Saturday, October 29, 2016

Reading Update

Book #126 of this year was Wish, by Barbara O'Connor.  My mother sent me a copy of this book, autographed for me by O'Connor.  Getting a book in the mail is such a wonderful thing, and I enjoyed this one very much.  It's about Charlie (short for Charlemagne, an eleven-year-old girl), whose parents can't care for her because her father is in prison and her mother is too depressed.  Despite these bleak circumstances, and Charlie's deep sadness about being shipped to a little town in North Carolina to live with an aunt and uncle she hardly knows, this ends up being a lovely book about friendship and family and making wishes.  I put it on the shelf in my classroom when I was done with it; I think some of my seventh graders will like it, even though the protagonist is quite a bit younger than they are.

Book #127 was Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier.  I didn't like this quite as much as the other two Frazier novels, Cold Mountain and Thirteen Moons, but when you're dealing with a writer as remarkable as Frazier, that certainly doesn't mean it's not a good book.  It's just as weird and atmospheric and vivid as the other two books, with complicated, alive characters.  Is Frazier working on another novel?  I sure hope so.

Book #128 was a book that I downloaded myself onto my Kindle, but it felt like another gift in the mail, only this time from God Himself.  "Hey, you should read this," I imagined Him saying. "This guy wrote this book just for you and just for this week." The book is called How to Survive a Shipwreck: Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here, by Jonathan Martin.  Martin quotes Chesterton, James Joyce, Buechner, the Bible, The Runaway Bunny, and more, but his book is wholly original.  He gets crisis (shipwreck) just exactly right.  His writing is poetic and soaked in metaphor, but not over-the-top "let's make a sermon illustration out of this" Christian metaphor.  He writes about Paul's shipwreck in the book of Acts, sea monsters in the book of Job, New Orleans after Katrina, wind and water.  This was one of the most comforting, grace-filled, beautiful books I have read in a long time, and it's one I'll definitely read again.  "If death is not the final word," writes Martin, "and chaos produces creation rather than destroys it, then many of the stories . . . you thought were long over are far from over yet."  This book made me believe that.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Poetry Friday: Magnet Topics

Recently I read the term "magnet topics" for the first time.  (It may have been in a Poetry Friday post.)  Magnet topics are the subjects you keep returning to in your writing, subjects you just can't let go until you explore them in a few more ways.  I've been thinking about my magnet topics, and this past week I sat down to write more about them.  Somehow I ended up with another sonnet, like the one I posted last week.  I don't usually write much with rhyme, but my daughter has been writing sonnets lately, and sometimes we text each other about scansion - I can hardly imagine anything that says "book geek" more than that - and there's something so satisfying about working with those fourteen lines, especially on days when other things in your life aren't quite so contained.

So anyway, here's my sonnet about magnet topics, and yes, Daughter, I have incorporated your advice on the scansion of my first draft.  I also shared this with my writing group (I love saying that - did I mention I'm in a writing group for the first time in my life?), and have used at least one of their suggestions, too.

Magnet Topics

Goodbyes.  I’m left behind, they drive away.
A white beach lined with palms, a field of tea.
Earthquakes, the Odyssey, friends, Saturday,
Tears, reading, teaching, swimming in the sea.

Babies (with fragrant, fuzzy heads) held tight,
Letters received and sent, bright-colored flowers,
Paris and London, homesickness at night,
Planes, trains, long darkened hallways, lonely hours.

Wherever else my far safaris take me,
My magnet topics won’t be left behind,
My same dear loves, which, though they may forsake me,
I’m always coming back to in my mind
And always loving more than strictly wise,
Which brings me back to topic one: goodbyes.

Ruth, from

The wonderful Linda has the roundup this week.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Poetry Friday: Windows

Today in seventh grade we read a poem from the Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School about what you can see out the window.  The poem, by Lesléa Newman, is called "After the Blizzard, Outside my Window."  It's a sonnet, describing the "tuxedo cat" and other creatures that can be seen in the snow.  The concluding couplet is: "To think that all of this is mine for free, / The world is so much better than TV!"

No sooner had I finished reading the poem than the kids started protesting.  They have big walls around their houses.  They can't see anything out their windows.  Their parents don't want them at the window because people will see them, and they might get kidnapped.  There are power lines and that's all.  Amused at their vehemence, I put up a topic on the board for their consideration:

After they left, it was my free period, and I was supposed to write quizzes, but instead I wrote my own sonnet.  Here it is:

Why I Can’t Look Out the Window

You say the world is better than TV
And I imagine that you haven’t lied
But when I go out on my balcony
My mother tells me to come back inside.
She worries about kidnapping and such
And anyway, all I can see is wall
Topped with barbed wire, painful to the touch,
And really, there is nothing else at all.

