A Birthday Memory

My mom’s beloved butter roses. August 2018

Today, I’m remembering my mom on her birthday. To honor her this birthday, I’m thinking about the things that made my mom so special to me–the aspects of her that I carry with me daily and that bring me so much comfort as I navigate through this new(er) journey without my mom in physical form.

For starters, my mom had excellent foresight that guided me throughout my entire life and continues to guide me. She always knew exactly what I needed well before it was a blip on my radar. On the very first day of college, after my family helped me unpack my dorm room, my mom pulled me aside and said, “When you graduate, don’t forget about your student loans and health insurance.” I smiled and nodded, thinking that these issues would work themselves out by the time I graduated. Graduation seemed incredibly far away, and I would most certainly deal with those things later. Throughout college, my mom continued to offer me advice on various things like applying for internships, writing resumes and cover letters, the kinds of courses I should take, etc. I, wanting to assert my independence, always said I’d figure these things out myself. I would agonize and by the time I had “figured it out,” I ended up heeding whatever suggestions my mom had made. Therefore, by the time I reached my senior year, I saved myself the heartache by simply asking my mom what she thought and following her advice immediately. By the time graduation rolled around, I found myself armed with a diploma, a thick envelope with a bill for my student loans, and a pamphlet on how to get health insurance now that I’d be off my parents’ plan. Reality started to sink in especially since I was still without a job. Student loans and health insurance! My mom had known all along that these things would plague me forever if I didn’t consider them upon graduation. She had been so right.

My mom showed kindness and care in everything that she did. Whether it was cooking, gardening, teaching, traveling, or just being with family, she took great care in all of her endeavors and did it with kindness. After I had lived in Boston for a few years, I decided to move back to Wisconsin where my parents were living. My mom was gracious enough to allow me, a twenty-six year old who was more than capable of living on her own, to move into the apartment above our garage. I promised her it would only be for a month. Two and a half years later, I was still living there. Once, my good friend and neighbor told my mom that she should pull the rug out from under me, that it was the kick in the pants I needed. She laughed but of course would never force me out of the house. With my 30th birthday on the horizon, I decided it was probably time for me to fly the coop for once and for all. There was something about being a thirty year-old living in her parents’ garage that didn’t sound so appealing to me.

Mother/Daughter cooking adventures. Christmas 2013

My mom’s love of food and hosting dinner parties has become part of the fabric of my being. I always observed my mom in the kitchen and because she was very good at delegating cooking tasks when preparing for a dinner party, she gave me plenty of opportunities to develop my cooking repertoire. When I was ten, she taught me how to make Julia Child’s tomatoes Provençale. By “taught,” I mean my mom was more like, here Sonja, here’s the recipe and the ingredients, make it happen. At twenty-six, during my live-at-home stint, my mom and I often prepared dinner together in the kitchen. We had the same approach to cooking, a dash of this, a dash of that. We joked that we would start a mother/daughter cooking blog that I wanted to call Joanie and Sony’s Food Delights. We had numerous cooking adventures including my favorite during Christmas 2013 wherein my mom finally taught me how to prepare a turkey, complete with putting my hand up in the carcass to season and stuff. I had always avoided dealing with bird carcass, but no longer! Thankfully, we had gone for gel manicures first, so our hands looked lovely while inside the turkey (and the gel manicure meant the color lasted for weeks).

My childhood bedroom. July 2018.

My mom knew I needed to feel special as a middle child since we middle children often feel overlooked. To me, feeling acknowledged meant self-expression. Thus, I was allowed to decorate my room in whatever way I wanted, which meant I taped up pictures of friends and magazine cutouts over my teddy bear wallpaper. When it came time to redecorate the house, once we were all in college, my mom kept my room in tact the way I’d left it. I wasn’t ready to let go of my childhood room, and she validated these feelings (however ridiculous they were). Even when she turned it into her office, she continued to do her research amongst the teddy bear wallpaper and magazine cutouts of 90s’ hunks.

Finally, one of the great things about my mom that often flew under the radar was her sense of humor. After I moved home from college (the first time), she would often respond to me, “well why don’t you marry it?” whenever I was going on about how much I loved her cooking, or the book I was reading, or my boyfriend at the time. When I asked her to read my cover letter, she pointed out that I had written the word love five times in the letter and that it was way too enthusiastic–nobody loves working that much. Or, she would razz me for that fact that I had an incredible ability to show up at the front door just as she was putting dinner on the table.  It was true. I always arrived home from work just as she was placing a hot dish on top of the table.

