Wednesday, February 28, 2018

What I Learned in February

I wrote about some things I learned in January, and I decided to try that kind of post again this month.  I made a very short list, but then February is short.

Back at the beginning of the month, I learned about the Red Rule of photography.  I post a photo every day on Facebook using prompts that come from CY365, and the prompt for February 2nd was "The Red Rule."  When I looked it up, I learned that the rule is "Every time you see something red, take a picture of it."  I took lots of photos of red things and enjoyed the way the color pops every time it appears.

I learned about a podcast that is not at all new.  It is called ArtCurious, and so far I've found every episode completely fascinating.

I learned, not for the first time, that you can't possibly over-communicate in seventh grade.  Have you told your students several times a day for three weeks about an assignment?  Are you getting tired of hearing yourself talk about it?  It doesn't matter.  Say it again.  I guarantee you that someone in the room will be hearing about the assignment for the first time.

I learned that The Courage to Teach, by Parker Palmer, really is a wonderful book to discuss with a group of intelligent friends.  I thought it would be when I first read it, but I hadn't had the opportunity to be in a discussion group about it until now.  Back in November, I heard Gretchen Rubin recommend on her podcast to "schedule some daily transcendence."  It's sort of a secular way of saying what those of us who grew up evangelical were taught as "have your quiet time."  This book falls in that same transcendent category.  Palmer encourages a kind of reflectiveness that teachers often don't have time for, as we run about dealing with the immediate chaos that faces us.  It's so rewarding to look deeper and talk about the process.

At the end of the month, I had a big birthday, and learned some of what my friends think about me.  Since I was turning fifty, some people made a list of fifty things they like about me.  I'm still floating on the good feelings of this gift.  I highly recommend telling people what you like about them, and getting them to do the same for you. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Poetry Friday: Keats

Sonnet X

To one who has been long in city pent,
  ’Tis very sweet to look into the fair
  And open face of heaven,—to breathe a prayer
Full in the smile of the blue firmament.
Who is more happy, when, with hearts content,
  Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair
  Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair
And gentle tale of love and languishment?
Returning home at evening, with an ear
  Catching the notes of Philomel,—an eye
Watching the sailing cloudlet’s bright career,
  He mourns that day so soon has glided by:
E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear
  That falls through the clear ether silently.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Poetry Friday: Stability

I have several things to share with you this week for Poetry Friday.

First, I get a daily poem email from (you can sign up for it on the website), and yesterday's was "Scaffolding," by Seamus Heaney.  To me, this poem speaks to long-term relationships, whether marriage or friendship or family ties, and the way we learn over time that we can count on certain people.  The many hours and years that have gone into wall-building, the stories that have gone into our history, have produced a fine and lovely building.

Secondly, last week I received a postcard from Tabatha, and I'm posting a photo of the front and one of the back, with the poem she chose for me.  This one, too, seems to speak to history and stability, a happiness beyond flightiness.  Thank you, Tabatha, for this perfect choice.

I'm going to be turning fifty soon, and I've been in a reflective mood about this large number, and about my life so far, what I have lost and what I have kept, what lasts and what doesn't.  Both of these poems are appropriate for this mood. 

Seamus Heaney

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that plans won't slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job's done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear.  We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

I also posted a couple of original poems this week: Metaphor for Valentine's Day, and Ashes for Ash Wednesday.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Reading Update

Book #14 of 2018 was Henri Nouwen's Life of the Beloved and book #17 was Jonathan Martin's How to Survive a Shipwreck.  I wrote here in this post from 2016 about how I reread both of these books frequently.  I don't add them to my total every time I reread, but this is the first time this year for both, so here they are.

Book #15 was Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin.  While I didn't love this quite as much as some of her other books, I did appreciate the full-circle quality of it and the reminder that the villains in our lives are often just people whose full stories we do not yet know.

