The last words my grandfather said to me were, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” Which is Shakespeare of course. Anyone who knew my Pa wouldn’t be surprised by this one bit. Pa loved to recite poetry and literature, he had rows and rows of book shelves in his basement, all overflowing with book after book. It seemed like a secret library when I was little. I’d pretend I was in a book about a secret place, like Indiana Jones looking for the X on the floor, or the clue in an ancient script, as I thumbed through the old books. And the smell… well who didn’t love the smell of old books?

Some people get rid of books after they read them, but I’ve never been able to. Borrow them out? Sure. Donate or trash? Nope. I’m sure this is an inherited trait and that one day I’ll end up on an episode of Hoarders, but I can’t help it. Every book leaves a little impression on me, there’s always a word or phrase that might cling to me. What if I needed to find it again? What if I wanted to revisit a time or place later on after I had a new understanding of the subject matter?

Today I found myself wandering around a bookstore, looking for a new book to adopt into my Hoarder’s Hall of Shame. I usually peruse the bargain shelves first, unwilling to pay full-price for a book because I’m a cheapskate (in fact, later on I ended up at Goodwill and bought 3 hardback books there for a total of $8). The bargain shelf is miraculous because sometimes if you time it right, you can find the bestsellers which are still being advertised at the front of the store. Of course, next to those are some of the duds. The books no one wanted. Next to those is the Clearance Rack: the ones that were even worse than the duds.

I found myself staring at that rack as I pondered the books in my hands. I had a sci-fi by Margaret Atwood, and a new best-seller by Kate Atkinson. Both were on the bargain shelf. Being on the bargain shelf wasn’t a big deal, there wasn’t a stigma about it. If your book is anywhere next to Atwood, even if it’s been marked down to $5.97, you’re doing Ok. But the clearance rack? I perused the titles of misfit books, authors I’d never heard of. Boring titles, overused clichés. An irrational fear gripped me. What if that’s where I ended up?

What if, after working for years on a project dear to me, no one wanted to read it and it set sadly on a crude clearance shelf? As I thought about this, I realized this was a familiar problem for me. My senior year of high school I sat in my Art class, speaking to my teacher about the end of year senior awards he was in charge of awarding. He looked straight at me and told me who the Senior Award would be going to. Not me. Someone more deserving, someone who turned in his work on time. After telling me who would be receiving the prize he then said, “But you know, if I had an award for the most pissed-away talent, hands-down that would absolutely go to you.”

And I shrugged, because that was fine with me and didn’t hurt my feelings at all. Because I knew I’d rather my projects end up in the garbage than on a clearance rack. And I haven’t shaken that fear, yet. Being nothing seems more manageable than being just ok.

So, I spend my time fiddling with a project I’ll probably never finish while thinking of secret basements filled with beloved words their owners couldn’t part with, pondering Pa’s recitation of Shakespeare’s words, those last words he said to me. To be or not to be. It’s still the question, and I still don’t have an answer.


There are certain places bored into my mind, so vivid and real, that when a familiar smell invades, or a sunlit slash of water reflects the sky just right, I’m immediately transported back to it. Sometimes that’s comforting, sometimes it’s not. Some places I’ll never be able to visit again, some I can visit whenever I want. Some places I have to recreate over and over again in my head, while sitting hundreds of miles away. I have to remember the comfort and soothing relief that would flood me if I did venture back, and play pretend. Sometimes I have help.

Over this past weekend, I had plenty of help, as I was blessed to be able to spend time with my best friend and some of the extended family with whom he is living. I had never met his family, had never been to their city. But, they graciously made room for me in their home, let me stay in a room vacated for the weekend. A room complete with a music stand sitting idly in the corner, a stand not unlike one I used to have in my room, where I’d practice my clarinet. But, that wasn’t what made me feel nostalgic.

No, what made me feel at peace, at home with these people I had just met, was that when I awoke in the morning, the open window to my right was letting in the mist and culling patter of the spring rain that had begun some time during the night. I lay there in the strange bed, thinking of a morning long ago when I had been awakened in a similar manner, with peaceful, prying rain begging me to sit up in bed and share my dreams with the overcast sky.

I was at camp, the same church camp I had attended every year since the fourth grade, sitting on a flattened mattress atop a steel-framed bunk bed. The cabin to which my friends and I had been assigned was nothing short of primitive, yet I still remember it as one of the greatest places I’ve ever been. No, it wasn’t the grand structure at the top of the hill close to the mess hall, complete with a fireplace and air conditioning. No, it wasn’t one of the cabins close to the shower house or the tabernacle. Hell, there wasn’t even a straight path to this cabin. But, I didn’t care. The cabin—this cabin, where I spent my very last week at camp—was nestled into a bramble of brush and overgrown trees, just about as far as it could be from running water. Its giant windows overlooked the lake and it was so quiet I couldn’t help but be at peace when I woke and sat up in bed every day that week, the summer before I became a senior in high school, and saw the June sun skidding across the ripples in the water.

