Thursday, October 28, 2021

Life Of A Math Teacher: My Why

Our WHY is our purpose, cause or belief - the driving force behind everything we do. -Simon Sinek
Let us all be the leaders we wished we'd had. -Simon Sinek

* * * * *

Simon Sinek is a guru of human behavior. Though his lens is often focused on the corporate office, his wisdom applies to all humans who seek meaningful, satisfying work. After reading his book, Find Your Why, the pieces of my own why quickly fell into place. 

^ For a long, long time in my life, I hated to have my picture taken. 
And I hated to look at photos of myself. 

I know my why. 

It's been in my heart for decades, and looking back, I'd say I became aware of it by the time I was ten or twelve years old. 

And like many of life's most delicious riddles, this truth came to me as the very positive result of a fairly sucky hand I'd been dealt in life.

My parents, busy with the complications and traumas of their lives, did not have much time for me when I was growing up. Smart and capable little duck that I was, I assessed their lack of attention and decided I would simply have to learn to fly on my own. And I succeeded with that self-sufficiency routine to the point that I lulled the other adults in my life who might have taken me under their wings into the false sense that I was fine. 

So during my childhood, I was overlooked.
^ I didn't like the way I looked. 
And even more so, I felt like I didn't recognize the person in the photos. 
I did not see myself. 

And while I think there was a lovely balance of nature and nurture that made me into who I am today, I can easily connect the dots between my invisibility as a child, and the adult I've always wanted to be.

My dream was to become a grown-up who makes kids feel seen. 

Over the years, that dream has played itself out in a hundred different ways: 

mothering my younger brothers,
taking care of neighbor kids,
lending a listening ear to my teenage friends,
teaching Sunday School, 
leading Girl Scout troops, 
serving in youth ministry,
connecting with kids in our homeschooling circles,
spending time with my daughters' friends. 

Best of all, I have found my why by teaching math. 

Oh, I know. 

High school algebra isn't exactly known for its warm fuzzies, and there's a lot of technical mumbo jumbo that goes on in every single lesson I teach to my students. 

But you know what else happens? 

We connect. 

We see each other week in and week out, usually for several years in a row. 
We meet one on one, seated at a dining room table, in either my home or theirs. 
We greet each other, taking time for pleasantries and "How was your weekend?" 
We communicate honestly with each other. 
We work together to get through the rough spots. 
We don't give up. 
We keep trying until we achieve our goals 
And we celebrate our successes. 

As time goes by, what starts as a formal teacher-student relationship morphs into connection between two human beings. Sometimes a student will respond to that safety by sharing what's on her mind and heart. Deep, important feelings have been shared in the midst of the quadratic formula, and when a student opens up to me like that, I'm honored.
^ These photos, taken on a web cam circa 2010, are ridiculously filtered and unrealistic. But I love them because for the first time in a long, long time, when I looked at them, 
I felt like I was seeing my true self. 

But more often than not, we just keep rolling along, me cracking the lame jokes, them promising that they really do understand why I keep saying that dividing by zero is like the Kingdome implosion, and even if no deep, dark secrets are shared, my students know I am still going to ask them, every time I see them, "How are you?" 

And they know I'm going to take the time to listen to whatever they have to say. 

What I've found is that teaching math the way I do has given me the perfect opportunity to walk with teenagers, to earn their trust and respect, and to gently speak into their lives. 

Teaching math - the way I teach math - is the most fulfilling purpose I can imagine for my life. 

And thanks to John Saxon, Simon Sinek, and my poor distracted parents, I've found my why.

* * * * *

While I help my students master the same math that everyone else learns, I accomplish that goal in a fairly unconventional way. This story, as well as the others linked below, explain the method to my delicious algebra-flavored madness. 

My Hero

How I Teach

Discovering My How

My Why

Life Of A Math Teacher: Discovering My How

While I help my students master the same math that everyone else learns, I accomplish that goal in a fairly unconventional way. This story, as well as the others linked below, explain the method to my delicious algebra-flavored madness. 

* * * * *

^ Somehow, my daughters all survived their years as my math-teaching guinea pigs, and went on to live satisfying lives. My first born spent a year living in Halifax, Nova Scotia, before building a career in retail. 

Way back at the very beginning, when I first started teaching math, my approach was bare bones. To say the very least.

Basically, my math classes consisted of my middle-school age daughters sitting up in their bedrooms every afternoon, staring at their textbooks and trying to figure out each new lesson, then wandering around the house looking for me when they couldn't make sense of it.

