Thursday, December 31, 2020

Poetry Friday: Happy New Year!

Welcome to Poetry Friday and to 2021! I am hosting the roundup today. Leave your links in the comments, and I will round us up the old-fashioned way. Comment moderation is enabled, so don't panic if you don't see your comment right away. I will publish them as fast as I can. 

Naomi Shihab Nye's poem "Burning the Old Year" seems the most appropriate thing I can share for this, our first Poetry Friday of 2021. 

Burning the Old Year

Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds

Notes friends tied to the doorknob,

transparent scarlet paper,

sizzle like moth wings, 

marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable...

Here's the rest.


But most of us would probably be able to identify some things from 2020 that we don't want to burn. In spite of everything, there really were moments of delight, weren't there? As Jane Kenyon puts it, "There's just no accounting for happiness."



Jane Kenyon


There's just no accounting for happiness,

or the way it turns up like a prodigal

who comes back to the dust at your feet

having squandered a fortune far away.

And how can you not forgive?

You make a feast in honor of what

was lost, and take from its place the finest

garment, which you saved for an occasion

you could not imagine, and you weep night and day

to know that you were not abandoned,

that happiness saved its most extreme form

for you alone.

Here's the rest.


Here in Haiti, we have an additional reason to celebrate on the 1st of January. It's Independence Day, commemorating the day in 1804 when Haiti declared its independence from France, having kicked out the slave-owners in the most successful slave rebellion in history. We will be eating pumpkin soup, the traditional festive food for this day. 


At the beginning of December, Bon Appétit magazine published a recipe for pumpkin soup. You can see it here, but you'll also see that the magazine changed the name of the soup to remove the word "Haitian," after thousands of Haitians responded overwhelmingly negatively. "Ou pa wont?" said one commenter. Aren't you ashamed? Pumpkin soup isn't something you mess with around here. It was forbidden to the slaves, so it represents freedom; every Haitian cook makes it slightly differently, but no Haitian cook puts spiced nuts in it.  My mouth waters as I write this (on December 30th), anticipating the lovely smell of the fragrant soup rising up through our neighborhood on Friday. Here's a more traditional recipe. We'll also be eating mochi, because of my husband's childhood in Japan. Here's an article about that. I don't know how many people in the world eat both, but I bet you Naomi Osaka does. Like other New Year's foods around the world, these are supposed to confer good fortune on the upcoming 365 days.


Pumpkin soup, mochi,

Black-eyed peas on New Year's Day -

Better luck this time.  

Pumpkin Soup (the real thing)


Consider responding to one or more of these questions when you leave your link in the comments. What do you want to burn from last year? What unexpected happiness of 2020 will you be holding on to?  And/or, what will you be eating to celebrate the New Year? 


Here's wishing for better days in 2021, for you and for the whole world. And here's to poetry, and all its ability to comfort and sustain. 

The Links:

I always think of Margaret Simon's Thursday feature "This Photo Wants to Be a Poem" as a prelude to Poetry Friday. Here's this week's edition.


Linda Mitchell is sharing her OLW (One Little Word). I'm loving the fairy-tale quality of Linda's poems lately, and today's is no exception. Head on over and read her word and what she's done with it here


Tabatha has two quirky poems for us today. The first is "If You've Met One Autistic Person, You've Met One Autistic Person," by Tom Hunley, and the second is "Order on the Phone to a Large Department Store," by Sally Heilbut, who died of COVID this week.  You can read Tabatha's post here.


Robyn's share for today is the perfect New Year's choice, and I echo her wishes for 2021. You can read all about that here.  

Michelle Kogan has a new teaching job this year for which she's very thankful, and she also has a wonderful poem full of new things.

Little Willow is also thinking about what's new, with a poem "That New" by Susan Rothbard. This poet is new to me, but I would love to read more of her work. Read "That New" here.


The amazing Jone has written a poem in Scottish Gaelic, and made a video of herself reading it. I can't play the video yet, because I'm updating the roundup next to my still-sleeping husband as the sun is just starting to come up outside, but I'll be back later to watch and listen! Jone also shares two postcards from PF writers. You can see all of that at Jone's blog.


Linda B. has a poignant, beautiful look back at 2020 called "The Way We Were," with perfectly chosen details that bring back each challenging month. Read it here.

Bridget Magee's post today is all about the number ten. Her blog is ten years old (Happy birthday, Wee Words for Wee Ones!), and to celebrate, she's curating an anthology! Go read the details, and think about what you can contribute.

Now that I'm all caught up on the links that came in last night, I'm off to sit on my front porch and do some New Year's Day birding. I'll be back soon to see what else is in my inbox!

I'm back from birding. What a great haul today! I saw three Mourning Doves, three Palmchats, an American Redstart, and four Bananaquits. I heard a Hispaniolan Woodpecker (and that counts). I was really hoping to start the year well with a Hispaniolan Lizard-cuckoo - and I saw TWO! One had something in his mouth that looked like a piece of straw, so I wondered about nest-building, but when I looked through my binoculars, he was carrying a tiny - and apparently dead - lizard. And so my eBird streak is kept alive. Today is Day 116! (It's a big challenge for me not to add multiple exclamation marks to my comments on my eBird checklists. I don't really have the scientific detachment down yet, and just want to jump up and down!)


While I was away from my computer, I also ate the first of today's pumpkin soup. Haitians eat it for breakfast, but since I've already had breakfast, I will eat mine for lunch. I had to eat some, though (and take a picture, of course), so I ladled myself out a little tiny bowl. It was wonderful. 



