Friday, August 28, 2020

Poetry Friday: Feeling Better

As I've written about already on this blog, I spent some time in the hospital this summer getting my system calibrated after being diagnosed with a Vitamin B12 deficiency. The deficiency had already reduced my hemoglobin to a dangerously low level. In addition to all the physical symptoms I was experiencing, I was very low emotionally, as well. Of course, I reasoned, the world is a mess and I'm responding appropriately to that. 


Now that I'm better, the world is still a mess, but I can cope with it much better. Physically I'm so much stronger, and emotionally - wow! I feel as though I have myself back. 

In this post back in April, I wrote a little bit about birding and the way it was helping me deal with life during isolation (and, I now realize, life without enough hemoglobin). This poem includes a lot of the same ideas. 


The Birds, Anyway

This morning
The bananaquits hang upside down,
The palmchats strip the ficus of fruit,
The hummingbirds zip back and forth.
Everyone’s busy and energetic.
It would be anthropomorphizing to say: happy.
But I say it anyway:
Happy, like me.

But I don’t forget
That the birds were also there when I was sad.
They took care of their avian business
While I watched them through tears.
They showed up anyway,
And I showed up too,
And typed their names into my phone with my thumbs.

And I remember on Pandemic Easter Sunday,
A day utterly devoid of gloria,
When the Hispaniolan lizard cuckoo
Descended upon the branch above me,
And I could see every feather through my binoculars.
I was beneath his royal notice
But my heart was lifted for a moment anyway,
Lifted in a small resurrection.


Ruth, from


Now we're getting ready to go back to school in a hybrid mode next week. It's extremely challenging but I know everyone's life is right now. I'm feeling all of it, how scary it is and how overwhelming. I'm aware of the politics and the social situation and the virus and all of it, and I don't mean to suggest that my personal health solves any of this.  But I'm also equipped with hemoglobin, so I'm OK. And grateful.


The fabulous Heidi is hosting today's roundup. Great to see you again, Heidi! 


Monday, August 24, 2020

Reading Update

We're back to school next week, so my extended extra-reading time is about to end. Here's what I've been reading lately.


Book #51 of the year was The Corner that Held Them, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. When I knew I was going to have to spend a few days in the hospital, I asked my daughter to recommend some appropriate books. Her friend Jo Walton, the author, suggested this one. The library didn't have it, and then the morning I was to check into the hospital, my daughter emailed it to me as an Amazon gift. It turned out to be perfect for the purpose. It's a little mysterious to me why certain books are just the thing at certain times (more about that later in this post). This is the story of an English Benedictine convent, Oby, in the years between 1345 and 1382. You'd think the theme of the Black Death would be a bit much in a hospital room in the middle of a pandemic, but oddly it wasn't. 


Book #52 was Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York, by Francis Spufford. This was also a recommendation from my daughter, a huge Spufford fan. It is brilliantly written, and has a plot that kept me guessing until the very last page. The characters are vivid and surprising. When it says old New York it means old; it's set in 1746. 


Book #53 was Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf. Strangely, in all my years as a lit major, I was never asked to read this book. I read it now because of an article from the Times Literary Supplement posted by Gretchen Rubin called Through the smudged pane: Pandemic consciousness in Mrs. Dalloway, by Elizabeth Winkler. Winkler points out that Clarissa Dalloway is recovering from influenza in the book and that Woolf herself had influenza during the pandemic and later (in 1918, 1919, 1920, 1922, 1923, and 1925). I was so fascinated by the essay that I immediately downloaded the novel. And then once I'd read it, I downloaded Book #52The Hours. by Michael Cunningham, which is a very clever reworking of many of the themes in Woolf's book. I loved both books.

The only other Woolf I had read before was "A Room of One's Own," but now I am planning to read all of her books. Mrs. Dalloway is about one day in the life of the title character, a day in which she is planning and giving a party. But it's also about perception and the way we present ourselves to each other and the way the past affects the present. Here's Peter Walsh, whom the young Clarissa Darroway almost married, reflecting on their meeting on the day of the party: 

"Looking back over that long friendship of almost thirty years...[t]here was a mystery about it. You were given a sharp, acute, uncomfortable grain - the actual meeting; horribly painful as often as not; yet in absence, in the most unlikely places, it would flower out, open, shed its scent, let you touch, taste, look about you, get the whole feel of it and understanding, after years of lying lost." 

A friend in my writing group was told by her editor to avoid "head-hopping"; that is, stick to the same point of view from the section you're writing, and don't tell us what another character is thinking right now. I think it's good advice, but Woolf ignores it completely. 


And The Hours! Here's the summary from Amazon: 

"The Hours tells the story of three women: Virginia Woolf, beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway as she recuperates in a London suburb with her husband in 1923; Clarissa Vaughan, beloved friend of an acclaimed poet dying from AIDS, who in modern-day New York is planning a party in his honor; and Laura Brown, in a 1949 Los Angeles suburb, who slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home. By the end of the novel, these three stories intertwine in remarkable ways, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace." 

