Friday, December 14, 2018

Poetry Friday: Sadness

A month ago I posted a list of things I do to cheer myself up. One of them was reading poems. Sometimes it's good to read something cheerful, but sometimes what you really need is to wallow in sad, and this post is the result of some of that. I didn't even type them up, just took some blurry photos of them and the books where I found them. (Click on the photo to enlarge it, and I'll replace a couple of these once the sun comes up and I have better light to use.) (Edited to add slightly improved photos.)

Laura Shovan has today's roundup.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Poetry Friday: Yehuda Amichai

A few weeks ago, I found a poem I loved on the blog The Beauty We Love. The poem is called "Doubts and Loves," and it was written by the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. (I'm not sure when I first encountered this blog, but I've been following it for a while. The poems there are almost always unfamiliar to me, and often have a spiritual dimension. In addition, they are illustrated with beautiful photos. I've encountered many treasures there.)

I'm going to share the first one I read, and then two others I discovered while exploring his work further on the Poetry Foundation site. I've spelled his name two different ways in this post, because the two sites spelled it differently. I'm assuming the discrepancy comes from the fact that it's a transliteration from Hebrew.

"Doubts and Loves" is, in my experience, very true. New growth doesn't come from "the place where we are right," but from "doubts and loves" that "dig up the world like a mole." That's why we are changed to our core by the people we love: our spouses, our friends, our children. They disrupt our lives and open us up to possibility.

Doubts and Loves
by Yehudi Amichai
translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.

And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.

You can see the photo chosen to go with this poem here

Poem Without an End
by Yehuda Amichai
translated by Chana Bloch

Inside the brand-new museum
there's an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.

Here's the rest.

Problem in a Math Book
by Yehuda Amichai
translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld

I remember a problem in a math book
about a train that leaves from place A and another train
that leaves from place B. When will they meet?
And no one ever asks what happens when they meet:
will they stop or pass each other by, or maybe collide?
And none of the problems was about a man who leaves from place A
and a woman who leaves from place B. When will they meet,
will they even meet at all, and for how long?

Here's the rest.

Elizabeth Steinglass has the roundup today.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: Reflections on OLW

It's December already, and it's time to reflect on the OLW chosen a year ago for 2018. Mine this year was ENOUGH.

Every once in a while as a teacher, you're asked to tell when a skill should be mastered, when it's been taught sufficiently that it's now second nature. You can be sure that your students know it. You can check it off your list. To me this has always seemed like a pointless exercise. The "skills" we teach in the English department are more art than science. Sure, we've taught commas, but is there a point when you will never make a comma error? Even professional authors need editors to correct their comma use. (I can think of one whose every blog post, presumably not edited by someone who does that for a living, is filled with comma splices; that author's published work has not a comma splice in sight.) And then there's the fact that sometimes it's a matter of preference. I might put a comma there and you might not, and neither one of us would be wrong.

You can probably see where I'm going with this. I want to be able to look back on this year and say, "Yup, I've got that down. Now I am always contented, never worried; I know that this day's provision, material and emotional and spiritual, will be ENOUGH, and I rest in that knowledge." But I can't say that. It's a daily struggle, a daily decision.

C.S. Lewis wrote: "Relying on God has to begin again all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done." I'm grateful for authors like Lewis, Nouwen, Buechner, who write from experience, from trial and error on the spiritual road, and who remind me that the challenges I face are not mine alone. When I feel as though there isn't enough love in the whole world for me to feel completely loved, for example, Nouwen's writing shows me that he often felt the same. Just keep going, he tells me. Don't give up. When I doubt and wonder if it's even worth it at all, Buechner's writing shows me that I'm not alone in that either. Just keep going. Don't give up.

(And yes, I'm aware of the irony of evaluating myself on how well I've done with the word ENOUGH, as though my pursuit of ENOUGH hasn't been ENOUGH. ENOUGH of all of this inner turmoil, please!)

Of course, it's about the process, the journey, the daily and hourly choices, the hesitating over the sentence to decide whether or not to put a comma right there, right now. I know that.

When I look back over this year, I know that the process mattered, the journey mattered, every mile mattered. I showed up, and I tried to love well, and I did my best. It was enough. Right?

Every Mile Mattered
Nichole Nordeman

Spread the map on the table, with the coffee stain
Put your finger on the places, show me where you've been
Is that California, where your teardrops dried?
You drew a circle round Georgia, can you tell me why?

I see shoulda beens, coulda beens
Written all over your face,
Wrong turns and bridges burned,
Things you wanna change

It's history
You can't rewrite it
You're not meant to be trapped inside it
Every tear brought you here
Every sorrow gathered
Yeah, it's history
And every mile mattered

Get the box off the top shelf, with the black and white
Snapshots of your old self, in a better light
Ghosts and regrets back again, I can see it in your eyes
Send them home, let 'em go
Don't you think it's time?

