Friday, June 26, 2020

Poetry Friday: Deserts

My daughter has lived in the desert this year. It's the first time she's lived somewhere I haven't been, and I squint at the rare photo she sends in an effort to understand what she experiences, what she sees. I don't know her friends, I don't know her life.

Each day I look at the temperature where she is and groan at how hot it is. (Yesterday it was 109 degrees.) "It's a dry heat," yes, but it's still unbelievable. She says you can't comfortably go outside during the day. I read an article about how homeless people die every year of heat in her city; air conditioning is nearly a necessity.

This past week I have thought a lot about deserts. We had several days of a dust cloud from the Sahara hanging over our normally idyllic blue skies. Here's an article about it. Experts named the cloud "Godzilla." It's a regular phenomenon to have desert dust in the atmosphere, but this was the thickest in fifty years, and this was the first year I was aware that they actually gave it a name. I read that we could expect extra beautiful sunrises and sunsets, but that turned out to be false; we couldn't see anything in the sky except grey, or feel anything but oppressive, heavy, heat. The Ministry of Health took a moment from their Coronavirus updates to tell us to be careful of this dust; don't exercise, stay indoors, wear your mask (at least you have a mask - see, it's multipurpose!). Now Godzilla has moved on, but reportedly we will get some more effects from it tomorrow.

I've also been reading poems about deserts, in a book called A Nostalgist's Map of America, by Agha Shahid Ali, a poet from Kashmir who wrote in English and became a U.S. citizen. He merges all the deserts of his life in his poems. Although I've been trying to learn more about him and read more of his work, I find my favorite poem so far is still the first one of his I read, "Snow on the Desert."

I had hoped to travel this year to visit my daughter and to see her home, but like so many things we'd planned, it didn't happen. I have to imagine what it's like, using my various source materials, and unfortunately those materials include articles about how COVID-19 is spreading there and how there, as everywhere in the US now, people are marching against their local examples of violence.
I bought a used copy of Agha Shahid Ali's book, and it's clearly been a textbook, judging by the marginal notes, some of which seem a bit confused. Here's my favorite example:
I imagine the professor explaining in passing, "Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus..." and then assuming comprehension from the students, but this student has scribbled, "and Orficace (he?)" and then after the first line of the poem, "I am a woman," added, apparently a little bewildered, "author a guy."

This summer I'm locked down, but it also feels a bit like wandering in a desert, a desert where I don't see a clear path and I don't get all the references in the poetry (Orficace?) and it's hot and hard to breathe.

Here's today's roundup. And over at Kat's blog, she's sharing some Summer Poem Swaps, including some I sent her. You can read them here

Friday, June 19, 2020

Poetry Friday: A Poetry Swap, and Pushing Statues into the Water

I recently received several beautiful poems from Kat Apel as part of the Summer Poetry Swap (organized by Tabatha Yeatts - thanks, Tabatha!). Here they are:

The Lord himself goes before you and with you;
He will never leave you nor forsake you.
Do not be afraid;
do not be discouraged.

He will never leave you nor forsake you;
He numbers the hairs on your head
and preserves your every tear.

Do not be afraid,
for the Lord your God will be with you;
Sleep in sweet peace.

Do not be discouraged,
but let God's unfailing love
comfort you.

That poem is a trimeric, which I confess I had to look up. Here's a nice clear definition of how it works.  Its words couldn't be more appropriate for this time of my life. Thanks so much, Kat!

I love that Kat knows I am a bird-lover.  The two other poems she sent are both bird-related.

Carolling Australian Magpies
Cracticus tibicen / Family Artamidae


black and white
warbling magpies
gargle sweet notes
into a new 
                dawn chorus.

Abound in hope,
believing there is
life brighter than the
noonday. Wait with patience for the thing
you cannot see. Face suffering with
rejoicing - shelter under the feathers
of His wings. Like the mustard seed that
matures for birds to find perches 
in its branches, grow in
faith as you put your hope in the
Lord. Seek him with all your heart and soul.

This is a golden shovel poem, and I bolded the last word of each line so you can see the quote Kat used; it's Emily Dickinson's line: "Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul." Perfect!

Thank you, Kat, for all three of these wonderful poems!

