Monday, December 30, 2019

Reading Update

I doubt I'll finish any more books this year; if I do, I'll add them to the bottom of this post.

Book #115 of 2019 was The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. I really enjoyed this verse novel about Xiomara, her twin Xavier, and the boy, Aman, she's starting to like.

I wanted to tell her that if Aman were a poem
he'd be written slumped across the page,
sharp lines, and a witty punch line
written on a bodega brown paper bag.

His hands, writing gently on our lab reports,
turned into imagery,
his smile the sweetest unclichéd simile.

He is not elegant enough for a sonnet,
too well-thought-out for a free write,
taking too much space in my thoughts
to ever be a haiku.

Book #116 was Opening the Stable Door: An Advent Reader, by Dale and Jonalyn Fincher. I last read this one in 2013.

Book #117 was The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver. I had read it before, ten years ago (here's my review from back then), but this time I read it aloud to my husband. We both enjoyed it immensely.
Book #118 was The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo. I loved this story of siblings and their parents' marriage. It took me a while to get into it; I didn't like the first few pages at all and almost didn't continue. But I was very glad I didn't give up. I am not sure how she managed it, but Lombardo structured this book so brilliantly. It jumps all around in time and from character to character, but without confusing the reader at all (once you get past the beginning). We see major events through the eyes of each of the daughters, and we see the relationships as living, growing organisms.
Book #119 was a reread of Turn My Mourning into Dancing: Finding Hope in Hard Times, by Henri Nouwen. I bought this in January and I've already read it three times (it's short). Highly recommended.

Book #120 was Comfort Ye My People: The Real World Meets Handel's Messiah, 26 Readings for Advent, by Kay Bruner. I've read this a couple of times before during Advent, and it's so good. Each reading includes a link so you can listen to a YouTube video of the section of the music she's referencing.

Book #121 was a Christmas gift from my son, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible, by Debbie Blue. This reminded me of Lauren Winner, and, bingo, Lauren Winner wrote the Foreword. I am a sucker for this kind of midrashy reconsidering of familiar texts. The lovely woodblock illustrations by Blue's husband, Jim Larson, are a bonus.

This was an excellent reading year. Being unable to go out for days at a time makes for prime reading conditions. One thing I especially enjoyed was how many books I read with my husband. We have always read books together, since our dating years, but this year we had a lot of extra time at home together, and this was one really nice result.

Here are links to my previous Reading Update posts.

Books #1-#5
Books #6-#11
Books #12-#16
Books #17-#29
Books #30-#35
Books #36-#41
Books #42-#50
Books #51-#61
Books #62-#71
Books #72-#79
Books #80-#92
Books #93-#100
Books #101-#114

What did you read this year that you think I should add to my list for next year? Where did you disagree with my opinions? I love to talk about my reading almost as much as I love to read! Talk to me in the comments, here or on Facebook!

Friday, December 27, 2019

Poetry Friday: The Last Thing

I'm ending the year with this poem by Ada Limón, "The Last Thing."

The Last Thing
Ada Limón

First there was the blue wing
of a scraggly loud jay tucked
into the shrubs. Then the bluish-
black moth drunkenly tripping
from blade to blade. Then
the quiet that came roaring
in like the R. J. Corman over
Broadway near the RV shop.
These are the last three things
that happened.

Here's the rest of it, leading up to my favorite part, the last three lines...

I can't help it. I will
never get over making everything
such a big deal.

Michelle Kogan has the roundup today. See you in 2020!

Friday, December 20, 2019

Poetry Friday: OTR and Me

I just counted, and this is my fifty-first Poetry Friday post of the year. Once in July it was only a link to the roundup, but all the other Fridays of 2019 (so far, and there's just one week left after this one), I posted some actual content for Poetry Friday. To be honest this was kind of a crummy year in most ways, but that's a little achievement, right there.

I was listening this week to some Advent/Christmas/Winter music, and this Over The Rhine song caught my attention and made me think of a poem I wrote a few months ago. So I'll share both of them with you.

Worry Poem

“No need to worry,” he told me.
“You never need to worry.”

I wondered what would happen
if I listened, and never worried again,
calmed and relaxed,
knew deep down I’d always be safe,
breathed in and slowed down my heart rate
submerged myself in a warm bath of love,
rising up shiny and clean,
snorting and blowing bubbles
like a mama hippo.

I wondered what would happen
if I kept on worrying,
fretted and agonized,
built worst-case scenarios in the air,
clutched with sweaty fingers
all that I fear losing,
rolled myself up in a stressed-out ball,
raising my scaly defenses
like a mama pangolin.

Which shall I choose,
I asked myself,
like a mama person,
accustomed both to the kindness of others
and my own insecurities,
longing for worry-free living
and peaceful serenity,

Ruth, from

Buffy has today's roundup.

Friday, December 13, 2019

Poetry Friday: Reflections on Gardening, Growing, Teaching

I've been grading, and that's always a bit depressing, because I focus on how far short I fell of my teaching goals. This quarter that feeling is multiplied by a billion, as we're wrapping up our distance learning, forced on us by riots and peyi lok (locked country) here in Haiti. (I've been writing about it for weeks and weeks, so you can get more information on the details by scrolling down on my blog.)

In the midst of these thoughts, I read Amy Ludwig VanDerwater's post from last week about planting bulbs in November. Six hundred bulbs, to be precise. Can you even imagine how wonderful that's going to be in the spring? Amy's title was "Choose Good Work, Write About It." That started me thinking about a poem I wrote two years ago comparing teaching to gardening. Here it is.  I talked about how growing is mysterious. We do our part, like Amy, but then there's the magic that takes place out of sight.

As part of the self-evaluation I had my seventh and eighth grade students do at the end of this quarter, I asked them to write about something they had learned during this time that they wouldn't have otherwise. That's due today, so I've only read a few of the responses, but so far I've found they learned about how hard it is to do your work when the external structure is taken away. One said he learned about how to keep his mom from being mad at him: by doing his assignments! One girl simply wrote that she learned to be grateful.

