Thursday, May 28, 2020

And [You] Will Fix [Me]

And [You] Will Fix [Me]

"Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand." ~Mark Twain, American author and humorist 

I did that thing during this quarantine. The thing where you go into your car and scream and cry. You too? Don't worry. I'm okay. (So are you.) I'm dealing with a lot of side effects from the chemotherapy. Sometimes I start thinking, "Is this forever? Will this pain/irritation last the rest of my life?" And the answer is...maybe. I start panicking and lose sight of my blessings for a while. On one of my scream-in-the-car drives, I suddenly had the urge to listen to an old album I used to listen to in the early 2000s: Rush of Blood to the Head by Coldplay.  At a stop light, I found the album on YouTube Music and drove until I had listened to every track. Music, as you know, brings so many memories. For me, this album brought back some miserable memories. But...I stopped screaming and crying because I realized something very clarifying: I'm here in 2020 looking back on a very difficult time in my life, which means I got through it. That too did pass. 

I graduated high school in 1999. I left for Rowan University late that August and I have never felt more lonely. I was lucky enough to have been randomly roomed (depending on whether you believe in randomness...I don't) with Colleen Petersen. This post, however, is not about Colleen; she will get her own post. This post is about Colleen's best friend who also left her hometown of Bergenfield in late August 1999 to start school at Rowan University, my friend, Cheryl Capobianco now Cheryl Bormann. Colleen and Cheryl grew up together in North Jersey, but had the good sense to intentionally not room together when they came to Rowan. That way they would automatically meet two people. Colleen met me, her roommate, and I then met Cheryl. 

I always attempt to motivate my high school students by telling them that college is one of the best times in life. And it is...in hindsight. College for me was time to act out all of the teenaged angst that I spent the previous 6 years building up. As Colleen and Cheryl would put it back in 1999: I was a hot mess. I was socially awkward and emotionally frayed. There is not a day that goes by, even now in 2020, when I don't thank God for these 2 women, who loved me through it all. 

Once Cheryl and I spent a whole day cracking up. I have no memory of what made us laugh so hard, but it really doesn't matter. As an English teacher I conduct a popular assignment called, "Writing Territories" in which students listen to me talk about topics important to me. While I babble on about my life, I encourage them to write down topics that pop into their heads. They draw from those "territories" for the rest of the year. I always mention some of my favorite days. I have been teaching for almost 16 years, so I've recalled that day of side-splitting laughter at least 16 times. That laughter was so important. 

I don't see Cheryl in person much now because she is in North Jersey being a super mom to her two awesome kids, while I'm down here in South Jersey with my amazing kids. But again, the distance doesn't really matter. Cheryl's influence in my life is obvious. We loved thunderstorms, specifically the first thunderstorm that indicates the start of summer weather. I still think of Cheryl when those ominous clouds roll in each year. We loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer so whenever I feel like I'm kicking ass, I think of Cheryl. We once ran through the streets of Philly in a snowstorm shouting, "Merry Christmas ya old Building and Loans!" so whenever I watch my favorite movie, It's a Wonderful Life, I think of Cheryl. We learned a whole dance routine in a hotel room above the casinos in Atlantic City, so whenever I dance, I think of Cheryl. We went to a Coldplay concert together and somehow got lost on the way home. It took us 3 hours. We laughed the whole ride. 

Cheryl is far from carefree and yet she is somehow never overly dramatic. She forgives easily and lets things go, and what's left is her practical, honest, fun-loving self. For over 20 years now, I have considered her one of my closest friends and looking back, I remember the laughter, which considering my 20s is really saying something. And that is completely thanks to Cheryl. 

Cheryl sent me tea, a mug, and card reminding me of several other hilarious times in our friendship. But...underneath the laughter and in between the lines in her card, are the moments when Cheryl is holding my hand, crying and screaming in the car with me. Our lives, mine and Cheryl's, have had some heartbreaking moments. We have seen each other through family issues, breakups, arguments, and panic attacks. And now she's seeing me through cancer. I know I will remember the laughter and that will be because of Cheryl. They say it's the best medicine, by the way.  

I forgot the date last week on May 20th. I didn't forget her birthday, but I'm quarancrazy and just didn't realize it was still May or that I was still on planet Earth. Sorry, Cheryl! And sorry about that whole Sopranos thing. 

Love and laughs. Mwa!


Sunday, May 24, 2020

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman?

