The Give and Take of Learning

We have lost so much in the Pandemic — lives, jobs, trust, connections. It feels as though we haven’t much more to give. When I came across the poem, “When Giving Is All We Have,” by Alberto Rios, I stopped to consider how it might be possible to have nothing else but giving. Giving is for those who have something in their hands to share. What do I have to give if I’ve given everything? Is Rios reminding us of more than just the power of generosity? Is there more to give? If giving is endless, the choices to give must impact who we are in this world.

I confess that gift-giving isn’t a straight path for me. My language of love is less about an actual boxed present and more about the presence and service someone gives. (Of course, I will never turn down a gluten-free dark chocolate treat). And you can ask my daughter to verify what a lousy gifts-giver I am. I’m less inclined to guilt when Rios reveals that “giving has many faces.” If we can give in a way that fits us, perhaps there’s more to the idea of a gift.

One river gives/ Its journey to the next.

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My parents were born into what has been called a dirt-poor existence, struggling through the Great Depression as children. Their parents made choices that could eventually lead to a better life for others. Inheriting my father’s career in teaching but also his scarcity and tight wallet mentality, I often balk at my dwindling financial resources when I write checks and dole out dollars which is why my husband is the check writer in the family. I also believe that I inherited my mom’s compulsion for peace as well as her belief in the power of kindness. She had a generosity of spirit that lit up a life. In fact, many lives, including my Papa’s, who I came to know as an unselfish and less anxious man partly because of their relationship. I miss them all. What have these and other role-model “rivers” brought to my journey?

While my father measured worth based on financial success and educational achievement, my mom considered how many hearts you touched and how many hearts touched you. Thus, while my income is nothing to brag about, I take pride in my own educational achievements and that of the hearts and minds of those I have mentored. All of which leads me back to Rios’ poem.

A full heart nearly bursts when I read these lines:

"You gave me blue and I gave you yellow./  Together we are simple green. /
. . .   together, we made/ Something greater from the difference."

For all I learned from my elders, not to mention all that I have learned from my students and all I still have to give to them, I’m grateful. Inspiring and enlightening youth is something I want to give in abundance.

Where is this all going? How does this relate to giving? When I teach, I make room in the syllabus for what students want and need. For many years, I have resisted returning to the classroom because I don’t want our (mine and my students’) agency to be taken under restriction and shortsightedness. Even now I’m reluctant to write out units in stone because my students bring something unique to each learning situation, and we adapt to this and their changing needs as we move along. Having a choice matters to youth — to anyone learning. Learners need time to consider what ways learning happens and what’s best for them. I’m not just talking about learning style — visual, auditory, etc. — but so much more: content, skills, process, product, timing, and goals.

That’s not to say I don’t have non-negotiables, standards to meet, and skills to practice as needed. But in the little time we have together, all of which we make use of, I like to think of the most important lesson or take away from our sessions a bit like learning to drive. While I’ll leave an explanation of that metaphor for another post, the one thing I’ll say about driving is that like most adulting tasks, driving requires responsibility. And so does education.

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All roads, whether chosen by us or by others, make their impact on our identity. And vice versa. “Giving” or should I say receiving “has changed us,” Rios writes, and “we give because giving” will change us. As it should. Hopefully, the changes will come from our lighter beings, our kindness, our grace, and our open hearts. With each student and each group I’ve worked with as a mentor, I’ve been made aware again and again of the importance of exchanging ideas, and of decisions made in the pursuit for deeper understanding — not because I give that to them, but rather because of the gifts of time, space and energy, they find it for themselves. They find themselves.

One last thing. Giving can hurt. Rios acknowledges this possibility of being “wounded”. With this reminder that expectations of kindness for kindness may not be met, he lights a path of forgiveness. With this pandemic, I have been reminded that no one leaves this life unscarred. Yet to live untouched is to merely exist in an empty life. As for me, I’d rather live fully, give freely however that looks, and bravely step on a road I can call my own. I hope my students will find their road, too.

For this poem and more from Alberto Rios click here

Choice, DIY, and teaching: a delicate link

What choices will you make today? Will you choose to read and consider my ideas?

