Friday, November 30, 2018

Poetry Friday: Marriage

I always hesitate to write about my marriage, because in my experience, people who write about marriage are generally doing so to advise other people how they should conduct their marriages. Please understand that I am not doing that. I have been married to my husband for nearly thirty years, and I am an expert on him and on us, which doesn't mean that I handle things well all or even most of the time, just that I am fully qualified to speak about my own marriage. I don't know about marriages in general, and I don't judge anybody else on their own situation. Sometimes things don't work out, in quiet ways or huge, dramatic ways. Some marriages need to end, when people are being abused and mistreated.

(I don't want to be a "smug married," as in Bridget Jones' memorable phrase. This time of year, I'm too busy being smug about our warm tropical weather.)

Having said all that, I think marriage is a great thing. People come and go constantly, but a spouse who will stick around until death parts you is a blessing beyond words. I am more grateful for my husband than I can say. He knows me, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and he keeps loving me, year after year after year. Any relationship that lasts as long as ours has will naturally have ups and downs, and the traditional marriage vows' references to better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, and health were written in full awareness of that. My husband and I can irritate each other very effectively, and since we are both far from perfect, our home is not always filled with harmony. But life is hard, sometimes brutally so, and it's wonderful to have someone you can count on to be there through it. I do not take that for granted.

I didn't know what I was doing when I picked out a husband. I met him when I was 18 and we married when I was 21. What did I know? Precious little. Somehow I managed to get a great guy, who loves me and our children better every year. What have we done right? I couldn't really tell you. He cooks great meals, and that sure helps. He makes me laugh and he doesn't worry the way I do, and he helps me to get things in perspective. And he stays. Everyone else leaves, but he doesn't. 

Today I have a poem by, of all people, Margaret Atwood, about marriage. The author of The Handmaid's Tale wouldn't be likely to sugarcoat any topic, least of all marriage, and she doesn't. I think she has it right; we have to hold on tightly to the people around us in order to survive at all, let alone thrive.

After that I have a poem of my own, written nearly four years ago in a fit of frustration with the way people write about marriage. Everyone has advice, mostly filled with doom and gloom. And I am pretty convinced things are going to go wrong at any moment anyway, so I buy into the negativity way too often. I suddenly realized that I had probably been married longer than most of the people writing those articles I was seeing online, and maybe I knew just as much as they did, which is to say, not all that much. But for sure I knew more about my husband and my marriage than they did.

by Margaret Atwood

Marriage is not
a house or even a tent

it is before that, and colder:

the edge of the forest, the edge
of the desert
                    the unpainted stairs
at the back where we squat
outside, eating popcorn

the edge of the receding glacier

where painfully and with wonder
at having survived even
this far

we are learning to make fire

You can read this poem and others by Atwood here.

Staying Afloat

Ten Things You Are Doing Wrong That Will Wreck Your Marriage
Ten Things You Are Doing Wrong That Will Ruin Your Children
Ten Things You are Doing Wrong That Will Destroy Your Life

Why do I click on these links,
As though unable to do anything else,
Drawn in by the flashing lighthouses of their headlines,
Eager to learn what I need to change, how I am falling short,
How I could, in an unguarded moment, ruin everything?
How my little boat could wind up shattered on the rocks?

Just once I’d like to see an article about what I’m doing right:

Like that time I steered by the shoal of dolphins
And we all stopped and watched as they played
And we were all happy.

And when we dangled our feet in the ocean and told stories as the sun set.

Or how we made it between Scylla and Charybdis
With only minor bruises
And because I held you tight, we didn’t even have to tie you to the mast
When we sailed past those sirens.

I don’t want to hear any more about what I might possibly be doing wrong
As our boat bobs gently.
We know the calm between the storms is only temporary,
But in the meantime,
It’s a beautiful day
And there’s not a cloud or a pirate or a shipwreck in sight.

