Thursday, November 16, 2017

Poetry Friday: George Hitchcock Paints Mary

My daughter and I saw this George Hitchcock painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.

I wanted to write about the painting, but first I went looking for more about Hitchcock.  I found out that he lived from 1850 to 1913.  He was American, but did most of his painting in the Netherlands, where he lived in a houseboat.  I also found some other paintings of his that I loved, including these two which were also of Mary.  I wondered if he had used the same model for all three.  The first and second look a lot alike; it's hard to tell with the third because you can't see Mary's face.

George Hitchcock Paints Mary

He painted her in a field of lilies.
The painting is called “Annunciation,”
but Mary is alone
among rows and rows of lilies,
some trampled down
as though recently visited
by an angel.
She’s dressed in blue
with a halo on her head.

He painted her holding a newborn.
She’s sitting in a field
with a cow in the background.
She’s surrounded by flowers:
a pink tulip, daisies and dandelions.
There’s a flowering tree.
She’s wearing a purple cloak
and a halo
and looking new-mother tired.

He painted her fleeing to Egypt.
She’s on a donkey,
and this time she’s bareheaded,
and that must be a baby in her arms,
but the eye is mostly drawn to the
Queen Anne’s lace and cornflowers in the field.
Joseph follows behind.

Wherever she goes,
there are flowers,
as though they spring up ahead of her and behind her,
as though they want to be near her,
as though the challenges of her life
are made a little easier by their bright beauty.

Ruth, from

Jane, the Raincity Librarian, has this week's roundup.

Monday, November 13, 2017

QWP Update

My goal for my QWP (Quinquagenarian Writing Project) is fifty first drafts between the beginning of the school year and my fiftieth birthday.  On October 18th I had written eleven first drafts, and now I'm up to twenty-one. 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading Update

Books #76 and 78 of 2017 were two I didn't enjoy very much.  They were Heaven Looks a Lot Like the Mall, a YA title by Wendy Mass, and No One Knows, by J. T. Ellison.   In both cases I pushed through to the end because I wanted to know what would happen, but I found both unsatisfying. 

Book 79 was Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny, number six in the Inspector Gamache series.  I loved the setting, among the English-speaking community in Quebec City.  I'm glad I stuck with this series.

Book 80 was Oh Pioneers! by Willa Cather.  Cather is brilliant at describing the setting, and as one of her characters says, against that backdrop, "there are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before, like the larks in this country, that have been singing the same five notes over thousands of years." 

Book 81 was a reread, Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast, by Robin McKinley.  This is such a lovely book, a pleasure to read.

Book 82 was Saints for All Occasions, by J. Courtney Sullivan, a story of an Irish-American family in Boston and what happens to them after the death in the first chapter of the oldest son sets in motion a series of unveilings of long-suppressed family secrets.  I found this extremely absorbing and loved the way the different characters were portrayed.  We know each other so little!

Book 83 was painful to read, partly because it helped me know someone better who is very dear to me and who told me that she found this book an accurate portrayal of symptoms she has experienced.  The main character suffers from anxiety, intrusive thoughts (what she calls "invasives"), and compulsive behavior.  The book is John Green's new release, Turtles All the Way Down.   I had to stop reading frequently to cry and get lots of hugs.  The descriptions were so vivid that I was plunged fully into Aza's reality.  I could hardly bear it.  I can hardly bear that anyone suffers like this. 

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Poetry Friday: Of Teaching and Growth and Tomatoes

When I read Parker Palmer's wonderful book The Courage to Teach, one of my favorite parts was when he suggested finding your metaphor as a teacher.  Palmer himself, he tells us, is a border collie.  "In my imagination - unfettered by expert knowledge of the real thing - the sheepdog has four vital functions.  It maintains a space where the sheep can graze and feed themselves; it holds the sheep together in their space, constantly bringing back strays; it protects the boundaries of the space to keep dangerous predators out; and when the grazing ground is depleted, it moves with the sheep to another space where they can get the food they need."  He goes on to explain how this fits in with his own view of teaching and how he functions in the classroom. 

When I first read the book, the metaphor that immediately came to mind was a mom.  When I had my very first teacher evaluation at the age of 21, the professor wrote that my style was like a mother "or older sister," and I think there's still a lot to that.  But more and more in the last few years I have thought of myself as a gardener.

I am not an actual gardener, but I find teaching like gardening because you can do everything "right," all the planting and watering and fertilizing, and still there is a large part of the process that's just a complete mystery.  It takes place out of sight, and it's out of your control.  In addition, of course, there are all the other factors - the "weather" of your students' lives, like their home situation, their relationships with other kids in the class, their hormones, whether or not they had breakfast this morning.

All of that, and more, was in my head when I wrote this poem about tomatoes.


My grandparents used to include tomato updates
in every letter.
I never understood why. 
To me, a tomato wasn’t something you grew.
It was something that was on the table in slices
for my sandwich
or stewed in spaghetti sauce.

“The tomatoes are doing well”
didn’t mean much to me.

That was before I learned
that growing is magic,
a magic we can’t control,
a magic that happens deep inside
the sublime
glossy red
of a tomato.

You can water them,
fertilize them,
hover over them lovingly,
but sometimes they don’t do well.
And sometimes they do.

