ahhh, the luxury of summer!

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Tuesday Garden Update: July 5

The garden is mulched and the warm, sunny days mean that growing is happening by leaps and bounds.  I’ve picked my first tomato; many more are set on and making progress.

The zinnia rows are taller by the day.  I added some extra seeds to fill in the gaps and those tiny seedlings are also growing.

I’m out here every day, checking the progress,  looking after my plants, and re-arranging the sprinkler as needed.  I check the blooms and admire the progress.  I daydream about the cucumbers and zucchini in my future.

This part of summer is delightful but always seems fleeting, perhaps because it’s filled with such promise.

Monday, July 04, 2016

My America

For all of my professional career, I have labored in the world of American politics and history.  For better or worse, that means that on a daily basis I am thinking about  our republic and the promise of our democracy, its pledge of liberty, and the history that got us here.  More so than most people, I am aware of the failings in our history as a nation; I teach them to my students.  At the same time, I am aware of the promise in our past  I teach that as well.  I’ve always chosen to believe that the promise will prevail.  So great is my faith that I named my son after one of our founders, a decision I have never regretted.

I’m not going to say that Donald Trump has shaken my faith in the promise of American liberty; that would be giving one mean-spirited man too much power in my world.  But I find he and his supporters profoundly disappointing.  They wave the flag in one fist, shake the other in fury, and spout invective and ignorance in equal measure.  It’s not hard to disagree with a political opponent who lacks command or understanding of the basic facts.  But it is hard to respect them.  They aren’t my America.

My friends and I joke about moving to Canada in the event that November brings an unthinkable outcome.  But we’re not cowards and this is our nation as well.  It’s our responsibility to remind one another of the nobler purposes in our shared past.  On the 4th of July, that reminder is timely.

My America is the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and a pledge to demand a fair share of independence and equality for women.  It’s the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s “unfinished work.”  My nation is the golden lamp held high for the “tired, huddled masses yearning to be free.” It’s Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms.  My nation is the land of Martin Luther King’s dream, and the expectation that we will all work toward that progress.   My America is the world’s refuge for freedom.  

Fellow citizens, let's not forget that it is these promises that give meaning to the United States.  They belong to us all and it is in them that the path to greatness is paved.