Irene Latham is also sharing her OLW, and it's a juicy one! She's going to be writing poems through all four seasons, and we get to read the first one today, a wintry offering, that somehow manages to be warm in spite of the season. Go read it immediately!


Myra of Gathering Books is joining us from the United Arab Emirates, and she too has some Naomi Shihab Nye to share today! This one is new to me. It's called Dear Sky. I think this would make a great writing prompt, too!


Margaret Simon is eating black-eyed peas this morning in Louisiana, and she's also sharing a breathtaking photo and poem. The poem is called  "Bayou Being Green." She shares the prompt that inspired it, too, plus a place to get more prompts all year. Thanks, Margaret!


Tiel Aisha Ansari doesn't participate in Poetry Friday, but I've been a devoted reader of her poetry blog for many years, and I hope she doesn't mind me linking to her New Year's Eve poem, which I think everyone will agree is perfect. Here it is. While you're there, you should check out some more of her beautiful poems.

Laura Purdie Salas shares a stunning Richard Wilbur poem, one I'm going to save to read again and again. "These sudden ends of time must give us pause." Indeed, they must. Laura's post is here.


Christie Wyman takes us on a visit to Ponyhenge, an odd local attraction, with a poem and photo which you can look at here

Mary Lee has a poem with an intriguing title, "Things I Didn't Know I Loved." Her poem is inspired by two others that she links to. I'm thinking I'm not the only one who will be inspired by this idea to write one on the same topic. There are so many things to love! Thanks, Mary Lee!


Carol has a perfect choice for the New Year, "Ring Out, Wild Bells," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I'm saying Amen to the sentiments in the poem and in Carol's post.   

The next link to come in is from another Carol, Carol Labuzzetta. She shares her OLW for 2021, plus a poem that goes with it. You can read her thoughts about that here


Tanita Davis shares a poem by C.S. Lewis, with perfect advice for the new year ahead: "Often deceived, yet open once again your heart." Here is her post.


And it's another Carol! Carol Varsalona has a lovely gallery of images and thoughts including a variety of possible choices for her OLW. Like me, she is waiting until Thursday to write a post about her OLW for the year, and she says she'd better hurry up and pick one! You have some wonderful options, Carol!  


Susan Bruck is beginning 2021 with haiku about snow and reflections on loss and the weirdness of this year's holiday season. Happy New Year, Susan!


Also thinking about loss is Laura Shovan, who shares "Poem," by Langston Hughes. This is a perfect poem about the blah sadness you feel when you lose a friend. Socially distanced hugs to Laura and everyone who is feeling this way.   


Ramona calls her post Poetry Friday (on Saturday), and she shares a poem she wrote in March of 2020, a golden shovel that turned out to be a keystone for Ramona for the rest of the year. Head over and read her poem "Moving Forward."  

The first link in this roundup is to Margaret Simon's weekly feature "This Photo Wants to be a Poem." Well, Fran Haley took this week's photo and ran with it for her Poetry Friday offering. She's written a Spirit's Vessel poem, which is part acrostic, part intricate three stanza six line six syllable creation. Follow the link to read her poem and see what she has done with this prompt and how it relates to her choice of OLW.

Thank you for participating, everyone, whether by sharing poetry or reading it or both. Thank you for filling this first day of the year with poems! Join us again next week, when Sylvia Vardell will be hosting at Poetry for Children

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Reading Update, Plus What I Read in 2020

I have read 97 books this year, and it's looking as though that will be my total. If I finish another one, I'll add it to the end of this post. 

Here are the last few I finished:

Book #90 of the year was The Drowned Cities, by Paolo Bacigalupi. I read the first book in this series, Ship Breaker, in 2012. I read the third, Tool of War, in 2018. When I first went looking for it, my library didn't have the second book. I'd really recommend reading these in the correct order, but I do love the whole series. It's not at all my usual kind of thing; it's violent and post-apocalyptic. But it's so well done, vividly written, and fascinating. I reflected a bit about this series (or at least the first and the third books) here.


Book #91 was The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis. I don't need to read this because I practically know it by heart, but I did enjoy reading it again; it had been a few years. 

Book #92 was The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank. For the last few years, I have read a play based on this book with my eighth graders. I was quite surprised, rereading this after many years, to see how much the play adds to the original. But the simplicity of the book is its strength.


Book #93 was The Beloved Disciple, by Beth Moore. This is a study of John from the Bible.  Moore writes about John as a character in the gospels, an author of the book of John, John 1, 2, and 3, and the book of Revelation, and most of all, what he called himself, "the beloved disciple," or "the disciple Jesus loved." Moore's inimitable style is fully on display here, and if you've ever seen her in person or on video, you will certainly recognize her in her writing. Here's a taste: "What use would God have had for Paul if he had simply turned out to be another James? Another Peter? Another John? His mission was distinct. And so, Beloved, is yours. God knows what He's doing! Trust Him. God is busy making you someone no one else has ever been."


Book #94 was I'd Give Anything, by Marisa de los Santos. In this story, Ginny Beale looks back on her high school days and remembers what a daring, carefree person she was back then. Her friends called her Zinny, and she was fearless and inseparable from her best friends. All that changed in one night, and now she hardly recognizes who she has become. Can she figure out what happened? Can she be that old self again? And how can she deal with the current heartaches of her life?

Book #95 was All We Never Knew, by Elena Aitken. Maren thinks her life is perfect, but there's a lot she doesn't know about what's really going on. A lot of events take place in this story that are life-changing for all the worst reasons. Once she finds out all she never knew, nothing is going to be the same.


