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.