New Year Changes

Every new year comes in with the promise of new and wonderful things. We make resolutions to be better in myriad ways: more compassionate and more charitable, more active and healthier, more informed and more productive.

But sometimes the new year arrives with the unexpected.

How do you continue life–at at any time of year–without a person or people who have always been in your life?

How can you begin to look the to days ahead? How do you lift the coffee pot from its base and pour coffee into only one cup? How do you prepare lunch for one and eat it by yourself? How do you fill the afternoon hours? How can you read the paper when there is no one with whom to discuss the news? How do you face the dinner table alone?

I’m trying to get my head–and my heart–around this, but right now I only feel lost. I cannot imagine what it must be like to lose the person with whom one has shared one’s daily life since adolescence. The person with whom you brought children into the world, children you struggled and worried over. The person you argued with and supported and stood up for. The person you shared Christmas Eve conversations with when you thought the kids were asleep. The one you kept on with after all the kids were grown and gone, working and traveling, talking and sleeping and waiting for the holidays.

There must be a way, but I can’t imagine how.

Plans and Adjustments

My plan to read and share what I’m reading hasn’t really panned out so far this year.

I read one novel and attempted a couple more but they really didn’t satisfy. My professor sent me a hard copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude all the way from Louisiana and I got as far as the insomnia plague before I got distracted by Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson, whom I only learned about from a stray copy of the The Wall Street Journal in the airport.

I am supposed to be reading The Motivated Brain: Improving Student Attention, Engagement, and Perseverance for my book study at school. I’m sure it’s really good, but I have such a hard time reading digital books in my laptop . . . well, that’s my excuse, anyway–I can read a book on my phone with the Kindle app if it’s something I’m really interested in, like Consider the Fork or Charlotte’s Web. The Motivated Brain just hasn’t been able to keep my attention.

I’ve been watching Christmas movies in Netflix since I got back from Thanksgiving vacation.

But I have been learning something new every day about teaching. I’m enjoying my days at school and my evenings at home. I’m looking forward to the future and enjoying the present.

Ooooh, I have an idea. I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in October.  I’ll download Dickens’A Christmas Carol. That will be fun to revisit.

As one poet remarked, “The best laid plans of mice and men go often awry,” but when they do, if we want to grow and improve, we readjust and bring ourselves back on track or make a new plan and start again.

I wonder if I’ll think of something clever to say about Scrooge?

Eating Together

Down South in the past, Sundays were the day when families gathered for the biggest and best meal of the week. There would be fried chicken and mashed potatoes or pot roast and rice and gravy, and maybe a coconut meringue pie for dessert. Here in El Norte de Mexico, Sunday still is the day for family meals; there’s menudo and barbacoa for brunch and no matter what you were doing last night, you don’t just not show up.

Nowadays there are waits for tables in restaurants on Sundays, but with careers that don’t stop for weekends, video games that keep kids and adults obsessed, and chores that must be done, it’s just as likely that we are grabbing what’s available and eating it on the run on weekends as on the other days of the week.

But not on holidays.

We have pretty strong opinions about what should be found on the holiday table–and who should be found sitting around it.

Holiday dinners in our family are marathons of preparation. It begins days before the dinner will be served. Every mother wants every child, no matter what age, to have his or her favorite dish. Desserts are especially important.  I remember my grandmother and my mom making a dozen or more pies for holiday dinners when I was a teenager.  I myself once made eight–eight!–pies at Christmas because family members kept adding requests.

We have pretty strong opinions about what should be found on the holiday table–and who should be found sitting around it. My mom and dad are happiest when all four of their children are present with all our offspring.  These days two tables are needed to accommodate us. We four have lots to catch up on, since some of us see each other only on holidays. We have new ones to meet–at Thanksgiving this year, my brother’s new daughter-in-law and my sister’s new grandbaby.


Eating is not just for survival, and this has been brought to my close attention while I live alone here in Mexico. Eating is supposed to be a convivial act. I love cooking and eating fresh and healthy food, but I don’t like to cook just for me in this tiny kitchen with my limited equipment.

