Day 13. Escape

Today I drove an 80-mile loop doing necessary errands, through rural countryside and into our large retail district. The world I knew has changed in some eerie ways.

I mailed my father-in-law’s tax return from the post office where it could be weighed. At the counter hung a heavy clear plastic curtain between me and the postal clerk. I felt like an intruder when I reached my hand under it to operate the credit card machine.

I left my checkbook at home so I wouldn’t have to hand over pieces of paper that had been in my hot little hands. I simply packed my credit card and driver’s license in my back pocket, clipped my remote entry key on my belt loop and left the handbag at home. As I strolled briskly away from the post office I noticed how free it felt not to have a sack hanging on my left shoulder! That felt terrific! I could get used to this.

Next I went to my school. I traveled rural roads for half an hour and it felt–odd. Like an overcast Saturday lifted from November, after foliage season but before skiing opens. A dreary time when people are sitting at home, resigned to the onset of winter. This was not the spring-hopeful place I lived in just 13 days ago.

I pulled into the empty parking lot of school. Now that I know we are not coming back and that my Music program is about encouraging the community, I need my songbooks. I have nothing here. So there I went and when I walked into the building my heart sank in grief. It doesn’t have the clean school’s-out-for-summer feel; it has the sense that life here was brutally cut short. It is bereft. It weeps.

I culled what I needed from my room and packed it all in my car. I looked around at the room I left as it was on St. Patrick’s Day, thinking we’d be back in a few weeks. Boomwhackers scattered in the corner. Someone’s guitar leaning against the wall. Music Theory students’ quizzes on intervals stacked on their table. What is probably my second-to-last school year cut short this way. So many plans turned to dust.

I had a brief but slightly uncomfortable conversation with the office staff. We can never forget that we are each potentially contaminated with a deadly plague. I thought they’d be more comfortable with me gone. I did not linger.

The next stop completed a Buy Online, Pick Up Curbside transaction at Michael’s. At one of our family morale-boosting events this week or next I want to have everyone paint a small frame to hang together. So, I ordered supplies at home and they put the order together. When I arrived at Michael’s I saw a big cheerful sign, whose subtext read, “Don’t come any closer. Push the button and we’ll gingerly come to you at a safe distance.” I did and she did. She unlocked the massive glass doors and shoved them carefully aside just enough to stand in the gap. She entered my name in her gadget and then retreated, reversing the process. When she returned with the bag, she held it out at arm’s length so I could take it at arm’s length and then phew! the risky transaction was over. On to the next stop.

Grandpa, my 87 year old Father-in-law, needed things from Walmart and the grocery store. I parked far from the door, needing the exercise and just maybe wanting to distance myself from others. I was surprised at how many people were in the stores. Some had gloves or masks. I wore plastic gloves to put people at ease about those sweaty hands. Someday twenty years from now my kids will see a picture of people wearing gloves and face masks and go, “I remember that! That was the COVID pandemic!” It’ll be like big hair and shoulder pads–so dated.

It was at the grocery store when I realized the world had finally, if temporarily, adapted to my preferences. When I enter my shopping fog I want a big bubble around me and thanks to COVID, it is a whole 12 feet in diameter! How cool is that!

At Market Basket the kiosks have been removed so we can stand in self-isolation. There is a black line I was told to stand behind. It sounded…terse.

But look what I found in the ice cream aisle! Vanilla lovers, unite! When everyone has taken the popular stuff, we’re left with all the vanilla we could want.

Do people not see its value as a condiment?? Just this week we had it on Abraham’s baked apples. Yowsa!

Finally home after all the running around. I feel weary from all the sadness. At first it was fun to drive around with my sunroof open (38 degrees and heater blowing) but about the time it started a cold rain I was done with the changes in town and ready to be in our castle with the bridge drawn up. When the rain turned to snow, it was icing on the dreary cake.

