What I Know Now

FullSizeRender(5)In 1978 (almost 40 years ago), I walked into my very own classroom for the very first time. I felt like I knew everything and nothing all at once.  But the truth is (and this is true for all new teachers), I knew a lot more than I was pretending to know. My intuition was simply waiting for words and experience and relationship  to be  stepping stones toward understanding and know-how.  I didn’t really know what I was doing in 1978, but what I knew for sure then, is what I know for sure now: everybody is worthy of respect. Kindness is never wasted.

Here is a list of some other truths I’ve learned along the way since I began. This list has been shaped and reshaped by what I hear and see and experience.  It is fluid and changing and evolving because I am still learning how to fly this thing.  I love that about my life. Figuring out how to teach at the beginning was intimidating and overwhelming and scary.  Figuring out how to teach now is exhilarating, enlivening, and creative. Once I was having a conversation with my step daughter, Susanna.  “Everybody gets to be who they are,” she said.  And as she said it, I heard those words land at bottom of the truth well with a golden ping. It is so. Or it should be so. Everybody gets to be who they are. It leads the list of My Teacher Truths.

My Teacher Truths

  • Everybody gets to be who they are.
  • Teaching is an act of hope and hospitality.
  • What you teach first and last in a day really matters.
  • To inspire others, you have to seek and be open to inspiration yourself.
  • Teaching children to look at the world with the eyes of a writer is teaching them to fall in love with life.
  • To teach reading and writing effectively you have to be a thoughtful reader and a writer yourself.
  • Process matters and so does product.
  • If you want to teach the whole child, you have to work on being a whole teacher.
  • If you want to teach responsively, you have to live responsively.
  • Teaching only happens when learning does.
  • Stamina is taught and built.
  • A teacher’s voice is an instrument that can help create harmony or dissonance.
  • Reflection is renewal.
  • Story connects us.
  • Practice makes perfect (sense).
  • Quiet is the gift that children want and cannot give themselves.
  • Children feel safer with clear limits.
  • A teacher’s language can encourage, empower, engage, and enchant.
  • A clean desk (and classroom) is an invitation to learning.
  • Manners matter (in teachers, students, and parents).
  • Encouragement should be taught and spoken in every classroom (and every home).
  • For teachers and students, a great day starts the night before.
  • If you want to get it done, get started.
  • If you want to do something big, start with something small.
  • Children must feel safe enough to be transparent about what they know and don’t know.
  • Planning is important, but improvisation makes a plan sing.
  • Vocabulary can either limit or extend our knowledge, imagination, and possibilities.
  • Excellence is Routine.
  • Multitasking is the enemy of mindfulness.
  • A habit can be successfully launched or broken in five days.
  • Acceptance, surrender, and resolve are the handmaidens of hard truths.
  • Play should be part of learning.
  • Learning loves community.









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Living the Questions with Children

IMG_2182“Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

“What do you know to be true?” This spacious question leaves lots of room for the answer to change and grow, and it is strong enough to last a lifetime.

What do you know to be true?

I know this to be true: If you want to teach children to ask questions, you had better be asking them yourself…lots of them. A good lesson is only as good as a good question. The best questions are in patient pursuit of meaningful answers. Right answers melt like snowflakes on hot pavement. Meaningful answers take time. A teacher’s questions are only a start. In teaching my students the art of good questioning, I teach them that good questions have more than one right answer; must be supported by the text; and invite discussion.

We often follow literature with a routine called “No Answers, Just Questions.” I begin with a well-crafted question as a model, and then turn this routine over to my students to collectively craft their own. We move around the circle, questions hanging in the air, until everyone has had a chance to participate. We now have a pool of questions from which to choose for deeper reflection, discussion, and writing. Good questions need rich beautiful literature to grow.

And what else do you know to be true?

I know this to be true: Questions are the bedrock upon which we live our lives on tiptoe… stretching to peer around the next bend. Questions both beckon and prod our wondering, marveling, seeking, and celebration. Questions keep us from standing still and from being stagnant. And as we work to live “along some distant day into an answer” we can have some beautiful conversations along the way. When it comes to teaching, the best question is the right answer.

