Friday, March 30, 2018

Poetry Friday, Good Friday

He said I wrote about death,

by Kim Dower

and I didn't mean to, this was not
my intent.

Here's the rest of the poem and it ends this way:

I did not mean to write about death,
but rather how when something dies
we remember who we love, and we
die a little too, we who are still breathing,
we who still have the energy to survive.

Good Friday is about death, and love, and surviving.  Sunday will be about resurrection, but let's not rush ahead.  

Here's Heidi's roundup, which includes a discussion of the Progressive Poem, coming soon.  I'll be posting my line on the 17th this year. 

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reading Update

Book #25 of the year was This is How it Always Is, by Laurie Frankel.  How is it always?  Well, parents always try to do the best for their children, even when the situation is completely unforeseen and they have no idea how to proceed.  The family in this novel faces a challenge that we've all seen in the news, but how would we deal with it if it happened to us? 

Book #26 was Lucky Fish, by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.  I reviewed this book here.

Book #27 was How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig.  Tom Hazard looks 41, but he has a condition called anageria, in which he doesn't age.  He's been alive for more than 400 years.  It's possible to live a pretty good life this way, as long as you are willing to keep moving on, and never, ever fall in love.  Hazard's situation is an extreme case of what it's like to be human for all of us: loving other people is the best way to get hurt, but also the best way to stop time.  I enjoyed this book, and there was the added bonus of Hazard's latest profession being teaching.  This gave rise to lines such as: "So, this is the life I have chosen above all others.  The life of a man standing in a room of twelve-year-olds ignoring him" and "For decades and decades and decades I have bemoaned people who say they feel old, but I now realize it is perfectly possible for anyone to feel old.  All they need to do is become a teacher" and "I have only been alive for four hundred and thirty-nine years, which is of course nowhere near long enough to understand the minimal facial expressions of the average teenage boy." 

Book #28 was The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid, a novel which follows the fortunes of a Pakistani Princeton graduate whose pursuit of the American dream is interrupted by September 11th, 2001. 

Book #29 was The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New, by Annie Dillard, and #31 was another book of Dillard essays, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters.  More than a third of the second book was also in the first book, including my favorite essay, "An Expedition to the Pole," which compared churchgoing to polar exploration.  I had read some Dillard before, but had never enjoyed her work as much as I did in these two books.

Book #30 was Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Meloy.  The situation in this book started off bad and just kept on getting worse and worse and worse.  A stressful read that I only finished because I just had to know what was going to happen.

Book #32 was This Must Be the Place, by Maggie O'Farrell.  This story pulled me in and kept me reading.  I will definitely try more of O'Farrell's books. 

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Poetry Friday: The Conditional

Happiness is having a daughter who texts you poems.  

Friday, March 16, 2018

Poetry Friday: Birthday Gifts Edition

For my birthday a few weeks ago, I got many lovely gifts, but I want to write about the poetry-related one.  I used an Amazon gift card to buy Aimee Nezhukumatathil's book Lucky Fish, and then spent the balance on chai.  So this week I will share a little review of the book, and then a poem by my brother about chai.

I first discovered Nezhukumatathil's work at Poetry Foundation.  I've posted a couple of her poems on this blog, here and here.  I put her book on my wish list a long time ago, since I was intrigued by what I had seen.  She is half Filipina and half South Indian and lives in Mississippi.  Her writing is unexpected: light-hearted, but often with a twist.  As you can imagine with her background, the references are from everywhere.  "Kottayam Morning" evokes the sounds and smells of her grandmother's home in Kerala, India.  "At the Center for Retired Great Apes" is set in Florida.  "Kansas Animalia" laments:

I pity the lone ostrich at the Wichita petting zoo,
who plucks out her own feathers because they sold
her mate to a place in Toledo.

She writes of stargazing with her father (in spite of mosquitoes), eating Thanksgiving dinner for the first time with her future husband, ice-skating, what it's like to have a name nobody can pronounce.  She writes of giving birth.

Everyone slept            except my valiant
               who stayed awake          for almost three days
and stayed        strong as a pepper plant.            He was
               and samosa and every good thing.