You can imagine how perfect it was to read this right after finishing Mrs. Dalloway. Dozens of details refer back to Woolf's book, and it was still fresh in my mind. 


I read much of Cunningham's book while waiting at a Port-au-Prince clinic for an endoscopy. After I'd had my temperature taken, paid for the procedure, and given all the information requested, I sat outside in 95 degree heat waiting my turn. Also sitting outside were all the other patients, a couple of whom had come straight from the hospital and were wearing hospital gowns and clutching IV bags, and the family members who had accompanied them to the clinic, including my husband. My husband's choice of reading was a memoir of a man who spent years in prison here in Haiti under the presidency of Jean-Claude Duvalier, "Baby Doc." His book was too short - he finished it a while before I was done and ready to go home. Mine was perfect. As I felt the sweat running down my back, and down my face, covered with a mask, I read about characters in very different circumstances. Clarissa Vaughan is called Mrs. Dalloway by her friend, Richard, a poet who is in the final stages of dying of AIDS. She visits him in his apartment on the morning of the party she is planning for him. It's a challenge being friends with Richard, but Clarissa has managed it for many years: 

"Some have ended their relations with him rather than continue as figures in the epic poem he is always composing inside his head, the story of his life and passions; but others (Clarissa among them) enjoy the sense of hyperbole he brings to their lives, have come even to depend on it." 

Clarissa cuts flowers in her kitchen: 

"You try to hold the moment, just here, in the kitchen with the flowers. You try to inhabit it, to love it, because it's yours and because what waits immediately outside these rooms is the hallway, with its brown tiles and its dim brown lamps that are always lit." 

She thinks about the past: 

"She could, she thinks, have entered another world. She could have had a life as potent and dangerous as literature itself." 

Yes, there is illness - the description of the disgusting chair in which Richard spends his days is a masterpiece - but it is far away from this courtyard where we all sat. Virginia Woolf and Mrs. Brown also experience one day full of perfectly described moments, so absorbing that by the time I was summoned to go inside into the air conditioning and have my procedure, it felt as though I had been somewhere else. 


Book #54 was Long Way Down, by Jason Reynolds, a verse novel about gang violence and revenge that takes place almost entirely in an elevator. 


Book #55 was The Idiot, by Elif Batuman, a campus novel about how excruciating first love can be. Selin goes to Harvard, where she goes to class, and writes emails, and learns, and then she does a summer abroad: 

"Hungary felt increasingly like reading War and Peace: new characters came up every five minutes, with their unusual names and distinctive locutions, and you had to pay attention to them for a time, even though you might never see them again for the whole rest of the book."


Book #56 was Tiepolo's Hound, by Derek Walcott. I took my copy of Walcott's collected poems to the hospital, and had my husband read to me out of it as I got my first blood transfusion. Later after he had gone home and I was alone in the room, I read some excerpts from Tiepolo's Hound and they felt intense and meaningful like everything does in the hospital. I called my husband and said I wanted to read the whole thing. He ordered it for me, and it came on Friday. I read it all before going to bed Friday night. It's described as an "epic poem," and it tells several stories: Walcott's childhood, growing up on the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia; Walcott's experiences with painting, both looking at it and doing his own (the book is illustrated by some of his paintings); Camille Pissarro, the impressionist painter who grew up on the Caribbean island of Saint Thomas and then lived in exile in France; and of course the hound in the title, painted by Tiepolo (or was it Veronese?) - Walcott glimpsed this dog once in a painting, and spends the whole rest of his life looking for it again. I really, really loved this book. Both Walcott and Pissarro live in a double reality: exile and the island of their childhood. Every scene they both see has a double existence: itself and the art that can be made from it. The book is about race and colonization and islands and cities and birds and art and lots and lots of dogs. 


Book #57 was The Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, the story of a man who is in the hospital and looking for something to occupy his mind. He chooses the story of Richard III, immortalized by history and Shakespeare as the ultimate bad guy. But was he really? 


What a lot of great reading! 

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Poetry Friday: Patrice de La Tour du Pin

A few days after I got home from the hospital, I got a message from a friend who lives nearby. She asked if she could bring over a book for me. Of course the answer to that question is always yes. Here's the book she brought:

It's an interlinear edition, with the French on the left side and the English on the right. And what a fascinating poet Patrice de La Tour du Pin (1911-1975) turns out to be. Many (most) of these poems are prayers, titled only with numbers like the Psalms of the Bible.

Here's a taste:

I've read through the English once, and now I want to go back and read it alongside the French, to compare what the translator has done with the original. 


I'm thankful for friends with books to lend and words to share! 


Today's roundup is here.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Reading Update

Book #45 of the year was Gold, by Chris Cleave. This is the story of three friends who meet through their training for Olympic cycling. Zoe and Kate compete with each other in their sport, and they also compete for Jack, their friend. The descriptions of cycling past endurance, to the point of nearly losing consciousness, were perhaps a little too appropriate, as I read this book while in the final stages of a sickness, right before getting diagnosed and hospitalized. So maybe that's why this book resonated with me so much.


