Sunday, March 17, 2019

Reading Update

Here's what I've been reading lately:

Book #17 of 2019 was Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown. I was curious to learn more about Princess Margaret, but it was a little hard to keep track of what was real and what was invented in this "biography."

Books #18 and 19 were a couple of novellas by Diana Gabaldon, The Space Between and Virgins. Gabaldon puts these out in between her monster (800+ page) novels in the Outlander series. I found them in the library while looking for something else and they were quick reads that give additional background to the series.

Book #20 was Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing, by Glenn Packiam. Packiam's ruminations on how we express our beliefs in worship and how our worship informs and shapes what we believe were thought-provoking.

Book #21 was Hank Green's novel An Absolutely Remarkable Thing. While I didn't especially enjoy this (though I'll probably read the sequel so I know what happens), I did like this quote from the acknowledgements: "I also want to thank every single person who ever says, ‘You have to read this book!’ to a friend. I don’t care if it’s this book; I just want people to remind each other how wonderful books are." (Books are wonderful, friends!)

Book #22 was Many-Storied House: Poems by George Ella Lyon. This book began as a writing assignment, where students were supposed to write about a room in a house from their childhood. Lyon, the teacher, did the same and ended up writing about the house where she grew up in a lot of detail. I enjoyed reading this.

Book #23 was A Place of Healing: Wrestling with the Mysteries of Suffering, Pain, and God's Sovereignty, by Joni Eareckson Tada. If anybody has earned the right to talk about these issues, it's this author, who has spent the last fifty years in a wheelchair after breaking her neck as a teenager. In addition to quadriplegia, she also has suffered for many years from chronic pain, and more recently breast cancer.

Book #24 was A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny, the twelfth Inspector Gamache book. I liked the new setting of this novel, the police training college that Inspector Gamache is supposed to clean up, but I didn't understand why several characters had to head to Three Pines midway through the book and hang out there.

Book #25 was All He Ever Wanted, by Anita Shreve, a sad, depressing story of a marriage based on a complete lack of communication.

Book #26 was The Chalk Artist, by Allegra Goodman. I really enjoyed this story about creativity, how our brains work, what we get or don't get from our families. I especially liked the teacher character, Nina, and the realistic, sympathetic sections about how she is learning her job. There aren't many books that mine the emotional territory of how hard it is to teach, especially at the beginning.

Book #27 was Out of the House of God: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines, by Preston Yancey. I liked this, especially the extended metaphor of baking and spirituality. (I'm not a baker, but I live with one.) Yancey is very reflective and goes beyond the obvious. Here he is on prayer: "Kneading is a work of wrestling, of working out something from chaos into something that has form. Intercessory prayer is like that. We are working out with God the mess of things, the chaos of being, and seeing what shape and form it could take on when we turn it over, again and again, back to God." Elsewhere he writes: "Icons are the ordinary signs of miracle. There is never just a cup in this world when every cup brings to mind the cup held by Jesus on the night he was betrayed, when he said it held his blood shed for us. There is never just a bed when every bed brings to mind the command of God to speak of the stories of God at all times and in all places, in our lying down and our rising. There is never just a basin of water when all water is called holy because Jesus entered the waters of baptism with us, called himself living water at the well of Jacob." I will probably read this one again; there's a lot to think about here.

Book #28 was A Small Porch: Sabbath Poems 2014 and 2015, by Wendell Berry. I think this is the first time I've read a full book by Berry. He is so good to read in this time we live in, when the planet is choked by plastic and heating up and it feels as though we all need to climb on a spaceship and go somewhere else. Berry is so much more in touch with agriculture and the earth than most of us will ever be, and although he is completely clear-eyed about the mess, still he has hope. In addition to the poems in the book, there's an extended essay on Nature, and I loved the discursive commentary about Chaucer and Spenser and Wordsworth and others, and the combination of poetry and farming, philosophy and where you should wipe your feet if they have manure on them. I kept having the feeling about Berry that I used to have when I read C.S. Lewis in my teens and early twenties: that the author would not approve of me at all due to the trivial, frivolous nature of my inner landscape. But I enjoyed the book anyway.