Which was pretty much every day, bless their frustrated little hearts.

As I scoured their textbooks for clues - usually while stirring a pot of pasta or folding laundry - and eventually pinned down some answers and attempted to recapture my daughters' already frazzled attention, a thought occurred to me.

There has to be a better way.

^ My second-born has worked for Abercrombie & Fitch since she was seventeen years old, and is currently climbing the corporate ladder at their home office in Columbus, Ohio. 

When she hit high school, my first-born daughter tried taking an algebra class at our school for homeschoolers, and we learned some interesting things.

Traditional math classes are typically paced according to the lowest common denominator. Which meant, in this situation, that the kids who didn't understand how to do their homework asked a lot of questions during class time, and the teacher, bless her frustrated heart, spent so much time answering those questions that she didn't have adequate time to teach the new lesson. So then each night when my daughter sat down to do her homework, the new material was utter mystery and she needed my help to learn the new concepts and get the homework done. Next day in class, the students whose parents didn't help them were as lost as before, and full of new questions that once again took up the entire class time. As we struggled through this cycle again and again, the thought came back to me. 

There definitely needs to be a better way.

And when her friends in that math class noticed her progress and began to ask her how in the heck she was learning things that the teacher had not yet taught, my daughter brought her friends to me and asked me to teach them too. A little group of us began sitting together on the floor in the hall and learning math together, and as they eventually came round to laughing and smiling and happily saying, "Oh, now it all makes sense!" I was sure of it.

There IS a better way to learn math. And bit by bit, I was stumbling upon it. 

What if a math class was an emotionally safe place where students worked hard but also had fun?

What if math students were respectfully held to high expectations but also given all the support and extra help they needed to succeed?

What if a math teacher was less of a lecturer at the front of the classroom type and more of an algebraic spirit guide?

And what if I got a bit more proactive about my daughters' math educations, and took on the challenge  of building a creative and innovative math program that would make learning not just effective but fun, and also prepare them for college level math?

^ After six years teaching English in Asia, my third bird now runs her global empire out of our home, teaching her native tongue to adults all around the world via the internet. 

Now, granted, I have always been comfortable with numbers. From a tender age, math came easy to me, and when my university academic advisor took one look at my math grades, she peered at me from over my paperwork and said, "A woman who understands math can do anything. But your best choices are engineering or accounting."  

I chose accounting and loved every minute of my exciting and adventurous career as a public accountant.

No, I am not being ironic. Accountants are nowhere nearly as dull as we like to let on.

* * * * * 

All of which is to say that I came at this new algebra teaching assignment of mine with perhaps not a ton of familiarity with high school math, but an easy comfort with numbers and the unshakable faith of an experienced homeschool mom who could whip up a new curriculum in any subject with one arm tied behind her back and a toddler on her lap.

And I'd already found a great partner. Bless his heart, John Saxon, former Navy test pilot and math textbook author extraordinaire, had written a groundbreaking, straightforward, yet rigorously challenging algebra and geometry curriculum that had taken the homeschooling world by storm, and my kids were already using it.

I knew I had the perfect content at my fingertips. 

And, conscientious course designer that I was, I knew exactly what the goal of my program would be. Our home state of Washington offers high school juniors and seniors the opportunity to attend community college classes for free. Mhmm. Zero tuition. Not only do the students earn high school credit for these so-called Running Start classes, but also college credit. If they play their cards right, students can graduate from high school and earn an Associate's two-year degree at the same time, leapfrogging right into junior level status at university. 

If I could get my math students through the full Saxon curriculum by the end of their sophomore year, they would then have two full years to take free math classes at the college level, ticking off university prerequisites and - depending on their majors - fulfilling all the math work they would need to earn their bachelor's degrees. 

^ Ever a dreamer and a scientist at heart, my fourth is still searching for her life's work. I have no doubt that when she finds it, it will be magnificent. 

With a strong curriculum in my quiver and a clear target in sight, I knew my what and my when.

And now I turned my attention back to how.

What if a math class was an emotionally safe place where students worked hard but also had fun?

What if math students were respectfully held to high expectations but also given all the support and extra help they needed to succeed?

What if a math teacher was less of a lecturer at the front of the classroom type and more of an algebraic spirit guide?

