Tuesday, August 31, 2010


I read this article today about worrying about children. It turns out that people are worrying about all the wrong things. Here are the top five things parents worry about, according to the article:

1. Kidnapping
2. School snipers
3. Terrorists
4. Dangerous strangers
5. Drugs

Here, on the other hand, are the top five ways children get hurt:

1. Car accidents
2. Homicide (usually committed by a person who knows the child, not a stranger)
3. Abuse
4. Suicide
5. Drowning

The premise of the article is that people are spending a lot of energy worrying about crimes that are actually quite rare, and not enough time doing something about the more common problems that they could prevent. The best thing parents can do is insist that their kids wear helmets and seatbelts and then stop worrying.

The list of things to worry about obviously varies depending on where you live. I know people whose children have been kidnapped here in Haiti. Kidnapping is something I have spent some energy worrying about. But the point of the article is a good one. It is easy to watch scary TV news and assume that the awful thing that happened to that person is likely to happen to you.

You might think that going through the earthquake would make me a more worried mother than I was before. After all, something that I had worried about actually happened. I have always worried quite a bit. My husband used to say that I should work at the Worst-Case Scenario Store, a place Garrison Keillor talked about on the radio. I have a very vivid imagination and I read too much.

However, I find I worry less now. I don't even go check on my children every time I wake in the night (though I still love watching them sleep and sometimes go downstairs to do that for a while). I think the main reason is that the earthquake reminded me of how little control I have over what happens. Worrying seems pointless in a way I always understood intellectually but now get at an emotional level. Why use my energy that way? If some terrible thing happens, my worrying will have absolutely no effect on the outcome. How much better it is to spend my time enjoying the life I have today!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Behind the Mountains

One of the things I lost in the earthquake chaos was my signed copy of Behind the Mountains, by Edwidge Danticat. It could have been among my books that were flung out of the way to make room for soldiers. (I explained that a little bit here.) But I think that this particular book was lost because I had loaned it to someone right before the quake, and in all the comings and goings, I don't know who it was and the person hasn't come forward, in spite of a little whining I posted on Facebook.

I ordered a new copy right before school started, since it took me that long to admit I wasn't going to find it. Amazingly, the book came in time for the second week of school. This is the read-aloud with which I always start the seventh grade year. It is a great one to talk about so many things: the variety of ways people live in Haiti, elections (we've got those coming up soon again), going back and forth from one culture to another, the way writers use their childhoods to make their art. I didn't foresee it making all of us sad this time, though. As we read about Léogâne, where Celiane's mother goes to sell the tablette she makes, we thought about how over 90% of the buildings there were destroyed in the earthquake. When there was a reference to the Palais National, we thought about the crushed version of this presidential residence that is left.

I highly recommend this book for late elementary school and early teens; it's a very good way to learn about Haiti, and when Celiane's family moves to New York (sorry, spoiler), it's wonderful on what it is like to be an immigrant in a huge, scary place.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Siblings and Books

I grew up in a home where everybody read books. For most of my childhood we didn't have television. For two years we lived in a small town in the United States where horrified friends, finding we had no television, gave us one, and those two years were probably the two when I read the least. Since I was the eldest child, many of the books came to me first and were passed on, but quite early my brothers and I had different tastes, and I don't remember recommending books to them very often or having them recommend books to me. (Brothers, since both of you read this blog, do you have any memories to the contrary?)

My children are growing up in a home where everybody reads books, too. And one of the things I am enjoying as they get older is that my daughter (13) is always recommending books to her younger brother (7). Sometimes she says, "You'll like that when you're a little older," and sometimes she hands it to him for right now, and sometimes she even reads to him.

She's always right, too. Several times she has suggested books to him that I have wondered about - that will be too difficult for him, surely? A few months ago she chose The Phantom Tollbooth and this was my reaction. But he loved it, and while he may not have understood every bit of the wordplay, he got enough of it that I could hear him giggling as he read. Part of the reason she is always right is that he adores her (though you wouldn't always know it) and he's willing to try her ideas.

In the car on the way to church this morning they were discussing mysteries. He said he liked them. She said that many of them didn't seem very realistic to her; those things just wouldn't happen. He said that he liked books that weren't realistic. A comparison of fantasy and realistic fiction that just isn't very realistic ensued. She opined that books need to obey the rules of their genre. How could an English teacher not smile at such a conversation?

This is a subset of their whole relationship, of course. In the same way as my brothers are two of the most important people in my world, so my children are part of each other in a way neither of them will ever be a part of anyone else. They are the only two who come from my husband and me, the only ones who will share our family memories when he and I are gone, memories of trips taken and cars breaking down and holidays and special meals and books we've read and a devastating earthquake. Recommending books is only one of the services that my daughter will offer her younger brother; accepting her recommendations is only one that he will offer her. I hope they will remain close for their whole lives, the way my brothers and I have, though we live in three different countries.

And all of this has got me thinking: one of my brothers (the youngest of the three of us) loaned me a book, Dandelion Wine, by Ray Bradbury, several years ago and told me to read it. I still haven't read it - he told me to keep it and replaced it a long time ago in his own collection - but I'm going to start today.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


Watching this team of amputees play soccer, you ask yourself, "What were my problems, again?"

Reading Update

Books #48 through 50 were all YA titles. #48 was Lies: A Gone Novel, by Michael Grant. I wasn't that thrilled by the first two books in this series and I don't think I'll be reading any more of them. What interest I had in the characters is no longer strong, and the events become more and more absurd. I do want to know whether they all get out of the FAYZ, though.