Here's a poem that came out of all this ruminating:

Distance Learning, Fall 2019

This growing season,
it felt as though I took the seeds to the window
and just flung them out,
and the wind blew them away,
or the birds ate them,
or they landed on the road and got trampled.

Did any even hit soil, I wondered,
as, each day, I opened the window
and chucked out another bucketful of seeds?

And so I am happy
to see, here and there,
plants springing up.
I don’t know what they are,
if they came from the seeds in my bucket
or from somewhere else entirely.
I don’t know how they’ll do next week
or next month
or at the harvest.

All I know is that I didn’t hoard the seeds
in brightly colored Tupperware.
I sent them out.
I did.


Liz Steinglass has the roundup today.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Reading Update

Book #101 of 2019 was Ask Again, Yes, by Mary Beth Keane, the story of Peter and Kate, who grow up next to each other outside New York City with their cop fathers and their suburban families. There's trauma in this book, but it's ultimately uplifting, and I enjoyed the believable character development.

Book #102 was Soaring Earth, by Margarita Engle. This is a verse memoir by the current Young People's Poet Laureate, originally from Cuba. It covers her adolescence during the Vietnam War. Here's a taste from an early poem in the book, "Daydreamer."

After those childhood summers in Cuba,
when my two-winged freedom to travel
was lost on both sides of the ocean,
I learned to imagine wholeness
by settling
into the weight
of motionless

But the world isn't heavy, not really,
it flies
through the galaxy
orbiting around the sun, spinning
on an invisible axis and soaring far away
all at the same time, while floating people pretend
that we feel safely

Book #103 was a teaching book, Focus Lessons: How Photography Enhances the Teaching of Writing, by Ralph Fletcher. I was so excited when I first read about this book, because I have done a lot of thinking about the connections between photography and writing, and even written some posts here on the topic. Fletcher's book is gorgeous (filled with his photos) and helpful; he writes about some of the same things I had thought of, and also goes in directions my mind hadn't taken me yet. He's a way more accomplished photographer than I am, for one thing, as well as being a widely published writer. The book includes a wonderful collection of Craft Lessons, ready to use with kids. Highly recommended for teachers, no matter what age your students are.

Book #104 was Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, by Gary D. Schmidt. This book has been in my classroom forever, and I am Gary Schmidt's #1 fan, so it's surprising I hadn't read this yet. I have had students read it at various times, and it's been well-received. It's so good, but also so sad. It's based on a true story, and set in 1912; the main characters, Turner Buckminster and Lizzie Bright Griffin, are compelling and memorable. I'm glad I finally read it.

Book #105 was Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir, by Ruth Reichl, the story of Reichl's connection to Gourmet magazine, of which she was the editor in chief. This is beautifully written, and Reichl's narrative voice is irresistible, so even though it is about a world in which I'm frankly not that interested (glamorous food publishing from 1999 until Gourmet magazine's demise in 2009), I loved it. My favorite part is towards the end, when Reichl goes to Paris on a shoestring, though I strongly suspect her idea of a shoestring differs quite a bit from mine. And while I will never make any of the recipes, it's fun to read almost anything about which the writer is this enthusiastic.

Book #106 was the first draft of a novel by someone in my writing group. It was really good but I can't say more about it yet!

Book #107 was The Last Romantics, by Tara Conklin, a story about siblings navigating crisis together, and then the way the rest of their lives unfold.

Book #108 was Summer of '69, by Elin Hilderbrand. While this one was a less serious novel than the last (it even has a beach scene on the cover, as opposed to the twining plants of The Last Romantics), I actually enjoyed it more and found the characters more believable.

Book #109 was Turn My Mourning into Dancing, by Henri Nouwen. There was a quote from it posted on Facebook that caught my attention, and it turned out to be just what I needed to be reading right now. So much so that in addition to being the 109th book of the year, it was also book #114. And I'm reading it again.

Here's a quote from it: "For in our suffering, not apart from it, Jesus enters our sadness, takes us by the hand, pulls us gently up to stand, and invites us to dance. We find the way to pray, as the psalmist did, 'You have turned my mourning into dancing' (Ps. 30:11), because at the center of our grief we find the grace of God."

Book #110 was a re-read, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in 12 Simple Words, by Brian D. McLaren. I wrote about it before here and here.

Book #111 was Second Nature: A Gardener's Education, by Michael Pollan. This book has a lot of fascinating thoughts in it, but since I'm not a gardener, I'm not sure I fully appreciated it as it should be appreciated. It was my first Michael Pollan book. Here's a quote I underlined: "Proust wrote somewhere that the reason beautiful places sometimes disappoint us in reality is that the imagination can only lay hold of that which is absent. It traffics not in the data of our senses, but in memories and dreams and desires." Hmm. I'll have to think about that one some more.

Book #112 was The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy. This was another book full of fascinating thoughts, in this case about how we are connected with other people by the past. I think I was too distracted while reading it to appreciate it fully, and I hope to reread it some day when I am in a more focused state of mind.

Book #113 was The Next Right Thing, by Emily P. Freeman. I listened to almost every minute of the podcast on which this book was based, so it wasn't new material to me, but I still found it helpful and beautiful and calming. Plus, I could hear it in my head in Emily P.'s soothing voice.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Poetry Friday: Blessing in the Chaos

Things have been pretty chaotic around here lately. In the world, and also in my heart. This poem by Jan Richardson helps. 

Blessing in the Chaos
Jan Richardson

To all that is chaotic
in you,
let there come silence.

Let there be
a calming
of the clamoring,
a stilling
of the voices that
have laid their claim
on you,
that have made their
home in you,

that go with you
even to the
holy places
but will not
let you rest,
will not let you
hear your life
with wholeness
or feel the grace
that fashioned you.

Let what distracts you

Here's the rest at Jan's blog, The Painted Prayerbook, plus some of her thoughts about the poem.

Tanita has the roundup today.

