On Your Seventh Birthday

A Sestina

Born on the thirteenth of March,
you entered our world so fast and pure.
No epidural: there simply wasn’t enough time,
but for you, it was worth each searing pain.
Through gritted teeth I cursed and yelled
and brought forth another baby girl. You—Beautiful You.

It had always been the three of us before you.
Like Goldilocks, you marched
into our home to chatter and sing and yell.
You are sensitive heart and pure,
unadulterated joy. You are morning snuggles and growing pains.
You were six. Now you’ll be seven. Time

hasn’t slowed. If anything, time
is accelerated by you.
Years before your big sister, you learned the pain
of pierced ears. Marching
toward the next stage in life with lipstick on and pure
abandon. “Don’t rush,” I want to yell.

“Don’t grow up so fast.” But this yellowed
sun is already staining the sky pink. The time
of make-believe, this childhood purity
will come to an end for you.
Not this year, not this March,
but one day you will realize the subtle pain

of a closed door. A pain
that smells of nostalgia and feels like a phantom limb. As we yell
“Happy Birthday” this March
thirteenth, you’ll blow out the candles marking time
and we’ll celebrate you.
Abree Meli—hold on, for now, you are still pure,

and your innocence purifies
the air I breathe. It diminishes the pain
of an aged reflection, for when I look at you
I remember what it was like to yell,
to dance, to fly, to be present in each moment. Time
is ephemeral, but every memory with you slackens that march.

Abree, you are all that is true and good and pure.
As you march through life, may you wink at your pains
and continue to yell your presence to the world. Make a wish now. It’s time.

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My Top 10 Reads of 2018

A couple of years ago, I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in a year. After recording the twenty-somewhat books of that year, my competitive nature showed itself and I decided I would read more the following year. I set a goal to read at least 25 books in 2018. I ended up reading 38. In addition to those titles I completed, I also abandoned a few. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have dared to not finish something I’d started, but I’ve come to that place in life where I no longer feel I’ve got something to prove. Life’s too short and there are far too many books out there to waste time on the ones that don’t thrill me.

This year, unlike last with My 18 Resolutions for 2018, I haven’t been able to decide what my goals for the new year will be yet. Sure, I want to get more fit and eat healthier, but that’s nothing new. I’d like to replace screen-time with face-time or even just me-time, but as for the big goals, this year I am going to have to wait to see what life unfolds. Whatever my intentions end up being, I know reading will be a part of it, so for those of you who also enjoy curling up with a good book, here (in no particular order) are the top 10 books from my year of reading.

  1. The Untethered Souby Michael A. Singer (Non-fiction/Self-Help)

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“You are capable of ceasing the absurdity of listening to the perpetual problems of your psyche. You can put an end to it. You can wake up in the morning, look forward to the day, and not worry about what will happen. Your daily life can be like a vacation. Work can be fun; family can be fun; you can just enjoy all of it.”

I’d first heard about this book when I listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations; I’d written about that experience in To Forgive, Divine, but at that time, I hadn’t read the book yet. Well, as the second book read last year, this one deserves a place on the list; it’s actually a great choice for starting a new year. This is the type of book you will want to read with a pen in hand. You’ll underline a phrase here and a quote there, and then eventually half of the page will be highlighted. You’ll write “WOW” in the margin or you’ll bracket off whole paragraphs that speak to you. There’s a reason it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller with more than one million copies sold.

  1. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA Fiction)

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

I’d had students who had read this book in the past and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t read it myself until I planned to include it as a book club choice for my students last year. The story centers around three teens who are unlikely friends in a small, southern town, but it’s more than just a book about friendship. The protagonist’s father is a religious man who is in prison, but the story behind his imprisonment is disturbing, to say the least.

At one point, I had to put the book down, then pick it up and reread, then put it down again. “Did that just happen?” I asked my husband who wasn’t reading the book and therefore had no idea what I was talking about. “I can’t believe that just happened.” Later, when my students were reading it, they’d come into my classroom at lunch or in the morning to ask me, “Did that really happen?” While it is a YA book, it certainly doesn’t read like one.

  1. Educated by Tara Westover (Memoir)

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“I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure; my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.” 

 Every now and again, I read a memoir that depicts a life that is so incredibly different from my own and from anyone else’s with whom I am acquainted that I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a work of fiction. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs was one, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was another, and Tara Westover’s Educated was a third. Westover beautifully tells the story of her childhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho with a father who did not believe in public education. She was seventeen when she first entered a traditional classroom yet ends up with a PhD from Cambridge University– although it came a a cost.

The quote above is a great example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a good reminder that not all students have the “luxury” of being engaged in school. This book has garnered a lot of praise and publicity this year, and it is definitely one that is worth the read.

  1. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (Sci-Fi)

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“It does no good to tell a beautiful woman how beautiful she is. If she already knows, it gives her power over the fool who tells her. If she does not, there is nothing that can be said to make her believe it.” 

Sci-Fi is not usually my genre of choice, but a girl who I went to high school with (who is now a librarian) posted about this book on social media and I thought, if a librarian is posting about a book, then it’s worth a shot. It was. This was one of those picked-it-up-and-read-it-in-a-day kind of books. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where any woman who attempts to bear a child dies, as does that child. The protagonist, the midwife, is a fiercely independent woman determined to help save humanity.