Of course it wasn’t truly quiet. It was that false, lulling kind of quiet punctuated by the mating calls of birds and toads, leaf-rustling winds and seductive rain. It all melted together to form a calming soundtrack composed specifically for making anxious teenagers fall asleep and have vivid dreams which gave birth to epiphanies a person could only have on the outskirts of nowhere, drunk on nature.

I had a few such dreams while I was there that week. Dreams I still remember, dreams I jokingly call “signs.” I only joke about them being signs because people would call me insane if they knew I truly believed in them.

Some dreams made you believe in signs, messages from the beyond, because they were so real and three dimensional that when you woke, you couldn’t help but think you had just experienced the delusion in your head. For me, that first delusional dream involved me, trying to find my way through a maze hedged with high, ivy-covered stone walls. Someone was ahead of me, leading me out. Gently prodding me to chase him. It took me until the end of the dream to see who it was—a friend of mine. A friend with dark hair, bright eyes, smiling as I chased him through the winding landscape. A friend I’d always thought of as just that—a good friend, until I woke with a start from that cryptic dream, listening to the rain pelting the roof of the cabin, pushing through the unobstructed window screens. No sun was reflecting off the choppy water that day. The birds and insects were asleep or in hiding, and it was just me. Awake before the others, sitting in my bunk, wishing I could stay there longer in this sudden moment of clarity. Tucked away from society, pondering funny dreams no one would believe if I told them. Dreams about the man I’d eventually marry, leading me through moss-covered, stone-walled labyrinths.

But, maybe I don’t give people enough credit. Maybe they’d understand, when someone ends up in exactly the place they are supposed to be, there are always signs. Maybe the signs aren’t for you, maybe they’re for someone else. Maybe, you wake up in a strange place, listening to a familiar storm beat against your brain, to assure you your best friend is exactly where he is supposed to be, even if it’s nowhere near you. Maybe, he’s in the perfect place to find the person who will lead him through his own winding maze.


People keep asking me my thoughts on the issue of consolidation, the most heatedly debated topic up to vote for tomorrow, so I guess I will post my opinions here. Many believe I will just go the way of my mother before me, who was on the Wood River Hartford school board for twelve years, and who was against consolidation at that time, some fifteen years ago or whenever it was that it came up. But, my mother didn’t just teach me about her way of thinking, she taught me to think for myself.

A long, long time ago someone decided that the two districts feeding into our high school, and the high school itself, should all be three distinct, separate districts. I’m not up on my area history, so I have no idea why, who, when that happened. I do know that most districts are NOT set up in this confusing manner, and that we are an anomaly. I get that. What we need to decide as a community, is if it should be changed now.

If we could go back in time and just make East Alton, Wood River, and the resulting high school one big, happy family district, I would absolutely say, “Yes, let’s do that.” But, we can’t. So now we have to decide if it is worth revisiting. They say to stitch a deep wound within 24 hours, and after that it isn’t worth it. You’re going to have a scar, the healing has already begun, and going back, ripping open the wound just to stitch it back together the *right* way, will just cause more harm, give you a bigger scar. Sometimes, you can’t easily go back and do things the way they should have been done in the first place. So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this pending reconstructive surgery, shall we?

First, I’d like to look at two things I’m tired of hearing, one from each camp. From the anti-consolidation side, I have heard over and over again that kids will be bussed across communities. I have heard that Hartford kids will be bussed to East Alton. I don’t believe this will happen for a minute if consolidation passes. I just don ‘t. Why? Because despite all evidence to the contrary, I still believe there are people in positions of power with compassion and brains bigger than birds. Now, if class sizes change and they want to close Hartford for good, I do think those on the border of Wood River and East Alton may have to change schools, but I don’t think that would happen any time soon. If it does, it won’t be ideal for the communities, but it also won’t be the end of the world.

From the pro-consolidation crowd, one of their main rah-rah cheers is that taxes will go down. This, in spite of a report done saying they will NOT go down (the pro crowd keeps saying this doesn’t count because the report is 5 years old, but nothing has substantially changed in that time in regards to the districts, so I don ‘t understand their reasoning). There have also been other experts saying taxes will probably not go down, yet they keep parading this line of thinking across the internet and my mailbox. Here’s why taxes will be a wash: You are going to take three districts and combine them, and even if the last superintendent standing decides, out of the goodness of his heart, to keep working for a much larger district at his same rate of pay he’s working at now, we still have the issue of teacher salaries.

