Wednesday, January 31, 2018

What I Learned in January

Several of my favorite bloggers post regularly - monthly or quarterly - about what they have learned.  I thought, at the beginning of this year, "What a good idea.  Let me write about my learning, too!"

I started a list.

In church we have been studying the book of Leviticus, and discussing the sacrificial system in the Old Testament.  I admit I was not initially thrilled by this choice, but I have been learning every week from the conversations around our Table.

For some reason, I put the word mordicus on my list; this is a French adverb meaning "with an opinionated firmness."  I'm sure I learned other words this month, but that is the only one I carefully wrote down under the heading "What I Learned in January."

I learned about Oprah Winfrey and her TV career this month by listening to the interesting podcast series "Making Oprah."

I learned that in this season of my life, it works better for me to exercise first thing in the morning, right after I wake up.  I had been working out right after getting home in the afternoon, but that hasn't been happening for a while (I'm embarrassed to say how long).  This month my workout calendar filled up, and there are many more days I did exercise than days I didn't.  I will never be an athlete, but this is progress.  I feel so much better when I'm exercising regularly; I know this, and yet I fall off my routine again and again.  This new routine has worked well in another way, too; I have been listening to uplifting podcasts instead of what I was doing before, which involved a fair amount of brooding over the world and its current condition, and all the things I can find to be sad about.

I learned what the President of the United States allegedly thinks of this country, Haiti, where I have lived for more than twenty years, where my children were born.  Worse, I learned that many Americans agree with the words, whether he actually said them or not.

An eighth grader's quiz, where she announces her intention to interview the President of Haiti about what the President of the United States allegedly said.

After that my list ends.  That's not because I didn't learn anything else, but because I did, and because I started to get discouraged that I need to keep learning the same lessons again and again.  In January, I learned how clumsy I can be about people and relationships.  I learned that emotionally I am a little too much like my thirteen and fourteen year old students and not enough like the staid, sensible middle-aged woman with everything figured out that I am supposed to be.  I learned that people leave, and it hurts.  It just hurts to love people, period.

I already knew all these things.

Other people post helpful advice, apps that will organize your life, wise thoughts.  Maybe in February I can learn some of that.  We'll see.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Poetry Friday: Not Enough, Too Much, Just Right, and Happy News At the End

I wrote this poem several years ago, but it came to mind as I was thinking about my OLW for 2018, ENOUGH.  During the course of this challenging week, I have had plenty of moments that would fit into the first two stanzas: Not Enough and Too Much.  There aren't that many moments I can identify that would belong in the third.  Can I consider myself Just Right if I showed up and did my best?  Can I ever let that be ENOUGH?  Working on it...

I shared this poem with my writing group this week, and someone said it felt "crowded."  I can see that, and I even agree with it, but this is one of those times when I feel as though what I wrote completely expressed what I meant to say.  It would probably benefit from some editing, but I like it the way it is.   Maybe I'll come back and work on it some more later, but for now, I'm going to call it Just Right.

Not Enough, Too Much, Just Right

Often I am Not Enough.
Not patient enough or pretty enough,
Seeking constant reassurance
From the mirror of other people's eyes:
Do you love me?  Huh?  Do you?
Not knowing what to say
Or which fork to use,
Wearing jeans to the ball,
Not hip or cool enough,
Missing the point, holding back
Until the moment is past.

More often I am Too Much.
Too many words
Escaping even though I clamp my lips shut,
Hips too big, feet too clumsy,
Clomping around stepping on toes.
I call and text and email all day long:
I love you I love you I love you!
Too much laughter and too many tears,
Too much messy overgrown emotion,
A jungle that overwhelms any explorer.

But sometimes, ah, sometimes
I am Just Right.
Giver of a moment of complete satisfaction,
Purveyor of breastmilk at just the right temperature
To soothe a fretful baby.
I say the right thing sometimes
And understand exactly:
That's just what I meant!  How did you know?
I love and am loved with perfect equilibrium.
I'm an earthly angel, having a good hair day,
I am Baby Bear's porridge:
Just Right.