But…tomorrow I get to sing with my elementary students via Zoom for the first time! Can’t wait. That is a part of the new normal I could enjoy getting used to.

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Day 12. Home, Sweet Home

Yesterday I described the cast of this drama. Today I give you something of the setting.

Well, who could have guessed that my obsession with hygge two years ago would pay off so profoundly! I take my role of hygge-cultivator very seriously.

I read that Walmart and Market Basket were offering early hours for shoppers 60 years old and older, 6 – 7 am. I didn’t quite get out in time because of this:

I got to the grocery store at 7 am. The store was sparkling clean! Empty-nesters no more–I filled a cart to overflowing. It was like the good old days, shopping for a family of eight.

I bought flowers to cheer us up:

And even an orchid (don’t judge me):

 

Now that I am home all day, even though I am working hard trying to figure out how to deliver a music program online, the clutter we lived with has been tamed. Our table used to be the landing spot, where papers that needed action lingered for days or even weeks. no more:

You can’t see it but I moved a flip top desk made by my son years ago into this room, and mail goes there, along with anything else that needs attention. The top stays down–clutter gone! This makes me feel inordinately happy.

I have created a workstation for myself in the parlor, near the window where I can watch chickadees grab seed from a feeder. As you may guess, we’re still waiting on delivery of spring.

Now, what you see here is my desk, the bags in which I brought home school books and supplies (see Cinnamon, my classroom puppet, peeking out), and a side table with financials to deal with (TurboTax time for grandpa and two kids!) Behind that is an easel at which I am painting as often as I can. It is set up and ready to go.

I brought in blooming plants and set out acrylic paint because we’re still locked into the sepia of late winter. But I did find crocuses peeking out when I raked the garden!

I can’t see them from here either, but in a few days’ time, they’ll bloom.

I trust you all are finding ways to make your home inviting, comfortable, even cheery. Considering how much stress we are carrying, I think it is important to create a clean, tidy, and beautiful environment. To that end I also play music, and burn scented candles once in a while. We’re using lots of fragrant spices in our food too–no more thrown together meals! Everybody is chipping in to make our living quarters pleasant.

Happy hygge-making to you!

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Day 11. What I did on my COVID Vacation

Dear reader,

It has been some time since I invited you into my home for a story. Let me give you the cast:

College son #1 who is a senior at a tech college. His hands-on education just ended as he has gone to online classes. He knows he won’t walk the stage to graduate but he’s okay with that. His NASA internship due to start in June is uncertain. He was sent home over two weeks ago and classes begin on Monday.

College son #2 who is a sophomore at a college near Boston. He was home on break when this all went down, and was told to stay at home. He had only brought a few things home (including his desktop computer–whew!) so he misses his math textbooks. He carries 20 credits so now and again he has to firmly remind us that he is in the college pressure-cooker and needs to focus on his work. He is the one who most misses the social interaction.

The word is that college is closed to them for the rest of the year. Keep in mind these sons were homeschooled and college was their first chance to ‘go to school’ and have a robust social life.

Daughter moved back, Uhaul truck and full car, from Maryland on Tuesday. Another son who lives in Maryland helped her drive up. Everybody unpacked her household effects into the barn on the next day and the day after that son #3 rode his Suzuki back to Annapolis, where he has no job, but has some savings, a ladyfriend, and the opportunity to serve his community. He is assistant manager at a specialty ice cream-chocolate-fudge shop in a tourist town, shut down for the duration. Daughter is welcome here and is converting the girls’ old room into an apartment for herself. She is looking into teaching jobs for the fall.

At home we also have the two formerly bored former empty-nesters, who now find food disappears a lot faster and clean towels are always in short supply. It is good to hear laughter and bad puns again. The governor of Vermont names the forest industry as essential in regards to fuel supply (firewood, woodchips) so his work may continue in some fashion. He keeps our part-time employee occupied for now.

