My “No Green Thumb” Poem

I’m posting this poem at the request of several Facebook friends, who were curious about a reference to my former status as a non-gardener (or should I admit, a lousy housekeeper).  In my son’s early years on our small farm in Texas, we had the “go-to” house, since I wasn’t fussy about boys vaulting over my living room couches, sleeping all over the den, or raiding the refrigerator day and night. I just made sure to stock the pantry with good food, or so I thought, and always had plenty of Pillsbury pull-apart-and-bake cinnamon rolls.

On one occasion, my younger son’s pal decided to make something truly healthy for the gang, and dove into the lettuce/veggie drawer. When it came time for the salad dressing, he was horrified to find that most of my bottles, half empty and crusty around the tops, were grossly outdated. After that, he vowed never to eat at my house again. Oh well, I got a poem out of it:

I AIN’T NO BETTY CROCKER
(OR) I AIN’T NO MARTHA STEWART

The Smith and Hawkins Company
Has sent two “Lily Kits” to me.

I’m double-dared to force “Lily”,
Against all odds of Botany.

Just look in my fridge and you’ll agree,
Green mold’s my green thumb’s speciality.

The mildewed cheese and mysteries
Are well-known to my sons who tease

That immunizations are just a breeze–
They’ve survived Expiration-Date Disease!

                                          NKC

 

 

 

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Spaghetti in My Hair

In the Fall of 2014, I took a job at Headstart in Liverpool, N.Y.  I had moved back to Upstate New York after living 26 years near Dallas, Texas, in the wake of a divorce. I longed to be closer to my family and the land of four seasons, lush green summers, and snowy winters.  Employment was suddenly a necessity. Having taught high school English in Connecticut in the late ’70s, I decided to try something new. Vastly new. While my teaching certification was in grades 7-12 English, I was curious about the other end of the spectrum. In the years preceding my return North, I had written a children’s book series, and wanted to learn first hand about the pre-school reading process. Working with 4-year-olds seemed like a good place to start, and I had always been curious about the Headstart program.

As in all my teaching stints, I experienced great joys, coupled with myriad frustrations. It’s the nature of the vocation, but my time spent as a classroom assistant to a young woman fresh out of graduate school was an education unto itself. Call it my apprenticeship or trial by fire, it was a crash course in elementary education. And I had, (as do most high school teachers) great respect for my elementary counterparts. Despite the non-stop nature of the job, it was a pleasure to have a classroom to go to every day, work with the same team of dedicated teachers, and get to know the same group of children personally.

Sadly, I could not live on the pay that was offered to a classroom assistant and moved on to substitute teaching at a local high school. It was a difficult but necessary choice, but my time at Headstart was full of memories–so many that I wanted to write them down to keep them close. Memories shaped themselves into chapters, and I decided to print some here.  Perhaps someday I will cobble them together into a book.

This was to be Chapter 3: Spaghetti in My Hair

The site I had been assigned to was under construction for the first few months of the school year. Previously, my director’s site was in the basement of a neighborhood church, but an increase in rent pushed them out and made way for a wealthier “for-profit” day care.

Now we were waiting for the school’s maintenance crew to renovate a hair salon and window store in a strip mall into a school, and over the next few weeks they did just that. Meanwhile, we met at a sister site, an old elementary school downtown that made room for our little band of homeless teachers. It was there that my first lessons in pre-school began, and the first occurred in week one, when Janet, our director, took the rookies of our group into a classroom for lunch.

Lunch in this program, like all activities, is a learning opportunity for the children. It’s served family style, and while we are required to sit and eat with our little charges to model behavior and manners, we are not to assist them unless absolutely necessary. Independence and self-sufficiency are two of the main goals of the program, so learning to pour milk from a small pitcher into a small glass (all plastic), is something to be learned and encouraged. So too was serving oneself from a common bowl of noodles or vegetables, without diving in with one’s own fork or spoon, and eating right out of the serving dish. When that happened, the bowl was quickly whisked away and replaced by a new, clean one.

I sat across from Janet, and watched her interact with the children; it was an invaluable lesson in Headstart 101. She spoke to them in a quiet, respectful tone, asked them about their day, their likes and dislikes, encouraging them to try a vegetable, but not insisting. She was absolutely nonchalant when one youngster’s milk-pouring turned into a Niagara Falls of white, flowing from the pitcher to his glass onto her lap and then to the floor. She simply got up, politely excused herself from the table, and went to get paper towels to help the child mop up the mess. No fuss, no muss. I was determined to achieve this level of composure and skill. She was inspiring.

She moved on to another table, leaving me and a fellow rookie in charge of our kiddos, and I learned all about the joys and love of “noodles,” or what I would call, spaghetti. Pasta was a favorite, and subsequently, double and triple portions were taken. We did not rush the children at mealtimes. When the majority were finished, they went to the “toss and scrape table”, where they cleared their plates and dumped the empty dishes into a bin. This was done in such a fashion that I realized it was a daily routine they had mastered. And it was only late September. That was impressive.