It's history
you can't rewrite it 
You're not meant to be trapped inside it
Every tear brought you here
Every sorrow gathered
It's history
And every mile

And every road and every bend
Every bruise and bitter end
All you squandered, all you spent
It mattered, it mattered
Mercy always finds a way
To wrap your blisters up in grace
And every highway you'd erase
It mattered, it mattered

But it's history
It don't define you
You're free to leave
It all behind you
Every tear brought you here
Every sorrow gathered
It's history
And every mile mattered
Every mile mattered 

Tune in on the first Thursday in January for my 2019 OLW.

The Incomparable Irene is rounding up the SJFT posts today. Check out what other people posted!

Monday, December 03, 2018

What I Learned in November

At the beginning of November, I read this devastating Smithsonian article about Anne Frank and why hers is the most famous book about the Holocaust that everyone reads. Hint: the article's lead reads: "People love dead Jews. Living Jews, not so much." In a time when anti-Semitism appears to be on the rise around the world, this is a must-read. Hard to take, but necessary.

This article introduced me to the blue heron from Maine, Nokomis, that is wintering here in Haiti. She caught my imagination and I wrote a poem about her. I shared it with The Heron Observation Network of Maine on their Facebook page, and had some fun interaction by email and Facebook with some people in Maine.

As the month went on, the political situation in Haiti deteriorated, and we had to spend several days at home "sheltering in place," as the U.S. Embassy calls it, while people demonstrated in the streets. We have been through many such times during our years in Haiti (here's a post I wrote during one such time), and I learned that I'm pretty tired of it, while continuing to sympathize with the issues the Haitian people face and realizing that ways to make one's voice heard are limited. I was glad to go back to work and have a full five days of normal classes last week.

The month ended with a big earthquake in Alaska. In the last couple of years I have not been reading earthquake articles; they are too difficult and cause too much emotional upheaval. But this one was right near some friends, plus it was a 7.0 just like "ours," so I let myself start reading. It doesn't end there, of course. Once I begin, I am soon scrolling obsessively through reports of aftershocks (as of today there have been over one thousand). I have the USGS "Did You Feel It?" site open on my desktop again. I'm talking all things earthquake with my husband again. (He thought he felt some tremors over the last few days, so it's not just me.) One thing that's missing from the Alaska articles: death. And I'm so glad. But I'm also, once again, tied up in knots by the memories from "our" earthquake, and all the thousands and thousands of people who died. Partly it's because Alaska has incredibly strict building codes, after their 1964 earthquake. Partly it's because of a far lower population density up there. And partly it's because the world is just not a fair place, and people in poor countries suffer from everything more than people in rich countries do. That's a reality I'm aware of all the time, but it's making my stomach hurt even more than usual these days.

(Here's what I learned in October, and at the bottom of that post there's a link to my September post which in turn contains links to all my "What I Learned" posts from this year.)

Friday, November 30, 2018

Poetry Friday: Marriage

I always hesitate to write about my marriage, because in my experience, people who write about marriage are generally doing so to advise other people how they should conduct their marriages. Please understand that I am not doing that. I have been married to my husband for nearly thirty years, and I am an expert on him and on us, which doesn't mean that I handle things well all or even most of the time, just that I am fully qualified to speak about my own marriage. I don't know about marriages in general, and I don't judge anybody else on their own situation. Sometimes things don't work out, in quiet ways or huge, dramatic ways. Some marriages need to end, when people are being abused and mistreated.

(I don't want to be a "smug married," as in Bridget Jones' memorable phrase. This time of year, I'm too busy being smug about our warm tropical weather.)

Having said all that, I think marriage is a great thing. People come and go constantly, but a spouse who will stick around until death parts you is a blessing beyond words. I am more grateful for my husband than I can say. He knows me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he keeps loving me, year after year after year. Any relationship that lasts as long as ours has will naturally have ups and downs, and the traditional marriage vows' references to better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, and health were written in full awareness of that. My husband and I can irritate each other very effectively, and since we are both far from perfect, our home is not always filled with harmony. But life is hard, sometimes brutally so, and it's wonderful to have someone you can count on to be there through it. I do not take that for granted.

I didn't know what I was doing when I picked out a husband. I met him when I was 18 and we married when I was 21. What did I know? Precious little. Somehow I managed to get a great guy, who loves me and our children better every year. What have we done right? I couldn't really tell you. He cooks great meals, and that sure helps. He makes me laugh and he doesn't worry the way I do, and he helps me to get things in perspective. And he stays. Everyone else leaves, but he doesn't. 

