if only, i would

When I was little, I thought that I would reach 27 and be magically transformed into a very specific version of myself. She would be blonde, married, have a dusting of freckles on her shoulders. That’s when I would know — I was Grown Up, I was A Woman. 

I look nothing like Tea Leoni, but Little Me somehow thought I would grow up to look like her?

Twenty-seven arrived and I was busy moving in with The Ex. She owned a house in the suburbs — all dark wood and open plan kitchen. Between 18 and 27, my average tenure in the apartments where I’d lived had been a whopping 10 months. I jettisoned a fair amount of my accumulated, thrift-store household goods in favor of her far nicer things when I moved in. In particular, I donated or gave away most of my kitchen — the sole holdouts were a white pot with a wobbly handle, my grandmother’s cast iron frying pan, a Springform pan, and a couple of ceramic mugs that had sentimental value. 

The Ex loved cooking, so her kitchen was well outfitted. It was the first house I’d ever lived in and I reveled in the space. There was room to store a dehydrator, a food processor, and a blender. There was counter space to have a toaster. When you move a lot, there are so many small corners you cut to make the moving easier and less expensive. Do you need a toaster if you can broil the bread? Why get a food processor when you have a little blender? Recreating a kitchen in a new place is expensive, and it always seemed, in those many moves, ridiculous to invest in the kitchen equipment I really wanted.

So in the year of 27 I wasn’t blonde or married or dusted with freckles, but I was living in a house. In the year of 28, though, it became clear that The Ex and I were not making one another happy and I started looking for apartments in Oakland again. 

I lucked into my current spot — affordable (kind of, for Oakland), access to a backyard for Rilke, close to work. Of course, when I moved in I had to replace the entirety of my kitchen. After the first-last-deposit check, I had very little to spend on all the things I wanted to have in a kitchen, so I bought only the bare bones. A few bowls and plates, some utensils, three wooden spoons. 

The first winter in this apartment was not quite dire, but it was sad. There was credit card debt from impulse purchases (books, dog toys, ambitious vegetables that wilted in the refrigerator). One of those impulse purchases was at a Target in San Leandro, late on a Saturday night after a day spent grading in a cafe. I had always — of course — wanted a KitchenAid mixer. “If only I had a mixer,” I thought, “I would bake more.” 

So often that kind of conditional promise limits us. If only I was thinner, I would be happy. If only I made more money, I would travel. If only I had more time, I would write that novel. If only…I would… As if the universe had created an inflexible set of prerequisites for the things that we really want. As if we need a deus ex machina to make us ready for the life we think we’re meant to be living. It’s fear of failure, that’s part of it right? What if I can’t actually write that novel when I have more time? What if once I lose the weight, it doesn’t magically make me happy?

Reader, I want to tell you that I bought that mixer, and I started baking more. (Much to the delight of Rilke, who eats what falls on the floor, and R, who eats what comes out of the oven!)

But the rest of my kitchen was…pretty sad. My parents unearthed a toaster oven from their garage last fall so I finally gave up toasting my bread in the oven (or in a frying pan!). As I’ve baked more, I’ve accumulated more cookie sheets and even — indulgence — both 8×8 and 9×13 baking pans. 

In the back of my mind, though, is the thought — If only you lived in a real house, if only you made more money, then you could furnish the kitchen of your dreams. After a $40 blender gave up on me, I gave up on smoothies. I split my pie crust recipes in half to fit into my tiny food processor. I thought: When I’m a real adult, when I settle somewhere for forever, then I’ll get the blender I want, then I’ll get a food processor, then I’ll replace my cheap mixing bowls. 

And then for the holidays, R and my parents conspired and bought me two of the appliances I had wanted most for my kitchen. There’s no more If only, I would. They were my deus ex machina. I am not a materialistic person, but I have to tell you, I lay in bed hugging a stupid kitchen appliance box and crying when R gave me her gift. 

I’m a few years past 27 and not even remotely like the woman I imagined when I was young. I think how I turned out is better than Little Me could ever have imagined. But a part of me still holds on to that idea that — some day I will just wake up into a different, more fully realized life. Will wake up knowing how to sort the mail, how to cook oatmeal without Googling it every time, how to navigate the mess of dental health insurance. 