Book #29 was Free Verse, by Sarah Dooley, a middle grade novel about seventh grader Sasha and her tragic life in Caboose, West Virginia. Sasha loses members of her family, ends up in foster care, runs away, and writes poetry. She is a sympathetic character, if a little old-seeming.

I'm in the middle of several books right now, so there should be a new update fairly soon!

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Poetry Friday: Sunshine

In Haiti we have lots of problems; perhaps you've heard? That's what we're known for. On Wednesday I read an article in a local newspaper, Le Nouvelliste, summarizing a report that came out a year ago (I'm not sure why they are just now writing about it) from the University of Boston about our local electrical company. (Here's the report if you want to go read it.) That talked about problems, lots of them. An editorial showed that the paper found all of it as depressing as I did; it refers to "the desire of all of us to go looking for light elsewhere" ("notre envie à tous d'aller chercher la lumière ailleurs").

My first thought when I read that was: "Let's look for light here!" but I know how privileged I am to have some backup electricity for those long nights with no city power. The report says that only between 20 and 40% of the households in this country have any electricity connection at all. (And please, what kind of range is "between 20 and 40%?")

I went looking for a Caribbean poet writing about the extraordinary light we have here, fading our clothes as they flap on the clotheslines. That's the kind of light we can count on, because nobody can corrupt it or steal it and keep it for themselves, and I can count on Derek Walcott to write about it:

from The Prodigal

by Derek Walcott

A grey dawn, dun. Rain-gauze shrouding the headlands.
A rainbow like a bruise through cottony cumuli.
Then, health! Salvation! Sails blaze in the sun.
A twin-sailed shallop rounding Pigeon Island.
This line is my horizon.
I cannot be happier than this.

Derek Walcott isn't writing of Haiti, but of his own beautiful island, Santa Lucia, but the quality of the light is much the same. I don't want to downplay Haiti's problems, because they are many and people's lives are terribly difficult. I don't want to pretend that the sunshine makes up for the rest. Of course it doesn't. But the sunshine is beautiful, just the same.

Here's another poem to underline some of the things the rest of the world could learn from the Caribbean, or specifically Barack Obama from Derek Walcott:

The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems

by Yusef Komunyakaa

Was he looking for St. Lucia's light
to touch his face those first days
in the official November snow & sleet
falling on the granite pose of Lincoln?

If he were searching for property lines
drawn in the blood, or for a hint
of resolve crisscrossing a border,
maybe he'd find clues in the taste of breadfruit.

I could see him stopped there squinting
in crooked light, the haze of Wall Street
touching clouds of double consciousness,
an eye etched into a sign borrowed from Egypt.

If he's looking for tips on basketball,
how to rise up & guard the hoop,
he may glean a few theories about war  
but they aren't in The Star-Apple Kingdom.

If he wants to finally master himself,
searching for clues to govern seagulls
in salty air, he'll find henchmen busy with locks
& chains in a ghost schooner's nocturnal calm.

He's reading someone who won't speak
of milk & honey, but of looking ahead
beyond pillars of salt raised in a dream
where fat bulbs split open the earth.

The spine of the manifest was broken,
leaking deeds, songs & testaments.
Justice stood in the shoes of mercy,
& doubt was bandaged up & put to bed.

Now, he looks as if he wants to eat words,
their sweet, intoxicating flavor. Banana leaf
& animal, being & nonbeing. In fact,
craving wisdom, he bites into memory. 

The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie
to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man's skin becomes the final page.

I found that poem here.

And here's Heidi's roundup. She's taking on the destruction of the planet today, and who better to do it?