This week I read a poem written by the City Poet of Bristol, England, Vanessa Kisuule, on the occasion of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston getting pushed into the harbor in Bristol by Black Lives Matter protestors. It begins:

You came down easy in the end
The righteous wrench of two ropes in a grand plié.

Read the rest, right up until the devastating last line, here. Better yet, listen to her read it herself - wow, it packs a punch! (Edited in 2021 to add this link, where you can still find the poem.)

Here are videos of the statue going into the water and then being retrieved - I read that it's going to end up in a museum. (Look at how easily it is handled - especially notable after reading/listening to the poem! It is not heavy at all.)

In the city where I live, a statue was pushed into the ocean in 1986. That was before I moved to Haiti, so I looked up a newspaper article about it (unfortunately, that was pre-YouTube) here. The Chicago Tribune found the choice of Columbus' statue as a target of protestors' ire to be "whimsical." I don't know if some of the places they destroyed were chosen whimsically, but I'm pretty sure Columbus wasn't, because even back then, he was definitely associated with bad things in people's minds here. For the first couple of years we lived in Haiti, we still had a holiday for Discovery Day, December 5th, when Columbus got to Hispaniola (he's the one that named the island that, Little Spain). Then one year (I can't remember exactly when), we had school that day. My husband asked a Haitian friend why the change, and his dry response was, "Can you say genocide?" I found this photo of the statue in situ (notice the title the website has given it), and this one of where it lives now (bonus at that link: a Twitter thread suggesting what is to be done with these statues that are being taken down all over the place). I read a provocative essay on Facebook by author Philippa Gregory last week with her own suggestion: statue gardens where these disgraced statues lie flat on their backs.

It all went so wrong,
Christophe Colombe!
Your boat sank here, off the shore of Haiti,
and then almost 500 years later, you did, too.
Now you live in the Bureau of Ethnology
Where you have taken a knee.

Ruth, from

P.S. Happy Juneteenth!

Tricia, at The Miss Rumphius Effect, is hosting today's roundup.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Fragments of Light

"Survivors deserve crosses too."

This absorbing novel, Fragments of Light, by Michèle Phoenix, is about several types of survivors, and it explores the fact that surviving isn't as simple as just making it through. Often the trauma you've survived leaves scars on you and those around you. In Ceelie's case, the trauma was cancer, and she's just starting to come to terms with all the scars her illness left on her body, her mind, and her marriage. Right there for her is her friend Darlene, and it's through this friend that she learns about another survivor, this time a veteran of World War II. Coming back alive was just the beginning for him, too.

Whether she's writing about the French résistance in 1944, a hospital room in Illinois, a trip to Normandy, or the emotional minefields of a long marriage or a new friendship, Michèle Phoenix sensitively navigates what it means to survive. What comes after you ring the bell saying you've "Completed Treatment" or after you've left behind battles fought and won?

Get to know Ceelie, Nate, Darlene, Cal, Sabine, Lise, and others with struggles to go through in this beautiful book. The journey of a survivor is rarely neat and tidy, and can take you to some unexpected places. Find out why one of these characters concludes: "Survivors deserve crosses too."
Michèle Phoenix grew up as a TCK in France, and in addition to her career as a novelist (this is her fifth book, and the second I've read - this post contains a brief review of the other one), she works as a speaker and therapist specializing in TCK issues. She's also a breast cancer survivor. She knows complexity, and she knows survival.

Watch this video of the author meeting a veteran called Albert in Normandy. He was one of the inspirations for this novel, so much so that she even named a character after him.
I got an ARC of this book from in exchange for an honest review. This was book #29 I read in 2020.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Reading Update

Book #27 of 2020 was The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. I loved Station Eleven, which I read back in 2016. This one didn't resonate quite as much with me because of the subject matter, a financial scandal, but it is beautifully and brilliantly written. I will definitely read more by this author.

Book #28 was a pandemic-related re-read, Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. I first read it back in 2014, and current events brought it back to my mind, so I started looking through it, and got pulled in. Trigger warnings galore with this one. The setting is a future Oxford University (2054) where time travel has been figured out and is a regular part of life for historians. Even though the Middle Ages has been given a blanket rating of ten (too dangerous to visit) for time travel, Kivrin wants to go there. There's a virus outbreak in 2054, university politics, and then the country of the past: all of them make this fascinating reading. What was it like fighting a contagious illness at a time when so little was known about how it all works? I feel as though I could answer that question by just describing what's happening around me. As I type this, I can hear a large, raucous church gathering singing joyously in my neighborhood. I'm happy they're joyous, but I wonder about the germs they are sharing, as the number of cases of Coronavirus jumps here in Haiti each day.