Ruth, from

Carol has the roundup today.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Poetry Friday: Odes at Thanksgiving

Every year I read Neruda odes with my eighth graders during Thanksgiving week, and encourage them to write their own. I've written posts about this several times in the past: here and here in 2010, here in 2011, here in 2012, here in 2013, here in 2014, here in 2015, here in 2016, and here last year.

This year was a little different, because we had a touch of rioting here in Haiti. (Here's an article from the Miami Herald to get you caught up on the situation.) We did have school on Monday, but only four seventh graders and four eighth graders were there. Tuesday we had a delayed start which turned into a day off, and Wednesday we were off again. Yesterday and today were regularly scheduled days off for the Thanksgiving holiday (not a local holiday but we're an American school). So I didn't get to share odes this year, except with the few who were there on Monday; we read "Ode to Scissors," one of my favorites. I'm planning on squeezing a bit more on this into next week's lessons, so we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I found a new-to-me ode to share with you for Poetry Friday today. 

Ode to Bird Watching
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Jodey Bateman

Let's look for birds!
The tall iron branches
in the forest,
the dense
fertility on the ground.


I bury
my shoes
in the mud,
jump over rivulets.
A thorn
bites me and a gust
of air like a crystal
splits up inside my chest.
are the birds?
Maybe it was
rustling in the foliage
or that fleeting pellet
of brown velvet
or that displaced
perfume? That
leaf that let loose cinnamon smell
- was that a bird? That dust
from an irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell with a thump -
was that a flight?
Oh, invisible little
birds of the devil
with their ringing
with their useless feathers.


I want to touch their gloves
of real hide
which they never forget in
the branches
and to converse with
sitting on my shoulders
although they may leave
me like certain statues
undeservedly whitewashed.


You can read the whole thing here.

What struck and amused me about this poem is that it isn't an ode to birds; Neruda seems a little vague on the birds themselves. We never get a single concrete bird detail in this poem, and this from a guy who is heavily into concrete details. The subject of the poem is, instead, the experience of bird watching, which appears to be largely frustrating. He's tracking sounds and even smells, asking "Was that a bird?" and anticipating getting pooped on. "Where are the birds?" he wants to know.

I can very much relate to this poem because my own bird knowledge is rudimentary at best (although I'm trying), and my efforts to take pictures of birds result mostly in lovely views of empty branches. And I can relate to it too because I find when I write an ode, or really just about anything at all, it's often as much about me as it is about the topic of my attention.

Neruda wrote about this tendency elsewhere in a poem called "Siempre Yo," or as Ben Belitt translates it, "Me Again."

Me Again
Pablo Neruda
translated by Ben Belitt

I who wanted to talk
of a century inside the web
that is always my poem-in-progress,
have found only myself wherever I looked
and missed the real happening.
With wary good faith
I opened myself to the wind: the lockers,
clothes-closets, graveyards,
the calendar months of the year,
and in every opening crevice
my face looked back at me.

The more bored I became
with my unacceptable person,
the more I returned to the theme of my person;
worst of all,
I kept painting myself to myself
in the midst of a happening.
What an idiot (I said to myself
a thousand times over) to perfect all that craft
of description and describe only myself,
as though I had nothing to show but my head,
nothing better to tell than the mistakes of a lifetime.

Tell me, good brothers,
I said at the Fishermen's Union,
do you love yourselves as I do?
The plain truth of it is:
we fishermen stick to our fishing,
while you fish for yourself (said
the fishermen): you fish over and over again
for yourself, then throw yourself back in the sea.

I've been thinking a lot lately about self-portraits and selfies, and about the idea that we writers are so often our own subject. We're stuck with ourselves, no matter how bored we get. We fish and fish and fish, and throw ourselves back in the sea, and then fish some more. Or we go bird watching and end up focusing on our own experience and missing the birds.

An eighth grader started an ode on Monday, and she passed it to me to look at. It was about her friends, the ones who were there with her at school that day; they were bonding and loving being such a small group. It was an ode to her friends, and an ode to herself with them, the tight little group they formed. I smiled and passed it back to her, telling her she was on exactly the right track.