In other words, what if math was taught with exacting standards of academic excellence but - first and foremost - with compassion and care and creativity and humor and empathy for the humans who are attempting to learn some complicated concepts during a period of great mental and emotional development and change?

And that's how I discovered my how for teaching math. 

* * * * *

More stories about my philosophies of teaching, learning, and factoring trinomials:

My Hero

How I Teach

Discovering My How

My Why

Life As A Math Teacher: How I Teach

While I help my students master the same math that everyone else learns, I accomplish that goal in a fairly unconventional way. This story, as well as the others linked below, explain the method to my delicious algebra-flavored madness. 

* * * * *

Me in college. With stuffed monkeys on my feet. Accounting majors know how to have fun. 

When I tell people that I'm a high school math teacher, I cringe.

I cringe because I know what dark and unflattering memories that phrase summons up in the average person's mind. 

A no-nonsense teacher stands at the front of a classroom, her back turned to the mass of students who are seated in desks arranged in a precise grid of rows and columns. She's scribbling a series of numbers and symbols that look more or less like indecipherable squiggles over every inch of the board, all the while tossing off perplexing statements like "let's graph that parabola by completing the square" and "of course, we'll want to rationalize that denominator." A few students follow along well enough to ask questions, but most sit in stunned silence, afraid to speak for fear of revealing their confusion. The lucky ones have parents who will help them sort out their homework later that evening; the rest will struggle along as best they can, learning first and foremost that they don't like math, and developing a lifetime aversion to numbers in general.

But I don't teach like that at all.

In college, I was not only an accounting major but a teaching assistant for the basic accounting class that all business majors were required to struggle through. Which earned me status as a double nerd.

Ideally, I sit down with my students, one or two at a time, at either their dining room table or mine. In a spiral notebook spread out on the table between us and using a brightly colored marker, I work through the new material, using plain English to explain, both verbally and in short, to-the-point notes on the paper. Keeping an eye on my student's facial expression and body language, I ask questions and weigh out their answers to determine if they truly understand what the heck I'm talking about.

In Covid times, when I can't safely meet with my students in person, I've transitioned this ritual to a video monologue. No, it's not the same as sitting side by side, and I really miss seeing my students' faces as they learn. But there are advantages too. Students can much more flexibly fit our class time into their schedules, and they can jump directly from instruction into homework, reducing that gap of time in which so much new learning can be lost. And we video chat once a week, in order to get a least a few precious minutes of face-to-face conversation.

But in person or on video, I express more than just my keen and unrelenting fascination with algebra. I do my best to show myself as an actual person. I tell stories about 

my life, 

my interests, 

my pets' ridiculous antics, 

my daughters' comings and goings, 

whatever out-of-the ordinary thing happened to me over the weekend. 

I employ a variety of far-fetched metaphors for teaching mathematical concepts, and I readily embrace disruptions, distractions, and endless side bars to my stream of math facts. 

I make every effort to get real with my students. I begin every interaction by asking, "How's your life?" and when I take the time to listen, I am often rewarded with considerable honesty and sometimes, the aching vulnerability of what it's like to be a teenager. With a careful filter, I share truth about my own life, and show my students the respect of a genuine exchange.

During Christmas break, accounting majors go skiing at Vail. No, I did not calculate any angles of elevation or depression on the slopes. But you know I was tempted. 

These off-topic moments are not diversions or time taken away from the task at hand. Taking the time and effort to build real relationships with my students is the secret sauce of my recipe for teaching math, and I've come to recognize this part of my work as the key to student's successful mastery of high school mathematics. 

My students must work very hard to learn all that I'm trying to teach them. And honestly, these delightful young Padawan will only give me that maximum effort if they know - and truly believe - that I care about them. 

So relationship comes before math, and that truth is essential to how I teach. 

* * * * *

More stories about my philosophies of teaching, learning, and factoring trinomials:

My Hero

How I Teach

Discovering My How

My Why

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

My Homemade Rainbow Veggies

"A rainbow is the product of physics working for your appreciation of beauty." -Kyle Hill
^ My inner child is smiling.

According to the eight-year-old version of me who lives inside my soul, the only thing more magical, ethereal, and beautiful to behold than a rainbow is - perhaps - a unicorn. 

She does not care to eat a unicorn and neither do I.

But as the Skittles people know, the idea of tasting a rainbow is altogether tempting and for several years, I've been experimenting with recipes that allow me to do just that. 

