Friday, June 24, 2011

Poetry Friday: I've Got Nothing

Today was a day of traveling and I never got around to doing a post, but fortunately other people did.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Photography and Living: Lessons from Clyde Butcher

On Saturday I posted a quote from a photographer whose work I saw in a museum. Thinking about photography reminded me of an exhibit I saw last year of Clyde Butcher's photographs.

Butcher takes huge black and white photos, mostly of nature. (You can see lots of them at his website.) I know very little about the technical aspects of photography, so the detailed descriptions of how Butcher took each photo were lost on me. However, I was struck by the comments on how he sees the world.

Butcher wrote about getting up in the morning at three or four and going out to look. He might end up taking only three or four pictures, waiting for the exact moment when the light is perfect. Sometimes he goes to national parks or other places where people go to enjoy nature, and is astonished to hear people bragging about how fast they have "done" a particular walk or sightseeing experience, as though "there and back" was the whole story. Destination has become their only focus, whereas to him, every single step is full of beauty, and he can't imagine rushing it.

People come up to Butcher while he is setting up or taking a photo, and squint at what he is doing. "What are you taking a picture of?" they ask, because to their eyes there is nothing in front of them worth recording. They can't see what he sees. People, he says, don't know how to look.

Visitors to Butcher's gallery in Florida ask him where the best place is to take good photos of the Everglades. He says "Out in the parking lot," and they think he's joking, but he isn't; there's no magical spot to make a perfect photo. You just have to know how to look.

Paying attention, looking, enjoying the journey instead of focusing on the destination. Good advice for taking pictures, for writing, for living.

Here's the link again. Go on, go look at some of Butcher's photos.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


"Small towns and ordinary places interest me the most. Driving on small roads reminds me of growing up in the South, where I see the music of the ghosts. It's wonderful to be a little lost on those roads, and to think feelings, not thoughts. The ordinary [becomes] particularly special." - Burk Uzzle

Friday, June 17, 2011

Poetry Friday: Love's Austere and Lonely Offices

I don't know if it is true that Father's Day is the biggest day of the year for collect calls, but it wouldn't surprise me. While moms get all the flowers and gifts, dads are sometimes less appreciated. Today's poem is for dads. It's the last line that stuck with me, and that's what I used to search for the poem. At this link you can hear the poet reading it.

Those Winter Sundays
Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he'd call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love's austere and lonely offices?

To all the dads in the midst of "love's austere and lonely offices," Happy Father's Day. I hope someone takes a moment to thank you for all you do. And if not, here's a thank you from me.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Writing Every Day

I have always, for as long as I can remember, wanted to be the kind of person who wrote every day. As a child and into my teen years, I filled notebook after notebook with journal entries, but many of these outpourings begin with, "It's been a long time since I've written." I wanted to write every day, and felt guilty when I didn't, but somehow I never got into that habit.

After the earthquake, I started writing much more, back to the compulsive way I used to write when I was younger. I blogged endlessly. I wrote essays and emails and speeches. I've always written poetry, off and on. I started writing more of it, and that has continued through the past year and a half as I have worked through intense emotion.

Since school got out just over two weeks ago, I have been writing a poem every day. I've mentioned this before on this blog, and talked about how much I'm enjoying it, but I wanted to post a bit more about the experience.

I keep several lists of ideas on my desktop and I jot things down as they come to mind. Two of them are connected with teaching. Nancie Atwell suggests using the concept of "Writing Territories" with middle school writers; students make a list of their territories, the things they know about or are interested in, to help them find ideas for their writing. When I first taught this lesson I made my own list and ever since, I have added ideas to it and removed others once they have found their way into my writing. Nancie Atwell also has a lesson called "Where Poetry Hides," based on a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye (this one). Atwell asks students to walk through their homes and write down a list of objects that could contain poems, like the skunks in Nye's piece. When I first taught that lesson I made my own list, and that, too, is still on my desktop. (I've made no secret of how much I love Nancie Atwell's writing and how much I want to be just like her when I grow up. I gush on and on about her here, among other places.) Then I have a less formal TextEdit file just called "Ideas," and that's where I save passing thoughts that I don't want to forget. I do this on paper, too, on little scraps and in a notebook.

All of this is to say that I have lots of ideas to write about. But you'd think that writing every day would deplete the lists, that eventually you'd run out. But my experience is the opposite. The more I'm writing, the more I'm generating ideas, so that I often find myself choosing among five or six ideas begging to be written about because I don't have time to deal with all of them. I'm constantly noticing, constantly scribbling notes to myself. It's as though I'm in a more receptive mode than usual.