Irene has this week's roundup.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Poetry Friday: Nokomis, the Great Blue Heron, Winters in Haiti

I was reading this week about how a Great Blue Heron from Maine has once again come to Haiti for the winter.
 Source: Facebook page of Heron Observation Network of Maine

This is the third year that she has been tracked here. Here's an article about her from this year. Her name is Nokomis, which they got from Native American legend; most of us are probably most familiar with the name from Longfellow's poem The Song of Hiawatha. I started doing some research on Nokomis, and on Great Blue Herons in general, and before I knew it, I was writing a poem about her. I didn't intend to use the Hiawatha rhythm, but I couldn't seem to help myself.

Here's my poem, and I'll put a bunch of other links from my research at the end of my post.

Nokomis, the Great Blue Heron, Winters in Haiti

By a little Haitian river
Northern tourist bird, Nokomis
slate-blue feathered, sleek Nokomis,
Great Blue Heron fleeing winter,
snaps her beak to grab some dinner,
finding fish and frogs to snack on.
Every year returns Nokomis,
on vacation, Great Blue Heron,
snowbird from the north Nokomis,
tagged in Maine three summers prior.
There from Maine they trace Nokomis,
keep track of her winter travels.

Once they lost her, lost her signal,
lost connection with Nokomis’
solar chip transmitting data,
lost her to the world of flying,
bird of mystery, missing heron,
flying south to spend the winter.
It was scientists that named her,
for they didn’t know her bird name,
didn’t know the name her mother
gave her when she was a hatchling.
Named for Hiawatha’s grandma,
daughter of the wind, Nokomis,
tracked by people, flying southward.
They had lost her, she was silent.

But they found her lost transmission,
chip warmed by the sun in Haiti,
beak warmed by the sun in Haiti,
in remote un-named location.
Hatched from pale green egg, the heron,
from her home in cold New England,
eighteen hundred miles northward,
flies to Haiti every winter,
fills the air with heron croaking.

When the weather warms, Nokomis,
she’ll head home to spend the summer,
leave behind her tropic island.
Till next year, then, Great Blue Heron.

Ruth, from

Here's an article about how they lost contact with Nokomis back in 2016.
This article asks whether the Great Blue Heron is endangered. (I am so glad to be able to report that it isn't. And this link has a beautiful photo of the bird, too.)
Here are some photos from the Audubon Society in Venice, Florida. They call Audubon an "American ornithologist," and of course he was, but he originally came from our part of the Americas, since he was born in Haiti.
Here's another Haitian bird poem I wrote earlier this year.
Here's the website of the Heron Observation Network of Maine.
Here's the Wikipedia page for the name Nokomis.
And here's some more information on the Great Blue Heron.

Linda has this week's roundup.

Reading Update

Book #87 of 2018 was a re-read, Life of the Beloved, by Henri Nouwen.

Book #88 was The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny. This is the eleventh in the Inspector Gamache series, and my least favorite so far.

Book #89 was A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles.  I loved this book, about a Russian aristocrat who is condemned by a Bolshevik court in 1922 to spend the rest of his life in the luxury hotel where he lives. They move him from his beautiful suite to a tiny room in the attic; his whole existence contracts to a small space with a few possessions, but he is still able to find ways to lead a meaningful life and participate in the world outside himself. The book is really about how to make the best of this life, the life you have rather than the one you envisioned for yourself.

Book #90 was The Light of the World: A Memoir, by poet Elizabeth Alexander, about her husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus, who died unexpectedly at age 50. This is a beautiful book, a tribute to a fascinating man and to their marriage.