Well, there’s a power line, and there’s a bird
And blue skies way up there, with wispy cloud
But Mom is asking if I haven’t heard.
I’d look some more, but I am not allowed.

I will explore the world once I am able
But while I’m waiting, I’ll make do with cable.

Ruth, from

I shared it with the eighth graders who came in the next period, and talked a little bit about the Great Conversation.  When the seventh graders came back in the afternoon, I shared it with them, too.  You guys, I just love my job. 

Here's a poem I wrote a while ago about the sounds I hear from my house.

And Miss Rumphius has the roundup. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Reading Update

Book #118 of 2016 was Steele Secrets: A Young Adult Ghost Story, by Andi Cumbo-Floyd.  This book tackles the issue of slavery, and in a way which gets personal and draws the reader in, as Mary Steele meets a ghost in a slave cemetery.  Recommended.

Book #119 was A Fatal Grace, the second Chief Inspector Gamache novel by Louise Penny.  So far I'm very much enjoying this series.

Book #120 was The Nest, by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney.  While I know I quite enjoyed this while I was reading it, I can honestly remember very little about it. 

I loved Book #121The Marriage of Opposites, by Alice Hoffman.  This is the story of the painter Camille Pissarro.  More accurately, it's the story of his family, because he himself doesn't show up until about halfway through the book.  Did you know he was from the Caribbean?  Somehow I had missed that detail.  He was born in St. Thomas, and this book is wonderfully evocative of both the Caribbean and Paris, where he eventually goes.  I read this while getting ready for Hurricane Matthew, and the island descriptions were perfect.  I really liked the way Pissarro saw the world, too. 

Pissarro painting

Book #122 was The Lake House, by Kate Morton.  This was entertaining, if a little implausible.

Book #123 was Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown.  This was my third of her books, and I liked it very much.

Book #124 was Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope.  I've confessed before on this blog what a sucker I am for Austen spinoffs, retellings, and, well, fan-fiction.  Spoiler alert: everything turns out exactly the same as the original.  I like Joanna Trollope's books, and this is fun, but - obviously - the original is better.

Book #125 was Torn Thread, by Anne Isaacs, a harrowing, absorbing Holocaust narrative.  Isaacs got this story from her mother-in-law, and it's a testament to what human beings can survive. 

This post is linked to October's Quick Lit at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Poetry Friday: Blessing for the Brokenhearted

We in Haiti are brokenhearted right now.  When you love, whether it's a person or a place, there's always the risk of a broken heart.  We are so sad to see the suffering in the south of the country brought by Hurricane Matthew.  Here's one article; you can find many more.  And here's something I wrote earlier this week about how it's hitting us here in Port-au-Prince, where Matthew didn't do much damage.

In this poem, Jan Richardson is talking about losing her husband, but there are many ways hearts get broken.

A Blessing for the Brokenhearted
There is no remedy for love but to love more.
– Henry David Thoreau

Let us agree
for now
that we will not say
the breaking
makes us stronger
or that it is better
to have this pain
than to have done
without this love.

Here's the rest.

The incomparable Irene has the roundup today.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

These Days

Lately, my days are lived in a state of double consciousness.  There's the reality of my surroundings, my job, my ordinary life.  And there's the constant awareness that things are not ordinary at all in the south of this country, in the wake of Hurricane Matthew.  Maybe it's a triple consciousness, because the destruction that Matthew has left behind is a reminder of the earthquake of 2010, and I have been having regular flashbacks to those days, too. 

Yesterday as I walked in the gate to work, one of the school employees asked me about my daughter, and then I asked him about his family, and he answered, "Bagay yo terrib."  Things are terrible.  This is not something Haitians say.  Even when things are awful, they will say, "Nou la."  We're here.  This man's mother lost her house in the hurricane, and he's worrying all the time about her.

I sat in my classroom grading before school started, and students started arriving.  One scuttled in with her books, looking as though she had a lot on her mind.

"How are you?" I asked.



"Something my mom asked me to do."

"Hope it works out," I told her.

"Me too."  And then she disappeared.  Later in the day I asked her what had happened, and she smiled and said everything had worked out.  So that was just some seventh grade drama, nothing to do with the life-and-death variety playing out down south.

At some point, a friend posted on Facebook that she was going with the truck of relief supplies her organization was sending out.  I sent her a quick message telling her to be careful, and then kept checking all day as she sent little snippets of information, including a visit to the home of a friend who had lost "most of her children" in the earthquake.  She posted a beautiful photo of herself with the grinning family.

Joy and sorrow, ordinary and catastrophic, all mixed together.