Book #16 was The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis.  My friend Marilyn Gardner blogged the other day about what good Lenten reading this book is.  It struck me that she was right, and also that it had been a very long time since I had read any of the Chronicles of Narnia.  I used to read them all through once a year.  I see that since I started this blog, I haven't done that.  I went to my daughter's room to look for a copy, and couldn't find one.  By the time I was done searching, I had located five of the seven books (and two copies of one of them) and put them all together on the shelf, but no Last Battle.  Oh well.  I was pretty sure I had it in my classroom, and sure enough, the next morning I found it.  Marilyn was right: this is perfect Lenten reading.  I have a student who is reading Pride and Prejudice, and I told her I was envious of her, reading it for the first time.  This was clearly not the first time I read this book.  It was not the tenth time.  It's possible it was the twentieth, but likely I have read it even more than that.  It's an old friend.  "This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.  The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this."
Book #18 was Plainsong, by Kent Haruf.  I enjoyed it, and now I have to find the second book in the trilogy.  The library, from which I downloaded the first one, has the third one but not the second. 

This post is linked to the February Quick Lit roundup at Modern Mrs. Darcy.


There's been a photo in the news today of a woman at the high school where the school shooting yesterday took place.  Among the other photos it caught my attention because she's been to church for Ash Wednesday; she has a cross drawn on her forehead with ashes. 

Here's the poem I wrote yesterday after getting home from church.  We were reminded that we are dust.  We didn't need a gunman to remind us again.


I’m here for the ashes.
I’m here for the dust,
for remembering that that is what I am,
and that that is where I will return.

I’m here for the ashes,
the remains of what I loved,
the palms from last year,
and carefully preserved,
precious dust.
Those palms mattered
too much to toss their remains away.
They became today’s ashes.
And that’s why I’m here.

I’m here for the ashes,
for the reminder that though my flesh is solid now,
it will die.
The smudge on my forehead
will wash away,
but I will still be mortal,
headed for my expiration date.

I’m here for the ashes,
so smear them on me,
whispering as you do,
remember that you are dust.”
Precious dust,
but dust nonetheless,
a temple filled with the Holy Spirit
that one day will fall

I’ll leave with the ashes,
and through my day I’ll see others
with dusty marks on their faces,
as they too have been reminded
of what they are.
Beautiful and impermanent,
valuable and temporary,
needing to be
swept up
with a broom.

There are other places to get
roses and accolades,
work and fulfillment,
conversation and snacks,
but this is the only place I know
where they are imposing ashes today
that’s why I’m here.
For the ashes.

Ruth, from

Wednesday, February 14, 2018


When I ask my students to make metaphors
they take to it right away.

A metaphor for love?
They have an idea!

“Love is a rose,”
one tells me,
“Because it’s beautiful,
and it smells nice,
but it has thorns,
and it rots.”

Yes, I tell them.
That is a perfect
which is why writers
have been using it
for centuries.

On Valentine’s Day
they buy each other roses,
and there is an intoxicating aroma,
and petals on the floor in the hallways
in an array of pinks and reds,
and some people carry bouquets
and other people cry,

and who cares whether the metaphor isn’t original?

You’re right,
I tell them.
I tell them,
love is a rose.

Ruth, from

Friday, February 09, 2018

Poetry Friday: Two Love Poems

We have all of next week off of school for Carnival (Valentine's Day falls on Ash Wednesday this year), so Poetry Friday is our designated Valentine Substitute Day.  (That's just my name for it, not the official term.)  I am writing this on Thursday evening, but I have experienced enough Valentine's Days in middle school to know exactly how it will go.  It's a dress-down day, with everyone wearing red and pink (our kids normally wear uniforms).  Seniors will be delivering roses.  Candy will be in evidence.  Each of those sentences represents an additional layer of wild, added on to kids who haven't really calmed down from Christmas break yet.  There will be twitterpation, and the Festival of Sugar and Hormones will take place in all its glory.  There will be giggling, and probably some tears.  I will take my annual photos of discarded rose petals on the stairs.  (The photos in this post are the ones I took on February 14th, 2014.)

But it will be OK.  It's the last day before a week off, after all, and we will survive.  And I like celebrating love, so I will work on being patient.

Are you familiar with the concept of Love Languages?  You can learn more about it here, but basically the idea is that everyone experiences love differently, and if you know someone's love language, you can know the best way to help that person know that he or she is loved.  The languages are gifts, quality time, acts of service, words of affirmation, and physical touch.