Book #29 was Fragments of Light, by Michèle Phoenix. I loved this novel, and felt privileged to read an ARC of it. You can find a full review of it here.

Book #30 was The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir, by Apricot Irving. Apricot's parents were missionaries in the northern part of Haiti, and as an adult, Apricot takes an unflinching look at what happened to the family, to their aspirations and missionary goals. She writes beautifully, and she has a lot of courage.
Here's a sample: "The evacuation had torn a hole in the narrative. The missionary confidence that we were hope-bearers, shining with Christ's love had been replaced with a fundamental uncertainty: Were we even wanted? There was a palpable sense of failure in the room." 
A bonus for me in reading this book was meeting the character Suzette Goss-Geffrard, a person I have met in real life. At a time when everyone is reflecting on social media about their experiences with racism, I think about working with Suzette as a colleague at the school where I teach here in Haiti. At that point in my life I had lived only a few years in the United States, and I understood very little about the history of racial issues and what it was like to live there as a person with dark skin. I also thought I understood it all, having grown up in Kenya. Suzette very patiently and kindly undertook my education, and explained many things to me which I very much needed to hear. In this book she comes across as a fantastic teacher, the first one to tell the author that she would be a writer. For me she was a fantastic teacher too, and though I very rarely see her these days, I am grateful to her.

Book #31 was The Firebird, by Susanna Kearsley. I'm a sucker for books where people can read each others' minds. Communication - real communication - is so challenging in real life, and I guess that's why it's so appealing to me to imagine being able to just step into other realities through thoughts. The Firebird of the title is a piece of art, and Nicola, the main character, who works for an art gallery, is trying to find out more about it - actual proof, as opposed to the knowledge she has about its history just from touching it. In the process we learn about the history of the Scottish in Russia. Did you know there even was such a history? I sure didn't! I liked this and will look for more by this author.

Book #32 is another pandemic-related choice, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, by John Donne. You're probably already familiar with the best passage from this book, Donne's most famous piece of writing, beginning, "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main," and ending "never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." But the whole book is like that, with those endless, lyrical sentences. Donne wrote these meditations while he was seriously ill, and it kind of reminded me of fever dreams I've had before, when everything seemed to fit together and make sense. In his case he can also write incredible sentences with truly enormous amounts of scripture in them, but I also found his points were often hard to remember when I was done, just like insights when your fever breaks. By reading this I learned the word "pestiducts," which is another way of saying, "disease vectors," but a much better way, I think you'll agree. (Usage: Since we are all potential pestiducts, we wear masks when we go out in public.)
Here's a sample from this book: "We say that the world is made of sea and land, as though they were equal; but we know that there is more sea in the Western than in the Eastern hemisphere. We say that the firmament is full of stars, as though it were equally full; but we know that there are more stars under the Northern than under the Southern pole. We say the elements of man are misery and happiness, as though he had an equal proportion of both, and the days of man vicissitudinary, as though he had as many good days as ill, and that he lived under a perpetual equinoctial, night and day equal, good and ill fortune in the same measure. But it is far from that; he drinks misery, and he tastes happiness; he mows misery, and he gleans happiness; he journeys in misery, he does but walk in happiness; and, which is worst, his misery is positive and dogmatical, his happiness is but disputable and problematical: all men call misery misery, but happiness changes the name by the taste of man."
Vicissitudinary. I mean, you have to love that, right?

Book #33 was The Street of a Thousand Blossoms, by Gail Tsukiyama. I read this one aloud to my husband, which took a while because it is 422 pages long. Set in Tokyo, it spans the time between 1939 and 1966, and follows the careers of two brothers, one a sumo wrestler and the other a maskmaker for traditional Japanese Noh theater. This is a beautiful book. I could have done with less of the sumo description, but that was my husband's favorite part. My favorite part was watching the people of Tokyo go through the trauma of the war but then recover from it. Tsukiyama does a masterful job of showing the way past experiences live on in our minds, but how we can sometimes transcend them.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Poetry Friday: Nikki Grimes and a Poetry Swap

Today's roundup host, the inimitable Irene, has requested that we honor Nikki Grimes today. What a wonderful idea! Irene points out that Nikki has won many awards lately for her writing, and because of the pandemic, the in-person celebrations have been much diminished. I hope Poetry Friday will help make that feel just a little bit better.