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Cinderella and the Underground Railroad

This week I announced that we were going on a field trip that did not require signed permission forms. We were going on an imaginary field trip that would require courage, open minds, and a willingness to be other than who we are.   We would go back in time and meet people on this field trip who would teach us amazing lessons in survival–because even though they were willing to die, they didn’t. We were going to go on a railroad that wasn’t real–not because it was imaginary, but because it was a metaphor. We would meet the conductor who was real, but was not really a conductor. She saved lives. Lots of lives.   I told them we would break laws, but not to worry, the Supreme Court would later use the Constitution to change those laws to protect equality. That is what the Constitution does. It makes life more fair.

We’d studied Dr. King and Rosa Parks. We’d walked back in history by looking at Kadir Nelson’s beautiful paintings in Heart and Soul, starting at the end. Now it was time to tackle slavery, but I did not want my students over-identifying with privilege or enslavement based on the color of their skin. I shared this dilemma with a non-teacher friend on a walk. She suggested I start with a book like Cinderella. I knew this was right. My favorite version is Cynthia Rylant’s beautiful retelling.

I have developed my process of using literature in the classroom over time. I choose a book for morning meeting. I read. We “drop into silence” and reflect on what I’ve read. I then ask the “Big Question.” My students use the Big Question to reflect some more and share with the people around them. Then we come back to the group.

A Big Question must have more than one right answer, and  the answers must be supported by the text. The children use the Big Question, along with their critical thinking skills, to uncover the layers.

The Big Question: How can this story help us understand slavery?

This begins my very important work as a teacher. I listen and repeat. Listen and restate. Listen and elevate. I elevate words to the concepts that slip into the room on the wings of my children’s insights: Listen. Restate. Elevate. Overarching themes come into focus. They float above our heads like crepe paper streamers. We reach for them and use them to organize our ideas.

One child starts, “Cinderella had to help the sisters get ready to go to the ball, but she was not allowed to go.”

Listen. Restate. Elevate word to concept.

“You are saying that she was denied the right to go to the ball? She did not have the same rights as her sisters? She did not have the same access?”

“The stepsisters were getting everything they needed because Cinderella was doing all the work. And Cinderella was not getting what she needed.” Her basic human rights were denied.

“The sisters were about greed and power.” Greed and power can oppress.

“Maybe they wanted Cinderella with them at first, but they stopped seeing her and just saw the work she did. They stopped treating her as a person. It was like they didn’t know who she was.”  Let’s look at the word “dehumanize.”

As we move around the circle in response to the Big Question, children can agree, disagree, add to, wonder about, hypothesize, build a theory, or pass. If they answer, they back up their thinking with the text and refer to the previous answers of their fellow inquirers.

The children who passed the first time around the circle now had their hands high in the air and added their thinking to our conversation.   We were ready for the field trip.

I had packed carefully for our imaginary field trip.   I had the art of Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringold. I had the music of the Underground Railroad. I had the poetry of Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.   I had beautifully illustrated children’s books with artwork to inform our historical imagination (with imaginary field trips, you can’t leave home without it). We took along curiosity and the questions that would uncover the majesty of courage and the glorious fight for our freedoms.

We came back from our trip singing the songs that had been used as code. Wade in the Water, wade in the water, children… We wrote and drew about all that we’d seen. We saw a lot on that trip.  We knew what we were looking for.

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The Gift of Silence

img_1621What is the gift that children want and cannot give themselves? My third graders are ready with the answer. Silence. This is a secret most children have not yet named for themselves. Silence is a gift revealed in increments of minutes; for adults it is a gift to be recovered as a practice. Silence. When did I first discover it?

I remember silence being louder than the whistling winds in the woods of my childhood. I remember silence as sunlight spilling on puzzle pieces arranged on the floor. I remember finding silence underwater as I dove for pennies and did handstands in the pool. But my first memory of silence is the snow that muffled both our laughter and the trudging sound of our red rubber boots. I remember that we stopped. We listened. And we heard it. We heard silence falling from the sky in lacy flakes and landing without a word.

