Sit and Eat Chicharones (Or Find Your Passion)

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“What is it that gets you out of bed in the morning and exercising?” 

“How do you write every day?” 

“Why do you teach even though the climate is so bad for teachers?”

These are three questions that crossed my feed this week. On the surface, they’re all unrelated, but in truth, it’s the same question.

“How do you….(insert habit here…)” There’s a one-word answer for every one of these. Passion. Stop reading. Continue drinking coffee. That’s really the essence of the solution.

Never having been one for brevity or one-word answers, I’ll elaborate.


I exercise because I love the feeling it gives my mind. Most view it as a chore. If you view it as a chore, you should sit on your couch and eat chicharones (fried up pork rinds…dead pig crisps apparently taste better than vegetarian things like carrots and chips). I love to run five, six, seven miles because it clears my spirit and gives me ideas.  I’m grateful when I can exercise–I remember being on crutches for months after a bad game of basketball wishing I could get off the couch and run. I try to see each opportunity to work out as a privilege. The feeling of freedom I get when I run, lift, do yoga, go kickboxing, or pick up a game of basketball makes my body and soul smile. Once, when my doctor grounded me, my friend said “Man you’re lucky. I’d love to have a doctor tell me I can’t exercise.”

If that’s the case, you’re viewing exercise incorrectly. See it as a privilege. Only then will passion develop. You will exercise. You will eat well. You will respect the limits of your body. And your body may decide to treat you well, too. Life’s too short. I try not to do much I don’t feel passionate about these days.

Write Every Day: 

Use the Nike method, “Just do it.” I write at the same time each day. 4AM. This means I don’t have to shove my family in a closet or ignore them to concentrate, and I can enjoy the most beautiful time of day, the sunrise. I sit with my cup of coffee and the glow of the wood stove. Because I carry a little notebook, I usually don’t run out of ideas. I scrawl them when they gift themselves to me, and I develop them when I have time–4AM. So many people want to write, but view it as a burden. It’s not. It’s a privilege. Think, “I want to do this every day…I’m grateful I can. I’m grateful to have something to say, and furthermore that someone out there might enjoy it or find it helpful.” I look forward to 4AM because I’m deeply honored by my readers–the friend’s I’ve made through my writing journey. I owe them my best. Life’s too short, I may have said, to do things about which I don’t feel passion. 


Sure, the climate’s bad. Awful. There are days I feel the press hates me, and times I’m convinced I should’ve majored in accounting or stat, because the pendulum has swung in that direction and–the kids say–away from all the things that made them love school. This breaks my heart. But to get in there, roll up my sleeves, and give them something to love anyway, even if I have to fall on the sword once or twice, gives me passion. To watch their eyes when I connect them with a noted scientist or author, or see them generate ideas about their future?  It’s worth chopping through all the vines in the jungle, I think, to give them that same passion. Remember, life’s too short to do things without passion.

Who knows, maybe the passion for these things will leave me. That’s okay. Then I’ll find something else to do every day. More art, more calligraphy, animal husbandry…rekindle old passions, and discover new…let a few present ones ebb away to make room for more. Nothing’s permanent, and there’s a ton out there to discover. To feel passionate about.

Exercise, writing, teaching–or anything else, really–it’s all the same. It all boils down to passion. Do the things you love. Because passion is what makes life so beautiful.




Looking into the Artists’ Eyes

It’s easy to give feedback. But there’s something about giving honest and genuine feedback while looking into the eyes of an artist that’s emotional, different.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

View of the Congregational Church that started the festival in 1967.

The Scituate Art Festival is one of the largest festivals of its kind in the nation. We’ve been coming for years. It’s my husband Rusty’s hometown. He always wanted to move back here but the time was never right. I’ve found the time is never right for most big things in life–changing careers, having a baby, moving…making any life change, really. The time is never right.

Sometimes, the universe intervenes. Other times it sends people to drop kick me. This time, it was both. The airport began to swallow up homes behind our house threatening to take our last shred of value. Selling wasn’t easy–who wants to move into a neighborhood where the roofs are part of the tarmac? Moving is tough–stressful, expensive. It’s never time. We found this house in the woods in my husband’s hometown, the town with the huge art festival and postcard New England village, and a buyer who was grateful to get from an apartment to a house. We escaped. And now this art festival is our hometown event.

“You’d better get rid of your hyphenation,” my husband said, “It’ll do you no good here.” This is his hometown. His last name gets nods. Mine, not so much. This is the type of town where people have lived for generations. I’ve been grandfathered in. “Oh, you have that house…” Everyone knows the house by description. People tell me stories of each generation who lived here, and the stonemason who built it. It’s the type of history I love.

