Sunday, August 12, 2018

Reading Update

When I posted my last Reading Update, last month, I mentioned that I'd been in a reading slump. Then I proceeded to have a bit of an end-of-summer last hurrah. Here's what I've read since July 16th.

Book #52 of 2018 was The Punishment She Deserves, by Elizabeth George. I saw this at a bookstore while I was visiting my daughter, and immediately put it on hold at the library; I hadn't realized that Elizabeth George had a new novel (it came out in March). I always enjoy these books, particularly the relationships among the police officers, and this one was no exception.

Book #53 was The Language of Sparrows, by Rachel Phifer. This story touches on mental illness and suicide and religious persecution and unjust accusations; somehow it still manages to be a sweet, touching, believable book.

Book #54 was Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, by Mike Schmoker. Isn't it fascinating how when you are assigned to read something, you start out with a negative mindset?  Even when you're my age and love to read and learn? Yeah. In spite of that, though, I ended up finding this book a useful read. As the title suggests, it's not going to give you new ideas - they are the essentials - but it's a good reminder of what matters and how to teach.

Book #55 was Peony: A Novel of China, by Pearl S. Buck. I love being introduced to whole new worlds, and that's what this book did. It's about the Jewish community in China.

Book #56 was In Harm's Way: A View from the Epicenter of Liberia's Ebola Crisis, by Nancy D. Sheppard. Sheppard worked in a hospital in Liberia during the Ebola crisis, and was a colleague of the Americans who came down with the disease and were flown to Atlanta. This happened in 2012 and at the time was the subject of a great deal of breathless media coverage. This book gives a personal perspective on what happened and I enjoyed it.

Book #57 was an exciting one: the first draft of a novel by someone in my writing group! Shhhh...I'm not allowed to say more at this stage, but it was very entertaining!

Book #58 was Love and Ruin, by Paula McLain.  This is the story of Ernest Hemingway's third wife, Martha Gellhorn, a writer and war correspondent in her own right. I found out about this book when a friend posted this essay on Facebook.  I was fascinated and wanted to know more. I read a Martha Gellhorn book, The Weather in Africa, when I was a teenager, and before I had read any Hemingway.  I still prefer it to Hemingway, and I'd like to read more of Gellhorn's work.  Obviously with the word "Ruin" in the title, this doesn't have a happy ending; Hemingway had four wives. (McLain also wrote a book about his first wife, which I read in 2015, and one about Beryl Markham, which I read in 2017 and reviewed here.)

Book #59 was 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in my Head, Reduced Stress without Losing my Edge, and Found Self-Help that Actually Works, by Dan Harris.  I thought this book was really interesting, and enjoyed learning about Harris' journey from crazed, stressed-out broadcast journalist taking drugs and having a panic attack on the air to a calm, peaceful regular at meditation retreats.  I was fascinated to read about his sort-of Buddhist ideas; I say sort-of because he doesn't believe in the supernatural at all.  I thought most of the ideas and practices based on Buddhism were about a very clear, realistic and accurate view of how our minds actually do work.  I'd love for some friends to read this so we can talk about it.

Book #60 was a re-read, Shauna Niequist's Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, more Soulful Way of Living.  I'd been thinking about Niequist and wanted to read something of hers.  Here's a link to the time I participated in a blog tour for one of her books, Bread and Wine.  I've read all her books and liked them all. 

Obviously things are about to slow down in the reading department as the school year gets into full swing, but I'm glad to have had some extra time for books this summer. 

This post is linked to the August Quick List post at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


I had just sat down at my departure gate at the Fort Lauderdale airport when I noticed that my ring finger was bare. The ring I had worn every day for over half my life was gone. 

My flight was going to start boarding in minutes; there was nothing I could do right then. And anyway, where would I start looking? It could be at the motel where I’d stayed the night before, or in the taxi I’d taken that morning, or at the airline check-in desk where I’d repacked my one checked bag into two, or at the security gate where I’d unloaded and reloaded the contents of my carry-on. It could be on the floor at just about any point along the miles I had covered since leaving home the day before. 

As I handed over my boarding pass, found my seat on the plane, did the crossword puzzle in the magazine, my eyes kept returning to my bare finger. For 29 years I had rarely taken the ring off; occasionally to wash dishes, maybe, and for my two surgeries, but that’s about it. My finger looked strange, unrecognizable, without it. 