I have shared Nikki Grimes' work with my students. Her poem "Hanging in the Park" came up on my computer when I searched her name; it describes kids watching the guys playing basketball and wishing that one of them would go be a star, shine for the neighborhood, represent them.

Here are some clips of her reading her poems.

And here she is talking about her childhood and her writing:

Congratulations to Nikki Grimes and thank you for the way your work is a mirror and a window for our students and for us teachers, too!

Another poetic event this week was receiving my first Poetry Swap of the summer. Thanks so much to Tabatha Yeatts for creating these opportunities to brighten up the summer. I heard from Tricia, of the Miss Rumphius Effect, who sent me a found poem from Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. I thought of Kingsolver's book again after seeing that protestors in Belgium are removing statues of King Leopold II. (See here, for example.) The novel, and history, and Tricia's poem, all remind us that actions have consequences, sometimes extremely far-reaching ones.

In the Shadow of Violence and Oppression
Lines excerpted and adapted from The Poisonwood Bible, copyright 1998 by Barbara Kingsolver, p. 8-10

The whole world turns on an axis
as it barrels through space

While on a more earthly plane
I have seen things
you'll never know about

Memories rise out of me
days darkly colored
weigh on me

I am one more soul walking free
in a white skin

I'll confess the truth - I was there
a party to failed relations
and monstrous things thundering down

I want you to find me innocent
but I am not

I looked past it
did not speak of it
never managed the full truth

How can I live with it?
How will you?

found by Tricia Stohr-Hunt

Be sure to check out Irene's roundup here to see what others have shared today!

Friday, June 05, 2020

Poetry Friday: And Now for Something Completely Different

What an awful week it's been. What an awful year it's been. I have been posting a lot, here and on social media, about the generalized badness. And today for Poetry Friday, I just have to do something different. Go read my other posts if you want to know that I do, I really do, take everything that's going on seriously. So seriously that I can hardly bear it.

A friend evacuated to the US and left me some stuff, and included in that stuff was a magnetic poetry set. My son and I have been enjoying it very much. Again, we know about real haiku. And we take it seriously. Don't get mad at us for writing nonsense.

And at the end, I'll post a love poem for my husband, which will be marginally more serious.

You might try guessing which ones are mine and which ones are by my 17-year-old? And I'm betting you'll be wrong a lot of the time.

Here's my love poem for my husband. Or his for me? Can't tell sometimes.


My husband tells me that he had a dream about me.
We were sitting on opposite sides of the living room
and he was writing a poem.
But when he started to share it with me,
It was gone.

He woke up.

“It was kind of a nightmare,” he says.

The poem was about how wonderful I am;
that, he remembers.
A few hours later he says,
“It had that day in it,
the day we were watching ‘Daisy Miller’
and I noticed your hip
and I thought I wanted to marry you.”

No matter how much he tries to regain it,
that poem is gone,
just like that afternoon in 1987.

But the hip,
that’s still there.

At least for now.

Ruth, from

Margaret has today's roundup.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Hope

I'm hosting our gathering this month, and our theme is Hope. (Welcome, SJT buddies! Leave your link in the comments and I will gradually round up, old-school, as the day goes on. Your comments won't appear immediately because I've enabled moderation, but I will get to them as time and Haiti internet permit.)

I signed up for this, and selected the theme, at the end of last year. Hope was the word I'd chosen to focus on as I headed into 2020. Here's the post I wrote about my word choice back in January.  I didn't pick it because I was feeling hopeful; in fact, sort of the reverse. Our 2019 had been quite hopeless here in Haiti, where I live, and there wasn't much of a reason to think that things would be getting better, because none of the underlying issues had been resolved in any way. I picked Hope because I wanted some, and wanted to commit to looking for it.