Choice seems an operative word for 2022 since that’s not only the starting theme for my Writing & Lit course that begins next Tuesday, but also a critical foundation block for how we learn. More importantly, few would argue that we haven’t been challenged by what has often felt like a lack of agency and a dearth of action. Choice has been in short supply.

Yet, it is January now. There are still choices we can make now that will matter in the long run.

Because of the lack of options or perhaps, the wealth of them, we have fallen into binging habit. My husband– a Sci-Fi binger–is focused on Stargate right now. Me? Lately, I’ve been consumed with DIY and maker shows and videos. During the pandemic I have indulged in cuddling on the sofa with my two furry loves, Khaleesi and Peanut, to watch as many Maker shows as I can find: baking shows, including Baking Impossible –a cross between engineering and baking, Blown Away, The Big Flower Fight, Metal Shop Masters, and Making It (U.S. and Australia). I love the process of pushing oneself to a goal, the decisions made, the tools chosen, and the product proudly or sheepishly displayed: a blend of inspiration, experience, and perseverance. A bit of irony, right?

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All out of new Maker shows, and with a deep and humble respect for the sweat of makers and craftspeople, I’ve decided to clear out a cabinet in the garage. As I am often inspired to work with my hands –though I doubt sorting, choosing, and cleaning is thought of as craftsmanship — this week I’m like a dragon bent on examining my hoard of treasures: beads galore, a pile of felt, an even larger stash of faux leather, fabric, book-making supplies, stickers, colorful scrapbook paper, a variety of glues, and so much more.

I can’t decide if I’m embarrassed or downright proud of my stash. But I can tell you, though I’m not ready to surrender a thing, I am struggling to fit it all into my home. Choices, choices.

Currently, the beads are what I’m organizing. Sounds easy. While I don’t make jewelry as I once did as Blue Cat Laughing, I still enjoy making earrings, so this is what is scattered across what I call workspaces –the desk, coffee table, bed, and floor: polished Fimo beads, some with findings and others waiting for inspiration. Old jewelry, lone earrings, and the odd very special bead. Tiny seed beads and plastic ones for fun, Nicer ones bought at bead shows a lifetime ago. Unfinished projects. Do I organize by color, by project, by size, by some other system I haven’t yet tried? How will my own vow to avoid more plastic containers and repurposing the containers impact my choices? How does the de-cluttering mantra in my head affect me? The hard work of finding ways to corral the treasure trove continues. The objective: to give things a home, so I can find what I’m looking for. If I can’t reach this goal, how can I be inspired to create?

Added to this supply of obvious distinction, I have a lot of not-yet-treasure: Crystal Light containers, dominoes, old game boards, clothespins, copper scraps, leather, and more– all of which become the subject of the Do I Have Room/Will I use it? debate. Despite their trashy appearance, what I really love is the odd item to upcycle. What is so powerfully attractive about a trash-to-treasure challenge? Is it the saver in me, the creative, the optimist, the rebel, or the shy environmentalist who loves moving an item from its original state into something new, inventive, and even purposeful?

While not quite an upcycle, this past holiday, we refurbished our fireplace and hearth, keeping the lovely oak mantel and brightening up the brick. As we ran out of time, the original plan was scrubbed for a later date, and we sanded, painted, and tried out variations on a theme. Additionally, I relinquished the old red stockings we made long ago with mom, and I hand-sewed six light-colored stockings which hung on a repurposed stick of driftwood wrapped in fairy lights. As my husband sighed with relief that changes didn’t pull purse strings too wide, my inner maker and rebellious DIYer was delighted with the not-quite-final design.

As a writer, I carry this DIY feeling when I see how writers craft ideas and words in pursuit of creating something meaningful. Writers, tinkering with mere words, express our thoughts, values, beliefs. And when we choose a good book, we chose something that either reflects or challenges us.

Same goes for mentorship. Not one for packaged or canned curriculum, I see teaching as more of a curation, a pulling of this and that together to create meaning. The selection must meet their specific needs and goals. Out of a unique blend of inspiration, experience, possibilities, and perseverance, together we make something that matters.

Speaking of what matters, sitting on my desktop is a project I want to start this year: a junk journal. The project elegantly connects my passion for DIY, choice, and mentorship. The idea has waited a year for me to flesh out the way to bring it to life. Already the project lit up the eyes and mind of a Creative Writer who joined the Creative Writing Comrades (Thursdays at 11:15-12:30 in Sunnyvale). Soon we’ll create a journal either of ideas or of a novel she wants to write.