I also find that when I'm writing more, my attitude about what I am writing is playful, and I put less pressure on myself. If a piece doesn't work out, I don't beat myself up as much or tell myself that I have no writing ability whatsoever. (What, am I the only person that does that?) Tomorrow's piece will be better, I think instead. I'm a writer, I think instead. How much healthier than feeling every time you write as though it has to be a masterpiece, and then being frustrated every single time because it never is. (I think graduate school really ruined me as a writer, at least for lots of years, because of the pressure I put on myself, but that's another post.)

For several years I have been sharing my writing with my students, as recommended by lots of the education writers I read. The Kelly Gallagher book I finished last week (review in this post) talks about the "Grecian Urn syndrome." Gallagher says that when he first started sharing his writing with his students, he would write it and revise it and polish it, and when he eventually showed it to them, it would be like a Grecian urn, shiny and beautiful, but not really attainable for the kids. They didn't see how he got there, but were confirmed in their view that good writing "just happens." When I'm writing all the time, I am much more in touch with the process, much more aware that it doesn't "just happen." I have more pieces to share with my kids (though of course I choose very carefully which ones), but I can also show them how it came about. So all this writing makes me a better teacher.

I've already said how much I'm enjoying writing, but I want to say it again, because it's just a revelation to me. Writing is a joy again, as it hasn't been since I was a child and wrote stories without worrying about whether they were good or bad, but just because I loved to write them. That was before grades and essay contests and writing seminars and workshops - and there's nothing wrong with any of those things. But I write now because I love to write. It almost doesn't matter if anyone reads it. (I say "almost" because of course there are a few people who read almost everything I write, once I'm ready to share it.)

I started this post by saying that I've always wanted to be a person who writes every day. Now I am. I don't know if this will last into the school year, but I'm betting it will. I love exercising regularly, and when I miss it, I feel not guilty but just less well, less alive. Writing is the same way. It makes me feel alive and happy. I'm not doing it because I feel guilty if I don't. I'm doing it because I love it. I'm a writer. I write.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Reading Update

I'm finishing up lots of books that were lying half-read on my bedside table, waiting for me to have time for them. Here are some:

Book #21, Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe, by Doreen Baingana, is, as the subtitle suggests, short stories about Uganda. Specifically, the stories are about three sisters. One spends some time in the United States (as my regular readers know, I love stories about immigrants). The stories are sad and vivid.

Book #22 is the kind of book you take notes on, and I have a whole file of notes on my desktop now that I'm done. The book is Teaching Adolescent Writers, by Kelly Gallagher. This was the perfect kind of teacher book: a combination of inspiration, theory, and extremely practical stuff you can do in class tomorrow (except that it's summer, so in my case, in eight weeks or so). Especially nice was the reminder that there are quite a few things I'm already doing right. I can always use that.

This next book wasn't half-read but it's been on my shelf for a while. Every book on writing or teaching I read seems to recommend it, and I finally got it down and just read it. "It" is book #23, Stephen King's On Writing. King's advice is practical and down-to-earth, but also full of why he writes: because it's just plain fun. Listen to this:
"On some days...writing is a pretty grim slog. On others...I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It's like lifting off in an airplane: you're on the ground, on the ground, on the ground...and then you're up, riding on a magical cushion of air and prince of all you survey. That makes me happy, because it was what I was made to do....It's about getting up, getting well, and getting over. Getting happy, okay? Getting happy."
In my own far-less-successful way, writing is about that for me too. Getting happy!

This post is linked to today's edition of the Saturday Review of Books.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Poetry Friday: Flooding

I am still in the poem-a-day mode and very much enjoying all the writing. Some days I throw caution to the winds and write two poems.

But this week we also mourned, because Monday night a huge rainstorm caused terrible flooding in which at least 23 people were killed and also led to an increase in the number of people sick with cholera.

My first reaction to a disaster of this kind - and there have been many: hurricanes, floods, the earthquake, political unrest - is deep discouragement. Why again? Why so much suffering?

On Tuesday I wrote a poem about the flooding and about those feelings.

The Flood, Port-au-Prince, June 7, 2011

From those who have little,
Even what they have will be taken away.
Jesus said that,
And I see plenty of evidence
That it is true.

What Mackensia
Salvaged from the earthquake,
She lost in the flood.
What cholera left
To Jesula,
She lost in the flood.
What life had graciously
Allowed Marie-Claude to keep,
She lost in the flood.

Brown torrents of water
Carried it all away.
Birth certificates, food,
Beds, clothes,
And the neighbor's pig.