I thought about going to the pawn shop all those years ago with my mother-in-law to pick up the rings, in a transaction which upon reflection may have been a little bit unromantic. I thought about our wedding itself, that steamy August day when we gave each other those matching rings. I thought about my brand new husband losing his ring down the drain of our student apartment when we’d been married less than a month, and then breaking the silver replacement I got him a few years later. I thought about our decision that our rings were lovely images of our commitment, but that losing or breaking one wasn’t an omen of anything. Still, I couldn’t help feeling sad that I’d lost mine, that the hint of shine that had been on my finger all those years through better and worse, richer and poorer, sickness and health, was gone now. Somehow the fact that it had happened in the soulless Fort Lauderdale Airport made it seem worse. 

I’ve changed since I put on that ring for the first time. My finger is thinner, for one; I weigh less now than I did on my wedding day.  But there are other changes that aren’t visible; experience has made me sadder, more cynical. There have been losses and disappointments. Other experiences have been life-changing in joyful ways. I’m a mother now, for example; pregnancy swelled that ring finger for a while. I was heading away from one of my children as I sat on that plane and towards the other.

I finally arrived in the tiny student apartment where my daughter was spending the summer, and unpacked the goodies I’d brought from home for her. When I took everything out of my carry-on, to my delight, there was a glint of gold at the bottom of the bag. It must have fallen off during the TSA’s scrutiny of my belongings. It had been there in my bag all along: a happy ending.

If losing the ring isn’t an omen, you can’t turn finding it into one either. It’s just a piece of jewelry, no matter how deep the symbolism of the endless eternal circle, the true, pure gold. I let my sister-in-law wrap some thread around it for me so that it wouldn’t fall off my finger again. She said it was what high school girls do when they wear their boyfriends’ class rings that are too big for them. I like the idea of wearing my boyfriend’s ring, even though that boyfriend has been my husband for more years now than he wasn’t, and our daughter is the age I was when I got married to him, and we’re both gray-haired. Life has changed us. Not all the rings made it this far, but the marriage did. We’re still growing in love, making it work.  We're covering the miles, finding each other again and again.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Poetry Friday: Summer

Last week's back-to-school poem was for me; today's is one I always read with my students the first week.  Can you believe it?  It's time for another school year!


Summer is with it,
             she's wild,
             she likes
             bare legs and cutoffs
             and camping
             and hikes;
             she dives in deep water,
             she wades in a stream,
             she guzzles cold drinks
             and she drowns in ice cream;
             she runs barefoot,
             she picnics,
             she fishes,
             digs bait,
             she pitches a tent
             and she stays up too late
             while she counts out the stars,
             swats mosquitos and flies,
             hears crickets,
             smells pine trees,
             spies night-creature eyes;
             she rides bareback,
             goes sailing,
             plays tennis,
             climbs trees;
             she soaks in the sunshine;
             she gulps in a breeze;
             she tastes the warm air
             on the end of her tongue,

              and she falls asleep
              in the sun.

Myra Cohn Livingston 

Friday, August 03, 2018

Poetry Friday: The Way It Is

Looking for a back-to-school poem for next week, I opened my copy of Teaching With Heart: Poetry That Speaks to the Courage to Teach, edited by Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner.  I picked this one, "The Way It Is," for the way that it sums up some of what I feel as I head into this new school year.  (Check out yesterday's post for some more of my thoughts on that.)

The Way It Is
William Stafford

There's a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change.  But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

Today's roundup is at A Year of Reading

Thursday, August 02, 2018

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: New Season

On the first Thursday of every month, a group of us post about spiritual growth, and this month's theme is, as our host, Pat puts it, "waiting for my favorite things of each season to return."

I've written here before about how, living in the tropics, my year is not as defined by seasons as it is for people further north and south.  But we're about to enter the next season, one that I've been entering nearly every year for my whole life: School.
(I took this photo on Sunday.  I don't know what kind of tree it is, but it's beautiful and seasonal.  Does anybody know?)

My parents have always been teachers, and once I started school myself when I was five, I really didn't have a break from it - school, college, graduate school, teaching - until I gave birth the first time and stayed home with my daughter. Even then, my husband was working at an educational institution, though at that time he was in an office and not teaching. When I stayed home with my son, several years later, my daughter was in school, and when the earthquake tore me from my job in 2010, my children kept going to school, and before too long I found a volunteer job in a school. The season of Back to School, the rhythms of classes and weekends, term and holiday, have always organized my world.