Book #49 was Gateway, by Sharon Shinn. This one has time travel, romance, an adopted protagonist...but although I found it mildly interesting, I don't think it's going to be a huge favorite in my classroom.

There's another adopted main character in book #50, North of Beautiful, by Justina Chen Headley: not Terra, the protagonist, but Jacob, the "Goth guy" she meets. Terra, named by her cartographer father (her brothers are Mercatur and Claudius), was born with a port wine stain birthmark on her face. She spends all her time trying to camouflage her birthmark, and also to hide who she really is. She has a "miracle boyfriend," Erik - a miracle because she can't believe anyone wants to be with her, and she'd better hold on to him because she's sure nobody else ever will want her. Her father is disappointed in his career and takes that out on everyone around him. (I thought her father was the least successful character - he never really came alive for me, and he made me think of the father in The Poisonwood Bible, which is otherwise one of my favorite books: a bit too bad, with no redeeming qualities.) I loved all the references to maps and how the mapmaking theme fit in with Terra's collages, which she can't quite accept as art. There's a trip to China that's a lot of fun. (I applaud this mini-genre of YA travel. There may be many more books in this category, but the only other one I've read is Carpe Diem, by Autumn Cornwell - the link is to my review). And while I thought the character of Jacob was wonderful, I had a hard time sharing Terra's swooning over his Goth appearance. I guess I need to learn the lesson of the book, about beauty being everywhere. Jacob is certainly beautiful inside.

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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Poetry Friday: In Praise of the Ordinary

I wanted a poem this week in praise of the ordinary; a poem that celebrates how beautiful everyday life is, the more boring the better. Here's a nice one that I found on the Writer's Almanac site.

The Patience of Ordinary Things

by Pat Schneider

It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they're supposed to be.
I've been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things...

Here's the rest of it.

I am still reveling in my life, my routine, the blah-ness of predictability. It is a kind of love, enjoying those things - and people - that you trust to be there, day after day. You try not to think about the fact that someday they might not be. And yet, you do let yourself think that a little, because it makes you love them that much more today.

Book Aunt has the Poetry Friday roundup today.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


This morning my husband had a doctor's appointment (for a physical), so he left the house at 6 AM. He always makes me a cup of tea every morning. Of course, I am perfectly capable of making myself a cup of tea, but since he wasn't there I just didn't bother. It was only a few minutes ago that I made the connection between that and how sleepy I have been feeling all day.

When I got to school, the power was off (as in, the generator hadn't been turned on yet), but the wireless internet was working (since it runs on battery backup). Later in the day, the power was working fine but the wireless quit. I was disappointed because we were going to have an Open House later in the afternoon and I wanted to be online while waiting for parents to come see me. As it was, I probably got much more work done than I otherwise would have, and came home with all my grading already finished.

It was good to meet with parents at the Open House. I had met a few of the new ones already, but before I had their kids' identities firmly in my head. Now, after a week and a half of school, I know exactly who they are talking about when they say their children's names. I had taken up information sheets from the kids, including the question about where they had studied after the earthquake, but it was fascinating hearing the stories directly from the parents. Many told me that January 2010 was the first time their child had studied in English, when they were evacuated to the States. Imagine that: switching school systems, countries, and languages, without warning, after a traumatic earthquake, when you're in middle school. It is amazing how well those kids are functioning in English now. (Many of them tell me they learned English from TV, and even those who were in English school for the first time this year could speak some; but it's a very different thing to go to school and do academic work in the language.)

It's still early in the school year, and I may be eating these words soon enough, but it seems to me that we have a very good spirit on campus right now. Many of the parents told me how happy their children are to be back to something "normal" and how kindly they have been welcomed by the returning students. It feels as if we are all just a little bit more grateful for everything, just a little more aware of how quickly it can all be gone.

"Thank you for being in Haiti," one mother said to me. Honestly, it is a privilege to be here. It is an honor to serve these families who are so full of courage, and who are getting on with their lives and rebuilding their country.

After we got home it started raining and then the roof started leaking. But we aren't in a tent right now, so it's hard to feel too upset.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Here I told you about my missing binder containing lesson plans for the past three years. I had pretty much given up hope that this would ever be found, but today an administrator walked into my classroom during my free period holding it. "Is this yours?" he asked.

Yes. It's mine. And I'm so happy to have it back!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Why I'm Here

I read a pile of student drafts this afternoon, and also a class set of notebooks. The drafts were on self-selected topics, and one of the prompts in the notebooks asked the students to introduce themselves to me. Although I hadn't specifically asked anyone to write about the earthquake, many of the students did.

I sat and cried while I read.

And it suddenly occurred to me: This is why I am here. There are plenty of people who could teach my kids to write. And sure, I can do it too; I can fix their spelling and nudge their verb tenses and help them express themselves even better. But nobody can cry with them the way I can. (I am, by the way, a world-class crier.) Nobody can care about them the way I do, at least not exactly the way I do. Nobody else will read their writing the way I will, with exactly my eyes.

When I cry with them, it's not out of pity, because I saw something on TV or read about the Haitian children, but out of empathy. I know. I love Haiti too. I've lived here longer than you have; I came here before you were born. I was here that day in January, and I felt the earth shake. I'm so sorry for what you lost, and you're right to mourn those people and those places and that life. I love you. And God loves you.

We don't just sit around and cry. I still make them be quiet and stop chewing gum and turn in their homework on time. Life goes on and there are expectations. But they know that I care about them, and that I'm there if they want to talk, and that I'll read draft after draft of whatever they want to write.