As a real resident of this town, I pay attention to the festival. I listen to the old-timers, talking about the way the town was and used to be. The real history. The kind you can’t find in a book. The Greatest Generation telling the way things use to be, could have been, and sometimes still are.

The food court is everyone's favorite at festivals.

The food court is everyone’s favorite at festivals.

The Art Festival is the way it always is, a finely tuned operation that draws 2-300K people in a good year. Locals and people flock in for the artisans and the New England foliage alike.  We stop here and there for a small-town greeting or an apple dumpling–the type I eat every year, once a year, like clockwork. The civic organizations, school clubs, and people of the region set up booths and all the repeat revelers know how to find the best BBQ, the biggest sausage and peppers, the most perfect fries…and that apple dumpling.

And of course you can’t run a New England town without chowda and clam cakes.

Everyone in town bakes, mans a booth, volunteers or attends. Artists from all over the world show their crafts. As an outsider, I appreciate the variety and efficiency. As an insider, I see the community. I am starting to attach.

I see the antiques booths, the painters, the artisans. What started as a twelve-booth event in 1967 has expanded to pay for repairs to the Congregational Church has become something to behold.

But the best feature, by far, is the artists and artisans. I used to look at art through the eyes of a simpleton, an ignoramus.  Now, I look through the eyes of the creator. Just for an hour or two, I imagine myself painting, sculpting, bringing forth woodwork or pottery into the world, instead of writing, and showcasing my creations for the public. I look at the soul of the artist sitting, quietly showing his or her work. What courage to put oneself out there, in the middle of 300K people passing by casually, blending as people say things like “Beautiful,” or “Oh, no, that’s awful,” or worse yet, passing by without a single glance. The heart and soul of the artist unnoticed. Brilliance blending into the background of clamcakes and doughboys. There can be no greater insult than that.

I see the soul of the artist with the brush, crayon, typewriter, or lens. When possible, I talk to them. I appreciate them. We’re all the same, no matter the genre. We all put stuff out there, hoping someone will appreciate it. Or maybe, just maybe, that it’ll make a difference.

That’s what I see at the festival. Community, cohesion, and people making a difference. It’s the way every community should be, and can be, if we all just smile, create, and share. I’m grateful to be a part. Even if the screaming boy makes me leave early. Some day, this festival will be his.

Speculation: Bad Back to School Trends in Clothing

I’m watching commercials for back to school clothes. It’s important to predict the styles that I’ll be up against when I return. I consider each possible combination that could arrive in my classroom. No, I don’t want to own them, I want to be ready to mock them, and some heads up is helpful in improvisational comedy.  Sometimes I think Fashion Avenue visited Wheel of Bad Fortune over too many $15 martinis. They spun the roulette wheel, creating combos no sober person could take seriously but teens everywhere would flock to buy in this largest-shopping-season-outside-Christmas. Add in a marketing genius, a three-digit price tag for a ridiculously cheap to produce item, and a celeb or two for good measure, and you’ve got a formula outfits I can mock clear till spring. That entertains me.   The fashion designer who gets them to buy the dumbest looking, least practical fashion item wins. “Let’s put leg warmers….” spin the wheel “with cardigans!”

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 5.18.31 PMI’m not innocent here–I’m a school child of the 80’s. I’ve admitted to swimming in $3 discount-rack teal, wearing tin earrings, thinking the worst perm in the world would make me cool. An icepack couldn’t have made me cool. Not to mention the jelly bracelets–very little more than thick elastic scraps from some manufacturing process. Some guy swept them up and said, “Make them pretty colors…the Americans will buy them. The British, too.”

Friendship pins

Friendship pins (see credit below)

We had “friendship pins.” Safety pins with colored beads in patterns of coded significance on them. Doesn’t get cheaper and stupider than that. You put them on your sneakers. You made one for each of your friends. I loved them. The kids with the most pins were the most popular. It was our equivalent of goths wearing soda tabs. Are you recycling, or too cheap for jewelry? Much like liking your own stuff on social media, people made their own pins to bolster their popularity, but if you got caught, it was “reset to zero” time. Not cool. You were not just a loser who had no friends, you were a loser who got caught. I didn’t have many pins. It was a big deal if someone didn’t give you one–we didn’t care so much about self-esteem in the 80’s.