Book #96 was Writers and Lovers, by Lily King. I read King's book Euphoria back in 2015, and found it thought-provoking and fascinating. It was inspired by the life of Margaret Mead. (Unfortunately I didn't write a review of it.) I had tried to read this one before at least once, and given up because I couldn't get into it. I'm glad I tried again. Casey is trying to be a writer, and also trying to have a long-lasting relationship. Both are not coming easily. This book has a lot to say about creativity and writing, about writers and how they respond to one another and to their own success or failure, and about how hard it is to find someone to spend your life with. It's really worth reading.


Book #97 may be the last book I finish this year (or will it be? Stay tuned to see if I add any more books at the end!). It was A Curse So Dark and Lonely, by Brigid Kemmerer. This is a Beauty and the Beast story, but there's a lot in it that's unexpected. One really good thing about this YA series is that  Kemmerer is already finished writing it, so you won't be waiting around for a year to read the next one. I've already got the next one downloaded from the library and have started it. That's a pretty good indication of what I thought about the book! (The second book is called A Heart So Fierce and Broken and the third is A Vow So Bold and Deadly, coming out in January 2021.)  


Here are the rest of the books I read this year:

Books #1-#8 

Books #9-#14

Books #15-#26 

Books #27-#33

Books #34-#44 

Books #45-#50

Books #51-#57 

Books #58-#63

Books #64-#71

Books #72-#78 

Books #79-#85 

Books #86-#89

And scroll up for #90-#97.


Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Cookie


Gingerbread cookie

Leaves reflected in my tea

Peace at year's ending 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Poetry Friday: Christmas Day

Merry Christmas! This is my 50th Poetry Friday post of the year. Except for two weeks in July when I was very sick and then hospitalized, I posted something every Friday of 2020. In 2021 my goal is to post on all 52 Fridays. 


Today I'd like to share some seasonal fare.


Two of my favorite musicians, Sting and Nichole Nordeman, come together in this song. Well, not literally. Sting doesn't sing in this version of his song "Fragile," but Nichole Nordeman has combined that song with the traditional Christmas piece, "What Child is This?" Enjoy it through this video, where it's paired with art. 


I love this because it reminds me of the beautiful doctrine of the Incarnation. That's what Christmas is all about, that Jesus joined us in human flesh, coming as a vulnerable baby.


In the same spirit, here's something I wrote this year. For the last several years, I have done a photo-a-day practice during Advent. I've used various prompts, but this year I used these, from Rethink Church. I post a photo and a short meditation each day in response to the prompts. Below is my photo and reflection from December 13th, when the prompt was "Carry."




Advent Photo December 13th: Carry

Tap-taps carry people where they need to go, crammed inside. The joke, and the reality, is that there's always room for one more. Passengers carry whatever they have bought or what they're going to sell, and each person also carries all the weight of life's worries. 

This one says on it, "Exit pour le ciel." Exit for the sky, or heaven. Today's destination is likely to be rather nearer to home. And meanwhile, there's Hebrews 12:14 painted on the top, too, words to live by: "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord." 

Everyone carries so much, every day, whether they ride in a tap-tap or an SUV with tinted windows or just walk along, pushing a wheelbarrow. "Anpil pwoblèm," they say, if you take time to talk to them. "Tèt chajé." (Lots of problems - full head.) 

One of my favorite Christmas carols is "O Little Town of Bethlehem," with its line about the "hopes and fears of all the years" being met in its quiet streets the night of Jesus' birth.  And I always think of our own little town. O enormous sprawling city of Port-au-Prince, how noisy we see thee lie, above thy deep and dreamless sleep (or lack of sleep, for the insomniacs among us), the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets (with no EDH [electricity] again) shineth the everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years, or even just the hopes and fears of this one day in December, are met in thee tonight. O Lord, show us how to find the everlasting light, not just in heaven but here on earth, not just in the future but today. The light to see the road ahead, and keep going, with everything we're carrying. 


 Irene Latham has today's roundup. Merry Christmas, Irene!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Zwazo

I looked up, and there was a bird in the tree. It was big, the size that would normally move the branch, drawing my attention to it. But this bird was absolutely still. Its eyes were closed. It was sleeping. 

Since it was so still, I could examine it closely through my binoculars, and I did. Its face was whiskery. Its beak drooped downwards. "Drooped" seemed a better word to me than "hooked," though that word came to mind too. Its markings reminded me of snakeskin, or bark. The coloring blended right in with the branch where the bird snoozed. Its tail was sort of squared off at the end. I took some pictures with my phone but they were terrible, too far away, useless to show any of the details. I scrolled through the Merlin app looking for pictures that resembled this bird in the least, but I couldn't find any. What on earth was it? 

Two guys saw my husband and me staring up through our binoculars and they came over, eager to help. "Zwazo," one said wisely. Bird. Yup, I knew that already.

We watched the motionless bird for about half an hour, but finally decided we needed to leave. In the car, I scrolled Merlin some more, and then grabbed the book I'd brought with me, Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. A friend left it for me when she was evacuated to the US at the beginning of COVID. I opened the book, and there, there was the bird, the exact bird I'd been staring at. There it was, looking at me from the page, because in the picture the birds, male and female, were awake. 