I’ll present the project to the Writing & Lit students (Tuesdays at 10:40-12:10 and Thu am in San Jose) and keeping students’ agency in mind: will they choose to compose a junk journal for our reading, choose it to document their writing, or choose another path for a journal? Though I’ll nudge, I will respect their choice.

If Choice is to be a Key word for 2022, let’s review a few things:

  • How do you choose to spend your time?
  • What are the values that motivate you to make certain choices?
  • Who are the recipients of your choices? What are the consequences and impact?
  • How will your choice of words in writing and conversation help you and others?
  • Which resources do you keep and which do you donate or toss?
  • When and what will you choose to learn this year?
  • Which choices will matter most this year?
  • Where will you look back and be delighted in your choices? Where and will the regrets land?

As I choose between a current project, a book or laundry, I’ll be thinking of you and your choices. Let’s make what we plan, do, make, and learn matter. And let us be the ones who choose well.

Fling wide the door! Poems of old years and new

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“. . .fling wide, fling wide the door/
Of Opportunity!/ the spirit free” writes Carrie Williams Clifford in her poem, “The New Year”.

I don’t know about you, but I feel quite tentative about the year ahead. Hence the second post on the topic. And while flinging off a mask is tempting and shutting off the news feels mandatory, I can’t but feel unsettled of what lurks ahead. Is it safe yet? Plus I know whatever change is to be made must be made by me, including any change of perspective. Let’s see what ideas the poets offer for the year’s change.

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In “Burning the Old Year,” Naomi Shihab Nye talks about “the things I didn’t do [that]/ crackle after [New Year burns up and ] the blazing dies.” And I am reminded that some of my intentions must be carried over to this next year. Despite how much I long to be done with the sad, the ponderous weight of the past two years, I have work to do — we all do. I take out my last year’s list to consider what’s ahead. Are you more likely to think of what wasn’t accomplished last year as you face this next year? Or do you start with a blank slate of goals?

And while Carol Ann Duffy in “New Year” characterizes this movement from old to new of like that of “drop[ping] the dying year like a shawl” such trauma tends to seep deep beneath our skin. If only such weight could effortlessly slip from our shoulders. Let’s be aware that some have felt more heartbreak than others. I’ve lost my brother to Covid and never had a memorial for him, and I could use some help with that task. Grief has its own timeline and at times, “Just let go” invalidates a life experience.

I wish I could be more like Ella Wheeler Wilcox who reveals a simple idea of a year. She writes, in “The Year” that “new years come” and “old years go. . .” How beautifully uncomplicated her vision. In her final stanza, she captures a year as a time “we laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear, / And that’s the burden of the year.” While I’ve had many things to set down in various years, including heart-clenching grief, the last two years have collectively felt like a strain on many of us. Despite our “laughing”, few could ignore the “weeping.” The question may not simply be what will it take for our worry and fear to be lifted or to slip from our tired shoulders, but rather should we even allow such lessons to be forgotten? Shouldn’t some of last year’s learning stay with us to help us navigate the new one with intentional humanity?

Then there’s Tennyson. His poem, “Ring Out, Wild Bells (from In Memoriam)” acknowledges a need to sound the “wild bells” in a “wild sky.” Such a fierce, noisy image! As the poet calls out for the bells that ring out “the feud of rich and poor”, false pride”, “grief”, and “narrowing lust of gold,” we are reminded of humanity’s failings and that bit of hope of room to become better beings. Tennyson’s bells long to ring out “darkness” to make room for something — let’s hope it’s something better. Don’t you feel as if something wild must happen? That simply turning a page on a calendar (which reminds me I need to buy a new one asap!) is so anti-climactic? I can’t help thinking of the anniversary of the violent assault and its goal of insurrection, only days away. I can’t help but think of the hate and power used against George Floyd and so many others who have suffered. I can’t help but think of the erosion of women’s rights and voter protections. Indeed, wild bells must ring. As Pete Seeger urged in his protest song, “If I had a Hammer!” Ring it out LOUD all over this land!