The world of post-millennial Pinterest boards gives me lots of options, all of which begin with the same premise: sort out a collection of delicious vegetables in the ROY G BIV spectrum.

Then it's a matter of chopping, seasoning, and preparing them for the oven.

Cooking variations galore exist and I've tried them all:

wrap them in individual foil packets,
roast in a parchment papered sheet pan, 
pop them into a cast iron skillet,
zap them in an air fryer.

And what about meat? To add or not to add?
^ A simple white serving dish is a must for this visual delight. Think of it as a cloud.

After playing about with the many options, I've landed on an approach for making rainbow veggies that optimizes their fantastical deliciousness and undeniable charm, all while minimizing the work of making them.


One vegetable per color in the rainbow spectrum :

Red: cherry tomatoes, red bell pepper
Orange: carrots, orange bell pepper, butternut squash, sweet potatoes
Yellow: summer squash, yellow bell pepper, corn, yellow beans, Yukon gold potatoes
Green: asparagus, broccoli, green beans, green bell pepper, Brussels sprouts, zucchini
Purple: red onion, red cabbage, purple potatoes

Olive oil
Salt and pepper
Fresh thyme
8-12 garlic cloves 

Optional: boneless chicken breasts
^They'll likely get a bit scrambled during the cooking phase, but it's worth the effort and oh, so gratifying to start out with tidy rows of color.
^ My hat is off to the true vegetarians among us. My family likes meat.


1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Wash and chop the vegetables. Cut sizes that will allow all the vegetables to cook in roughly the same amount of time.

3. Lay the vegetables in rows to fill a sheet pan. A cast iron skillet works too but a rectangular sheet pan allows for cuter rows.

4. Liberally drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper.

5. Wash and pat dry the fresh thyme. Strip the leaves off the stems; distribute them evenly over the vegetables.

6. Peel the garlic and slice it into bite-size pieces; distribute them evenly over the vegetables.

7. Pop the pan into the oven; stir after 10 minutes and then continue to check and stir every 5-10 minutes until they look soft, browned, and delicious.

8. Pull from the oven, and arrange in rainbow order on a serving dish. A pair of tongs is your best friend.  

If opting for chicken, cut into 2-3 bite pieces and arrange in a cast iron skillet. Season and cook just as the vegetables, but put them in their own serving dish so they don't mar the visual perfection of the rainbow veggies.
^ Take the photos before ringing the dinner bell. Trust me.

Enjoy the colors before putting the plate on the table, because these beauties taste as good as they look. 

I suspect that the rainbow's magical power of adorableness influences the palate of everyone who lays eyes on this feast, and my family devours rainbow veggies with surprising enthusiasm.

Even for adults.

As the wife, mother, and head chef, I look on and smile at my family's hearty enthusiasm. 

But my inner child is not surprised. She has always known that everyone loves a rainbow.

Friday, October 15, 2021

Mighty Magnus

"In October, a maple tree before your window lights up your room 
like a great lamp." -John Burroughs

Dear friends,

I was just a wee sprout when they first found me. Born from a wayward sugar maple helicopter seed, I winged my way into a soft and deeply dug flower bed and put down my first roots in that rich, nurturing soil.

Which was where my first human found me, and was just about to end my life with one firm tug when my savior appeared. 

She was younger, or so I've heard them say. Ten or twelve years old. She saw my potential, tenderly lifted me from the soil, and took me indoors to begin my life as her houseplant. 

And you know, that was fun. She put me into something called a clay pot, set me in a sunny spot on her desk, and gave me weekly drinks of fresh water. This was a gentle time in my life: I kept company with my caretaker as she studied and played; I giggled as her coloring markers rolled off the desk, and shivered with delight as we listened to endless action-packed audio books. I stood guard over her as she slept.

Years passed. 

We both grew. 

Unlike many beloved childhood companions, I was not cast aside as my human grew up. She still felt the magic of my presence in her life. I was however, sent outside to live because I had simply outgrown my old digs on the desk. 

I was thrilled to be back in the out of doors. My bound roots were set free in a new, much bigger pot; I was awarded prime real estate on the back patio, and nourished by sunshine and fresh rain, I grew. 

And grew.

And grew.

By the time I was eight or nine, the evidence was clear. I was destined to be a giant, and clearly nothing in my genetic profile was going to stop me from continuing my breakneck pace toward a towering future. 

There was talk, I am sorry to say, of transplanting me in the woods. 

