Sunday, December 31, 2017

CY365, Year One

Today I had a feeling of accomplishment as I posted my photo for Day 365 of 2017.  This year I took at least one photo (usually many more) each day.  I chose one (at least) to post on Facebook in response to a prompt from's the post from last January where I announced in a rather half-baked way what I intended to do.

The fact is that this was a difficult year.  It was a difficult year for my family, and it was a difficult year for the world.  But when I look at the folder marked "CY365," I see blessings.  I see beautiful moments.  Some of the photos I don't like at all; in all of them I see flaws.  But I see evidence that there was so much to thank God for, every day of this year.

Here's the first photo of 2017, a bowl of soup joumou, the traditional Haitian food for New Year's Day.

And here, for December 31st, is a vegetable stand on the Jacmel road selling joumou for tomorrow's soup.

I don't know if I'll do this forever, but for 2018, I'm going to keep posting a daily photo.  I started this as a way to be rooted in my everyday life, here on this beautiful island where God has placed me.  I liked the results; I liked starting my day by sharing my life with others.  To be honest, I liked best when others enjoyed the photo, too; my children accused me of "living for likes."  But some of the ones I liked best were ones that didn't get much response, and that was OK too.

Here are some more of the photos I took and liked this year.

Here are a couple of articles from CY365 that I thought did an especially good job of capturing the experience I had this year:  What it Means to be an Everyday Photographer and Shedding Light on Your 2017 Capture Your 365 Project.  I don't consider myself to be a "real photographer," though I did learn many new things about photography this year.  But I do consider myself to be someone who is looking around for beautiful moments and trying to record them, every day.  I'm looking forward to capturing another 365 days. 

Reading Update, What I Read in 2017, Favorites, and a Bonus!

My daughter is in college in the United States, and thus benefits from the bounty of libraries - her college's, the public library, and all libraries reachable by inter-library loan (which is basically all of them).  Every time she comes home, she brings me a little handful of books she has checked out for me.  The next three books were the ones she brought this time.

Book #93 of 2017 was Strange the Dreamer, by Laini Taylor.  Actually, this one wasn't a library book at all, but an ARC my daughter won in a drawing.  I enjoyed this very much, as I have all of Taylor's books that I've read, but the last line in the story was: "Because this story was not over yet."  So now begins the wait for the next one in the series.

Book 94 was The Necessary Beggar, by Susan Palwick.  This was just the kind of immigrant story I love, with the slight difference that the immigrants are from another dimension.

Book 95 was Life Among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson.  This was entertaining.  The voice is reminiscent of Gerald Durrell, except with children, not animals.

Probably book 96 was the last one I'll finish this year (although you never know).  It was the seventh in the Inspector Gamache series, A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny.  

This was a good reading year.  I didn't read as much as some years, and I read more than others, but in general the quality was high.  Here are links to my reading update posts:

Books 1 to 5 
Books 6 to 12 
Books 13 to 21
Books 22 to 27 
Books 28 to 36 
Books 37 to 40 
Books 41 to 45 
Books 46 to 55 
Books 56 to 60 
Books 61 to 67 
Books 68 to 75 
Books 76 to 83 
Books 84 to 92  
And of course, if you scroll to the top of this post, you'll see books 93 to 96.

I encountered some amazing writers this year.  One was Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  I actually read my first book by her right before the end of 2016, and I read several more this year.  My favorite so far is Americanah, which I reviewed here, in May.  

Another new-to-me writer was Derek Walcott, who died this year right after I started reading Omeros (reviewed here in April).  I have been reading more of his poetry, and I hope to read more of his narrative works in 2018.  Walcott's world is so similar to mine (he's a Caribbean poet, from St. Lucia), and I am fascinated by the way he blends history and mythology into the current lives of people of this region.  

My daughter has been telling me about Mary Doria Russell for a long time, and this year I read three of her books.  The Sparrow, reviewed here in July, was a harrowing but riveting reading experience.  

Two more wonderful writers I've encountered in the last month or so are Imbolo Mbue and Julie Otsuka.  

And now, the bonus from the title.  In November 2016, I read Ted Oswald's book Little Flower.  Ted was in my writing group, so I got to read a manuscript copy.  Because it wasn't yet published, I couldn't put a link in the post when I reviewed it.  I've since edited my review to add a link to the Amazon page, since the book came out this month.  Go read it - it's really good!