When they do,
it merits a mention.
“The tomatoes are doing well,”
they wrote laconically.
I thought they were
adding something pointless to fill the page,
but in truth they were holding back their excitement,
keeping themselves from exploding with delight.

A tomato,
warm from the vine,
life still pumping through it,
rinsed and sliced
with mayonnaise
on white bread:
a miracle from heaven.

“The tomatoes are doing well.”
Glory hallelujah!

Ruth, from

I'm putting in a lot of work these days in my metaphorical garden, and some days I feel as though I am seeing very few results.  But I'm trying to trust the process; there's some sort of something going on "deep down things," as Hopkins calls it.  Maybe by spring there will be some tomatoes.

The amazing Jama, expert on food and children's books, has this week's roundup.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Going to Church

Only our family showed up for church this week.  We kind of knew it might be that way.  The first two days of November are huge holidays here, and many of our regulars got (or took) Friday off too, and went off on trips.  Also, it's just possible that someone forgot to change time and got there an hour early.  But when we arrived at 9:47, nobody else was there, and when we left to come home at 11:00, nobody had arrived yet.

When we got inside the maternity center where we meet, I took out my phone and typed these seventeen syllables:

Adrenaline rush
Barely survived drive to church
Be still now my soul

"Barely survived" might be a slight exaggeration, but it's true that my husband's quick reflexes regularly save our lives when we're driving.  And it wasn't just the trip to church: my head and heart were full, full, full.  My soul needed quiet, peace, rest.

My husband and son sat down to read the Bible.  They are reading through the Bible together, and they are 85% through.  Today they were reading from Ezekiel.  As they read, I wandered around taking pictures.

There I am, reflected in a giant mud puddle.  

I borrowed my son for this one.  That's his giant almost-fifteen-year-old hand in the photo, and he's holding a baby mango that fell from the tree before it got a chance to mature.

Right before I took this picture, a Hispaniolan lizard cuckoo flew into the tree.  Can you see its striped tail?  I can, but only because I know exactly where to look.  I never get good bird photos, but at least I saw the bird.

See the mangoes in the tree?  Soon there will be a bounty to eat. 

And there are the flowers in the mango tree.  The picture isn't perfectly focused, but it's the best one I got.  They are such lovely, delicate flowers, with that slight mango-colored tinge.

I sat and read some, too: mostly from An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, by Barbara Brown Taylor.  A taste:

"I did not want to be loved in general.  I wanted to be loved in particular, as I was convinced God loved.  Plus, I am not sure it is possible to see the face of God in other people if you cannot see the faces they already have.  What is it that makes that face different from every other face?  If someone threw a blindfold over your own eyes right now, could you say what color those other eyes are?  If you had to send someone into a crowded room to find this person, what detail would you use to make sure she was found?"  

In that spirit, I hope I haven't given the impression that all was quiet and worshipful during the time I am describing.  My husband asked my son multiple times to stop tapping his foot rhythmically and to stop talking, and there were multiple conversations about how annoying each was being.  Those two faces, so like each other and so different from every other face, such a part of my world.  Yes, I could say what color those other eyes are.

Just before eleven, we took communion together.  We held hands and said what we were thankful for, and each one of us said, "You guys," and laughed, but we meant it.  My husband prayed, and we shared Christ's body and blood, broken for us.  For us.  

The road was just as muddy as we were leaving and a bird pooped on our windshield ("Thanks, mom, for documenting our pain!").

I'm glad we went to church today. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Poetry Friday: Insomniac's Lullaby

I've been listening to a lot of Paul Simon lately.  I own six of his albums, and I love all of them.  I also love it that his latest album, released in his seventies, has songs that I consider as good as the ones he wrote back when he was singing with Art Garfunkel all those years ago.

Here, for example, is a song from his 2016 album Stranger to Stranger.

Insomniac's Lullaby

Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night
Side by side with the moon
With its desolate eyes
Miles from the sunrise
The darkness inviting a tune
The Insomniac’s Lullaby

A siren is playing its song in the distance
The melody rattles the old window frame
Gradually, angels reveal their existence
And there’s nothing and no one to blame

Here, on Simon's website, are the rest of the lyrics.

Both the words and the music capture perfectly that no-man's-land of sleeplessness: maybe the angels will reveal their existence, or maybe we'll wrestle our fears, but either way, we aren't our rational daytime selves.  We're something different, between dreams and waking.  We revisit every mess we've ever made in our lives, hatch plans that will look insane in in the morning, imagine detailed conversations with people we never talk to any more.  Sometimes I can't face these in-between thoughts, and I turn on the light and read for a while to flee from them.  The song suggests, instead, floating on, going with the river, until, as the last line says, "We’ll eventually all fall asleep, eventually all fall asleep..."

The wonderful Linda has this week's roundup.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

It's November

We have a few students at school who have signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month.  People around the world take on the challenge of using the month of November to write the first draft of a novel.  If you're going to write 50,000 words in one thirty-day month, you need to average 1,667 words a day, so that's the goal.  That's a lot of words, and there's no way I can do that and keep up with the amount of reading (mostly of student work) that I have to do each day.  But I will be participating in encouragement of our students.  Each school day in November, we'll have an hour in the library from three to four when there will be English teachers present for company, moral support, and help.  And I'm hoping to write every day.  I'm still working towards my QWP goal of 50 first drafts by my 50th birthday.