Lately, though, I’ve been feeling the Holiday spirit.  Yesterday I invited a fellow teacher over for dinner. I roasted beets and made a salad dressing from lemon and olive oil and a little honey, toasted some pecans and garlic to toss with some quinoa and a few raisins. A very simple meal, but I wouldn’t have done it just for myself. My enjoyment of the preparations came from the anticipation of sharing the food with someone.

Can’t wait for Christmas dinner.

Food Prep

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Before I left Mexico for the Thanksgiving break, my baby brother and I were already discussing the logistics of serving mustard greens for dinner Thanksgiving Day.

I am in love with food and all its processes: Growing, cooking, and eating. The growing of food is part of my family heritage, and cooking is not something that, in my family, is just a chore that must be done just so people won’t starve; it is a task performed with love and enjoyment, and eating is something to be done together.

The first idea for procurement of the greens–to pick them from an uncle’s garden–bombed when the uncle informed us that the greens in his garden were finished.

So I sat in stop-and-go traffic for over an hour to get to the farmer’s market to buy fresh mustard greens because not only did my baby brother want to eat them,  I wanted to prepare them. I wanted to immerse myself in the whole mustard greens process: washing and trimming them, boiling the bacon and then adding the greens, which would be coming over the top of the pot at first, then wilting down into the hot water almost instantly. I wanted to experience the changes in the smell as as the fragrance changed from sharp and raw to rich and mellow. I imagined the poached eggs I would have for breakfast  the day after Thanksgiving, cooked gently in the rich pot liquor that would be left after the greens were served.

My daughter had plans to make four pumpkin pies (from canned pumpkin) for the Thanksgiving dinner: two for our family and two for her husband’s family. When my other brother brought in a pumpkin from the porch that my sister had bought for decoration and started chopping it into hunks, I sent my daughter a quick text to let her know that making four pies might not be necessary. My brother was doing this not because it’s the easy way to make pumpkin pies, but because much of the pleasure of eating  them comes from the enjoyment of repeating the process of preparation that’s been part of the family tradition throughout his life.

Eating mustard greens for Thanksgiving Dinner wouldn’t have been done in our family fifty years ago. Mustard greens were served for plain, everyday meals, with beans and cornbread, because during the winter months they were one of only two or three vegetables available from the garden (and that was only if there had been a good harvest of snap beans the previous summer, put up in jars). But these days, because we are all too busy to prepare them, never mind grow them, they have faded away from the weekday dinner table, replaced by spring mix from plastic supermarket containers. Now, they are a special treat to be enjoyed on holidays alongside the turkey and cornbread dressing, not just another side dish, but a symbol of a heritage.

And the pumpkin in the pie arrived there only a day after the pumpkin had been just a porch decoration.


Reflections on the Sub Day

After I had stood up and said “Senorita! I am the English teacher,” and had been shown to the correct place to sign in, and had finally reached the classroom, I found it full of students ranging in age from adolescent my own age group. First I assigned the pairs for the speaking test and then sent everyone out except for the pair being tested.

I had no idea what I was doing.

The “gradual release” model of instruction is considered to be pretty effective: 1. Show me how you do it, 2. clarify it for me by checking for my understanding, 3. let’s do it together, and then, 4. I can do it on my own.

In my life, there are many, many times when I start with step four.

Since it involves a considerable amount of trial and error, skipping the first three steps results in a longer learning time (and considerable amounts of anxiety), but it’s generally effective in the end.

Crawling under the house to fix the toilet drain. Replacing the radiator in the car. Fixing a broken water line.

These are all activities that require immediate action. There’s no time to take a course before that toilet drain (or radiator or water leak) is fixed.

Being a substitute teacher, in my experience,  is somewhat similar.

I hope one day soon I will have the opportunity to be taught how to administer and score a speaking text for English language learners. This time, however, I was flying by the seat of my pants.

Giving scores to the students wasn’t possible, but I was able to take notes for the “real” teacher so that she could score the rubrics later. As I went through each pair of students, I began to have an idea of what to look (or listen) for in relation to the rubric. I am certainly not competent, nor yet prepared, to score a rubric, but when I do take the course, I won’t be completely in the dark.

The best part of the sub day came after all the tests were finished. We had an hour to reflect on the exam and to chat. The students wanted to know about me and my life. They don’t have a lot of opportunities to practice English with a native speaker, and they asked a lot of questions.  Then, I turned the questions on them and they told me about themselves, one by one.