Book #46 was Camino Winds, by John Grisham. It's been a long time since I've read anything by John Grisham, but at one time I did read many of his books. I found his legal thrillers really enjoyable, though not at all character driven, and often I couldn't remember the characters at all once I had closed the book. But this one was a big disappointment. It didn't have the fast-moving, rollicking plot I remember from past Grisham books; the plot was very confusing and nonsensical, a mixture of several stories that didn't stick together at all for me. But again, maybe it was because I wasn't feeling well.


Books #47, #48 and #49 were books I'm going to teach this year for the first time: The Watsons Go to Birmingham - 1963, by Christopher Paul Curtis, Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls, and Hatchet, by Gary Paulsen. I loved the first and third; the second was interesting and well-written, but I can hardly imagine my students being able to relate to it. I have had students in the past talk to me about how it was the first book that made them cry, so I know that some of them will love it, but the raccoons? The kid falling on the axe and...well, I won't give it away, but it's pretty gruesome? The endless scenes of hunting? I don't know.


Book #50 was a fantastic book; I read over half of it in the hospital, and could hardly put it down. It was The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson. In addition to telling the overall story of the Great Migration, when about six million African American people left the Jim Crow south and moved to other parts of the United States ("it was the first big step the nation's servant class ever took without asking."), she chooses three representative individuals and tells us their stories too. When I say "representative," don't read "generic," for each of these stories is wildly idiosyncratic and unique. The book reads like a novel, and a stunningly written, gripping novel at that. The author has a new book coming out this month, and I put it on hold at the library; unfortunately, I'm number 90 in line to read it! I can't wait. 


I'm not quite finished yet with the other book I read in the hospital, so I'll have to save it for the next update.

Friday, August 07, 2020

Poetry Friday: Songs at the End of Summer

No matter what has happened in the past few months, the Academy of American Poets has been there. I was so impressed by their Shelter in Poems theme for National Poetry Month this year, whipped up at the last minute but full of comfort. And now they are gamely sending out their Back to School emails, just as though it were a regular year and not a morass of confusion. 


In the Back to School email was this Jane Kenyon poem. I read and reflected on summers gone by, in Kenyon's life and my own. I need to write my own version for this year, but I don't have time right now because I'm busily learning all new software for this year, and reading all the new books I have to teach in this new curriculum that's going to make things easier (so they tell me) while our lives are upended by COVID and - oh yeah - all the other crises Haiti was already going through.


And by the way, I just got out of the hospital. It wasn't COVID but a vitamin B12 deficiency, and correcting it has made me feel a thousand percent better in every way. Everything's just as much of a mess as before, but I feel much more able to cope, both physically and emotionally. I'm not completely back to normal yet, but this new health and strength is a gift I receive with gratitude. And I need to write about that too (I did write this already), but not today. So here is Jane Kenyon's poem. I noticed at the top of the page that she didn't live as long as I already have. Every day is a gift, especially here at the end of summer, and the beginning of who knows what. 

Three Songs at the End of Summer

by Jane Kenyon


A second crop of hay lies cut

and turned. Five gleaming crows

search and peck between the rows.

They make a low, companionable squawk,

and like midwives and undertakers

possess a weird authority.


Here's the rest.


Here's today's roundup. 

Wednesday, August 05, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday - Spiritual Art

From The Book of Common Prayer

For a Sick Person

O Father of mercies and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need: We humbly beseech thee to behold, visit, and relieve thy sick servant N. for whom our prayers are desired. Look upon him with the eyes of thy mercy; comfort him with a sense of thy goodness; preserve him from the temptations of the enemy; and give him patience under his affliction. In thy good time, restore him to health, and enable him to lead the residue of his life in thy fear, and to thy glory; and grant that finally he may dwell with thee in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thy Sick Servant Mom

Before I left for the hospital on Friday,
my son wanted to pray with me.
He found the prayer “For a Sick Person”
in the Book of Common Prayer
and read the words that so many have prayed.

“Thy sick servant N”
became “Thy sick servant Mom,”
and all those masculine pronouns
were changed for me
as my son brought me before the Lord,
asked God to behold, visit, relieve,
asked for mercy
and comfort
and goodness
and preservation
and patience.
He asked for the “residue of my life,”
a gift we are not at all guaranteed.

And in the hospital,
as I breathed when the needles went in,
and hugged the X-ray machine as instructed,
and lay back and received the blood given for me,
I prayed for myself, too:

“Have mercy on thy sick servant, me!
How did I end up here
in this room
on this island
in the middle of a pandemic
wrapped in so much love?
Even if the residue of my life is only this moment,
how blessed I am!”

And then I came home on Monday,
restored to health,
the prayers all answered,
sick servant me
beheld, visited, relieved,
the mercy granted,
the comfort bestowed,
the goodness lavished,
my body preserved,
the residue of my life ahead,
my son hugging me in the garden.


Ruth, from

Our topic for August is Spiritual Art. I wanted to write about my seventeen-year-old praying for me, while the beauty and holiness of those moments remained with me. I spent last weekend in the hospital and came home with many symptoms I have been living with for a long time just gone. I could not be more grateful to God for what He has done for me.