So when I woke up to snow on Saturday morning, there it was: the silent sound of deep beauty and majesty. Silence has a quality that can’t be found in loneliness, boredom, or insomnia. Snow reminds us what to look for in silence, so we will know it when we find it deep in the woods or at the bottom of a pool… or even in a third grade classroom.

What does true silence in a classroom feel like? True silence is not an imposed silence that feels shrill with exasperation. I am not talking about that kind of silence. I am talking about the silence that blankets and hushes the cognitive dissonance that rumbles in our heads as we work our hardest to learn something new. I am talking about a deep inner and interpersonal peace that is in the listening, the reading, and the writing. True silence feels deep and quiet and communal.

Anything that can’t be measured is on the chopping block when it comes to instruction. Faulty models of high student engagement are pressed into molds of mandated busyness that can be seen and measured. Silence can’t be measured. This endangers pondering and wondering and contemplating and questioning– the very skills required for critical thinking, reflective reading, creative problem solving, and incisive writing.

Children need silence to know what they are feeling, because not being able to identify feelings blocks their ability to learn. With young children, silence often happens with a crayon or a pair of scissors in their hands. With older children it often happens with a book or a blank sheet of paper. In our classroom, stamina for silence is built alongside our stamina for reading and writing.

Silence is also part of my direct instruction. I’ve learned as a teacher to build buffers of silence in between the questions I ask. It should seem obvious to a teacher, but it wasn’t always obvious to me. Children need silence to hear themselves think in order to recall information, vocabulary, or make connections. Silence provides equity for processing speeds, learning styles, and personality traits.

Teaching about silence, like teaching reading and writing, is more effective when it is born out of personal practice. Silence awaits me in the predawn light of my kitchen, in the first sip of coffee, in the blank page of my journal. And once in awhile, I wake up look out the window, and see the great teacher of silence—majestic and beautiful—snow.



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A Little School of Citizenship

img_1292I became loosely aware of politics in the third grade. President Johnson came to our church. And another time his vice president, Hubert Humphrey, came. I stepped forward to say good morning and that moment stands still in a newspaper clipping. Dr. King had given his “I have a dream” speech, and Betty Freidan wrote The Feminine Mystique that year. These were people asking questions about how to make the world a place that was fair for everybody. Yet none of these people was mentioned in school. This didn’t surprise me. School had nothing to do with the real world; my elementary school was not the school of “what’s happening now.” My school was stuck in another time with its own language: cloakroom, wraps, galoshes, lavatories.

While the sixties raged in a blur outside my classroom window, we sang songs about happy wanderers, kookaburras, and that song about Dixie. I could never figure out who Dixie was, where she was, or why she should look away.   When I asked my mom who Dixie Land was she laughed and shook her head. My mother did nothing to clear up the mysteries of school, an oppressively close place that smelled like a mix of floor wax, lavatory soap, the incinerator, and hot rolls.

My friends wanted to be teachers. Not me. Why would anyone want to go to a school if they didn’t have to? Third grade was simply a waiting room for the life that was waiting for me at home—a life of books, imagination, ideas, siblings, and endless time outside with the York River behind our house and a vast field in front of it.

My teacher told me that although I needed to concentrate on “collecting my belongings,” I was a good citizen. Citizen. Finally. Here was a relevant word that was used with reverence both at home and at school.

I was raised in a patriotic household. My father was making the world a better place though diplomacy and my mother helped him do it. And so did the four of us. We were clear on that. When “we” were assigned to the American Embassy in Cairo, I knew that I was expected to represent my country as a good citizen.   Under date trees, bands played patriotic songs at embassy Fourth of July parties and I was glad to be a part of a bigness of something I could not name or even fully understand.

Later, I knew that my life’s work would be part of this bigness. As we continued to move from place to place, I wondered what that work might be. School became more relevant and enjoyable, but never did I think I would spend my life in a school. And yet…

I am a teacher. I teach my third graders that to be good citizens we must be kind, fair, and responsible; that we must include others and respect the rights of all; and that as thoughtful readers and writers, we can make a difference. Every day when we sit in a circle on the carpet, I remind my students to widen the circle to make sure that everyone will fit.   I am teaching them about the bigness that I felt in the air when I was a third grader myself…it is called Democracy.