All those months ago, when I was in the States, fretting about my complete uselessness, people said to me, There will be work to be done that only you can do. And now, here it is. I can teach and love these kids, here and now. I feel as though I'm exactly where I belong, doing exactly what I am supposed to do. And even if "what I am supposed to do" involves sadness and grief, it's sadness and grief I am uniquely qualified to suffer. And it's a privilege to do it.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Going to Church

"I was glad when they said unto me, 'Let us go into the house of the Lord.'" - Psalm 122:1

"And then I realized we had to drive all the way across Port-au-Prince." - Me

Last week I promised to take the camera with me to church today, and I did. I took over a hundred pictures and I have narrowed that down to a few to post. Remember that I took them out of a moving car with my point-and-shoot camera and my limited photographic skills. I got many lovely shots of the insurance sticker on the windshield and of my husband's hands on the steering wheel. If you live here and you know what our starting point and destination were, you may find our route odd. We had an errand to run on the way. My husband needed to have some tests done for his physical and had to drop off a, shall we say, specimen at the lab. I asked him if I could reveal this detail on my blog and he seemed surprised I would ask - almost as though everyone stops by the lab on their way to church to drop off little vials of biological matter. Sometimes we need reminders of what is actually normal behavior.

This is the Prime Minister's residence. Seven months after the earthquake there is still a large tent city in the formerly well-kept yard of this house.

Some art for sale by the side of the road. Yesterday, passing the same spot, we saw the first "earthquake art" that we had seen, but my picture unfortunately doesn't contain it. The paintings showed lopsided houses and people on the ground.

And then there is the real thing; often there are houses that look perfectly fine right next to flattened messes like this one that look as though nothing has been done to them since the day of the earthquake.

A row of public toilets on the street, for the use of the people in the nearby tent city.

This tent is part of that tent city. It seemed poignant to me that these refugees live in the shadow of a billboard advertising Delta Airlines and its flights to the relatively nearby city of New York. There in the harbor you can see the Statue of Liberty with all she promises to the "huddled masses yearning to breathe free."

Quick stop at the lab.

On our way again. Here's another billboard, this one showing Miss Haiti, who is going to participate in the Miss Universe competition. Sarodj Bertin is a lawyer as well as a beauty queen. Here someone tried to argue that Haiti shouldn't be participating in this competition because of the earthquake and you can read the comments to see what Haitian readers thought about that. The banner under Ms. Bertin's arms advertises the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Another flattened building.

And another tent city by the side of the road.

Nearing the airport.

And here's the airport tent city.

A billboard at the airport tent city asks if you are in despair and says that, if so, Jesus is your hope. There's a number you can call to talk to someone.

Another tent city by the side of the road. You can see from just these few photos that the quality of the tents varies wildly.

People walk down the side of the road to church. Of course they are beautifully dressed. They may have just come out of one of those tents, but they won't show it.

More tents. They are everywhere.

This billboard warns about the hurricane season. "Run and tell your neighbor," it suggests. Imagine a full-blown hurricane with all those people living in tents. Thankfully the season has been quiet so far.

We're almost there. Here's a tap-tap waiting for passengers.

More tents.

It's laundry day! Actually, this is pretty much how this neighborhood looked pre-earthquake. We're just about to turn in to where we will worship.

Church was wonderful; it is always a highlight of the week to get together to worship God with people we love.

I didn't take many pictures on the way home but I did want to show you some political graffiti, which is ubiquitous in this election year. I picked Wyclef, since he has been in the news lately. On Friday night the CEP (Conseil Electoral Provisoire) announced that Wyclef Jean, the hip-hop star, may not run for president due to his failure to meet the residency requirement. Today he said that he's not giving up and will file an appeal.

Here's the man himself, on a billboard advertising Cola Couronne. (Scroll down a little at that link to get past the Ghanaian soda, Pee Cola. Yeah.)

And here is some graffiti on the wall. It says "Long live Wyclef." In other places you can see, "We love you, Wyclef Jean," "Dear Wyclef Jean," and "Wyclef Jean, a good thing."

Thanks for coming along on our ride to church. Now I think we need a nap!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Goudou Goudou

The other day in class, a seventh grader got a frightened look on his face and when I asked him what was wrong, he said, "It felt like Goudou Goudou."

Our building is right next to a busy street, and when a large truck goes by, the building feels as though it's shaking. The sound of that truck going by is exactly how the earthquake sounded when it was beginning. The sound of Goudou Goudou.

Here's an explanation of the term Goudou Goudou from the ActionAid Earthquake Blog, written by Claudine Andre:
“Goudou Goudou” (pronounced Gudu Gudu) is how the majority of Haitians refer to the catastrophic earthquake that happened on January 12th 2010.

...[A] lot of Haitians living in Port-au-Prince and its surroundings still believe that what happened on January 12 was a spiritual act. Most of them are sure that it was Satan at work; some have faith that it was prophesied, and others believe in the hypothesis that life and natural ways recycle themselves when necessary.

The percentage of the population that really trusts the scientific theory of an earthquake is comparatively low. But literate or not, rich or poor, Catholic or voodoo practitioners, all know the words “Goudou Goudou”.

For Haitians, this expression describes the sound of the earthquake. It is one of the rare connections that different social ranks have. It’s understood by everyone and gives a good imagery of what happened on the 12th. Mostly it is a very light way to refer to the earthquake and minimize the trauma after the disaster.

Before school started I was working in my classroom one day and I felt the building shake. I turned to my second grade son and asked him if he felt it. He responded, very seriously and gently, "Mom. It's because the earthquake happened before, and you're afraid it will happen again. It has to do with psychology."