Do You Wanna Build a Snowman? 

"I know my sister like I know my own mind, you will never find anyone as trusting or as kind..." ~Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton

Our hero today is a petite, but strong female with brown hair that falls right below her shoulders. Her brown eyes can pierce you with a stare that makes you instantly realize your mistakes, but can also reveal her witty sense of humor if you accidentally catch her off-guard with a clever pun. She is known as a dynamic orator by those whom she works with; however, on her journey many have assumed she was shy and quiet. They have underestimated her. 

Harry Potter never wanted to be a hero. Book after book, Harry simply seeks friendship and family, but he is thrust into the position of having to save the world from the evil Voldemort. Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games, just wanted to care for what remained of her family in District 12, but she was compelled to do the right thing and ends up overthrowing not one, but two corrupt leaders. Scout in, To Kill a Mockingbird, levels a group of angry rioters by simply being her heroically kind self to Mr. Cunningham. 

Our hero today, Stacy Woyciechowski, didn't choose to be my big sister. 

Needless to say, this school year has been rough, but early in December, on a rainy and cold day, I took my daughter to her first movie: Frozen II. I was thrilled that Stacy was able to work out her extraordinarily busy schedule to bring her two children, Ryan and Leah, with me and Zoe as we watched the animated sequel to Frozen I, a long-time family favorite. At the beginning of the film, I turned to Stacy and said, "This is about us," and understanding my meaning, she replied, "Yeah, I know." I didn't know the whole plot of the movie when I said that, and not every aspect applies, but Anna sings, "I follow you around, I always have..." and that sentiment alone can encompass a huge, meaningful part of my relationship with my sister. 

Much to her dismay, Stacy is my compass. I play a mental game and ask, "What would Stacy do?" with practically every decision I make. I don't always listen to that voice and I have made some terrible decisions in my life; however, I credit the majority of the good ones to my sister. Stacy is thoughtful and kind, hilarious and talented, but her most prominent quality is her sense of integrity. "Integrity" pops up on my freshman vocabulary list and I always explain it to my class like this: Integrity means doing the right thing even if no one is looking. 

At her wedding, I gave some version of the following speech: There's an old Harris family story in which, one Easter morning, Stacy, Lindsay, and I came downstairs in our Sunday best and my dad remarked, "There's the smart, beautiful three." We said, "Stacy is smart. Jessie is beautiful. And Lindsay is well...three." But truthfully, any smarts and beauty that Lindsay and I have come from Stacy's influence. 

Stacy, my hero, doesn't like to be my or anyone else's moral guide. She is fun-loving and can belt out a Broadway show tune better than most. She is quick-witted and punny. She watches several guilty-pleasure TV shows. She reads both popular fiction and research studies. She is a sports mom who also makes sure her two wonderful children relax and smell the roses. She is devoted to her kids' guinea pig, lizard, and gold fish. She supports and  parties with her husband. She is hands down the best gift giver; she took me to high tea for my 21st birthday, which sounds odd, but is one of the most memorable experiences I have. She doesn't think about her influence on me or Lindsay; we know she has always wanted to just be our buddy. But...she is our hero as she always does, "...the next right thing." 

Stacy has suffered some tragedies in her life, but since she is a natural-born leader, she has always been the shoulder for everyone to lean on. I know she sometimes just wants to cry and have someone else take the lead. Over the past few weeks, I have received several cards (and 2 mugs) that say: "You've Got This!" I want everyone, but especially Stacy to know, that it's true. I've got this. Emphasis on "I." Dear Stacy, you don't have to worry. You don't have to take charge. You don't have to research. You don't have to throw anyone a shower. You don't have to do anything but know that because I have followed you around my whole life, I know that I've got this. 

Happy Birthday, sis. I love you. 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Snapshots from a Front-Line Hero

Snapshots from a Front-Line Hero

"It's comedy and tragedy. It's St. Jimmy. And that's my name and don't wear it out." ~ Green Day 

If you've known me for a while, you likely know I used to have a cat whom I named Jimmy. Jimmy was a gift from my friend Jen Pavelik whose family had named the cat Lewis. I renamed him and will ever be tormented by Sue Nordone and Jen for this move; however, I had a few good reasons. The first reason I couldn't call the fat, gray cat Lewis, is because I had an ex-boyfriend named Louis. That wasn't going to work. The second reason I named the cat Jimmy is because I was really into a Green Day album titled American Idiot on which Green Day invents a sort of off-color saint and calls that character St. Jimmy.

