Friday, June 29, 2018

Poetry Friday: Bayou Song Blog Tour

Today I am honored to host the third stop on Margaret Simon's Blog Tour for her charming new book Bayou Song: Creative Explorations of the South Lousiana Landscape (you can see a list of the other stops on the Tour at the end of this post).  When I read the book, I had just listened to this podcast from On Being, so those two pieces of art, both about finding joy in nature, are intertwined in my thoughts.

Let me back up a little bit and tell you about one of the ideas in the podcast, and how it illuminated Margaret's book for me and made me appreciate even more the beautiful way it mixes nature, reading, and writing.

In the podcast, Krista Tippett interviews Michael McCarthy, the British author of The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy.  She starts out by sharing this quote from McCarthy: "The sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us may well be the most serious business of all." He has a lot to say about crisis in the natural world, the way ecosystems are collapsing, habitats are disappearing, and there are just fewer creatures out there.  It would be easy to despair, and sometimes when we teach kids about nature we can do it in a negative way, focusing on words like "endangered."

Tippett says to McCarthy: "while statistics of decline and demise and the destruction of the natural world don’t mobilize action — they, in fact, dampen us — and so joy can have a quality of seriousness, and yet, be animating."

And he replies: "If we could mobilize this sort of love we have for the natural world — and the essence of it is the fact that the natural world is a part of us, and that if we lose it, we cannot be fully who we are. And if we were to realize that, which is hard, and if we were to realize it on a large scale, which is even harder, that might offer a defense of nature at the time when we are trashing it remorselessly."

As I was listening to this interview, I was thinking about how we can do this with children; how can we encourage them to love the natural world so much that they want to protect it, not out of fear and despair, but because it's so important to them?

When I read Margaret's book, I thought: this is how. 

In Bayou Song, Margaret doesn't write about the whole world. She writes about her tiny part of it, a part that she loves, a part on a bayou in Southern Louisiana. Using a variety of forms, she writes loving tributes to plants and animals that live where she does. Beautiful photography and drawings help the reader see Margaret's world even more clearly. And then each poem is accompanied by a prompt, so that we, following Margaret's lead, can look around closely at the nature in our world.  What lives where we do?  Let's pay attention, and let's write about it!

Here's an example of Margaret's writing, "Ode to a Toad."

Her note introduces the reader to Pablo Neruda and his odes to ordinary things. She suggests writing an ode, too. So I did. I looked around my part of our beautiful planet, a street in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince, Haiti.  Look what's in bloom right now!
Taking Margaret's poem as my mentor text, I wrote my own ode.  (The "conspicuous claws" reference comes from a little research I did, in which I learned that the word "delonix" comes from Latin for "conspicuous claws," a description of the petals of this tree.)

Ode to a Flamboyant Tree (Delonix regia, Royal poinciana)

You blare
your bright red jazz
through June’s steamy days.
You are all flourish
and ostentation.
Leaving subtlety
to others,
you make the most
of your conspicuous claws.
You accessorize your red
with glowing flashes
of yellow and white. 
Royal tree,
I curtsy to you as I walk by.
I watch you fan yourself
with your green fringes
and display your blossoms
to advantage.
Flamboyant you are
as you dance
with your castanets,
far into the night.

by Ruth, from

How can we encourage kids to care for nature? We can encourage them to love it, and we can do that by teaching them to pay attention to it, not as a grand abstraction but in the specific plants and animals around them. Margaret's poems and prompts will help me do that with my students next year.

Order your own copy of Margaret's book here.

Bayou Song Blog Tour

To read more exciting posts about Margaret Simon’s debut children’s poetry book, Bayou Song, follow this blog tour.

Friday, June 22: Michelle Kogan
Tuesday, June 26: Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core
Friday, July 6: Kimberly Hutmacher at Kimberly Hutmacher Writes
Friday, July 13: Linda Mitchell at A Word Edgewise
Tuesday, July 17: Laura Shovan
Tuesday, July 24 Amanda Potts at Persistence and Pedagogy
Friday, July 27: Carol Varsalona at Beyond LiteracyLink
Monday, July 30 Linda Baie at Teacher Dance
Friday, Aug. 3 Dani Burtsfield at Doing the Work that Matters

Carol has today's roundup.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Poetry Friday - Some Photos I Took at the Library

I've been opening our school library once a week for the summer, since we don't have public libraries where we live, and I don't like thinking of the kids being bookless.  Here are some pictures I took on Tuesday, some of the library in general and some of a poetry book I found and enjoyed.

In the middle of all the mess in the news this week, it felt good to read some beautiful words.