At this time of year, I read lots of lists of what was good and what wasn't, and I've also noticed articles on how to get in the reading habit.  While there are many good habits I need to cultivate, I am so very thankful that reading is firmly part of my life, no effort required.  I can't imagine living without a book or two or more in process, and I'm privileged to have a job where I can share books with others (some eager, some reluctant). 

What did you read in 2017?  What should I add to my list for the new year?  

This post is linked to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon for December 30th, 2017.  People are sharing their reading lists for the year.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Poetry Friday: Islands

I got a book of Derek Walcott's poetry for Christmas from my daughter, and here's one of the first ones I read:

(for Margaret)

Merely to name them is the prose
Of diarists, to make you a name
For readers who like travellers praise
Their beds and beaches as the same;
But islands can only exist
If we have loved in them.  I seek,
As climate seeks its style, to write
Verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight,
Cold as the curled wave, ordinary
As a tumbler of island water;
Yet, like a diarist, thereafter
I savor their salt-haunted rooms
(Your body stirring the creased sea
Of crumpled sheets), whose mirrors lose
Our huddled, sleeping images,
Like words which love had hoped to use
Erased with the surf's pages.

So, like a diarist in sand,
I mark the peace with which you graced
Particular islands, descending
A narrow stair to light the lamps
Against the night surf's noises, shielding
A leaping mantle with one hand,
Or simply scaling fish for supper,
Onions, jack-fish, bread, red snapper;
And on each kiss the harsh sea-taste,
And how by moonlight you were made
To study most the surf's unyielding
Patience though it seems a waste.

Derek Walcott

I've been an island-dweller myself for more than twenty years now, and I have definitely loved in this beautiful island of Haiti.  I'm looking forward to reading more of Walcott's "verse crisp as sand, clear as sunlight, cold as the curled wave, ordinary as a tumbler of island water," and as a wannabe poet myself, those are some good goals for the new year.  

 Heidi has today's roundup.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Poetry Friday: First Day of Vacation

First Day of Vacation

I finish turning in my grades
and look up,
amazed to find the world still going on around me.

I haven’t put away laundry for weeks,
and the piles of clutter have taken over.
I’ve forgotten what the faces of my life look like,
but there they all are,
smiling hopefully
and seeking my attention.

I’ve been too busy evaluating to live,
too busy assessing to appreciate,
too busy wielding my multicolored pens (not all red)
to let color seep into my soul.

Today I will observe
with no rubric in hand,
I will listen
with no agenda,
I will read
without judging,
and just because I want to.

Today I will rest
and ignore schedules
and eat when I please.

Today I won’t teach anyone anything,
except, possibly, myself.


I took this photo at Wynne Farm, Kenscoff, Haiti, last month.  

Here's today's roundup.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Reading Update

Book #84 of 2017 was a reread, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, by Lauren Winner.  I read it for the first time last year, and it is such an honest book, and such a relatable one.

Book 85 was Anne Bogel's Reading People: How Seeing the World through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything.  This was very interesting, and at some point I will go back to it and delve in more deeply.  It gives an introduction to several of the best-known frameworks for identifying personality types, like the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and Love Languages.  I love Anne Bogel's podcast, What Should I Read Next?, and her blog, Modern Mrs. Darcy.  On the podcast, she has an amazing ability to cut to the essentials of people's reading tastes after just a few minutes of conversation.  The other week, she did a live event where she recommended books based on even less contact.  Some of that incisive understanding is on display in this book, as well.

Book 86 was The Actor and the Housewife, by Shannon Hale.  There are very few books which examine a long, platonic friendship between a man and a woman.  Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings (briefly reviewed here) is one, and there are hardly any others that I know of.  While I didn't necessarily believe all the details of this book, I very much believed the essentials of the friendship, and I loved reading about it.  I find Hale's books uneven; some I enjoy, and some I can hardly finish.  This one was lovely and surprisingly touching.

Book 87 was Behold the Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue.  This book, set in New York City in 2007 and 2008, is about a couple from Cameroon who are trying to make it by working for successful, wealthy Americans.  I liked the realism of the book and the complex, imperfect characters.  Books about immigrants are my favorite, and this one is up there with the best.

Book 88 was Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God, another Lauren Winner reread.  Winner explores metaphors for God and the way humans interact with Him.  This is a wonderful book, my favorite of Winner's.

Book 89 was English Lessons: The Crooked Path of Growing Toward Faith, by Andrea Lucado.  Yes, that Lucado; Andrea is Max's daughter.  Her voice reminds me more of Donald Miller's than Max Lucado's.  I enjoyed this book and would like to read more of her work.  The "English" of the title refers to Lucado's time studying in Oxford.