Source: Birds of the Dominican Republic and Haiti, by Latta, plate 32

The book calls it the Hispaniolan Nightjar. Merlin (where I did finally see some photos, though the photos weren't as perfect as the drawing) called it the Greater Antillean Nightjar. It's nocturnal, and during the day they sleep on the ground or on a tree branch. You don't see them very often. The book and app described it better than I had. "Sometimes called 'goatsuckers,' from the ancient myth that at night these birds use their gaping mouths to rob goats of their milk, causing the udders to dry up and the animals to go blind" (book). "Note white-tipped outer tail feathers, silvery moustache and eyebrow, and pale-spotted belly" (app). "The birds use their huge, bristled mouths to engulf nocturnal insects on the wing" (book). I listened to the song on the app, and concluded that I'd probably think it was a frog or an insect if I heard it. The book described the sound as a "plaintive, frequently repeated pi-tan-guaaaa, reflecting its local name." The Spanish name in the Dominican Republic is Pitanguá, and here in Haiti they call it Petonvwa Peyi, or, in the far more likely event that you ask people who never saw one before, Zwazo. Bird.
I keep thinking about that bird, the odds against me looking up into that tree at that branch, the much greater likelihood that I'd walk by without seeing it. I think about that book, newly mine because my friend moved away. I think about the way I'm birdwatching and writing my way into making sense of the events of this year. The way the birds were always there, before I started paying attention to them, and go on, unaffected by COVID and all human worries. The way my husband takes an interest in the birds purely because I'm interested, looks through my old binoculars while I use the upgraded ones he bought me for my birthday. The way my knowledge expanded a little bit as I identified that bird and added it to my life list. Greater Antillean Nightjar

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Poetry Friday: Possibility

I was looking through my file of what I've written this year, and I found a poem I didn't even remember. When I investigated further, I found I wrote it in June and sent it to Tricia of The Miss Rumphius Effect for the Summer Poetry Swap. I also sent her my 2019 version, written when I chose the word Possibility for that year. So here are both the poems, plus a link to Emily Dickinson's original at the end.



I dwell in Possibility
I peer out of my Gate
And wonder what Surprises
And Happiness await.

Perhaps a new Adventure
Is just around the Bend
Or maybe just a little Walk
With a familiar Friend.

I’m off to gather Paradise
And bring an Armload Home —
I’ll spread it out upon the Floor
To make the Evening bloom.





Possibility, 2020

We dwell in Possibility
Though locked inside at Home.
Outside, there’s only Danger,
It does not do to roam.

Sometimes, all masked and careful
We venture to those Lands,
Then once again retreat inside,
Zealously wash our Hands.

For now we try to gather
Our Paradise from here
And sort it from our Gatherings
When it is mixed with Fear.

Yet Possibility awaits,
A brighter future Time,
A World still there, outside the Gates,
More Hills still left to climb.


Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Purple Flower

Every day when I arrive at work, right after I get my temperature taken and right before I turn my masked face towards my classroom, I see the Mexican petunias. They're not a fancy flower, and in fact in some places they are considered an invasive weed. But I love the crayon-bright purple of their petals. I've taken so many pictures of them, just because of the jolt of happiness they give me in that moment. They are wearing the liturgical color of the season, and surely even without Christmas visitors or crowded parties, their hopeful promise will be fulfilled.

Morning flower face

Bright in the grey parking lot

Purple for Advent

Monday, December 14, 2020

Reading Update

Here's what I've been reading:


Book #86 of the year was Mildred D. Taylor's Let the Circle Be Unbroken. This is the sequel to Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, which I recently read with my seventh graders. The kids wanted to know what would happen to T.J., and I found out the answer to that question early in this book. Sigh. Nothing good. Again, this book is a dramatization of what it was like to live in the Jim Crow south. Tough but beautiful reading.

Book #87 was Feathers, by Jacqueline Woodson. It's the story of Frannie, who reads Emily Dickinson in school and learns about "the thing with feathers" through various experiences of her life. 

Book #88 was Lily's Crossing, by Patricia Reilly Giff. Set in the summer of 1944, it's about Lily and her new friend Albert, a refugee from Hungary, and the way the two of them experience the repercussions of World War II.


Book #89 was Washington Black, by Esi Edugyan, the amazing story of George Washington Black, who begins his life as a slave in Barbados, and will end up - where and how? Just about anything could happen in this book, in spite of the brutal, confined future that seems all the world has to offer to someone like him in the 1830s. This is one of the best books I've read this year.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Poetry Friday: Snow

Toto Sukiyabashi by Hiroshige, 1858

When December came, we switched the "Vintage Japanese Prints" calendar to this picture. (I never did find out who bought this calendar. It came in the mail, with no note. Thanks, if it was you! We have really enjoyed it!) This is the only snow we have around our house, here in the Caribbean, but fortunately we have friends and family in northern climes who send us photos, and in today's post I've used some of those photos to turn into poems. You may notice that a couple of my haiku include the transition between seasons, a traditional theme of haiku poetry. When I was looking for a link about this, I found this fascinating article about how climate change is affecting haiku: here.  (Stay tuned at the end for an update on teaching odes in eighth grade.)



Scene framed by branches
Snow layered on leaves still green
Road to adventure


Autumn’s leftovers,
Brown cornstalks line snowy paths,
Reach for pastel sky.

Flakes swirl down on fence,
Trampoline, trees, wires, and yards,
Snow swallows it all.

Gentlemen of snow,
Swathed in latest scarf fashions,
Chic carrot noses.


What can you say about the snow?
Certainly nothing new,
since snow’s been falling forever,
and words like blanket and coat are overused,
suggesting ways to keep warm
instead of layers of freezing wetness.
All the particularities vanish
and there’s white everywhere,
a colorless ground with the pale blue overhead.
At least, that’s how I remember it,
looking at pictures here in a place
where cold is more of a concept
than an actual felt sensation,
except when
I wake up shivering in the night
and turn off the fan.


by Ruth, from


I wrote a couple of weeks ago about sharing odes with my eighth graders, something I usually do at Thanksgiving time. Now that we're back at in-person school five days a week, I decided to take a little step back into Writer's Workshop, so I asked the kids to write an ode, choosing any topic they'd like. On Friday, when they were due, I gave them a chance to share. I had picked some of Neruda's work, plus some of my own, in case nobody wanted to share theirs, but almost everyone either got up and read their own, or had me or a classmate read it. This assignment really caught their imagination, and I loved what they wrote. One student wrote two. And the student who wrote about COVID-19? I made sure to praise him loudly and publicly for "subverting the genre."