Friday, March 08, 2019

Poetry Friday: Dave Dreams About Carnival

A friend told me about a dream he had, and gave me his blessing to mine his subconscious for a poem. I write about my own dreams often, but rarely about other people's. I wish I had a photo or painting of this one, but I don't, just words - words which I had a lot of fun writing.
Dave Dreams of Carnival

My friend Dave dreams he’s at my house in Haiti
and just as he’s about to knock on the door
it opens
and a Carnival procession cavalcades out,
led by a man on a donkey
and accompanied by raucous rara music. 

Dave wakes up as the revelers push by him,
(I imagine the donkey,
costumed in satin and sequins),
and hours later,
in the pale northern afternoon,
Dave realizes
that today is Mardi Gras.

In New Jersey where Dave lives,
snow still covers the ground this Fat Tuesday
and the particular energies required for a Haitian Carnival
remain frozen.
Meanwhile, here in Haiti,
while it’s a breezy eighty eight degrees,
and the palm trees and tropical backdrop sparkle,
political problems have cancelled this year’s festivities.
In short, Mardi Gras twenty nineteen is rather thin.
It’s Tuesday,
but Wednesday’s coming with all the ashes.

Dave stayed in my house once for about a month,
in twenty ten, another time when Carnival didn’t happen;
that year we’d just had a huge earthquake.
I wasn’t there, since
I’d gone to the US with the children;
my husband hosted him, sort of,
and Dave slept in my daughter’s room
and read books from her shelves in the evenings
after working all day in disaster relief,
while she went to seventh grade in Kentucky.

My house in Haiti is still part of the landscape of Dave’s dreams
just as he somehow knows without knowing that it’s Carnival time
the same day he wakes from the sound of drums and bamboo trumpets
and looks out his window at March in New Jersey.

Fifteen hundred miles away,
I stand startled, watching
merrymakers parade out of my door
dressed in the red and blue of the Haitian flag,
their tall headdresses swaying
as they sashay into the neighborhood
leaving behind the donkey poop for someone to clean up.

Let’s face it, I think,
annoyed by the effects of other people’s imaginations:
that someone will probably be me.

Mardi Gras, 2019

Ruth, from

Today's roundup is here.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

First Thursday Spiritual Journey: Balance

One night I lost my balance and fell down the stairs, landing on my left leg and breaking it badly. That night was more than twenty years ago, and this morning as I write these words I can feel stiffness and pain as I flex my left foot.

I remember congratulating my doctor after my surgery on the beautiful incision, and how he wouldn’t take the credit: “You’re just a good healer,” he told me. And now the scar is scarcely visible, unless I point it out to you. Most days my leg works exactly as it is supposed to, but sometimes it hurts. It seems most likely to happen when I’ve had several days off in a row, as I have now (our Spring Break is always at Carnival time). When I don’t wear shoes with support, but go around barefoot or in flip flops for too long, the long-ago injury makes itself felt.

I’ve lost my balance at other times in my life, and fallen into the darkness just as I fell down those stairs. Balance is a tricky thing, and so many factors can affect it. The night of my accident, I was pregnant, and my center of gravity was strange to me. I was also half asleep and in an unfamiliar place. Other times, as I’ve lost my footing and fallen into temptation, or despair, or confusion, what caused those tumbles? What made me miss those stairs? My own natural weakness, the circumstances, a moment’s lapse in concentration?

I remember that night after I fell down those stairs, apologizing repeatedly to my husband and brother-in-law as they supported me and helped me to a chair. And I remember other times in my life apologizing to people around me for the state they found me in, as I worked to regain my balance, the balance that I had lost for a moment or a season. How many times have I found myself there on the floor, needing help to stand up again, to keep moving forward?

Once that balance is lost, it’s hard to regain. There’s the whole embarrassing rigmarole of being lifted and carried, there’s the pain, there’s the midnight trip to the emergency room. I was in Japan when that tumble happened, and there everyone takes off shoes when entering a building. Everyone, I learned, includes someone who just broke her leg, and the buildings include the hospital. I remember wobbling as I struggled to replace my shoes with the hospital-issue slippers. Then followed the weeks of crutches, also a challenge to balance.