The first night I had Jimmy at home, he hid behind the washing machine in my apartment and meowed all night. The second night and practically every night after, he slept in my bed. Jimmy and I were a match made in heaven. He comforted me when I cried (which if you know me you know is a full-time job). He was friendly to everyone. I often used to say he was a dog trapped in a cat's body. He played fetch. He was the ultimate snuggler. Jimmy had stomach cancer and passed away in 2018. He was a beloved part of my life for almost 13 years.

When I got married, Michael invited a group of medics whom he'd know from his years in EMS. We seated the medics at a table near the bar. They lived it up. The table still posts inside jokes they made during our reception. Among those at this party table was a man named Jimmy Parker. Michael has known Jimmy since approximately 2004 when they worked together as medics for Virtua. I became friends with Jimmy when Michael and I started dating in 2010. Instant friends.

Jimmy Parker was the easiest friend I've ever made. When I was home alone as Michael would be working 24 hour shifts, Jimmy would often stop by to drop off a bottle of local wine. He'd join me and Michael for homemade pasta and "gravy." He'd keep Michael connected to the world of medics with stories that were surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) similar to my tales of teaching. Jimmy is hilarious and full of heart. I guess it's the name.

When I was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, Jimmy started texting me 2 photographs a night. Every. single. night. Without fail, Jimmy texts two beautiful photos with a short description of what that photo means to him as he battles his own woes. Some of the photos are meant to make me laugh or smile. All of the photos are inspirational and beautiful. Many bring me to tears. These are photos that Jimmy himself has taken. He either has them stored on his phone or he takes them the day he sends them. They are now a beloved part of my life. I was officially diagnosed on April 1st, so I have received almost two months worth of photos. I cannot include all of them here; however, I will show a few that mean the most to me.

I would be remiss to not mention that Jimmy is reporting to work every day as a medic at UMDNJ during the global pandemic. I'm sure he is exhausted, but still finds a second every day to think of me.

Thank you, Jimmy, and happy EMS appreciation week.



Infusions of Love

Infusions of Love

"Nevertheless she persisted." ~in reference to Elizabeth Warren; speaker...unimportant. 

The pandemic sucks. Cancer sucks. Once, when I was a sophomore in high school, my math teacher kept me after class to reprimand me about using the word, "sucks." I was already an English major in the making, so I defended the language and explained how the word "sucks" was the appropriate word for whatever situation I was referring to. It didn't work. I still got in trouble, but I was happy to have worked out my feelings about the word.

I'm on a new medication meant to help me deal with the neuropathy. It does, in fact, help me with the paralyzing tingling in my hands and feet, but it sucks up my energy.

People have been sending me things. I am still receiving cards from friends and family. Dana Schliep, who has started a business during the quarantine, decorated my porch with balloons. I have received a lot of tea--which I love and drink constantly. These things all energize me.

I get an infusion of chemotherapy every three weeks. I take chemotherapy pills for 14 days after the infusion. I like to think of the word "infusion" as the opposite of "sucks." The gifts sent to me have been infusing me with energy. The gestures go straight to my veins and stop the pandemic and the cancer from sucking so much.

I think we would agree that the pandemic sucks for everyone. But it sucks for some more than others. My friend Tara Wood, for instance, has had to postpone her wedding. This is especially heartbreaking because Tara is someone who embodies all the amazing things a wedding represents. She is one of the most creative, inventive, and enthusiastic people I know. She unifies the English Department, by working with all three schools as our Literacy Coach. She took her time finding a partner worthy of her and now that she has found someone strong enough to stand next to her, she has to bide her time until the quarantine is over. But...to my knowledge, she's not moping. She posts pictures of her porch, where she's soaking up the spring air. She spends her time trying to reinvent ELA lessons and rubrics to make teachers' jobs easier and effective. Even though what I'm sure was to be a beautiful wedding was postponed, Tara sends me flowers. Infusing me with energy.

