Sunday, November 28, 2010

Giving thanks

This Thanksgiving was a very special one, even though my papito couldn't be here to enjoy it with us. My sister came with her three teens (the oldest will be 18 and the youngest turns 13 in January) and her dogs (one of them we kenneled at our nearby vet's office so we wouldn't have to have seven animals in the house at one time), and a lovely time was had by all.

My godchildren are luminous, sweet young adults, and it's a pleasure to be with them. And my sister is a great mother, who has managed to do the very hard work of raising good people while maintaining high standards for them at all times. With three teens, it's exhausting work, for sure, and I admire that she manages to do it with so much love and patience.

For Thanksgiving, my sister and I cooked up a storm, including a 13-pound turkey that came out beautifully, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole (my favorite!), broccoli and onion casserole, cranberry sauce, two pumpkin pies, two apple pies, and a spinach and strawberry salad. Our dear friends, IL and TH, who fed my husband and I for two consecutive Thanksgivings in 2008 and 2009, came with their two kids and brought caramelized carrots and a glorious salad with mandarin oranges and pecans, so the amount of food was biblical. Even though our dining room is small, we were able to set up a small table for the children and all the adults and the teens crowded around our dinner table. It was exactly as Thanksgiving ought to be.

Now that my sister has returned to her home in Maryland, I'm left with a bittersweet feeling and an unexpected yearning. This might just have been the last time that we will all get together for Thanksgiving that way, so I'm especially thankful for the wonderful memories of this past week. The last time my sister came with the kids for Thanksgiving was our very first one in our first house in Ohio in 2001. Nine years is a long time to wait for an encore but it was worth every minute of it.

My mom traveled to be with my brother and his family in Tennessee and they also had a lovely time together. I am deeply grateful that I have a family that, even though my father is now absent, still makes the point to get together and enjoys doing so. Family, both the blood and the chosen one, is what I gave thanks for on Thanksgiving and what I will continue to give thanks for every day after.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Mold breaker

One of the personality traits of Chiquita that I love most is that she never is content to meet expectations. When we adopted her, we were told that she would not like walks, that she would be a total couch potato, that she would hate to get her paws wet and would prefer to be carried rather than walk on a leash.

As if on purpose, Chiquita has gone against pretty much all conventions. For one, she loves her walks and will strut just as long and as enthusiastically as Lizzy, who is a Brittany. Chiquita doesn't like to be in her carrier and doesn't much like to be picked up when there is walking and smelling to be done.

Her latest surprise to us is how, by watching Lizzy chase her ball, Chiquita has learned to fetch and retrieve a ball that is almost bigger than she is.

Exceeding expectations. That's a dog after my own heart.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Last ride

Yesterday, on an unusually balmy and breezy Sunday for November in these parts, my husband and I took our very last motorcycle ride to a nearby orchard, where they still have relatively fresh local apples available. Our favorite orchard is closed for the season, but this one keeps their extra apples in cold storage, where they stay more or less fresh for a longer time and there's plenty to choose from for the ubiquitous Thanksgiving apple pie.

The ride was a lovely way to enjoy the last of the warm weather before a cold front threatens to rain and possibly snow on us later this week, probably on Thanksgiving Day. Despite the dire forecast, I'm excited because my sister and her three teens, all of whom are my godchildren, are coming to stay with us for the first time since my husband and I moved to Ohio in 2001. It's been nine years but nunca es tarde cuando la dicha es buena. We'll have a full house on Thanksgiving because my Puerto Rican friend from the Bronx and her husband and two kids are also coming and that's exactly as it should be. It doesn't get any better than that.

Since it was most likely our very last ride of 2010, I thought I'd take a picture of the helmet that my husband gave me as a present a year or so ago, and which he recently enhanced with a sticker that says: "Tribú del Chihuahua." The sticker is perfect for me, for more reasons than one. That's the name that the friends of Valentino Rossi, the greatest MotoGP motorcycle racer ever, call themselves and since I'm a big fan of Rossi's, plus I actually have a Chihuahua (Chiquita), the sticker is perfect for me. (I love the way my husband thinks!)