I love finding entry into the mind and life of a new-to-me poet, and I thoroughly enjoyed this visit with Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

And the chai?  I was running low on the spiced kind I like to buy, Rishi Masala Chai Tea, which is expensive but worth it, so I got myself a new bag.  Here's my brother on chai.  I love this poem for the details of our childhood, and my students always enjoy it when I share it with them each year. 


It grew in the Kericho sun
watered by the rains that swept up from Lake Victoria
every afternoon at 4
like a heavy felt curtain.
Top two leaves and a bud
picked in the pouring rain.
Flapping black raincoats and hats,
bright faces and bright singing.
The emerald of the freshly washed leaves
almost hurts the eye.
Miles of smooth green hills
stretching to the horizon of my mind.
Dried on acres of wire racks,
the smell of them a liquor in the nostrils,
drowning in the thick black scent of it,
bathing in the aroma,
the smell of home and happiness
and warm rain running down my back
and black earth and blue skies.
Memories, packaged in a green box
and sent to me by kind strangers.

Richard Bowen

Thank you to my dear friends who contributed to this birthday delight.   And thank you to Linda for hosting this week's roundup! 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Poetry Friday: The Light I Collect

I'm in the throes of grading season.  I mean, sure, it's always grading season in my world, but it's a particularly intense time right now, with projects from my seventh graders and a big writing deadline coming up tomorrow for my eighth graders.  I've been planning a Birthday Gifts Edition of Poetry Friday, but I can't take the time or the mental bandwidth right now to work on it.  Maybe next week.  Meanwhile, here's a little foretaste, an excerpt from "The Light I Collect," a poem in Aimee Nezhukumatathil's book Lucky Fish.  I bought this book with birthday money and I will review it in my Birthday Gifts Edition.

If a man in China can keep ten thousand dollars' worth
of caterpillars in a metal box underneath his bed
for medicine, then I want to collect flakes of light
for those winter months where we go a whole week

without seeing a slice of sun.  The light I want to collect
is free.  Can't be sold as a cure for muscle ache
or to ward off evil eye.  I write this in August.  It should be
illegal to talk about snow in Western New York now.

from "The Light I Collect," by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

I know that many of my readers are in the throes of another kind of depressing season, the one mentioned in the poem: winter.  I wish I could send you some "flakes of light," some "slices of sun" from my part of the world, where this is the most beautiful time of the year.  Just as I'm trying to cling to my knowledge that I have students who are doing great work, resisting my instinct to focus all my attention on the ones who aren't, as though nobody is.

Let's collect the light and store it up for the dark times!

This week's roundup is here.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Reading Update

Book #19 of the year was the ninth Inspector Gamache book, How the Light Gets In, by Louise Penny.  I liked this one, but I think I was half asleep as I was finishing it, and my checkout from the library had already expired, so it's gone from my Kindle now.  I have the impression that a whole lot of stuff got resolved in the last few pages as I faded in and out, or I might have just dreamed all that.  In any case, I put a hold on the next one, so I guess I'll find out.  (And how great is it that Leonard Cohen allowed Penny to use his lyric as her title for free?) 

Book #20 was A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline.  I love books about paintings, and this novel is about Andrew Wyeth's painting "Christina's World."  It's the story of Christina Olson, Wyeth's friend and muse.  She lives a difficult, narrow existence in rural Maine, with little choice about what happens to her, and a disability, to boot.  Late in her life, Wyeth's interest in painting her house, surroundings, and Christina herself enriches her life.  Here she is on Andy's effect on her: "Through his perspective I see familiar things anew.  The pale pink wallpaper with tiny flowers.  The red geraniums blooming in the window in their blue pots.  The mahogany banister, the ship captain's barometer in the foyer, an earthenware crock on a shelf in the pantry, the blue pantry door scratched by a long-ago dog."  I enjoyed Christina's prickly personality, her pride, her refusal to be anyone but herself, and the glimpses into the young woman she used to be.

Book #21 was another one set in New England, this time in Rhode Island.  A Hundred Summers, by Beatriz Williams, takes place in the thirties, and it's full of secrets, drama, and terrible weather.  Who knew that was just what I was craving?  I certainly didn't.  But I enjoyed this one immensely.