They said,  “We want you to teach the advanced class. You should apply here for the job!”

I told them that I already have.

Who knows? My opportunity to learn step-by-step may be closer than I realize.


I am here at a local school where I am to sub for a colleague who teaches English here.

Class is to begin at 8:00 a.m. It’s an exam day. It’s 7:50.

There’s no staff here yet.

I try to put myself into the mind of my coworker. I see her coming in the gate, stopping to chat with the doorman, as relaxed as as a rag doll and as nonchalant as . . .  well, as a Mexican.

I’m trying to slow my breathing.

Not only is this a completely new experience–being a substitute teacher in a Mexican school–I’m to administer exams for an ESL class. I have no experience and no qualifications for the task. I received the materials from la Mexicana last night at 8 o’clock.

I’m to administer exams for an ESL class. I have no experience and no qualifications for the task.

Students are trickling into the courtyard. Doves are cooing and finches twittering in the trees. The traffic noise is increasing outside the gate. I’m working at keeping the corners of my mouth turned up and my forehead relaxed.

7:58. Someone opens the outer door to the office. I go in with others who crowd the counter behind which three employees have arranged themselves. Those who came in with me seem to be paying for tuition. I hang back for five minutes and then step forward to the counter.

I am ignored completely.

After a minute I turn away and sit in a chair against the wall, waiting for the crowd to clear out. There’s now a line of about a dozen people. Each one seems to have a dispute to settle. I’m getting really annoyed. If I knew where the classroom is I’d just go and get started. I consider standing up and yelling.

Instead I take deep breaths and remind myself that I am not in the United States.

It’s 8:15.


When the sun goes down and the lights go up even the least lovely town starts to look better.

Edges soften. Dust blends into dusk. Peeling paint and faded advertisements blur into each other, visually softening the harsh effects of the desert sun.

Signs of familiarity glow against the hazy backdrop of sky: Starbuck’s and Burger King and Dairy Queen issuing invitations to those who are out and about for a snack or a pick-me-up to help make it until dinner time.

Traffic is light and the side streets are quiet, resting up to be ready for the bursts of activity to come later.  Even the pigeons are quiet. The hedges along the sidewalks in the residential areas turn to shadows. The light-painted walls come forward, as if the streets have narrowed.

I walk away from the massage appointment in the cool air. Darkness falls completely.

It seems strange to arrive home after dark; the time change has made a difference. I climb the stairs to my kitchen and prepare my supper and turn on Netflix.

After I bit I realize  I’m hearing a strange rumbling noise and the screams of excited children from the street behind us. It sounds like a Ferris wheel. Now that I’m getting ready to go to bed, a party is starting. A band begins to play.

I turn on my sleep sounds app and lie down.


I don’t usually write poetry

(unless I’m drunk and the moon is full).

I was grown in the Louisiana muck

Backwoods religion in sticky pine pews

Where “poetry” is Psalms and Song of Solomon

And getting drunk is not allowed–

especially for girls.



Scary Stories

A post from Goodreads came up on Facebook a few days ago: What’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

I didn’t have to think long at all.

I don’t like being scared.

I don’t like being scared. My mom would never permit anyone to frighten us when we were small, and even when we were teens she did not like it all all when someone scared her kids.

When I was really little, maybe five, The Wizard of Oz movie scared me so much I didn’t want to go to bed by myself. (The Wicked Witch? The Flying Monkeys? I don’t remember, but I was crying for my mom in the dark bedroom.) Soon afterward, television disappeared from  our home forever.

FT5S Pumpkins jack o lanterns halloween scary woods getty
Photos: Google Images

I didn’t enjoy haunted houses; in fact, I think I visited only one when I was growing up, and maybe there have been two others since I became an adult. I didn’t watch horror movies or read Stephen King books (with the exception of The Green Mile, and that’s a post for another day) because I didn’t enjoy lying awake in my bed at night when everyone else was asleep seeing visions of monsters or murderers coming after me. I hated “thrillers” like Unlawful Entry and Seven with their horrifyingly predictable scenes (predictable in that I knew for sure something was going to make me jump and scream) and and yet I couldn’t stop watching until the end; hypnotized I would be, like the prey of a cobra.