These moments of happiness all have an edge of sadness since this Thanksgiving is the first I will spend without my dad. He wasn't big on the holiday (though he did like to come to our house in Puerto Rico when we lived there) but not having him with us gives us all the more reason to find ways to make this one particularly special, particularly familial. That's why my mom is going to my brother's and my sister is coming here so we'll all be, in our respective places, en familia, as it should be. And that's something we can all give thanks for.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


My wonderful handyman of a husband today hung the quilted wall hanging from a nice hanger I bought yesterday at a curiosity shop in town and which we decided to place over the bed in our smaller guest room, where my abuela's antique furniture now lives and where, not so long ago but when the room looked very different, my papi abandoned this world for the next one.

I think he would be very pleased with the change in the room's decor and would sing the praises of the quilted wall hanging, even as full of imperfections as it is, so I'm glad that it hangs there, just in case his spirit stops by to visit now and then, as I hope he does.

My next step will be to start on the longer, American Beauty quilt and see how far I can get with that one before the spring semester begins a little more than two months' from now. I am also very grateful to my papi for this leave, which I was only able to get now because of his terminal illness, and which has been a blessing not just because it has allowed me to work on my research and class-planning uninterruptedly but, most of all, because I've had time to, unlike Humpty Dumpty, put myself together again in a world that seems less comprehensible now that he is not in it.

It has also been rewarding to see how, even though I have not been an active presence at my small college on the hill this semester, my 200-level class filled quickly and with 18 people on the wait list I could actually teach two full sessions of that course alone. My other two classes, including my senior seminar, also filled quickly and, in that class, I'm very much looking forward to teaching a group of mostly former students, some of which are the best I've ever had. In planning for next semester, I'm already working hard to make sure I do justice to their and my expectations.

I also recently received a very exciting offer to propose an article for a book on approaches to teaching Hawthorne, which is just perfectly timed, given that I will be teaching the seminar next semester. I've ordered some of the books in the series so I can see the kind of genre this article would fall under and so I can start outlining what I would want to write about in teaching Hawthorne. It would be quite the wonderful coup if I could get an essay into that book. It's a lot to wish for but, as my grad school adviser always said, "Shoot for the stars, and for nothing less!"

These little events more than make up for recent challenges, like having to have a very pricey emergency root canal on a tooth that already had a very pricey crown put on it to try to save it, with no assurances that this second attempt will eventually save that tooth. It may well be that after spending more on one tooth than I have spent in clothes and shoes this year (if you know me well, you can imagine the price tag on that tooth), I will still have to pay more and endure having it ultimately pulled. I find root canals and tooth pulls, two procedures that I know much more than I care to, to be some of the most physically violent and traumatic events in my life these days, in my life that has known several major surgeries and other invasive procedures. En fin, ni modo. Pa'trás ni pa' coger impulso, as my papi would say.

I've also watched myself age considerably this year, especially over the past few months, as my erstwhile raven-black hair has become increasingly peppered with unruly white (not sure why they're called "gray") hairs, which I am not inclined to dye anymore. I've also stopped having my hair flat-ironed and am wearing it natural for the first time in many, many years. While there are political and personal reasons for that, there is also the influence of watching the hair around my temples get very fine and brittle and the fear of impending bald spots has made any further hair straightening a bad idea.

Plus, even when I have been on leave and not exerting myself at all in the same crazy pace that my normal semesters take, I am tired by the day's end and often in need of lying down for a short while before I get a second wind to finish the night.
I've also become more forgetful, which isn't a trait I'm used to having to deal with as much. It's odd and somewhat frustrating when those around me pooh pooh my talk of aging and seem resistant to acknowledging that I am not in my 20s, 30s, or even early 40s anymore. That my energy levels are not as they used to be and that what I want out of life significantly differs from those who are, at the very least, several decades' away from where I find myself.

My husband and I recently agreed that the turn to 50 is something else altogether, and that aging becomes noticeably more palpable every single day, in one reminder or another. At any rate, aging is inevitable, and I plan to do it as gracefully and creatively as I can. Taking up quilting at what seems like a late stage may be part of that plan. Who knows? We'll have to see what the future brings.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Today, I went back to quilting school so that my teacher could "fix" some unseemly puckering and "bubbling" that had happened to my quilt, which she insists was caused, not by my lack of skill (as is my theory), but because of my ancient Singer, whose quilting foot doesn't really press down on the fabric as it should.

She spent about an hour and a half ripping and resewing (with a newer machine at her shop) and we talked about our lives -- she's a nurse and a mother of three teenagers. And then she had me test that machine, which one of her "ladies" is selling, and which is a quilting paso fino compared to my old Singer workhorse. It would cost me a third of what it sells for new and it has everything I would need but I'm not sure how much more quilting I'll be able to do for the rest of the year, especially next semester when I return to full-time work. Plus, large purchases (of more than $200, say) always make me nervous.