Book #22 was The Contemplative Writer: Loving God through Christian Spirituality, Meditation, Daily Prayer, and Writing, by Ed Cyzewski.  The title pretty much says it all.  This was a quick read, but very inspiring and helpful.

Book #23 was Chased by the Light: A 90-Day Journey, by Jim Brandenburg.  This book was published in 1998, and it's the result of Brandenburg setting himself a photographic challenge, to make one picture each day for ninety days in the northern woods of Minnesota.  I had a couple of thoughts while reading this.  One was how ludicrous it is to call anything I might do "photography," when artists like this exist in the world.  These are ninety absolutely gorgeous photos, and the essay that goes with them is equally gorgeous.  (And I don't call what I do photography; I call it "taking pictures.")  Another thought was of the dear friend who gave me this book, someone whom I very rarely see any more, and whom I miss.  That feeling was underlined by the melancholy of the October through December landscape of Minnesota.

Book #24 was Oprah's current Book Club choice, An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones.  I wanted to read this, but of course so did a bazillion other people.  I had it on hold at the library and I was something like 175th in line, and then suddenly four days ago the book became available, so I guess they must have bought a bunch more copies.  This is the story of Roy and Celestial and their marriage.  They have been married a year and a half when everything changes for them because of  Roy's arrest and incarceration.  This book pulled me in and made me feel all the feelings.  Tayari Jones already has Oprah's recommendation, so she certainly doesn't need mine, but she has it anyway.

I am glad I got in the habit of keeping track of my reading on this blog, because so often when I am writing these posts I get a sense of the overall theme of the books I've consumed lately, and a chance to reflect which would probably be missing if I just barrelled on to the next book I'm going to gulp down.  This particular batch includes some mighty fine reading, books that introduced me to other lives in masterfully told stories.  The ideas on contemplation and the beautiful photography were icing on the cake.

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

Friday, March 02, 2018

Poetry Friday: Finishing my QWP

I had a birthday this week, and it was a biggie.  Now I'm a quinquagenarian.  I announced back in July that I was embarking on a writing project to prepare for my birthday.  My goal was to write fifty first drafts before I turned fifty.  I achieved it, plus a little bit more, and I've shared some of my writing here along the way, and some more of it with my writing group, and some with my husband and my children and a few friends.  Some of it hasn't been read by anyone but me.

To celebrate my birthday, I'm going to share two of my QWP poems today.  The first one was inspired by a book my daughter brought home, in which the poet had written a "Self-Portrait as Motel Clerk."  It was about a job he had had in graduate school, and it made me think of a job I had between college and grad school.  When I look back at myself at that age (just a little older than my daughter is now), I feel fondness for that young person with so much ahead of her.  This poem is a good illustration of my QWP because it uses some of the raw material I've gathered in my 50 years on this earth.

The second poem is based on a prompt that Liz, last week's roundup host, shared.  It's called a "Why I'm Here" poem, similar to George Ella Lyon's "Where I'm From" poem.  (Here's my WIF poem, from back in 2006.)  I loved Liz's "Why I'm Here" poem and wanted to write one too.  I've worked at my school since I was 25 years old (with a few breaks here and there to move away and then back, and to stay home with my children), and now I am the √©minence grise of the middle school, getting to that point where I'm older than most of my students' parents.  My own children don't need me as much as they used to.  I'm not cool any more (not that I ever was, very).  Why am I here?  I thought about it for a while (and it made the James Taylor song "That's Why I'm Here" go through my mind for a few days) and came up with some answers.  On my birthday, a bunch of my friends made a list of 50 things they like about me - best gift ever! - and I was pleased to see that several of the things about me that I think are reasons I'm here were on their list.

Self-Portrait as Waitress

It’s the summer before my wedding
and starting grad school.
I’m twenty-one,
dressed in a shiny nylon waitress uniform
and trying to look confident.

I’m waiting tables in Nashville, Tennessee,
just like half the people who moved here
to make it big in country music.

The kitchen staff and the other waitresses
yell cheerfully and profanely at each other and at me,
expanding my vocabulary and my world.

A busboy tells me proudly there are ten steps to bussing a table
and I realize I never thought about bussing a table
let alone about doing it well.