One midsummer's day, to my horror, I was carried to the front yard, pot and all, and laid down on the side of the driveway where I overheard conversations between the humans about "The wind keeps blowing it over," and "But will it fit in the car?" and "How big of a hole do you think we'd need to dig?" 

I trembled.

After several months of this indignity, though, I was shocked one day to find myself pulled once again to an upright position, and lugged - quite ungracefully, I might add - over to a different patio, this one in the front yard.

Standing nearby by was a new pot.  A huge, gleaming white pot. Much bigger that my current home. 

To my surprise and delight, there were my two original humans - the weed-puller and the sprout-saver. Using hammers to crack my old cramped quarters to bits, they eventually succeeded in springing me free from my previous pot. Gently, carefully, they trimmed my root ball down to a reasonable size, and gingerly, considerately, they lowered me into the soft, rich, fluffy soil of my new home in the huge, gleaming white pot.

I've lived here happily ever after. During winter, my branches are bedecked with tiny white lights that glisten when the raindrops fall; in spring and summer, my leaves cast a little oasis of shade upon the humans' resting place, and I love to listen as they sit and talk. And in fall, my leaves turn flaming shades of orange, blazing with autumnal light, and eventually scatter across the stone, decorating my little corner of the world with the prettiest scene that I can provide. 

Best of all, I'm now treated to an annual summer ritual. With a pair of trimmers and a step ladder, my humans gather round me and genially, compassionately, trim back my branches ever so slightly. I may be a bit sad that I will probably never reach my full, massive and mighty potential but I am thrilled that I will stay forever young, here on my family's front patio.

Sincerely yours, 

Magnus the Maple Tree

Reading | Moon Shot and Falling To Earth

Moon Shot | Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton with Jay Barbree

Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton are both members of the exclusive Mercury Seven, the first astronauts chosen to travel in space, and ready-made celebrities the instant their names were announced by NASA back in 1959. While Shepard is able to sneak in a quick 15-minute cannonball route earning him bragging rights as the first American in space, the great irony is that because of chronic physical ailments, both Deke and Alan are grounded for many years. Their sizable egos, however, remain fully inflated throughout their careers and in many ways, their book is worse for their endless braggadocio and - if my other reads of the 1960s space program are to be believed - tendency toward self-satisfied exaggeration.

Inarguably, Deke proves himself as NASA's advocate for the astronaut crews and earns great respect from his guys for his unwavering support and keen ability to say the right thing at the right time, despite being a man of few words. My favorite astronaut, Michael Collins, has elsewhere described Deke as the best boss he ever had, and that high praise is reason enough for me to forgive Deke at least some of his boasting.  

Alan, however, comes across as reckless, abrasive, and entirely full of himself. During the years he is grounded, Alan works for Deke in the astronaut office but other reports reveal that he spends more time pursuing other interests - with more lucrative revenue streams - than he does pushing papers at NASA. Much is made of his sweet and long-lasting marriage to wife Louise, but his well-documented years of running around with other women are not noted here. 

Still, one can't help but cheer these men on when they each - eventually - get their health issues cleared and finally get their turn to ride a rocket into space. It's just a shame that they weren't a bit more humbled by the experience. 

* * * * *
Falling To Earth | Al Worden with Francis French

Although Al Worden follows the same fighter jock to test pilot to astronaut career flight plan as virtually all of the 1960s astronauts, and successfully flies the Apollo 15 command module around the moon while his crew mates frolic on the lunar surface below, his otherwise sterling reputation is nearly ruined by a single moment of bad judgment. When his commander, Dave Scott, introduces him to a scheme by which the Apollo 15 astronauts will carry collectible stamps on board their flight and later sell them for profit, Al doesn't ask questions but simply goes along with the plan.

The whole fiasco explodes months after their highly successful Apollo flight has returned to earth. Quickly, the three astronauts return the money they've received and reveal all the pertinent details to NASA. But it is too late. Their boss, Deke Slayton, unleashes his notorious wrath upon them; their fellow astronauts avoid them like the plague. Congress calls the three crewmen in for a chat, and a red-faced NASA fires Al, though he simply refuses to go. Eventually, the whole fuss blows over.

Al unpacks this mess, and sorts through the other details of his career, with honesty, humility, and quick wit. He reveals himself to be both an accomplished astronaut and fallible human being, which is a highly refreshing twist. 

* * * * *

Most of the men who flew to the moon have been clever enough to write books about their journey, and I am bound and determined to read every single one. 