One of my favorite parts of quilting is sewing on the binding, which is done by hand, and which I found to be very therapeutic. I still intend to take on the American Beauty quilt and will probably sign on for individual classes to get that started. I would like to continue to have a project that has nothing to do with my work and which engages my creative and manual skills.

The fall-inspired wall hanging is finished just in time. This week we have Indian Summer here and are enjoying lovely temperatures in the 60s (I even have a window and the sliding door to the back open) but, after this weekend, we go into more wintry temperatures in anticipation of what promises to be a very cold winter (a record-breaking crop of acorns this year suggests so, according to some experts).

As late fall shifts into winter, and the trees have lost their leaves and the colors turn to browns and grays, my quilt stands as a remembrance of early fall's flamboyance. I'm glad I made it, warts and all. And what I've learned is that quilting, in many ways, is like any good relationship: challenging, inspiring, fun, maddeningly annoying sometimes, but, ultimately, magically satisfying, if obviously imperfect.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

An examined life

A dear friend talks about her "practice of thankfulness," or the way that she tries to instill that awareness in herself and in her children so that they also are conscious of the blessings in their lives. I very much admire her for that.

As I move toward 50, and after having what could be described as a not-particularly-easy life (battling a disabling and nearly fatal chronic illness for 15 years between my 20s and 40s, having several surgeries and difficult recoveries, having to abandon or adapt life choices because of physical limitations, and struggling with related health challenges) the practice of gratitude (to coin my friend's term) is something I am deeply committed to.

In that vein, I believe it's important to give thanks each and every night for the good and the bad in our lives (after all, they are mirrors of each other), and to make the effort to sincerely appreciate those around us who make a positive difference. Perhaps even to appreciate those who we don't like very much or who are negative forces in our lives because they may be unexpected sources of strength or of insights that wouldn't have been possible otherwise. In my case, I try to remember to regularly tell (and show, which is actually more important) my husband, my family, and my friends how much I love and appreciate them, and how much they mean in my life.

I pray that I always have the self awareness to improve myself before I expect or demand that anyone else be better and that I never take for granted the blessings around me, or fail to notice all that I have to be grateful for, or forget to work hard to be as good a friend, wife, daughter, teacher, mentor, sister or colleague, as I can be.

An unexamined life, the great philosopher is said to have said, is not worth living. As I begin to feel how fast one ages at this point in life, I start to realize that an unexamined life isn't very much of a life at all.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Found beauty

There is a gray, sad starkness to November that often weighs on the soul, especially a Caribbean soul, like mine, which gravitates toward vibrant colors and lush foliage.

But, even in such times, there is beauty to be found. The colors of the setting sun, seen "through the bones of November," as my husband put it, is more spectacular, a sight that would be concealed by the trees during warmer times.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


On these chilly, chilly days, when the frost covers the grass until almost noon, Chiquita doesn't enjoy our walks as much as she does in warmer weather and I often find myself having to pick her up, place her inside my jacket, and carry her most of the way.

There is another type of bolstering that I'm also doing these days. While I'm officially on leave this semester, I decided that I would meet with my student advisees this month to discuss pre-registration for spring since, as their returning adviser then, I will have to handle any problems that might arise with class schedules once the new semester starts. By the time this week ends, I will have met with about 20 students, some of them for an hour or more, some of them twice, and some not even my advisees, but who wanted guidance.

On the days I've had a full schedule of meetings, and I've found myself more tired than usual by evening, I've had to remind myself of the energy expended in these efforts, often trying to bolster students' confidence or helping them figure out their paths during the upcoming semester, if not their upcoming years in college and beyond. This also reminds me of what regular semesters are like for some of us who have many advisees. In spring, for example, I will not only have 20 students to advise but also up to 50 students to teach (still, that should be better than last semester, when I had 25 advisees and 62 students!).

There is, indeed, a lot of effort expended on doing the bolstering, and I am grateful that this is only one aspect of what I do because I've learned that it's not healthy to allow the needs of others to consume your life. I also appreciate that my advisees, in their turn, bolster me when they express their gratitude for my advice or say they're looking forward to taking a class with me. When I hear: "I'm so glad you're back!" or "I've missed you so much," I know I've made the right decision in meeting with them while on leave (a decision some friends have questioned). And I like that I can honestly say: "I'm glad to be back, too!"