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

Friday, November 09, 2018

Poetry Friday: "Impossible Light, Improbable Hope"

This is the time of year when I love looking at people's fall photos (the one below is one my daughter sent me a couple of years ago).  (Edited to add: My daughter sent the first snow photo of the year this morning, so maybe this post is a little late!) It's not a particularly colorful season where I live; it's rainy and green, which is pleasant, and the summer heat has finally eased, but we don't have dramatic foliage. I don't miss the frost and chill from the United States, but I do love to see the beautiful fall color.

Here's an autumn poem for the season:

“What Else”
by Carolyn Locke

The way the trees empty themselves of leaves,
let drop their ponderous fruit,
the way the turtle abandons the sun-warmed log,
the way even the late-blooming aster
succumbs to the power of frost—

this is not a new story.
Still, on this morning, the hollowness
of the season startles, filling
the rooms of your house, filling the world
with impossible light, improbable hope.

Here's the rest.
 And here's today's roundup.

Wednesday, November 07, 2018

Tips to Make Myself Happier Right Now

I've been reading Gretchen Rubin's blog and books and listening to her podcast for a while now, and one thing I really enjoy about her approach is the idea that you can take control of certain aspects of your life to make yourself feel better. Obviously there are things you can't change, but there are some you can.

Recently, Gretchen posted a list of quick, easy things she can do to cheer herself up when she's down. I decided to do the same.

I'll skip the part where I go on and on about how I know I have no reason to be down, with all the blessings in my life. I know that, but sometimes, I get in a slump, whether because of life circumstances, brain chemistry, or maybe hormones. Who knows? I do know that it isn't helpful to chastise myself about it, even though that is often my go-to response.

So here's my list. Add yours in the comments, or link me to your own post.

1. Go outside and take a picture of something beautiful, especially flowers. This almost always makes me feel better. Even if I can't go outside at that moment, taking a picture is a mood-booster. Sometimes I grab my camera in class when my students are doing some kind of group work or independent work, and snap a picture of them.
2. Write a poem. Or write anything at all. This, too, is almost always effective, but it takes time and energy.
3. Check out a library book and download it on my Kindle.
4. Send a friendly text to someone.
5. Read poetry or a favorite children’s book.
6. Read a novel.
7. Listen to music, especially particular playlists.
8. Clear some very small area of clutter. The key here is that it has to be small. If I give myself too large an assignment, I'll just get overwhelmed and feel worse.
9. Put on some music and put away all the books in my classroom library. This is a combination of 7 and 8!
10. Make and drink a cup of tea, preferably with a friend.
11. Sing worship songs.
12. Pray, either extemporaneously or a memorized prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, like “Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee…”
13. Watch or listen to something funny, or laugh with a friend.
14. Listen to a podcast.
15. Exercise. This always helps, and I'm never sorry I did it, but I often have difficulty making myself do it if I'm feeling really down.
16. Go for a walk, alone or with a friend, preferably with my camera.
17. Look through photos I’ve taken in the past.
18. Hold a baby. I don't always have one handy, but when I do, this is a foolproof approach to cheering up.
19. Look at fresh flowers or at photos I’ve taken in the past of flowers.
20. Hug my husband or one of my children.
21. Talk to someone.
22. Think of something I’m thankful for.

Here's another good resource, "Everything is Awful and I'm Not OK."

Saturday, November 03, 2018

Reading Update

Book #80 of this year was Nyxia, by Scott Reintgen. This book is very readable and kept me turning pages, but I did find some of the scenes difficult to follow. I'm not sure teens will have the same problem with it; I always tend to glaze over a bit in descriptions of fights, whether in the Iliad or a contemporary YA novel. In this book, teenagers are chosen to go to space and mine Nyxia, a substance which is essential to life in the future world of the setting. They have been recruited by a huge corporation and there's apparently something fishy (still unexplained) about all of it. But their families are promised huge sums of money in return. My favorite part of the story was the relationships among the teens, who, although they are competing with one another, still form alliances and friendships.