Spiritual Journey Thursday: OLW 2019

Our theme this month for Spiritual Journey Thursday requires us to revisit the One Little Word we chose for 2019. So the first thing I did was go back and read my post from the beginning of the year. Here it is. My OLW was Possibility. I quoted Henri Nouwen and Nichole Nordeman and Emily Dickinson and Pharrell Williams and the Bible, and just generally went on and on in a fashion that now makes me roll my eyes at the irony of it all. A better word for 2019 would have been Impossibility. As I start to consider words for 2020, perhaps Impossibility should be my choice, or Despair, or maybe Futility.

I mean, sure, we made the best of it this year. As we went through week after week of lockdown and political unrest and stress (just scroll through the year's posts for evidence), we, my colleagues and I, did our best to keep teaching (in disrupted days, then half days, then distance learning). We learned about the intricacies of Google Classroom and adapted lessons. I read lots of books and watched birds in my yard. I wrote updates in email and on Facebook and tried to keep Haiti in people's minds. I spent extra time with my husband and son and rode the exercise bike and attempted to maintain my mental health. I invited near neighbors over and served them chai. I wrote poems and short stories. I encouraged my students and their families as much as I could.

And last week, a lot of schools in Haiti opened, some for the first time this school year. (Here's an article in English about it and here's one in French.) And that's great. But only about a quarter of the kids were there; parents were cautious and scared, and there were still threats against the safety of students venturing out. Schools recommended that their pupils not come in uniform, since uniforms draw attention. Are you getting the picture that schools opening doesn't mean that things are back to normal?

While I recognize that difficult times help us grow spiritually, I am also sad that so many children have missed so much school this year. Children get one childhood, and it's already short. And school is only one aspect of the disruption in Haiti. Health care and the economy have been affected, too. There's a looming food crisis. There's been violence and fear. I'm not quite ready to wrap up this year with a bow and say it was all OK. (Please don't hear me making political statements or taking sides; I don't know the solutions to Haiti's problems, of which there are many.)

If you read my post from January, you'll see that I wrote about how some of the possibilities for the year were always negative. I used the metaphors of tornadoes and earthquakes (and earthquakes are not always metaphors in these parts). It didn't take any prescience to envision yucky possibilities for the year; we were already in the throes of political crisis when 2019 began. It just kept getting worse, and as the year ends, it's not resolved.
And yet. It isn't wrapping it all up with a bow to say that God never let go of me in 2019. In spite of everything. Even on the worst days. Listen to Andrew Peterson's song (and read the lyrics on the screen in the video), and that's my testimony too.

Irene has our roundup today.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Poetry Friday: Ode to my Work

Every year I read Pablo Neruda odes with my eighth graders around Thanksgiving. Here's last year's ode post, with links to other ode posts, and odes, from every year since 2010. Of course, this year I'm teaching my students over the internet because of Haiti's unrest, but that doesn't mean we can't read and write odes. I sent them some links to ode videos on YouTube, like this one:
and this one:

I suggested they choose something to write about that they really, really love. And then I tried to do the same. As I'd advised my students, I made a list of things I was thankful for, things I really, really love. And I kept coming back to teaching, and my job, and, well, them. Those students.

Here's my first draft. Their first drafts are due tomorrow, so I've only read one so far, and I can't wait to read the rest.

Ode to my Work (first draft)

Work to do,
problems to solve,
a place to belong:
my job.

A paycheck is good,
but oh, Work,
you are so much more to me than that.
On days when burning barricades
keep me from you,
how I miss you!

I miss greeting my students,
learning their language,
finding ways to reach them.
I miss the conversation.
I miss the words:
the books we read together,
the mentor texts,
the new vocabulary.

I miss school lunch,
break duty with my whistle hanging around my neck,
meetings with my colleagues,
managing my classroom library.

I miss creating my lesson plans,
planning how I want the time to go.
Of course,
sometimes it doesn’t go
exactly the way I had in mind,
but that’s the best part,
adapting and adjusting,
explaining it a different way,
figuring out how to make it work.

Figuring out how to make it work, Work,
that’s what I love about you.

I miss stepping into my room,
a room to which I have the key,
a room with my name on the door,
a room I set up,
a room with my handwriting on the board,
my fingerprints everywhere.
I miss the me-shaped space.

Ruth, from

When I wrote "I miss the conversation," I meant the literal conversation with my students, but I also meant the Great Conversation, and our little part in it. But of course, that Conversation goes on. I'm inspired by Neruda (by way of Nancie Atwell), and last week my poem about the ovenbird, inspired by the bird itself (by way of Robert Frost) and illustrated by a photo from, inspired Michelle Kogan to create this wonderful picture, which she posted on Facebook one day last week as a greeting to all her friends with a birthday that day (and which she graciously granted me permission to post here, also):

Here's this week's roundup, all the way from Switzerland.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Poetry Friday: Ovenbird in Haiti

This morning I sat on my rocking chair on my front porch, clutching my binoculars, looking for birds. I didn't see much life today, but I did see one guy whom I'd never seen before, an addition to my list. I quickly identified him with the Merlin app on my phone: an ovenbird.

Here's a photo from to show you how he looked; he was a perfect specimen.
I immediately thought I remembered that Frost had written an ovenbird poem, so I looked it up and found it a little bit of a downer after watching this confident, cheerful bird. After his, I'm going to share my poem about the ovenbird. Although Frost spelled the name as two words, all my bird sources spell it as one, so I'm sticking with one for my poem.

The Oven Bird
by Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

Ovenbird in Haiti
by Ruth, from

Greetings, winter visitor to my yard,
jauntily strutting about in search of bugs to eat,
holding your orange stripy head up!
You don't seem to me to be talking about diminishment,
whatever Robert Frost had to say,
but then again, you're on a Caribbean vacation,
relaxing over your exotic snack,
so perhaps you're saving your philosophizing
for another time.
Make yourself at home, beady-eyed tourist,
puffing out your pale chest,
streaked with brown.
Welcome to a new November day!