I could go on and on about the wonderful things my mom did for me, her incredible talents, or the beautiful memories that shared, but I’ll pause for now. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to my mom’s memory on this day and continue to carry on her legacy by being kind, caring, passionate toward everyone and everything I encounter.
To Mom!

Show Me Your Mussels

For my 20th birthday, I had a few friends over for a sophisticated party. Nothing too wild, the party was an afternoon affair. I had a few friends over for a light meal and opening presents. My mom made mussels, one of my all-time favorite meals.As my mom was cooking the mussels in the kitchen, my friend, filled with curiosity, wandered in to observe. He had an important date coming up and really wanted to woo this woman. He thought making her mussels might do the trick, but he was afraid they’d be too complicated to cook. My mom assured him that there was nothing to it and walked him through the simple steps of how to cook mussels. His date ended up being a success and the two of them dated for many months until graduation inevitably sent them in separate directions.
This birthday anecdote exemplifies why I love mussels. They seem so fancy, yet they’re affordable and easy to make, and they always wow the crowd.
When I’m cooking in the summertime, I want a meal that takes minimum effort to prepare while giving me maximum taste and satisfaction. Lately, I’ve been making meals for dinner that I could make with my eyes closed–grilled salmon, salad, corn on the cob, and mussels. That always comes as a shock to my friends when I tell them I had mussels for dinner in the comfort in my own home. These scrumptious mollusks are easy to make! Here’s what you need to do:

  1. Go to your local fish market and pick up the freshest mussels you can find! (1 lb. for 2) When I’m in Milwaukee (which I usually am in the summer), I go to St. Paul’s Fish Market for the freshest fish around.
  2. Pick up a dry white wine in which to cook your mussels. When it comes to cooking with wine, I look for cheap, but also something I would drink (thanks mom and Julia Child for teaching me this important lesson). Obviously you’re going to have a glass while you’re cooking (another important tip from both my mom and Julia Child), so you want something that tastes good and doesn’t break the bank. My mom always cooked with Frontera, so that’s become my go-to wine for cooking. I usually use a Sauvignon Blanc or a Chardonnay.
  3. Chop up a bunch of scallions and a clove (or 2) of garlic. You’ll be adding these to sauce.
  4. Wash off mussels. Put them in a pot. Add wine (enough to cover mussels but not too much so you can’t properly cook off the alcohol), garlic and scallions.
  5. Cover pot. Bring to a boil. Once all mussels have opened, turn off the stove, and there you have it (as Julia used to say)!
  • Serve over pasta or with a side of crusty bread.
  • Fun fact: the shells make great dipping spoons.
  • If you’re still feeling extremely unmotivated to cook, here are some places (that I like) where you can go to get your mussels fix:
  • Whether you decide to cook your mussels at home or enjoy someone else’s cooking, I hope you throughly enjoy your meal. Bon appetit!
  • Who is Qualified to Run for President of the United States?

    gbush_dukakis-p1When I was in five-year old kindergarten, our teacher had us participate in a mock poll for the upcoming ’88 election. She set up a private voting area to simulate what the actual polls were like. All we had to do was cast our vote on the ballot provided to us by our Scholastic News Weekly Reader and place it into a desk.

    Having no prior knowledge of the issues or who George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis were, I took a long hard look at the ballot, which had photos of both candidates, and tried to determine who looked more presidential. Ultimately, I decided that George H.W. Bush looked more presidential than Michael Dukakis, so I wrote an X next to his photo and placed my ballot into the desk. I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction after hearing Bush had won; I must’ve had an innate knack for determining outcomes of presidential elections.

    Back then, as a five-year old, I had no idea what made someone qualified to be the president of the United States, so I based it on looks. If you look at the two men side-by-side, you’ll notice that Dukakis has darker features than Bush. By this time, I was already socialized to instinctively believe that a well-coiffed, Anglo-Saxon man made the best leader and would naturally fill the role of president. Unfortunately, too many of us still hold this same archaic belief–whether consciously or unconsciously–that to truly be qualified to be president, one must still be a white male.

    93339875_obamalaughingDon’t believe me? Remember President Obama? How many times was he criticized for being under-qualified to be president despite the fact he held a law degree from Harvard? I don’t know about you, but I certainly want someone with a deep understanding of the law to be involved in the law-making process. Another criticism was that he wasn’t in the Senate long enough to run for president. Or how about the incessant requests for him to prove that he was born in the United States? Did anyone ask to see George Bush’s birth certificate? Or Bill Clinton?