I tend to mock this idea a little bit because what I have noticed is that usually when I hear women (and it's usually women) talking about love languages, it is because they are complaining that their significant others are messing up.  "My love language is acts of service, but he keeps giving me flowers!" these women will say.  I always feel that if someone's trying to love you, you should notice that part and give credit, even for an imperfect attempt.


It's obvious to anyone who knows me even slightly that my love language is words of affirmation, even though I like all of them, and my husband is very welcome to show me love in all those ways.  But my love language is language.  In any relationship, romantic or otherwise, I like to talk and talk and talk, or write and write and write.  I like feelings to be expressed in words. 

On Wednesday this week, a poem popped into my chat window from my husband.  Not just any poem, but a love poem he had written himself.  I amused myself mightily by how I responded.  My heart raced.  Tears came to my eyes.  People, I've been married almost 29 years.

So here's the poem, posted with his permission.

The Games You Play

My love. I like the games you play.
Washing the Mah Jong tiles,
Building the wall, insisting
On proper protocol.

The mid-game break to brew some tea.
The thoughtful look, deciding whether to
Discard a West Wind, a Dragon, or a lowly bamboo.

And that thoughtful look takes me back
To many of your other looks,
Of wonder, anger, pleasure, pain and joy,
Looks that have, variously,
Thrilled me, frustrated me, confused me, annoyed me
And captured my heart.

Looks that make me want to hold you
And make you smile.

Steve, husband of Ruth, from

I wrote a poem recently about another kind of love, my love for my children.  I had been texting with a new friend (recently married to an old friend), and my poem was partly about our conversation, so after I finished it, I sent it to her, and she reacted in the perfect way that she does, being both an English teacher herself and a very nice person.  She wrote and told me that my poem had brought tears to her eyes.

I shared the poem with my writing group this week, and after I had read it aloud, I sighed and told them that I had shared it with my friend, and that it made me so happy to communicate with someone who is dear to me, expressing what I meant to say.  I said, "I really like this poem," and one of the other members of the group replied, "Yes, I can see why you would.  It's a very Ruth poem."  I laughed later on as I realized she didn't say she liked it; you could take her words in several ways.  But anyway.  I like it, and here it is:

Flying Away

A friend and I text about our children who are traveling.
Her son is delayed somewhere between home and Paris,
and my daughter missed her train in Chicago
between the airport and her dorm room.
We are thousands of miles from our children,
and fifteen hundred miles from each other,
but our love and concern fly through the atmosphere
faster than airplanes.

My son who still lives at home
wakes up taller than when he went to bed
and when I smile at him now I have to look up just a little.
I heard that astronauts grow while they’re in space,
because when there’s no gravity,
their vertebrae expand and relax.
Maybe as he sleeps, the same thing happens to him;
but whatever the explanation,
soon he will fly away too;
oh, not to the moon, but far,
far beyond my reach.

We end our text conversation,
confessing that we are likely to be asleep before
our children reach their destinations.
“We can pray for our kids before we go to sleep,”
she types with her thumbs,
and we both do,
we both send our prayers
flying after them,
through the atmosphere,
through space,
through eternity,
through the night;

letting our vertebrae relax,
and our spines grow,
as these children who grew inside us
fly away.


I'm thankful for love, and for words to express it in, and for people who send me words of love and receive my words in return, with grace and kindness.  I'm thankful for the chance to share beautiful words with middle schoolers who are learning how to express the big feelings they have.  I'm thankful for my writing group and for Poetry Friday, giving me opportunities to share my words with people who appreciate them.  I'm even thankful for the chaos that today will bring as we celebrate Valentine's Day.

Today's roundup is here. (Poetry Friday friends, somehow the combination of Australia and Haiti isn't working so well, and I can't get to the roundup site either to put my link there or to come visit your links.  I'll keep trying!  Meanwhile, I've asked someone to put my link up on the roundup.)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Reading Update

Book #8 of the year was The Beautiful Mystery, by Louise Penny.  This is the eighth in the Inspector Gamache series, and my favorite so far. 