This is so stupid, but having the kitchen appliances I’ve always wanted — it feels like the universe very gently and kindly saying, “This is your life. Right now. Not a faraway If Only Future Day.” 

small sicknesses

December has not been kind to my body: in the early part of the month, laryngitis took my voice; a week before Christmas, in grappling class, I caught an accidental elbow to the mouth that split my lip on the inside, making eating painful for days; now, I’m trying to kick a cold that’s left me running on what feels like 10% of normal energy. Today, I’ve been awake for maybe five hours.

Whenever I am sick, I feel the desire to imbue it with meaning — sickness as a metaphor for some deeper arc or turn in the narrative of my life. It’s an impulse borne out of the fact that I am able-bodied, and sickness is not my “normal.” For the most part, my body is a patch of firm ground on which to land. It is dependable. I understand: it is not this way for everyone, and it will not always be this way for me.

Rabbi Ruttenberg is one of my favorite Jewish writers; her book Surprised by God helped me to name that I, too, wanted more God in my life. I’m so happy to have found her on Twitter, where today she published a beautiful thread about gratitude for our bodies.

I think we all have media we turn to when we’re sick: the shows, the books, the albums that comfort us in the absence of a Platonic-mothering figure. I listen to Azure Ray’s Drawing Down the Moon; I watch The Princess Bride; I read Robert Hass’s “Tall Windows,” which is only a little bit about being sick, and more about courage. “The desire to sleep” he writes, “was lightbulbs dimming as a powerful appliance kicks on…What kept you awake was a feeling that everything in the world has its own size, that if you found its size among the swellings and diminishings it would be calm and shine.”

I use Azure Ray and The Princess Bride as a stop-gap when I’m sick — a way to trick my brain into sleeping with their familiarity, because like Hass I am kept awake by the sense that there is something to be found, some key understanding that would let the world “be calm and shine.” I have thoughts, and then — as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching would say — second thoughts, and third thoughts. A side effect of “normal” being a steady place to land is the self-imposed expectation I should always be doing. Sickness destabilizes; I am not able to be doing. In fact, sickness demands that I not do. And in the not doing, I sometimes find it hard to pinpoint who I am.

Sometimes, when I am sick, I tell people, “My body was telling me to take a break.” I have ascribed my sickness a meaning, and the meaning is: I work hard so I deserve a break. Where does this come from? Why do I feel this need to justify rest?

The flip answer is capitalism, which is also a true answer. But another true answer is teaching. The narrative of teachers is one of self-sacrifice, of willingness to give of oneself tirelessly because a teacher is working for a Higher Purpose. Another true answer is the story of being a woman, which glorifies multitasking and continual support of others.

Judaism has a lot to say about rest; rest can be found in the palace of Shabbat every week. Heschel writes that “[t]he Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When I read this, and when Rabbi Adar went over this in my Jewish Rituals class, I underlined it in my notebook. We do not earn rest through work. Rest is our right as living beings.

(Forgive me a longish aside? Over the holidays my uncle and my father got into a tense political conversation. My uncle resented the idea of higher taxes and “his money” being used to social services because he perceived people on welfare as “lazy.” My father argued that even if some people who receive social services are “lazy,” the good that the money does for those in need is more important. The whole conversation clarified something so distinctly for me: I believe our value as humans is not defined by our labor. We all deserve food, shelter, education, stability, healthcare. Those rights are not determined by what we contribute to the economy.)

But for those of us (ME) who define our identity through work and doing, rest is hard. I rarely keep a full Sabbath; there is simply too much I feel like needs to get done. So sickness — when rest is the only activity possible — is difficult. It means confronting unspoken and pervasive expectations I have for myself, the definitions I have of who I am.

housing & feelings

I love teaching. Here are some things I love about teaching:

I love finding and developing texts and activities that are challenging, relevant, and meaningful.

I love getting to know my students — their talents, challenges, sense of humor, quirks, joys, sadnesses, hopes.

I love thinking, as I develop my lessons, about how all of them respond, and adjusting my teaching to pull as many of them in as I can.

I love hearing their interpretations of the literature we read, hearing the connections they make between historical events as we study the past.

I even love grading, when I have the time to do it thoughtfully — it’s a chance to hear their thinking, see their growth, evaluate the effectiveness of my own teaching, and plan intelligently for the future.

I love developing curriculum with my team and co-teacher; they are an unbelievably smart and compassionate group of people.

I love running into students from previous years in the hallway and hearing how their lives are going, what they’re learning, what they’ve accomplished.