We're still wary, still vigilant. Hoping it won't happen again, but aware that it could. Goudou Goudou.

Poetry Friday: This is the Stuff

I teach a poem every day to my middle schoolers. (This is all part of my effort to be Nancie Atwell when I grow up.) On Fridays, though, we do songs. I ask the kids to bring in songs and then we discuss the lyrics like poetry and listen to the music together. I have learned a lot of new vocabulary this way (thank you, UrbanDictionary.com). I don't accept songs I consider inappropriate, but I often have to explain to my students why I have come to this conclusion. This makes for some interesting conversations. Some of the lyrics are difficult to discuss in any meaningful way, since they make little sense (at least in my opinion), but I can usually find a metaphor somewhere or some alliteration to talk about.

Some days nobody brings a song, and then I share some of the music I like. I call this "Old Lady Music," and it is surprising how many students actually enjoy some of the things I play by Paul Simon or Sting or one of my other favorites. The song below is one I have shared with my students as well. It feels very appropriate for this time in my life as I am adjusting back to life in Haiti after six months in the United States after the earthquake.

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...

I don't know the people on the video, but this song is in the background. It's really the perfect song for a video like this; a baby doing things all babies do, things that aren't really exciting unless it's your child. When our kids - especially the firstborn - are babies, we take pictures of everything they do. Why do we lose that sense of wonder as they get older? Why don't we realize that this is the stuff life is made of? Why don't we take pictures of our kids doing their homework, or make videos of eating dinner together as a family? It could all be gone in a second. These are the little things to appreciate while we have them.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

First Week

Tomorrow it will be Friday already. Time goes much faster when you are staying busy. I am so glad to be back at work, and I think this was a huge step towards being the me that I recognize.

It feels good to be doing something useful. It makes me feel competent, except, of course, when I feel incompetent. Today a seventh grader said to me, "I have no idea what you just said. I didn't get one single thing about it." Ah. Seventh graders. I had forgotten how they are! I said what I had said again; in fact, about three more times in different ways. By the end I seemed to have communicated more successfully.

Last week I posted a couple of status updates on Facebook about electricity, and several people commented that they could tell life was back to normal, since that's what I used to obsess about pre-earthquake. Again this week we are having power problems. On Tuesday night we had a big storm and the city power went out. Our inverter (battery backup) lasted through yesterday afternoon (we do have a generator, too, but it isn't working), and then last night we slept without any fans. It was very warm and sweaty and the air was filled with the whining of mosquitoes. Our quality of sleep suffered. I kept thinking, though, about people sleeping in tents, and my situation didn't seem so bad. Still, I hope that the electricity will come on again tonight as usual.

And tomorrow it will be Friday, the end of a week of "normal life." Normal is so beautiful; I never appreciated it before the way I do now.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Yo Domi Nan Soley

My beanbag chairs were unbelievably filthy, so I asked a school employee to wash them for me. She brought them back today and they were still damp and starting to smell a little sour. She told me, "Yo domi nan soley." They've been sleeping in the sun.

I put them back to sleep in the sun a while longer.

First Day of School

This morning it was wonderful to see all the returning students at school. There were many new faces, as well. Apart from the usual first-day chaos of scheduling and locker distribution, today went well. My son said he loves second grade.

Tomorrow is a full day, with the real full-length class periods. Bring it on!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Ready or Not...

School starts tomorrow. I am more or less ready, though my schedule changed three times today and I picked up a new class. I keep telling myself, I can handle this. I am an experienced teacher.

It doesn't really worry me that I've been out of teaching for seven months; I stayed home with babies for longer than that, and found it wasn't hard to go back to the classroom. But I am nervous about how it will be to have students coming from all different schools around the world; students who were here after the earthquake; students who are coming from other schools that were damaged or destroyed; students who just moved to this country in the last few weeks. In some ways it feels as though we will be rebuilding our community from scratch. And as in the case of rebuilding Haiti, this provides opportunities but is also scary. We'll never have exactly what we had before; that was comfortable and we were used to it. It's up to us to make sure we have something better.

Ready or not, here they come...students who are ready to be back together, students who are starting afresh, students who are afraid of their new school. There will be kids I missed, kids I haven't met yet, kids who have lost their comfortable world and are working to find out what their new lives will be like. Each one is precious, irreplaceable.

I'm ready. I'm scared. I'm praying.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Book #47 was a potential read-aloud for seventh grade, Tangerine, by Edward Bloor. I chose it because it had a soccer theme, and I got the idea from the cover that it was funny, always a big plus with seventh grade read-alouds. But eighty pages into the book...
Sirens started to wail outside. Then the loudspeakers crackled to life. "This is Mrs. Gates. We are experiencing an extreme emergency. Please listen carefully and do exactly as I say. First, any injured student should come immediately to the office. No student who is not injured should attempt to come to the office at this time. All other students should move calmly and quietly to their afternoon bus stops or pickup points. School buses have already been dispatched to drive you home. If you cannot go home at this time, you should proceed out the front entrance and walk to the high school gymnasium."

Mrs. Gates repeated this speech twice more as I worked my way out the front door and turned left to my bus stop. I hooked up with Joey again there. He said he'd heard that there were kids with broken arms and legs all over the office.

A convoy of ambulances, police cars, and fire engines turned into the entranceway, their sirens wailing and their lights flashing...

OK. Can I really read this to students who were just in an earthquake? It's not an earthquake in the book, by the way, although a character initially thinks it is. Instead, a sinkhole has opened up under the school.