In every election I teach about the candidates as fairly and impartially as I can. I highlight that which is kind, fair, and responsible about each one. That was harder to do this year. I did not want my children to remember me as silent when a presidential candidate held a broad brush of insult toward women or religious groups. Children saw snippets of news wherever they went. They were confused by what they heard.  I was not silent.

After processing the election, I have reminded my students that the presidency is worthy of our respect, no matter who is in office. Democracy is a beautiful ideal and it works.

I met Hubert Humphrey at church at just their age. I met justice, grace, mercy, and lovingkindness there too. As a woman of faith and as an Episcopalian, I continue to learn about these things so I might live them in the world. Every time someone is baptized, the priest asks this question, and I am reminded of my job description:

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

 Respect the dignity of every human being. All people. Every human being. Every student. Every parent. Every candidate. Every voter.

Last week a young man came to see me. He was one of my former students. He stopped by to let me know that he was in college and that he had just voted in his first election. He said he knew I would want to know.

He was right. And he was kind, fair, and responsible.






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October Truth

My first real teaching interview was in Stafford County, Virginia.  It was still rural then and there were only a handful of elementary schools. Everyone knew that if you were from Emporia you would get a job; the people in charge were from Emporia.  I wasn’t from Emporia– I didn’t even know where it was– but I’d done my student teaching in Stafford.  I was applying for a first grade position and hoping for the best.  My father, having interviewed hundreds of people throughout his career, had given me solid “insider’s” advice. I was ready.

I don’t remember much about that interview, but I remember the end of it. The Assistant Superintendent seemed to be scratching his head about what might have been an unanswered or unasked question.

“Don’t interview the interviewer,” my father had warned.

“Is there something else?” I prompted.

“Well, yes, there is,” he said. But he paused and seemed reluctant to go on. I nodded, encouragingly. I wanted this to be over. The interview had gone very well. But now I was getting nervous. What was this?  Had he seen through my well-rehearsed performance of “22 year-old confident teacher?”

“Don’t speak into the silences,” my father had warned.

“I’ll be glad to answer any other questions you have,” I volunteered with an ebbing perkiness.

Mr. Webb went on, “I’ve interviewed a lot of first grade teachers,” he drawled. “I’m curious about one thing….I’ve never interviewed a first grade teacher who didn’t say she loved children. Until you. You haven’t said it.”

“Reflect before you respond,” my father warned.

I didn’t reflect. I didn’t think. My face reddened and I just blurted out, “I know I love teaching, but how can I love children I haven’t met yet?”

I was horrified that I hadn’t given a more measured and perhaps less honest answer. I wasn’t sure that kind of honesty was the way to go.

Mr. Webb threw back his head and laughed. He stood up and put out his hand. What was happening here?

“You are going to make a great teacher. Welcome to Stafford County Public Schools.”

I teach third grade now. I’m in a different grade and different place. It is 38 years later, but I am still living out this story’s happy ending. On the first day of school I am matched with 25 children that I don’t love yet. They are sitting in the desks of children that I’ve just lost to the next grade. I don’t panic, because I know I will love them.  I move through September setting the ground work for excellence and relationship and community. I move through September waiting for my students and me to become ‘us.’ I move through September as if they were my favorites until ‘as if’ becomes truth. And it always does.

It happens on an October day that is crisp around the edges with fall and brighter in its burnished light. A child slips her arms around my waist and says, “You are the best teacher I’ve ever had.” I know that she may well have said that to her teacher last year and might easily say it to her teacher next year. She is not insincere. And neither am I. She, like me, is living the satisfaction and beauty of the hard work of September.  It isn’t about me. It’s about us.  By October, it is real for us. The hard work of September is the heart work of teaching. It happened on an October day thirty-eight years ago and it happened on an October day this year, too.  I love them.

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I Can See Clearly Now

Last February, just days after my sister’s memorial service, I noticed a shadow falling across my line of vision like a curtain. My poetic friends mused about the timing. Yes, I was living in the shadow of grief, but this was not that. Eyes, like sisters, work better in tandem, and it is startling when one has to suddenly work without the other. But this was not that either.  I looked my symptoms up on the Internet: “Call a doctor immediately, you may be going blind.” This wasn’t a metaphor standing in a barren field of loss. This was its own big thing.