This is Book 1 in The Road to Nowhere series, but despite liking this one a lot, I haven’t checked out any of the others.

  1. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (Fiction)

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“We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.” 

If I had to pick ONE book that was my favorite read of the entire year, this would be it.

Girls Burn Brighter was not only beautifully written, but also told a story of friendship, love, and female empowerment unlike any other I’ve read. It was disturbing and heart-breaking, powerful and poignant. Every woman should add this book their list, then read it, then cry about it, then get together with friends and drink wine and talk about it together.

  1. There There by Tommy Orange (Fiction)

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“This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.” 

This book has harvested a lot of accolades this year. Told from the perspective of ten different characters whose stories come together in the end at the Big Oakland Powwow, Tommy Orange gives voice to the urban American Indian, a voice not heard nearly enough in modern literature. While I loved the Indian legends and lore peppered throughout this tale, it was quotes like the one above that made me stop and re-read entire passages and then just sit with it for a few minutes only to go back to the page and read it again.

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Literary Fiction)

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“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

Years ago, I read Silver Sparrow by this same author and I friggin’ loved it, so when I realized this was also by her, I knew it would be a great read. It’s a story about love and marriage and race and family and everything in between. Reading the letters sent between Roy and Celeste felt deeply intimate and immediately drew me into this story that satisfied me all the way to the very end.

  1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (Non-fiction/Education)

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“We treasure the occasional story about a child who climbs out of poverty, graduates from a prestigious university, and goes on to success. Since it’s possible for a handful, we cling to the view that nothing is broken in America. But it is. Education has become the modern American caste system. We fuzz up the issue in a sea of statistics about test-score-gaps, suggesting that social inequity is a classroom issue. We bemoan the achievement gap but dwell on the wrong ‘achievement’ and the wrong ‘gap.’ Achievement should be based on challenging real-world problems, not standardized tests that amount to little more than timed performance on crossword puzzles and Sudoku. The gap we need to face is how much more we spend to educate our rich children than our poor. We can test until the cows come home, and we won’t begin to bring meaningful equity to our youth. As an educator in the Midwest noted, ‘If a cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.’”

I already raved about this book on social media and wrote about it in Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, but I had to include it in my top ten list too. I found the book to be inspirational and thought-provoking for anyone who is involved in education or policy-reform. The quote above is my favorite from the book. I considered getting it as a tattoo, but it’s a tad long.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Fiction/Drama)

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“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

 I still think Firefly Lane is my favorite Kristin Hannah book, but it was the first of hers I’d ever read, and I have a habit of latching on to firsts (i.e. My Sister’s Keeper is still my favorite Jodi Picoult and Looking for Alaska is still my favorite John Green). For some reason, I refused to buy this book since it was still in hardcover, and I had to wait ages for it at the library, which may be why I didn’t love it as much as I should have.

My mom read it first, and once I finally got it she kept asking me what I thought. It really was a great read, but it was also over 400 pages, and I really hated the protagonist’s father, Ernt. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I got sick of his shit and kind of lost momentum as a result. Still, it deserves a place on the list. It may not have been worth waiting months for, but it’s worth the eighteen bucks to not be cheap and buy it.

  1. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo (Fiction/Romance)

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“What I wanted to tell you is that there are lots of ways to love people and I know that you’ll love someone else again. Even if it’s not the same, some of it might be better.” 

Last, but not least. One of my favorite people told me about this book and I had the title written on a notes page in my phone for a few months, but then, I saw a former student post about it on social media and it reminded me to check it out from the library. It was another can’t-put-it-down book that I texted every reader in my life when I was done to tell them about. This is a book you can lose a day in, and even though I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, this book won my heart (and gave me a bit of a book-hangover too.)

Well, that’s it… for now. I’ve got The One Thing by Gary Keller and Michelle Obama’s Becoming to start off 2019.

What are you reading this year?

Note: ReadingWhileEating is not affiliated with Amazon.com. If you click on a link to purchase a book, I do not get anything, but you get a book, and books are awesome.

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A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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Mystery Blogger Award

As a relatively new blogger, most of the comments about my posts come from Facebook, which means that the majority of people commenting are those I know personally. I appreciate all the feedback I receive on my writing, but when people I don’t know reach out to me, it’s different. A stranger took the time to comment on what I put out in the blogosphere; they felt compelled to respond. It’s like when your mom tells you that she likes your new hairstyle, it’s cool and all, but when some random person stops you in Target to say, “Great haircut!” then you really start to believe that, Dang, my hair looks fly.

This is why, when I saw a new comment on OMG! It’s My Blogiversary!, I got a little tingle. But then, when I read that Sam from The Caffeine Gal had nominated me for the Mystery Blogger Award, by Okoto Enigma, I was even more intrigued and excited. What was this so-called Mystery Blogger Award? (My first thought: Blogger spam?)

Turns out, The Mystery Blogger Award is a nice way for bloggers to recognize and share other blogs, which sounds good to me. Who doesn’t like spreading the love?