Two little girls, however, were apparently extra hungry that day and took serving after serving of the sticky spaghetti to their plates. They told us stories as they ate, reveling in the attention of two new faces. Spaghetti that stuck to the little serving tongs was shaken loose onto plates and went flying everywhere. When I got up at the end of the meal, I found spaghetti in places I’d never imagined. And, most noticeably, in my hair.

Driving home from work that night, I composed a little verse, as is my habit, to celebrate the occasion:

YIPPEE, SPAGHETTI

Spaghetti on my napkin,

Spaghetti in my hair,

Spaghetti stuck beneath my plate–

Hey, would you like to share?

Spaghetti on my blue jeans,

Spaghetti on my chair,

Spaghetti with and without sauce,

Spaghetti everywhere.

Spaghetti on the table,

Spaghetti on the floor,

Spaghetti on my sweater.

Please pass it, I want more!

Later, when our site was up and running, I did learn to model my behavior and stay calm as Janet had taught me during that first meal. I learned to let accidents happen and consequences ensue. No more jumping in to prevent spills. No more hovering to “protect” the table from floods as I had done as a mother with my own sons. I watched in amazement as these little 4-year-olds learned to navigate a table full of silverware and bowls of hot food. I don’t know who learned more over those months, but I had a good idea.

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Christmas Inflatables

We’re having a wild and snowy winter in Upstate NY this year, and it stands in sharp contrast to my previous 26 winters in Dallas, TX.  With ceramic bumps as lane dividers on TX highways, plows are not allowed, nor is there much need, since most years, Dallas might get a couple of days of the white stuff. Salt and snow are used sparingly, so consequently, an inch of snow can shut down schools and stores for a day.

It takes subzero temps and many feet of snow to do the same here in Lake Effect Land, where the winds coming off the open waters of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario pick up moisture that is dumped as several feet of snow in an hour. And such storms can last for several days! It’s beautiful, but sometimes harrowing. http://s.newyorkupstate.com/sojU4Gd

 

There is also a phenomena that I believe results from the lack of snow in parts of TX, and that is an overabundance of holiday lights. We do string up lights in NY, but many nights they are covered in snow, trying to twinkle beneath heaps of icy snowdrifts.  To make up for the lack of a wintry wonderland, Texans have created a festival of lights that can be seen from airplanes thousands of feet in the air. And the newest decorating rage for Christmas– blow-up lawn ornaments, or “inflatables,” as I’ve seen them advertised, has reached ridiculous proportions. In one neighborhood, a lawn might have as many as 15 figurines glowing like bulbs all night, held in shape by generators puttering away in the background. I’ve seen teddy bear ferris wheels in snow globe bubbles, Dr. Seuss’s Grinch standing taller than the live oaks, and inflatable reindeer that looked like they could swallow a round bale of hay in one gulp. Such  inflatables are sometimes seen in NY, but here, if they are not anchored down like dirigibles on a dock, the winds could easily set them aloft for miles. I envision a Macy’s Day Parade gone amuck with one lake effect snow blast.

The most memorable Christmas inflatable I ever encountered was in my last year in the Lone Star State. I was taking a morning walk through a friend’s neighborhood and saw a North Pole display next to an entire Nativity scene deflating right before my eyes. I couldn’t fathom setting Santa down next to the Wise Men, let alone wanting to replace a wooden stable with a balloon barn, but there it was. A poem began banging around in my head, and was finished by the time I arrived home:

THE INFLATABLE BABY JESUS

Santa to the left of him,
Snowman to the right.
Little Baby Jesus
Has made it through the night.

But with the dawning of the day,
And the Texas winter sun,
This cheery scene grows bleary,
As Phoebus makes his run.

Joseph’s knees are buckled,
And Mary’s in a heap.
The ox collapses to the ground;
So too the little sheep.

The snowman’s grin is grimacing
As he sinks into the grass.
The Wise Men fold into a pile,
And Santa’s on his ass.

Oh where is little Jimmy
Who’s supposed to check the pump,
Watch over this Nativity,
Give camel back his hump?

He’s been out hunting squirrels
With his brand new Christmas gun,
‘Til a stray cork popped the manger.
Baby Jesus is undone.

****************************************

But a miracle shines down from the porch steps,
Like the star over Bethlehem–
It’s Dad and a flashlight and duct tape.
All’s well. Merry Christmas. Amen.