There were several 80’s fashions that should never come back, but they seem to be. The colors that remind me of Attack of the Highlighter, the skinny jeans, the leopard print. Heck, we wore old-school skinny jeans before spandex–when you had to hold your breath all day to fit in.  When they went out of style, everyone took one big breath heading for the loose and sagging 90’s…to make up for the decade without air. That’s when global warming accelerated. Look it up. It’s true.

Teen fashion just cycled through some regurgitated 60’s fashions followed by some 70’s. It’s like a time machine on crack. Each decade lasts a week, it seems. In real life, it took us ten years to impose and escape a decade of bad fashion, but now it seems that the cycles compress faster and get more extreme as the trends pass by, getting more and more expensive all the while.

Screen Shot 2013-08-10 at 5.20.46 PMI did like the neat suits the students sported a la Mad Men. Those were classy. Students in suits and ties looking suspiciously like interviewees… “Nah, Miss, no reason.” Society’s gotten so casual that students will dress up to rebel and tell me such. What kind of awesome is THAT?

So, we’ll see what they come up with this season, and I’ll mock it in due time. In the mean time, I’ll watch commercials and trends. The K-mart “Yo mama is so fiscally responsible,” commercial made me applaud, but the “Back to School Style Guide” advertising Flashdance midriff shirts for back to school? Not so much… maybe for a pole-dancing PE extracurricular activity, but not in my world. Not while my mind is still alert.

I have commented on teens before. Saggers and goths and preps, oh my! Give it your best shot, future students–it’ll be hard to outdo my bad fashion, but you’ll push the limits this school year, and I’ll do my best to chronicle it here. In twenty years, you’ll all come back and say, “You were right. I did look ridiculous.” And the worst part–they charged you for the privilege.

[images: Copyright Kim Dietrich Elam 2010 (Friendship Pins)

and and tumblr 1960’s fashion]

Edit and correction: I thank Kim Dietrich Elam for providing the correct photo credit–I credited the pinner. My screw up meant I got to meet a really interesting person. Kim has a super business: K*Notes (Creative Stationary and Photography).  I loved her selection and gallery, and she’ll make pretty much anything for you.

Do It My Way! (No Apples for You!)

Declan's tree

Declan’s tree

I am coloring with Declan. We are making trees. I start to make my usual tree, which will emerge with owls, a couple of flowers, a graveyard off in the distance, and maybe a kid fishing by a stream. The kid might even fall in. I never finish the picture. I never finish any picture because I am a mom, and it’s not allowed. It’s why I like sumi-e–the Japanese style that looks unfinished to the Western eye. I can’t practice sumi-e with a six-year old around. Permanent ink attracts six-year olds like when I try to do yoga or take a shower or anything that requires a modicum of modesty or meditation. Permanent ink is a disaster.

He starts a kid-style apple tree sans apples. He looks at me and screams.

“Mommy!” he says, “You can’t do it like that!”

“This is my tree,” I say.

“That’s the WRONG tree!” He is adamant. I protest.

“How can there be a wrong tree? We each can draw the tree from our imagination,” I explain.

“Your imagination is WRONG.” Funny, I’ve often been told that. “You must do it MY WAY.”  He hands me the crayon. “Do it like THIS!” He proceeds to instruct me as to the correct way to shape and form the tree. Even the coloring process has a method and direction.

My tree

My tree

“You CAN’T go around with the crayon in circles.” I have been shading the tree quickly. “You have to go back and forth like this, HARD!”

Kid, you’re starting to remind me of standardized test prep.

“Put the sky in here.” I pick out a pretty light blue.

“No! Not like that, like this.” His sky is a different blue, and goes back and forth along the top edge of the paper. I take the right blue and do it correctly. Soon, he discovers my paper is portrait, not landscape.

“Ohhh!! Mommy, you’ll never be able to make a tree. You’ll have to do it again!” Maybe he’s not like test prep at all–you only get one shot there.

My tree makes me a renegade. The world may judge me. I hope not harshly.

“Mommy, do it like THIS!” he corrects a finer point of my bark-coloring technique. I obey. I pick up the red crayon.

“What are you DOING?” He is concerned I might step off the beaten path into creativity again.

“I’m making mine an apple tree.” The red crayon in my hand heads for the paper.

“NO! There are NO apples in this picture.” No pie, no apple sauce, no jelly…

“There are no apples in your picture, but I’m putting them in mine.” He snatches the red crayon and places it back in the box. Instantly. He glowers. No apples. It has been decided.

We are done. My tree looks exactly the same as his tree. He smiles.

