About Erin

Writer, teacher, composer with a passion for traveling, coffee, and a good book.

Visions of Sugar Plums

My mom has often recalled with fondness that her grandparents took her to see the Nutcracker at Lincoln Center when she was a little girl. She has often recalled details like the magic of the Christmas tree growing before her six-year-old eyes, the snow falling from the stage ceiling as the haunting choir serenaded the snow, the lavender and pink tutus swirling together on the stage, and then the astonishing good fortune to have a Grandfather who secured a meeting on the stage afterwards with ballet and choreography legend Jacques D’Amboise. 

When I went to New York one time, I visited Lincoln Center,  bought her a christmas ornament in the shape of the chandeliers, which I recognized immediately from her description. She often expressed how much she wanted to take me to see it, particularly as I danced for much of my life, and even danced in the Nutcracker in middle school.  

As it turns out, December 2019, is the year that “someday” crystalized into a date on the calendar, train tickets, theater tickets, and eventually a day that I will savor and relish as much as her six year old self did.

We boarded the train at 5:45 a.m. and arrived in the sunlit, holiday bedecked center of 34th Street. Christmas in New York has long been an experience that lives in Christmas movies and dreams, and the real thing did not disappoint. We wandered around Harold Square, flocked Macy’s as it opened, and then headed in a cab uptown to Lincoln Center, where we met my dear friend for brunch and a French bistro across from Lincoln Center. She arrived right as we were ordering mimosas, and she as she hurriedly declined, the news tumbled out that she was pregnant with her first child. I fell apart in the happiest tears, and we enjoyed a decadent brunch of pastries, eggs benedict, two mimosas and one water. 

The ballet itself had preserved many elements of the original staging and choreography, so I got to witness many of the memories I had heard again and again growing up become my own.  We also had the privilege to see Charlotte Nebras, the first black lead of the Nutcracker dazzle in the lead role of Marie, sometimes called Clara. I hope that many little girls in attendance can aspire to dream big leaping ballerina dreams having seen themselves represented so beautifully.

By the time we boarded the train home that evening, we were completely worn out, but riding high emotionally from a day of making dreams and memories become reality.

The Life and Death of Ms. Jones

Usually sometime after the Fourth of July “back to school” signs begin to creep into stores and advertisements, and with it the slow grip of anxiety begins to tighten in the heart of every teacher. Leading up to this fall, however, my heart has skipped a little beat whenever I see it, because it has no hold on me. People ask again and again, “are you sad you’re not teaching?” or “do you miss it?” The answer, candidly is no. Not at all. I miss people. I miss certain classes of students from years gone by, certain experiences I will always treasure. But Ms. Jones, an identity I cherished for so long, is decidedly gone. 

I remember the exact moment Ms. Jones was born. After months of preparation, trepidation, planning, and envisioning, she had left the early morning faculty meeting on the first day of school with a small group colleagues and one by one they had broken off into their own classrooms and she stood alone in her own classroom. She had meticulously decorated for maximum autumnal excitement, leaves the color of fire crowning the blackboard and whiteboard. Her favorite detail was a bouquet of freshly sharpened pencil of rom-com fame, tied with a shiny orange bow next to the sharpener. Students began to trickle in accompanied by their parents and one by one the names on a roster became faces on a seat. She stood in awkward, uncomfortable silence and smiling through her fears as she saw in their faces the same trepidation and questions on their first day of middle school. Then the bell rang and in an instant she realized that she was the only adult in the room. The classroom was hers, the students were hers, and Ms. Jones was born.

It wasn’t long before Ms. Jones began to take form. She sat at her desk as another class met in her classroom and one little boy, crinkled his eyes through spectacles and grinned a crooked smile with a shy wave. One by one the students expanded her heart and the ones that flew under the radar she made attempts to talk to and connect with. They read together, they discussed, they put on skits, they had inside jokes. Of course, being middle school, there were many, many tears. The first time a student cried she felt her own heart breaking. By the end of the year, had mastered the art of the reassuring shoulder pat, the subtle slip of the kleenex, and the send off down the hall to the bathroom to wash up. They left the echo of their voices and the shadow in their faces when the classroom emptied out at the end of the day. She wiped down each desk, thinking of its occupant and replaying the outlandish moments of the day. She worked late into the night, preparing for the following day, excited to return and brimming with new ideas. In conversation, her students became “my kids” and she mourned their absence on days of faculty in-service and professional development. She screamed at referees along with their mothers, and cried with their mothers at parent teacher conferences. Her desk became the watercooler at breaks and after school, she learned to nod with interest at long accounts of video games and sports. She spent class periods on gingerbread houses and Christmas tree decorating. In the spring she began to lament the year passing quickly and savored each day. By the end of the year she tried to be brave as the final bell rang and she held a cluster of crying middle school girls while the boys ran down the hallway without a backwards glance. 

