My summer break is coming to a close; I am just one short work week away from my teacher orientation days that precede the start of each new school year. Next weekend at this time, I will be of course putting together my weekly essay as part of my “essay a week for one year” goal (this week marks #35 of 52, still on track!), but I will also be working on lesson plans for the first week of the 2015-2016 school year, my ninth year of teaching.
Last week I spent some time reflecting on how I spent my summer. As usual, I made frequent trips to the public library, carting home bags of books. My reading this summer was very eclectic. I began reading books about preserving fruits and vegetables, making jams and jellies, and canning in general. I had some new health issues which also required reading and research. I also read a good bit of fiction, another Agatha Christie, a few “chick lit” beach-type books, and most significantly, Paula McLain’s outstanding novel Circling the Sun, which introduced me to British colonial Africa and Beryl Markham. I was very intrigued with McLain’s historical fiction of this time and place, and of Beryl Markham and the people she worked and socialized with while breaking barriers and glass ceilings everywhere she went. I didn’t know much about colonial Africa, and frankly, reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness put me off wanting to know more. But after reading McLain’s The Paris Wife, I vowed to read anything and everything she wrote after that. If you haven’t read anything by Paula McLain yet, please do yourself a favor and read The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun immediately.
One of my goals for this summer was to exercise more, and this I also accomplished, building up my daily walks in duration, while walking my precious pup Puccini and chatting with my neighbors in their yards along the way. As successful as my reading and walking were this summer, I fear that, once the school year begins and my school bag becomes stuffed with papers to grade, I won’t allot the time for either of these two important things: exercising my mind as well as exercising my body. I hope to find a better balance this year between my school work and my personal life, so making time for reading and exercising will be a top priority.
Recently I was chatting with someone and mentioned that I taught myself how to make jam this summer, and my husband quipped, “Lifelong learner”. In retrospect, those two words really sum up my personal philosophy. As much as I love teaching, I truly love learning more. Over the years, I’ve taught myself enough about gardening to pepper my porch with lovely pots of flowering plants. Last summer I taught myself the art of decoupage and I was thrilled with my results. In 2002, I dusted off my knitting needles and crochet hooks from my childhood and retaught myself the basics well enough to make and sell scarves and other fashion accessories while living in Europe for two years. Europeans love their scarves! With a very basic beginner sewing machine I am able to patch, repair, hem, and sometimes create things for me and my family. I love making baby blankets and quilts for my friends, in fact, I love giving homemade gifts whenever I can. Cooking and baking will always be one of my passions and nothing is more relaxing for me than to try out a new dish or learning about an exotic cuisine from some faraway place. Currently I am learning about and experimenting with low-carb cooking and eating. This, too, will prove difficult once the school year begins and visits to the faculty room become fraught with dangerous donations from well-meaning parents.
This past Friday, my husband took the day off and we took the metro to DC for the day. We decided to spend the day at the National Gallery of Art, have a nice lunch in a museum café, and maybe learn something new from the art world. The weather was beautiful so we got off the metro a stop early and took a longer walk to the museum. Once there, armed with the museum map of “director’s favorites”, we wandered through the different galleries at our leisure. What did I learn? Well, for starters, I learned that I’m not a fan of the German painters. The art seemed to me to be cold and distant. I could feel a distinct difference when looking at paintings from other Europeans.
I also learned that the National Gallery of Art is the home of the only Da Vinci in North America, and that it is painted on the front and back of the panel. When entering the gallery where Ginerva de’ Benci (circa 1474) is hanging, there is a buzz to the room. I remember experiencing this same buzz when visiting the Louvre entering the gallery where the Mona Lisa hangs, isolated and protected in all her glory. I had never heard of the Ginerva de’ Benci painting but it is pretty exciting being able to see a Da Vinci without crossing the ocean, and because it is owned by the Smithsonian, it’s absolutely free to view it.
We spent quite a bit of time in the Flemish galleries, near and dear to our hearts after living for two years in Belgium. Vermeer has his own little section. I first learned about Vermeer when I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, a novel by Tracy Chevalier which is a fictionalized biography of Vermeer’s life, this particular painting, and the servant who sat for this portrait. The book was adapted into a stunni
ng film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth.
Two of the Vermeer paintings at the National Gallery of Art also centered on one woman, and both seemed to have the same ethereal quality as Girl with a Pearl Earring. In The Girl with the Red Hat, I was struck by how much this woman reminded me of Princess Anne of the Royal Family of Great Britain, hat and all.
The other Vermeer painting, A Lady Writing, also features a woman donning a headdress of sorts. My husband and I studied it for a while and could not determine if she is wearing ribbons in her hair as decoration or as some primitive type of curling system. She is obviously of wealth, wearing what appears to be an ermine-trimmed dressing gown.
Our day at the museum was very enjoyable, and indeed, very relaxing. We strolled through the sculpture garden and sat for a while listening to the gurgling of the fountains. We had a lovely lunch from the Garden Café buffet (mostly low-carb choices) and even ran into our friend, Sister Marie de Sales, who bestowed upon us a gift of great happiness, our dog Puccini. It was the perfect way to end my summer break.
Last school year ended with my father becoming very ill and dying in early May. This was the first summer in eight years without his annual two-week visit. While I am thankful that he did not linger in poor health and suffer, it is very bittersweet to think about his time here with my family each summer, watching cooking shows and Deadliest Catch, Edge of Alaska, and other fishing and hunting programs. He loved to eat out and was always coming up with new ways to steal the restaurant check away from us at the end of the meal. He also loved my cooking and always asked if I could cook a big pot of mussels or French onion soup while he was here.
Overall, this summer has been just what I needed: time to rest, relax, reflect, and refresh. I’ve had time to take care of some household repairs and reorganization, read and write more, work on some crafts, exercise and walk my dog several times a day, and of course, continue down my path of lifelong learning. In a week, I will be ready to take on the challenges of a new school year and all that lies ahead of me. Bring it on!