Michelle has today's roundup.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Reading Update

I've been in a bit of a reading slump lately, but here are the books I've finished since my last reading update.

Book #40 of the year was Imperfect: Poems About Mistakes, reviewed here
Book #41 was Debunking the Myths of Forgive-and-Forget, by Kay Bruner.  Bruner, a therapist, does a wonderful job of exploring the process of forgiveness, and what forgiveness means - and doesn't mean.

Book #42 was Ascent, by Roland Smith.  This is the third book in the Peak series, and in this one, Peak visits Myanmar. 

Book #43 was Charles Frazier's new novel, Varina.  This is the story of Jefferson Davis' wife Varina, and her life before, during, and after the Civil War.  I am a big Charles Frazier fan, and I've been eagerly anticipating this book since I first learned it was going to be coming out.  Frazier doesn't disappoint in his complex, sympathetic portrayal.

Book #44 was A Sky the Color of Chaos, by M. J. Fièvre, an atmospheric story of a childhood and adolescence in Haiti.

Book #45 was The Warm Place, by Nancy Farmer, a middle grade title about a giraffe, a chameleon, a rat, and assorted other characters in search of home. 

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Poetry Friday: Self-Portraits

Rembrandt's Late Self-Portraits
by Elizabeth Jennings

You are confronted with yourself. Each year
The pouches fill, the skin is uglier.
You give it all unflinchingly. You stare
Into yourself, beyond. Your brush's care
Runs with self-knowledge. Here
Is a humility at one with craft.
There is no arrogance. Pride is apart
From this self-scrutiny. You make light drift
The way you want. Your face is bruised and hurt
But there is still love left.
Love of the art and others. To the last
Experiment went on. You stared beyond
Your age, the times. You also plucked the past
And tempered it. Self-portraits understand,
And old age can divest,
With truthful changes, us of fear of death.
Look, a new anguish. There, the bloated nose,
The sadness and the joy. To paint's to breathe,
And all the darknesses are dared. You chose
What each must reckon with.

Photo Source:

At this link you can watch a video about the painting. (I embedded it here but couldn't figure out how to keep it from playing automatically, which is annoying.) The video talks about how Rembrandt was his own favorite model.  I'm not sure that I'd use "favorite" to talk about how I feel about myself as a model, but we're definitely stuck with ourselves as models for whatever art it is we're trying to make.  That face, those emotions, that history, those same issues that keep re-emerging year after year.  "You are confronted with yourself," as Elizabeth Jennings puts it.  "Your face is bruised and hurt/ But there is still love left."

Rembrandt was 53 when he painted this self-portrait.  The other day I saw on Facebook that someone had posted an article about a survey in which people were asked at what age old folks should stop wearing jeans.  The result: age 53.  So what I want to know now is: if I just have a few years left of wearing jeans, is it OK if I get myself a hat like Rembrandt's?  Will the Zeitgeist, which apparently now chooses my wardrobe, permit me that indulgence? If I could paint, I would then paint a self-portrait with a little worried line between my eyes, similar to his.  Since I can't paint, I can at least snap a selfie, trying to capture "the sadness and the joy." 

Karen Edmisten has the roundup today.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Poetry Friday: Goodbye

The beginning of the summer is the season of goodbyes. I should say it is one of the seasons of goodbyes, because there are goodbyes all year round, but at this time of year multiple people leave at once. (Here's an amazing blog post explaining the constant transitions of the expat world.)

Today I'm sharing three goodbye poems I've written in the past year. The first one is about my childhood, the second about my frustration with people saying "I'll always be with you," "I'll be in your heart" and other such phrases when they are leaving, and the third about a friend in my writing group who is leaving.


When I was a child
I would always carefully fold my pyjamas
in the morning when I got dressed
and place them under my pillow.

When we stayed in a hotel
or a motel
or someone else’s home
I would do the same.

In this way I left pyjamas
in many US states
and a few countries,
under pillows far and wide.

I like to think it was because
I felt at home everywhere.
When I lay my head on a pillow
and slept and dreamed there
that place became part of my life.
Or perhaps I was storing pyjamas
in case I ever came back.

But those places weren’t part of my life,
any more than all those people
we met on our travels,
the ones who promised to write to me,
and never did.
And I almost never did come back.
At least until I had outgrown the pyjamas.

Now that I am grown
I still always put my pyjamas under my pillow
but when I am not at home,
I have learned to check there when I’m packing.

I have a better idea now of where I belong.



He told me he’d always be there.

he backed out of the driveway
he was still promising he’d never leave me. 