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In this coming year, what do you hope for? What do you fear? What do the bells that ring sound out for you?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t include and indeed, finish with Ogden Nash’s “Good Riddance, But Now What?” Nash writes,

"Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark! It’s midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year."

Whether you duck, fill with delight, still hold fear, or start the year afresh by laying down your burdens, may your year be filled with creative energy, joyful connections, and good health.  

There's work to be done.  You might not be ready for the work nor 2022, but neither is going anywhere, so we might as well get to it.

Happy New Year!

As we reflect on the previous years’ challenges, we can’t help ourselves from wishing for a better year to come. We so need better. No time to waste: let’s open up your last gift of 2021 or rather your first gift of 2022 and see what you have!

I’m dreaming of joyful connections, creative energy, and good health. What about you?

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With all the resolutions we’ve made in past years, we know change is up to us. Yet we pretend otherwise. A recent article I read talked about how true change starts at the local level. Of course, we let our time slip away by throwing energy into things and people and even the past; not necessarily in any meaningful way. Not to disparage social media or political discourse on a national level, but how often do we lose ourselves, our most important values, our goals, when we expect change without putting in the work?

Good health

Health requires activity, better choices, and continuing to be aware of all the ways we don’t take care of ourselves. Sounds tiring. But only if we take on the world. What if we just focus on the body that matters most –our own? What if I take the time needed to plan out meals and keep fewer junk food options out of reach? What if I mark the calendar with more outings for hiking, biking, and kayaking — or just plain walking? What if I start or end my day with journaling or meditating along with my usual reading (though at an earlier hour)? What will it take for you to take self-care to the next level?

Creative energy

I love this one because I consider myself a rebel DIYer, preferring to fix, reuse, recycle and recreate. At one window of my home is a table with various rocks to paint, sticker earrings to make, and a project using an old tin. Of course, this effort may mean less time on Pinterest finding recipes and inspiration and more time at the table and kitchen counter making something happen. What are your favorite ways to be creative?

Joyful connections

While they may be easier or harder depending on the pandemic status, Connection remains more essential than ever. I miss gatherings. That’s a strange thing for a serious introvert to say. Revision: I miss gathering with people I know. I’ve never been a fan of huge faceless events, though you might be, but maybe this year I’ll finally be able to invite group events into my life, starting with people I know. Perhaps I’ll host the memorial for my late brother who died last year. Maybe I’ll sign up to help with the audio-visual on Sunday mornings at church. Perhaps we’ll get around to hosting a few BBQs and potlucks. If we are under pandemic warnings, we’ll meet up masked and vaxxed, preferably outdoors. We are rather lucky to have good weather most of the year. If not hampered by warnings or weather, I’m ready with a dish I downloaded from Pinterest and my choir songbook– boy, do I need some singing in my life! How do you plan to integrate joyful connections into your life?

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YOUR TURN

What are your hopes, resolutions, ideas to make your year a good one? How will you create change in your world?-Maybe instead of squirreling away in our opinion bunkers, we can reach out to each other and find ways to connect, energize and inspire each other to be better.

Can you share what’s in that first gift of 2022, waiting for you to open, to enjoy doing, and to bring out the best in 2022?

Is There Ever Enough Time?

Yesterday, they would’ve celebrated thirty years of marriage.  If only, she hadn’t died so young. 

Summed up in one image, two short little people sporting a rather round middle, Trinnie and Virginia seemed to be made for each other, just like their wedding topper: two short, chunky little love bears.

Note: this is my telling of a love story.  Your story may differ.  Their story would likely have more information. But all the stories will still be about love.  After all, love is all we ever truly want. And when we’ve run out of time, love is what remains.  Love is the root of all that is good in this life.  

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Once upon a time, Virginia and Trinnie knew each other. Or is that a long time ago in a land far away? He was family.  He told me that his grandmother, Angelita, was related by marriage to the Garcia’s, my grandfather’s family.  His mother reportedly shared a hope with my grandmother, Rosa, that the two would marry.  Invited to attend a high school prom dance with him and two blind dates, Virginia and my Tia Nena, her sister, traveled to Lompoc.  I like to imagine that evening.  Not to take anything away from the life Trinnie had with his wife, Mercy, and his children, but because I want to remember Mom and Papa, Virginia and Trinnie, as young and happy, dancing, and laughing the night away.  