I got an appointment the next day and was on my way to surgery an hour later. My retina had detached. I heard phrases like

“No guarantees.”

“Vision Loss.”  

“Risk of blindness.”

“Every minute counts.”

I was in the hands of the very best, but no one could help if I’d waited too long to come in. Only time would tell if I had. That was eight months ago. Eight months of adjusting to seeing the world through one eye. I found that I could no longer lose myself in the pages of a book. I had to find my way in a new way. Adapt. Adjust. Make do. And I did. But I really missed turning the pages of real books.

My sister and I grew up as voracious readers. Our passports and our library cards were our official documents. As sisters, we had our own built-in book club that spanned continents and decades. We approached her terminal illness the way we’d approached everything else: with book in our laps. We read about happiness, meditation, healing, joy, and serenity. We were creating a life syllabus that we referred to as the “Joy and Wonder Reading List.”

When I came back to school after the retinal detachment, I knew that I could make up for the time I’d lost by modeling for my students the joy and resilience that my sister had modeled for me. I did not have corrective lenses — the vision was changing too fast for that — but the font in children’s books was large and with magnifiers I could do it. Grading papers was hard, so I “spot checked” and found that I was able to get a very clear picture of how my children were progressing. Rather than reading their writing, I listened to it in small groups of children who became adept at giving tangible and targeted feedback with me. We helped each other and our sense of community deepened. I held on to what was most important in reading, writing, and math. We ended our year well and successfully.

In late August it was time for the second surgery. It would be much simpler and much more routine. I asked if I could wait until October– I knew how important setting up my classroom and building community with my new students would be. October came fast.

Two days ago I had the surgery. Yesterday I woke up and saw the world the way I used to see the world… with both eyes.

Later in the day I went for a walk without any particular destination. Suddenly I knew exactly where I wanted to go, to mark the occasion with my own private celebration. I walked to the Public Library. I enjoyed every step. I loved seeing the way the light lit the just-about-to-change leaves; I loved the squirrels running along the branches of oak trees. At the library I loved running my hands along the spines of the books waiting on the shelves, — finding, choosing, and checking out books that would be mine for two weeks.

Tomorrow I will be back at school with my third graders. Today I am celebrating by losing myself in a good book — a real book with pages. I can see clearly now.





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Don’t Forget to Look

fullsizerender3My memory is stored in touch, sound, sight, smell, and story. The places I lived and visited as a child are working stage sets for the truth-story mix that fuses my Once with the unfolding Now.

That didn’t happen by itself. I remember because my father asked us to tell a story about our day. Every. Single. Day. Every morning he sent us out into the world, telling us to take notes and bring back some stories. We did. We learned to pay attention to the world around us. We didn’t know we were becoming writers or developing a deep understanding of narrative arc. We were just trying to outdo each other at the dinner table.

When I read the writing of my third graders I remember. Children speak of ordinary moments with matter-of-fact reverence.

We are going to cook out tonight.

We saw lightening bugs.

There was frost.

We got a new fence in our backyard.

We are going to Golden Corral.

We had movie night.

We made pizza.

I rode my bike.

My soccer team won.

I got a library card.

I saw a possum.

We don’t create memories, we live life. Beautiful memories are the fruit of creating life together in the most ordinary ways. Celebrating small moments together makes the big moments sing across time. A trip to Disney is special, but don’t think for a moment that the magic of childhood is contained in a magic castle.  The kind of magic I am talking about is not in the castle. In fact, it is more mystery than magic because it won’t be controlled or manufactured. It  fleetingly waits to be discovered.

As their third grade teacher, I am teaching my young writers not to miss the majesty of the the moment they come in talking about. I am teaching them to see the story of their lives. I am teaching them to fall in love with the world. The weekend homework has been the same for for over thirty years: Look at the world with the eyes of a writer.  Don’t forget to look.


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Who is Your Inner Editor?

If you write, I am pretty sure you have one.  And if you don’t  write, I know you do– and I know they’ve had the last word.  So far.   Some people call them inner critics.  I have two and they have names.  Wise Guy and Breathless.  They both smoke. I don’t.