His face got smaller and smaller
he called from the car window,
“I’m still with you!  I’ll always be with you!”

The taillights disappeared down the street
he wasn’t with me any more.


Goodbye (after M.S. Merwin)

with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is
 M.S. Merwin, "Thanks"

I am always waving goodbye,
goodbye to the moment,
goodbye to the day,
goodbye to my family,
goodbye to many friends,
and now
goodbye to you.

There you go, walking away
to parts unknown,
Washington DC? 
and I am still here
waving goodbye

Making a speech,
I am saying goodbye.

Carrying home a bag of books
from your apartment
and some Extra Virgin Olive Oil,
I am saying goodbye.

Taking the art down from your walls
so you can pack it,
I am saying goodbye.

Writing these lines,
I am saying goodbye.

Talking and laughing,
I am saying goodbye.

Meeting you,
I was already saying goodbye.

goodbye my friend,
I call behind you,
thank you we are saying and waving,
dark though it is


Here's today's roundup.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: Summer

This month our host, Margaret, has invited us to reflect on summer for our Spiritual Journey First Thursday. (In January the topic was our OLW, in February the moon, in March music, in April poetry, and in May special days.
Living in the tropics as I do, my life is not much defined by seasons.  The variety is limited here.  All year long the weather is hot, the skies are blue, the blooms are bright.  In February the temperature is lower than in July, but only by a few degrees.  (Take a look at this link to see how little the temperature changes.)

The exception is summer, not for the population at large but for me as a teacher in an American-style school.  On Monday I finished shutting down my classroom and covering my shelves with plastic; I go back to work the first week of August.  Summer is a fallow time, a time of quiet and rest, a time for reading books I couldn't get to all year, making sun tea, staying barefoot and in my pyjamas.  Summer is, many years, a time for travel and seeing different views.  It's a time for reminding myself that not everyone in the world is focused on the same issues that preoccupy my days, a time for remembering that there's a world out there at all. 

Summer for me is an extended Sabbath, and I do recognize how blessed I am that it is so.  Most people do not get the privilege of ten weeks of rest and change right at the warmest time of the year.

James 1:17: "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows."

Sabbath is about pure gift; it's about receiving from God when you don't work, about being taken care of by God when you don't hustle.  My OLW this year is ENOUGH, and summer is all about enough.  It's about enjoying it while it lasts, every sun-soaked moment.  It's about recognizing, with Shakespeare, that "summer's lease hath all too short a date." (You can read that sonnet here.)

Last summer I played a lot with the metaphor of sun tea (Here's a post I wrote last summer about sun tea, on a day when we were planning a pizza party in the evening two couples; the post mentions that one of the couples was about to have their first child, and sure enough, she went into labor that day and we had to postpone the pizza party!).  At the end of the summer I wrote the following poem.  I'm not fully happy with it, really; I think maybe this idea wants to be an essay instead, and that it needs more work.  But I love the thought of these little dried pieces of tea coming to me from all over the globe, and the sun making the tea for me without me having to light the stove.  I love the word "alchemy" and the stories behind each of my glasses of iced tea.  I love how even though the poem doesn't use the word "enough" or the word "Sabbath," it's full of both.  And how even though it doesn't use the word "God," I know the source of those good and perfect gifts.

Sun Tea, Summer 2017

Fill the jar with clean water.
Put in the tea:
sometimes loose, to be strained later,
sometimes in a tea ball infuser,
sometimes a handful of tea bags.
Screw on the lid.

Go outside, barefoot or in flip flops,
and place the jar in its spot:
next to the crown of thorns in the pot,
out of reach of the dogs,
directly in the sun.

The sun is the key,
working its alchemy as the day advances,
as the tea and the fruit and the flowers
spread their essences into the water
and the mixture steeps,
silently blending,

This summer’s offerings:
blueberry hibiscus
passion green
chamomile medley
berry black
Kyoto cherry rose
honey-vanilla chamomile
hot cinnamon sunset
country peach passion
orchard chai.

Each one has a story:
the end of a birthday present from last year,
a gift from my husband’s student
(I made tea from this one day after day
until the whole box was gone),
my daughter’s choice,
a purchase during an outing with an old friend’s new wife.

Each one is filled with ingredients
carefully gathered from trees and bushes and fields,
dried in the sun in other latitudes,
combined and packed in boxes and bags.

Bring in the jar
when the mixture is dark enough:
golden brown, red, peachy.
Take out the leaves or the bags,
sweeten the tea to taste,
and put the jar in the fridge
to chill for a couple of hours.

Serve over ice.