The story Papa loved to tell over and over was when the two reconnected.  They had corresponded for many years but had lost touch.  He called my Abuela one Christmas to wish her family well.  She handed the phone to my mom, and they caught up on this and that. Before he hung up, he wished her family and husband well.  (My dad, Terrance, had left more than twenty years earlier.) Once Trinnie discovered Virginia was single, he blurted out, “I’m going to marry you.”  I’d heard Papa tell this story over a hundred times and never grew tired of him sharing such an important moment in his life.

My own contribution came when my mom asked very early in their story if she should meet this man at a halfway rendevous point. I told mom, “Better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”  In other words, “You’re not getting any younger, mom! Why not go?”  She went and the rest, as some write, became history.

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The Gifts of a Lifetime

Despite the ideal of Rockwell’s images and Hallmark movies, when it comes to the holidays, we all experience these final days of the year very differently.  There are the holidays with a new baby, surrounded by family and then there are the other ones, the dog days (no offense doggies!) when family struggles overshadow everything and the painful first ones minus a beloved one, when we can scarcely breathe.

While holidays don’t have to be ideal, they don’t have to leave us feeling like a lost and neglected puppy.

Whichever holiday you’re experiencing this year, I hope the traditions — new and old– bring you a measure of security and an abundance of joyful memories.  

Sometimes the traditions are the lifeline through the tough times.

A good friend of mine has had her tree up for over three years.  No judgment.  Grief doesn’t have a strict timeline and after losing her mom, boxing up the tree was just too painful.  She’s turned a corner, though, and has said this year she wants the tree to come down, if nothing else to make room for her treadmill.  May we allow her experience to serve as a reminder of the steps of the journeys we take through life.

Laughing about the trials in life

Even without grief, holiday preparations can be a royal pain in the keister for those who love Christmas. One year, my siblings and I performed a parody called the 12 Pains of Christmas.  My brother, Carl, who had been dubbed responsible for putting up the lights sang the line “rigging up the lights” with a smirk. We laughed so hard knowing his relationships with the broken, knotted-up lights.  Songs marked one of our silliest of traditions on Nochebuena, Christmas Eve.

Tomorrow may be for cookies, but today is for lights up on the house and for the final decorations in the house.  Maybe I’ll even finish the stockings. (yikes, I’m running out of time!) When it comes to the tree, I’ve threatened more than once to skip it because I couldn’t get any help. 

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Creative Minds: Seeing Potential

An entire 2″ binder, a five-inch suitcase-looking 8.5 x 11″ box, and way too many digital files on my computer are devoted to creative writing.  Two shelves in my office hold books on creative writing (more shelves hold essay writing resources) and one entire floor-to-ceiling bookcase is filled with novels, mostly paperbacks.  The short story and poetry collections take up more shelves.  I haven’t counted the used and unused journals I have –and yes, I love giving and, especially, receiving journals as gifts!

During my recent de-cluttering pandemic-coping phase, I read Dana K. White’s Decluttering at the Speed of Life. In the book, White encourages her readers to estimate the space filled with possessions, particularly the not used ones, calculating its percentage of rent or mortgage to assess the price of the supposed treasures, junk, or procrasti-clutter (a term White coined).

While plenty of home (and a bit of garage) space has been devoted to books, in my most recent efforts, I’ve sold and donated over seven boxes of books, and I have three more boxes intended for homeschoolers. Of course, I have plenty of things that need review, such as crafting supplies. Eliminating stuff, however, is not the main reason I finished White’s book, I became hooked on her story when she described herself as a person who sees the potential of things.

That’s me, I thought! But she talks as if seeing the potential of something is a bad thing.

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Challenges overcome

Life is filled with one challenge after another.

First is making our way–achieving, collecting, and managing what we long for. A college degree, a family, a home, a promotion. If we’re lucky, we discover how to enjoy what we have and find happiness in the-enough. While we may suffer varying degrees of difficulties, we all strive to pay the bills, to support those we love, to be comfortable in the present, all to find worth in our efforts and in our lives.

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Come a day, when we know that wealth is not nearly as important as health; though it takes many of us a while to learn this. And while we learn the lesson, our well-being shifts like weather patterns as we alternate between weaknesses and strengths.