I’ve never failed a class before
but I struggle to master my eight steps of waitressing.

I sniffle as I eat my tasteless employee-priced dinner
at a table smelling of grease and sweat and vanilla ice cream.

A fellow waitress tells me this is her second job;
she works at another place during the day
and then here three to eleven,
and she’s saving up to leave her husband.

My feet hurt in their sensible shoes.

In my dreams I spill coffee, drop plates, forget orders
then get up and put on my dark green uniform
and try again to get it right.

I refill ketchup bottles and roll silverware after my shift.

One day a secret shopper writes me a glowing review,
and it’s hung up on the bulletin board in the break room,
like a report card on a refrigerator.

I learn what “sweet milk” is,
how to get sworn at without flinching,
and to tip well.

Ruth, from

Why I’m Here

I’m here to make and pour the tea
and to add an extra spoonful of sugar
if you want it.  I’m here
to ask the questions
and listen to the answers,
to overthink and empathize.
I’m here to read as many of the books
as I possibly can.  I’m here
to fix punctuation
and recommend a good novel,
to lower the noise level in the hallways,
to witness the eyerolls
and try not to take them personally.
I’m here to learn new slang
every year, in several languages,
to say the wrong thing and then say I’m sorry,
to say the right thing every once in a while.
I’m here to tell new teachers
that there is nothing wrong with them,
and that the first year is just the worst.
I used to be here to clean up vomit,
and now I’m here to answer my children’s texts
and to savor my husband's cooking
and to hold babies whenever I get the chance.
I’m here to say goodbye
again and again
and somehow still find the energy to say hello.
I’m here to write it all down
and take pictures of all of it
and remember,
even if everyone else forgets:
love, and earthquakes,
and what the hibiscus looks like today.

Ruth, from

Here's what the hibiscus looks like today, in case you're wondering:

I've been keeping track of my QWP on the whiteboard in my classroom, changing the number as it went up.  Most of my students didn't pay any attention, but there were one or two in each class who would comment and ask questions.  The day after my birthday, I erased the total, and decided to start again from scratch.  How much can I write before my next birthday?  We'll see!

And here's today's roundup.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: Music

At my wedding, the congregation sang this hymn, one of my favorites, and my husband's absolute favorite.  The lyrics talk about the love of God as an ocean, "vast, unmeasured, boundless, free."  I love the tune, but really music to me has always been more about the words, and when I start thinking about the music which has been important to me in my spiritual journey, I am amazed by how many hymns I can recite, sometimes several verses.  Those words are in my head from years and years of repetition throughout my life.

When I went looking through my blog archives for writing about hymns, here's some of what I found:

Back in 2007, I quoted from this hymn, "New Every Morning," commenting that it gave a rather "dreary" picture of everyday life.  A couple of days later, I tried to explain a bit more about what I meant.  Here are those posts: the first and the second.

In 2008 I wrote this post about something we had sung in church.  We were using videos with lyrics at that time, and this one had substituted "the lowest hill" for "the lowest hell," which was what the original lyrics say.  I also criticized their punctuation, which caused an inadvertent change in meaning to the song.

I've written a couple of posts about the hymn "Abide with Me," which we used to sing in boarding school whenever we had evening chapel.  This one was from 2009 and this one from 2012.

Did you know that Charles Wesley wrote earthquake hymns?  I learned about them in 2010 after the Haiti earthquake.

And speaking of earthquakes... In 2010 I wrote a post about "Oh, the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus," the one with which I started this post, and also one about "My Faith Looks Up to Thee," one about "O Love that Wilt Not Let Me Go," and one about "My Song is Love Unknown." I was struggling so much in those months right after the earthquake, and the words of hymns helped me week after week.  I wrote some more about that in this Easter post from 2011, quoting the hymn "In Heavenly Love Abiding."  

In this post, I wrote about a friend who was stuck under rubble in the aftermath of the earthquake, and the hymn words that kept going through his mind.  

There are more posts about hymns, but these examples give a pretty good representation of how important these words are in my spiritual life, even though it's been a long time since hymns have formed the majority of the music in the churches I've attended.  There are many ways I experience this "deep, deep love," but church music is high on the list.

Today's roundup is here.