I wrote today; did you?  Today wasn't hard for me, because I had a day off.  In fact, I have most of the first week of November off.  We'll see if I can keep it up as the month goes by.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

More Earthquake Stories

My seventh graders are writing children's books, so we've been reading lots of mentor texts in that genre.  This week, I asked them whether all children's stories need to be happy, about cheerful subjects, with a happy ending.  Some said yes, and some said no, and then we read a couple of books about sad subjects.

The first was Tight Times, by Barbara Shook Hazen.  I found this book several years ago in something I was reading about teaching, and it was recommended for this very purpose: exploring with kids how a difficult topic - in this case, financial problems and unemployment - can be written about in a way that works for young children. 

Next we read a book I added more recently to this lesson: Edwidge Danticat's picture book about the Haiti earthquake, Eight Days.  One student remembered having the book read to her when she was in the United States after the quake.  And all of them, after hearing and talking about the story, were driven to sharing their own earthquake stories - all of them who were in Haiti then, at least, and even a couple who were not, but who remember exactly where they were when they heard.

I've said before that there's something sacred about people's earthquake stories, and I felt it again this week.  These students were four or five on January 12th, 2010, but their memories are just as vivid as the ones in all the stories I've heard before.  Several of the kids smiled at the funny little kids they were then, as they told of who was with them as they ran outside, who helped them from their beds, what questions they asked, how happy they were when they ran to their parents.  Some told of family members or friends who were killed.  One said, "My mom hid my eyes so I wouldn't see.  But I did see.  And I still remember."

As long as we live, our earthquake memories will live.  And we will tell them.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Poetry Friday: Alone for a Week

My husband has been away for a week, but I have been far from alone.  I've had my son keeping me company, plus lots of friends and hordes of screaming middle schoolers participating in Spirit Week.  Nevertheless, I like this poem about a husband's absence, and especially the second stanza, since after 28 years of marriage, I am not used to sleeping alone.  I remember the very first time we were apart after our marriage, and how I slept in his shirt until he came home again.  I'm looking forward to my husband's return tomorrow, on Poetry Friday, from this particular trip. 

Alone for a Week
by Jane Kenyon
I washed a load of clothes
and hung them out to dry.
Then I went up to town
and busied myself all day.
The sleeve of your best shirt
rose ceremonious
when I drove in; our night-
clothes twined and untwined in
a little gust of wind.

For me it was getting late;
for you, where you were, not.
The harvest moon was full
but sparse clouds made its light
not quite reliable.
The bed on your side seemed
as wide and flat as Kansas;
your pillow plump, cool,
and allegorical. . . .

Brenda has the roundup today.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Poetry Friday: Advice to Odysseus

When I read the Odyssey with my daughter last summer, we noticed that Odysseus was very dismissive of the emotion of grief.  Anytime someone expressed sadness - and there was plenty of opportunity during the story, especially since they were constantly recounting the various horrid deaths in the Trojan War - he responded by saying that grief was useless.  I've used one of those quotes in the epigraph to the sonnet I wrote about this. 

Advice to Odysseus, on Grief

“So I said,  and it broke my shipmates’ hearts,
They sank down on the ground, moaning, tore their hair.
But it gained us nothing - what good can come of grief?”
The Odyssey, book 10 lines 622-624

Odysseus, no; no good can come of grief;
It’s such a waste of time, and days, and tears,
Till when you look, a wilderness of years
Spreads out behind you, cacti in relief,
And tumbleweed, and skulls à la O’Keeffe:
You’ve spent your life in simply being sad.
And think of all the feasts you could have had,
The loud carousing, all the sides of beef.

So quit your thinking of Penelope
And fallen friends, the thoughts that make you cry.
Instead, just pour yourself another glass,
Or sail some more upon the wine-dark sea,
Or find another bed where you can lie
And wait for all this pointless grief to pass.

Ruth, from

Grief may be pointless, but it's part of life, and in my experience, it's not possible to just power your way through it.  Even if you use Odysseus' methods (eating, drinking, travel, companions both human and divine), grief takes as long as it takes.

Odysseus (source:

The Poetry Friday roundup is here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

QWP Update

It's been a while since I've updated on the status of my QWP (Quinquagenarian Writing Project).  My goal is 50 first drafts by February, and I'm at eleven now, so I'm a little behind.  Still plugging away. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Poetry Friday: Impossible Friendships

I have two poems today, one by Adam Zagajewski and one by me.

Impossible Friendships
by Adam Zagajewski

For example, with someone who no longer is,
who exists only in yellowed letters.

Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden

porcelain cups—and the talks about philosophy
with a timid student or the postman.

A passerby with proud eyes
whom you'll never know.

Here's the rest of the poem.

And here's mine:


I dreamed about you last night,
but I can’t remember it.

There was something about looking for you,
and not being able to find you,
and being abandoned and lost and forgotten.

The usual.

And when I awoke,
Even the dream was gone.

