Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Separateness & Unity

Our host this month, Margaret, sent us a quote. Here's part of it: "in Holy Love, our sense of separateness dissolves, and we know ourselves as arising from the brilliant light of Divine Love that creates and sustains the universe."


During this time of pandemic, I have definitely experienced a sense of separateness. We've been unable to spend time with friends as we usually do, or to travel to see family and friends who live in other places. Even at work, we seem more isolated, though we do have students here. We gather less frequently, and there's something about all the masks that limits interactions. 


I miss people. 


This morning, we celebrated the milestones of our sixth graders going to seventh grade, and our eighth graders going to ninth grade. We were supposed to do this back in May, but ... well, you know. So the students are already a month into their new grade before they are dressing up, receiving their certificates, getting their pictures taken.  Then I came back to my classroom for some Zoom calls. Today's our distance learning day for everyone, and then tomorrow and Friday we're back to smaller groups in the classroom, masked and distanced. Sure, everything is more subdued than usual, but it's important to mark the moments, to gather however we can safely, and to just keep going.

That's what I'm trying to do in this season. Celebrate, mark the moments, make the best of things, laugh. Keep going towards unity and community even when separateness feels like all there is. God is still with us. God who created the universe is still sustaining us. 

Monday, September 28, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Birds

“The best thing for being sad," replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” T.H. White, The Sword in the Stone

I got a new book in the mail last week. But it's not a novel or a book of poetry, like most of the books I order. In fact, it has nothing to do with my usual life, in which I read and write and encourage my middle schoolers to do the same. Instead, it's a giant textbook. I stood on my bathroom scale holding it so I could tell you its weight: five pounds. 


I'm taking a bird biology course from eBird, that is to say, through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  I'm doing it because it's fascinating and fun, because the birds have been there for me through this whole pandemic horribleness, and other varieties of horribleness in the past, because sitting down on my chair on my front porch with my binoculars is a surefire way to quiet my mind and slow down my heartbeat - until it speeds up my heartbeat again with a rush of wings. 


But as I read the second chapter of my new giant book, getting ready for a quiz (What on earth are they going to ask me? Just because this course is at my own pace doesn't mean my nerdy grade-conscious self goes away. How can I learn all these things?), I realize another reason to learn about birds: learning about birds makes my world big again.


My world has been small for a while, due to political lockdown and then COVID-19 lockdown, and it's been a while since I've gone anywhere but work and home. Church has been over the internet, and so has socializing, and even my writing group (we're in three countries now, and I keep getting kicked off the Google Meet at the most inopportune moments, so aware that this place where I am isn't all there is, but left sitting on my bed again, the voices of my writing buddies silenced as my screen tells me that an attempt to reconnect is in process). 


But oh, the birds. They aren't limited by quarantines or national boundaries or shutdowns of any kind. They soar over our heads, arriving here from up north for our balmy weather, heading back up there to breed. Our year-round inhabitants are pretty amazing too, though not as diverse as I'd like in my own yard, where I'm often stuck lately. And then there's the giant list in chapter two, seventeen orange pages labeled: "Box 2.09 A survey of avian orders and families Contributed by Shawn M. Billerman." 


Shawn M. Billerman introduces me to bird families around the world, each more unlikely-sounding than the last. Words like "strange," "bizarre," and "odd" abound, and my favorite: "little is known." Almost any description I could quote fills me with delight as I imagine other parts of the world and the dawn chorus they must have there.


"Apterygidae. The kiwis are a small group of small- to medium-sized, flightless birds found only in New Zealand. Covered in fine, brown, hair-like feathers, kiwis are mainly nocturnal and forage primarily on earthworms. They lay the largest egg proportional to their body size of any living bird."


"Otididae. Bustards are medium-sized to very large terrestrial birds found across open grasslands and savannas of the Old World. The bustards include the world's two heaviest flying bird species: The Great Bustard (Otis tarda) of Europe and western Asia, and the Kori Bustard (Ardeotis kori) of sub-Saharan Africa."


"Stercorariidae. The skuas and jaegers are seabirds found in oceans worldwide, but they restrict their breeding to high latitudes. They feed primarily by pirating food from other birds, particularly gulls and terns."


How, I wonder, did people come to learn all these facts? Who measured the kiwis' eggs? Who weighed the bustards? Who watched the skuas stealing food from the terns?


And every page has more gems like that. What does a "frugivorous, cave-dwelling Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis)" look like? (Sounds like Dr. Seuss made that one up.) Who first found out that Mousebirds "huddle together in groups for warmth?" What kind of observations and experiments were required before someone figured out that "The Crested Pitohui, like other distantly related poisonous pitohuis, incorporates toxins into its feathers?" 