Book #9 was the bizarre but brilliant Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.  The Bardo is a Tibetan concept, the idea that souls linger between life and death and that there's some kind of choice involved in whether to move on or not (I actually could not articulate the choice more than that, because I'm a little unclear about it).  Willie Lincoln, the son of Abraham Lincoln, is the latest famous guest in the Bardo, having died of typhoid, but there are many other colorful souls to be met there as well.  It's difficult to summarize exactly what goes on in the book, but I can promise you that you've never read anything quite like it.  The best parts are beautiful and life-affirming.  Here's a sample:

"The way a moistness in the eye will blur a field of stars; the sore place on the shoulder a resting toboggan makes; writing one's beloved's name upon a frosted window with a gloved finger.

Tying a shoe; tying a knot on a package; a mouth on yours; a hand on yours; the ending of the day; the beginning of the day; the feeling that there will always be a day ahead.

Goodbye, I must now say goodbye to all of it."

Book #10 was Intérieurs d'Haïti, by Roberto Stephenson and Marie-Louise Fouchard.  I mentioned in an earlier Reading Update post this year that I wanted to read through some of the art and photography books on my shelves, since doing that makes me happy.  This one has an essay by Frankétienne, a revered Haitian poet, in English and French.  This is followed by a hundred panoramic photographs of the inside of Haitian homes, from the most humble to the most ornate.  The only copies available on Amazon are extremely expensive; I'd be happy to loan you my copy if you come over to my house.

Book #11 was Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, by Brené Brown.  Apparently I'm not the only person who struggles with the issues in this book.  Good to know.  As usual, Brené Brown has written a wonderful book.

Book #12 was Emily P. Freeman's Grace for the Good Girl: Letting Go of the Try-Hard Life.  I have been listening to Freeman's new podcast, and so I could hear her voice as I read the book.  This was a good introduction to my OLW for 2018: ENOUGH.

"The job of the branch is not to make life happen, but to remain in the vine.  To remain in Christ is to stay where you already are.  No need to get up and try to find that which you already have.  Stay.  Abide.  Remain.  Believe."

Book #13 was an old classic, Nevil Shute's On the Beach.  The book opens in 1961, but it's a post-apocalyptic 1961.  We are in Australia, one of the few places left on earth where people are alive.  Soon, the entire planet will be overtaken by radiation and everyone will die.  Sounds uplifting, doesn't it?  Oddly, it is.  I first read this book many years ago, before I moved to Haiti in 1993.  At that time, Haiti was under an international fuel embargo, and I thought many times of this book as I watched people rationing fuel, since that's one of the first problems the characters face.  Later, as the embargo strengthened, and no commercial airlines were allowed to fly to Haiti, I thought more about the book because of the sense of being cut off from the outside world (in those pre-internet days).  But another aspect of Haitian life back then that reminded me of the book was the way people lived every moment, enjoying the pleasures they had available.  As I read this time, I kept thinking that this is really the human condition: unlike the people in the book, we don't know exactly when we're going to die, but we know we will, and it's up to us to decide what to do with the days we have.  I smiled as one character said to another towards the end of the book: "Don't try and analyse it....Just take it, and be thankful."  That's a bit difficult for me, since analyzing (or analysing, as the Australians in the book would spell it) is my second nature, but I'm trying to do more of just taking my life, and being thankful. 

This post is linked to the February Quick Lit roundup at Modern Mrs. Darcy.

Friday, February 02, 2018

Poetry Friday: I Can't Forget You

I read this poem with my eighth graders last week.  I got it from the Nancie Atwell anthology for middle school, Naming the World: A Year of Poems and Lessons.  It looks as though it's out of print and only available for outrageous prices, but if you teach middle schoolers and you have access to the book, you should definitely grab it.  The vast majority of the poems work well with my kids.  There are many student-written examples, and a fun variety of published poets.  Each poem comes with a page of ideas on how to approach it with your students, including Nancie's "benediction" that encourages the kids to try something out in their own writing. 