By the way, a happy thing, extremely welcome in this aforementioned challenging week, happened yesterday.  I got an email letting me know that one of my poems is going to be in an anthology.  This is the first time for me, and it feels very good.

This week's roundup is here.

Monday, January 22, 2018

QWP Update

Since my last update on my Quinquagenarian Writing Project, in which I'm attempting to write 50 first drafts before my 50th birthday, I have made quite a bit of progress.  I'm now up to 40, with about five weeks left. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Reading Update

Book #3 of 2018 was Patched Together: A Story of My Story, by Brennan Manning.  Few people have expressed God's grace like Manning.  As someone who needs God's grace every single day, I appreciate his words.

Book #4 was Caribbean Style, by Suzanne Slesin and Stafford Cliff.  I decided that this year I want to take some time to read through the text of the beautiful art and photography books I have on my shelves.  It makes me happy to look at the gorgeous photos in this one, and I would imagine that if you live somewhere cold and snowy, this book could provide some helpful therapy.  Published in 1985, it is out of print, but it looks as though you can get an inexpensive copy on Amazon.

Book #5 was Stoner, by John Williams.  I checked this out of the library after reading about it in a list of books every teacher should read.  I do appreciate books that explore how it feels to teach, the kind of inner battles that it's possible to fight when you have a student who makes your life difficult or a colleague who's using subtle power games that would sound ridiculous if you described them out loud to someone else.  (Another book that mines some of this territory is Teacher Man, by Frank McCourt, which I reviewed briefly here.)  In the case of this university professor, there's another person making his life miserable, and that is his wife.  A plot summary would sound despairing, but I found this book surprisingly uplifting in its portrayal of a man whose life is lived mostly in his own brain.

Book #6 was Kent Haruf's Our Souls at Night. I loved this poignant story about how desperately we all need love and connection.

Book #7 was Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, by Beck Weathers.  For some reason I have read several books about Everest in the last few years.  I think it began when I read Peak for the first time with my seventh graders.  I have no desire whatsoever to climb enormous mountains, and I get out of breath just reading about what it's like.  Beck Weathers was part of the expedition Jon Krakauer wrote about in Into Thin Air.  (I read it in 2016.)  He was, as the title tells us, "left for dead."  Somehow he managed to survive, though much damaged by his experience. This book is about his recovery, including the recovery of his marriage, which had suffered from his obsession with climbing mountains.  We hear from Beck himself, his wife Peach, their two children, and several of their friends.  There is no sugar-coating of the messiness of the situation.  I was especially fascinated by the connections between Beck's depression and his mountain-climbing.  He found that climbing eased the emotional pain he felt much of the time, and he kept pushing himself more and more as his depression worsened, even as he saw how he was destroying his family.

Human beings are mysterious creatures, aren't they?  I think that's the theme of this set of books, except maybe the one full of Caribbean photos.  I guess I needed that one to recover from the intensity in all the others. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

January: The Dead Season

I remember that when I first moved here, my Kreyol teacher told me that Haitians call January the dead season.  The festivities of Christmas and Independence Day (January 1st) are over, it's the middle of the dry season, and it's cold (well, what passes for cold in the Caribbean).

I find the weather this time of year pretty nearly perfect, and there's certainly no Seasonal Affective Disorder to worry about, because the sun is shining brightly every day.  But January is rough, anyway, for a couple of reasons. 
Photo from my walk this morning - look at that sky!

First, January 12th, 2010, was the date of the earthquake.  That's what we call it, the earthquake, as though there's only ever been one.  Or, in Kreyol, goudou goudou, after the sound it made when all the concrete buildings shook and many of them fell down.  On the first day of January, we eat pumpkin soup, the traditional New Year's dish, and that's great, and then soon enough we go back to work and spend the next few days gearing up for the anniversary, which, even eight years later, is so overwhelming and sad.  Even after the day itself is past, we remember the days that followed that one, days of aftershocks and fear.

(This year, there was the additional joy of hearing nasty things said about Haiti, again and again.  Did he say it or not?  It almost doesn't even matter, because whether he did or not, we had to keep hearing about it, and I had occasion to tell my middle schoolers that we don't use that kind of language in my classroom, even if it is on the news.)