Book #81 was The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith, and #85 was the second book in the series, The Silkworm. As everyone now knows, Robert Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling. I enjoyed these first two books, and I hear that they get less gory soon, so I'm looking forward to that. The main characters, Cormoran and Robin, are wonderful, and the development of the recurring characters is always what I like best in detective novels.

Book #82 was The Titan's Curse, by Rick Riordan. This is the third in the Percy Jackson series. I definitely get what my students see in these books.

Book #83 was a reread - in fact, I've read it several times already. It was Rob Bell's How to Be Here.  I wrote some about it here.

Book #84 was Tool of War, by Paolo Bacigalupi. I wrote a little bit here about what led me to this title. Tool is a half-man/half-beast "Augment" created in a futuristic society to help people fight wars. But what's the difference between human and non-human? How much is our biology our destiny? What's the nature of choice and free will and instinct? This and many other questions are addressed in this book, which is also graphically violent and not the kind of thing I usually read at all. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

Book #86 was The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. This is also now a movie, which I haven't seen. It's a story about police brutality, in all of its complexity.

This post is linked to this week's Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon.

Friday, November 02, 2018

Poetry Friday: The Meaning of Life

Last week I was texting with a friend who had had a bad teaching day. It happens. I'd had a not-so-good week myself. We compared notes, and in the course of our conversation, she said that she was feeling grumpy and wondering about the meaning of life. I sent her this photo and wrote, "The meaning of life is rain-soaked bougainvillea."
I had run home that day during my free period because I had forgotten my Kindle and I needed it for class. It was a muddy day, and I was in the middle of a yucky week. And when I saw this, it made everything better.

I know, I know, there's more to life than rain-soaked bougainvillea. There's an election next week, for example, and we are grown-ups with serious issues to deal with. And yet...just look at that. For that moment when I turned my camera on all that beauty, the world seemed like a place where everything was how it was supposed to be.

I thought about it, then added a few more syllables and made a haiku. (I know you don't have to stick to the 17 syllable thing, but I did anyway.)

Roadside flash, hot-pink
Rain-soaked bougainvillea
The meaning of life

I'm thankful for the beautiful moments in even the hardest days. They make it easier to turn back to the challenges with a fresh perspective.

Jama has this week's roundup.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

What I Learned in October

In October I tried to keep a better list of things I've learned. It's a strange conglomeration of stray items.

I did a translation of someone's official educational records from French to English, including course descriptions, and since he has a degree in Business Finance, this involved learning terms in French for many technical accounting terms whose meaning I have no idea of in English. So that was brain-stretching and oddly entertaining in a nerdy way.

I listened to some podcasts about clothing, which were quite fascinating and which you can find here. Did you know the concept of Casual Friday originated in Hawaii, where people wear Hawaiian shirts (or what they call Aloha shirts) on Fridays? I didn't.

Mid-month, we had some visitors who were in Haiti doing training in broadcast journalism, and when they came over for dinner I learned a lot about that field and how people are trained for it. I always love being introduced to a brand-new-to-me world like that.

I read this horrifying article about the new airport they are building in New Orleans in spite of the apparently certain fact that it won't be long before New Orleans is underwater. "This," the author concludes, "is an airport for the end of the world." This article made me think of a book I read a few years ago about kids in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans of the (apparently nearer than I thought) future. The book was Ship Breaker, by Paolo Bacigalupi, and I went looking for more books by this author after I had bathed my brain in depressing information by reading about present-day New Orleans. The library didn't have the sequel, The Drowned Cities (yeah, I know), but I was able to get the third one, Tool of War, which is not at all my type of book, but which I enjoyed immensely. (It was one of those times, like when I read the Passage series by Justin Cronin a few years ago, about a vampire virus and the end of the world, that I started to wonder if I am even fully aware what my type of book is.) It seems counter-intuitive that reading a novel about the horrible, dystopian effects of climate change would cheer me up, but you have to think that if human beings are able to imagine and create like that, maybe we're not quite so doomed as the news makes it sound like we are. I also tried another Bacigalupi title, this one about the former United States being split into many different countries, all fighting one another over water (The Water Knife), but that one was a little too depressing and I didn't finish it. From Bacigalupi I learned the world arcology, which at first I thought was his own creation, like the lower-case word orleans, a generic name for drowned city, but it's actually an archeological term, and you can read more about that here.