But there are many things about being a teacher that are stressful and hard and overwhelming. Things that it seems like we could fix as a society (and a school district), if we really wanted to.

A few weeks ago, an email thread at my school site snowballed. An administrator admonished the staff for not turning in their grades on time and then complained (to the entire staff) that the late grades would cause her to work on the weekend, which she did not want to do because it was “not fair to [her] family or to [her].”

I don’t think I’ve been more insulted by an administrator; that email thread happened to fall after I’d spent two weekends straight grading (an average of 11 hours each weekend). A teacher who wrote back gently reminding the administrator that most teachers work every weekend was given a formal letter of reprimand by the administrative team.

I feel valued by my students and their parents; I feel valued by my grade-level team and my department leads. But after email threads like the one I just described, it is clear that I am not valued; my work does not hold value for my administrative team.

And on the second of every month, after rent has been paid, I don’t feel valued by my district.

Last Friday our school bulletin included a blurb from the central office about a partnership with Roomily, a housing website that connects users who have a spare room with community members who cannot afford rent. The blurb is unclear; it notes that “OUSD is providing faculty and staff with resources that may help address [housing] hardship,” but a search of “housing” on the OUSD website returned only a PDF of a measure proposal that was vetoed. The description of Roomily leaves unclear if the hope is teachers with homes will sign up to house others, or if the intent is to find housing for teachers in need (or both?).

I believe in living in the community where I teach. I believe in being a part of the community where I teach because children don’t leave behind their homes and neighborhoods when they come into the classroom. Living in Oakland makes me a better teacher not just because I spend less energy commuting, but because students know I am in this with them.

I will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. My partner also works for a school, and even together we will never be able to afford a home in Oakland. We cannot even afford to rent a house together (we both lucked into below-market rents in spaces too small for both of us).

So when I read the blurb about Roomily, I felt very angry. Yes, the housing crisis in the Bay Area is bigger than OUSD. But — the solution to attracting and retaining teachers is not to find them rooms to rent in someone else’s house. Professionals (and teachers are professionals) do not want to rent a room in someone else’s house for their foreseeable future. To suggest that teachers should have to pay for being a teacher by being a perpetual roommate is insulting. It is insulting to the hard work teachers do and insulting the the children and families who rely on schools to provide an education and a path towards their dreams.

At a district-directed department meeting last month, the Humanities department looked at grade distributions by race. It was a sobering data set. Too many of our Black and Brown children are not flourishing; in fact, the data clearly shows that our school is failing these students. The reasons for this are complex, and they tie into the housing crisis described above.

(I’m sure you’ve read the studies; I’m sure you know that having a Black teacher for even one year can improve Black student outcomes for multiple years, including dramatically reducing their likelihood of dropping out; I’m sure you know that having race-matched teachers can reduce absences and suspensions. I’m sure you’ve looked at the teacher demographics of our district, which do not represent our students.

I’m sure you’ve done the math and the research and you see: when students of color don’t have culturally responsive teachers of color to act as role models, they’re less likely to go to college; because there are fewer college graduates of color, there are fewer candidates to come back and become teachers; because many college graduates of color feel financially responsible to their communities, they choose not to become teachers because they know teaching is not a ticket out of poverty.)

What recent college-graduate would choose to come and work here when the district is suggesting we find housing as someone’s perpetual roommate?

All of this is to say: serving the students of Oakland requires valuing and investing in the teachers of Oakland.

vegan blueberry-cherry pie & whimsy

On Friday, I took Rilke to see a behaviorist in the Central Valley; I had to take the day off work, which ended up being a small blessing. We drove the hour and a half through the hills and the orchards and the cow fields, past huge, newly-built mansions and worn, dilapidated houses and truck stops and feed stores. The behaviorist put me so at ease about Rilke, about her energy and her aggression and her anxiety. At the end of the month, we’ll head back to drop Rilke off for a 2-month board and train. I’ll make the trip out to see her once a week (so I can also get trained).

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Friday morning, though, before driving to the Central Valley, I made a vegan blueberry-cherry pie to take to Shabbat dinner at Amy’s house. Originally, I had planned on making a blueberry-peach pie, but the peaches were mealy and flavorless, so I rounded out the filling with some hastily-defrosted cherries leftover from the jam bars I made earlier this week.

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I used Cook’s Illustrated Foolproof pie dough, which I swear by — except I substituted Earth Balance for the butter. Yes, it was less flavorful, but it was worth it so that Amy and her daughter could dig in!