The second reason January is rough is that at work we have to declare our intentions for next year; are we coming back or should they advertise our jobs?  So this is the time when we start learning which of our friends are leaving.  One of my best friends of many years moved away without warning in the summer, due to her husband's health issues.  Now, more will go.  This makes me sad every year.  And again this year.

It's tempting to say, "That's it, I'm not ever making any friends again; instead I will go live in a cave and have no further interaction with human beings, thus sparing myself heartache in future."  Instead of doing that (which seems like a really good idea to me), I am attempting to continue being nice to people in the hopes that some of them might not move away.  Losing people is hard, and it doesn't get any easier as I get older; it gets harder and I seem to recover from it more slowly.

Welcome to the dead season.  At least the weather is perfect!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Poetry Friday: Finding Poems for my Students

I was thinking about this poem this week; I reviewed the book it appears in, E-Mails from Scheherazad, here.  I highly recommend this book for its wonderful poems by Mohja Kahf on being an Arab American.  This poem is just about being a teacher, and I relate to it so completely.  Maybe some of my teacher friends will, too.

Finding Poems for my Students
Mohja Kahf

O my students,
I scour the world of words
to bring you poems like the rocks
my girls dig up in riverbanks
and come running to show me
because the notches in them
say something true, something
that an ancient Wisdom
wanted us to see.

I run to you, pockets full of poems.
I select: This poem will help you pass a test.
Here is one that is no help at all,
but is beautiful; take it, take it.

O my scroungers after merely passing grades,
I bring you poems I have hiked high
and far to find, knowing
they will mostly end up like the rocks
my daughters find, tossed in drawers
with old batteries, mislaid keys,
scraps bearing the addresses
of people whose names
you no longer recognize or need.

Your current glazed-eye indifference
doesn't bother me.  One day,
when you are either cleaning house
or moving (and sooner or later
everyone must do one or the other),
you will shake the drawer and the poem
will fall out.  And may the poem be for you
the one phone number in the universe
you were looking for, and may it be
for you the mislaid key
to your greatest need.
On that day,
you will read.

How thankful I am for the poems (and other writing) my teachers (and others) have found for me, and shared with me, all through my life.  How many times they have been the mislaid keys to my greatest need!

Today's roundup is here.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Day After

I took a walk this morning, and took some photos of this beautiful place where I live.  Not everyone thinks it's beautiful, but I notice that quite a few people who don't think so have never been here.
 Broken bottles on the top of a wall, used for security.

Yesterday at lunch, a colleague who wasn't here in Haiti when the earthquake happened was asking me questions about my memories of that day.  I was surprised how emotional I felt as I answered; I have told these stories so many times by now that I would think the tears would be over, but they aren't, not completely.  She wanted to know whether the anniversary was an especially tough day, and did I think that it would be better if it were a holiday.  The answers to that are yes, and I'm not sure.  The anniversary is difficult.  At first, the twelfth of every month was difficult, but now I don't think about the earthquake all the time any more.  But should January 12th be a holiday every year the way it was for the first few?  It will never be an ordinary day to me, and it is hard to work.  I cried several times during the day.  But even being at work yesterday, I found myself sucked into social media, and getting involved in looking at everyone's photos and reading everyone's reminiscences.  If I'd stayed home all day, that would have been intensified even more.  Maybe the best way to honor those who died is to go on, to live the lives they aren't able to, to have a normal day.
Of course, on social media yesterday there was also a lot of discussion of the words allegedly spoken by the President of the United States about Haiti.  There were responses, videos, comments.  Anderson Cooper teared up as he talked about a small child who had been rescued and praised the dignity of the Haitian people; his video was widely shared by friends who live in Haiti.  Tucker Carlson said that the President was only saying what almost every American believes; nobody shared his video, but I saw a tiny clip of it in a montage I watched. 
Today, on the day after the anniversary, I feel as though 2018 is finally starting for real.  Every year we have to get through that terrible day, January 12th, before there's the clean slate feeling of New Year's Day.  I wish I hadn't let the President's words occupy my thoughts so much yesterday.  The more I think about what he allegedly said, the more I feel sorry for him.  He can't know what he doesn't know; he has not had the opportunities that I have had to know people from the countries he criticizes or to live in them (I've spent a large portion of my life in two such countries).  How much poorer his life is!  However, he is not someone whose views affect no one but himself.  He has the power to change the lives of people he despises and disrespects.  So in addition to pity, I feel deep concern and even fear about where he will lead the world.
Someone's champagne bottle on the road
The banner says, in French, "Haitian Coalition of Volunteers."