Book 90 was How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, by Rod Dreher.  Dreher combines his reading of Dante with therapy and meetings with his Orthodox priest to make sense of his life.  I could very much relate to his approach, as I often find myself and my life situations in what I'm reading.

Book 91 was The Buddha in the Attic, by Julie Otsuka.  I loved this poetic, wonderfully written story of picture brides coming from Japan in the twenty years before World War II, and the way they were caught up in the internment of Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.  I've never read anything quite like the first-person plural voice of this short and beautiful novel.

I've been reading Book 92 for a long time, and I finally finished it.  It's Isabel Allende's novel about Haiti, Island Beneath the Sea.  This was hard to read because of the subject matter, Haiti's bloody history of slavery and oppression, and also because it seemed to go on and on.  I wanted to finish it, and eventually I did.  The characters had a lot happen to them, but were surprisingly forgettable; this may be partly because I took so long to read it, and kept going weeks between sections, and partly because the details of the story are so horrific and gory that I was almost flinching as I read parts of it.  It also felt very much as though I was reading in translation, which of course I was.  I haven't read any of Allende's other books, but maybe I should try one. 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

December Vibes

I’m nearing the end of my first year-long Photo-a-Day project.  Each day in 2017 I followed prompts and posted photos online.  It’s been fun, grounding.  I’ve learned new things about photography, about the world around me, and about myself.

There are just a few photos left this year. Tomorrow’s prompt is “December Vibes,” and as I walked to work this morning, I wondered what that even means.  “Vibes,” short for “vibrations,” is a word that generally annoys me.  People write online in response to reports of illness or trouble, “Sending good vibes.”  It’s a secular alternative to prayer, an idea that if we think pleasant thoughts really hard, positive effects will follow.  I can see why that seems like the same thing as prayer, but it just isn’t. 

And December?  Obviously the intention is “festive,” and perhaps “snowy,” but as I walked down the trash-lined Port-au-Prince street on this toasty morning (the temperature was probably somewhere in the mid-eighties), on my way to finals week at school, I felt neither festive nor cold.  I didn’t have any exams today, and I wasn’t proctoring, and my daughter is home from college, so it was downright painful to force myself to get up and get to work.  As I looked at myself in the mirror before heading out, I thought how old and tired I looked: old lady face, old lady hair, old lady clothes.  December vibes were definitely grumpy.

There’s a major construction project near my house, with guys up on shaky, scary-looking wooden scaffolding working with cement, and dropping bits of it on passers-by.  I moved to the other side of the street.  Then, unbelievably, I heard kissy sounds and catcalls in Kreyol from up above, falling down on my old lady head instead of crumbs of concrete.  “Really?” I wanted to shout, incredulously, but instead I followed my usual procedure of ignoring, pretending I didn’t understand, continuing on my way. 

When I got to school, I went to the teacher work room, since exams were taking place in my classroom, where I usually work.  The air conditioning wasn’t functioning, and there are no windows in the room. The assortment of torn desk chairs fixed with duct tape appeared even more pitiful than usual.  The few teachers already there looked as though their December vibes matched my own. 

But, ah, on the table there was a gingerbread house, an annual tradition made by a fellow teacher.  Immediately I knew I’d found my December vibes.  I grabbed my camera and took some pictures.

This was no kit gingerbread house, constructed with cardboard and tasting like it.  No, this was a gingerbread house filled with character, made from dark, spicy gingerbread, tasting delicious and also nourishing.  It had a bit of a wonky shape to it - think Dr. Seuss architecture rather than modernism - and it was topped with white icing and gumdrops.  “Merry Xmas,” it read.  My colleagues had already begun to eat the roof, so I needed to feel no guilt about digging in myself, and very soon, the exam-grading teachers had made the house look as though a hurricane had passed through.  December vibes don’t include hurricanes because the season ends the last day of November, but we’re all too familiar here in Haiti with hurricanes, and earthquakes, and the idea that everything is temporary.  How much better to cause the destruction yourself, with your fingers, and eat the delectable results, than to wait for the elements, or the construction workers dropping things on your head.

December vibes include evaluating your students’ work, and realizing they learned less than you had hoped, but in some cases, more than you realized. 