When the Haiti earthquake happened, I was in the middle of a read-aloud with my seventh graders called The Last Book in the Universe, by Rodman Philbrick. The story is set in a post-apocalyptic society where the infrastructure has been destroyed by the "Big Shake." On the night of the earthquake, one of my seventh graders who was on campus joked that this was the "Big Shake" that was destroying Haiti. Even though this is a great read-aloud with lots of discussion potential, at this point I can't imagine ever reading it to a class again.

But, back to Tangerine. As I kept reading this book, unable to quit reading it until I finished it, I decided that it would make a wonderful read-aloud. It isn't funny, at least most of it isn't, but it is about soccer, and it's about reinventing oneself, about the way kids perceive themselves and each other, about secrets in a family, and about middle school. And, incidentally, about kids who have to leave their school due to a cataclysmic event and find ways to fit in elsewhere. What could be more appropriate for my students?


This morning we drove across town to attend church. We're meeting with the same group as in January, but due to damage from the earthquake, we've had to relocate. The drive to church is much longer and more eventful than before; next week I'll take the camera along and document it.

Sunday morning in church has consistently been one of my most emotional times since January. Somehow the combination of music and stillness, supportive people and reminders of God's love, causes tears. I'm still sensitive, like someone with a sunburn. This morning it was wonderful to be meeting with friends, but there were many reminders of how different things are now; the location (we met in a clinic room, complete with oxygen in case anyone passed out during the sermon), the missing people, the conversation afterwards when we talked about the last seven months.

We had lunch at the home of some friends. There were long-term Haiti people and some newcomers, too. It was a fun time and felt "normal." In the evening we had a school event; all the teachers got together for pizza and conversation. Again, it was a mixture of returning and new staff. School will start soon and we're nearly ready; there's hope for the new year, but again, we talked about the past as well as the future.

In all, it was a good Sunday.

O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.

O light that followest all my way,
I yield my flickering torch to thee;
My heart restores its borrowed ray,
That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day
May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,
I cannot close my heart to thee;
I trace the rainbow through the rain,
And feel the promise is not vain,
That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.

Here you can find more information on this hymn and also hear the tune. Warning: the site automatically starts playing music, so don't click on it if you're in a meeting.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Giving Birth in Haiti

by Beth McHoul

It's near to 11:00 PM and most people are home in bed. In my exaggerated thinking of the moment I feel like only scoundrels and midwives are out in Haiti this time of night. Here I am doing another transport after a 24 hour labor and delivery effort that ended in no delivery. When a c/section looms our choices are limited. The small hospital with no doctor or the huge hospital with few doctors and hundreds of women. I chose the latter.

Carline is 18, single, sweet and eager to please. Although exhausted she responded to our every suggestion and was totally cooperative for two full days. She sat defeated when we explained our findings but she understood only one thing - we meant transport. She cried. We cried.

In the rainy dark we loaded up my car. Two guards, one grandma, a nurse, a cousin, the mom-to-be and me. Off we went. The empty streets were full of puddles, trash and the occasional group of people brave enough to be out this late. I speed past Cite Soleil. I enjoy the speed, the lack of traffic jam, the empty streets. I hate the reason I am on them.

I've been to this hospital twice before, I am prepared. I've even made an acquaintance of one of the doctors shaking my head in understanding as he told me how overcrowded they are. I can see that.

If I thought last time was crowded tonight seemed doubled. Laboring women were everywhere. On benches, lying on the floor, on beds, walking about, yelling, crying, screaming and moaning. Every hallway had laboring women on the floor. Blood spots here and there. Trash all around. The new doctor I meet tells me yes, he agrees, our gal probably will need a c/section but she has to wait in line. There are several before her. I'm now moaning along with the laboring women.

I'm filled with disappointment, guilt and frustration as I leave this teenager here. Due to government legalities I am not allowed to stay and help. My heart is sick. The doctor doesn't want one more patient and I don't want to leave our patient here.

We drive home in silence. Once again I am defeated by the inability to provide a woman with a safe birth. A woman we have cared for for months. She knows us, she trusts us, she believed we would help her through this birth experience and now I find that we are not able to finish the job. We are a maternity center and not a hospital. We can only handle normal births. Explain this to a frightened 18 year old who is staring at the multitude of swollen bellies, sweat, urine, vomit, blood and amniotic fluid all around her.

We clean up our fluids quickly, we give Gatorade with a straw, we wipe foreheads with cool cloths, we hug, we check on baby and mom continuously. Not so in this hospital for the poor.

I'm not blaming the overworked staff. The residents are doing their jobs under terrible circumstances. Foreign groups are making huge efforts at the free hospitals to make a difference.

It is not enough. The conditions are like out of an old horror movie but it is all too real. Too real for Carline. Too real for all the women that have to go there because they don't have money to go anywhere else. Somehow they come out with a baby. Most of the time.

This is not acceptable for our transports. The women entrusted to our care should not end up in overcrowded hospitals with broken equipment and filthy conditions if they need more care than we can give.

Heartline is committed to building a 20 bed hospital. We need safe deliveries, safe surgeries and quality postpartum care. Every transport nightmare reinforces to me how important this is. Just ask Carline.

Reposted with permission from Tara Livesay's blog. It originally appeared on John and Beth's blog.

This program is the place I went on July 29th and wrote about in this post.

Beth's husband, John McHoul, has agreed to shave his head if $50,000 is raised by November 12th. He is looking rather scary since the earthquake. Normally he gets a haircut twice a year, but it has been well over a year. I asked if he had taken a Nazirite vow, but apparently not.