But the saddest and most dispiriting experience yesterday was reading comments from people who defended the President's words.  It hurts to find out what people really believe, deep down, and are now moved to say or type.  Whether or not they would use the President's vulgar language, there are many who would like to deny the opportunities of the United States to people who come from countries that they look down on.  They don't want foreigners coming to the US as students - the number of international students is way down this year already - and they definitely don't want them making their lives in the US.  Yesterday there were studies posted showing that immigrants have a positive impact on society rather than a negative one.  People gave their own experiences and wrote about immigrants they know or their own immigrant families.  People posted beautiful photographs of countries to which the President has given an ugly name.  Some reached back into history to point out that the riches of the US are based on the free slave labor that built the society, and to outline the ways that Haiti has interacted with the US - Haitians fought in the War for Independence, for example.  After Haiti became a nation in 1804, the US refused to recognize the new country because of fears that their own slaves would "get ideas" about emancipation.  The US is not guiltless in Haiti's poverty.  But some were able to dismiss all of this.
My word for this year is ENOUGH, and it is not easy to find the moment when I have had ENOUGH input from the news and from social media.  I want to know what is going on in the world; I want to connect with friends and share their joys and sorrows.  But I don't want to allow the President and those who think like him to occupy the limited bandwidth of my attention.  As I walked this morning I composed arguments in my head, but really, the arguments spiral out of control already.  I want to focus on the job I have to do, the kids I have to teach.  I want to show the people I interact with that Haiti is not as the President has described.  But it's not my job to convince everyone in the world that Haiti is wonderful (it is) or that Haitian people are strong, hardworking, an asset to any society (they are).  Many people don't want to be convinced, and honestly, I am sad for them. 
On this, the Day After, the 13th of January, I remember how Haitians were the day after the earthquake.  People were sleeping in the streets because they didn't trust that their houses weren't going to fall down on them.  Some had lost everything.  Many were terribly injured.  But they were helping one another.  They were digging survivors out from under buildings.  They were sharing what they had.  They were singing hymns of praise and thanking God for their survival.  Haitians have suffered much worse than having bad things said about them, and they will move on and do what needs to be done. 

Friday, January 12, 2018

Poetry Friday: My Earthquake Poems for the Eighth Anniversary

January 12th will never be an ordinary day to me.  It is the day that I learned about earthquakes. Today, on the eighth anniversary of January 12th, 2010, I want to share some of the poems I wrote in the months afterward.  For years, it seemed that everything I wrote had something to do with that awful day, whether I started out intending that or not.

One of the changes that the earthquake made in me was that I became much freer about sharing my writing.  Before it happened, I hardly ever shared my poetry.  I didn't even tell where I lived, let alone show my soul the way poetry does.  It was a huge step for me to post this poem about the Hotel Montana at the end of January, 2010, and I even said in the comments that it was scary but that I found the courage to do it because of what my friends in Haiti were doing.

I don't know what you know about Haiti.  Lately some hateful things have been said about the country and its people, but take my word for it, as someone who has lived here a large percentage of my adult life: Haiti was a beautiful country before the earthquake, and it remained a beautiful country after the earthquake.  It was full of beautiful, courageous, strong people before, and it still is.  But there was something about that "earthquake time" that was special; people came together in amazing ways to help each other and care for each other.  It was unforgettable.  I won't ever forget it, and neither will anyone else who was here and who saw it.  

These poems are about my own experiences.  I wrote about what happened in prose here and here and here, and then rehashed it again and again through the whole rest of that year.  There are many posts in my archives about the situation in Haiti and what was happening to other people, but my poems are very personal and don't reflect anybody else's views or experience. 