 

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NY Winters: Shoveling

Many of my friends in Texas thought I was insane to move back to “snow country” after 25 years of living in the Lone Star State. There was much I loved about my home in Dallas, especially my horse and hay farm, but I missed the 4 seasons, the Upstate topography, and the winters. You can only take off so many clothes (in public !) to cool off, but I love wool
sweaters, puffy quilted coats, and mittens. I grew up in Whitesboro, NY, outside of Utica, and the landscape and weather became a part of me. My first winter back, I wrote this poem one afternoon after returning from teaching. I had to shovel my driveway before I could get my car in (I have no garage–113 year old house–no cars back then ). But, I didn’t mind. Even at 63, (this was in 2014).

SHOVELING

Darkness comes early to Upstate Winters.
Late afternoon, I drive home in dusk and cloud cover,
To a driveway indivisible from lawn and street.

Snow that has fallen all day and night
Lies heavy on the tree branches. Shrubs
Lean low and in, help me define
The brick passageway for car
And small footsteps.

Gleaming in a glaze of ice and snow,
Everything draws my eyes up and away
From the shovel, full of snow,
So wet it clings to the black blade,
Will not let go,
Grows heavier with every push and heave
Of my arms and back.

But everywhere I look is white:
Trees, mailboxes, the porch steps,
An old outdoor grill, patio chairs,
My neighbor’s snow-arched trellis,
The garden gate,

All blanketed, all whispering,
Aren’t I beautiful,
Aren’t I beautiful.

NKC

my neighbor's trellis

my neighbor’s trellis

snow trees

snow trees

snow rocker

snow rocker

snow on bushes

snow on bushes

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More Leaves

More foliage poems. This time, haiku. As a teacher, I used this form to introduce students to the power and use of metaphor and to ease them into writing poetry. But now, I love the simplicity of it for my own writing, when a glimpse of something moves me or a stray thought comes and bangs around in my head. Many poets use haiku as a warm-up exercise for a day of writing. I don’t write on any schedule, so for me, it’s just another form that fits certain subjects.

This one came after a rainy walk:

Gold leaves of Autumn
Face down on wet, black asphalt.
Such a fall from grace.

And this one, after 9/11:

Leaves fall one by one,
In pairs, threes. Windblown flurries.
Some hold hands and jump.

 

 

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Autumn Walk

It’s been a while since I’ve written on this site, and the Upstate Autumn has emboldened me to start posting some of my poetry. Most know me as a children’s poet,  since I have a children’s book series, Itty & Bitty: Two Miniature Horses, and I am a contributing writer for the Highlights for Children magazines, Hello, and High Five. However, I have drawers of other poems that I’m going to finally bring out into the light.

I grew up in Upstate New York, in a town outside of Utica. I never realized how the land had become a part of me until I moved to Texas in the ’80s, and experienced a vastly different landscape. My husband and I searched to find a home in a setting that somewhat approximated our former home, and settled into a rural area outside Dallas, into a farmhouse with some acreage, trees (post oaks–what were those?), a pond, and a grassy pasture. I learned to appreciate the scrubby look of the land, and the tough trees that could weather 110 degree summer days for months on end, but my heart was always back in N.Y.

It helped that my sons thought of Texas as home, since they were ages 1 and 3 when we moved for my husband’s career, but it never felt quite like home for me. I made wonderful friends, had a menagerie of cats, dogs, and horses–a childhood dream, but still, I missed the topography of N.Y’s rolling hills, lush fields, rivers and streams. And perhaps the hardest thing to adjust to was the lack of 4 distinct seasons. I remember in my first year on the farm, waiting for the temperatures to drop in September, then October and for the rain to come. But at Thanksgiving, we were still in tee shirts, and the kids were playing ball out in the dusty pastures.

A return to Upstate N. Y. in 2010 to be near family reminded me of all I had missed. And my first Autumn was full of joy–the smells of wood burning stoves, rain soaked soil, and the sight of the leaves changing, heralding the coming of winter.

Out came my pen, and this was the result:

AUTUMN WALK

The red leaves always catch my eye.
Like bright red lipstick in a crowd
They shout out,
Draw attention to themselves.

Even once they’ve fallen
Face down on the sidewalk,
They pull me down to pick them up,
Turn them over in my hands,
Examine stem, veins, striations, edges.

And so many reds–
ruby wet kisses
scarlet flash of a Cardinal’s wing
the matador’s taunting cape
the Pope’s cope
a fluttering Valentine
blood’s rush.

People drive long distances to see these
In their glory, in Autumn,
But this year’s warm days and warm nights
Have left colors muted–too much burgundy
And brown.
Leaf-peekers are disappointed.
Weathermen apologize,
As if this were a burlesque, for our benefit–
Some performances good,
Others not worth the price of admission.

But having been away from this for 26 years,
In a land of no seasons,
Where September’s best red is poison sumac,
And brown is dirt and dust,
I marvel at the mystery of
This bloodletting of the trees.