We're still not having regular school here in Haiti, but doing our best with distance learning. I just can't wait to get back to teaching in my classroom and seeing my students' faces. But in the meantime, I'm learning new things every day.

I forgot that our host today, Rebecca at Sloth Reads, had asked us to write about food. I decided my poem counts, since my visitor from the north was definitely eating. My books and app told me that these birds are usually found on the ground, looking for food, and sure enough, that's exactly where mine was. Head on over to Rebecca's site to see what others have to share today.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Poetry Friday: First Frost

Here in Haiti this fall of our discontent drags on. We are still not having school, still sitting at home smelling burning rubber as angry protestors man flaming barricades and demand that motorists pay for the privilege of passing. This week was a bit calmer in our area, but not in other parts of the city and the country.

Meanwhile, far north of here, winter seems to be getting an early start. A friend took some photos of the first frost and sent them to me, and it felt so good to think and write about something other than what's going on here (my largely stalled NaNoWriMo project, like my life, consisted of Haiti topics). I got permission to share the photos along with my poem.

First Frost

Into my tropical reality
comes a glimpse of another world,
a stillness before the day’s business begins,
first frost,
every surface edged with a fuzz of ice,
your mother’s tree outlined with a fringe of cold,
the garden hose lying idle,
the withered yellow flower that somehow still manages beauty
and you, crunching across the grass to document it,
following the visible puffs of your own breath,
taking dozens of pictures to freeze this moment
because, like all moments,
it will thaw and pass away.

Ruth, from

Another reminder that life goes on in spite of the stalled political, economic, and educational situation here in Haiti came this week with a transmission from Nokomis, the great blue heron banded in Maine who likes to spend her winters here in the sunny Caribbean. (Here's my post and poem about her from exactly a year ago today.) She hadn't been heard from in a while, but now they found out that she's in Cuba and on her way south.
Source: Heron Observation Network of Maine

And another thing happening the way it's supposed to: today's Poetry Friday roundup! Head over there to see what people are sharing today, and to join in the celebration of the arrival of The Best of Today's Little Ditty: 2017-2018!

Friday, November 08, 2019

Poetry Friday: An Incomplete Picture

I read an article this morning with the headline: "International Media Often Paints an Incomplete Picture of the Situation, says Haitian Studies Association." It's not really surprising that that should be the case. Every picture is incomplete; every sound byte is from one person's perspective; every opinion is formed by one person's experience.

Like everywhere else, most people aren't as concerned with the politics as with their daily struggle to get to work, to earn a living, to provide for their families. Some people feel strongly; presumably they are the ones out demonstrating. Others are just waiting to see what will happen and don't necessarily think that a change of who's at the top will change their lives much one way or the other. I've heard people speak passionately on both sides of the current struggle, and each one was giving an incomplete picture.

Right now children in Haiti can't go to school. Businesses can't function normally. Hospitals can't treat people. Yesterday in my area things seemed almost normal, but then I talked to someone who had taken two hours to get to work (about seven miles), and she said they had to weave around all different back roads and cross several barricades (sometimes paying for the privilege).

Here's a six minute video in English giving some background.

Even in my own head and heart, any moment is an incomplete picture. Sometimes I feel hopeful and encouraged. (A student sent me some writing that was such a good start!) Sometimes I am discouraged and can't see any hope anywhere. (I got an email from an administrator at work with the word "predictable-ish" in the subject line!) I read about street merchants having their artwork cut up and burned by protesters. But I also had a chai party with a bunch of colleagues and people were speculating that maybe the worst was over already. Yesterday I read about people getting burned by an attack on public transport (both sides blamed the other). But then also yesterday, there was traffic out and "people were timidly resuming their activities," as the local media always expresses it. (I love that word "timidly" because it really is perfect. You can sense the tension everyone is experiencing, and people are ready to run and hide at a moment's notice.)

And today I saw a bird in my yard that I'm pretty sure was this guy:

Like the timid people in the streets, he flew away when I attempted to examine him a bit more closely.

It's all partial and incomplete.

I've been trying to do NaNoWriMo, with very limited success. I'm to the point where I hate everything I write and know for a fact that I have no words worth reading. Since my own writing is going so badly, here's someone else's for Poetry Friday this week. As Douglas Dunn says in this poem, "I Am a Cameraman," each sentence of mine "shrugs off every word I try."

I Am a Cameraman
by Douglas Dunn

They suffer, and I catch only the surface.
The rest is inexpressible, beyond
What can be recorded. You can't be them.
If they'd talk to you, you might guess
What pain is like though they might spit on you.

Film is just a reflection
Of the matchless despair of the century.
There have been twenty centuries since charity began.
Indignation is day-to-day stuff;
It keeps us off the streets, it keeps us watching.

Film has no words of its own.
It is a silent waste of things happening
Without us, when it is too late to help.
What of the dignity of those caught suffering?
It hurts me. I robbed them of privacy.

My young friends think Film will be all of Art.
It will be revolutionary proof
Their films will not guess wrongly and will not lie.
They'll film what is happening behind barbed wire.
They'll always know the truth and be famous.

Politics softens everything.
Truth is known only to its victims.
All else is photographs - a documentary
The starving and the playboys perish in.
Life disguises itself with professionalism.

Life tells the biggest lies of all,
And draws wages from itself.
Truth is a landscape the saintly tribes live on,
And all the lenses of Japan and Germany
Wouldn't know how to focus on it.

Life flickers on the frame like beautiful hummingbirds.
That is the film that always comes out blank.
The painting the artist can't get shapes to fit.
The poem that shrugs off every word you try.
The music no one has ever heard.


Irene has today's roundup.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Saints

Today our host Margaret asked us to reflect on the subject of saints. I become more interested in saints all the time; not just the ones the church has designated as saints, but the people around us, alive and dead, whom scripture calls the "great cloud of witnesses."

Here are the two songs that come to mind most when I think of saints.