You can go here to donate.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Reading Update

Book #43 of the year was The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. This is a story about Nazi Germany narrated by Death, and yet it still manages to be uplifting. Ultimately it's about the power of words, for good and evil. I've been seeing this one on the book blogs for a while and I'm glad I finally read it.

Book #44 was a reread - I know I have read it at least twice before, and maybe three times. The copy I have now was given to me by my husband the year before we got married. It's The Four Loves, by C.S. Lewis.
There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket - safe, dark, motionless, airless - it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

Book #45 was Sphinx's Princess, by Esther Friesner. I picked up this book because I and several of my students enjoyed Friesner's books about Helen of Troy, Nobody's Princess and Nobody's Prize. This one is about Nefertiti, also blessed/cursed with great beauty. I enjoyed it, though not as much as the Helen books.

Book #46 was Graceling, by Kristin Cashore. Katsa, the Graceling of the title, is a remarkable heroine. Cashore does a marvelous job of writing friendships, and the friendship between Katsa and Po is just exactly right (though it takes a turn which, in my opinion, makes this book a little mature for my middle schoolers).

This post is linked to the August 14th Saturday Review of Books.

My Classroom

I've never posted photos of my classroom on my blog before this year, because I was being all anonymous, and stuff. (I'm a little scared of this new, more open me. I watch in fascinated horror to see what I might say or do next.)

I am so happy to have my classroom back! I know it is not very high-tech compared with classrooms in the US. (Before the earthquake I had three functional student computers in my room and now, as you can see, I have two monitors and a pile of wires. Would someone come fix that for me, please?) But I think it is beautiful.

You can see that there are still a few things to be done. The bean bag chairs, so beloved by the students during Silent Reading and Writer's Workshop, need to go home and get washed. The floor needs sweeping and the wastebaskets need emptying. But on the whole, I am ready for the kids to come to school.

Notice that I wrote "August 17th, 2010" on my board. The last date I wrote up there was "January 13th, 2010," right before I left my room on the day of the earthquake. I had a little moment when I wrote the date for the first day of school.

I love my classroom! And this is the moment of the year when I feel most effective as a teacher. Once the kids get here, things aren't quite as easy as they are now. But they are a lot more fun!

Spotting a Missionary

Today on Stuff Christians Like: a handy guide to spotting a missionary.

Poetry Friday: Sestinas

School starts on Tuesday. I have been swamped by getting ready for that, putting new books in my classroom library, fixing my room, nagging people to put my bulletin boards back up on my wall. And yet, I have also been writing a sestina. Because I'm strange like that. I've written on this blog before about how it feels powerful to write something at a time when everything else is out of your control. The words on the paper (or screen) can be moved around as you choose; you can do with them what you want. Not so the people around you, or the circumstances around you.

So, the sestina. It was, predictably, terrible. It no longer exists. I've only ever written one that I liked, and even that mostly served to show me how well people who know what they are doing can write a poem. But since I have been thinking about sestinas, I thought I would do a post about them.

A sestina has 39 lines. Instead of rhymes, the lines end with six words which are repeated in a certain pattern. I have a book which describes this pattern in a quasi-mathematical way, but I have a hard time following that. I can relate to Nancie Atwell's explanation better; she just gives each end-word a number and then provides this chart:

Stanza 1: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Stanza 2: 6, 1, 5, 2, 4, 3
Stanza 3: 3, 6, 4, 1, 2, 5
Stanza 4: 5, 3, 2, 6, 1, 4
Stanza 5: 4, 5, 1, 3, 6, 2
Stanza 6: 2, 4, 6, 5, 3, 1
Envoi (3 lines):

Confused yet? Do what I do; use this template, where you can just type in the six words you have in mind and press "create template." Then you will get a list of the words in the order they are supposed to appear. You can cut and paste that into a word-processing document.

Here's "Sestina", by Swinburne. It begins:

I saw my soul at rest upon a day
As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,
Among soft leaves that give the starlight way
To touch its wings but not its eyes with light;
So that it knew as one in visions may,
And knew not as men waking, of delight.

This was the measure of my soul's delight;
It had no power of joy to fly by day,
Nor part in the large lordship of the light;
But in a secret moon-beholden way
Had all its will of dreams and pleasant night,
And all the love and life that sleepers may.

See how the second stanza repeats the end words from the first? The six words Swinburne is using are day, night, way, light, may, and delight. He is doing a rhyming sestina, but a sestina doesn't have to rhyme. If you follow the link above you can read the rest of this poem.

Here's the envoi. It has to repeat the six words.

Song, have thy day and take thy fill of light
Before the night be fallen across thy way;
Sing while he may, man hath no long delight.

The hard part about writing a poem like this is that all that repetition can feel very forced. You need to choose end-words that are versatile, but also meaningful, because you are going to have to use them again and again.

But some people do it so beautifully. Tiel Aisha Ansari is one. Here's her sestina from 2007 about the California wildfires. Notice how she chose very versatile words, such as "leaf," which she then used as "leave," and even, in one stanza, "believed." She also chose a topic in which the repetition was effective; you get a real sense of the relentless quality of the flames.

For the same reason, this sestina, "Tsunami," works very well, too. I love the way the poet uses the confusion of mixed-up words to show how the wave tosses everything together into chaos.

Or maybe it's just that my mind is rather fixed on natural disasters these days.

Sestinas are a lot of fun to read, and while they are terribly difficult to write, you do feel a sense of achievement when you get done. Try one!

Here's some more information on the form.