Emily Severance, came into my life as a young, lively new teacher at Timber Creek several years ago. She reminded me of my little sister and since, has lived up to that first impression in every way. At some point, I will find the words to post about my sister, Lindsay, but I'll say now that I need her. I don't just love her, I NEED her. So when Emily Severance moved her teaching supplies into a classroom down the hall from mine, I felt relieved when I hadn't even realized something was missing. Every TC teacher will agree that Emily infuses our building with energy. She dances in the halls in the morning and has zero qualms about belting out her favorite songs in a car, in a classroom, in the faculty bathroom. It is tragic, of all people, that Emily Severance didn't get a baby shower. She's expecting a baby boy in June and had to cancel her shower due to COVID. But...Emily is not moping. She is posting her nursery progress on Snapchat. She is watching Harry Potter and Twilight as she folds new baby clothes. And she is sending me flowers.

Thank you Tara and Emily for making this all suck less, infusing my world with love.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

It's a Small World After All

It's a Small World After All


"There are no random acts...We are all connected...You can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind..."~Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

I've only been to Disney World twice. I went once, on a high school trip, as a sophomore. I went again as a chaperone for the Timber Creek class of 2009. I have never been with my family. Disney World just wasn't my family's style. We vacationed by Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire. We rented a modest cabin and we lounged on the docks and splashed in the lake every day for a week in the summer. I loved it and never felt as if I was missing out. As a sophomore in high school, I followed my Disney-loving friends around the theme park from exhibits, to rides, to shows, but frankly, I missed Mt. Washington. I was never a Disney World-kind-of-girl.

But...

I loved Disney animated films. I loved the stories and music. As an adult, I love Moana and Frozen I and II. (As a side-note, I'm really not sure why Frozen II was only nominated for best song and not for the script and epic acting. I'm a huge Kristen Bell fan.)

On both of my Disney trips, I visited the Small World "ride." I was not into it. However, the themes, which drive my current love of Disney, captivated me. I remember walking around in the Florida humidity and thinking about the concept of a small world. The planet is big. But small in the universe. Our individual problems are big. But small compared to the problems of the world. But one thing I know, all of our individual problems in this big world come down to one small thing: fear. I have learned the true opposite of love is not hate, but fear. So the only thing to overcome fear is to conquer it with love. Love reminds us that our problems are not insurmountable; they are, in fact, small.

On quarantine, my family of 4 has consumed 4 seasons of Disney Jr.'s Sofia the First. We can quote episodes and Michael and I find ourselves singing the theme song as we wash dishes AFTER the girls are in bed. For those of you who don't know, Sofia was a girl in a village outside of the fictional kingdom, Enchancia. Her widowed mother marries the king, and Sofia becomes a princess over night. She is also given a magical amulet. The amulet has several powers, one of which is connecting Sofia to ALL of the other Disney princesses. There are episodes where Sofia receives help from Jasmine, Tiana, Ariel, Belle, Cinderella...etc.

In the final episode (spoiler alert), Sofia faces an evil queen named, Vor. As Vor tries to defeat Sofia by playing into Sofia's biggest fear, being alone, Sofia sees a vision of all of Disney princesses. This support shows Sofia that she is never really alone. It is a small world in which all of the women of Disney are close. Sofia's heart emits a white light which defeats Vor's efforts in scaring Sofia to death.

The following people, though I may rarely see them, have been sending me cards, texts, and posted comments. They show me that we are all connected and this pesky little problem of cancer is nothing to fear.

Thank you for the cards (and extra caring emails/texts/messages): Stephanie Decosta, Bonnie Brady, Mr. and Mrs. Sommers,  Mr. and Mrs. Preston, John Perkis, Sherry Gucciardi, Val Hicks, Jamie Graf, Gionni Johnson, and Paola Alaqua.

Cathy Schliep and Mary Dressel, featured in other blog posts, continue to send me cards, texts, and posts.

I have received flowers and cards from some other close friends and family. If not mentioned here, they will definitely be mentioned soon!

"No matter how your heart is grieving, if you keep on believing, the dreams that you wish will come true..." ~Cinderella

P.S. I've kind of come over to the Disney World team. I can't wait to see my girls' faces when they go to the actual park. I'm a Disney World-kind-of-parent.


Saturday, May 9, 2020

Because You Are My Mom

"One's art goes as far and as deep as one's love goes."~Andrew Wyeth, American artist 

Have you ever tried to put how you feel about your mother into words? Did it all sound cliche, especially on Mother's Day? Well, I have. And it does. She's all the things the great mothers who inspire Hallmark cards are, with one major exception: she's anything and everything, but cliche. She's  the number one fan of my poetry, and frankly, the only possible way to express my feelings on this Mother's Day is in verse, so here goes. This poem is dedicated to the strongest person I know. If you want to know more about her, please visit her blog

Because You Are My Mom

Your mother is a ghost
who splayed my childhood,
Her gossamer touch tearing seams.
She clenched her jaw during dinner
and threw napkins for fun.
Your father was a nearly silent lantern
who liked spicy mustard
with his checkers and toast.
He smiled beneath his bifocals
with his hands behind his back.