Great Cloud of Witnesses
by Carolyn Arends

I was just four, my grandmother’s place
I knelt by her sofa and started this race
And now I’ve been running for such a long while
I’ve kind of lost track of the miles
Sometimes I press on, sometimes I look back
Sometimes I just lie in the road on my back
When I’ve got to get up and I don’t know how
I hear in the distance the roar of a crowd

It’s the great cloud of witnesses
Cheering me on each step that I go
It’s the great cloud of witnesses
They say the finish is worth every inch of the road

Moses is there, up in his seat
With my Grandad Wilfred, my Nana Bernice
There’s Abraham, Isaac and my buddy Rich
And I think they’re shouting "Don’t quit!"

So if you are tired, and your back is sore
If you’re not so sure you can run anymore
Then just take a moment and listen real close
Do you hear a sound like a heavenly host?

It’s the great cloud of witnesses
Cheering us on each step that we go
It’s the great cloud of witnesses
They say the finish is worth every inch of the road

It’s friends and relations and each generation of saints who believed
And received The Prize
They have looked into His eyes

It’s the great cloud of witnesses … 

This world is so full of discouraging facts, but I am thankful for the people I can look at as inspirations, role models, sources of encouragement, those people who are following our progress, praying for us, thinking the best of us and for us. 

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Reading Update

The image above was posted on Facebook this week by Pascal Antoine, Founder and President at Haitixchange. I loved the sentiment it expresses. The Kreyol text says: "A locked-down country doesn't mean a locked-down mind. Take advantage of the opportunity to learn something new and make yourself better." (Peyi lock is what people are calling the current situation in Haiti, when we all stay home due to streets blocked with burning barricades.)

This is the Haitian way; make the best of things. I've seen it again and again during my time here. People don't sit around and mope; they get up and hustle and provide and try and keep trying. After the earthquake, I read this post about a new phrase, "Haitian up." "Hospital workers," reports the article, "say they've rarely seen patients so stoic in the face of horrific loss and adversity. 'We've created the phrase "Haitian up," says Dr. Justine Crowley, meaning, 'toughen up or buck up.'"

I have been trying to follow the advice to Haitian up and learn something new, and one way I do that is by reading books. I am very aware of the layers of privilege that have allowed me to spend large chunks of my extra time in these days reading. I have an education; I have access to books in my first language; I have enough to eat and drink to provide me with energy I need; I am healthy.

Here are some books I've been reading lately.

Book #93 of 2019 was Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry. My friend Janet, who wrote and published her dissertation on Wendell Berry, recommended this book in an email exchange about our daughters going to college and ways to navigate this enormous life change. This was my first Wendell Berry novel, and it won't be my last. "I began to know my story then," says Hannah when she loses her first husband. "Like everybody's it was going to be the story of living in the absence of the dead. What is the thread that holds it all together? Grief, I thought for a while. And grief is there sure enough, just about all the way through. From the time I was a girl I have never been far from it. But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you, for it is always there, even in the dark, or most in the dark, but shining out at times like gold stitches in a piece of embroidery. Sometimes too I could see that love is a great room with a lot of doors, where we are invited to knock and come in. Though it contains all the world, the sun, the moon, and stars, it is so small as to be also in our hearts. It is in the hearts of those who choose to come in. Some do not come in. Some may stay out forever, some come in together and leave separately. Some come in and stay, until they die, and after....I am there with all the others, most of them gone but some who are still here, who gave me love and called forth love from me. When I number them over, I am surprised how many there are. And so I have to say that another of the golden threads is gratitude."

Books #94, #95, and #96 were the Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, by Laini Taylor. (I read these on my Kindle, but the only link I can find to the trilogy is a boxed paperback set). I read these several years ago, and enjoyed them again the second time through. I really appreciate Laini Taylor's storytelling skill. Her characters are so believable, which is an odd thing to say about monsters and angels and people of other worlds, but a true thing. The story is absorbing and as such, a perfect series to read during my current life situation.

Book #97 was The Horse and his Boy, by C. S. Lewis. I've been reading this series since I was seven years old. These are the books I turn to when I need a comfort read.

(Quotes from the illustrations, in case you can't read them: "Don't speak to me, don't speak to me," said Tumnus. "I'm thinking. I'm thinking so that I can hardly breathe.Wait, wait, do wait." And then later, this perfect description: "One of the drawbacks about adventures is that when you come to the most beautiful places you are often too anxious and hurried to appreciate them; so that Aravis (though she remembered them years later) had only a vague impression of grey lawns, quietly bubbling fountains, and the long black shadows of cypress trees.")

Book #98 was A Better Man, by Louise Penny, the latest Chief Inspector Gamache novel. I like but don't love this series. I'm sure I'll read the next one, too.

Book #99 was Reckless in Red, by Rachael Miles. The author of this series, the Muses' Salon Series, is a friend from graduate school. I enjoy her knowledge of the period; a favorite scene in this book was the gathering of women discussing the recent revision Coleridge has put out of Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Other things I loved: the way the main character imagines everyone she meets as part of a painting, the plot twist involving grave robbery, the shop called The African's Daughter, run by Constance Equiano (I hope she'll be writing a book where this character is the protagonist).

Book #100 was John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes.
It took me a long time to read this book, not because I wasn't enjoying it, but because I so often reach for my Kindle instead of a giant book. My Kindle easily goes with me from place to place; it's lightweight and doesn't take up a lot of space. I can read it when I wake up in the night without turning on a light and waking my husband because it's backlit. In principle I prefer real books, but in practice I am afraid I am very much a convert to reading on the Kindle.

I liked this book so much, and learned so much from it. I am interested in Audubon for obvious reasons: he was born in Haiti and he loved birds so much that most people know his name today as the name of a bird conservation organization. My favorite quote from the book is from a letter to his wife, from whom he was separated for years by his work on his masterpiece Birds of America. "'For God's sake, my Lucy,' he added passionately, 'do not be troubled with curious ideas such as my liking the birds better than thee, &c., &c., &c. Come and be mine.'" The subtitle, "The Making of an American," refers to Audubon's life-long efforts to make himself part of his adopted country. (Another way to put that would be his life-long efforts to hide his origins. More on that fascinating topic can be found in this article, "Audubon's Haiti.") Audubon was forced by the prevailing culture of the day to be ashamed of his mixed race heritage and lived in fear of someone finding out.