Ruth, from

Irene has the roundup today.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Poetry Friday: 'Tis Loneliness That Loves Me Best

A friend is keeping a bedside vigil for her husband, who is in hospice care, and I have been reflecting on the truth that whenever we love, we lose.  Here are some words on this subject from wiser writers.

by Willa Cather

Where are the loves that we have loved before
When once we are alone, and shut the door?
No matter whose the arms that held me fast,
The arms of Darkness hold me at the last.
No matter down what primrose path I tend,
I kiss the lips of Silence in the end.
No matter on what heart I found delight,
I come again unto the breast of Night.
No matter when or how love did befall,
’Tis Loneliness that loves me best of all,
And in the end she claims me, and I know
That she will stay, though all the rest may go.
No matter whose the eyes that I would keep
Near in the dark, ’tis in the eyes of Sleep
That I must look and look forever more,
When once I am alone, and shut the door.

Henri Nouwen wrote: "Do not hesitate to love and to love deeply. You might be afraid of the pain that deep love can cause. When those you love deeply reject you, leave you, or die, your heart will be broken. But that should not hold you back from loving deeply. The pain that comes from deep love makes your love even more fruitful. It is like a plow that breaks the ground to allow the seed to take root and grow into a stronger plant.

Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide not to love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds."

To summarize, it hurts to lose love, but we will; it's worth it to love anyway.  

Monday, October 02, 2017

Reading Update

Book #68 of 2017 was written by one of my husband's teachers from childhood, Frank Stanley Placzek.  I read I Surrendered All aloud to my husband, and we both enjoyed the unmistakable missionary flavor, down to the details of how much family vacations cost.  I appreciated the way Placzek was honest about struggles and difficulties.  Of hurt feelings decades ago he writes sadly about how an apology never came.  But on the other hand, he tells about unexpected positive outcomes of struggles that he could see more clearly years later.  Reading this book together reminded my husband and me that our difficult times may look very different when we are publishing our memoirs in our eighties.  That's a hopeful way to think.

Book #69 was Luncheon of the Boating Party, by Susan Vreeland.  This is the story of the creation of the famous Renoir painting.  We learn about who is posing for the painting, how they got their clothes, how Renoir bought the paint - all the details.  At one point I got a little bogged down in all those details, but I persevered with the book and was glad I had.

Book #70 was Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng.  The first line of the book is "Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet."  We spend the rest of the book learning all the things that people never tell each other.

Book #71 was Coming Clean: A Story of Faith, by Seth Haines, and book #72 was his wife Amber C. Haines' book Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home.  I enjoyed both of these memoirs.

Book #73 was Two If by Sea, by Jacquelyn Mitchard, a story about survivors of the Christmas Eve tsunami in 2004.  While there's some weird magical realism in the story, what interested me was the exploration of the way people recover from grief.

Book #74 was My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier.  I'm pretty sure I've read this before, but it had been a long time.  I downloaded it from the library to read at the beach, and it was the right combination of light and creepy.

Book #75 was The Jane Austen Project: A Novel, by Kathleen A. Flynn.  This combination of Jane Austen and time travel was surprisingly good.  I'll never give up on reading these Jane Austen spinoffs, and this is why: occasionally I find one that I really enjoy.

It's interesting how often I find while writing these reading update posts that there's a theme to my recent reading.  This time it's this: "Just wait.  You don't know how all this is going to turn out.  You don't know what everyone is thinking and you may not be correctly interpreting what everyone's doing, not entirely.  Be patient.  Give it time.  Some day it may look very different from the way it looks now."  Whether or not that's the message of these books, that's the message I need to hear in my life right now, so I'll take it.  

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Poetry Friday: What You Missed

Last week in a newsletter from On Being, I read a poem that apparently Krista Tippett uses for her email signature (she doesn't email me, so I wouldn't know).  It addresses the secret fear that everyone else knows something you don't.  (And maybe everyone else is getting emails from Krista Tippett.)  The irresistible title of the poem is "What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade," and it's written by Brad Aaron Modlin.  Below I'll share the beginning, then a link to the whole thing, and then my favorite part, the very end.

What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade
by Brad Aaron Modlin

Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,

how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark.

After lunch she distributed worksheets
that covered ways to remember your grandfather’s

Here's the whole thing. 
And here's the end:
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,

and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person

add up to something. 

Laura has the roundup this week.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

When You Feel Like It

Today I had my seventh graders working in pairs coming up with lists of reasons why you would start a new paragraph.  I get tired of the answer "every five sentences" that I often get from them, because as I point out to the students in the book we're reading together, some paragraphs are one sentence long, and some are fifteen.  It just depends.

We hammered out a list including the basics, like "new idea," "new place," "new time," "new speaker," but then one student announced, "You should start a new paragraph when you feel like it."

I explained that you shouldn't just randomly start one; you need to have a reason.  I have a couple of kids this year who put a period suddenly in the middle of a sentence, just because they feel like it.  Some don't always feel like capitalizing proper nouns.  A few don't feel like writing at all. 

But the more I thought about his answer, the more I liked it.  It doesn't belong on our list, but it is our ultimate goal: that the kids would just know when a new paragraph is needed, not because they go through the list in their heads, but because they have read - and written - enough good prose that it's an instinctive choice.  That day is still a long way away for many of my students, but this conversation reminded me of why I am constantly working on putting models of good writing in front of my classes, and why we are always writing and revising. 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Poetry Friday: Ocean Dream

Ocean Dream

I dreamed
we were swimming in the ocean,
and the whole surface of the water
was a jigsaw puzzle,
blues and whites fitted together
and floating around us.