So here are their topics:


French fries
Canada Dry
Air conditioner
Apple pie


Buffy has this week's roundup.


(Credit for snow photos: JD, JD, PD, CMB, LFB)

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Streak

Today makes Day 92 of my eBird checklist streak. That means that I have posted at least one birding checklist per day for more than three months. 


I find the streak concept extremely helpful, and apparently I'm not alone. I found loads of articles explaining how effective this tool is to help people make and keep good habits. It's very simple: you do something every day, and keep track of how many days you've gone without missing. As the number gets larger and larger, you are more and more motivated to keep going, so you won't have to reset to zero and start again. There are many apps that have this feature.

Here's to my checklist streak! Long may it last! 


Streaks of things we want to do can help outweigh the streaks of things we'd rather not. How many days in a row have I had my temperature taken, arriving at work? How many days have I taught in a mask or face shield? How many days have I added the duty of saying multiple times per period, "Put your mask all the way over your nose, please," to the crowd control duties I already had?

I don't know. But I know this is Day 92 of looking at birds.

Sunday, December 06, 2020

Reading Update

Book #79 of the year was, a reread, Number the Stars, Lois Lowry's Newbery-winning novel about World War II in Denmark, and the heroic way the Danes moved almost all of their country's Jews to safety to escape the Nazis. I'm reading this with my sixth graders this quarter, and so far it is going excellently. It's a fast-paced, exciting story, based on the real-life childhood of Lowry's friend. 

Book #80 was another reread, The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. I'm reading this one with my seventh graders. I wouldn't have chosen it for that age group, because I just think a novel (this is a non-fiction account) with a protagonist close to their own age would be more relatable for them. I was really glad to reread it, though. What a story, and how inspiring!

Book #81 was also a reread, The Giver, by Lois Lowry. I love this book, and I'm enjoying teaching it in eighth grade. I tried it once before, many years ago, and found it didn't go terribly well. I wrote a little bit about that here. This time it's going well so far. We'll see what this year's classes think of the ending.


Book #82 was Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. (I read Wilkerson's first book, The Warmth of Other Suns, back in August, and it's in the running for the best book I've read this year. Wow!) It took me a long time to read this one, not because it wasn't well-written and engaging - it was. But it was so very painful to read the horrific and sickening details of how racism, cruelty and caste have been woven into the history of the United States since the very beginning. "It was not," Wilkerson writes, "merely a torn thread in 'an otherwise perfect cloth,' wrote the sociologist Stephen Steinberg. 'It would be closer to say that slavery provided the fabric out of which the cloth was made.'" Wilkerson's epigraph, a quote from James Baldwin, probably sums the book up better than anything: "Because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true." This is a must-read, but prepare yourself to see things differently when you're done than you do when you begin. 

Book #83 was Silver Sparrow, by Tayari Jones. I read Jones' book An American Marriage back in 2018, the year it came out. This one was published in 2012, and isn't nearly as good as the more recent title.  It is good, though. It's about bigamy, family secrets, and friendship. 


Book #84 was The Land, by Mildred D. Taylor. This is the first of Taylor's Logan Family Saga. I read the fourth book in the series, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, with my seventh graders earlier in this school year, and wrote about it here. These books are based on Taylor's own family stories, and are a great companion read to Isabel Wilkerson's books, as Taylor's work dramatizes the exact situations and problems Wilkerson writes about. 

Book #85 was the latest Inspector Gamache book (the sixteenth), All the Devils Are Here, by Louise Penny. I liked how this one was set in Paris, and many of the familiar characters show up, plus some new ones. 



Thursday, December 03, 2020

Poetry Friday: Porch

I wrote this poem for my husband, and with his permission I am sharing it with you, too.



Surprised by rain,
we scrambled for shelter.
The three of us collapsed
onto a wide midwestern porch,
leaving our bicycles behind on the grass.
We must have asked permission
from people in the house,
but I don’t remember that,
just how we lay back on the wooden floor,
heads on our helmets,
watching the rain fall and talking,
and then,
how all three of us fell asleep.

Now only two of us who were there
that afternoon thirty years ago
are still alive to remember,
since the third left this year,
not on his bicycle,
but still away,
past where we can follow him,
at least for now.

Perhaps some day only one
will carry this memory,
the exhaustion of our day of cycling,
that lulled us to sleep,
along with sound of the summer shower
that afternoon in Illinois,
the way the rain washed the steam from the air,
our voices, quiet and then gone,
and then the waking up,
getting back on the bicycles,
leaving behind that spot
where we’d likely never be again.

Each year we celebrate
accumulating more and more of these memories,
moments with others,
or moments only you and I know.
Another year of pedaling down the wet road,
legs working hard,
but refreshed after a nap,
leaving that porch
further and further behind,
until we can’t see it any more,
and it becomes part of our past.

Ruth, from

Mary Lee at A Year of Reading has today's roundup.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Reflection


This month's topic for SJT is Reflection, and I'm going to spend a little time reflecting on my OLW for this year, which was Hope. (Here's my post about it from January 1st, 2020. And at that link you can also see all the OLWs - One Little Words - I've chosen since I started picking a word for the year, back in 2009.)