Wise Guy is fast talking, with a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He is impatient, and suffers no fools. Over and over he says, “What! are you kidding me.?” He sits at huge desk in a newsroom surrounded by the thunder of  clacking typewriters. His world is in black and white.

Breathless, on the other hand, hardly says a word.  She raises an eye brow, sighs, lifts her gloved hand toward her mouth and takes a slow drag on a cigarette held in a mother of pearl and onyx  holder.  And then she shakes her head.  Slowly. And as she mouths the word, “No…” smoke rings float above her head.   And I pull another piece of paper out of the typewriter, crumple another page  and toss it over my shoulder.  This is all figurative, of course.  I don’t own a typewriter.

What is not figurative is the crumpled paper,  the deleted paragraphs, the discarded worked and reworked drafts.  This innervation of inspiration by criticism that isn’t really there is real.  And those crumpled pages are food for Wise Guy and Breathless.

I haven’t been writing and Wise Guy and Breathless are getting bored.  They are loud this morning.  But it is different this time.  Wise Guy says, “What? Are you kidding me?  If you want to write, write!

And Breathless surprises me, too: “Darling, such fuss!  Just put something down.”  So I do.  They shrug.  Nod.  Link arms and walk  away.  It was all just  smoke.


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Love’s Signature

Is there room for a eulogy on a teaching blog?  In this case, I think there is.  I learned so much about writing and living and loving and teaching from my sister.  I have written about her on this blog many times.  Katherine Elliott Joachim died on February 2, 2016.  It seems right to honor her here.   


I am Elliott’s sister, Annie, one of the Hopkins girls. I am the Annie of “Annie and Katie” (Elliott’s childhood name).  She was my sister and as little girls we developed a little school of love and friendship that we would later take on the road as we learned to love and befriend others. I think you all will agree that when it comes to love and friendship, Katherine Elliott Joachim was an expert.  We know.  We are here because we loved Elliott Joachim and she loved us.  And we, all of us, are better for it.

I am a teacher by profession, but my sister was a teacher by nature.  Ever the teacher, she planned this service so very carefully today. She asked me to do the eulogy.  I took some notes as we talked.  Later when I picked up the notepad, I noticed that she’d drawn a big heart on the paper with these words: “I’ll be watching from heaven.” No pressure, right? She was a purveyor of truth, hope, joy, and courage.  She did everything well, and when she found out she was going to die, she was determined to do that well, too.  It turns out that she had a head start on this.  I was present when her doctor told her that he too had become her student because she was facing death so bravely and with such determination.  But this did not surprise him. He said to her: “We die as we live.”  And it turned out to be true.   If you want to die well, live well.  If you want to die bravely, live bravely.  If you don’t want to die with unfinished business, don’t live with unfinished business.  

When I asked her what she wanted me to say in this eulogy, she said simply this: “Say that mom is my monument and my legacy from my mom is my charm.” We laughed at the irony of this: My grandmother once said to my mother, “I’ve sent you to three finishing schools; it is not my fault if you are not done.” Elliott talked about how my mother’s charm could not be contained by convention. How she was so aware of our talents and made sure that we had lessons and opportunities to develop them—for Elliott that was art and dance. And glamour. She talked about the dinners of our childhood—lovely meals cadenced with stories shared and how they always ended on just the right note.  It was from our mother that Elliott developed her beautiful gift for language, leaving a trail of pithy poetry in the air and in her wake. She talked about how we were taught that good manners were to make the people around you more comfortable.  She said that mom taught us to laugh at ourselves but not at others.  (By the way, laughing at one another, as siblings, counted as laughing at ourselves—but we were not to take that out into the world.) We were taught to laugh WITH everyone.  I promised Elliott I would say these things.  And there are some other things I want to say.

Her truths were hard won, but she never imposed them on others.  She assumed that the rest of us were working on our own hard-won truths.  She was a work in progress–a beautiful work in progress–and she knew this was true for all of us.  Elliott knew grace. She knew forgiveness.  She traveled with a stack of “Get out of Jail Free Cards,” and knew that resentment was a blind alley to nowhere.