Yes, as you might expect, their stories involve considerable repetition or, as we like to say in the spacecraft business, redundant systems. Each astronaut's telling shares the same basic plot, setting, and characters; most of these guys are small-town, Type A, high-achieving military men and self-professed loners, and I certainly don't blame any reader who might find the books' overlap to be annoying.

But what I love is that in each and every one of these stories, the personality of the individual astronaut comes shining through. Even accounting for ghost writers, which some but not all of the spacemen employ, there's a sparkle and shine that each man contributes to his telling of the space race story, and I come to feel like I've met them face to face, spent time with them, maybe even sat out on the back patio with their family in the Texas sunshine, or driven around Houston in their custom Corvettes, or water skied on Clear Lake behind their speed boats. They are good men, these astronauts, kind men; men driven by beautiful dreams and incredible work ethics and a keen desire to serve their country. 

I've come to admire - if not full-on adore - these Apollo astronauts and I'm deeply grateful for their contributions to the world of science, technology, and exploration, as well as to my life. Most of them hate to be called heroes, so I'll resist that refrain. But they are really cool guys, and I can't wait to read more. 

Thrifting Fun

It took me a long time to find the fun in thrifting.

For a good many years, I didn't get it. I mean, search through heaping piles of other people's cast-off clutter in the vague hope of finding something cool, all the while breathing in the fumes of...what even is that thrift store stench? Do I even want to know?

But once the internet was born and I perfected the art of scrolling past dozens of pics of other people's ridiculously cool thrifting finds, I began to wonder if I was perhaps missing out, and asked myself whether I could possible learn not only to survive but dare I say enjoy the deep and dirty dive. 

The answer? Armed with enough hand sanitizer, and plenty of bleach at home, yes. 

Thrifting - like any sport that involves hunting an elusive prey - is fun. 

Here's what I found on my most recent haul:

A wacky thing that I've learned about this world is that for every person like me, who adores candles and pretty much lights up anything that will burn, there are apparently plenty more who don't. The delightful result of this tragic imbalance is that many an unused candle makes its eventual way to the thrift store, where I happily scoop them up for far less than retail value. 

Also I encounter some intriguing shapes and styles - like these bamboo-encased specimens - that would not otherwise tempt me. But at the thrift store, I'm always ready to embrace the unexpected, if not the totally weird, so I snap these fortress-inspired babies up without a second though.

Let me just say this. The last thing in the world that I actually need to buy at a thrift store or anywhere else on the planet is art. I have art coming out of my ears. My home is fully saturated, my walls can hold no more, yet I still have stashes of art that would embarrass the most ardent pack rat. 

But when I come across an interesting handmade piece in the thrift store, I am powerless to resist. Amateurish art skills? Scrapes and gouges in the frame? Aged and stained mat board? No matter. I love the charming imperfections. And if there's any trace of doubt in my heart, when I flip the piece over and look at the back, I'm sold. Because what I find there are the true hallmarks of a good vintage framed piece: a brown paper cover and old school picture wire. 

It's official - you're coming home with me.

As I've already demonstrated, I'll buy weird, random, semi-outlandish candles from a thrift store. But you know what else I'll buy? Stylish, on-trend, normal-esque candles sourced from an actually cool store. You know, the kind that do NOT necessarily look like they came down to earth from an alien world and collected dust in someone's basement for a few decades before wandering off to the thrift store. 

This soy candle from Target features a sleek amber glass container, a clean eucalyptus and palm scent, and some nifty wooden wicks which have clearly been lit before, but only briefly. She prices out at one-tenth of her original retail value. Score.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, during an era we used to call 'the eighties,' I bought myself a nifty little rattan suitcase. I thought he was really cute. 

I used him for a few years and then, as style trends changed, turned up my young-adult nose at this offensive outlier, and passed him along to my mom. Fast forward many years to the day we crossed paths again, that old rattan suitcase and I, and in that moment I realized that A) trends are stupid and B) this suitcase was still cute. So I brought him home where he lives with me to this very day.

Today at the thrift store, when I spy upon the shelf this darling Cub Scout version of my original suitcase, I suddenly cannot imagine anything as cute as the two of them together. A quick inspection reveals small breaking bits of brittle rattan and a suspicious stain inside, but do you think that slows me down one bit?