I remember the exact moment that Ms. Jones died. Nine years and three schools had passed, and soured in later years with the difficult parents, administrators, occasionally even a student who knew their parents would believe their complaints and the administration would believe the tuition checks that parents waved in front of them. The toxicity of a broken system had begun to take its toll in the last few years mentality, and the toxicity of a broken building, fetid with flood residue swept, literally and figuratively, under the rug lay siege to her already asthmatic body. The autonomy of a class in her subject of specialty had taken a backseat to the interdisciplinary team teaching model, meaning that she often received parental and administrative backlash for decisions she didn’t make, and had to relegate the literary works she most loved to a hurried, rushed corner of the curriculum subject to the greater agenda of the class. Backed into a corner one evening, she had no choice but to post a spark notes summary of a beloved literary work so that the students could get the historical reference, but not linger on the text. The moment she hit “post” to the class site, she knew it was over. The love had died, and the spark was extinguished, and she had to start the long process of changing course. She gathered from the shelves of her desk, her most beloved texts from college: Faber’s “Beowulf” in Old English, “the Canterbury Tales” in Middle English, and others, and took them home, safe where they belonged. Of course, at that point there was no way of knowing that by late April, the physical deterioration would have taken a toll so great that long term subs would be running the show the last 6 weeks of the year. 

In those painful last years, I hated Ms. Jones for not being strong enough, not being capable enough, not being confident enough like the other teachers that can walk into a room and immediately command an audience. Now that she’s gone, I think of her more kindly. I know she tried her best. I know there were schools and eras and days where she showed up every morning invigorated and excited to share the treasures on the syllabus for that day. I know she genuinely loved her students more than anything. But I don’t think I will miss her. 

Montreal

My cousin Jessica and I used to plan elaborate trips abroad when we were children. We even at one point had a full itinerary of a tour of Ireland planned, down to the specific hotels. I don’t think we were even in middle school yet, let alone functioning adults with jobs, but seeing limitations is something that comes with adulthood. We still have not made it across the Atlantic Ocean, but we have made it to Canada twice, and this past weekend felt especially European in beautiful Vieux Montreal, one of my favorite cities. 

The main event was attending the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival and seeing a British show, headlined by one of my very favorites, Sarah Millican. She doesn’t tour America, so this was an opportunity worth hopping the Canadian border. Jimmy Carr hosted, and I loved him in England as host of a number of silly panel shows, so hearing his iconic laugh in person was certainly a treat. 

Aside from that, we didn’t have an agenda, and spent the days wandering, drinking ice wine, sitting in cafes, taking photos and looking for more places to drink ice wine. We stayed downtown, just blocks away from Notre Dame Basilica, and one of my favorite moments was when we stopped in for a tour around the same time an organ presentation took place. The cool darkness of the cathedral was a welcome respite from the heat outside, and we sat and listened to the mighty instrument fill the room with its resonance. 

The weekend was short and sweet, but Montreal has the effect of feeling like you traveled a far distance and stayed a long time, even if it was just a quick plane ride in the same timezone.

Retirement that Ends an Era

These two legends just put on the retirement concert of the century. What’s that saying about not meeting your heroes? Well sometimes you meet your heroes and your respect and admiration of them only grows the more you get to know them. And sometimes you meet your heroes and they change your life through all that they teach and the ways they inspire. My conductor and organist and also my heroes. ❤️

Their Graduation and Mine

I probably should feel more after packing up a desk and a classroom, and an entire career after almost a decade of teaching. I should be looking back on the good times as a nice folk rock song plays. I should be lamenting the end of an era, the death of an identity. But instead I don’t feel anything. I’m just numb. I returned for final exams and graduation. I didn’t hang around after graduation. I didn’t look back longingly at the campus as I drove away.  I just felt relief more than anything. Relief, defeat, and exhaustion. Teaching took such a toll on my body, and when the sick days ran out, an additional toll on my finances. Of course I have good memories, and from all three schools where I taught over the years. For now though, I will have a lot to sort through. All I know is that I began to recover as soon as I stopped spending time in that toxic building. I can only hope that the more time away, the stronger I will be. For now, I’m simply exhausted.