As teenagers, Elliott and I were devoted to magazines, especially Seventeen Magazine and Glamour Magazine.  We especially loved the “How to do Anything Better Guide” in Glamour Magazine. Elliott became a walking “How to do Anything Better Guide” — the queen of self-improvement–because she knew life could be better.  She could be better.  We could be better.  She read countless self-help books—each one ‘life changing.’  Elliott was brilliant.  

I was six and she was three and we felt like peers.  When she was three and said to me, “I would say you were stupid, but Mommy says you are getting an inferiority complex.  I went out and asked my mother what an “inferiority complex was.  She responded with, “Katherine Elliott Hopkins come here right now!”  I still didn’t know what an ‘inferiority complex’ was, but I knew I was at risk.  

Yes, she was brilliant.  She was creative.  And she was highly sensitive:  The perfect storm for addiction.  Addiction provided the backdrop for a duel between joy and torment that lasted for years and took her away from us for a long time.  Ultimately Joy won.  And the Queen of Self-Improvement found the ultimate self-improvement program: Alcoholics Anonymous.  

For Elliott the “Anonymous” was very important… but really only when it came to other people.  For Elliott, Authenticity trumped Anonymity.   In AA she found release and recovery; she reclaimed her life and family. And eventually she also found true love.  In an AA meeting at the United States Capitol, Elliott met Bruno Joachim, the love of her life. “Are you sure?” I asked.  “Are you sure AA is the place you want to meet someone?”  There was no question.  He was the one. She fell in love with the man and then fell in love with his four children: Kathryn, Alex, Curtis, and Max. . She never wavered in this love, which grew to include Anna, Curtis’ wife and Ollie, Kathryn’s fiancée… and the mother of his children, Kathy Ahearn.

And then Elliott met her second great love: Mexico. Ground zero for magical realism.  A perfect fit.  She and Bruno went there for a vacation and bought a house.  They never looked back.   Mexico was Elliott’s victory lap.  A good long victory lap.  Love in slow motion for a place, a people, and a community.  She lived well and she loved well.  She gave well.  The regional head of Cruz Rojas (the Red Cross in Mexico and her favorite charity) said that her philosophy had benefited so many: “Have fun. Do good. Raise Money for others.”  She loved her life and she loved her family and she loved her friends.  Mexico was the final destination in a circuitous search for home.  Having grown up around the world, home had been a nomadic notion of the heart.  Home was family…. But finally, in Mexico, home found a place.

When Elliott was diagnosed it was horrifying.  She was a quick wit with a silver tongue, and her voice harmonized with her powers of keen observation.  That silver tongue and distinctive voice were compromised by her illness.  But she kept on living.  And she kept on loving.  She gave recovery every chance, even though every chance made life harder. She stayed charged with the possibilities that life holds. She helped us hope because hope helped us.  She helped us hope even when her hope was rapidly diminishing—not because she was losing her ability to hope, but as a realist she knew she was losing her life.  We scanned the horizon for the miracles we wanted.  Elliott just scanned the horizon for miracles.  And I can tell you that she found them every day of her life.  We had one name for miracle: “cure.”  She had so many names for miracles and she counted the names of her family and friends—your names– among them.  We wanted faith that would move mountains and end this; she wanted faith that would sustain her through the end.  And that is the kind of faith my sister had.   Together we learned that faith is not controlling the outcome; it is living fully in the face of the outcome.

My sister lost her life to cancer, but she did not lose her battle.   Facing this mighty foe, and fighting valiantly, she sharpened her focus and her faith.  She said to me once, “We are all terminal; most of don’t know what it is that is going to get us, but I do.”  There was nothing defeatist about this.  There was something victorious. The fight was going to be worth it, no matter how it came out.  She lived her life out in the world as much as she could. A day out meant days resting at home… and to Elliott it was totally worth it.
She died as she lived, with courage, grace, exquisite manners, and yes, with the charm that she learned from our mother.   As people talk about Elliott, one phrase comes up over and over:  Elliott lit up the room.  She did.  But she was lit from within and she learned how to tend and cultivate that holy fire.  To paraphrase the poet Steven Spender: “Born of the sun, she traveled a short while towards the sun, and she has left the vivid air signed with her love.”

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