This year he also began to teach at Vermont Technical College, a one-day hands-on course in forestry that, to his dismay, has to go online entirely. NEver mind practice in the field; he has to teach solely by lecture and conversation. This shift is taking a lot of hard work, but it sounds like he has found his way out of the corner.

Two years ago I became the music director of a small Christian school. We closed the doors at the end of the day on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. We had three days to put something together and I have just finished my first week. In that week, roughly keeping pace with the extraordinary rate of announcements of further changes to life in Vermont (the latest of which is that schools are closed for the rest of the year) I have come to realize my program needs to make a profound shift. Since all my families are forced into homeschooling now, they don’t need the extra burden of keeping up with a music lesson weekly. Some of them have to work and can barely get through Reading, Writing, Arithmetic. I am not assigning anything, at least not to the Elementary School children.

What I am doing instead is offering (optional) live classes that will be sing-alongs of cheerful, fun, uplifting songs. I also plan to have have a family sing-along one evening a week. Beyond that, I will be pulling together a virtual choir performance with at least my choir and possibly opening it up as far as I can reach. I’ll launch that this week.

So, that is the cast of this blog’s drama. Our two other children got married within the last six months–my youngest daughter on March 1, just before the madness began. Such amazing timing! Hence, she is able to finish up her senior year of Art school in her college town, where her husband has just entered the city police force. They would not be able to see each other until this was all over if they had not tied the knot.

That’s it for the first installment of the News from Heart’s Content.

I would love to hear your story in the comments. And if you want to read the comments, I believe you have to click to get to that page. Perhaps it is time to upgrade my Theme from the one I picked up in 2010, to one that actually displays comments!

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Dance at Holleran Hall

When I wrote my last post I was still giddy with what happened at the wedding reception: I ‘called’ country dances without anything but a dancer’s experience and saw a listless party come to life. On the drive home, the family and I  kicked around an idea of hosting a dance party here at Christmas.  And we did!

We emptied the parlor, a room 16′ x 32′. When we built this addition, my husband and I sat looking over the freshly varnished floor and thought we should host a dance on it sometime. 13 years later we made it happen!

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See the open French doors on the left? That opens to our dining room, which we also cleared for overflow. After our first couple of circle dances involving every guest, we created a long line with about eight couples in the parlor, and a smaller line in the dining room. Here is a view from the smaller ring (looks like this was a circle dance):

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Another one:

And in the large hall:

The dance is “Haste to the Wedding”. If you know the show Irish RM, you will recognize the tune. It comes from the New England Dancing Masters album Chimes of Dunkirk.

Look at all those young people! There were about 32 dancers. We all enjoyed the evening very much. Some stayed after, and way past my bedtime, to play guitar and sing together. Such a rich time!

Because we live in such rural towns and since most were homeschooled, social gatherings have been scanty. Most of the guests had no previous experience, so I taught dance figures through the evening, easy to challenging. Dancers also heard tips that make great dancers, such as “aim to glide when dancing in a figure with others”. Bounce and stomp all you live when you move alone, but make a right-hand star or a swing work smoothly.

The advice that seemed to come as a surprise was my “rules of engagement”. That is, the gents ask a lady to dance, and she accepts with a smile, with the understanding that this is a commitment to a brief contract that is over when the dance ends with a bow and courtesy. In other words, fellows learn to take responsibility to guide a gal, and ladies nurture the fragile ego of young men who feel like dodos among swans. Whether dork or dynamite dancer, you get your partner for one round and then share with the rest of the company. When we dance with people of different styles and ability we develop dancing chops.

So now I am looking for a local venue so I can offer family dances regularly –once a month–through the winter and spring. For now, I’ll continue to use the recordings of New England Dancing Masters but perhaps I can arrange for live music and a small door charge.

Looking forward to seeing these high school and college students shutting down their computers and getting out of the dance floor on a Friday night!

 

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Calling the shots

Tonight something amazing happened and I want to tell someone.