Balance is a goal I have: a balanced diet, work/life balance, a balanced checkbook. I don’t want to veer too far to one direction or the other; I want to find peace and stability. I work to keep my balance; I eat right, get enough sleep, read my Bible, go to church, pray, talk to my husband and other friends. When I lose my balance, I work to get it back. For that I lean on others, and on God; I practice taking steps again when my ability is temporarily interrupted. I remember my physical therapist praising me because I did my exercises and regained my strength. So many of her patients, she told me, didn’t follow her instructions properly. I’m a rule-follower, and it served me well then. I would be chasing a toddler soon, and it was important to me to be strong and flexible. I remember how I cried when I saw my calf the first time after my surgery, and realized how much it had atrophied in that short time. I wanted to be back to normal.

And now I mostly am. The painful twinges are the exception, not the rule. But those other times I lost my balance, the times I’m not as eager to talk about, they have left effects too: misconceptions in how I see the world, difficult memories, regrets, nightmares.  Lose your balance for a moment and you may feel it for years.

So I hold on to the banister, place my feet carefully. I take the stairs one at a time. And if I do miss a step or two and fall into the darkness, I don’t despair. I let grace catch me. I scramble to my feet again as soon as I can, get the help I need, keep going. When I lose my balance, I trust it isn’t gone forever, that I’ll get it back.

And one reason for that trust is that I lost my balance one night, years ago, and fell down the stairs and broke my leg.  But now I’m OK.

Our host this month is Doraine. Head on over to her blog to see what others have posted for today on the topic of balance.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Ash Wednesday, Mercredi des Cendres

This morning we read from the book of Joel, who passed on the message from the Lord to rend our hearts and not our garments. This year as we begin Lent, our hearts are already tattered, and we hardly need the reminder that we are dust. Each time I hear those words, as the ashes are placed upon my forehead, I remember the earthquake, the way death came for so many at one moment, and a fine dust spread over the city as the wailing rose up.

This year we have had ashes, days of them, ashes from burning tires, as people made in God's image protested the impossibility their lives have become, or sought power, or burned things just because, depending on the individual, and who knows why we do what we do; even in our own hearts we are often unsure.

"La situation est sérieuse," said the priest, the situation is serious, and I think we can all agree with that, the situation in the world, the situation in Haiti, the situation in our own hearts.

Last year on Ash Wednesday I wrote these words:


I’m here for the ashes.
I’m here for the dust,
for remembering that that is what I am,
and that that is where I will return.

I’m here for the ashes,
the remains of what I loved,
the palms from last year,
and carefully preserved,
precious dust.
Those palms mattered
too much to toss their remains away.
They became today’s ashes.
And that’s why I’m here.

I’m here for the ashes,
for the reminder that though my flesh is solid now,
it will die.
The smudge on my forehead
will wash away,
but I will still be mortal,
headed for my expiration date.

I’m here for the ashes,
so smear them on me,
whispering as you do,
remember that you are dust.”
Precious dust,
but dust nonetheless,
a temple filled with the Holy Spirit
that one day will fall

I’ll leave with the ashes,
and through my day I’ll see others
with dusty marks on their faces,
as they too have been reminded
of what they are.
Beautiful and impermanent,
valuable and temporary,
needing to be
swept up
with a broom.

There are other places to get
roses and accolades,
work and fulfillment,
conversation and snacks,
but this is the only place I know
where they are imposing ashes today
that’s why I’m here.
For the ashes.

Ruth, from

Friday, March 01, 2019

Poetry Friday: An Exchange of Gifts

by Alden Nowlan

As long as you read this poem
I will be writing it.
I am writing it here and now
before your eyes,
although you can't see me.
Perhaps you'll dismiss this
as a verbal trick,
the joke is you're wrong;
the real trick
is your pretending
this is something
fixed and solid,
external to us both.
I tell you better:
I will keep on
writing this poem for you
even after I'm dead.