You said you’d done it,
turned the ocean into a puzzle,
because you were sad.

In the dream
that made perfect sense to me.

Sapphire, navy, turquoise,
each piece carefully connected,
each just where it belonged,
bobbing on top of the waves.
The ocean:
Controlled, flattened, finished.

“Brilliant,” I told you,
and you looked around
at what you’d accomplished.

But under the pieces,
the waves still moved restlessly,
and you,
treading water next to me,
still seemed sad.

Ruth, from

Amy has today's roundup.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Poetry Friday: Forget Me Not

I have been thinking a lot lately about forgetting, and especially about forgetting people, and being forgotten by other people.  I kept thinking about a line from a poem, which I remembered as something like: "Better to forget me and smile than to remember and be sad."

"Wow," I thought, "I'd rather be remembered, even if it caused some sadness."

I'm not talking just about dying, either.  I'm talking about living a life where you constantly have to say goodbye, and wondering if those people forget you, if it's out of sight, out of mind.  Fearing that it is.  Feeling that being forgotten means you don't exist. 

I thought the person who wrote that line must be very selfless, and I wondered if I could ever be that selfless, to wish to be completely forgotten, to wish happiness for the people who used to love me instead of a tiny memory of me that could make them sad. 

Until I looked up the poem.  Then I found that I'd been remembering it wrong, and that Christina Rossetti felt just as I did about being remembered.  The title of the poem is "Remember."  And that line I was quoting referred to a situation "if you should forget me for a while and afterwards remember."

Here's the whole poem:

by Christina Rossetti

Remember me when I am gone away,
         Gone far away into the silent land;
         When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
         You tell me of our future that you plann'd:
         Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
         And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
         For if the darkness and corruption leave
         A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
         Than that you should remember and be sad.

Whether I'm alive or dead, being forgotten seems like a terrible fate to me.  I want to be remembered.  It's OK to forget for a while; I don't want anybody to be miserable, I'm not asking for perpetual mourning.  But neither do I want to cease to exist on earth in the eternal way that will happen when nobody remembers me any more.  I know it will happen someday, but meanwhile, I want to be remembered.  It makes me feel better to know that Christina Rossetti wanted the same thing.

Michelle has the roundup this week.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Poetry Friday: More from Jane Kenyon

I've posted quite a few Jane Kenyon poems recently, here, here, and here.  Today I have another one from her.

The Pond at Dusk
by Jane Kenyon

A fly wounds the water but the wound   
soon heals. Swallows tilt and twitter   
overhead, dropping now and then toward   
the outward-radiating evidence of food.

The green haze on the trees changes   
into leaves, and what looks like smoke   
floating over the neighbor’s barn   
is only apple blossoms.

But sometimes what looks like disaster   
is disaster: the day comes at last,
and the men struggle with the casket   
just clearing the pews.

We've spent the day today (Thursday) waiting for Hurricane Irma to pass to the north of us here in Haiti. This time it seems that what looked like disaster wasn't, not for us.  We had a few minutes of rain, and it was, unusually, overcast all day long, but that was it.  For St. Maarten and Barbuda it sure was disaster, though, and for some on this island, too.  You never know, and that day will come for all of us.

I don't have very cheerful thoughts today, but check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup, hosted by Matt Forrest Esenwine, who's celebrating the release of his new book!

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Reading Update

Book #61 of 2017 was a short one, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's We Should All Be Feminists.  This is adapted from her TED Talk and is a quick, entertaining read.

Book #62 was The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri Nouwen.  So, so good.  I know I will reread this many times.  Some tastes:

"The finding has the losing in the background, the returning has the leaving under its cloak.  Looking at the tender and joy-filled return, I have to dare to taste the sorrowful events that preceded it.  Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I come to a true understanding of the return."

"I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire."

"The leap of faith always means loving without expecting to be loved in return, giving without wanting to receive, inviting without hoping to be invited, holding without asking to be held."

Book #63 was A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell.  I read this because earlier in the summer I had been so blown away by Russell's novels The Sparrow and The Children of God, reviewed in this post.  This one was very different.  It's about Italy during World War II, after Mussolini surrenders and the Germans take over.  I was reading this while Nazis were in the news, the modern variety who think it's fun and cool to be fascists and white supremacists and wear swastikas.  It was a strange and jarring feeling to revisit the horrors of WWII Nazism with that backdrop.  Like the other Russell books I'd read, this one is full of moral ambiguity, human beings doing their best, and wonderful relationships.

Book #64 was The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny.  I am reading my way through these Inspector Gamache novels as they become available to download from the library.  I thought this one was the best so far, and I'm glad I didn't give up on the series before now.

Book #65 was Sisterhood Everlasting, the fifth in the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, by Ann Brashares.  This came out in 2011 but I only recently found out about it.  It takes place ten years after the fourth book, so the friends are 29 years old.  It's perhaps not the most realistic of conclusions to the series, but realism isn't why we read books like this.  I'm a little embarrassed by how much I loved this paean to friendship that endures against all odds.

Book #66 was In this House of Brede, by Rumer Godden.  I read this years ago, maybe even in high school, and I enjoyed it even more this time.  I also found out there's a made-for-TV movie available on YouTube, so I watched it.  It was not anywhere near as good as the book, with its trademark complex Rumer Godden prose.  The book came out in 1969, and it's the story of Philippa Talbot, a successful professional in her forties, who decides to become a Benedictine nun.

