R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Find Out What It Means To Me…

At the school where I teach, which is non-sectarian, our character education mission is guided by four core values: honesty, responsibility, kindness, and respect. While we try to teach and model all four of these all the time, each year the school chooses one core value to highlight with special emphasis. It’s a four-year rotation, and this year the focus is on respect.

Last year, I was awarded what is essentially Teacher of the Year. (It was a glorious shock, let me tell you!) But part of that means that this year, I was invited to speak to the entire community about our core value of focus. Since that’s a big audience — approximately 1700 people — the largest I’ve ever addressed, and my stagefright was intense, I fell back on a skill that comes naturally to me: storytelling.

And since it went well, I’d like to share my remarks with you.

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Good morning. Thank you for inviting me here to speak about our core value of respect. This morning I’d like to tell you all a story.

When I was seven years old, my mother and my grandmother began teaching me how to cook. My grandmother, whom I called Tita because that’s the Arabic word for Grandma, would come over to our house every Saturday, and she and my mother would spend the day making Lebanese food. When I was seven, they decided it was time I start learning how to do it, too. Now, learning to make Lebanese food is not a quick or simple process. There are no written recipes involved, and it takes most of the day; for example, making a batch of pita bread takes about five hours.

And while we made the food, Tita and my mother told me stories. I learned about how our family’s recipes had evolved over the generations, brought from Tripoli and Zouth-n-Kayek, from Bekfiya and Beirut, then to San Antonio and finally to Houston. I learned about the many people in my family who’d made this food before me and what their lives were like. I learned Tita had not had to measure a single ingredient since the age of twelve because she’d made cooking for her large family a big part of her life’s work.

And while I mixed ground lamb and onions and pine nuts to make kibbe, or stuffed grapeleaves and yellow squash with lamb and rice, I learned I was part of a rich and beautiful tradition. In learning to make this food, I came to understand my place in my family, in my culture, and – I thought – in the world.

One Monday morning, I decided to take some of the delicious Lebanese food I’d made to school with me for lunch. At that time, schools didn’t worry about food allergies, so my second-grade classmates and I all traded food in the lunchroom every day. As soon as everyone sat down at a table, the negotiations would begin:

“I’ll trade you a ham-and-cheese for your cupcake.”

“If I give you my Cheetos, can I have half your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?”

Things like that.

Well, I’d packed my Wonder Woman lunchbox that morning with some of my favorite foods, foods I was proud of, that I had made myself while participating in my family’s heritage. I started with the cookies. I asked, “Would anyone like a ma’amoul? No? I also have graybeh.” They looked at me like I was speaking Martian, not Arabic. So I switched to the English names: “How about a date finger?”

There was similar disinterest for my entrée, spinach pies. These are warm hand-held pies made of soft bread and filled with spinach and onions and lemon, and they were my favorite lunch. I’d brought two because I was sure someone else would want one.

Most of the reactions to my lunch ranged from unkindness – my classmates calling my food weird and gross – to polite distaste. They declined to sample any of it, much less trade me their Oreos for it, even though none of them had ever tried these foods before. And I felt torn: on the one hand, it looked like I was going to get to enjoy it all myself without having to share it; on the other hand, my seven-year-old sense of identity had become wrapped up in this food, in the communal process of creating it, and in what it meant to be Lebanese and to be part of my family. This food represented my culture, my accomplishments, and who I was as a person. So when my friends said my lunch was weird and gross, it felt like they were saying I was weird and gross.

Now, I mentioned that some of them were polite. They didn’t insult my lunch, but they didn’t want to try it, either. Politeness looks like respect, but it is not the same as respect. If you look up respect in the dictionary, you’ll see it means “to consider something in high regard.” To respect someone or something means that you think that person or thing is important and has value. If you look up politeness in the dictionary, you’ll find it means “marked by an appearance of deference or courtesy.” Some of my classmates politely declined to share my food, but it felt like they didn’t want to share in my experience, in who I was.

I did have one brave friend who, after she saw me eating my lunch, decided she would try it. She asked me if she could have a graybeh, which is a thick butter-and-sugar cookie with half a walnut embedded in the top, and I gave her one, and she liked it. Then I broke a ma’amoul – which is a sweet crumbly pastry filled with spiced dates and rolled in sugar – and gave her half. She liked that as well. She even had part of a spinach pie and declared it to be “actually pretty good.” She shared her chocolate bar with me, too. That one friend showed me respect by appreciating what I had to offer.

I want to paraphrase something my wise friend Christa Forster once told me, which is that all the things which make up who we are – our memories, our traditions, what we like or value – these things which make us unique and special are all golden. And when we share what matters to us with each other, we share that gold. And when we accept other people with an open mind and an open heart, when we celebrate what makes each other unique and special, we become richer. Just like my friend in second grade who discovered a whole new cuisine she liked eating, when we respect other people by accepting them, we gain a richer understanding and appreciation of them and what they have to offer, and also of the world.

Thank you so much for your attention today. Have a wonderful school year.