Yep. Teachers in all three districts are on different, union-contracted pay scales. If consolidation passes, all of the teachers in every district will be bumped to the highest pay scale, and get the best benefits. This will cause a shortfall that will have to be redeemed somehow. Guess how? Through tax-payer money, staff reduction, school-closings, or our new Republican, union-hating governor, Rauner, gifting our district an extra $900,000 a year.

So, what is the benefit of consolidation? Well, it will align the curriculum of the feeder schools, and everyone will be on the same academic calendar. The pro camp cites neighboring unit districts as evidence that these are benefits that outweigh any risk. I have been told to “look at Bethalto and Roxana” to see how well a unit district performs.

So, I did. I looked up data on Bethalto, Roxana, Wood River, and East Alton schools. And you know what that pesky sociologist in my brain found–that little annoying voice that keeps saying, “Correlation does not equal causation,” and who weirdly loves statistics?

It found that according to, East Alton Elementary has a 55.9% poverty rate. Wood River has a 37% poverty rate. The better-performing schools, Bethalto and Roxana have low-income rates of 7.2%, and 15.5%, respectively. If you don’t believe that has an effect on the achievements of our student population, you are naïve at best.  I’m not saying consolidation can’t help–no one knows that for sure–all I’m asking is that everyone look at the big picture, and not think of consolidation as some panacea for our students’ problems. Ensuring every student has read the same books or memorized the exact same historical facts before setting foot in the high school, is not going to solve our problems.

I have annoyed countless parents of other districts with my questioning. I really want to keep an open mind, see this issue from all points of view, but the fact of the matter is, you can dictate what everyone within a fifteen mile radius should teach and still you will have teachers who don’t get it all done. You will still have students who are under prepared, or who haven’t read the same books as their cohorts. I work in my community and it is a very transient one right now. It is  a very poor one, right now.  Consolidation isn’t going to fix this, and may even hinder it.

I am no expert on any of this, these are just my musings, what I have gathered through the mud-slinging coming from all sides. But, at this point, I do feel like the risks outweigh the benefits, at least for now. I see no reason to rip a new wound just to stitch it shut again.


My daughter is my shadow. Everywhere I go, everything I do, she has to be right behind me, or next to me. This is especially annoying to me in the morning, when I am hustling around the house trying to get ready for work, before I have been optimally caffeinated. She and the dog tangle themselves around me, watch my every move.

A usual scene on a weekday morning is me in front of the mirror in my tiny half-bathroom, my daughter’s reflection off to the side, staring at me as I put on my make-up. The dog lays at her feet just inside the doorway, making sure we cannot escape without imperiling our lives, or at the very least, our kneecaps (he never moves until we are trying to step over him, at which point he abruptly gets up, making us trip).

I carefully apply my eye liner and ask her what she needs, her reason for being in the bathroom, which is barely big enough for me and my elbows as I try to cover the bags under my eyes. She always replies that she needs nothing, just likes to watch me. I usually find this annoying, but this morning I had a flash of a different scene. Me, in my bathroom as a child, standing off to the side watching my mother dab little circles of creamy foundation all over her face, then blend them into her skin, her dark hair rolled up on top of her head in hot-curlers. Her little Mary Kay brushes getting wet under the faucet before she dipped them into those little colorful palettes of eyeshadow. That was how you did Mary Kay make-up back then. You wet, dipped, applied. She had similar pods of lip color and rouge. Different brushes used to apply each. I can remember how each of them smelled, how she smelled after she put it all on. How her hair fell in curls around her face when she unpinned the rollers. The smell of heated hair mixed with that powdery, not quite sweet smell of femininity. I remember not being able to wait until I got my own brushes and colors.

I wonder if my mom ever thought I was annoying as I crowded behind her, asking every few seconds what she was doing. I don’t remember her ever being angry or frustrated with me while I watched her, but that’s the thing about memories–they can change and soften over time if the person in them isn’t around to contradict your version.

I looked back at my shadow, my nine year old who will be able to wear her own make-up in a few short years, and decided to try and not give her any memories of me being frustrated with her. After all, she has enough of those already. Instead, I let her watch, then I turned, fixed her hair with a barrette, and hoped I’d be around in her later years, able to contradict any skewed memories she builds up in her head down the road. Memories of me in the mirror.