    So, people weren’t satisfied with a Harvard Law degree or a short stint in the US Senate. Then, what actually makes someone qualified to be the president?

    Take Oprah. Oprah delivers an impassioned, intelligent speech at the Golden Globes and suddenly everyone is declaring that she is not qualified to run for the presidency of the United States despite the fact she has not even announced her candidacy.

    A successful, intelligent, well-connected, empathetic, charismatic black businesswoman is not qualified to run for president? I’m not concerned about whether or not she’d make a good president; I’m deeply concerned at how quick people were to discredit her qualifications. The only true qualifications required to be a candidate for the presidency are you have to be 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and a resident of the US for 14 years. Yet, we’re holding on to this false idea that to be president of the United States you have to somehow meet a magical set of rigorous requirements that never actually existed in the first place.

    Just look at Hillary Clinton. Given her experience in foreign policy and tenure in the Senate, Hillary Clinton was extremely qualified to run for the presidency. However, people questioned her qualifications, too. Some couldn’t even see beyond her gender and believed that people were only voting for her simply because she was a woman and not her wealth of experience. Others didn’t want just another career politician in the White House especially not another Clinton. Some of these same naysayers are now urging the public to embrace Rep. Joe Kennedy III as a viable candidate for president. A Kennedy Democrat in politics? That is something I have never heard of before!

    So, I suppose to be truly qualified to run for president, you should have experience in politics, but not too much, and you shouldn’t be related or married to someone who’s already held the office unless he was a charismatic, attractive white male, and you are too. I think I’m starting to get the idea of what truly qualifies someone to run for president.

    As we set our sights on Decision 2020, I urge us all to take a deep look at the unconscious biases that cloud our judgments of what makes someone qualified enough to run for the presidency of the United States. It’s time to rewrite the narrative so that someday, in the classrooms of tomorrow, when kindergartners are holding another mock election and some five year-old girl is looking at the pictures of the candidates on her ballot—what she deems to  “look presidential” does not resemble a well-coiffed, Anglo-Saxon male.

    4 Things I’m Focusing on in 2018

    hot yogaI’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions. In fact, a couple of years ago when I noticed that many of my sentences about my life began with “if only…” and “when X happens, I’ll be happier,” I made a life-changing decision to stop wishing my life away and live in the present. Instead of waiting for the “perfect conditions” or hoping I would find the “perfect job,” I made sure to appreciate what I had and make more time for the things I loved. Gradually, I adopted a more regular work-out routine; I  read more books on a regular basis; I cooked more at home; I prioritized getting together with friends (sometimes at the expense of sleep) & visiting family regularly; I bought more tickets for cultural events like the ballet, Broadway shows, and friends’ comedy shows. As a result, I’ve found that my life feels more balanced even amidst a hectic schedule.

    While I don’t make specific resolutions for the new year like participate in Dry January, or eliminate carbohydrates from my diet, I like to re-center myself at the beginning of each new year. Last night, I took a hot yoga class for the first time in a long time. I used to do yoga regularly, but when I switched gyms a long time ago,  I never got back into the routine. There are a lot of yoga-esque moves incorporated into the barre classes I often take, so thankfully I wasn’t as rusty as I thought I would be!

    During last night’s practice, our teacher had us participate in a mala, which is much different than the traditional vinyasa yoga classes I’ve taken. A mala commemorates the changing seasons and is usually done in conjunction with the solstice. In a full mala, participants do 108 sun salutations in 4 rounds with each round dedicated to a different purpose. Last night, we did about a half mala or close to 56 sun salutations.

    After the practice, while lying sweaty in corpse pose, I thought about the four rounds of dedications we’d done and how I would like to focus more on these things in the coming year. So, here are the four things I’m focusing on in 2018:

    1. Myself–It’s weird to think about one’s self especially when so often we feel selfish if we celebrate our selves. Have you ever taken the time to thank yourself? Or congratulate yourself on overcoming adversity. This year, I will focus on remaining kind to myself mentally and physically (more sleep!).
    2. My loved ones- My loved ones are often at the forefront of my mind, but in 2018, I would like to focusing on showing my gratitude through acts of service (my love language).
    3. My challenges/challengers- This dedication came at the most challenging part of the practice and I found it empowering to think about my adversaries while doing more chaturangas (aka the yoga push-up/low plank) than I’d ever done in my life and sweating profusely onto the mat and floor (sorry, yoga studio). I love a good physical challenge, but this year I focus on being more grateful for the other challenges I face in life instead of wishing they would disappear. Challenges help me solidify my beliefs and motivate me to fight for the change I wish to see.
    4. All beings- I make it a point to be polite and kind to those I encounter in my every day life and since I live in New York City, I encounter a lot of people on a daily basis. However, in 2018, I would like to focus on being a stronger advocate for marginalized voices and actively work to amplify those voices.