December vibes bring our alumni sweeping back home after their first semester in college, or their third, or their fifth, or more.  They come in to visit, remarking on how much they miss my classroom, which if I recall correctly they didn’t love quite as much when I taught them in middle school.  At my house, we have a tradition of waiting until my own college student returns to do all the Advent rituals from the first two and a half weeks of the month.  How we missed those kids, and how thrilled we are to have them home! 

December vibes stir up memories from Christmases past, friends and family, moments lost and never to be repeated.  There’s a definite touch of melancholy in December vibes.

But December vibes are also scrumptious, filled with the strains of Handel’s Messiah, the anticipation of beach trips coming up soon, the careful setting out of the coconut shell Nativity scene - and the sweet, spicy taste of gingerbread. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Poetry Friday: Warm at Christmas

I found this poem one year when looking for Christmas poems about warm places.  You'd think there would be a lot more of them, and maybe they are, just in languages I can't read.  Do any southern hemisphere Poetry Friday people have any other poems in this vein to share?  My students just can't relate to cold weather imagery the way they can to beach-going at this time of year.  

I don't mean to gloat (OK, maybe I do, a little), but the weather is so lovely here right now.  The perfect time to live in the Caribbean - hurricane season is over, and it's in the eighties every day.  Come see us!  (My daughter will be coming home soon from her college in the frozen north, and I just can't wait.)

Carol for a New Zealand Child

Christmas in the picture book
Gold and white with snow,
Winter in the desert
Where the three Kings go.
Ice on the camel-rein,
Rime on the crown,
Snow round the stable doors
Of Bethlehem town.

I carol Baby Jesus
On a nor-west day,
A summer wind is blowing
Across the beach and bay.
Sea gulls whir where
Children run to swim
Laughter in the breakers
Their Christmas hymn.

Dorothy Neal White

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Poetry Friday: Sonnet 65

Sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o’er-sways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O, how shall summer’s honey breath hold out
Against the wreckful siege of battering days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall time’s best jewel from time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

William Shakespeare

My favorite part in this Shakespeare sonnet is the third and fourth lines, "How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea, Whose action is no stronger than a flower?"  Everything falls to time, even strong and mighty things like brass, stone, earth, sea, rocks, steel.  How can beauty survive?  And yet it does.  It's amazing how strong beauty is, really, especially when you consider that its action is no stronger than a flower.  Four hundred years later, Shakespeare's love still shines bright "in black ink." 

These have been some pretty "battering days" recently, and I am so grateful for the beauty around me and for its power to make everything better.

Here's this week's roundup.

Monday, December 04, 2017


I wrote this poem a few weeks ago, exploring metaphors for Communion, that ritual central to the Christian faith.  The "you" in the poem is my husband, and the conversation at the beginning really happened.  I was amused at the juxtaposition of the sacred feast with the banal travel mug.  Then I started thinking further about all that Communion does and is.  "Dan" is a doctor friend of ours who helped my husband out a few years ago during a health emergency here in Haiti that ended up in surgery.

I'm posting this today to go along with the Advent Photo-a-Day prompt "Presence."  One of the ways I experience God's presence week after week is by taking communion with my church family, passing the bread and wine around our circle, saying to one another, "The body of Christ, broken for you."  "The blood of Christ, shed for you."  I'm no theologian; people much smarter than I am have argued for centuries about exactly what the Eucharist means and doesn't mean.  This poem attempts to put into words some of what it means to me. 


I laughed at you
that Sunday morning
for transporting the communion wine
across Port-au-Prince
for our service
not in a chalice or grail,
but in a travel mug

As though it were coffee to wake us
(Which I suppose in a way it is)
Or cocoa to comfort us
(Which I suppose in a way it is)
Or soda to refresh us
(Which, again, it is).

Perhaps an IV bag would be a better choice.
Remember that time Dan drove you to get another scan
Before your gall bladder surgery
And the way he held the bag up over his head
as he helped you to the car,
and then how he rigged it to hang from the handle above your window
and then drove you carefully,
swerving and avoiding potholes,
to the place where the machine wasn’t broken?
Glucose solution to keep you going,
Carried by a friend.

What’s really in that mug, you know, is blood,
Blood given freely,
Blood to transfuse us,
To pump the life back into us
When we lie near death.

And since there are many who need

And who aren’t
right here
right now

A travel mug
(or a whole fleet of travel mugs)
will do nicely.