This year it's coming again. The summer was short, as it always is. The supplies are purchased, as they always are. I'm going back to the same classroom I've worked in for lots of years, to teach the same subjects.

Pat said she's waiting for her "favorite things," not that she's looking forward to anything new. The challenge is keeping it new every year, remembering that even though I've taught this book many times, it's the first time through for this seventh grade class. And even though I've opened and shut dozens of lockers hundreds of times, these seventh graders have never worked a combination lock before. My eighth graders I know already, but there will be new things for them, too: new books, new experiences, new emotions. I can't yawn and check out because I've been through it all before; they haven't, and they need guides for their first time to travel this way.

So, some of my favorite things in the season of School:

The new Dry-Erase markers, brightly colored to write the August dates on my white board.

The box of locks to be handed out to kids who think having a locker is an exciting development.

The new faces in the faculty meeting.  (I have mixed feelings about this, I confess. I know some of those people will become my friends, but I've just said goodbye to some others who became my friends and then moved on. It's not easy to open my heart again.)

The blank walls of my classroom, ready to be decorated again by me and by my kids.

The class lists: once my husband said that each class list is a holy document.  Each one of the names on that list belongs to an eternal soul, and who knows what awaits this year and into the future because of the combination of all of those eternal souls hanging out together in Room 23?

All of these things, and more, are coming up for me next week as I head back to meet with my colleagues and set up my room, and the week after, as my students arrive.  It's a new year, a new season, a new set of challenges which I will soon learn.

I wish summer could last a few more weeks, and yet I'm ready. I'm ready for my mind to be occupied with work that never stops stretching me. I know that even though it looks right now as though we can't possibly have everything in order in time, we will.

Do I have what it takes? At our last meeting back in May, an administrator gave us each a manila file folder which we were supposed to wear on our backs.  Our colleagues lined up behind us, and then we behind them, to write on the file folders: words of encouragement, preferably. Afterward, when I read the words, many of them made me smile and feel great.  "You survived seventh grade.  You are a hero." (Yeah, that's kind of true.) "You maintained my sanity through the way you humorously viewed teaching our students.  Middle School forever!"  (Yes!  That's why I'm here!) "Thank you for loving and appreciating middle schoolers as much as I do." (There's nothing like 'em, even on the days when they make you want to scream.) Other comments made me wonder if the writers really knew me.  Patience?  That word was there quite a few times. I know the impatience of my own heart, but I guess it's good that I at least give the impression of being a patient person - that's a start. One person used the word "serenity." Me, serene? Try intense, jumping out of my skin, as overly emotional as any middle schooler, though with many more years of experience at managing it. One person wrote about my resilience. "Your resilience is beautiful." That's one I want to be true, even though I sometimes doubt that it is. I've got many scars as I enter this, my - I stopped to count - twenty sixth year of teaching (I think I have that number right.  I know which year I began, but I get a little confused about how many of those baby years there were).

As I reread what my colleagues wrote two months ago, I reflect that God has given me what I need for this year - at least they think so. I've definitely done it all many times before. I'm ready to help the newcomers with a reminder that if it seems like the hardest thing they've ever done, that's because it is - but it will get easier, and they can do it. I'm cultivating patience and serenity and resilience, and I bet I'll get plenty of opportunities this year to continue that cultivation.

Here we go again, new season, old friend!
Be sure to visit Pat's blog to see what everyone else wrote about their spiritual journey. 

Friday, July 27, 2018

Poetry Friday: Summer Poem Swaps

I've never signed up for any of Tabatha's poem swaps before, mostly because I was very intimidated by what I saw of them on people's blogs.  In theory, all you have to do is to send a poem to the person whose address Tabatha sends you by the date she gives you, but in reality people go all out, and there are fabulous packages that fly back and forth.  But then I participated in a swap Margaret organized, just because I was so intrigued I couldn't help myself, and it was so much fun that I wanted to do another one. This summer I was going to be traveling, so I signed up for two of the swaps. At home we just get mail delivery once a week, and you'd think that would work fine and I'd just take the extra time to do something really special - instead, I don't do anything until the afternoon of the day the mail went in the morning, and then I realize I've missed it for another week and despair at what a loser I am. Being in the US I knew I'd have access to daily mail service and I'd have no excuses.