In a similar vein, I learned things I didn't want to know about plastic from the news, including reading a story (to which I will not link) about how there's plastic even in our digestive systems, as though we were goats eating whatever we can find at the garbage dump.

I'm sure I learned other things too, but the list petered out there, as Spirit Week led into the end of the month, and tune in next month to see what I learn in November!

(Here's what I learned in September, and that post includes links to all my other "What I Learned" posts from this year.)

Spiritual Journey First Thursday: Gather

We gather together to ask the Lord's blessing.

Of course we can ask for His blessing by ourselves. But so often, it is in gathering that we experience God's love. It is in bringing us together that He shows us His best gifts.

Recently I read a piece by Jonathan Martin talking about Communion, or maybe I heard it on his podcast? I'm not sure, and I can't find the exact reference. But what he said stuck with me: it isn't our Table. It's God's Table. He invites the guests; we don't. Many years ago, I wrote a similar idea to a friend expressing my gratitude to God for bringing us together. I made a comparison to playdates, the way you find other children that you think your own children will enjoy. Sometimes God puts us in other people's lives to benefit everyone involved; through the years we irritate each other, argue, make up, rub off each other's sharp edges, make each other laugh, encourage each other. We have fun together. I picture God looking at that and taking pleasure in it.

We are in a time when we are deeply aware of the divisions among us. People attack others. Hatred abounds. Evil is real, and it is terrifying. Sometimes it seems as though it would be easier to hide away.

And yet, there is good in gathering. Through others, we are enriched.

In this piece, Jennifer Oldham writes about planting a garden and trying to protect it from pests by draping it in mesh. Instead of protecting her garden, she found she was keeping pollinators away:

"I was in disbelief. There is a tree directly above my garden that is full of bees. The bees and the location of the garden should have been a perfect match. Why weren’t they pollinating? All they had to do was fly down and do their thing. And then it dawned on me. The mesh. I was keeping them from producing by prohibiting their access to the flowers. I nervously removed the mesh. Within weeks, things started to grow. I immediately saw the similarities between what I’d done to my garden and what I’d done to myself at times.

As an introvert, I have sometimes shied away from opportunities that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. In doing so, I have sometimes stifled my own growth. There were times when I chose to hide myself in a cloak of invisibility because being seen by others felt too risky. Visibility includes the potential for embarrassment or being misunderstood."

You should read the whole thing here.

When I think of the people in my life in this way, as guests that God has assembled for His own purposes, for pollination, in theory it should help me accept the comings and goings - especially the goings. I should know that there will be more guests along soon, more opportunities for connection with the same people or others, more chances to share ideas and enrich one another. There will be ENOUGH. I say "in theory," because I struggle constantly with this, in spite of my efforts to think calm spiritual thoughts about it. I love the gathering, and grieve the scattering.

For July's Spiritual Journey First Thursday, I shared the Sara Groves song "Every Minute." (You can listen here.)

And I wish all the people I love the most
Could gather in one place,
And know each other and love each other well.
And I wish we could all go camping
And lie beneath the stars 
And have nothing to do and stories to tell.
We'd sit around the campfire
And we'd make each other laugh, remembering when.
You're the first one I'm inviting;
Always know that you're invited, my friend.
And at the risk of wearing out my welcome,
At the risk of self-discovery,
I'll take every moment
And every minute that you'll give me,
Every moment and every minute that you'll give me,
Every moment and every minute that you'll give me,
Every minute...

It's easy for me to seize those moments, but hard when the moments are over and I am left behind. I need to trust that God will bring me more hellos after the goodbyes.

Be sure to visit Ramona's page to see what others have written about this month's word, GATHER.