I want to tell him this is just the style of teaching from which I flee–in my class, you can put apples, oranges, or key limes on your tree. But key limes don’t grow here, you say? Just wait two years…global warming. I fear he won’t listen. And he has stolen my red crayon.

Alas, there are no apples on my tree today, but there are a few on my counter, and I’m hungry. I eat one. I’ll put the art aside…for awhile.

End of the Horror Movie

coffee stationThere’s that point before the end of the horror movie when nearly everyone is dead. You know they’re going to catch the bad guy, because why else spend fifty million dollars on a budget, blood and goring the whole set red?

Most of the time at least one of the good guys has to come out alive… sometimes even two of the ones you were rooting for, or the ending sucks. And at least until the sequel, the killer dies or goes to jail. That’s where the protagonist gets twenty minutes of peace before it starts all over again in the next movie.

That’s what end of the teaching year is like.

For teachers, the correlation is obvious. It feels like we’re opening every closet where the killer might be…book collecting, inventory, complaints, unhappy customers, functions, field days, evaluations, data… the end of the year is like a cacophony of things we might be able to handle or enjoy if only they did not assault us all at once.

This desk represents Dantes's 10th circle of hell

This desk represents Dantes’s 10th circle of hell

For students, it’s that moment of sheer desperation where they look down at their grades and realize that we were right all along.  A senior handed me a paper which referenced Dolly the Clone Sheep more times than I’d ever considered clone sheep in my life. It was well researched and kinda-sorta fit the parameters of science fiction within the I-am-flexible-as-long-as-I-don’t-get-crap-research…the research was solid. So I let it fly.

Another did all the critical thought questions on my school blog in detail hoping I’d let her “relearn” the material for a good grade. I will. Just like I considered Dolly the Sheep. If it’s well done.

“Miss,” said one student I’ll call “Jim” because that’s his name, approached me, downtrodden. It was about five years ago, and I was sitting peacefully in the hallway, guarding it from disturbances. “Remember in October when you said you thought I failed a class freshman year and I needed this class to graduate?”

“Yes.” I remember strange details like that. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast or what my husband asked me to remember–but a kid’s four-year course schedule…that, I can remember.

“Well, you were right.” This was as close to an apology as I generally see.

“I’m in the business of being right.”

“What do I need this quarter to pass your class?” he asked.

“One hundred and forty-five.”

“That’s not very likely, is it?” I almost said “If Jesus came and took the final, it probably wouldn’t happen. Except that’s happened before. I don’t want to make false promises I can’t keep before the Lord.

One day, Jesus did float in. “Hello, my child.” He addressed me in the gentle voice I imagined He would use. He was dressed in all white, wearing a crown of thorns. “Please pass my children.” Those “children” were in a similar numerical situation. A situation I’ve come to refer to as “Jesus math,” whereby only the good Lord, or another deity of choice–a big deity, mind you, not a little assistant–could influence the outcome.

Only later in the day did I discover that two white tablecloths were missing from Culinary and a rose bush in front of the building had been destroyed. Imposter! Posing as the Lord? Is there no low to which people won’t sink during grade mongering season?

Today, I received a set of final exam essays between classes while I was running to the bathroom. Teachers get one bathroom break a day. “I understand if it’s too late,” it says.

I answer. “I’ll look at it in a minute.” I wonder how many people will be wondering if I graded their paper on my iPhone from the bathroom.

The building itself looks rather like the final scenes in a horror movie before the end of the year–books tossed about, lockers being emptied, revealing unmistakable treasures like foods that might even have been edible months ago…It’s all a disaster. My room especially. Every year I promise to toss everything and attain clutter-free enlightenment. Then I look at the stacks of old papers I have created with love, making extra copies because we’re so often out of paper. Maybe I will need those again sometime! They never get thrown away. I’m hoping that because I have digitized most of my stuff on my school WordPress blog and Learnist boards, that I can free myself of these stacks of papers forever.

But for now, I just have to get to the end of the year in one piece. Then, I’ll start planning my attack for next year. I’ll make a plan to clean up my act. I’ve been making this plan for a dozen years, and it never comes together at the end to produce a nice, shiny classroom cleaned in advance. There are always scholars with last-minute numerical needs, last-minute research papers, and stacks of books and clutter. I can’t imagine that will go away. But I’ll try to tighten up my systems anyway.

And this time, next June, it’ll look like the end of a horror movie once again.


A Formal Apology to Henri Matisse

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.53.48 AMI was looking at a picture of bamboo. I love bamboo. I have spent so many hours painting it. In my sumi-e practice, I have painted a million bamboo plants. In the beginning, I thought this was insane repetition. In Western schools you don’t sit and write the letter “e” a million times. Maybe that’s why I always flunked handwriting.