Ruth, from

My friend Shelley posted the photo at the top of this post, a photo of a mom of seven children who lost her home in the flood. Remember, these people are already earthquake survivors.

If you'd like to help Shelley and Corrigan help the people in their neighborhood, through their organization, The Apparent Project, you can find out how to do that here. Here's the website for their organization. They do amazing work with empowering women and families, helping people to earn a living through making beautiful jewelery so that they won't be forced to give up their children. So many of the orphanages in Haiti are filled with children who have living parents, parents who could not take care of their children due to extreme poverty. Here's some of what Shelley and Corrigan do when they aren't cleaning up after a flood. Hint: Donna Karan has visited recently.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

You Can Help!

Would you like to help people affected by the flooding in Haiti? Do you feel overwhelmed and wonder what you could do? Here's an opportunity to give, and a matching grant will double what your money can accomplish.

You'd be giving through The Apparent Project, which works to empower Haitian parents to be able to keep their children instead of giving them up, as so many poor people are forced to when they can't take care of them. As Corrigan says in the post linked below, The Apparent Project doesn't do handouts, but this is a time of emergency.

Read this to find out more.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Seventh Grade Quote

My eye is always drawn to quotes about middle school, and this post and this one contain some examples.

I just saw another one in a review for this new book, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, by Ian Morgan Cron, and you know, this is the second time today I've seen a reference to this book. I may just have to read it.

Here's the quote:

“Most seventh graders don’t set out to make trouble. They are like puppies with impulse-control disorders. Opportunities for mischief arise, and they can’t stop themselves. This is why they should be crate-trained.”

Here's the review.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Reading Update

Books #19 and #20 could hardly have been more different.

Flies on the Butter, by Denise Hildreth, is the story of Rose Fletcher, who came from South Carolina, and is now going back. She has become a high-powered children's advocate in Washington D.C. but can't forget the pain of her childhood. The book describes her ten hour drive and all the things that happen to her along the way. I really wanted to like this book, especially because it was a gift from a student. I found it as relentlessly charming as an episode of "Touched by an Angel." I couldn't believe in the characters, who all seemed to be stereotypes. For example, Rose orders a salad in a diner and is brought, instead, a plate of fried chicken with all the fixings by a waitress who knows in her heart that that is what Rose needs. Rose, a committed vegetarian, obediently cleans her plate.

By contrast, Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernières, doesn't have a stereotype in it. I read de Bernières' previous book, Corelli's Mandolin, a long time ago, and it made a huge impression on me. Although the movie was mediocre, the book is brilliant, and after the Haitian earthquake I thought many times of the earthquake scenes in that novel. De Bernières' writing reminds me a little bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it's hard to read for many of the same reasons - the cruelty, the unflinching descriptions of horrible sights, the profanity, the suffering. However, it's wonderful to read, too - because of the humanity, the love, the tragic characters caught in history and doing their best to live their lives in spite of the currents around them which they can't control.

Birds Without Wings is really the story of Turkey. Like Corelli's Mandolin, the story is told from many different points of view. We see the development of Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern-day Turkey, but mostly we are in the village of Telmessos, among the colorful characters, Christian and Muslim, who live there. Iskander the Potter, one of these people, tells us:
"I blame these Frankish peoples, and I blame potentates and pashas whose names I will probably never know, and I blame men of God of both faiths, and I blame all those who gave their soldiers permission to behave like wolves and told them it was necessary and noble....I wonder sometimes whether there are times when God sleeps or averts His eyes, or if there is a divine perversity. Who knows why one day a man drowns because a deep hole has been carved in the fording place of a river, where men have passed safely for centuries, and there was no hole before?"
Iskander is known as a maker of proverbs, and the title of the book comes from one of these proverbs: "Man is a bird without wings, and a bird is a man without sorrows." I learned a lot about Turkey by reading this; I had no idea of the forced migrations of Christians to Greece and Muslims to Turkey, for example. It was difficult to read the descriptions of war, and death, and torture, but this book was rewarding enough that I was willing to do it.

This post is linked to the June 11th Saturday Review of Books.