One of the main reasons I read biographies is to learn about the struggles the subjects had. We all know what people are famous for, but a biography can show you more about what people worried about, what their financial issues were, how they failed, whom they loved. Audubon was a remarkable, one of a kind man, but he also had many problems. That he succeeded with his amazing achievement, Birds of America, is a testament to his perseverance and hard work. He had such a vision for what he wanted to do, and he just kept at it, even when those closest to him didn't really get it. He kept improving his artistic technique and knowledge. And he did like the birds. I don't know if he liked them more than Lucy, but it was at any rate close. It's so inspiring to read about someone motivated by a genuine passion for a scientific subject.

The other thing that I will remember from this book is Audubon's descriptions of the enormous bounty of wildlife when he was discovering America for himself. Again and again he tells of scenes where there were thousands of birds. Some of these birds are now extinct; the survivors exist in far smaller numbers today. Audubon saw it happening in his own lifetime. It's just heartbreaking to see what our ancestors did to slaughter everything they found. Audubon killed too, but at least he did it to preserve. We owe so much of what we know about birds to him.

I'm so thankful that these books are helping me get through this time of peyi lock. I'm going to keep reading! Send me suggestions for books you think I'd like!

Friday, November 01, 2019

Poetry Friday: Lockdown Yoga

My friend Alexis Kreiner wrote this poem when friends in the US kept telling her to do plenty of self-care during this lockdown in Haiti. Specifically, many suggested yoga. Alexis says she doesn't ever write poetry, but she just couldn't bypass this opportunity. Thanks for letting me share it, friend!

If you don't live in Haiti, you won't fully appreciate all Alexis' clever references, but you will pick up on the fact that all of us here in Haiti are tired of lockdown and want to go back to our regular lives.

DO YOGA, THEY SAID (by Alexis) Welcome, To lockdown yoga, A manifestation, Of mindfulness, Attempted self-care, And deliberate ignoring. To begin, We inhale, The charcoal smoke, From the neighbor, And we exhale, All plans for the week. We bend, Forward to the mat, Stretching the muscles, Beginning to atrophy, From Netflix "self-care." We sit, Cross-legged now, Raising our arms, Above as a flame, We call this one, The 'burning tire.' We descend, Back lying on mat, Legs outstretched, We move now, Into my favorite pose, The 'road barricade.' We raise, Our aware bodies, Bringing our focus, To the present, While fully ignoring, The shots fired. We lift, Arms above head, Slowly leaning back, Going steeper, And painfully long, Just like the weeks. We bring, Ourselves back, To our center place, Stretching shoulders, Holding in core, And desire to scream. We pretend, This helps something, Stops the rocks, Flying at windows, Angrily claiming this, Self-care damn it. We thank, Our tense bodies, And high lakou walls, And admit honestly, Feeling more stressed, By lockdown yoga.

Tabatha has today's roundup. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Poetry Friday: Still More about Windows

Three years ago, I wrote for Poetry Friday about reading the poem "After the Blizzard, Outside My Window," by Lesléa Newman, from the Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, with my seventh graders. They surprised and amused me with their reaction, and I wrote a sonnet, "Why I Can't Look out the Window," about what they said. Then last year, I shared my sonnet plus another poem, "Out the Window," that I wrote about the next year's seventh graders' comments in a class discussion on what was outside their windows.  Most of them said there was absolutely nothing interesting outside their windows, but I found their Haitian views interesting.

This year, I was looking at my window poems and thinking about what children can see out their windows in this time of unrest and confusion in our island home. Many children are sitting at home now with little to do but look out the window, since thousands of schools all over Haiti are closed. Those who look out may find burning tires, large groups of demonstrators, clouds of tear gas. Everything beautiful is still there, too, but sometimes it's hard to see it.
A bird outside a window at my house; I believe it's a gray kingbird.

As I was contemplating these thoughts and a possible poem, my husband sent me some images that have been making the rounds on social media. They show people covering windows with concrete blocks. It's typical here to protect windows, whether in homes or businesses, with metal bars, but apparently these stores wanted more; rioters have been breaking windows with rocks, so it may not be a bad idea. Windows are expensive to replace. But windows are also designed to see through.

I wrote this poem in response:

Block it Up

Block it up,
cover the glass
with concrete,
protect what’s inside
from angry crowds,
turn the window
into a wall.

Block it up,
block it up!

How will anyone see in?
How will anyone see out?

It doesn’t matter!
Better closed than smashed!
Better blocked than vulnerable!

Something there is that loves a wall.

Block it up!

Ruth, from

Oh, friends, what a struggle it is to figure out how far to be open, and how far to protect ourselves and stay safe! I mean that in every possible way from entirely metaphorically to extremely literally.

Today, on this Poetry Friday, the Catholic church in this country has called for a day of prayer and fasting for an end, with peace and justice, to the crisis in Haiti. If you're so inclined, we would welcome your participation. We're tired and ready for the walls of separation to come down. We're ready to see better things when we look out the window.

Karen Edmisten has the roundup today.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Poetry Friday: Catching Up

Due to Haiti's political situation, I've been spending many days at home over the past few weeks. One thing I've done to pass the time is listen to podcasts. One of my favorites is The Slowdown, hosted by the last Poet Laureate of the United States, Tracy K. Smith. Because it's daily, I quickly get way behind, but this week I listened to a lot of them, and I wanted to share a few of the poems I especially enjoyed.

The Boatman, by Carolyn Forché

Europa Nostra, by Nathalie Handal

What Does It Say, by Tess Gallagher

Haiku, by Etheridge Knight

Jama has the roundup today, so you can be sure there will be good snacks! Happy Friday!