In April 2010, I posted Earthquake Vocabulary.

In May I posted Morning, about missing my husband while I was in the US and he was still in Haiti doing relief work.

In November I was back in Haiti, still struggling with the emotional aftermath, and I wrote Wave. Later that month I wrote Ordinary, about how much I appreciated the normal day to day aspects of my life after being away from home for so long.

In January 2013, for the third anniversary, I shared This Quilt.

In December 2013, I posted Sounds from this House. This is an example of a poem that I didn't expect to be about the quake at all when I started writing it.

In January 2014, I shared my poem about being evacuated from Haiti after the earthquake, called How to Pack an Evacuation Bag.

In March 2015 I posted Tears.  This one wasn't explicitly about the earthquake, but it's certainly one of the things I do still cry about, even now.

For last year's anniversary, I wrote Memento Mori and How Long Healing Takes in Port-au-Prince.

I've written much, much more - poetry and prose - about the quake.  Writing was one of the things that kept me sane, and continues to do so.

On Sunday we gathered with our church family and shared many stories of our memories from that time.  My husband commented that there are things you get over, and things you never do, and perhaps January 12th, 2010, falls in the second category.  While we go days or weeks now without thinking about it, it's always a part of who we are.  It changed everything.

Today's roundup is here.

Photo credit: I'm not sure who made this image, but it is widely used every year as a profile picture on Facebook.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Reading Update

Welcome to the first Reading Update of 2018!  I haven't read much yet, but here are the first two books of the year.

Book #1 of 2018 fits in well with my OLW, ENOUGH.  Living in Haiti is a constant challenge in figuring out how to care for other people, and realizing that you are never enough. You can never fix all the problems around you, no matter how hard you try. You can never fix even the problems of the people who come and specifically ask you to fix their problems. You find yourself saying "No" a lot, and even when you do say "Yes" you feel conflicted about whether you did right. Kent Annan has many wise things to say in this book, Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice, Loving Mercy, and Walking Humbly in the World.  There is no magic formula (I would mistrust it if there were), but here are some tastes from the table of contents:

Attention: Awakening to Justice
Confession: The Posture for Engaging
Respect: The Golden Rule for Helping
Partnering: With Not For
Truthing: Hard Thinking and Feet on the Ground
Practicing Faithfully Even When We're Overwhelmed

I highly recommend this book; it would make a wonderful choice for a discussion group.

Book #2 was Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey.  My daughter and I read aloud the Fagles translation to each other in the summer of 2016, and as soon as we saw this new one advertised, we knew we wanted to read this one too.  On January 1st the Kindle edition was on sale for $3.99, so we grabbed our copies and started reading. We finished the 24th book last night.  I'm sorry for you if you don't get to read it with my hilarious daughter, who also happens to be a Greek student, but you should definitely read it anyway.

This translation is fast-paced and readable.  It doesn't make any effort to preserve archaic diction; in fact, there were a few words that we found a little jarring in their modernness, like "canapés" being served at a banquet, Penelope's suitors sitting around "playing checkers," or Odysseus giving his men a "pep talk."  We loved reading it, and remembered once again that this is just a great story; there's a reason people have been reading it for so many centuries. Telemachus is a whiny adolescent who has every reason to feel grumpy.  Penelope is courageous and resourceful in spite of her terrible circumstances.  Windy, self-important, deceitful Odysseus somehow still stirs your heart.  Life is all about grief and loss, but it's also about dinner.  And how much more modern could you get than these lines:

"The worst thing humans suffer
is homelessness; we must endure this life
because of desperate hunger; we endure
as migrants with no home."

Friday, January 05, 2018

Poetry Friday: Then and Now

Back in 2011, I watched a friend care for her son during church, and then wrote the poem below.  I sent it to the friend, and she posted it on her blog, but I realized the other day when I was looking for it that I had never posted it here on my own.

It's easy to look back on lovely times in the past and wish for them back, but in the spirit of my OLW for 2018, ENOUGH, I'm also posting a more recent poem, appreciating some of the advantages of my life now.