Monday Earworm: Lil Nas X (feat. Billy Ray Cyrus)

All right, look. Last week school started, and Friday through Sunday I was camping with the 9th grade class on their retreat. Today I am a zombie and was so during the whole school day. And this song really will not get out of my head, because high school.

But honestly? I sort of love this song. Also note you’re not likely to see Billy Ray Cyrus on this blog again. So please enjoy.

The FINIS. Book-iversary Comes to Instagram

This month is the book-iversary for Finis., and I haven’t had a lot of time to devote to it while I’ve been promoting The Sharp Edges of Water and starting the school year back up. But I have managed to get a few IG posts. I don’t know if they’re as visually dynamic as the one I made recently for SEW, but they do tell a little bit of a story in a series of three posts. My favorite part of all of this is that these posts contain new character cards for Elsa, Lois, and Gerard that were made by my daughter. Her interpretations of these characters go beyond what I visualized, and I really like them! I’ll let you head over to IG to read the accompanying text, but here are the visual details.

Monday Earworm: Simple Minds

This week classes begin in my part of the country. I know I will enjoy working with this year’s students, but right now, last year’s graduates are still on my mind. I saw several of them this weekend at a reading and book signing for The Sharp Edges of Water (Thank you for coming to that, by the way! What an amazing turn-out!), and I’ve been in touch with a few this summer as they prepare for college. This is always the case.

I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say to them, Come back and visit now and then when you’re on a holiday from school and let us know how you’re doing. We’ve invested a fair amount of time and energy into getting you to this point, and we’re interested to see how things turn out for you. You might be nervous and scared and excited and scattered right now, but we have much confidence in you.

Everything is going to be just fine. You’re going to be wonderful. You have learned so much already, academically, and now you’re going to learn even more about living. Don’t forget these lessons, but be sure to keep them in context. College, on balance, is not always going to be easy, but it will probably often be good.

Drop us a line now and then. Your friends who haven’t graduated yet will be glad to hear from you, too.

All the best.

In Which I Create A Halfway Decent Instagram Post In Support Of My Book Party This Weekend

I am not a good photographer. I’m not even a mediocre photographer. I have trouble taking decent pictures of inanimate objects in natural light, let alone anything more complicated than that.

But I’m trying to make the effort over on Instagram to make worthwhile posts. Tonight I made a book post that I actually think might not be too bad. It took me a while. And since I don’t share nearly enough photos here on the blog, I’m sharing it with you here.

This Saturday at 3 p.m. you should drop by Blue Willow Bookshop if you’re in Houston, because we’re having a party there and then for The Sharp Edges of Water. Expect poetry and gifts and merriment. Expect Houston and Los Angeles. Expect mermaids. Bring your questions. It should be fun.

Monday Earworm: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

My dad with one of his cousins on a street named for a president.

Earlier this summer, while I was in Maine attending an absolutely amazing writing retreat, my parents were in Lebanon. It has been a lifelong goal of my father’s to go there, to see his family there, to see the country his people come from. He was born here in the States, but he has always wanted to go over, and this year he finally took the chance to do it. He and my mom went with a handful of close cousins and a really big tour group.

part of the Lebanese coast

 

 

For my father, this journey was a dream come true. He is a passionately religious man, so he loved that they visited numerous shrines and historical holy places of various faiths. He is intensely devoted to his family, so it was wonderful for him to experience it with his wife and cousins. We are deeply rooted in our Lebanese heritage, so going to see the country and its shores and its many important sites, and to eat its food at every meal and to attend a sahria at night and to spontaneously break out into dabke at lunch with many of the other tourists, was glorious. Two of our cousins occupied the presidency a few decades ago, and so to meet the current president was a little bit of a treat.

They also went to see a Kahlil Gibran site, of course. How could they not?
We asked them to send us photos. Dad sent us eleventy jillion photos of temples and shrines. Here’s one.

I’m happy for my parents to have made and enjoyed this journey, but what their experience taught me is that chasing one’s dreams — as hokey as that sounds, let’s be honest — is a worthwhile pursuit. Seeing the fruition of his dream inspired me to believe a little more confidently in my own.

Dad planted a cedar tree in honor of his grandfather, who immigrated to the States about a century ago. My parents have played a small part in helping Lebanon’s cedar reforestation efforts.
Mom standing next to some cedars so you can see the scale. These are pretty big trees.

I’m a hybrid author, as you may be aware. I’ve been published in a variety of ways, including independently, traditionally, and through small presses. One thing I’m still hoping to achieve, though, is agented representation for my literary fantasy novels. They are the biggest and broadest literary endeavor I’ve made to date, and I want to go the full traditional way with them if I can. And this week, that first novel is headed out my electronic door to agents. Wish it good luck, will you?

But it’s Monday. I’ve promised you an earworm.

This is probably my favorite Tom Petty song of all time, and I’m not gonna lie, the video reminds me a little bit of The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton.

What dream are you running down right now? Share it in the comments, if you would, so we can all wish you well on your path.