Thank you, Alden Nowlan, for this exchange of gifts. I'm giving you my attention, and you, although you've been dead a while, are still writing this poem for me.

Linda has the roundup today, and she's welcoming spring! And today's your first opportunity to sign up for this year's Progressive Poem: go to Irene's blog to pick your date!

Thursday, February 28, 2019

What I Learned in February

I ended my January post with a hope that February would be better, and you know what, it really wasn't. We spent eleven days "sheltering in place" due to anti-government riots, and when a month is as short as February, that's a big chunk of it. Nevertheless I do have some things on my "what I learned" list.

Friends came to dinner early in the month and urged us to take the Enneagram test. I did, and was surprised by my result, but then the more I read and listened, the more I thought that it was right. Then I developed a little mini-obsession with learning about the Enneagram (I know, how original).

My husband and I took a webinar from this author, Lindsey Moses, on working with English language learners. There were four sessions and we didn't watch the fourth one yet, but we're going to finish it up on our week off for Carnival. So far it was interesting and useful, and I always like learning the latest acronyms, which in my experience are mostly what change in the education world.

The next item on my list says "financial crisis in Haiti." The Haitian currency, the gourde, has lost a lot of its value in the past year, and people are struggling for the basics of survival: food, water, medical care, sending their children to school. In addition, billions of dollars have gone missing from the PetroCaribe fund that was supposed to improve life here. These factors and others sparked riots beginning on the 7th of this month, and while the riots themselves are no longer happening, the underlying problems are in no way resolved, so we are waiting to see what will happen. It's discouraging to see Haiti sink into crisis again. We're so tired of the way people have to suffer. The vast majority of people are not involved with the destruction and violence of the riots; they just want to live their lives peacefully. We had plenty of time to contemplate this - and everything else - during our time at home.

I remember when my husband and I were dating, someone told me to imagine seeing him across the dinner table every day for the rest of my life. Good advice. But nobody ever told me to imagine being locked in with him for eleven days of political unrest. (I think I'll put that in my marriage book.) Fortunately he is great in a crisis, and while we were all a bit on edge and stir-crazy, we made it. Let's hope we don't have to shelter in place again anytime soon.

We hosted a professional development gathering for teachers in February and showed this movie, "Most Likely to Succeed." It's about how schools can adjust to the new information-based economy, specifically by focusing on a project-based curriculum. It was very interesting and led to some good conversations.

Everyone is talking about Marie Kondo right now, and her de-cluttering method. My daughter read her book several years ago, so we had already mocked the concept of only owning 30 books. But I found this article really hit the nail on the head. While having a less cluttered living space may make you feel more in control, the reality is that you're never going to have a completely in-control, tidy life. I like it when the clutter is cleared, but life is messy, and that's not going away.

I heard about this Ted Talk by Roman Mars while listening to the West Wing Weekly podcast. It's about flag design, and it is very much worth watching.

In February, I learned again about what it feels like when people talk about evacuation. We've been there before, in that space where some people feel that it's too unsafe here in Haiti and that they have to leave. Everyone's considerations for making that decision are different, but whether or not you understand why people choose to do it (and of course I do understand), you feel abandoned when you're left behind. That's one reason I felt so guilty after the earthquake for leaving Haiti. This time, like in 2004, the clear-out happened fast. Once the embassy starts pulling people out, others follow suit. It didn't help when the travel advisory was raised to level 4, putting us on the same level with countries like Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria. People are now returning, slowly, but some we may never see again. I learned that in the years since the last time we experienced this, it did not stop stinking.

I had a birthday in February, and I absolutely love my birthday, just as much as any little kid. I learned again that I also love being loved. I wish I could feel that way all the time. By the evening of my birthday I always ask myself how I could ever feel insecure, as I bask in the glow of all the Facebook messages that have been popping up all day.

Oh February, you're over already! Here's to March!