I wrote poems on postcards and sent them to the people I was assigned. As expected, it was fun and satisfying. It gave me a little extra boost to follow through on a vague poem idea and actually write something. I was happy.

Then I got home from my trip, and when I checked the mail I realized how right I had been to be intimidated. Oh my goodness! My two poem senders did indeed go all out. Take a look at what I got:

My first swap came from Linda Baie. Linda is such a generous Poetry Friday participant. Her comments always make it clear that she has thoroughly read and digested your post, and she always finds something positive to highlight. What a great teacher she must be! She's a wonderful poet, too, and I always enjoy reading her posts.

The package she sent contained a card in an envelope, a notebook, a book of poetry (can't wait to read it!), and the poem. Linda wrote me a golden shovel poem, and for the quotes to end the lines, she used my own words. And look at the bougainvillea photo! One thing every writer needs is readers, and this poetry swap from Linda makes me feel as though I have a reader in her.
Here's the poem. (Click on the photo to get a larger version that will be easier to read.) Isn't it amazing?  Thank you, Linda!
My second swap came from Tabatha Yeatts herself, the source of all this swapping. Tabatha's blog is called "The Opposite of Indifference," from Elie Wiesel's quote, "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it's indifference." Tabatha is never indifferent, and many of the poems she posts - her own and those by other people - meet Emily Dickinson's definition of poetry as something that blows off the top of your head.

Like Linda, Tabatha wrote a poem that she knew would have special resonance for me.  Back in April I posted about madeleine poems, an idea I got from Nancie Atwell.  She got the name and the concept from Marcel Proust, who in one of his novels has a character eat a madeleine cookie and then be transported back into the past by the sensations and memories the cookie gives him.  The rest of the novel is a flashback caused by the taste of that madeleine.  I used George Bilgere's poem "A Madeleine" as my mentor text and then turned the whole writing process into a minilesson for my students.  You can read that post here.

So Tabatha's package contained her own madeleine poem, with a note and a gorgeous drawing by her daughter.  She wrote about picking black raspberries as a child and about how eating black raspberry jam brings back that experience.  She commented "It was easy to write and very difficult as poetry and memories are." That right there is the opposite of indifference, folks.

Here's the poem:

a madeleine for Ruth
by Tabatha Yeatts

For me,
it's a black
raspberry jam,
a shade that might
be at the end of the
rainbow, a jiggly finale,
with a scent as rare as the
slide down to a pot of gold,
rare no matter how many
candy chemists hunch
over their test tubes
trying to recreate it.

Hold it to my nose
and I'm a child who's
twisted a black raspberry
from the bush which I roll gently
in my palm before depositing it
into a pail where I can still smell 
it and its kin as I move farther down
the hilly path, fighting the urge to grab the brambles 
to steady myself as pebbles shift under my feet,
already aware that harvesting treasure
means hazarding tumbles and thorns.

Even though these poetry swaps do intimidate me (even more now than before!), I think I will participate in more of them because there is so much delight in the giving and the receiving. 

Here's this week's roundup.

Tabatha is sharing the poem I sent her today.
And Margaret is sharing the one I sent her, too!

Friday, July 20, 2018

Poetry Friday: Vacation

by Rita Dove

I love the hour before takeoff,
that stretch of no time, no home
but the gray vinyl seats linked like
unfolding paper dolls.

Here's the rest of Rita Dove's poem.

A couple of days ago, I got a newsletter from the Academy of American Poets entitled, "'I'm just here in my traveler's clothes': Poems for Vacation Travels."  I hadn't read any of the poems yet, and when I clicked on this one this morning, I was startled by how appropriate it was for my day yesterday.  I flew home from just over three weeks traveling by myself in the United States.  Dove describes the nowhere yet everywhere feeling of airports so well in this poem.  

Getting home is always a maelstrom of emotions.  You'd think I'd be prepared for it, after all these years of back and forth, and I sort of am, but each time it hits me a little differently.  I had been up since four AM, and the atmosphere was more oven-like than I had remembered.  There were visible signs of the recent riots - frequent piles of the remains of burned tires on the road home, for example.  And my house always looks different to me when I'm returning from the States: I see everything through American eyes for a few moments and think in some surprise, "This is where I live?  Huh."  

I decided to leave the luggage completely alone.  I ate a sandwich, took a shower, and went straight to bed.  Everything would look better in the morning, I reasoned, and you know what?  It does.   

Heidi has today's roundup.