I didn’t enjoy lying awake in my bed at night when everyone else was asleep seeing visions of monsters or murderers coming after me.

So it didn’t take me long to answer the question: What’s the scariest book I’ve ever read?

Elizabeth Peters was one of my favorite authors when I was young and she still is, although her “real” name was Barbara Mertz. She is one of those whose work reinforced my will to become a writer.  The adventures of  Ms. Peters’ feminist heroines entertained me and her writing inspired me to learn, not just about writing but also about Egypt and London and Helen of Troy.

Back in the seventies, before the Amelia Peabody series became such a hit, Ms. Mertz wrote novels under the name Barbara Michaels. Under this pseudonym she addressed spiritualism and the occult and frankly scared the pee out of me. I only remember the one title: The Crying Child.

This was a story (if memory serves) about two sisters, one of whom has recently lost a baby and is suffering from something like PTSD: she is hearing a baby crying in the night. The other sister goes to visit her to try to help her cope, and lo and behold,  she hears it too.

I remember this book not just  because of the horror but because of the research involved in the creation of the story and the way Ms. Mertz/Michaels/Peters used her research in the plot of the novel.

Let me tell you now: I won’t go if it’s scary.  I won’t go to your haunted house. I won’t go see the newest version of It; I never saw the original. I didn’t read the Alex Cross Series; I only watched one of the movies because I am a Morgan Freeman fan (and afterward I wished I hadn’t). I haven’t seen Saw nor the Blair Witch Project nor The Exorcist–the scariest of all, from what I’ve heard.

If you read The Crying Child you may find it tame. That’s okay. It was quite scary enough for me. Scary enough to keep me awake at least one night, and that was enough for me to know that I didn’t want to read any more of Barbara Michaels’ novels.

I’ll hang with Elizabeth Peters and her adventurous, non-haunted heroines.

Cocoa Beach

Finding some good fiction to read is a challenge because of the time I have available for searching. I want to know that what I’m buying is going to be worth the time, not to mention the money.  I subscribed to something called BookBub, which sends me recommendations for ebooks, and the New York Times Review, and I am a member of Goodreads, but with short blocks of free time for researching, these are almost useless to me.

I want to know that what I’m buying is going to be worth the time, not to mention the money.

So since my Amazon Prime Reading recommendation for Cocoa Beach came with a free sample, I could check it out on the bus on the way to school.  I downloaded it and it wasn’t terrible, so I paid the $13.99 for the whole book (by a New York Times Bestseller List author, by the way) and I’m on my way to what I hope will be a satisfying reading experience.

(I’m not going to write a book review, just in case you’re wondering; I’m just going to make a couple of comments.)


First of all: I love Florida. I have loved it since I was eight years old when I went for the first time. I love movies that are filmed in Florida, I love television series about Florida, I love Karl Hiaasen‘s books. I loved visiting the sister ship to Ernest Hemmingway’s Pilar on Islamorada in the Keys. I loved the mangroves and brought home a mangrove sprout to give to my grandmother. The shrubs that are only houseplants in the rest of the country grow to tree-size there.  The boat rides with my brother through Boca Raton to the Atlantic were idyllic. I love the blue water and white sand vacations with my kids on the Panhandle so much it breaks my heart.


So a novel about South Florida set in the 1920s? Florida and history! It could be a dream come true!

I’ve read about five chapters of Coco Beach so far, and I am enjoying the way the author switches back and forth between past and present in alternating chapters. I can see the landscapes and settings from her descriptions, some of which are quite fresh. Although her attempts to portray human emotions are more “telling” and less “showing,” I am willing to concede that I understand what is happening in the mind of the protagonist.

But then I begin to see adverbs.

Stephen King (famously) said, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “The road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”

He also said he can be a good sport about them.

Am I becoming a more discriminating reader or just a pedantic nit-picker?

I can too, I guess . . .  but then when they start to jump out at me, I think maybe I’m on that road.

“Staring at a photograph while the clock just ticks and ticks, ten o’clock drawing inevitably toward eleven.”

How else can ten o’clock reach eleven, except inevitably?

Am I becoming a more discriminating reader or just a pedantic nit-picker?

I put “literary fiction” into the search bar and returned a Goodreads page with a whole bunch of possibilities. I’ve downloaded a couple of samples to read on the bus.