There are some rules I’m obliged to post:

Mystery Blogger Award Rules

  • Put the award logo/image on your blog
  • List the rules
  • Thank whoever nominated you and post a link to their blog
  • Mention the creator of the blog and provide a link to their blog also
  • Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
  • You have to nominate 10-20 people
  • Notify your nominees by commenting on their blog
  • Ask your nominees 5 questions of your choice; with one strange or funny question
  • Share a link to your best post(s)

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Let’s start answering those questions that Sam asked.

What is your favorite post so far? Why?

I think my favorite post was Co-Parenting for the Married Couple. It was certainly the most popular post in terms of it’s views, but that’s not why it’s my favorite. I worked on it for months. I kept revising, and as it was about my marriage, it was deeply personal.

My husband reads all my posts before I publish them and prior to posting Co-Parenting for the Married Couple, we had been bickering more than usual and generally getting on each other’s nerves– as will happen when you live with someone for like, 13 years. I know that he appreciated reading that post; it said more than I would have in that moment and it helped us to realize the big picture again instead of focusing on those dirty socks that are always on the floor.

If you had a pseudonym, what would it be?

It’s not really a pseudonym, but I would want to be published under my maiden name, even though it is French and hard for people to pronounce. The writing me existed before the married me did. Plus, my dad and his brother only had daughters, so I’d like to think that being published under my maiden name would be like him having had a son.

What keeps you motivated in keeping your blog up and going?

I love writing. I love that I have created this space where my writing is housed and that I am writing with more frequency than ever before. Other people are reading my work and being inspired, which thrills me. I’m self-driven so for the most part, I don’t need any other motivation, but I am thankful for the support of my family and friends…that always helps me to keep going too.

Do your friends and family know about your blog?

Of course! My daughters and husband make regular appearances in my posts, so they’d better. Without my children, I wouldn’t have ReadingWhileEating at all. Which begs the question: When they’re teenagers, are they still going to allow me to write about them?

If you could insert one of your favorite characters from literature into a movie/tv series, who would it be and where would you put him/her? 

Sam probably didn’t know that she was asking this question of an English teacher. I had to think about my favorite shows and all-time favorite books to get a pairing that might work. What I came up with was to take Pilate Dead from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and put her in the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.

In addition to answering Sam’s questions, I’m supposed to tell you 3 things about myself, so here goes…

ONE:

When I had my first child, I had recurring nightmares about her falling off a Ferris Wheel. Sometimes I would be sitting alongside her, forced to watch from the top as she fell out of my arms. Sometimes I would be standing at the bottom, desperately hoping that I could catch her. She was an infant at the time, a newborn. Why was she even on a Ferris Wheel? It made no sense, yet that didn’t stop it from feeling very real.

Like most dreams of falling, before any impact I was jolted awake, my pulse racing and short of breath. Perhaps they were nothing more than the result of sleep deprivation and the worry that comes with being a new mom; she was so fragile, her survival dependent upon me.

TWO:

Since having children, I no longer can jump on trampolines: I pee myself. My children like to announce this Fun Fact in very public settings or whenever there’s company over for dinner.

When I was young, single, and waitressing on Long Island, occasionally the restaurant staff would go out to the club after our shift ended. One of my favorite co-workers was older than me, already married with a few kids of her own. I remember being on the dance floor when House of Pain’s Jump Around came on. When she jumped up, jumped up and got down, she confided in me that she had pissed herself. Even though she was wearing a skirt and didn’t seem to mind, I was mortified for her. Why? I asked her. “Kids!” She yelled over the DJ while continuing to bounce up and down, albeit with less gusto than before. Every time my children beg me to jump on the trampoline, I think of her.

THREE:

I consider myself a feminist. I am all about girl-power. I fully support Sydney Ireland becoming a Boy Scout and I can’t wait for the day when we have a female president.

Growing up, I always rode a boys’ bike- the frame with the horizontal cross-bar rather than the one that slopes downward so that a woman can wear a skirt and still ride comfortablyEarly in our marriage, my husband bought me a new bike for my birthday: a girls’ bike. Even though it was purple, just like my previous bike, I was disappointed in it, and, at first, he didn’t really understand why. My singing of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” didn’t really help matters.

As a feminist, I was destined to have daughters. Just as my mother raised me to be a strong, independent woman, I plan on doing the same for my girls. The other day my oldest started saying, “Just because we’re girls, doesn’t mean we can’t play football,” and “just because we’re girls, doesn’t mean we can’t act like boys.” Damn straight, Sister. Damn straight.

I look forward to the day I get to help her pick out her first 10-speed.

I am nominating the following bloggers, in no particular order, for the Mystery Blogger Award: 

I’d like my nominees to answer these questions:

  1. What is the most challenging part of blogging for you?
  2. What are you most proud of?
  3. What is the last, best thing (book, blog, article, poem) you read?
  4. What does your ideal day look like?
  5. If you could take a ride in the DeLorean, where would you visit and why?

And now, for my favorite posts:

Thank you, Sam, for nominating me for the Mystery Blogger Award. This was unexpected, resulting in a post that otherwise would have gone unwritten.