My Ex-Appendix

The saga of Erin’s Body Is Falling Apart continues, and on today’s episode, my appendix just completely gave up. After experiencing an immense amount of pain, I finally went to urgent care to get checked out where they told me: Good news! I’m not pregnant and it’s definitely not my appendix. Well, I could have told them I’m not pregnant and gotten a discount, and it definitely was my appendix, as confirmed by the ER doctor 24 hours later, after an excruciating three hours in a wheelchair waiting to be seen, and then doubly confirmed the next day when the appendix met its demise at the hand of a surgeon who looked very much like the son of one my pastors. This fact is notable only because when said pastor came to visit me in my drugged state, the only part of the conversation I can remember is that I told him immediately the surgeon looks like his son. It’s disconcerting to have a memory lapse, particularly when talking to one of your pastors, but my cousin who was with me assures I did not say anything uncouth.

Up until this point, I was adjusting to life teaching remotely my lungs in particular deteriorated to the point that it was dangerous to be in the building anymore. I had long term subs covering for me, and I recorded videos to send to my classroom. For the time being, I can’t even do that, though that first night in the ER my colleagues did persuade me to record a virtual lesson that was assuredly not for my students. So without further ado, here I am reciting Beowulf in Old English, on morphine:

Review: Annelies

I firmly believe that composers are actual magicians. Yes, they learn mathematically through rhythm, intervals, theory, and discipline, and yet they tap into this otherworldly realm. They somehow piece things things together to create a transcendent experience that cannot be measured empirically or even properly put into words. The same is true of conductors, who can bring black and white markings from a page and weave a tapestry of emotion and expression. Composers who conduct are extra special. The moment I shook hands with James Whitbourn in the summer of 2018, I knew he was special. I stood in an Oxford parlor in a room full of strangers, and in an instant I felt safe and accepted, and I perceived that he carried magic with him. Throughout the course, choral singing in the morning and choral composing in the afternoon, I found this to be true, whether in conversations over meals, over the piano, or as he stood in front of our choir. Yet in all those ways I knew him as conductor and teacher, this week, however, I got to experience the magic of him as composer. 

Under the vaulted ceilings National Cathedral, he conducted a performance of his work Annelies, a choral setting of the Diary of Anne Frank. From the haunting, elegiac notes with Klezmer overtones to the ethereal choral pieces, coupled in the program with snippets from her diary, the piece painted a tragically beautiful tribute to a young life lost, and the spirit with which she lived. 

Sometimes music gives us the language of grief, transports us beyond where words can carry us. In this work, James took the words, the spirit, the horror, and the loss and expanded the framework of experience to be able to take in the story. Not only does this work give Anne a more expansive voice from beyond the grave, but the work sends a stark, clear warning against injustice, prejudice, and hate. In music, he has created depth and dimension to the lessons her world already gives us. The victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting just 7 months ago were referenced in the program, and their memory hung in the air and permeated the grief in the music from Anne’s story, a chilling reminder that the fight against hatred still rages.  

I cried with strangers during the performance, and after the concert, I could only hug James, and tell him that the work was exquisite. But James knows all too well, there are times that words alone are inadequate.

To see a full performance of Annelies from another concert, see:

The Power in a Paintbrush

“Here’s the first painting. Watch out there’s a boob.” I said it partially to make sure they were awake (and maybe for a cheap laugh), but the observation wasn’t entirely empty.  Even approaching Aristocratic Baroque art with a scholarly eye, there’s no denying that the boob count is high, and our slideshow on Peter Paul Rubens was no exception. In an integrated humanities class that is largely driven by art history, this week was not the first nudity they’ve encountered, and it certainly won’t be the last. The Baroque isn’t only the high drama and ripped bodices of the Aristocratic Baroque, however, and we have since moved into the Bourgeois, or Dutch Baroque, which is the land of the simple home life, the rustic landscape, and the photo-realistic still life. The Bourgeois Baroque also means that female painters entered our slide show and among them, a work that has possibly become my favorite painting: Judith Leyster’s self portrait.

Image result for judith leyster self portrait
(source: NGA.gov)

My students need a little prompting when I asked them what was unusual about this portrait, so I asked more bluntly: “Who has painted every depiction of a woman we’ve seen so far this year?” Answer: Men. This painting is the first time, at least in our textbook and curriculum, that we have seen a woman through the eyes of a woman, and my goodness is it refreshing.

Every other artist explored the female form for her beauty, her body, her clothing, or even the man she stood next to. In this painting however, what has the artist chosen to showcase? Her talent, her confidence in both the draping of the arm across her chair, and a carefree smile. She laughs at the days to come. (Proverbs)

This painting illustrates the power of a woman who has control of the narrative lens. Her physical appearance is secondary, and it is her inner confidence, her skills, and her ideas that take center stage. In a society of Instagram filters, we have much to learn from the fabulous Ms. Leyster.