An afternoon soak in a bucket full of vinegar water followed by a quick scrub cures the stain and I'm ignoring the low level damage. Which is easy, because my two rattan suitcases are sitting together now, little stacked on top of big, and apparently love each other as much as I adore them myself. 

* * * * *

Okay, that's enough. 

There's a fine art of knowing when 

to stop thrifting, 
to recognize the difference between a true find and a desperate grab, 
to get out of the store while I'm still having fun.

And so it is that I find myself behind the wheel of my Honda CRV, goodies stashed in the back, with my heart still pounding in my ears and my adrenaline continuing to surge.

I want to keep the rush alive.

But I sense that my discernment meter is about to go offline, and I dare not step back into another thrift store.

So I do the next best thing.

I head over to our storage unit, where we have stashed a carefully curated collection of family hand-me-downs and well-loved pieces that are awaiting a chance to come back in circulation. And just for the fun of it, I sort through another 15 or 20 framed art pieces and choose a couple gems to take home with me.

As a fifth grade teacher, my mom was all about the surprise projects and significant events that make a school year special, and for at least a decade she helped organize a Visiting Author week, where the imaginative folks behind high quality children's literature would come round and share their passions with the kids. 

From their largesse, my mom amassed a really cool collection of autographed books, and this - a framed drawing of quirky crocodiles made on the spot for her by illustrator Jose Arego - was her particular favorite. 

I think it might be the perfect addition to a collection of art that my first-born is hanging at her place, so I put it in my go pile.

Another piece from my mom's art collection (she was as obsessed with art as I am), this one features a little black kitten in the snowy woods and that has earned it a soft spot in my heart.

But as I riffled through the pile of frames, another detail jumped out at me. 

The golden crescent moon.

And in case you missed the memo, I am currently obsessed with the moon. (Would you like to hear all about the Apollo flights in excruciating detail because I would LOVE to tell you!) And so, even though I have no idea what I'll do with this piece, instinct tells me to bring it home. And so I do. 

* * * * *

Back home, I tidy my prizes, showing them off to my family, humming with the happiness that comes from a successful hunt. 

And while I'll be the first to admit that I'll never say no to West Elm, Crate & Barrel, and all the other upscale retailers that catch my eye, I'm always down for some thrifting fun. 

Monday, October 11, 2021

My Mother's Voice

"Trust in dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity." -Khalil Gibran

My mother was almost six feet tall with curly red hair. 

Even as a tiny little girl, if I ever got separated from her, it was easy enough to look up and find her. And that was a very comforting thing about my childhood. 

I'm riding on a bus.

An extremely crowded bus with humans packed in like sardines, filling each seat and jamming every inch of the center aisle.

Lucky me, I've somehow scored a seat - an aisle seat near the back - so that as we lurch and heave our way down the streets, stopping here and there to pick up even more passengers, I am able to maintain my equilibrium better than most. I seem to be traveling by myself but I have no idea where I'm going. 

Suddenly, the person sitting across the aisle turns to me and speaks in a gentle, confidential tone.

"Your mother is getting on at the next stop."

The words should 

startle me, 

shock me, 

stand me up out of my seat, 

but I am unmoved. I notice only a calm wave of awareness spreading through me, and I wonder what will happen next.

Soon enough, the bus groans to another stop. I hear the automatic doors whoosh open to let the exiting passengers out the back door, and the newcomers in at the front. The throng of standing travelers pushes toward me as their numbers increase, but I can't see beyond the two or three people wedged in the aisle directly in front of me.

I can't see. But I can listen.

And suddenly, unmistakably, like the ringing of a familiar bell, I hear my mother's voice. 

She's talking to a companion, and she's happy. Her voice is upbeat and gay; I can't make out her words but she's clearly having a good time. 

Trapped in my seat, I lean this way and that, trying to catch a glimpse of her in the crowd. But I can't.

And then I wake up.

* * * * *

This is the very first dream I've had about my mother since she died, five years ago this week.

I have no idea what this dream means or what I am to take from it. 

But it sure was nice to hear her voice. 

* * * * *

More dreams that I've dared to describe in detail. Who knows? You may just find them interesting. 

Three Dreams

My Mother's Voice

A Dream {About Ranger}

Be Careful What You Wish For

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Discovery Park

"The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." -Marcel Proust

* * * * *

At Seattle's Discovery Park, we hike along a dusty, rolling, shaded trail, shafts of sunlight filtering down through the canopy of green. 