Today I have a poem by, of all people, Margaret Atwood, about marriage. The author of The Handmaid's Tale wouldn't be likely to sugarcoat any topic, least of all marriage, and she doesn't. I think she has it right; we have to hold on tightly to the people around us in order to survive at all, let alone thrive.

After that I have a poem of my own, written nearly four years ago in a fit of frustration with the way people write about marriage. Everyone has advice, mostly filled with doom and gloom. And I am pretty convinced things are going to go wrong at any moment anyway, so I buy into the negativity way too often. I suddenly realized that I had probably been married longer than most of the people writing those articles I was seeing online, and maybe I knew just as much as they did, which is to say, not all that much. But for sure I knew more about my husband and my marriage than they did.

by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not
a house or even a tent

it is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
                    the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn

the edge of the receding glacier

where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far

we are learning to make fire

You can read this poem and others by Atwood here.

Staying Afloat

Ten Things You Are Doing Wrong That Will Wreck Your Marriage
Ten Things You Are Doing Wrong That Will Ruin Your Children
Ten Things You are Doing Wrong That Will Destroy Your Life

Why do I click on these links,
As though unable to do anything else,
Drawn in by the flashing lighthouses of their headlines,
Eager to learn what I need to change, how I am falling short,
How I could, in an unguarded moment, ruin everything?
How my little boat could wind up shattered on the rocks?

Just once I’d like to see an article about what I’m doing right:

Like that time I steered by the shoal of dolphins
And we all stopped and watched as they played
And we were all happy.

And when we dangled our feet in the ocean and told stories as the sun set.

Or how we made it between Scylla and Charybdis
With only minor bruises
And because I held you tight, we didn’t even have to tie you to the mast
When we sailed past those sirens.

I don’t want to hear any more about what I might possibly be doing wrong
As our boat bobs gently.
We know the calm between the storms is only temporary,
But in the meantime,
It’s a beautiful day
And there’s not a cloud or a pirate or a shipwreck in sight.

Ruth, from

Carol has the roundup today.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Poetry Friday: Odes at Thanksgiving

Every year I read Neruda odes with my eighth graders during Thanksgiving week, and encourage them to write their own. I've written posts about this several times in the past: here and here in 2010, here in 2011, here in 2012, here in 2013, here in 2014, here in 2015, here in 2016, and here last year.

This year was a little different, because we had a touch of rioting here in Haiti. (Here's an article from the Miami Herald to get you caught up on the situation.) We did have school on Monday, but only four seventh graders and four eighth graders were there. Tuesday we had a delayed start which turned into a day off, and Wednesday we were off again. Yesterday and today were regularly scheduled days off for the Thanksgiving holiday (not a local holiday but we're an American school). So I didn't get to share odes this year, except with the few who were there on Monday; we read "Ode to Scissors," one of my favorites. I'm planning on squeezing a bit more on this into next week's lessons, so we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I found a new-to-me ode to share with you for Poetry Friday today. 

Ode to Bird Watching
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Jodey Bateman

Let's look for birds!
The tall iron branches
in the forest,
the dense
fertility on the ground.


I bury
my shoes
in the mud,
jump over rivulets.
A thorn
bites me and a gust
of air like a crystal
splits up inside my chest.
are the birds?
Maybe it was
rustling in the foliage
or that fleeting pellet
of brown velvet
or that displaced
perfume? That
leaf that let loose cinnamon smell
- was that a bird? That dust
from an irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell with a thump -
was that a flight?
Oh, invisible little
birds of the devil
with their ringing
with their useless feathers.


I want to touch their gloves
of real hide
which they never forget in
the branches
and to converse with
sitting on my shoulders
although they may leave
me like certain statues
undeservedly whitewashed.


You can read the whole thing here.

What struck and amused me about this poem is that it isn't an ode to birds; Neruda seems a little vague on the birds themselves. We never get a single concrete bird detail in this poem, and this from a guy who is heavily into concrete details. The subject of the poem is, instead, the experience of bird watching, which appears to be largely frustrating. He's tracking sounds and even smells, asking "Was that a bird?" and anticipating getting pooped on. "Where are the birds?" he wants to know.

I can very much relate to this poem because my own bird knowledge is rudimentary at best (although I'm trying), and my efforts to take pictures of birds result mostly in lovely views of empty branches. And I can relate to it too because I find when I write an ode, or really just about anything at all, it's often as much about me as it is about the topic of my attention.

Neruda wrote about this tendency elsewhere in a poem called "Siempre Yo," or as Ben Belitt translates it, "Me Again."

Me Again
Pablo Neruda
translated by Ben Belitt

I who wanted to talk
of a century inside the web
that is always my poem-in-progress,
have found only myself wherever I looked
and missed the real happening.
With wary good faith
I opened myself to the wind: the lockers,
clothes-closets, graveyards,
the calendar months of the year,
and in every opening crevice
my face looked back at me.