This portrait also highlights why the presence of the female voice is so important in art, in writing, in music, in film, and storytelling in general. Not that there’s anything wrong with the beautiful grace of the “Birth of Venus” or a even busty broad like Rubens’s Delilah in “Samson and Delilah”, but we miss so much when the women’s voice is left out of the narrative.

In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the main character, Anne, is discussing books with Captain Harville and he observes:

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

To which she replies:

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Gals, if you find yourself with a pen in your hands, or a paint brush, or a camera or even a musical instrument, it’s time to tell your story.  And let’s be fully committed to supporting one another along the way. We have everything to gain from building one another up.

Whatever My Lot

The second to last time I went to urgent care, I was able to tell the doctor there that the ER people said “hi”, because they know each other, and now they all know me. And that has been my winter in a nutshell.

There’s a myth that teachers have iron-clad immune systems. We basically work in a Petri dish of seasonal germs after all. But the problem is we are also exhausted. We see the sun rise each morning, and in winter months consider it a victory when we drive home and there’s still some light remaining. We spend the days on our feet, projecting energy, eating on the go, and leaping from coffee cup to coffee cup, like rocks in a raging river. But this winter something snapped, and I find myself with no other choice but to learn how to be still. It’s been a crazy ride.

I ignored the symptoms for so long, writing them off as allergies, and then by the time I admitted to myself I was full-blown sick I wound up in urgent care on the way to work and in the ER several days later, slumped over in a wheelchair when I was supposed to be lined up with my choir walking in to the festival of lessons and carols.

I didn’t anticipate a reaction to that first round of medication that would leave me so weak that I could barely stand for longer than a few minutes at a time. I missed almost a week of work, which as fellow teachers will know is an unthinkable amount of time to be out of the classroom. When I did eventually go back to work, I quickly relapsed. It took three failed cycles of antibiotics and getting sick before a specialist found an actual diagnosis. Then the newer stronger medication caused some serious reactions, including episodes of debilitating pain, which have left me knocked out again while it runs its course.

The end of November is when I first got sick. For the following months since then I’ve felt like I’m tied to a moving car and my body is failing me, but we’re moving too fast, and stopping is not an option. However as I look ahead at another week away from work, I’m coming to accept that stopping is okay. This whole time I’ve been fighting the pressures of my job, the pressure I put on myself, even stupid New Years pressures that quickly fell flat, but there’s a strange peace in being completely defeated.

Since my brother died in 2009, I have a hard time owning up to anything else in my life qualifying as “suffering” because nothing holds a candle to that. But as I lay in bed at 1 am, fighting through intense pain that wrestled sleep from me at every turn, I had the realization that there’s a unique grace that comes with admitting this is hard, and in knowing God is with me. For so long, I’ve been so wedded to the idea of what my life should look like or who I should be but instead I’m just walking around feeling horrible and doing nothing well. There is such peace in letting that go, and realizing my value is greater than my performance.

With peace comes gratefulness. I know I am carried on the prayers of friends and family and a church that has supported me at every step. I also know that the worst symptoms right now mean healing is happening and there is an end in sight. I am heartbroken to think of the many friends who have chronic pain, chronic health issues, or more dangerous diagnoses. Please know you have my prayers more earnestly than ever. I don’t know exactly what the future holds, but I have hope, peace, and most of all rest, maybe the hardest lesson for a teacher to learn.

I haven’t written

IMG_7875It’s been over two months since the oratorio performance and there is much to tell, but I haven’t written about it.
I ran away to Miami for a quick girls trip, but I haven’t written about it.
We’re two and a half months into a tumultuous school year that has simultaneously challenged our school community and highlighted our strengths, but I haven’t written about it.
Sunday was the one year anniversary of losing my grandmother, our beautiful matriarch, but I haven’t written about it.
We’re halfway through National Novel Writing Month, and I only wrote 13 words in 13 days.

I have, however, put pants on and driven to school on days when that was a victory. I have graded essays, and cleaned the bathroom. I have spent some Friday nights in DC and some Friday nights in my living room in pajamas drinking wine with my roommates. I have torn up the dance floor at weddings of friends. I have rehearsed and sang and played music. I have cooked and cleaned and prepped and graded and lectured and learned and taught. So life has been a complex mix of light and shadow, but writing has fallen by the wayside for the time being. But while writing has not been happening, here’s a peek into my classroom instead.

My class is an integrated humanities classes that I team-teach that covers Western Civilization from Charlemagne to WWII. We are in the middle of Dante’s Divine Comedy right now. While my co-teacher has been largely plowing through the text with the students, I have been covering the art related to it. This includes:

That’s what’s on deck for this week.
Exciting times!