    These things certainly aren’t new and are already on my mind, but this year, I’d like to deepen my commitment to them. What are you focusing on in the coming year?

    2017 In Review: My Year In Books

    CaptureIn a year marked by tragedy—both personal and political—I turned to books, as usual, for solace, answers, escape, and laughter. I had set out to read 20 books in 2017 (I’d forgotten about this goal until I recently logged into my Goodreads account) and ended up reading only eight books. Better luck next year! Despite the many challenges of 2017, I found lots of pleasure in the books I read this year, and so I present to you (in hopes that you might enjoy a few, too) my year in books, in chronological order:

    1. South and West: From A Notebook by Joan Didion

    Only Joan Didion can publish excerpts from her notes and captivate an audience. As a fan of Joan Didion, I greatly appreciated this book. Written in 1970 after a month trip to the South without a specific story in mind, Didion’s notes offer a unique outsider’s perspective on life in the South and the reader can see through her observations how the mostly unchanged South has influenced our current political climate.

    2. No Mud, No Lotus: The Art of Transforming Suffering by Thich Naht Hahn

    I purchased this book shortly after my mom’s passing in order to start to grapple with grief (which as many of you know is a lifelong journey). Many of the ideas in this book resonated with me–particularly the idea that one shouldn’t try to push away suffering in order to find happiness; both have to peacefully coexist. Hahn also talked about the idea that we often let “les petites miseres” of life cause us more suffering than its worth. I’m pretty new to meditating (as in, I’ve done it a handful of times), but the mantras at the end of the book providing helpful centering exercises.

    3. A Farm Dies Once A Year: A Memoir by Arlo Crawford

    I’d come across this title on a list of promising nonfiction to read in 2014. I’d picked up the book in 2014 at a time when I relate to the narrator-a young 30-something who was questioning his purpose in life and searching for meaning. Also like the narrator, I fantasized about simplifying my life and moving to a farm to live and work of the land (instead I opted to return to the field of teaching). I finally read this book it in its entirety this year when I decided I was going to rotate fiction and nonfiction. I found that by now, I no longer could relate to the narrator and the story felt a little trite, the narrator a little whiny, and the idea of showing up to one’s parents’ farm to live and work for a year and then move a little too classic millennial for my tastes.

    4. Moonglow by Michael Chabon

    This book was given to me last Christmas by my mom and it turned out to be the last book she would ever give me, so this book has a lot of sentimental value to me in addition to it being a beautifully-written and intriguing story. We’d first heard of the book a couple summers ago while watching a segment on PBS Newshour where Michael Chabon spoke about his process for writing Moonglow, which is billed as a “faux-memoir novel,” and we were intrigued. The story takes place in 1989 while the narrator’s grandfather is on his deathbed. While on medication, he tells the narrator stories about his life, which is also interspersed with the narrator’s memories of his childhood. The novel plays with the conventions of fiction and memoir and I was pleased to hear Michael Chabon read from Moonglow and talk about his process this past fall at the 92 Street Y. I even waited in line and had the copy of the book my mom had given me autographed.


    5-8 The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

         5. My Brilliant Friend

         6. The Story of a New Name 

         7. Those Who Leave, and Those Who Stay 

        8. The Story of the Lost Child 

    I ended the year by reading the Neapolitan Novels. This was a delightful adventure that I recommend to anyone who loves coming-of-age tales that last over four thick novels. The story chronicles the life of Elena Greco and her lifelong friendship with Lila from elementary school until the present. The first novel is set against the backdrop of 1950s Naples, in a poor neighborhood where few residents go to school beyond elementary school, and the novels that follow trace Elena’s life through the decades amidst varying political changes and struggles of the time and relationships with family, friends, lovers, neighbors. One of the blurbs on the front cover of the first novel summarizes these novels best, “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are.”

    There is also some mystery surrounding the actual identity of Elena Ferrante,  the author’s pen name, which adds an even more exciting buzz to these already intriguing novels.

    That’s all for 2017! I’m looking forward to reading more in 2018 (hoping to hit 20) and of course I’m looking for your suggestions! Here’s to another great year in books!