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Reading Update

One advantage of not going to work and in fact hardly venturing beyond one's front gate is having extra time to read. Please send me suggestions of low-stress books to read. Funny books? Cheerful books? Absorbing books that will make me forget what's going on around me? Particularly books that I can download for free from the public library in the US that I frequent from afar? Leave them in the comments, please and thank you.

Book #80 of 2019 was Winter Morning Walks, by Ted Kooser. These are poems Kooser wrote and sent his friend Jim Harrison on a postcard. They are lovely and evocative and made me want to go on walks. (Here's a Poetry Friday post I wrote including a poem from this book.)

Book #81 was The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I didn't get this book at all, and had to force myself to finish it (because we're going to discuss it in my book group). The fault probably lies with me, because many other people have liked it a lot.

Book #82 was a re-read, Invitation to Tears: A Guide to Grieving Well, by Jonalyn Fincher and Aubrie Hills. I wrote a little bit about it here.

Book #83 was another re-read, Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver. I read it aloud to my husband, and we both liked it. I am a big Kingsolver fan, but reading this aloud made the didactic elements of the story stand out to me more than they did when I read it silently. I wrote about this book here back in 2013.

Book #84 was an old favorite, Persuasion, by Jane Austen. In spite of the troubles, two friends came over and we drank tea and talked about this book, and that was just what I needed. Incidentally, this time of reading it, this novel seems much more about dealing with difficulties than I had realized in the past. Anne's inability to have agency in so many of her life choices felt more stifling to me than I remember.

Book #85 was Aerie, by Maria Dahvana Headley. This was a sequel to Magonia, reviewed here. I really liked it, but I thought it was quite talky and I couldn't picture my students having the patience for it.

Book #86 was Educated, by Tara Westover. I had this book on hold at the library for months and months, and finally it came through. I enjoyed reading it but found the descriptions of abuse difficult. It's an amazing look at how you can live in a subculture and be completely unaware of the outside world and the way others see things. I also appreciated Westover's reflections on how memory works and how she gradually became able to look at her past with more and more courage and honesty. Recommended.

Book #87 was The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty. I liked this pretty well; it kept me reading.

Book #88 was The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, by Jeanne Birdsall. This was a recommendation from a friend for a comforting read (kind of like what I asked for in the first paragraph of this post). I enjoyed it, and the only thing that would have improved it for the purpose would have been if I had already read it when I was a tween.

Book #89 was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis. This is the ultimate comfort read, tried and true. It's the first book I read after the earthquake. When I decided I needed to read it, though, I couldn't find it. My son informed me, after hunting in my daughter's room, that all of C.S. Lewis' other books were in there, but not that one. I put out a lament on Facebook, and the next day a friend delivered a copy. It was just the ticket.

Book #90 was another re-read, Night of Cake and Puppets, by Laini Taylor.

Book #91 was a re-read, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Henri Nouwen. I really liked this the first time I read it, but this time it just depressed me. I'm sure the fault is with me and not the book.

Book #92 was another read-aloud to my husband. It was written by a schoolmate of his from Japan and it's called Growing Up Gaijin: An American Kid in 1960s Japan, by Ladd McDaniel. My husband and I enjoyed this very much; it was enough removed from our current surroundings to be relaxing and fun to read, and there was a lot in it that he could relate to, having also grown up as an American kid in Japan in the 1960s.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Poetry Friday: Fire

Today I will stay home and grade student assignments and send out encouraging notes and work on cheerfulness because things could be much worse. Four weeks of lockdown here in Haiti, but I haven't been hungry and the weather is lovely. Nobody is dropping bombs on me, and that's not something everyone can say. We even got to have two half-days of school this week (and they were wonderful).

And yet...

Usually I have an idea about midweek of what I want to post for Poetry Friday, but this week I woke Friday morning not knowing. I went to Poetry Foundation to find something. Let's see, how am I feeling today, I asked my fingers, and they idly typed in: "Anger." "Rage." "Fire."


So anyway, here's a poem I found to post.

Fire and Ice
Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Here is a poem I wrote called "Fire." I wrote it during another time of unrest in Haiti.

Here is today's roundup.

Friday, October 04, 2019

Poetry Friday: Lockdown

So as I've mentioned in my last couple of posts, we are in lockdown status here in Haiti. Yesterday we had a half day of school - the first this week - but today we are out again, due to huge protests that are supposedly going to take place. Protesters are marching in the streets with the goal of getting the current president to resign. In the process there has been a lot of burning and looting and general chaos. Plus, the whole country has basically shut down; people aren't going to work or school, and we're all waiting to find out what happens next.

We've been attempting to continue classes by using various online tools, and in some ways I feel as though I am just pretending things are normal. For example, today is the due date for final copies of all writing in my middle school classes, and I'm trying to stick to the due date. What that means is that I'm sitting in my classroom on the almost abandoned campus, because our internet at home isn't working. (Haiti runs on imported fossil fuel. There are fuel shortages. Nothing is working correctly.) It doesn't matter; I'm still reading students' work and putting down grades. Better to grumble under my breath about punctuation errors than about things falling apart around me.

On Wednesday, when the internet was working, I was texting with C., a friend here in Haiti. (She's also in my writing group.) I told her I was getting frustrated with life in lockdown. She suggested that I make something.  She said she'd made bread and kombucha, and was feeling much better as a result. I told her I'd make a poem, and she agreed that would probably work, too. Then she added, "You are required to use these five random words in your poem. And yes, your final grade will be affected."

The words she gave me? Lilac, popcorn, domino, traffic, trampoline.

I wrote my poem. I sent it to C., remarking that only I could take those words and still wind up with an emo poem, however nonsensical. She read it to her preschooler, who giggled. I giggled too, and life felt better.

My heart is like a trampoline,
You bounce with hob-nailed boots.

The dominoes all topple
As though they were in cahoots.

The air smells sweet, of lilacs,
with popcorn undertones,

And here comes lots of traffic
to break my fragile bones.

So here I am grading, and C. has promised to give me another five random words the next time I need them. Life's as normal as I can make it at this moment.

Here's today's roundup.