You are the sum total with a brush,
both to detangle my hair
and to paint, of course.
You have answered my questions since birth,
but pretend to still have secrets.
Don't you remember your journal
was written on my small ears next to the bay?
My favorite house was hideous
and you steered me toward class.
You wanted a motorcycle for a hot minute
and I've been rolling my eyes
and appealing to your lady-like lectures ever since.

If she called me in 35 years
and told me she has cancer,
My cells would divide
for ghosts to light lanterns that float back home.
I would dive into the shallow waters
beneath the docks by the Guild.

But you mended my sweater
and masked your tears toward a drugstore.
As strong as the paint that survived
beneath the paint you first applied
to the ripped paper
beneath the final spot with your signature.
The paint that survives.

Because you are my mom...I'll survive.



Happy Mother's Day to all of strong mothers out there, especially my mom. I love you, Monnie.




Friday, May 8, 2020

The Boss

The Boss


"Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin." Luke 12:27

Eckart Tolle, a spiritual teacher whom I follow, quotes the above verse from the Bible. Tolle uses this verse to remind us that nature continues to do its thing even if we don't meet deadlines or if we have an argument with a friend. The flowers bloom in the spring even if we are quarantined. The world keeps spinning. I use this verse as a mantra when my grades are due. Four times a year, I have a complete meltdown. I have to grade literally thousands of papers and record the grades by a certain date and time and it's always, as reliable as the rotations of the planet, a frenzy of anxiety and self-doubt. I hate this aspect of my job. There is nothing natural about judging high school kids' efforts to become better writers or readers. I second guess the fairness of every mark I make on every paper. Is this comment going to help this student? Is this grade fair given my instruction? Michael, my husband, actually marks the end of the marking periods on his calendar so that he knows when I will turn into a sobbing ball of stress.

It's the end of Teacher Appreciation Week and the person I will thank today is no longer a teacher in the traditional sense, but she has taught me (or at least has attempted to teach me) how to not "toil or spin" as I tackle the more difficult aspects of my job. As you may know or have read, my husband had brain surgery two weeks after my second daughter, Emerson, was born. We found out about his tumor on 3/23 and Emmy was born on 3/27. Grades were due the first week of April. I tried to continue grading when Emmy was a week old, but it was becoming clear that Michael was going to need surgery. Oh, and Zoe turned 2 on April 2nd. One night, as my mom held my newborn and Michael was admitted to Cooper Hospital, I texted my boss, Marcie Geyer.

I basically told her, I give up. I will never forget the speed at which she texted back that everything would be handled. Her next text was full of concern for my family's well-being. We were texting so I couldn't see her face, but I can imagine that she was the perfect combination of calm and concerned that she always is.

And here we are again. The pandemic started. The school closed on 3/16. Remote learning started on 3/17. I was diagnosed with cancer on 3/23. I called Marcie and she did not toil nor spin. If there was any stress or chaos as Marcie finished my grading of over 100 argument essays, she made sure to keep me from worrying. She called or texted only to check on my health, both mental and physical. I thought it appropriate that I received a card from her for Teacher Appreciation Week which contained a packet of wild flower seeds. Wild flowers are not one thing and yet they grow regardless of the many human issues buzzing around them. Marcie is a mom, a wife, a confidant, a friend, and...a boss, in the best sense of the word. I often say of Marcie (whom I call Ms. Geyer out of nothing more than respect for a job superior because I swear she never ages) that she never mails it in. Even if we have an impromptu department meeting, Marcie comes prepared with a slideshow, snacks, and an empathetic ear. When I suddenly took a leave of absence from school on April 1st, she was the first person I called. I called her before my family. And I'm glad. She steadied me before I had to break the news to my mom and sisters. She is as reliable as the change of seasons and I am proud to work for her.