I didn't feel much hope as 2019 was ending, because 2019 was a very bad year for Haiti. We had lockdowns much of the year, before the rest of the world also joined us in lockdown in early 2020. Although 2020 has also been a difficult year, and not just for Haiti, I have found that Hope was a great choice. I picked it because "I decided to take a leap and go against the way things feel, choosing HOPE for 2020. Not because I'm full of hope or see lots of newness or solutions on the horizon to Haiti's political and economic impasse, but because I'm going to have to look outside myself, to seek hope where it's not obvious."


One reason 2019 hit me so hard, though I didn't know it at the time, was that I wasn't healthy physically. I knew I was low on energy and depressed, but I put that down to the situation. I did scold myself mightily for not handling things better, and I continued to do that as 2020 began. At the beginning of the year, we were back at in-person school, and it was one of the best stretches of teaching I had ever had. Because of the weeks and weeks stuck at home, I was so thankful for every day with my students. That lasted until March 19th, when the Haitian government announced that we had two cases of COVID here.  

After that my energy levels tanked again, culminating in a collapse in July when, going for a walk with my husband, I absolutely could not take one more step. We inched back to our car (he encouraging me to take 20 steps between rests), and thus began a long series of doctor visits and a hospitalization. It turned out that I had a Vitamin B12 deficiency, and it had been going on for a long time. It explained many physical symptoms I had, but also the long-term depression I had been struggling with (and scolding myself for). I wrote here about how much better I felt after getting this resolved, or at least beginning to get it resolved. The world was still a mess, and I was still in COVID lockdown, but I had myself back to cope with it all.


This "new lease on life" situation made me feel better literally, but it also works as a metaphor. A long-standing mess can be fixed. It really can. I had been struggling with the idea of "growing old gracefully," and wondering what it meant, but it turned out that some aspects of my condition that I had accepted as part of getting older (like lethargy, loss of appetite, and an inability to eat spicy foods), went away completely when my B12 was normal. What other bad thing in our lives, or in the world, that we have decided we have to accept as the way things are might actually be possible to change, and maybe even relatively simply? Talk about a hopeful way to think! 

I am more hopeful now than I was when 2020 began, in spite of the challenges of the year. We may be in the dark sometimes, but maybe it's the dark before the sunrise. That's how it feels now. 


Here's something else I wrote in my OLW post at the beginning of the year:  "Ultimately, though, I don't believe having hope is about me; I think it's about God working in me. In Romans 15:13, Paul writes: 'May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.' It's by looking outside myself, by turning to God, that I can have hope this year." That turned out to be absolutely the case. 


Another comment I added when writing about the word Hope was that I wanted to think about birds and birding and how those things went with my OLW, since Emily Dickinson wrote, "Hope is the thing with feathers." Here is one of the several times I reflected on this in 2020.

And now I'm thinking about my word for 2021. 

Check out Linda Mitchell's roundup to see everyone else's reflections.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Rare Bird


This past weekend we went on an adventure. For the first time in almost a year, we slept away from home, two nights as the only guests at a guesthouse run by a former student and her parents. I was so excited to go somewhere, to be somewhere else, somewhere not home or school or our outdoor church that we’ve cautiously started having again since October. I packed my binoculars and my new hiking shoes, my bathing suit, and books to read. My husband loaded his bicycle into the car. My son emptied his school backpack of textbooks and filled it with weekend supplies.

The guesthouse is minutes from full-on city, but it’s in an area that is still wooded. I recently read that Haiti is the most deforested country on the planet, so an area with lots of trees is a true treasure. For everyone, but especially for people like me who love to look at birds.

The birding was almost too much for me. Instead of my city yard with about seven trees (I count the visible ones from neighboring yards as part of my territory), I had a quarter mile of path, with possibilities for off-path exploration too. Countless trees overwhelmed me. Sometimes I’d turn from one bird I’d been trying to bring into focus and start trying for another, only to get distracted from that one too. Instead of ones and twos like at home, the birds were in flocks.

I saw three lifers, meaning birds I’d never seen before: an American Kestrel (actually two of them on two different days), a noisy treeful of Village Weavers (the Madame Sara bird, which gave its name in Haitian Kreyol to the gatherings of market women, full of chattering just like a group of Village Weavers), and Hispaniolan Parrots. The parrots flew over in a flock of a dozen, squawking raucously, and we watched them, passing the binoculars back and forth, for about half an hour until it finally got too dark to see their gorgeous green, blue, and red plumage. It was one of those perfect experiences that I will remember the rest of my life. I also saw Palm Crows, White-necked Crows, and at least eight black Smooth-billed Anis with their floppy tails. Plus loads of colorful little warblers, Bananaquits, and hummingbirds. And Hispaniolan Woodpeckers! Once I saw three on one branch.

On Saturday afternoon, giddy from all the birds I’d seen, I followed a loud bird voice on a nearby tree, and spied someone who looked familiar: my beloved Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo. But maybe not exactly. The more I looked at him, the more I thought his breast was darker, redder than the bird I was used to seeing in my yard. This wild and crazy word came into my head: bay-breasted.

The Bay-breasted Cuckoo is very similar to the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo, but the latter is smaller and lighter in color, with a slightly different beak. And the Bay-breasted is much, much rarer. While the distribution map for the Hispaniolan shows the whole island shaded blue (blue indicates a place where this bird can be found), the Bay-breasted has just a few blue dots, almost all of them completely in the Dominican Republic.