I used to sit and work on the same image or same kanji hundreds of times. Eventually, I learned, it was all the same. To create an image a thousand times is to create it once. Bamboo, chrysanthemum, a cherry blossom–whatever. The goal is to reach perfection. The reality is that perfection doesn’t exist. The perfection is, in fact, in imperfection. Sometimes, our drive to be perfect consumes us. We suffer. Practicing these arts teaches us eventually that the learning–the experience–is in the journey–perfection is just a destination to imagine in the meantime.

What I liked about creating sumi-e was that it seemed unfinished. The Western eye saw that and said “Oh, you forgot half, you moron.”  But truly, that was its perfection. How liberating to jump that line. To realize that simplicity was, indeed, complete, and that the mind’s eye was charged with filling in the details. That the truth of the image could lie in a single leaf. The mind does the rest. This totally changed the way I looked at nature.

Bamboo was always my favorite. I’m not sure why.  When I was younger, I always drew a couple things over and over. One was a big tree. It’d start on the side of a page, and cover half. Sometimes, I’d insert a river with a little boy fishing, a fence…Often the tree emerged in a graveyard. I always loved graveyards. Still do. The colonial graves would appear around the tree, one by one–always slightly out of artistic proportion, because every time I put in details, the picture got skewed. Seems a fitting metaphor for life.

Bamboo was different…a single sweeping line with a couple interruptions, flowing leaves.  The unfinished tree picture was always that…unfinished. The bamboo was complete in its simplicity.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.37 AMYears before I studied sumi-e and shodo, I lived in Russia for a short spell. I saw a Matisse exhibit at the Tretyakov Gallery. There were tons of Russians standing around with hands on their chin contemplating a picture of a house that looked slightly less skilled than a similar picture I drew in kindergarten.  I stepped away, trying to hide my laughter at the scene of these art aficionados contemplating what seemed to be a child’s mess.  My friend Svetla was concerned.

“You don’t like it?” she asked.

“Well,” I said, “I’m just not sure why everyone’s so serious about that picture.”  Seems I’d thrown out a judgment. I should have been embarrassed, but I was too ignorant to suspect the magnitude of my own stupidity.

She proceeded to talk about line, form, and other things with which I neither agreed nor could have processed at the time. Sometimes life throws depth at us that we’re just not ready to ingest. I tuned out, wondering which subway station would have farmers with the best vegetables to assemble for lunch. I also wanted some cheese.

Years later, after I had studied years of Japanese sword, calligraphy, and art, I ran across Matisse again, seeing a full catalog of his works. I stopped. I noticed the mastery of each line, color choice, form. I looked at this stunning catalog, researching Matisse further–how he evolved from what I would have understood to be a “proper artist” to one who liberated himself from the constraints of the establishment to transcend the rules.  He was, indeed, a true master worthy of the time those dozen Russians with their hands on their chins spent contemplating his mastery.

Screen Shot 2013-02-15 at 5.57.48 AM      This was an epiphany. I was finally embarrassed by my earlier assumptions. I took a moment to apologize to Matisse.

In Japanese culture, there is a concept of “shu, ha, ri.”  Shu: is when you learn something and repeat it over and over,  following the rules. Ha: you make it your own, adding style and flourish. Ri: You forget the rules. Leave them behind. Transcend them.

Henri Matisse was at “ri.”

This lesson never leaves me. I consider it when I think about  self-development, improvement, and simplicity. 1. Sometimes the simplest things are the most profound. They are the truth. 2. Often times, society makes us stop before we approach “ri.”  Society laughs at “ri,” It cannot comprehend that degree of freedom, always forcing us into boxes, expectations, and rules.  3. In order to achieve our greatness, we must make that jump from the safety of the rules to the exposure of mastery.

All the great artists, musicians, thinkers, and creators were at “ri.” It’s difficult to understand, and harder to measure. Society doesn’t always approve, and often, it’s only in the end that people step back and say, “Wow.”

These are lessons I’ve learned, but not always practiced. I see that in my writing, in my approach to education, in my willingness to take chances in life, I often stop at “ha,” conforming to the rules of society when there is so much more to be done. Truth is, most of us do just that.

Only when we commit to take that last step, despite the fact we will be seen as non-conformists and outliers… only when we promise ourselves we will speak and act upon that truth, can we get to the level of “ri,” and change the world.

[images: and]