Thank you for being the calm in the storm, Ms. Geyer. (I'm sure the rest of the department will piggyback on my sentiments.)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Dear Girl, You are My Person

Dear Girl, You are My Person


"She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order." ~Toni Morrison, American author

All of my posts thus far have thanked people from Timber Creek or  who are associated in someway with my job. That makes sense because my colleagues are my family. It may seem odd that my first non-TC post will fall in the middle of Teacher Appreciation Week, but seeing as how my best friend's birthday is today, I think it only appropriate that my thank you goes to her on this beautiful, spring morning.

A few years ago, my daughter Zoe's school was having a book fair and I picked up a great book titled Dear Girl, written by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Paris Rosenthal and illustrated by Holly Hatam. In this whimsical book the speaker urges her young readers to accept themselves for who they are and recognize all the wonders in life. It's right up my Transcendental alley and I'm so gratified when Zoe begs me to read this particular book for our nightly story time. As I flip the pages, I can't help but think of myself as a girl and remember who helped me accept myself and who painted my childhood, preteen angst, and utterly embarrassing high school years with all the wonder the world has to offer.

Before Timber Creek, there was Missy.

Melissa Leigh Swansen who is now Melissa Campanalonga and who will always be Missy to me, is my best friend. I think we met in 3rd grade, but I don't think either of us remembers the actual day because I believe we really met in a previous life and our souls have just been running into each other across the ages forever. Since we were in elementary school we have been making each other giggle until our sides hurt, talking too fast and too much at the same time, and crying about boys or some other life drama. The speaker of Dear Girl gives the following advice: "Dear Girl, Create traditions, fun crazy handshakes, and silly inside jokes." I could write a book (and maybe I will one day) detailing all of our traditions, handshakes, and silly inside jokes, but for now, I'll stick to the grown-up stuff.

In recent years, Missy has let me try out all of my arm-chair psychological advice on her. They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and as a teacher, I can attest to the truth of that adage. Nothing helped me learn the finer rhythms of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet better than teaching it multiple times a day for 15 years. And nothing helps me navigate my own life better than using Missy as a sounding-board for all of my theories on how to be the best humans we can be. She calls me with various issues and we talk (we have a habit, or maybe I should say talent, of talking at the same time but being able to repeat what the other person is saying verbatim) about the problem and the possible underlying problems. She asks for advice and I go on for 20 minutes with what I hope is some practical philosophy. By the time we hang up the phone, I have always come to some new conclusion and from that I create a new resolution. I hope it's a symbiotic relationship, but I know it is a relationship I couldn't live without.

Missy always prays, "Dear God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." After I was diagnosed, this favorite prayer of Missy's was the first thing that popped in my head. I could hear her voice and see her face, though she lives in Forked River, about 2 hours north of here. She sent me a travel mug that reads, "Side by Side or Miles Apart, Friends are Always Close at Heart." She is not only close at heart, but she lives in my heart  and mind every day.

The last pages of Dear Girl read, "Dear Girl, Whenever you need an encouraging boost, remember you can turn to any page in this book. Most of all, dear girl who I love, know that you can always always always...turn to me." I will always turn to her and I hope she will always turn to me. She is my person. Seriously.

Happy Birthday Bestie, and thank you for everything. Now stop trying to make out with me and have a great day.


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Foodies

The Foodies

"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." ~Virginia Woolf, English writer

Everyone asks me how I found out I had colorectal cancer. I think back on what lead up to me making the first few doctors' appointments, and I realize the one symptom that compelled me to dial the phone: appetite. "Loss of appetite" is one of the many symptoms listed when one Googles colorectal cancer. Here's the thing--I love food! I love to eat. My favorite memories of falling in love with Michael are of us eating at fancy restaurants. We love Rats in Hammilton, Vetri in Philly, Bibou in Philly, and of course hometown burger joints like the Pour House in Westmont (where we met). There are a hundred other restaurants I could name, not to mention Michael's cooking at our house. I will eat anything, except pineapple on pizza (okay, okay, Joe). So when Michael made a zucchini pasta with turkey sausage that looked and smelled incredible, but I couldn't bring the fork to my mouth, I made a doctor's appointment the next day.

When Michael and I were only dreaming of having kids, we would plan to eat dinner as a family at a specific time and at our dining room table. But when Zoe was born, our schedules and figuring out how to be parents made us laugh at those innocent dreams. Ha! In 2018, when Emmy was born and Michael had surgery, Timber Creek provided us with delivered meals and Michael and I literally saw our dreams come true. The delivered meals made sitting down to dinner as a family in our dining room a reality. The four of us have had a family meal at our table every night (when Michael is not at the firehouse) since our first meal was delivered.