Book #67 was The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead.  This was a horrifying and affecting book, full of gut-wrenching details about what it was like to be a slave, but I don't understand what was gained by the fantasy conception of the Underground Railroad as a real railroad with trains and tunnels. 

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

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Poetry Friday: Dark Brown is the River

What could be more dispiriting than a flood?  Nothing that's been under it will be the same, ever, even when the waters recede and the land is dry again.  People aren't the same either, after a flood, or any disaster.

But there's still life to be lived.  I think of children flying kites in the tent camps in Haiti after the earthquake.  I think of smiling boys out for a walk with their dad in waist-high water in Mumbai, a photo I saw in this NPR story about south Asia, where floods have killed over a thousand this summer.  And I think of little girls I saw in a photo from Texas, catching tadpoles in the water Hurricane Harvey left behind. 

For some reason the flood photos kept making me think of this Stevenson poem I loved as a child and can still almost recite from memory.  The dark brown rivers are now running down highways, where they aren't supposed to be, and another disaster becomes part of the memories of children.

Dark brown is the river.   
  Golden is the sand.   
It flows along for ever,   
  With trees on either hand.   
Green leaves a-floating,        
  Castles of the foam,   
Boats of mine a-boating—   
  Where will all come home?   
On goes the river   
  And out past the mill,   
Away down the valley,   
  Away down the hill.   
Away down the river,   
  A hundred miles or more,   
Other little children   
  Shall bring my boats ashore.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Here's this week's roundup.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Poetry Friday: What Hurts

This morning, thinking of this day, and of the Open House at the end of it, I read this essay, about how poet Jill Bialosky started writing.  She writes: "our professor-poet tells us to write poems about what we know and what hurts." 

At this point in the school year, everything is still new, and we're figuring it all out.  Part of being a teacher is keeping it new, year after year.  I've read ten thousand poems about having a crush, but for every kid who writes one, the feeling is new, and overwhelming.  I've also read ten thousand poems from kids who think, "I know!  I'll write about how I have nothing to write about!"  Each kid thinks this clever idea is brand new.  And to each kid, it is. 

Here's to teaching, and to meeting a new set of parents, and to reading what our students write, year after year, their bathroom humor, and their tales of trips and first communions and the births of siblings, and yes, their explorations of what hurts. 

Here's today's roundup.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Poetry Friday: This is the Stuff

We're finishing up our first week of school.  I have a fresh batch of seventh graders.  Ah, seventh graders.  I always forget, from year to year, how much training they need at the beginning.  I also have last year's batch back, in eighth grade now, with several new kids.

And, like everyone else, I've been watching the horror that is the news.

It's easy to feel caught up in the events of history, and as though there's very little you can do about the awful things going on.  But there is one place where I can make a difference, and that's in my classroom.  I can't do great things, as Mother Theresa put it, but I can do "small things with great love."

Seven years ago this week, I was back in my classroom for the first time after six months in the States after the Haiti earthquake.  I was reveling in the ordinariness of my days.  In this post I talked about how those ordinary things are what life is made of, and I shared the song lyrics below.  This year this whole concept seems important to me again.  Maybe treating my students with love and dignity will help prevent them from growing up into people who perpetuate attitudes like we're seeing in the news.  Maybe small things are the most important things I can do right now.

This is the Stuff
by Carolyn Arends

Riding along on a big yellow school bus
Elmer's glue and a brand new lunch box
Writing my name for the very first time
With a pencil that was bigger than me
From jumping rope and skipping school
To doing things that grown-ups do
Life goes by like that big old bus
If you miss it, it's history

Paper dolls and paperweights
Scraped up knees and hearts that break
Dreams to dream and plans to make
Love to give and love to take

This is the stuff
The smallest moments
This is the stuff
I need to notice
This is the stuff life is made of

Walking along as my life unravels
Looking back at the road I've traveled
All the things that matter most
Have caught me by surprise
Misty eyes and silent prayers
Promises and secrets shared
Friends that keep you up all night
Laughing till you cry

Life's made up of little things
Ties that bind and apron strings
New beginnings, old routines
Love and heartache in between...

In my post seven years ago, I included someone's home video that had this song in the background.  You can listen to it here.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Back to School and a QWP Update

Last week I was working in my classroom when someone brought in a new student to introduce to me.  We bonded over the fact that I had a few Diary of a Wimpy Kid books on my shelf, and within minutes he was signing one out to take home to read over the weekend.  As he got ready to write the first entry for the year on the yellow legal pad that serves as my library record, he turned to me and said, "Wait, what's my name?"

I laughed and said, "You're asking me your name?  I just met you!"

It turns out that this student, like many of the kids I teach, has more than one name.  Sure enough, when I checked my class list, the first name he's been using at the school he's been attending in the States isn't the same one I've been given.  That's OK; I assured him that I would call him whichever name he preferred and that I can keep track of both of them.  He went away happy with something to read (I love it when I help people find something to read).