Ruth, from

You can read other people's reflections on this topic at Margaret's blog here.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

What I Learned in May

I don't think people learn much in May, at least not the school kind of learning. May is mostly disrupted schedules, noisy celebrations, chaos of many varieties. There were projects and exams, yes, but mostly, if you haven't learned it by now, you probably won't, not this year.

At the beginning of the month, I wrote down on my "What I Learned" list that I had reread the shipwreck book.

Jonathan Martin writes, "The bad news is that this shipwreck feels like death, because you really may be dying. The bad news is that old and familiar things you loved and that made you what you were are slowly passing away. The good news is you're being born, and the drowning makes possible the moment when all things become new - most of all, you.

Maybe a preacher on the radio told you once you could be born again if you just repeated a prayer after him. How I wish this were so. But the Scripture where a man named Nicodemus comes under cloak of night for a secret rendezvous with Jesus, and the prophet speaks to him about being born again, is also the place where Jesus talks about that Spirit, the one who broods over the sea, bringing life and beauty out of chaos.  The Spirit is like the wind, he says; you don't know where it comes from - and you don't know where it is going. And the people who say yes to this undomesticated Spirit, the people who say yes to the wind - yes to the sea - will be like this Spirit, not knowing where they came from, or where they are going. They are people who learn to trust the wind instead of fighting it, people who learn to navigate the chaos rather than eliminate it. They will be people born of Spirit, people born of the violence of the storm and the wildness of the wind. And because the Spirit who enters them is the Spirit of life itself, they will live forever.

You can't descend back into the waters of your mother's womb, the prophet tells Nicodemus. But you can be born again; you can be made new. It's just that when you do, it won't be because you made 'a decision for Jesus,' because you prayed the magic prayer. If you wish to become someone and something else entirely than the you that was before the storm will have to peer into the sea that threatens to swallow you whole, dive into the mouth of it - and trust. You will have to let God happen to you, which requires letting life happen to you, all the way down. You cannot continue to flail your arms, beat against the sea, and damn the waves. You have to let yourself go all the way under - into the depths of God, into the depths of your own soul, into the depths, of life itself."

So yeah, that.  I keep learning that.

Even though nobody was learning much, I did get observed teaching by an administrator on May 15th. Why didn't he come see me teaching when I was dispensing wisdom back in October? But no, he wanted to see my weary May attempts.

Today we have Graduation and say goodbye to our Seniors, and then the late May early June goodbyes accelerate as colleagues who are leaving pack up and actually leave, finishing the agonizing process they started months ago. This year especially, I am losing some people who have become extremely important to me.

So I keep learning that, too.

Here's what I learned in JanuaryFebruaryMarchApril.  

Friday, June 01, 2018

Poetry Friday: Paul Simon

This was my last week of school with kids, though I may end up back there quite a bit this summer, getting ready for next year and doing summer library. While I've been grading exams and working in my room, I've been listening to lots of Paul Simon, who wrote some of the best songs for cleanup.  He's my choice these days, too, because he's on his farewell tour. I'd always hoped to hear him live sometime, and it's looking now as though it's not going to happen.  The show sounds fabulous, but it's too far away from me, so instead I've been listening to the albums I own, and even finding some songs on YouTube that I hadn't heard before.

In this video, as part of an interview with Wynton Marsalis, Paul Simon says this about writing. Marsalis asks him how he could have written "The Sound of Silence" as such a young man.  He admits that after he wrote it he thought it was better than what he usually did, and then adds:

“I had no concept at all about what is magical about inspiration, you know, and I don’t think about inspiration at all, I don’t believe that you need inspiration, I don’t say I’m going to wait around until some inspiration comes, no, if I’m going to write I have to go to my writing space, and, you know, start to write.”

Later he says that when he was younger, if he liked a song, it was generally a hit.  That's not the case any more, but he's past that point now (and I'm sure it doesn't hurt that there's no longer any pressure to make money).  Instead, he says, “I’m only concentrating on, what can I make, and how can I do this without lying.”

How to choose what Paul Simon songs to love best?  I just can't.  I love it that he has an index on his website of all the songs and the full lyrics (here).  I do appreciate the music, but the lyrics are always the most important aspect for me, and I can't fully enjoy a song until I've figured out what it's saying.

I've posted Questions for the Angels before, and Something So Right, and Insomniac's Lullaby, and others, but the Graceland album is just the best there is, anywhere, ever, and this is one of the best songs on that album:

And here's a bonus:

Now that school is over, I am going to follow Paul Simon's advice and "go to my writing space, and you know, start to write."

This week's roundup is here.