So in the midst of the pandemic and my diagnosis, I want to thank the people who have not only provided food, but have provided DELICIOUS food! These friends have made it possible for us keep our family dinners and have given Michael a break from having to be the James Beard quality chef that he is.

First, Abbe Elliott (who will be getting her own post soon) organized the staff at Timber Creek and orders food from Rent-A-Chef in Haddonfield every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We recommend the fajitas! The rice is especially delicious.

Immediately after hearing of my diagnosis, Abbe's mom, Paulie Bucholski, made a lasagna that lasted us for 5 days. I'm not exaggerating when I say it was the best lasagna we've ever had! My girls loved it for lunch and asked for it for dinner during that entire week. When I moved to South Jersey in the early 2000s, I moved away from my family and the Bucholskis really adopted me. I went the their family holidays and birthdays consistently for almost 5 years. Receiving that lasagna from Mrs. B was like my version of getting a home-cooked meal from mom.

One of the saddest parts of the quarantine is that we won't get to celebrate the retirements of some friends who were already planning their leaves before we closed. One of those friends is Lisa Draper, a Timber Creek counselor. I have known, laughed with, cried with, and confided in Lisa Draper since I started teaching at Timber Creek. Along with the counseling department, Lisa provided meals from Scarpinatos in Washington Township. She drove them over and left them on my doorstep. We are definitely adding Scarpinatos to the list of restaurants we'll be visiting after the quarantine is lifted. And I'm definitely adding Lisa to the list of people to give a huge hug when social distancing is done.

One of the things that has touched my heart the most is the well-wishes and love I've received from the staff at Triton and Highland. Years ago, I did a presentation at NCTE (National Conventing of Teachers of English) and one of my presentation partners was Beth Marks. We spent one weekend together and I see her at a few district-wide in-services a year, but nevertheless, Beth takes the cake with the meals she provided. She MADE a white bean chili, several loaves of crusty white bread, cookies with browned butter, and delicious tortilla chips. She packed all of this up and included a beautifully written, heartfelt card and drove it to my house. That kind of generosity and care is what will make the "new normal" a reality we all want to live. We were not only fed, but we were inspired by that meal.

So if you read this blog, you likely know Lauren Curiale (Birm) and if you don't know her, please find her on social media ASAP because her sidewalk chalk art is out-of-this-world. Lauren will likely get her own post soon, too, because I count her among my closest friends even though I haven't gotten to really see her in years. We both went and had kids at the same time and now have two toddlers a piece. Before kids, Lauren and her husband, Gabe were our favorite double-date buddies. The Curiales were always ready to visit any yummy Italian restaurant with these DiVietros and we'd talk it up, like good Italians, the whole time. So of course, after hearing about my diagnosis, Lauren and Gabe dropped off a gift card to Bruno's, our favorite pizza place. We're using it again tonight!

Speaking of good Italians, Pat Tarricone, who is more than a secretary at Timber Creek, has had her own share of family medical drama over the past few years. Her husband, Vince, is now doing well, but it was a little dicey there for a while. Even when Pat is dealing with her own woes, she is basically my personal counselor. I wander down to her office and sit at her desk to complain on a weekly basis. She listens and provides insight and laughs and that alone is worth a thank you note on this blog. But of course, she and Vince sent us a GrubHub gift card, too, because the generosity of every person at Timber Creek is abundant.

Bon Appetit, friends!

Saturday, May 2, 2020

A Style All Her Own

A Style All Her Own

"I was not born to be forced. I breathe after my own fashion."~Henry David Thoreau, American author and a fellow Transcendentalist 

We thought about making up tee shirts. Mine would say: I'm Jessica Harris, not Evans, and hers would say: I'm Jessica Evans, not Harris. We both had the same coordinating teacher when we student taught. We are both from Toms River. We both taught Writing Lab for several excruciating  years. We both taught in room A203. We are both, Jessica. While we never truly minded people mixing us up, I'd imagine that the confusion didn't sit well with Jessica Monroe (maiden name Evans) because she is the very definition of unique. There is no one else with Jess's style. She's a mixture of cupcakes, robots, tattoos, yarn, fine wine, and owls-with-glasses. She is an amazing teacher and coach; she is an amazing mother; she is my amazing friend. 