Later, I was thinking about this incident, and I wondered how many of my students are thinking about who they're going to be this year - not what name they are going to use, necessarily, but what kind of person they'll be.  Are they wondering whether I'm remembering trouble they got into last year, or in the case of kids I haven't taught before, whether I've talked to their teachers from last year to get an idea of what to expect from them?  Are they fretting over a new appearance that suddenly happened over the summer?  Are they worrying about friendship situations that festered last year or maybe have developed in the class group chats since school let out in June?

We all want to be seen and known, and loved for who we are.  We want to look at the people in our lives and say, "What's my name?" and have them answer accurately, lovingly, as though our names, our identities, our personalities, are safe with them.

I want my students to know that they get a fresh start tomorrow when school starts.  I don't know many of the seventh graders, and I'm assuming the best about them.  I do know most of the eighth graders, and I'm assuming the best about them, too.  Goofy behavior from seventh grade is in the past.  But they don't just get a fresh start tomorrow.  They get a fresh start every Monday.  They get a fresh start every day.  They get a fresh start every time they come into my classroom, every time I ask to speak to them privately in the hallway about their behavior, every time I find them dawdling back from the bathroom or crying or trying to get into their locker or whatever.

You know what?  They give me a fresh start, too.  I can't tell you how many times I've ended a day discouraged and defeated, mad at myself because I spoke harshly or handled a situation badly, and then the next morning the kid in question has come in as though nothing has happened, saying, "Hi, Mrs. H."  Sometimes it doesn't happen that fast; sometimes there are meetings and conversations and apologies on both sides.  But in general I find my students treat me with remarkable grace.  I try to do the same for them.

We're all still growing.  I'm not growing physically any more, but in some ways I feel as though I'm changing these days as dramatically as my middle schoolers.  There's always room to learn and gain maturity.  They teach me as much as I teach them.

And speaking of learning and growing, I've been working on my Quinquagenarian Writing Project (QWP).  I figured I needed a little head start, since I'm about to go back into a season of constant grading.  I have three first drafts in my QWP folder, and I'm nearly finished with a fourth.

I can't wait to see my kids tomorrow, to start finding out who they are right now. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

Poetry Friday: Goodbye

I had to say goodbye to my daughter yesterday as she went back to college.  This made me think of a poem I wrote back in 2012 and posted here.  It refers to the advice my parents were given when dropping me off at boarding school as a young child. 


"Goodbyes cause problems," said the Matron at boarding school.
"It's really better if you just slip away.
If you must say it, make sure it's not prolonged.
You may not drop in for a visit," she added.
"The children's routine is disturbed.
They are more homesick after you leave again."

The parents, feeling vaguely guilty for being so disruptive,
Waved cheerily and didn't fuss.
They wished for their children an orderly universe, untroubled by messy emotions.
Wouldn't it be simpler, they wondered, to avoid goodbyes entirely,
Since they made everyone so sad?

But the children grew up to favor lengthy goodbyes
Rituals of leave-taking that went on for weeks before departure.
They dreaded the end of visits before those visits even began.
They hated for anyone to leave them,
But if someone must go away, a farewell party was obligatory,
With speeches and tearful sharing of memories.

Their motto was "Make a fuss."
They sobbed and wailed,
Grieved extravagantly, soaked handkerchiefs at airports.
They mourned separation and disconnectedness,
Experienced heartbreak to its fullest extent,
Longed for Gondwanaland and Heaven.
They knew that it wasn't goodbyes that had unsettled them as children,
So much as, simply, love.

Ruth, from

Love is disruptive.  But life without love wouldn't be much worth living, would it?

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Poetry Friday: Flowers and Poems

Sonnets from the Portuguese 44
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Beloved, thou hast brought me many flowers 
Plucked in the garden, all the summer through 
And winter, and it seemed as if they grew 
In this close room, nor missed the sun and showers, 
So, in the like name of that love of ours, 
Take back these thoughts which here unfolded too, 
And which on warm and cold days I withdrew 
From my heart’s ground. Indeed, those beds and bowers 
Be overgrown with bitter weeds and rue, 
And wait thy weeding; yet here’s eglantine, 
Here’s ivy!— take them, as I used to do 
Thy flowers, and keep them where they shall not pine. 
Instruct thine eyes to keep their colours true, 
And tell thy soul, their roots are left in mine.

February: Thinking of Flowers
by Jane Kenyon

Now wind torments the field,
turning the white surface back
on itself, back and back on itself,
like an animal licking a wound.

Nothing but white--the air, the light;
only one brown milkweed pod
bobbing in the gully, smallest
brown boat on the immense tide.

A single green sprouting thing
would restore me. . . .

Then think of the tall delphinium,
swaying, or the bee when it comes
to the tongue of the burgundy lily. 
Wishing you beautiful flowers today and plenty of memories of them in February!   Here's today's roundup.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Reading Update

Book #56 of 2017 was Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother and Daughter Journey to the Sacred Places of Greece, Turkey, and France, by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor.  I seem to be drawn to these mother/daughter travel narratives, perhaps because I like traveling with my kids.  This one gives some background to Sue Monk Kidd's novel The Secret Life of Bees, since the trips took place while she was writing it.  I could definitely relate to some of the concerns of a woman about to turn fifty hanging out with her daughter in her early twenties, and I love spiritual journeys and Greek mythology, but I can't go all the way with these ladies in their explorations of the sacred feminine.