Not many towering firs in these woods; bigleaf maples and alders predominate here, early colonizers taking advantage of a previously disturbed habitat and a sure sign that this forest is far from pristine.

Joggers run by in a steady flow, early afternoon escapees from office jobs, checking their fitness watches and adjusting their ear buds as they speed past, churning up clouds of dust in their wake. 

Well-placed trail signs helped us find our way from the loop trail to the beach trail, but we can also navigate effortlessly by the sound of nearby traffic prowling along side streets adjacent to the park.

Gracie stayed home today. Dogs are allowed on most of the trails in Discovery Park but not on the beach.

And that is where we are heading.

Shortly after we turn off the main loop to the South Beach Trail, we encounter a steep descent and a series of stairways. The going definitely gets a bit tougher though we have left most of the runners behind, a trade-off we are happy to make. 

Intermittently, the trees thin and we are afforded delicious glimpses of the water, the islands, the sun and sky. 

Yes. This is what we came for.

Energized by these harbingers of things to come, we hike on, ready to be stunned by breath-taking views at the beach.

As we follow hairpins down to sea level, we're surprised to find that the trail bottoms out not at the actual beach but along the park road, and we traipse the last couple hundred meters along this ordinary city sidewalk. 

And just across the street, we see a sign marking the entrance to, um, what? A sewage plant? We can't see it but we can sure smell it, so there's no mistaking that it's there. 

Well, forget all that. We come to where the sidewalk ends, navigate a paved trail through the dunes, hop down to walk in the coarse grey sand of the proper beach, and without slowing our stride, march on to our ultimate destination, the West Point Lighthouse.

There she is. We struggle a bit to find the lighthouse's best side. This lady has seen some better days and seems to be overdue for some restoration work. Cyclone fences surround the old girl; other visitors have wormed their way inside the yard and pose themselves here and there against the building. It's hard to get a good shot.

Oh well, never mind. We head back down the beach to catch more views of the wide open water.

Dune grass, beach logs, plenty of dried kelp along the high tide line. 

These are all familiar friends, and we are happy to see them. 

But we feel a bit hemmed in, squeezed between the forlorn lighthouse to the north and the houses on Magnolia Bluff to the south. As if they were constricted, our lungs fight for air, but we can't seem to take the deep, full, satisfying breaths we long for.

Even the beach itself is a tiny slip of a thing, pinned against the dunes and pushing back against the tides to defend every square inch of sand.

The sun is setting earlier these days, and before long we notice shadows falling deep around us. 

Up the hill we scramble.

We take advantage of the high cliffs for a few more photos, and make the best of our journey back to the car.

* * * * *

Discovery Park is the largest park in Seattle and considered the crown jewel. I'd been to the park a couple times when my kids were very young, with legs too tiny for proper hiking, so lately I've been itching to explore the wilderness areas and take in the forests, beaches, meadows and bluffs for which Discovery Park is so well known and loved.

What I found was a scrappy bit of woods and a tiny, tired beach, hemmed in by the city, obviously adored by city folk but honestly, much too tame for me.

And as I sit down in the car to strip off my dusty shoes, take a long sip of cool water, and split a series of Clif bars with my second-born, I am struck by a new idea.

What I have discovered today is that I am fortunate, lucky, blessed beyond words to live here in the Pacific Northwest. Within just a few hours' drive of my house, I can explore beautiful and pristine wilderness to find

towering old growth evergreens, 
otters swimming through kelp fields, 
glaciers descending volcanic peaks,
sunsets over crashing waves,
anemones waving in tidal pools, 
islands and ferries dotting the water,
rustic, rocky beaches with room to play.

If Discovery Park is not my favorite example of this incredible fortune, well, no worries. I certainly have plenty of other options and I leave this park for others to enjoy. 

I know there are plenty of other wonderful adventures waiting for me here in the Pacific Northwest, and I'm very thankful that I've discovered anew how lucky I am to call this magical place my home. 

Friday, October 1, 2021

What I Like About You

Sunlight streams low and wide through my windows, reaching deep into the shadowy rooms and bringing surprise bursts of golden glow. 

The sunbeams quickly crescendo and fade to pianissimo black. 

My candles burn with fierce determination and endless optimism, small sparks in the dark of the long nights. 

And though I will miss the cheery sunshine of a northern summer, when twilight lingers till late at night, I'll cherish your own special rhythms of light and dark, autumn.

That's what I like about you.