So, we attended the wedding of Owen and Jenn, friends of my adult children, and afterwards ate well at the potluck reception. After a long delay, the old-timey band began to play, but no one danced. The DJ made a good-hearted attempt to set the expectation, but no one joined him and it was…awkward. It was sad because I realized that two generations, the ones getting married but also their parents, did not have experience with country dancing at celebrations. And this Vermont wedding was just the right venue for a country dance!

My husband and I saw this disaster happening and we grabbed our grown kids. They were itching to kick up their heels. I knew I could call a few figures and make a dance happen.

And we did! At first, three couples; then a huge circle; and the dance after that, two lines with 10 couples each. I led them through forward-and-back, do-si-do, four hand stars, head-couple-sashay and back, peel off and form an arch–moves I could remember from my contra dancing days.

I loved it. It felt like flying a Cessna solo, like taking a sailboat out on the bay, like conducting an orchestra. It was improvisation, and it was engaging in play with people who were shy but wanted to have a good time. They knew they were inexperienced and felt the emptiness of not knowing how to celebrate together as a community. We danced and were all smiles.

Owen and Jenn pulled together their community of family and friends for their special day. When we danced together we held hands, smiled, sweated, walked in synchrony, and hooted in unison.

I might even say it was a case of hootin’ and Holleran.

 

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Pantoum for Early Spring

We dance from black and white into living color.
The brown garden is unveiled through receding snow.
Twig tips pointillate in copper, red, and gold.
Morning sun glows lemon through dewy leaves.

The brown garden is unveiled through receding snow.
Our mountainside froths in golden trees.
Morning sun glows lemon through dewy leaves.
Dandelions shower the emerald fields.

Our mountainside froths in golden trees.
A flash of Indigo Buntings startles the eye.
Dandelions shower the emerald fields.
A violet sky warns of a looming storm.

A flash of Indigo Buntings startles the eye.
Twig tips pointillate in copper, red, and gold.
A violet sky warns of a looming storm.
We dance from black and white into living color.

Ruth E. Holleran
May 2017
Inspired by Writing Gang poetry lesson

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Maybe It Is the Beer

This past weekend we celebrated our parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was an event remarkable for its unusual congeniality; we four sisters have had our differences and one sister would have nothing to do with me for over a decade over something stupid. We have all grown apart, traveling in our own circles, diverging widely from one another. But this party reminded us of our roots and we realized we have more in common than we differ.

As we drank our tea and coffee around the kitchen island the next morning, we named the gift each sister had, the distinctive quality that budded while we were growing. They named me ‘highly creative’.

And I thought to myself, “I used to be.”

I remember the moment that, when I was a happily employed single teacher in the Washington, D.C. area, I realized I was happiest when I was creating something every day. Whether it was writing a silly poem for my roommates, setting a Bible passage to music, or planning a road rally for my friends, I was always up to something. And when I wasn’t, I had plenty of cultural events to attend.

But when I settled in Vermont and started raising a family, that changed, as of course it does for any young couple. For twenty-seven years I have been raising young ‘uns and homeschooling. And these have been rich, full years. In my dynamic, interesting, lovely grown children I am reaping rewards for all my investment.

They have been my grand opus.

In these latter years of raising young adults, it seems my labor has become heavily administrative. College searches and the application process, grades and transcripts, scholarships, managing the finances while three are in college, decluttering a house that used to be a home school, teaching kids to drive… I have become a capable manager with little time or energy for art.

So, to refresh my soul from its doings, to recover a joy of being, I want to dig into poetry. I have been reading poems that astonish and delight me, and I find my creative juices stirred up when in proximity to poets whose mastery of word and image have the power to name what I only vaguely sense. I want to be like that. I used to be perceptive!

I would love to take a course, to work with a group of fellow students who let me read what they are writing and will tell me honestly how my attempts come across.