What are the odds of seeing this bird in the location where I was on Saturday afternoon? Pretty small. And soon cooler scientific heads prevailed. I got two messages from people acting on behalf of eBird. One asked for a photo. Do you take a photo when you see a unicorn? No, I didn’t have one. And even if I had, based on my previous experience with taking bird photos, it would probably not have helped my case much - most of my efforts show empty branches or, at best, a vaguely bird-shaped blur. The other message suggested that I go look at pictures of the Bay-breasted online, because it was really nearly impossible that that’s what I had seen.

Chastened, and feeling my low status as an ignorant beginning birder, I went to the website and changed my identification. Not Bay-breasted, but Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo.  

Why did my heart sink a little bit? How could I think of the Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo as a non-special bird, when I’ve been loving seeing its elegant long tail, black with white circles, and its graceful, curved beak, since before I even started taking all of this seriously? My brother Andy told me once about a birding mentor of his, who said (in the plummiest English accent imaginable, flawlessly imitated by Andy), “If you can’t see all the birds you want to see, you have to learn to enjoy the birds you do see.” In wishing for something just a bit more exciting, I’m like the children of Israel getting tired of manna, God’s amazing gift of food falling from the sky just for them.

And yet. Maybe it really was a Bay-breasted Cuckoo. Maybe he was a celebrity on vacation, incognito, with other birds coming shyly up and saying in their bird way, “You know, maybe it’s the light, but you really look bay-breasted. Could I have your autograph?” Unlikely? Sure. But it’s still entertaining to imagine. 

Hispaniolan Lizard-Cuckoo (Source:


Bay-breasted Cuckoo (Source:

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Poetry Friday: Thanksgiving, an Ode to Poetry, and Birthday Gifts Edition, #2

This year, I'm thinking about how thankful I am for poetry. In this post, I'll tell you some books of poems. Last week I wrote about one of the books I got for my birthday. This week I'm going to write about three others, and then share an ode I wrote for my Thanksgiving tradition. (Here's last year's ode post, with links to previous ones.)


Camille Dungy's website calls her book Smith Blue "a survival guide for the modern heart."  The poems are about, as Dungy puts it in "Daisy Cutter," "the world we have arranged," the mess we've made of it all. 

I wrote a little bit about Agha Shahid Ali's book A Nostalgist's Map of America here. Ali writes about deserts of all kinds, from his original home in Kashmir, to South America, to the American west. It's hard to find anything short to quote, because it's all part of the whole, but here's one of his poems (not from this book), and Poetry Foundation has several more, too. 

I also received Ten Poems about Art, selected and introduced by Geoff Dyer, a wonderful selection of ekphrastic poems. 


Every year I read odes at Thanksgiving with my eighth graders, and we write them, too. This year I shared Neruda's "Ode to an Apple," which seemed to fit with the book we're reading, The Giver. I also shared "Ode to Subway," an ode by a middle schooler included in Nancie Atwell's anthology Naming the World. And here's the one I wrote this year:



Ode to Poetry

You have words to say it all,
even what can’t ever be said.

I read you or write you
when I’m happy,
or when I can’t bear it any more.
Sometimes I send you to others,
and sometimes I clutch you close,
keep you all to myself.

You’re filled with nouns:
flowers and dust,
onions and garlic,
American redstarts
and emptiness.

You’re filled with verbs:
snack and giggle and rest,
yearn and caress and lose,
dream and wake and

You’re filled with moments:
an afternoon in Paris,
feeding pieces of schwarma to the pigeons;
a morning in Port-au-Prince,
watching tires burn;
bath time,
soothing a baby in warm sudsy water.

You are deep and wide,
like a steamer trunk I’m packing for an ocean voyage,
or like the ocean itself,
stretching endlessly into the horizon,
with room for complications.
With room for all of it.

Ruth, from 


It occurs to me on Friday morning that I ought to add - the American redstart is not some kind of political reference, but a beautiful little black and orange migratory bird that visits my yard this time of year. I wrote him his own poem, plus there's a photo, here.

I took this picture in Jacmel almost a year ago - the last time I was at the beach.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Shoes


I got new hiking shoes. I really needed them; it had been several years since I got some new walking shoes, and they had already been repaired with Superglue. Last time we went hiking, I wore sandals instead, and came home with mud all over my feet. My husband said he'd order me some new hiking shoes.

Sure enough, a while later, a box arrived. But I could tell before I even opened it that we had a serious problem. Instead of ordering my size (8 1/2), he had ordered size 5 1/2. He had ordered shoes for a woman with teeny tiny little feet. No such woman lives in our house. 

Don't worry, though. There's a happy ending. We found a woman with teeny tiny little feet who could use the hiking shoes. And my husband ordered more shoes, this time in my actual size. And on Saturday I wore them for the first time, and they worked very well. 

That's it. That's the whole story. It's not exactly a slice of life - more a crumb than a whole slice. But it made me happy. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Poetry Friday: Birthday Gifts Edition, 2020, #1

I got some Amazon gift money for my birthday back in February, and the books I ordered with it arrived right before lockdown began. Somehow, I never got to writing about the poetry, so I'm going to try to remedy that over the next few weeks.




I had A.E. Stallings' book Hapax on my wishlist for a long time. (I had shared some of Stallings' poetry in 2010 and again in 2013.) I knew I liked Stallings' wit and her unfashionable use of rhyme, but it was really the title of this one that drew me. A hapax legomenon is a word or phrase that appears in surviving ancient literature just once. You can imagine that it wouldn't be easy to know exactly what this word means, since you don't have anything to compare it to, so you're forced to rely solely on context clues. 

Stallings, the back of the book informs us, "studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and now lives in Athens, Greece." Many of her poems tackle classical subjects, both mythological and grammatical. In one, "Dead Language Lesson," she writes,


I confiscate a note in which

The author writes, "who do you love?" --

An agony past all correction.