The more bored I became
with my unacceptable person,
the more I returned to the theme of my person;
worst of all,
I kept painting myself to myself
in the midst of a happening.
What an idiot (I said to myself
a thousand times over) to perfect all that craft
of description and describe only myself,
as though I had nothing to show but my head,
nothing better to tell than the mistakes of a lifetime.

Tell me, good brothers,
I said at the Fishermen's Union,
do you love yourselves as I do?
The plain truth of it is:
we fishermen stick to our fishing,
while you fish for yourself (said
the fishermen): you fish over and over again
for yourself, then throw yourself back in the sea.

I've been thinking a lot lately about self-portraits and selfies, and about the idea that we writers are so often our own subject. We're stuck with ourselves, no matter how bored we get. We fish and fish and fish, and throw ourselves back in the sea, and then fish some more. Or we go bird watching and end up focusing on our own experience and missing the birds.

An eighth grader started on ode on Monday, and she passed it to me to look at. It was about her friends, the ones who were there with her at school that day; they were bonding and loving being such a small group. It was an ode to her friends, and an ode to herself with them, the tight little group they formed. I smiled and passed it back to her, telling her she was on exactly the right track.

Irene has this week's roundup.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Poetry Friday: Nokomis, the Great Blue Heron, Winters in Haiti

I was reading this week about how a Great Blue Heron from Maine has once again come to Haiti for the winter.
 Source: Facebook page of Heron Observation Network of Maine

This is the third year that she has been tracked here. Here's an article about her from this year. Her name is Nokomis, which they got from Native American legend; most of us are probably most familiar with the name from Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha. I started doing some research on Nokomis, and on Great Blue Herons in general, and before I knew it, I was writing a poem about her. I didn't intend to use the Hiawatha rhythm, but I couldn't seem to help myself.

Here's my poem, and I'll put a bunch of other links from my research at the end of my post.

Nokomis, the Great Blue Heron, Winters in Haiti

By a little Haitian river
Northern tourist bird, Nokomis
slate-blue feathered, sleek Nokomis,
Great Blue Heron fleeing winter,
snaps her beak to grab some dinner,
finding fish and frogs to snack on.
Every year returns Nokomis,
on vacation, Great Blue Heron,
snowbird from the north Nokomis,
tagged in Maine three summers prior.
There from Maine they trace Nokomis,
keep track of her winter travels.

Once they lost her, lost her signal,
lost connection with Nokomis’
solar chip transmitting data,
lost her to the world of flying,
bird of mystery, missing heron,
flying south to spend the winter.
It was scientists that named her,
for they didn’t know her bird name,
didn’t know the name her mother
gave her when she was a hatchling.
Named for Hiawatha’s grandma,
daughter of the wind, Nokomis,
tracked by people, flying southward.
They had lost her, she was silent.

But they found her lost transmission,
chip warmed by the sun in Haiti,
beak warmed by the sun in Haiti,
in remote un-named location.
Hatched from pale green egg, the heron,
from her home in cold New England,
eighteen hundred miles northward,
flies to Haiti every winter,
fills the air with heron croaking.

When the weather warms, Nokomis,
she’ll head home to spend the summer,
leave behind her tropic island.
Till next year, then, Great Blue Heron.

Ruth, from

Here's an article about how they lost contact with Nokomis back in 2016.
This article asks whether the Great Blue Heron is endangered. (I am so glad to be able to report that it isn't. And this link has a beautiful photo of the bird, too.)
Here are some photos from the Audubon Society in Venice, Florida. They call Audubon an "American ornithologist," and of course he was, but he originally came from our part of the Americas, since he was born in Haiti.
Here's another Haitian bird poem I wrote earlier this year.
Here's the website of the Heron Observation Network of Maine.
Here's the Wikipedia page for the name Nokomis.
And here's some more information on the Great Blue Heron.

Linda has this week's roundup.

Reading Update

Book #87 of 2018 was a re-read, Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen.

Book #88 was The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny. This is the eleventh in the Inspector Gamache series, and my least favorite so far.

Book #89 was A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.  I loved this book, about a Russian aristocrat who is condemned by a Bolshevik court in 1922 to spend the rest of his life in the luxury hotel where he lives. They move him from his beautiful suite to a tiny room in the attic; his whole world contracts to a small space with a few possessions, but he is still able to find ways to lead a meaningful life and participate in the world. The book is really about how to make the best of this life, the life you have rather than the one you envisioned for yourself.

Book #90 was The Light of the World: A Memoir, by poet Elizabeth Alexander, about her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died unexpectedly at age 50. This is a beautiful book, a tribute to a fascinating man and to their marriage. 

This post is linked to the November Quick Lit post at Modern Mrs. Darcy.