And here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

His Workmanship

I already told you I'm not very good at bulletin boards. For this one, I put up a scarf that I found in my cupboard and then on top of that, I posted the text of Ephesians 2:10. We are God's workmanship. Apparently the Greek word is poema. We are God's creations, God's unique handiwork, God's poems.

I was older than middle school, but still a teenager, when I first read that as God's unique poems, we should never try to be like anyone else. The whole point of a poem is that it is different from all other poems. When a student turns in a poem to me that I have read before and claims he wrote it, I don't give him an "A" because it's a beautiful poem. He has to write a new one. It has to be unique. That idea helped me as an adolescent, and I try every year to instill it into my students. They are so valuable to God (and to me) as they are. God made each one of them different, and each one beautiful. (Did you feel beautiful when you were 13? Neither did I.)

And this verse is for me, too. Teachers have insecurities as well. I'm not the cool 25-year-old teacher any more. (Actually, while I once was a teacher who was 25, I don't think I was ever all that cool.) Others can do many things better than I can (like make bulletin boards). And yet, I am God's workmanship. He has created good deeds in advance for me to do this school year. He has sent me the students I am supposed to have. All of us - the students and their teacher - are a bit battered and wounded after the events of the past seven months. But God has placed us here. An administrator used the metaphor of a soldier yesterday, placed tactically by a general. It's not an accident that we're all here together this year.

Monday, August 09, 2010


In the earthquake, houses and buildings broke, bones broke, lives fell apart, people were lost. Now, months later, it is evident that lives are still broken.

This world is broken; that is nothing new. I have known it for a long time. I'm just more aware of it now than before, as we drive down the street and see the pancaked buildings and the fields of tents, and as I talk to friends who are struggling in many different ways. For some, the earthquake caused the pain and hurt; for others, it only revealed places that were already cracked and weakened.

In emails I wrote in January, I said, "My heart is broken." I usually shy away from such dramatic language, but I wasn't exaggerating. That's how it felt, as though something had cracked inside my chest.

And now, all these months later, I want to live like someone who is grateful to be alive, someone who takes nothing for granted. I want to be a perfect wife, a perfect mother, a perfect friend. Once school starts, I want to be a perfect teacher. I am so far from being any of those things, and I get so disappointed with myself, and realize again and again that I am broken. Not because of the earthquake, though that definitely added to my brokenness. I was broken before.

Oh Lord, please, please fix it; fix all of it. Give us all the strength and wisdom to do what we can, but we desperately need Your help. I desperately need Your help.

Progress Report

When you look at the photos below, you may at first think you are looking at a mess.

Look again! And then compare the photos to the ones in this post. Because yes, that is the same room. And while it may not look like school is starting in a week, I think you will agree that it is a big improvement. And if those other pictures had taken in more of the room than they did, you would even be able to see that there's a wall gone that was there before. (Anyway, school doesn't start in a week. It starts a week from tomorrow. So there.)

In my classroom, I have pretty much worked through the stages of grief and accepted that the stuff I haven't found yet, I'm probably not going to find. So I'm in Plan B mode now. Not a moment too soon.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The Story from Haiti, part eighteen

In this episode, A Haitian Success Story, Josue Laguenesse, who works as a custodian at Princeton University and a taxi driver, talks about a project he and his brother did to provide clean water for their home town in Haiti. He also talks about what it was like to be in the United States longing for news of friends and family after the earthquake.

Here's my index to the episodes of The Story about the Haitian earthquake and its aftermath.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Poetry Friday: Dirge Without Music

Dirge Without Music

by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,— but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Here's today's Poetry Friday roundup.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010


We have elections coming up in Haiti. They are terribly important, since whoever leads Haiti next will have enormous decisions to make. I wish I could blog about them, but I really can't. For one thing, the Haitian political scene is extremely complicated, and I don't have the time or energy to keep up on all the details. But most of all, as a foreigner, I don't feel I have a right to many opinions, at least the kind I'm comfortable expressing publicly. Once, several years ago, an American newcomer to this country sat me down and asked me very seriously to tell her who were the bad guys and who were the good guys. Well, it's not quite that simple, and I don't want to set myself up as some kind of expert who will then be quoted.

However! I do have somewhere to send you if you would like to read about the elections from the point of view of a Haitian who now lives in the United States and is watching the situation closely. She grew up in a family that is very politically aware and she knows what she thinks. I don't know if I will agree with everything she says; I don't know what she will say. But I can guarantee she will express herself with plenty of verve. She has already told her readers in no uncertain terms what she thinks about Wyclef Jean running for president, and today she shows us a political cartoon from the leading Haitian newspaper and explains who all the people in it are and why it is funny.

So head on over to Talie's blog to read about Haitian politics, and tell her Ruth sent you.

Writing Letters

In my latest NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Inbox email, I got this article about kids at summer camp who are getting the experience of writing letters to their parents. Many of them have never written letters before, but at camp they aren't allowed computers or cellphones, and many camps require kids to write at least one letter home a week.

This article made me smile and brought back memories from my childhood. No, I didn't go to summer camp, but I did go to boarding school, and we, too, were required to write letters home. When I was very young, letter-writing was a classroom activity, first thing on Monday morning, and the teacher read what you had written for correctness. Later on, we wrote on Sunday mornings and I don't think anyone was reading what we wrote before posting. In high school (by this time I was at a different boarding school), nobody really checked to make sure we were writing, but we were still expected to do so. (At the summer camp in the story, "computers are as exotic as boys"; at my high school, neither computers or boys existed, either - computers because they hadn't been invented yet, at least not in the form that regular people used, and boys because - well, it was a girls' school.)