Have you ever seen the lesson about the full jar? Watch this 3-minute video. Is the jar full?

I don’t know yet if poetry is one of the important things for me, or something I should squeeze in the small spaces, but I am making space for it. An interesting collection of women wants to join me, and I am so tickled!

Maybe it’s about the beer on top. (You did watch the video, didn’t you?)

The plan is to meet via GoToMeeting once or twice a month and discuss the reading of a college textbook, Writing Poems, 6th edition, by Michelle Boisseau. Since it is an older edition, it can be found for $10-16 online. I recommend Abebooks.com.

 

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National Poetry Month

One year for National Poetry Month I joined a bunch of friends who posted a poem every day through April. It was fun sharing some favorites and reading new ones. But now that I am off Facebook, that time-suck, I haven’t seen this river of poetry flowing by.

This year my Challenge III students are working through Roar on the Other Side, a poetry appreciation and exercise book that exuberantly introduces poetry essentials. During April I am adding a little more to our poetry experience.

This week leads up to the celebration of the Resurrection. (Is anyone else troubled that this astounding event in world history is named after a pagan goddess of dawn?) So this week my students will hear It’s Friday. But Sunday’s Coming. It is a powerful sermon-poem. It is also an example of symploce, the figure of speech where both the beginning and the end are repeated.

Examples:

“No one should dare to even think about being the Commander in Chief of this country if he doesn’t believe with all his heart that our soldiers are liberators abroad and defenders of freedom at home. But don’t waste your breath telling that to the leaders of my Party today…They claimed Carter’s pacifism would lead to peace — they were wrong. They claimed Reagan’s defense buildup would lead to war — they were wrong.”  Zell Miller, 2004 Republican National Convention address

We remember today that all our gentle heroes of Vietnam have given us a lesson in something more: a lesson in living love — their love for their families lives; their love for their buddies on the battlefields and friends back home lives; their love of their country lives.”

— Ronald Reagan, Address at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial

By Challenge III students have become skilled at the arts of Grammar and Dialectic. Both are practiced and honed in seminar. They take their communication, both written and spoken, deeper into the art of Rhetoric. Their poetry, written essays, class discussion, and practiced speech all show growth in this skill. Former students have shared with us how impressed their college professors are with their capable communication. Classical education makes powerful communicators!

This week I will share Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Dark Night” and hope to inspire them to write one.

I had fun playing with this form for my Christmas letter, a collection of stories told through various poem forms. Here is the villanelle which I posted on my blog: https://lettersfromheartscontent.com/2017/01/02/making-a-tiny-splash-in-the-internet/

 

 

 

 

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9 Ideas for Challenge classes during National Poetry Month

My students in the Challenge III program of Classical Conversations study five Shakespeare plays, and work on poetry through the year. But because they are so busy, poetry gets put aside, and we sip a thin broth on poetry sharing days. Each week I read aloud a poem or I present a poem form with some models to imitate, giving them some guidance and inspiration for writing during the week.

April is National Poetry Month and I have found fantastic ideas to use with my students. I share a few ideas here:

  1. The first week in April, have the students choose a poem to memorize. Tell them to be prepared to recite the last week in April, close to Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 27 in 2017). It can be short. One of my favorites is Nothing Gold Can Stay by Robert Frost. Robert Louis Stevenson is another good source.
  2. Assemble sandwich bag collections of Magnetic Poetry magnets with a variety of parts of speech,  30-50 words. Hand one out to each student. Tell them to scatter the words around, play with them and see what happens.* Give them 10 minutes or so to create something using what they have, employing images to say more than the words themselves. Perhaps they can create a haiku. Share. Vote on one or two to post in the hallway on the magnetic board (see below). If you don’t have magnet words, type up a list of words and cut them out for your student packets. I have seen word lists on Pinterest.
  3. Have students create a Reversal Poem using this template. This is based on a Jonathan Reed poem, which was in turn inspired by a campaign commercial in Argentina. Very, very clever. Even my hard-bitten students got excited about this one. It took all of ten minutes in class.
  4. Put out in the hall a magnetic board with a lot of Magnetic Poetry word magnets. Encourage students to play during lunch break. Acknowledge truly outstanding art.
  5. You and your students post a poem on your Facebook page every day of April.
  6. Do you know how to add a “signature” to your email? Encourage your students to change it to a poem or a quotation about poetry for the month of April. Some ideas:
    • “Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.” Carl Sandburg
    • “Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” Dylan Thomas
    • “The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.” G.K. Chesterton (For the joker in your class)
  7. Collect student poems (or student-choice master poems) to be printed up in a booklet to hand out at the end of the year. Include author photos and space for classmates to sign. This could be your class yearbook.
  8. For Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 27 in 2017) have your Challenge students prepare, a couple of weeks ahead, a page of poems for children, so that in total you have enough for every Foundations child on campus. Duplicates are okay. Make sure you count the babies and toddlers too. Cut these out and fold them into envelopes, one per child. Get help from the Foundations Director so that you know what names to write. On the campus day nearest Poem in a Your Pocket Day, give them out. On my campus, we will tape these on a wall for the classes to find when they come downstairs after Opening (with the knowledge of the Director and tutors!) If I have time, I will make card stock pockets, with names, for the envelopes and tape those up instead. You might include the parents too, and the other Challenge classes, so every single person gets a poem.
  9. Also on this day, all Challenge III students will carry in their pockets the poems they have memorized this month. Children (and adults!) will be encouraged to go up to a Challenge student to ask for the poem to be recited.

It is important for students to understand that writing poetry is like playing baseball or painting with oils; it is an art that takes years to mature but gives pleasure early. Take the pressure off. Let them know this is about playing with words.

My hope is that every student will see the power of succinct and compressed language to color and flavor all their persuasive communication. Happy Poetry Month!

 

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It’s Back!

Those of my readers who love real olive oil will be glad to hear of the fantastic deal available at local grocery stores! I found last fall’s pressing of olive oil from California Olive Ranch is available at my local grocery store (Shaw’s). Haven’t seen it at Wal-Mart yet but I keep checking; it’ll come.

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Harvest date Oct-Nov 2016

Last year I wrote about discovering California Olive Ranch at Wal-Mart, valuable because of its (relatively) recent harvest date. I found it about nine months after harvest. While purists stick to olive oil harvested within three to six months of consumption,  I have found the fresh flavor and peppery aftertaste are still present, though faded, at closer to a year. Every time I go to Wal-Mart or a grocery store I check the California Olive Ranch bottles to see if the new harvest is out yet. It finally is, in March 2017.

The 2016 Rich & Robust, pictured above, has the flavor of fresh plants, a lot of pepper afterbite, and a slight bitterness. Sometimes I need a pungent olive oil, such as when I marinate chicken breast or make a salad with strong flavors.

The 2016 Everyday has less peppery afterburn than the Rich & Robust and a neutral flavor. It is a good one for oiling a pan. I have even used it in baking to replace corn oil, such as in my carrot cake recipe.

My Mild & Buttery is from the 2015 harvest but still has a tickle of pepper. It has the faded taste of real leaves. I like to cook my breakfast eggs in it. It is my favorite and I can’t wait to get a fresh bottle.

My family has switched to the Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) foodway. You probably already know this means replacing the missing carb calories with good fats, such as olive oil and coconut. I always keep some olive oil on hand for my salads; I never use canned salad dressing anymore.

My local olive oil store, InfuseMe, has top-notch olive oils all within three months of harvest but I can treat myself only a few times a year. It is also about an hour away. I am thankful to have a vein of good quality olive oil available to me when I shop monthly at my local grocery store.

Does your local store have it yet? Comment below when you are able to find the latest harvest on your store shelves.

 

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