All Right Here

by Sara Groves

It's every loss and every love
It's every blessing from above
Here I am all added up
Oh, it's all right here

It's what I know and what I'm guessin'
It's half-truths and full confessions
It's why I choose to learn my lesson
Oh it's all right here

And I'm not God I'm a girl I confess that I don't have a sea of forgetfulness
No, it's all right here
It makes me stronger and makes me wince
It makes me think twice when I pick my friends
Oh, it's all right here it's all right here

It's caution and curiosity
And it's all the things I never see
Welling up inside of me
Oh, it's all right here
It's what is best and what is worse
It's how I see the universe
It's in every line and every verse
Oh, it's all right here

And I'm not God I'm a girl I confess that I don't have a sea of forgetfulness
No, it's all right here
It makes me stronger and makes me wince
It makes me think twice when I pick my friends
Oh, it's all right here it's all right here

Every heart has so much history
It's my favorite place to start
Sit down awhile and share your narrative with me
I'm not afraid of who you are

I'm all here and you're all there
Some of this is unique and some of it we share
Let's add it up and start from there
Oh, it's all right here

Oh, I'm not God I'm a girl I confess that I don't have a sea of forgetfulness
No, it's all right here
It makes me stronger and makes me wince
It makes me think twice when I pick my friends
Oh, it's all right here
It's caution and curiosity
And it's all the things I never see
Oh, it's all right here
It's what is best and what is worse
And it's how I see the universe
Oh, it's all right here
It's all right here
Oh, it's all right here
I'm all right here
Oh, I'm all right here
I'm all right here, all right • •

from Sara Groves' site

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Enough Already

Flooding, mudslides, death, more loss of property. Here's a summary of the situation in the Port-au-Prince area. Don't be deterred by the bad translation; this is the most complete description I can find. Here's some more information.

Monday, June 06, 2011


It has been raining in Port-au-Prince as long as anyone can remember. Well, at least since last Wednesday. It is overcast, gloomy, gray, and miserable. The furniture feels damp to the touch. The forecast calls for rain through this coming Wednesday, too. Ugh.

Here's a poem I wrote back in November 2007 after a similar rainy period when we didn't see the sun for days. The first thing everyone in our neighborhood did after the sun came back was laundry.

November 2, 2007, Port-au-Prince, Haiti

After a week of rain
The clothes come out to sunbathe.
On roofs, on bushes
On clotheslines,
They luxuriate,
Enjoying the warmth:
Pink, lacy Sunday dresses,
School uniforms,
Shirts and skirts and trousers,
And blushing underwear.
After a week of rain
It feels good to stretch out in the sun,
Freshly laundered,
Ready for service again.

Ruth, from

I hope we'll soon see everybody's laundry all over, since that will let us know that the sun is back.

Of course, my ongoing refrain is, "At least I don't live in a tent." I can't imagine how much more miserable this weather must be for the tent-dwellers in the city, whether it's 375,000 or 680,000 of them. Most of the tents I see are no longer very waterproof; you can often see big holes in them. These tents were not designed for constant use for going on 17 months.

Having said that, you would think I wouldn't have the gall to complain about anything at all, but I am going to complain, just a tiny bit. I hope my readers will indulge me.

We had a transformer blow-up late last week, and the electrician who came over said that 160 volts of power were coming into the house. That would explain the smell of burning as two surge protectors bit the dust. It would also explain why we have no city power even though the people across the street, who have their own transformer, do.

I haven't complained about electricity in a while on my blog. I used to complain about it all the time, especially before I had been so open about my location. I feel that Haiti gets enough negative press and I don't like giving it more, so since I have now whined, I will tell you that EDH (Electricité d'Haïti) is working hard for everyone to have electricity! Here are two of the billboards in the current advertising campaign:

This one says: "Together, let's work for a country that's all lit up." (Or maybe even better: "an enlightened country.") Then at the bottom it says, "Haitians and EDH are working together to give more people more electricity."

And this one says: "EDH is working to give more people more electricity." (Literally, it's lifting its foot.) "More electricity = more work. More light = more opportunity. Let's start working for a different country where everyone has electricity.")

I couldn't agree more! Let's!

Friday, June 03, 2011

Poetry Friday: A Pie Instead?

Last Thursday was the first day I didn't have to teach. I wrote a poem instead. I wrote one the next day too. I loved having the time for my own writing and I kept going; every day since the end of school I have written at least one poem. I have a long list of ideas, and I find that when I am writing regularly, I'm constantly generating more. I am hooked!

I don't think I have enough distance from any of these poems to post them yet. Instead, today, here's a poem about a poet who decided to make a pie instead. I am extremely fortunate to have several people who read and appreciate my poems, but like Grace Paley I sometimes think something to eat might be appreciated even more.

The Poet's Occasional Alternative
by Grace Paley

I was going to write a poem
I made a pie instead it took
about the same amount of time
of course the pie was a final
draft a poem would have had some
distance to go days and weeks and
much crumpled paper

the pie already had a talking
tumbling audience among small
trucks and a fire engine on
the kitchen floor

You can read the rest of this wonderful poem here.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.