Thursday, October 03, 2019

First Thursday Spiritual Journey: Beauty

On this, the first Thursday in October, our host, Karen Eastlund, has invited us to reflect on the subject of beauty.

I spent a lot of time at home this month. And this wasn't the first lockdown of the year. Haiti has had a challenging year, and there have been several multi-week periods of strikes and protests. Of course the effects of this go way beyond my little life, but for my family, and for many others, what it means is virtual house arrest. We stay home because fuel is hard to come by, we stay home because our places of work are closed, and we stay home, sadly, because at times it is dangerous to go out.

So we look for beauty where we are.

I'm on my third year of a daily photo practice, where I follow prompts from the Capture Your 365 website. Yesterday's prompt was "Framing." I posted this photo:
I've been sitting on this porch watching birds during my forced staycation, rocking in that chair and peering through my binoculars and even recording some bird sounds on my phone. It's a peaceful spot, and it is beautiful to see the birds, but of course you can't see any birds in this photo. You can see the lovely stonework of the porch, and the lovely red tiles that I enjoy, and my lovely Haitian rocking chair, but you can also see many flaws.

Some of my Facebook friends were quick to comment on how beautiful the spot was, and a couple even said I should use it as a background for taking family portraits. Really, I wondered? Don't they see that the wall in front of the chair needs painting? Don't they see the barbed wire on the outer wall between the house and the road? (Nobody thinks barbed wire is beautiful.) Don't they see that the front yard is a wasteland? And that wall around the house used to be quite pretty, but last year a woman ploughed through it on her first driving lesson, and what replaced it isn't nearly as nice. You don't see my husband's bike repair equipment, because I got my son to move it for the photo, but that's usually there too. It's just like when I look at a photo of myself; I have to squint to avoid seeing all the things that are wrong and need to be fixed right away.

One of the reasons I do my daily photo project is that I want to be where I am, to appreciate what is around me instead of wishing myself elsewhere.  Sometimes the beauty is in how you look. Yes, this is a beautiful spot, and I love it. I love sitting there and exploring the beautiful world in front of me, listening to the sounds and gazing at the sights, enjoying the "good and perfect gifts" God has given me. (James 1:17 - "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.")

I choose to focus on what's beautiful.

Check out Karen's blog to see what others have posted on this topic!

Wednesday, October 02, 2019

What I Learned in September

September began normally in Haiti and ended abnormally. We had two weeks of regular school before strikes and protests erupted again and sent us into lockdown for most of the last two weeks of the month.

In addition to learning more about surviving at home for days at a time and attempting to instruct my students over the internet, I also gained knowledge in a few other areas in September.

Here's an interesting article on the benefits of teaching work by living writers. I'm not sure my students give too much thought to who wrote the work they read, but I try to follow this advice when I can. I've had writers visit my classes, shown videos of interviews with writers, and shared my own work with my students. I also try to read pieces written by people their age whenever I can. You hear a lot about the benefits of talking to authors over Skype, but more and more authors are charging for this, and while I understand their need to earn a living, I don't have the resources to welcome them in.

In September I continued to pursue more knowledge of birds. And there was plenty of knowledge out there, as a groundbreaking and heartbreaking study came out this month detailing how the population of birds in North America has decreased by over 3 billion in the last fifty years.  Other bird-related things I learned: songbirds are being taken from the forests around Miami for various reasons explained in the article; house sparrows have successfully become city-dwellers around the world because they can digest gluten (bonus: I learned to identify house sparrows that live on our campus); and many fascinating facts about Audubon in this article (I've mentioned before that Audubon was born in Haiti, and this essay explores how he saw himself and how his mixed-race identity affected him - it's so interesting). On the subject of Audubon, I continued to read John James Audubon: The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes. I'll have a complete review of that as soon as I'm done. I also learned to identify a palmchat in my yard. Palmchats are the official birds of the Dominican Republic, and they are beautiful and noisy.

I read this article recommending books to read about the earth and climate change. While I've read some of the authors mentioned, I haven't read any of these books. 

This article is about the glories of tomatoes and the tomato season, which was a bit late this year. I loved the article, and agreed with its fulsome praise of tomatoes, but then was soon saddened to learn that its source, The Atlantic, would soon become less accessible, because the magazine is finally putting up a paywall. Oh, Atlantic, how I have enjoyed reading your articles for free! How sad I am to have to start rationing that pleasure just like I already ration my enjoyment of The New York Times, The New Yorker, and many other publications. Again, I understand why you have to make a living, but I also have to make a living and can't spend my entire salary on the privilege of reading everything there is on the internet (much as I'd like to). 

I don't think The Paris Review has a paywall yet, and I read some wonderful articles there this month. Here are two: "For the Love of Orange," "The Currency of Tears."

"School is Not Supposed to Be Fun All the Time", argues this article.  I want to discuss it with my colleagues (and will, just as soon as I can get back to school and get some of them to read it). 

I won't list lots of articles on the current situation in Haiti, but this one (in French) is especially sad because it describes how the current round of protests started on the third day of the Haitian school year (since our school is on an American calendar, we start several weeks earlier). 

I listened to many podcasts as I sat at home for the last couple of weeks of the month, and this one was especially interesting. Jonathan Martin interviews Brad Jersak. After I listened to it, I asked my husband to listen to it with me, and we're going to order Jersak's latest book so we can learn more. In addition to podcasts, I was grateful for fairly reliable internet and for Netflix. Many of my expat friends, however, were sharing this article from Christianity Today about how maybe having access to so much media from our passport countries can keep us from fully engaging in the cultures where we live. I can see the argument; it reminds me of the reason parents weren't allowed to visit us in boarding school. It's hard to adjust to a place or a situation when you are constantly distracted from it. It's a balance everyone has to find, and it's nothing new, but the internet certainly ramps it up. I for one am not going to complain about the opportunity to escape for a little while from the current situation into media, whether books or magazines, movies or podcasts. 

What did you learn in September? What should I read or pay attention to? What are your thoughts on the links I've posted?