Book #57 was Where She Went, by Gayle Forman.  This is the sequel to If I Stay, which I reviewed in this post.  This one is from the point of view of Adam, the rock musician boyfriend we met in the first book.  Since the end of that one, Adam's life has pretty much fallen apart (not surprisingly).  I don't want to say much more than that in order to avoid spoilers.

Book #58 was Circling the Sun, by Paula McLain.  I read and enjoyed her book, The Paris Wife, back at the end of 2015 (but didn't review it).  This is the story of Beryl Markham, well-known for her flying and her book West with the Night.  These two things were all I knew about her before I read Circling the Sun.  Like me, Markham grew up in Kenya, but she lived from 1902 to 1986.  Her life was full of difficult loss, and, not coincidentally, also great scandal.  The settler community in the early years of Kenya is famous for its cheerful spouse-swapping, and Markham participated in this behavior, though you can see from her story that this kind of stuff doesn't make for happiness.  She was friendly with many of the people whose names I have heard all my life, including the people I met in the movie (and later the book) Out of Africa.  The movie was made while I was living in Kenya, and I even applied to be an extra in it (and didn't get to).  It's always been one of my favorites because of the scenery and the story.  Yes, it's about infidelity (and I think I've shocked some people by liking it so much), and yes, it's a prime example of the White People in Africa genre, but it's also about how much we can (and mostly, can't) own or control the people we love, how far we can and should sacrifice who we are for those people, and how we can live well in a country that isn't our own (characters do this with varying levels of success).  I've watched it at several important points in my life and seen it differently each time.  I think maybe Felicity in the movie is based at least a bit on Beryl.  I found this book fascinating, and was glad to learn more about Beryl.  Like Karen Blixen (who wrote Out of Africa under the name Isak Dinesen), Beryl Markham is a White Person in Africa, and in spite of her lifelong friendship with the boy Kibii who becomes the moran (warrior) Ruta, Beryl is way more interested in herself and her own problems than she is in the development of the country she is living in.  This may annoy you.  

Book #59 was the third edition of In the Middle, by Nancie Atwell.  This is the third summer I have set out to read this book, and the first time I actually completed it.  That shouldn't be taken to mean that it isn't a good book - it is a fantastic book.  I've read the first two editions, also, and I would say that of all the books I've read on teaching, Nancie Atwell's are the most influential on the way I do things.  It's just that professional reading in the summer sometimes takes a back seat to other things.  I got through all six hundred plus pages this time, though, and I have a page full of notes of things I plan to change this coming semester as a result.  I've reviewed lots of Atwell's other writing on this blog in the past.  If you teach middle schoolers, I highly recommend her work.  

Book #60 was Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford.  My daughter wanted me to read this, and she checked out a copy from her college library to bring me during her visit.  Spufford is English, foul-mouthed, and an amazing writer.  He begins with a preface written for the U.S. edition, explaining the way Christianity in England is different from the way it is in the United States.  Then he proceeds to explain how Christianity makes sense, given that in England he can't assume anything about how much people know or understand about it.  (He says the main emotion experienced by the British with regard to religion is embarrassment.) The biggest problem faced by people is, he tells us, "the HPtFtU," or the "human propensity to f--- things up."  He goes on to explain how Christianity offers a response to the HPtFtU.  I kept trying to pick out a little section to quote to give you an idea of how he writes, and the problem is finding a place to stop.  Here's a little taste:

"Unlimited love having once entered into limited us, it's here for good, apparent to us or invisible depending on the light, depending on our willingness to see.  Humanity glimmers with God's presence.

And he is most specifically of all here, we believe, when we follow the instructions he gave at dinner the night before he died.  Every Sunday morning, in all the church's human niches, from downtown Isfahan to downtown Manhattan, in places of great wealth and comfort and in cities under bombardment, on every continent including Antarctica and once I believe on the moon, we hold again a stylized version of the original Passover meal in Jerusalem.  There is bread, there is wine.  We bless them using one of the Passover prayers.  We break the bread, we pour the wine into a cup.  We repeat Jesus's words from the story.  This is my body.  This is my blood.  And then for us the bread, made unmysteriously from wheat, and the wine, made unmysteriously from grapes, are different.  There has been a change in their meaning.  For some of us, the material bread and material wine have altered (on a tiny domestic scale, with crumbs and dregs and washing-up) in the same way that the material world was altered by having its creator within it.  Right there on the table, the set of the world once more contains itself as a member; once more, a peculiar knot has been tied in the fabric of existence.  For others of us, the change of meaning is made by the material world aligning itself to form a sign of what began happening once in Jerusalem long ago, and (the sign reminds us) is still happening now.  Either way, the change puts the same strange burden on our imagination and our understanding when we do what we do next, and eat the bread and drink the wine.  ...

We're celebrating the love-feast.  Our hearts are in our eyes as we look at each other.  We are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us.  That is, as if we were all precious beyond price, for reasons quite independent of any of the usual cues for attraction we apes jump to recognize: status, charisma, beauty, confidence, wealth, wisdom, authority."

I left out loads of great stuff from that, and there are many other sections I'd like to quote, but what will really stick with me from this book is the repeated phrase, "Far more can be mended than you know."  The last lines of the book are Spufford's paraphrase of what he says God says to us: "Don't be careful.  Don't be surprised by any human cruelty.  But don't be afraid.  Far more can be mended than you know."   

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