And with books at the ready to explain all the reasons–
I prefer to wonder…
Who or what chooses which leaves turn to red,
Which to rust?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How I Came up with my Blog Title: quilltokeyboard.com

Call me fickle. I used to love my cartridge pen in high school and college, and wrote everything with that little missile of blue ink tucked into the pen’s handle. (Hundreds of pens later, I like a simple blue Bic–it rarely leaks onto my paper or explodes in my purse.) But college papers had to be turned in typed, so I was sent off to Mount Holyoke with a new, manual typewriter. If I loved my cartridge pen, I was smitten with my Smith Corona. I wrote all my papers by hand in college, and then typed them out on flimsy parchment paper, draft after draft,  perfecting every phrase, every line, every sentence for my professors, and driving myself and my roommates nuts.

I typed one MacBeth paper so late into the night that my then, hard contact lenses fused to my eyes, and I had to be walked to the infirmary where a doctor injected Novocaine into my face to extract the little rounds of plastic. Eye patches and one over-due paper later, I vowed to never let things get so carried away, but my perfectionism plagued me ’til the end. I was never one who could compose on the typewriter either, like a friend who always got done in half the time by typing one copy once, rather than 4 drafts of each paper.  And we often turned out 4 papers in any given week, especially in our Senior year. We were English majors.

Upon graduation, my very generous and understanding aunt, Millie Parke, gifted me with an electric typewriter. It was my Cadillac -powerful and fast. It doubled my speed, and halved my production time–a much needed enhancement in my graduate years. But I was still too much the perfectionist–skilled with the reddish-round eraser with the little black brush (the art was not to tear a hole in the paper while eradicating the rogue misspelled word) and master of the the trick of landing the key directly over the white tape carbon strips that I bought by the gross.

When I started teaching in 1977, computers were not yet part of the public school world. We wrote our attendance on paper forms, used blackboards and white chalk, wore purple ditto marker on our midriffs, and recorded grades onto index cards in a crowded faculty lounge.

My first introduction to a computer was on our den’s desk, when our family broke down in the mid 80’s and bought a $3,500.00 HP, a desk-sized machine with floppy discs and a tower. Truly medieval by today’s standards, and for a king’s ransom. While my 7 and 10 year old sons quickly mastered the keyboard and game modes, I merely saw it as a glorious typewriter. I never did much more than compose e-mails, which my sons continually reminded me were supposed to be short. “Chapter 10,” my younger son would yell into the room, awaiting his turn on the one computer in the house, bemoaning the fact that my missives were not “emails” but endless tomes. (That still hasn’t changed).

Several computers later, each one faster and fancier than the next, and astonishingly less expensive, I still feared the wizardry of those machines. My sons urged me to try things, assuring me I could not break anything, or worse yet, lose what I had written if I hit the wrong button, but I stuck to my e-mailing for many years. It wasn’t until my sons were away at college, and I was working on my first publication–a children’s book, that I was forced to ante up. My publisher’s art director and illustrator advised me to invest in a Mac–better graphics–so I did. And I made my first PowerPoint for a school presentation, with the help of my neighbor’s 7th grade daughter. My 12 year old niece taught me how to download a photo from my camera onto IPhoto, and it seemed like pure magic.

I remember, many years earlier, when her father, my brother-in-law, announced at his graduation from Case Western, that he had majored in computer engineering. I asked what that was. I’d heard of civil, chemical, electrical and mechanical engineering, but computer?  Yes, I was slow to come around to the newest iteration of Gutenburg’s press,(forgive my bias here, but that’s what my computer is to me), and I’m still running to catch up, but enjoying the  journey. And this blog, as I inch along with word press’s videos and how-to guides, is my latest attempt to join the 21st century….

Just when I thought I had “arrived”, I stepped back into the classroom after a nearly 32 year hiatus from formal teaching, and felt as if I’d been dropped into Mr. Peabody’s Time Machine.  I had stopped teaching in the early 80’s, and never saw the latest technology in the classroom until I went back, many years later, as a substitute teacher in Syracuse, N.Y. To my amazement, every classroom had a cart delivered in the morning, containing 25-33 MacBook Pros, one for every student. Special projects warranted yet another cart of Apple IPads! I watched even the most disabled students handle these machines with absolute ease and mastery, downloading reference materials and drafts of filed papers. I was still struggling to figure out how to file things to tidy up my desktop–a nightmare of multiple images that I was told slowed down my uploads.

Well, all this is to explain the title of my blog. I started this post over a year ago, and recently
resurrected it from the draft section of this site. I intended this to have been my first post, as seemed logical, but I lapsed into my poetry, and thank goodness. That’s where I love to spend my time.

As for these computers, (I now have a lovely silver MacBook Pro), I’m still in a world of wonder. But, “old dog, new tricks”. It still holds true.

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