Crust (make 2+ hours ahead of time)

2.5 cups flour

1 tsp salt

2 T sugar

12 T butter OR Earth Balance

1/2 cup Crisco

1/4 cup cold vodka

1/4 cup cold water

Note: I have to make this in two batches, because my food processor is small. If you don’t have a food processor, do your best with a pastry cutter or fingers.

Pulse 1.5 cups flour in the food processor with salt and sugar until combined. Add in butter (cut into 1/4″ slices) and shortening (cut in 8 pieces). Pulse the food processor until the mixture comes together — it will look wet and cohesive. Scrape down the food processor, add the rest of the flour, and process again.

Turn the dough into a bowl and sprinkle with the vodka and water (mix together first). Fold the water and vodka into the dough — it will be very wet and tacky! Toss into a ziplock bag or wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.

Pie! 

20 oz blueberries

1 lb cherries (frozen is fine, defrosted and wrung out)

5 T cornstarch (if making this again with only blueberries or fresh cherries, I would reduce to 4 T)

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 tsp cinnamon* (there is a definite cinnamon flavor to the finished pie — everyone loved it, but just a head’s up!)

1/4 tsp salt

1 T butter or Earth Balance

Egg for egg wash

Turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 400°.

Whisk together the cornstarch, cinnamon, salt, and sugar, then toss with the cherries and blueberries.

Roll out half the crust and lay in a 9″ pie plate. Pour in the filling mixture, and dot with 1 T butter (or Earth Balance).

Roll out the second half of the dough into a 10″x10″ rectangle and cut into ~10 1″-wide strips. Lay over the pie in a lattice pattern. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with turbinado sugar.

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Bake for 15-20 minutes and then drop the temperature to 350°. Bake for another 30-40 minutes, covering the pie if necessary.

Let cool for at least an hour before cutting!

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On Sunday, R and I went back to my elementary school’s Spring Fair. It was lovely to show her all of my childhood haunts — the junk garden and tree house, the clay room, the back stairs with my class’s mural, the bench with my initials carved into it. We got “scrip”, the fair tickets I remember budgeting and hoarding as a kid, and bought ourselves a mini-key lime pie and I got my face painted. It was bright and warm but not hot; kid bands were playing a mix of new alt-rock songs and 70’s classic rock. Everything felt covered in a golden softness that carried through the rest of the day — coffee, soup, and baguettes at a cafe, book-browsing at one of my favorite bookstores, reading at the kitchen table while R cooked us bougie burritos (broccoli, tomatoes, quinoa, and a cashew-“cheese” sauce).

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patterns of thought

This morning I am grading at a cafe near my house; it is warm and bright outside and I can see out the windows from my table. I’ve eaten 3 pastries, 2 egg sandwiches, and drunk 2 cups of coffee at this point; precarious piles of rubrics cover my table.

When I first sat down to grade, I felt very tender in the world, as though any semblance of stability and competence was just that — a semblance. It’s what happens when I’m stressed: catastrophe rears its head in all the corners at once. My mind becomes a manically stampeding anxiety-producer — R must be mad at me; I am a terrible dog owner; my parents are dying; my car engine is about to die; I’ll never be able to keep a clean home; my fitness goals are unattainable; I have disappointed all my dreams; I was never very good to begin with and this is just an affirmation.

It doesn’t matter that, really, the only thing stressful is the pile of podcasts and portfolios left to grade.

In less than two months, I’ll be 30. Of course this means I’ve been reflecting on what I’m going into my 30’s equipped with, on whether or not this vision of my life matches what I had hoped for, on what I want to change and what I want to keep.

In the moment of opening up my computer this morning to grade, and feeling very much like all I was capable of was crying, I did two things that Portia of even a few years ago would not have known how to do:

  1. I texted a friend about how I was feeling.
  2. I recognized that the stampeding anxieties were because of the grading stress; they were not based in reality.

Neither erases the anxieties, but they both help to ease my mind. My friend told me I could always go cry in my car if I needed to (practical advice). And told myself to “collect evidence” for the anxieties. Could I find “proof” in the words or deeds of others to support the reality the anxieties insisted was true? Of course I couldn’t.

I would not have known to do either of these things a few years ago. It is still a hard day, with a lot of real stress, but I am also happy that I am going into my 30’s better able to take care of myself without surrendering to the less productive (and less effective) things I did in my early 20’s.