Six months ago I set out on this new retirement journey, and I want to remember my experiences along the way. I wrote this prologue two years before my last day of teaching and kept it hidden away until now.
Early June 2016:
Yesterday–before I left for the summer–I tore another June off my desk calendar, ticking off my twenty-third year of teaching. Since I’m only a couple years from retirement, I’ve started to think about about my identity as ‘teacher’–and more importantly, what the loss of that role will mean for me. Before this gig, I was ‘homemaker’, marriage coming in my late teens and then my first pregnancy soon after. When the marriage ended and I went back to school, I substituted ‘student’’ for ‘homemaker’ and eventually settled on ‘teacher’.
For the next twenty-three years, that was me–the role I’ve played longer than nearly any other. I graded papers over countless weekends, worked on lesson plans at night, ran copies before and after school, herded 120 plus sixteen-year-olds through five successive hours each day. It was up at 5 AM and to bed at 9 PM. I filed and organized and decorated each August. I drooped and stashed and tore down every June.
So I’m beginning to think about what my good bye will mean for me. I need time to break it to myself gently because that’s how I deal with life. Little-by-little I disentangle myself; bit-by-bit I take another step away. Emotionally, this can’t be a ripping-off-the-bandaid type of departure.
Last week I read a wonderful book about high school in Poland, Korea, and Finland titled The Smartest Kids in the World. (This won’t be a book review, but let me suggest you get the book and start reading now, it’s that good.) Author Amanda Ripley followed three American high schoolers who were dissatisfied with their schooling in the States and became exchange students. Ripley framed her portraits of the teens with statistics and narratives about the success of the education systems in their respective countries. It was clear from the data that other countries have strengths we don’t. The American teens felt their experiences in Polish and Finnish high schools gave them something their home schools never could: higher expectations, greater social freedom, schooling and teachers held in higher esteem. (Korea was a mixed bag because of the hagwon system of after-school tutoring sometimes referred to as cram-school.)
There is plenty I’ve become disenchanted with over the past twenty three years myself. Teachers now walk in lock step, we’re continually testing and reviewing data, we’ve seen our pay and benefits shrink year after year. When I was a fresh, wide-eyed teacher I couldn’t understand the jaded, worn-out senior teachers. Now, sadly, I do. So somehow in the next few years I need to figure out what memories I’ll let define my teaching career. And I’ve started to cherish those times (sometimes with a lump in my throat) I know are coming to a close–like reading long passages of literature aloud, conferencing with students about their rewrites, and connecting a teen with a good book.
A few years ago our then-new principal (a Troops to Teachers guy, as I understood it) started the practice of reciting the pledge after morning announcements. Seven hundred voices join together in tradition, one that brings back my own school days.
I watch my motley assortment of teenagers–diverse in race, economic status, sexual orientation–pledge their allegiance to our country, the God of their understanding, and each other, and I am moved, at times, to tears.
This, I will remember.
The Monk of Mokha
I marvel at my own coffee evolution. Nearly forty years ago as a brand new bride I started with a percolator–Corning Ware in the ever-popular butterfly gold–and made one pot each week on Saturday morning. Several years later I moved up to a Mr. Coffee and what followed were any number of other drip coffeemakers. The coffee itself? Folgers or Maxwell House. And then I turned a snob–french press, coffee beans bought bulk, ground right before steeping.
Today? I wake up, stick a pod into a single-brew system … and fuss because the wait is so long for my morning cup ‘o joe.
Mokhtar Alkhanshali, a Yemini-American living in San Francisco, didn’t even drink coffee when he set out to become a coffee importer. His goal? To empower Yemeni coffee growers and bring coffee back to its origin story. Coffee, it seems, was first cultivated in Yemen. Not Ethiopia. Not Sumatra. Not even Costa Rico or Columbia. The Dutch stole a few plants in the 17th century, cultivated it in Java, and, subsequently, Europe spent a couple hundred years fighting over control of coffee production.
Mokhtar was out to return Yemen to its rightful place in coffee history.
His lofty goal must have seemed like a long shot to many. Mokhtar was a bit of a smart ass. A college drop out. His last job before becoming an entrepreneur? Doorman. But once he learned the story of coffee, Mokhtar threw himself headlong into making his dream a reality. He interned at Blue Bottle coffee. He insinuated himself into a specialty coffee conference. Wheedled and cajoled friends and relatives in the Yemeni community to back his venture.
And then he took off for Yemen.
Now even if you don’t know much about current events, you’ve surely heard of Yemen. Something about a civil war? The Houthis. Saudi bombings. Famine. Refugee camps. And there was Mokhtar Alkhanshali right in the thick of things.
He traveled the country with armed escorts. Was thrown in jail and detained multiple times. Lived through sniper fire and gun fights and bombing raids. All the while, pursuing his dream to bring Yemeni coffee–he had eighteen thousand kilograms waiting in a warehouse–to the rest of the world. Mukhtar was Teflon-coated. Nothing stuck. He could fast talk himself out of any situation.
In fact, at times his journey seemed fantastical. Beyond belief. Could a young man (he was only twenty-five at the time) really escape unscathed so many times? In the middle of a war zone?! I read much of the book with my mouth open in awe or was it maybe a hint of disbelief? Writer Dave Eggers accompanied Mokhtar to Yemen, visited the sites he talked about, and verified his experiences. (Here they talk about the book in this PBS interview in 2018.)