Another friend who is in the south posted photos of destruction, and one of a sign on a hospital, warning people not to enter unless they absolutely had to, because there was cholera inside.  Everyone is drinking contaminated water, and many are already sick.

I taught my classes, and graded papers, and talked with friends, and did my regular things.  After school, my writing group met.  We've just recently started getting together, and so far I'm loving it.  We discussed a Frank O'Hara poem.  People shared the work they had brought.  I shared an earthquake poem I wrote this week, about the images that suddenly appear from my memory. 

Back on Facebook later in the evening, I read more about worries about food insecurity, since so many crops and gardens and fruit trees were destroyed.  I looked at people's photos.  They showed passing out supplies, and the cheerful grins of recipients, people who are living without decent shelter or much to eat.

Throughout the day I listened several times to Sara Groves' song "This Cup." 

"This cup, this cup
I wanna drink it up
To be right here in the middle of it
Right here, right here
This challenging reality
Is better than fear or fantasy.

So take up what we’ve been given
Welcome the edge of our days
Hemmed in by sunrise and sunset
By our youth and by our age
Thank God for our dependence
Here’s to our chasm of need
And how it binds us together
In faith and vulnerability."
(Here are the rest of the lyrics.)
Once again, I have things easy while Haitians struggle with yet another natural disaster, yet another enormous, unfathomable tragedy.   I'm keeping things normal for my students, reading books with them, editing their writing.  I'm meeting with my writing group - what could be more frivolous?  I'm also donating, passing on information on Facebook, asking questions of people around me whose family members are suffering, listening to their answers, sharing their grief.  It's a double consciousness.

Oh yeah, a triple consciousness, because the earthquake is always there.  Today a friend who's in the south now posted that this is worse than the earthquake.  Later she clarified that she's talking about the malnutrition in the future.  Many more people died immediately in the earthquake, those thirty seconds that changed everything in this city, but the hurricane is killing more slowly, killing with cholera and hunger.  
I want to be here, to drink this cup, to live the day as it comes.  This challenging reality.

Lord, have mercy.  Help us in our chasm of need. 

Friday, October 07, 2016

Poetry Friday: Emily Dickinson on a Hurricane

We had two unexpected days off this week as Hurricane Matthew barrelled through Haiti.  Port-au-Prince was not badly hit, but the southern part of the island is a real mess.  We are gradually learning the extent of the mess.

I've lived in Haiti for a long time, and I've had many Poetry Fridays that fell during visits from tropical storms and hurricanes.  But I'd never seen this poem before.  It's not in my Kindle version of Emily Dickinson's poems (which is supposed to be complete!).

I love this poem because, whether Emily intended this or not, for me it touches on the effect of huge events (earthquakes, hurricanes, loss of love in whatever way that happens) on the human heart.  "Calm is but a Wall of unattempted Gauze," we learn, when everything in our lives is shaken.

The heart breaks, and it also enlarges, and lets in new people; and those people are there to stay, no matter what comes later.  The heart dissolves, and convulses; the heart is demolished.  And somehow, in my experience, you never go back to that pre-disaster confidence in the trustworthiness of your own heart.

All the articles on Haiti's hurricane damage refer to the fact that Haiti is still recovering from the earthquake six years ago.  Much as I hate my beloved adopted country being associated with nothing but natural disasters, it's true that we are still recovering, individually and corporately.  And now there's something else to clean up. 


The Heart has narrow Banks
It measures like the Sea
In mighty—unremitting Bass
And Blue Monotony

Till Hurricane bisect
And as itself discerns
Its sufficient Area
The Heart convulsive learns

That Calm is but a Wall
Of unattempted Gauze
An instant's Push demolishes
A Questioning—dissolves.

Violet Nesdoly has today's roundup.

Monday, October 03, 2016


I searched "hurricane" on my blog, and found that I've written here over the years about Irene, Hanna, Tomas, Sandy, Isaac - and lots more that I just called "the hurricane," since at the time it was obvious which one I meant.  Today we are having a day off school, waiting for Matthew.  Some things never change; tropical life means tropical storms.  But Matthew, reportedly, is going to be different.  They say the only storm in recorded history that resembled it was Flora, in 1963, in which an estimated five thousand Haitians died.  Text messages tell us to stock up on food and water and keep our cellphones charged so we can get news of our loved ones.  We're expecting 15-40 inches of rain, winds of 150 miles per hour (with gusts of 185), flooding, mudslides.  And as Victor Hernandez Cruz, of Puerto Rico, reminds us, in his poem "Problems with Hurricanes," everything can become a projectile in such conditions:  "If you are going out / beware of mangoes / And all such beautiful / sweet things."  (Here's the rest of that poem.)  I'm not going out, but staying home and praying for our dear little Haiti.