This one is one of my favorites, because it's so relatable for my students.  They know graffiti; it's ubiquitous in Port-au-Prince.  They respond well to the idea of noticing something and wondering how it came to be.  And they know what it's like to miss someone. 


spray-painted high on the overpass,
each letter a good foot long,
and I try to picture the writer
hanging from a rope
between midnight and dawn,
the weight of his love swaying,
making a trembling
N and G, his mind at work
with the apostrophe -
the grammar of loss -
and his resistance to hyperbole,
no exclamation point but a period at the end
that shows a heart not given
to exaggeration,
a heart that's direct with a no-
fooling around approach,
and I wonder if he tested the rope
before tying it to the only tree I can see
that would bear his weight,
or if he didn't care about the free-
fall of thirty or more feet
as he locked his wrist to form such
straight T's,
and still managed, dangling, to flex
for the C and G,
knowing as he did, I'm sure,
the lover would ride this way each day
until she found a way around,
a winding back road with trees
and roadside
tiger lilies, maybe a stream, a
white house, white fence
a dog in the yard
from this black-letter, open-book,
in-your-face missing
that the rain or Turnpike road crew
will soon enough wash off.

Len Roberts
Here's the Poetry Foundation link to the poem.

Such amazing details!  I especially love the apostrophe, and the lack of an exclamation point.  And that phrase: "the grammar of loss."  Someone should write a novel with that title.

And while I'm waiting for someone to do that, here's very much a first draft of a poem playing with the idea.

The Grammar of Loss

is in the perfect tense,
of course,
because the past was perfect,

and there are
on the names
because it’s all about

or used to belong,

in the past,

instead of this moment
it's over,

this present tense moment

you lost

is absent,

a misplaced modifier,
a split infinitive,
an interrogative,

from a dependent clause,

a subject and verb
no longer agreeing,

a fragment.


By the way, speaking of fragments, if anyone is keeping track of my Quinquagenarian Writing Project (#QWP), in which I attempt to write 50 first drafts between last July and my February birthday in a couple of weeks, when I'll become a quinquagenarian, I'm up to 44 first drafts.  So, yay me! 

Donna (who's doing a lot of hosting lately) has today's roundup.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Spiritual Journey Thursday - The Moon

     "I have been given the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.  When I go out on my porch at night, the moon never looks the same way twice.  Some nights it is as round and bright as a headlight; other nights it is thinner than the sickle hanging in my garage.  Some nights it is high in the sky, and other nights low over the mountains.  Some nights it is altogether gone, leaving a vast web of stars that are brighter in its absence.  All in all, the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.
     After I stopped thinking that all these fluctuations meant that something was wrong with me, a great curiosity opened up: what would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it?  What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?"
from Learning to Walk in the Dark, by Barbara Brown Taylor

Today's hostess of Spiritual Journey Thursday, Donna, has asked us to write about the moon.  I immediately turned to Barbara Brown Taylor, and her beautiful book on darkness.  I have often felt, as Robert Frost put it, "acquainted with the night," and Taylor's book helps me work through some of those thoughts.

Here she is again:

"If Christians look to creation for wisdom about the spiritual life, seeking resurrection in springtime, divine promise in a rainbow, or the flight of the Spirit in a dove, why don't we look to the moon for wisdom about our relationship to God?  Sometimes the light is coming, and sometimes it is going.  Sometimes the moon is full, and sometimes it is nowhere to be found.  There is nothing capricious about this variety since it happens on a regular basis.  Is it dark out tonight?  Fear not; it will not be dark forever.  Is it bright out tonight?  Enjoy it; it will not be bright forever."

It was bright out tonight, as the super-duper Blue Blood Supermoon came up.  I tried and failed to take decent photos of it.  But at least I saw it, and it was so beautiful, and turned my mind up to a higher plane than the one it had been occupying.

On a slightly less spiritual note, I wrote the following golden shovel poem/prayer back in November.  (See, it is spiritual - it's a prayer!)  A golden shovel poem takes a quote (in this case, a line from Paul Simon's song Insomniac's Lullaby) and ends each line with a word from the quote.

Insomniac’s Lullaby

Awake in the middle of the night and oh
I wish you’d let me sleep, Lord!
Here comes slithering every mess I ever made (don’t
Surround me with your tentacles, keep

Your slimy horrors away from me!).
Nobody else in the whole world is up
Except for me, and now I have to face it all:
All my mistakes, all my losses, the darkness of night,

They all approach me, side by side.
Till morning, I’ll be in deep conversation with
Everyone who’s ever abandoned me, the
Whole sorry scene lit bright by the silvery moon.
Oh Lord, don’t keep me up all night
Side by side with the moon


(I posted about this song before here, including a YouTube video where you can listen to it.) 

Here's the Spiritual Journey Thursday roundup.