As a child, I would think about events in terms of how I would narrate them in my letters to my parents. I think this is what made me into a writer. While it's true that there's something special about a physical letter, I find email an acceptable substitute these days. But writing a letter - or an letter-like email, as opposed to one sentence for informational purposes - is not at all the same thing as composing a Tweet or a Facebook status or a text message. It's a much more sustained exercise in writing, and it requires thinking about the person you're writing to for more than a few seconds. I think that's what the 11-year-old in the article means when she says of a letter, "It feels like it's really for you."

At camp, kids are learning such skills as addressing envelopes and writing in sentences, and that's all great. But I am even more happy for them that they are learning about what it is like to conduct relationships through writing; to share thoughts and ideas, to narrate what's going on in your life for someone who wasn't there, and then in turn to read about that person's life. To me this is a great pleasure, and it's a shame that it's a vanishing one. It's good to know that it's not completely gone yet.

Not Knowing Whether to Sprint or Be Still

I read Jon's blog, Stuff Christians Like, every day, and usually enjoy it, but his Serious Wednesday posts are seriously great. They are becoming a regular feature on my blog. Here's today's, called "Not Knowing Whether to Sprint or Be Still."

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On the iPod

Today I spent most of the day shelving books in the school library. I finished the 800s in the high school section and made a lot of progress on the junior fiction in the elementary section. I plugged myself into my iPod and got into my Dewey Decimalizing, alphabetizing zone. There are still books spread about the room, but the library is looking so much better than it did two weeks ago.

Out of all the podcasts I listened to, I thought the best was a Rob Bell sermon called Matthew 5: Jesus and Divorce. (You can download it at that link.) It's a difficult subject, and I think Bell does a beautiful job. He talks about what Jesus said about divorce in Matthew 5 and its historical context - this is information I had never heard before, and very helpful for an understanding of the passage. Bell acknowledges that we live in a broken world and sometimes marriages end; his take on this is realistic and compassionate, and he also maintains a very high view of marriage and how it is ideally supposed to be. This is one of those rare sermons on marriage that has something in it for everyone. It's going in my Favorite Sermons folder.

Bulletin Board

In January I had put up an article on a bulletin board in the middle school hallway, and it's still there. I was reading it again today and it breaks my heart. The headline is "Haiti experiences a hotel boom," and it begins:
A decade after Haiti's only U.S. hotel franchise removed its marquee from a downtown Port-au-Prince building, the Caribbean nation is preparing to welcome its first international hotel brand.

Choice Hotels International, owners of Comfort Inn, is franchising its brand to two hotels in touristy Jacmel, a quaint seaside town in southeast Haiti known for its spell-binding carnival and viewed as Haiti's arts capital.

Later this month, construction is expected to begin on a 120-room boutique hotel, the Belle Rive, that will become part of Choice Hotels' Ascend Collection. In May, the Cap Lamandou, a 32-room hotel on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea, will become a Comfort Inn.

Here's the rest of the article.

Of course, we all know what actually happened later in January.


If you don't know, IRL means In Real Life. Yesterday I got to meet an online friend IRL. We've "known" each other for ten years through a Christian parenting email list which we each joined when our first child was a baby. Back then many of us on the list were NAK (Nursing At Keyboard - this is the abbreviation you use to explain that you are typing one-handed and that is why your punctuation and capitalization is a bit iffy).

Staying home with a baby can feel isolated. When I was home with my first, my husband was working constantly to make that possible. Later I started working part-time and we did a tag team act with taking care of our daughter. We were happy to do it - and I look back at that time with happy memories - but there was limited grown-up time. To help meet that need, I had a local moms' group that I attended faithfully, but I also had my online mothering buddies. We encouraged each other, prayed for each other, gave and received BTDT advice on breastfeeding and sleep and other mom topics (BTDT = Been There, Done That). We also frequently had occasion to LOL (Laugh Out Loud).

Through the years everyone had crises large and small. This year I had a large one. (I think I may have mentioned it - I was in an earthquake?) The ladies on the email list jumped into action. Specifically, they decided that they would make my birthday something special. And they did. I got stacks of packages, cards, and online birthday wishes. Remember, most of these women I had never seen - and still haven't. (Occasionally there's a dad on the list, but for the most part this is very much a female group.)

One of the group members, A., is a doctor who quit practicing to stay home with her children. She would often answer medical questions for us. Right now she and her husband (also a doctor) are in Haiti doing volunteer work at a mission hospital. Although they are outside the city, we were able to work it out to spend the day together. She came to school and we had lunch together. (She was happy to get Haitian food because the volunteers are being served American food.) I gave her the grand tour. And we talked non-stop on the trip back and forth. She also brought me a gift from another list member, who happens to live in Eastern Europe!

The internet gets blamed for many of the ills of our society, but back when I first got online what impressed me most about the experience was that I could be connected with people whom I wouldn't be likely to meet IRL. That has continued to amaze me. For example, for years I was on a list with missionary kids (MKs) from around the world. When I got involved in a public health project a few years ago, I was able to get help with my research from some of the foremost names in the field. And I've already written about how my online connections helped with fund-raising and encouragement after the earthquake.

These days the traffic on the email list is much lighter than it used to be. Some of us are finding different ways to connect online and some have moved on to a different stage of their lives. But that list was and continues to be a place where mothers can be encouraged. And that's a good thing. It's also a good thing to meet in person. I'm glad A. came to Haiti and that I could spend the day with her.