I have known Jessica Monroe since 2005. We shared a classroom and immediately connected. She always downplayed major life issues and at first I found that habit odd, but now I know it's because she always views all problems as surmountable and she proves that perspective right on a daily basis. I often say, whatever Jess Monroe touches turns to gold. She never does anything half way, and I think she is made of 90% caffeine and 10% water because otherwise I have no idea how she accomplishes half of what she does in a 24 hour period. 

I can provide you with her impressive resume, including her inspiring teaching methods and workshops, her thoughtful parenting, her talented crafting skills, her ridiculous baking, and the list goes on. But, since this is a thank you note and I'm not her agent, I will stick to why I'm specifically grateful to Jessica. 

The English Department (each member of which will be featured on this blog at some point) all pitched in money to try to lift my spirits. They left Jessica in charge (because she is the obvious woman for the job) and Jessica has sent me several gifts over the past few weeks. She sent me a box filled with a great-smelling candle, a mug, soap, and a bracelet. She sent me fancy tea. She is actually the person (I just found out) who ordered the "That's What She Said" cross-stitch kit. These gifts are from the entire English Department, but they clearly have Jess's style and I love them all. I can only ever hope to be so entirely myself in the way that Jess Monroe is. Each of these gifts inspires me to be true to my voice, be creative, and be as kind as she is. 

Thanks for the baked goods, Jess. Love you. 


Friday, May 1, 2020

The Educators of the Years

The Educators of the Years

"A man [or woman] who can make hard things easy is the educator." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, American author and my daughter's namesake

I was young when I started teaching at Timber Creek Regional High School in Erial, NJ. I was immature and impressionable. Part of me cringes when I think of how I acted in those early years, but most of me laughs because the blunders I made and the friends who helped me through them, made me the person I am today.

As teachers, we have to administer student surveys at least once a year. The most gratifying responses I ever received were when students would say that it was clear that I loved what I taught, or that I obviously cared for my students. I always thought those 2 qualities-- loving what you teach and loving those you teach-- superseded any other qualifications a teacher could embody.

We crown a new Educator of the Year every spring at Timber Creek. I am proud to be friends with most of the winners from the past 16 years. I've participated in their ceremonies and listened in awe to their acceptance speeches. But mostly, I sit in the audience thinking about what each of these EOYs means to me. That might seem self-involved, but since my teaching experiences shape me daily, the person selected as EOY is no small part of how I view the profession and thereby how I view my own daily goals. So, after thinking about this next group of people, I've added a qualification: 1) loves what they teach, 2) loves who they teach, and 3) is ridiculously generous and thoughtful. I got the first two qualifications down and I'm inspired by these friends of mine to strive for the 3rd. Here are the people making the hard things easy:

Jen Pavelik and Lauren Griffin teamed up to send me gifts over the past week. The gifts are not just little trinkets. They were bookmarks, cat socks, and a *cross-stitch kit that reads, "That's What She Said." These ladies clearly know me. Both of them have seen me through some tough times and made those times a little more bearable.

Suzanne Nordone somehow finds the strength to help everyone around her even through her own health issues and personal struggles. She helped Abbe raise money to send my family meals. She also sends me loving and much-appreciated texts, often.

Jack Campbell, my co-teacher, has had to pick up and teach our class by himself...again. If you don't know, the past few years have been a little crazy for me. In 2016 I went on maternity leave for Zoe; in 2017 I had liver failure and facial palsy from eating bad sushi; in 2018 I went on maternity leave for Emmy and Michael had brain surgery. And now...I was diagnosed with cancer during the pandemic. So Jack is left to teach alone almost every year. I keep waiting for him to request a new co-teacher, but he has stuck by side and never complains. More than that...he is my good friend. Jack cracks me up and while we'll never agree politically, there is no better person to vent to. There are days when Jack is the only other adult I get to see and I'm glad he helps me feel like a kid.

These people have all been Teachers of the Year. I am proud to be a part of their very busy To-Do Lists.

"Make it a great day, or not...the choice is yours." And if your day includes any of these people, it will likely be a great day whether you choose it or not.

Love ya!

P.S. There are several other friends of mine who have been named Educator of the Year including, Beth Reilly, Dottie Deich, John Perkis, and Mr. Hart. They will be included in other posts. Stay tuned and Thank You!

*Jen and Lauren did not get me the cross-stitch kit; the English Department did. In addition to the cat socks and bookmarks, Jen and Lauren got me a really cute tee shirt that I plan on wearing for the rest of the quarantine. :-)