Mokhtar eventually makes it back to the U.S. via Djibouti. He gets that shipment of coffee. He roasts and markets the coffee. He makes his parents proud. It’s the American Dream, right?
Mokhtar’s coffee–marketed under the brand Port of Mokha–sells for $16 a cup, brewed. You read that right. Per cup. Even if I get fancy pants coffee pods, they go for less than a buck each. This is the fine wine of coffee, dear reader, and a far cry from my percolator-Mr. Coffee-or even French press days.
But I’m tempted to buy a cup should I ever have the opportunity.
Is it all too good to be true? I just read about a scandal related to Port of Mokha coffee and Mokhtar Alkhanshali. I don’t begin to know the ins and outs of the legal business dealings, but I do know the words “racketeering” and “embezzlement” aren’t good. You can read about the lawsuits Mokhtar is involved with here and here.
The Elephant in the Room
Simon & Schuster (January 2019)
I just got back from WW, formerly known as ‘Weight Watchers’ but now marketed as a wellness workshop. I tell people that over the last ten years I have gained and lost the same 35 pounds twice. And I don’t ever intend to do so again. There are many reasons for my weight gain. I went through menopause–that’s a big one. I live with chronic pain–that’s another. (Because when fatigue sets in and muscles ache, a good ol’ shot of endorphins, released by the pleasure that is all things carbolicious, makes everything hurt just a little less.) Life got rough. Real rough. And I discovered the true meaning of that phrase “comfort food”.
In his new weight loss memoir, Tommy Tomlinson looks at his life and tries to figure out, first of all, how he came to be 460 pounds, and, secondly, how to lose that weight. He writes about his childhood, growing up in a working class home in Georgia, where food was a way to show love and where even though his parents no longer labored in the field, sharecropping, the food they ate was didn’t reflect the change in their lifestyle. He writes about food being a way to connect, a way to feel like you belong–how nothing says bonding like a night of beer and fast food with college buddies. And then there was his career as a sports journalist, where deadlines meant fast-food instead of healthy eating and sedentary days spent writing meant he burned off too few of those fast-food calories.
So for the most part, as pretty standard memoir of weight gain. But where Tomlinson provided a unique perspective was in his quest to figure out why he couldn’t lose the weight. Why few programs or diet plans worked for him. Why, no matter how firm his resolve, after a few weeks counting calories, he would revert to old habits. And so he turned inward.
While he mentioned several discoveries, the following made me wonder how many of us can be this brutally honest about our own reasons for overweight. Tomlinson says “I’ve forged my weight into a shield that keeps me from the risks of a bolder life.” He can blame a lot of life’s disappointments on his weight–people don’t like him because he’s fat, he is “more boring than I ought to be”–and it is that weight that holds him back from taking risks. He writes about his weight being rooted in lies and deception, a character defect that conflicts with his religious beliefs. Tomlinson lies to himself about wanting to lose weight. He lies to his wife that he avoided soda and fast food on any given day. And maybe most poignantly of all (especially coming from a fifty-something man) is that he is overweight because he doesn’t want to fully be an adult–that it is childish to not take responsibility for his health, to petulantly satisfy his every whim when it comes to food.
Over the course of writing the book, Tomlinson lost eight-five pounds–a snail’s pace for most of us seeking to lose. But Tomlinson isn’t concerned about how quickly he loses, but rather that the weight stay off. So that he can live that bolder life–honest and true–adulting all the way.
And I have a suspicion that because his weight loss journey was as much an inside job as an outside one, he will.
As is often the case, NPR did a great interview with Tommy Tomlinson the week his memoir was published.
For someone who reads as much as I do, I struggle with contemporary poetry. What should be a pleasure–me! lover of word-craft and all that is story–is more often a frustration. I find most of it arcane. Baffling. And, dare I say, way too self-absorbed. I want my poetry rich with images that I can connect with, that touch my heart-center. I don’t want a poem heavy-handed, but rather one that brushes against my soul like a well-loved comforter–one that says “You’re home”. So the list of contemporary poets who have won my heart is short. Billy Collins. Ted Kooser. And Mary Oliver.
So much has been said about Ms. Oliver in the past week since her death–I certainly don’t need to say more. I listened to any number of remembrances on NPR and sought out The New York Times to read her obituary. I recalled reading “Wild Geese” for the first time and the thrill of “only let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” I changed my letterboard to feature that most famous of lines “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And I thanked the Google gods that, with only a finger tap or two, I found many archived articles that allowed me to tuck away a few more Mary memories. Here are my favorites:
“What Mary Oliver’s Critics Don’t Understand” (The New Yorker; Nov. 27, 2017)
“Mary Oliver’s Poems Taught Me How To Live” (The New York Times; Jan. 18, 2019)
“Listening to the World” (On Being–a rare interview recorded with Krista Tippet in 2015 and rebroadcast last week)
But for me, Mary Oliver became so dear because of the woman she was. Private to the point of eccentricity. Haunted by abuse. Reluctant to talk about herself. Yet always–always–sure of belonging in the woods and fields around her Provincetown, Massachusetts home because of what it had to teach her about her place in the world.
I look at her face in those last photographs–lined and weathered, the slight lift of her smile, a brightness in her eyes. Where age was Mona Lisa beautiful. And I want to grow into that woman. The one with the “wild and precious life”.