    #shatterthetaboo: Time to Talk About Mental Health & Opioid Addiction

    The following is a guest post written by my dear friend & colleague Morgan. We’ve shared a lot this year: a classroom, ideas for several creative projects, and the grief of losing a family member.

    Morgan lost her brother in February from a Fentanyl overdose. In an effort to #shatterthetaboo around mental health and opioid addiction, here are the words Morgan penned about her family’s experience as well as a video of the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial:

    On February 9th, 2017, my 27-year old brother Jamie died from a Fentanyl overdose.

    Jamie struggled with mental health for the last 10 years of his life and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

    At some point, he became an opioid user. Opioid addiction is often deadly because you need more and more to feel high each time. Eventually, he started to use heroin.

    We assume that when he died, he thought he was using heroin, but he was in fact using Fentanyl. It is 100x more potent than morphine, and 50x more potent than heroin. When you die from Fentanyl, there is very little chance of resuscitation. You die almost immediately. It looks almost identical to heroin.

    Jamie was an advocate for his mental health struggles for a long time. He wanted to champion his diseases; he did not shy away from telling people about them. However, he never divulged to us his battle with addiction. Being that addiction is a family disease, we were in complete denial and couldn’t see the truth right in front of our faces.

    Perhaps if the stigma didn’t exist so heavily around addiction, he would have come to us. Maybe he would still be alive.

    After his death, many friends have come to us with similar stories of mental health and addiction struggles. In the light of the opioid crisis, it has never been more important to shatter the taboo. To see just how bad the crisis is, take a look at these graphs: https://goo.gl/SgsfMo

    As I said in my eulogy, “If you are struggling, if your family member or your friend is struggling, tell someone. Reach out. Ask how can I help. Suggest resources, share experiences. Just show up. If you know someone who is clearly an addict, speak up. Tell their mother or their siblings. Tell their friends. Tell someone.”

    I miss my brother with every breath that I take.

    We can not let this continue to happen. We have to #shatterthetaboo and build a community of people who help each other through this crisis.

    If you find yourself in a similar situation, the resources below may be of some help to you:


    You can also reach out to local health providers, as laws are changing daily in regards to opioid treatment, prescriptions for suboxone, and safe injection sites.

    You don’t have to go through this alone.

    Click below to see Morgan’s powerful eulogy:


    The Spirit of Mr. Rogers

    Photo credit: Salon.com

    The other day, during indoor recess, I felt cold in my classroom, so I decided to put on a zip-up sweater. I happened to be standing over a table of students who were playing a card game of which I had never heard. Intrigued, but also cold, I put on my sweater while monitoring the game. I pulled the zipper all the way up to my chin and then artfully zipped it down in the style of Mr. Rogers, my favorite television neighbor.

    “I’m Mr. Rogers,” I declared. This declaration was met by blank stares and it quickly dawned on me that none of them knew about Mr. Rogers. They’d of course heard of his popular puppet Daniel Striped Tiger because of the cartoon show, but Mr. Rogers was out of their frame of reference.

    When I gushed about this realization to my colleague, who was also in the room, she responded, “To be fair, I never really watched that show either.” Even twenty-somethings aren’t as familiar with Mr. Rogers as I thought they were.

    Of course, taking a step back, I realize that it’s not all that surprising that today’s generation of kids doesn’t know about Mr. Rogers. He died before they were born and most PBS stations stopped airing the show regularly. While it’s understandable that most kids today don’t know anything about the beloved TV man, it’s a shame.

    Yes, there were and still are many children’s TV shows with positive messages, but few shared their messages the way Mr. Rogers did—by looking children directly in the eye and telling them they mattered and were loved just the way they were.

    I’ve written before about all of the important life lessons imparted by Mr. Rogers and I want to know who is doing this today? Where does the spirit of Mr. Rogers live on?

    According to the Atlantic, it’s in advice columns because that’s “where adult problems are considered with dignity, and where feelings are taken seriously.” A Reddit user believes  that it’s Neil deGrasse Tyson who cares the torch of Mr. Rogers’ spirit because he’s brilliant and kind and talks about living to make other’s lives better each day.

    Just the other day, I came across an article in the Huffington Post about a Massachusetts teacher who created a music video called “Black Is Beautiful” for her female students who often expressed their dismay about their appearances. We need more of this kind of positivity for our children and ourselves.

    Who else is encouraging children to be curious on a day-to-day basis? Who else continually reaffirms to them that they are great just the way you are? I believe that is the responsibility of all of us to carry on the spirit of Mr. Rogers.


    [And now, because I couldn’t help myself, a video of my favorite Mr. Rogers Remix.]