Holding a Baby in Church

As the praise band warms up
The mom notices me ogling her baby
And asks if I'd like to hold him.
Would I!  I grab him, trying not to seem too eager,
And relish the feel of the bundle.

That sweet weight brings back
Years of Sundays
When the baby I held was my own.

In those years I lived more in my body than my head
As I carried babies all day
And nursed them at my breast.
I was indispensable,
Source of all they needed.
When we were apart
I could kiss ouchies over the phone.
I was the great and powerful Mommy.

I would stand to sing,
Relieved, because sitting down,
I was likely to go to sleep
(Another short night).
I swayed to the music, letting keeping the baby happy
Be my excuse to move.
Worship then was physical, primal,
As my tired body swayed back and forth
And as the fierce love I had for that baby
Reminded me, deeper than words,
Of the love of God for me.

This baby, who is not mine, starts to fuss
And I give him back to his mother.
I see her nurse him
And later I see them outside
And I remember that too,
Walking in the back of the sanctuary,
Pacing with a noisy child
Out of earshot,
Longing to hear the sermon.

These days I am back in my head;
I sit in the pew and nobody is in my lap or
Putting little arms around my neck.
I am clean and nobody has drooled on me.
I stand still to sing.
My shirt remains tucked in.
My children read their own Bibles
And I can hear the sermon all the way through.

As I look at the mom
Whose baby I borrowed for a moment
I wish for her life,
The aching body,
The fatigue,
The dear, ever-present weight in my arms.


Gratitude List

Praise be this evening for work ended,
the bare feet, the droning fan,
the smell of soy sauce floating upstairs from the kitchen.
Praise be the doves outside my window,
the dried eucalyptus in the bottle,
the empty mug, my tea already drunk.
Praise be the books on my shelves,
the photos of friends who smile at me benignly,
the fully-charged laptop, playing music I’ve chosen.
Praise be the lizard, scampering across the wall,
digesting bugs that will not trouble me tonight.
Praise be the quiet, the nobody needing anything,
the slight rumbling of my stomach that will soon be quelled,
the peace, and sleep not far off.


(Here's the first time I posted this one, back in April 2017, including a link to my mentor text poems, "Gratitude List," by Mary Lee Hahn, and "Gratitude List," by Laura Foley.)

Today's roundup is at Reading to the Core.

Monday, January 01, 2018

QWP Update

Last time I updated the blog on the status of my QWP was back in November, when I'd written 21 first drafts out of my goal of 50 before my fiftieth birthday in February.  (Here's my original post on my project.)  Now, with a little less than two months to go, I'm up to 31 first drafts. 

OLW 2018

In 2017, my OLW was ROOTED.  (I'll put links at the end of the post to all my One Little Words since I started this in 2009, so you can meditate on the rather pathetic fact that I have the very same issues every single year.)

I started thinking about my 2018 word about a month ago, and there was really only ever one word on my list: ENOUGH.  I want to remind myself that God's daily provision will be ENOUGH for me, without hoarding or fretting.  He will also give me what I need so that I can be ENOUGH for what the people around me need from me. 
"Pain du ciel" means "bread from the sky," and refers to the manna that fell in the wilderness in the book of Exodus.  The people were to collect it every day, and only enough for that day; if they tried to stick some extra in Tupperware for tomorrow, it would go bad.  The exception was on Friday; they were to collect two days' worth, and the manna never went bad on the Sabbath.  The provision came when they needed it, not before.

Chances are that my provision won't come from the sky; it might even come in a lopsided truck like the one in the photo.  But I know from experience that God will provide for me, and that His provision will be ENOUGH.  I don't need to worry that I'm missing out on something I should have had or that someone else's manna is a tiny bit more delicious than mine.  (Even Jesus limited Himself to one human life - and it was ENOUGH.)

2009: LOOK
2010: LOVED
2011: TRUST
2012: HEAL
2013: SHALOM
2014: GARDEN
2016: LOVED

This post is linked to Spiritual Journey First Thursday at Reflections on the Teche.