Ruth, from

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Poetry Friday: Any Morning

I love this poem for its ordinariness and its straightforwardness.  I tend to overthink everything (I don't think anyone who knows me would argue with that), and sometimes it's good to be reminded of what is good in the world, and to focus on that before facing the newsfeed.  I've been home sick for the last two days, and tomorrow (Friday; I'm typing this Thursday night) I'll go back to work, although I suspect I'm not quite ready.  At least my voice is mostly back, due to resting it for two days.  And in spite of the chaos that always awaits after two days with subs, however excellent those subs are, I'm trusting there will be "pieces of Heaven" to be collected in my classroom.  You'll find that phrase in the last stanza of the poem if you click through at the link at the end.

Any Morning
by William Stafford

Just lying on the couch and being happy.
Only humming a little, the quiet sound in the head.
Trouble is busy elsewhere at the moment, it has
so much to do in the world.

People who might judge are mostly asleep; they can’t
monitor you all the time, and sometimes they forget.
When dawn flows over the hedge you can
get up and act busy.

Here's the third (and last) stanza.

Mary Lee has this week's roundup.

Here's a morning photo I took on my walk to work one day early in November; it certainly looks as though "Trouble is busy elsewhere," doesn't it? 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Poetry Friday: Odes

Welcome to my traditional annual Poetry Friday post on odes.  Here's last year's, with links to others.  I always do odes with my eighth graders during Thanksgiving week.  This year we looked at Pablo Neruda's Ode to a Tomato, Ode to Scissors, and Ode to a Hummingbird.  We talk about the ecstatic, over-the-top quality of these poems, and we brainstorm a list of possible topics of our own.

This is last year's list - I forgot to take a picture of this year's.  There is some overlap from year to year, but also lots of quirky originality.  This year one girl said "bras," and while I'm pretty sure she was trying to be shocking, I put it on the list, because well-fitting underwear is definitely ode-worthy.

So here's one I found this year, in my copy of Five Decades: Poems 1925-1970, by Pablo Neruda (this is a bilingual edition, with facing page translations into English by Ben Belitt).  It seems appropriate for several reasons.

Ode on Ironing

Poetry is white:
it comes out of the water covered with drops,
it wrinkles and piles up in heaps.
We must spread out the whole skin of this planet,
iron the white of the ocean:
the hands go on moving,
smoothing the sanctified surfaces,
bringing all things to pass.
Hands fashion each day of the world,
fire is wedded to steel,
the linens, the canvas, coarse cottons, emerge
from the wars of the washerwomen;
a dove is born from the light
and chastity rearises from the foam.

This year I am thankful for many things, but one of the greatest is writing: writing that I do, and writing that I read.  I'm thankful for novels and poetry; for thank-you notes; for my students' writing prompts, sitting in a heap on my floor waiting for me to grade them (OK, I'm not as thankful for those).  I'm thankful for my Quinquagenarian Writing Project.  I'm thankful for the way writing helps us smooth out the sanctified surfaces, figure out our lives, make the miserable parts bearable and the beautiful parts longer-lasting.  Anne Lamott writes, "My gratitude for good writing is unbounded; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean. Aren't you?"  Yes, I really am.  

I'm looking forward to reading posts from this week's roundup, hosted by Carol at her corner.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Poetry Friday: George Hitchcock Paints Mary

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

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

George Hitchcock Paints Mary

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

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

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

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

Ruth, from

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

QWP Update

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Reading Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Poetry Friday: Of Teaching and Growth and Tomatoes

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“The tomatoes are doing well.”
Glory hallelujah!

Ruth, from

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

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

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Going to Church

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

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

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

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

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

There I am, reflected in a giant mud puddle.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I'm glad we went to church today. 

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Poetry Friday: Insomniac's Lullaby

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

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

Insomniac's Lullaby

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

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

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

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

The wonderful Linda has this week's roundup.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

It's November

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

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

More Earthquake Stories

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Poetry Friday: Alone for a Week

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

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

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

Brenda has the roundup today.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Poetry Friday: Advice to Odysseus

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

Advice to Odysseus, on Grief

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

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

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

Ruth, from

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

Odysseus (source:

The Poetry Friday roundup is here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

QWP Update

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Poetry Friday: Impossible Friendships

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

Impossible Friendships
by Adam Zagajewski

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

Or long walks beside a stream,
whose depths hold hidden

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

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

Here's the rest of the poem.

And here's mine:


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

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

The usual.

And when I awoke,
Even the dream was gone.

Ruth, from

Irene has the roundup today.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

Poetry Friday: 'Tis Loneliness That Loves Me Best

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

by Willa Cather

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 02, 2017

Reading Update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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