So, I've been looking. Trying to infuse hopefulness into my days. Not easy, as the news has been bad, here and in my passport country, the United States. Our political situation has indeed not been fixed. Our economy is in a shambles. Our COVID-19 numbers go up each day. (I'm talking about Haiti, but draw your own comparisons with the US.) The enthusiasm and optimism my students always help me find have been more difficult given our distance learning situation. My friends, who often encourage me, have left the country or retreated to their homes. And we're watching the traumatic events in the United States in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

I've been trying to live the Henri Nouwen quote from my January post linked above.
"I have found it very important in my own life," Nouwen writes, "to try to let go of my wishes and instead to live in hope. I am finding that when I choose to let go of my sometimes petty and superficial wishes and trust that my life is precious and meaningful in the eyes of God something really new, something beyond my own expectations begins to happen for me. To wait with openness and trust is an enormously radical attitude toward life. It is choosing to hope that something is happening for us that is far beyond our own imaginings. It is giving up control over our future and letting God define our life. It is living with the conviction that God molds us in love, holds us in tenderness, and moves us away from the sources of our fear."

Giving up control over our lives isn't really that hard to do when you demonstrably don't have any control.  I'm at home. The borders of this country are closed. The airport is closed. As we finished up school this past week, we headed into a summer that will be pretty similar to the last two and a half months, and before that, our whole second quarter of school. We're locked down, folks.

I've been quoting Walter Brueggemann a lot lately in my SJT posts, and it seems a good habit to continue, because he always infuses me with courage and hope.
Here he quotes Psalm 69: "'Save me, O God...I have come into deep waters. In...your steadfast love,...rescue me...from the deep waters.' Under threat, ... this psalm refuses to host the idea that chaos is limitless. The very act of the prayer is an affirmation that watery chaos has limits, boundaries, and edges, because the waters butt up against the power of God. ... We are not watching simply the unbounded power of chaos savage the earth. We are rather watching chaos push to its extreme limit, doing its worst, most destructive work, and spending itself without finally prevailing. The psalm invites us to honesty about the threat. More than that, however, the psalm is buoyant in its conviction that all around the chaos, guarding its rise, monitoring its threat, is the counterpower of life, only haunting and shadowing, not too soon evident, but abidingly there. This voice of faith acknowledges the chaos, but then submits it to the larger power of God. So Jesus in that supreme moment of threat, does not yield, but announces in evangelical triumph, 'It is finished.' It is decided! It is accomplished! It is completed in triumph!"
Brueggemann is talking about Good Friday here, and in that story the worst happens. Jesus really does die. But it turns out that Good Friday doesn't have the last word.
"But what to do midst the threat?" he goes on. "Do what believing and trusting Jews and Christians have always done. Refuse the silence, reject despair, resist the devastating, debilitating assault of chaos, and speak a counterspeech. This psalm is not simply a passive, pious act of trust in God. It is rather a bold, abrasive speech that addresses God in the imperative, and in the utterance of the imperative, puts chaos on notice that we will not yield, will not succumb, will not permit the surging of chaos to define the situation. ... God comes into the deep waters at the behest of the faithful who watch in the night and who know that chaos is not normal, and must not be docilely accepted."
I could go on quoting, but I highly recommend you find Brueggemann's Collected Sermons and read them all. (And by the way, when I was looking for that link to his sermons, I found out he's published a book about the virus already - it came out at the end of April. I don't know anything about the book but I'm betting it's good. Here it is.)

I'm looking forward to reading what other SJT folks have to say about hope. And if you're not a regular SJT poster but you have something to say, leave it in the comments, either what you have to say, or a link to what you have to say. We're eager to read it!

Here's the roundup:

Do you know what a tetractys is? As Carol Varsalona points out in her post, it sounds like a dinosaur, but it's actually a kind of poem, and she has written one to remind us of reasons to hope during this season. You can read this and the rest of her post here.

Linda Mitchell took the Henri Nouwen quote from my post, listed the verbs, and then wrote a hopeful poem with them. Here it is.

Karen Eastlund is sad about the loss of communal singing and the hope it brings. You can read what she wrote here. It is hard to imagine not singing!

Margaret Simon wrote about where hope comes from and what we should do with it, here.

Fran Haley's post is about racism, and how it causes hopelessness. She asks how we can change the way children see society. You can read her answers here.

Ramona found a poem in the Bible about hope; she used words from Colossians and Hebrews to inspire herself, and us. Here's that post.