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Finally, we begin to realize life is the process of letting go. We let go of stuff we don’t need, maybe never needed. We let go of friends as they move away or change. Of grandparents. Of toxic relationships with people and places. We accept that some dreams are fantastical and no longer within our reach. We accept our children are not ours as they grow up beyond the roots we planted to help them grow. And we let go of parents. Not necessarily in any particular order.

In between the serious punches of loss, the ones that hit us hard, amidst the valleys and deserts, sometimes there comes a view from the mountain peaks that call for celebration. Something catches our breath and we exhale as we embrace the beauty of life all around us.

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This past week, I cried. Not because I was sad. Rather because my daughter, the one who has faced more challenges than I have –physically, mentally, spiritually– announced that her college diploma was in the mail.

The screaming infant who turned her head the first time toward me when I called out her name, the vibrant little person who in my mind ran laughing with her long hair trailing after her, the beloved grandchild who giggled with her grandpa in the back seat of the car, the voracious learner, the struggling reader, the broken teen who lay in a coma, the grieving friend and great-granddaughter, the outspoken advocate for those with less, the imaginative painter who blended color til intense emotion sprang from a canvas, this daughter of ours marked a significant rite of passage.

We knew she would reach this moment, and we also knew the burden of hard work placed on her shoulders, a load many fail to fully appreciate. But no matter. She has crossed a finish line. This is not my triumph. It is all hers. Yet I can’t help dancing because our darling bright, intelligent, generous, and creative daughter achieved her goal of becoming a college graduate. A joyful celebration!

Hitting deadline: self-expression and college apps

While teaching is filled with ups and occasional downs, the best part of what I do is support writers to express their truth in under 300 words. As the deadline looms, I honor those filling out applications and writing essays in hopes a college will see the best of you. The following are opening sentence(s) from the personal essays written by my students.

***

Surrounded by gray seats and tired eyes, I let my eyes glide to the small window where we rose in a vast blue sky and above the fluffy white puffs I’d always admired from below. Though the flight itself was arduous, the trip marked the first experience that inspired many more. Did I know then that those dull gray seats guaranteed adventure and colorful stories would expand my world?

***

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I sat in the cold plastic chair, my mind wandering after hearing the endless ramblings of information I already knew. Time appeared to be frozen as I watched the clock slowly tick, tick, tick, waiting for it to reach the hour mark. 

***

While some cringe at the prompt, “Tell me about yourself,” my mind runs amuck.

***

Shaking like a dry leaf at the end of its life, I felt as though autumn’s crisp breezes in Italy mocked me.  My nerves were a wreck. At fourteen years old, I contemplated my entire future.  Though my first lesson at the masterclasses went well, I became consumed with minute elements the teacher had wanted me to perfect from the very first try. I pored over the score, drinking in the dampness of the bedroom and gripping the feathered, well-worn pages. I felt as if I were a fraud.

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Gratitude Day

Raising a Glass to you

Is it my imagination or are there already more twinkling lights hanging on home eaves than last year?  Have we surrendered to consumerism and skipped from October to December’s festivities?  Or has the hellish two years of a pandemic given us a mindset of celebration.  I like to think that we are taking all of November and December to dive in because LIFE is fragile, much too short, and simply too precious to delay any celebration.

I used to be a huge fan of Thanksgiving.  When my grannies and my mom cooked, our home smelled so full of tradition.  My grandmother Miller would cook a huge golden turkey with stuffing and cornbread dressing and mashed potatoes and so much more.  The veggies couldn’t compare to the allure of black olives that sat on a dish of carrots sticks and celery stuffed with cream cheese.  And on her kitchen and screened porch counters, so many pies were lined up for a dollop of whipped cream: pecan, mincemeat, apple, pumpkin, and cherry! Oh my!

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The “used to be” is because my grandmothers are gone.  Playing with olives on our fingertips and drooling for pie is much more fun than cooking for hours, particularly when the meal is over in less than an hour, not including late leftovers.  On the very last Thanksgiving with my mom, she schooled me on cooking green beans.  They were a bit too crunchy –I prefer them al dente– for her.  Ouch.  Her comment felt like criticism until I realized this would be the last advice she would ever give me on a Thanksgiving.  And even though I’m not in charge of green beans this year, my heart breaks open every year with gratitude that we had so many wonderful times together.

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