I think, as they wait for the bell,

Blessed are the young for whom

All languages are dead: the girl

Who twines her golden hair, like Circe,

Turning glib boys into swine.


A series of limericks ("XII Klassikal Lynmaeryx") includes, among many good ones:


With a great mind so tragically fertile

Aeschylus won wreaths of myrtle.

And yet his demise

Could win Comic first prize --

To be brained by a hurtling turtle!


Here's part of "Minutes," which uses the metaphor of minutes as beggars:


Minutes swarm by, holding their dirty hands out,

Begging change, loose coins of your spare attention.

No one has the currency for them always;

            Most go unnoticed. 

If you, like me, find yourself wanting to read more Stallings, you can find some of her work at the Poetry Foundation.


This week's roundup is here.


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Bird Calendar

I got a bird calendar for Christmas in 2019. Each week, there's a new bird each day for the five weekdays, and then some kind of birding tip for the weekend. I took the calendar to my classroom, but when the Coronavirus lockdown started on March 19th, I brought it home. 



Since March, my son and I have developed a little routine with the calendar. We look at the bird photo, study the map on the back of the page that shows the bird's range, read the facts. Then I find the bird on the bird identification app Merlin, and we listen to its sound. 



In September, I went back to school, but I left my calendar at home. I piled up the pages under it, all of them since March 19th. The pile got taller and taller as we learned about more and more birds. 



Now, it's November. We've started thinking about next year's calendar. Should we get a worldwide one? Is there a Caribbean one, specifically for our region? Or should we go for a US one again? 



I've loved the daily bird habit this year. It's been a reminder of the amazing diversity of avian life, even on days when our lives seemed the opposite of diverse. 



Sunday, November 15, 2020

Reading Update

Book #72 of the year was The Mother-in-Law, by Sally Hepworth. I found this novel about a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law and their relationship to be readable but also quite forgettable, and can remember little about it. 


Book #73 was Virginia Woolf's first novel, The Voyage Out. "'D'you know,' said Mrs. Elliot, after a moment, 'I don't think people do write good novels now - not as good as they used to, anyhow.'" I haven't found any Woolf books as good as Mrs. Dalloway yet, but I did enjoy this.  


Book #74 was Ahab's Wife, or the Star-Gazer, by Sena Jeter Naslund. I haven't managed to get all the way through Moby Dick yet (though I'm still working on it), but I picked up this novel imagining a marriage for Captain Ahab, on the recommendation of a friend. It was well-written and readable, though full of highly traumatic events and taboos, "the catastrophic superimposed itself on the ordinary," as Una, the wife in the title, tells us. Whaling, lighthouses, childbirth, shipwreck, women's suffrage, slavery, art: all these things are explored in the story, as Una makes her way through an extremely eventful life. 


Book #75 was Anne Bogel's Don't Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life. Normally I would start my review by confessing to be something of an overthinker myself, but Bogel's first suggestion is to stop thinking of yourself as an overthinker. Here's a taste: "At my church, we regularly sing a song in which the chorus repeats, 'God will delight when we are creators / of justice and joy, compassion and peace.' The first time I heard it, I was captivated by the idea that we don't have to settle for merely yearning for these things; we can also create them." This is a quick but useful read.


Book #76 was a recommendation from my daughter, Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Fascinating and enigmatic, this book begins with an epigraph from The Magician's Nephew, by C.S. Lewis.  Think about the place in that book when the children wake the statue of Queen Jadis - a place like that is the setting for this one. 


Books #77 and #78 were both mermaid stories. In Into the Drowning Deep, by Mira Grant, an oceanographic cruise sets out on a voyage of mermaid seeking, and much mayhem ensues. These mermaids are apex predators, better called sirens, and boy, can they cause trouble! In The Deep, by Rivers Solomon with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, and Jonathan Snipes, mermaids are descended from the people thrown overboard during the voyage across the Middle Passage. This painful history is too much for them to live with, so they entrust it to one mermaid, the Historian. But it's too much for her, too: "History was everything. Yetu knew that. But it wasn't kind." This is short - it took about an hour to read - but intense and worth discussing. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Poetry Friday: Napoleon

Here's a poem that illustrates how many people develop their view of current events and history. And when you've read this one, Robyn has the roundup, where you can see what others have posted today! 


Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Ficus

A ficus tree in our yard is covered with fruit. The birds know it; the tree is full of birds each morning when I step outside at first light with my binoculars around my neck. When I try to write about it, though, I hit a vocabulary problem. What are those fruit called?


I could just write "fruit," but that's so generic. Since it's a ficus, maybe they are figs. But they sure don't look like any figs I've ever seen. I want to call them "ficus berries," but I just made that up, so I'm pretty sure it's not a real name. 


I ask my Facebook friends for help, and receive this article in response. Yes, it turns out, these small spherical berry-like fruits are properly called figs. But they aren't actually fruits, they are "inflorescences," or "synconia." 


If I write, "The palmchats are eating the figs," you get a completely different mental picture from what's actually happening, but if I write, "The palmchats are eating the synconia," you (or at least I) get no mental picture at all. 

But my main response to this article is wonder. All I wanted was a vocabulary word, but here is a world I didn't even know existed. Pollination takes place by the intervention of a wasp. And not just any old wasp. "Most fig species have their corresponding fig wasp." Except the ones that can produce fruit without pollination, called parthenocarpic. And there are more than 850 kinds of ficus tree!

Amazing! And still the palmchats are chomping away on the fruit. Ficus berries. Figs. Synconia. Fruit.