After I read these descriptions, I feel as though I live in a huge, colorful world, full of a multitude of birds, flying and foraging and creeping and scrambling - that last word is from a description of Atrichornithidae: "Scrubbirds, unlike most birds, lack a furcula (wishbone) and are very poor fliers."


And then, as I'm almost at the end of the survey of avian orders, I find a familiar friend. 


"Dulidae. The Palmchat (Dulus dominicus), the only member of this family, is endemic to the island of Hispaniola, where it constructs huge stick nests high in trees that are occupied by multiple pairs. The Palmchat has brown, streaky plumage and forages in groups, primarily on fruit."


Maybe my world isn't so small. There were, after all, lots of Palmchats in my Haitian front yard this morning, filling the ficus tree with squawks and stripping it of its orange fruit. I saw two of them touching their beaks together - what was that about? I can't make any interpretive leaps, my studies tell me, and I mustn't anthropomorphize (Were they kissing?), but I can certainly watch and wonder. I can rejoice as my binoculars bring the fuzzy bird shape into sharp focus, and as I notice the streaky brown plumage of its breast and the way it hovers at the end of the branch before settling down to its meal.


Mysterious, omnipresent, beautiful birds. I love them, and I love to learn about them. I go to recess duty with my binoculars around my neck, and sometimes the kids talk to me about birds in their trademark middle school mocking way, as I point upwards: "Look! A hummingbird on the wire! See that? It's an Antillean mango." Or more often: "Yeah, those are all house sparrows. Did you know they live almost everywhere in the world?"


Look up! There are always birds. The world is bigger than you think.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Poetry Friday: Belated Summer Poetry Swaps

When I got sick this summer, I dropped several balls, and one of them was the Poetry Swap. (A sports metaphor like "dropping the ball" doesn't really work for me because I tend to drop all balls when I play any sports.) It wasn't until last Friday that I sat down to go through my email and find out how delinquent I was. There were two people whose poems sent to me I hadn't shared yet, and one of those I hadn't even acknowledged. And there were two people for whom I hadn't written anything. So I sent out apologies and spent some time last Saturday writing poems. 


One of the people I sent a poem was Jone, who's hosting our roundup today. Be sure to visit her blog to see what everyone is sharing. Jone has invited contributions in honor of National Math Storytelling Week.

Today I'm going to share two poems I received this summer, and since fall came this week, we can call them Fall Poetry Swaps. Thank you to Tabatha, who came up with this whole Poetry Swap thing, and who does so much for poetry all year long.


Margaret Simon, who blogs at  Reflections on the Teche, impressed me to no end by not just writing about Haiti, but including Kreyol in her poem.  Her first line is a proverb that means "Behind the mountains there are mountains." It is used often here to refer to the complications that exist behind even the simplest things, the way there are always more mountains in Haiti. Later Margaret refers to the lambi, which is the conch shell that the enslaved people would blow to summon their armies, with which they successfully fought off the French in their revolution.

Haiti Love Song


Dèyè mòn gen mòn

Beyond the mountains, mountains

as lambi calls an echo, echo

Orchid opens just once. Once,

We held hands along the shore, shore,

felt the waves singing more, more, 

collected shells that shone, shone,

knowing we'd never be alone, alone.

Linda Mitchell, who blogs at A Word Edgewise, spent the summer making Junk Journals. Her lovely poem describes the process and the beautiful products that resulted:

In Praise of a Junk Journal



In praise of junked books: yellowed pages. Wise
                 words for readers moved on or gone. Pen and ink
illustrations. Art I can make in a new way. Praise
                           the endpapers, faded – elegant adornment still.


Removed from shelves and circulation. My scissors cut
         and trim chapters into strips to frame a new page,
using margins and line spacing as straight edge, guide:
         what was junk becomes new treasure.


Farewell outdated copyright, hardcovers spoilt by rain
         Hello! Transplanted print. Meet my paintbrush
distressed ink pad and mod podge. In my studio
         we rearrange and take shape in new ways.


No need to conform to metric or template. Each spread
         from ditch to edge is its own. A palette
of my own making with recovered headings and hues.


A bit of poem here – a slice of map there and wow
         this old encyclopedia illustration fits it.

As I’ve cut and brushed and pieced and polished

         no thoughts of the world have interrupted

I am an artist up to my elbows in junk
         and I love it.


~Linda Mitchell Summer 2020

Monday, September 21, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Email Me a Pity Party


In July, a friend wrote and asked how I was doing. It took me a week to write back. I kept trying to answer, and then deleting everything I had written. Finally I sent her an email telling the absolute truth. I didn't know what to say because every time I wrote something, it sounded so full of self-pity. I was fine, safe, but miserable.


Within a month I had found out what was wrong with me, and it was a physical problem causing my emotional state. (Of course, there was plenty in the world to make me sad; this was beyond that.) But even though I am so much better now, I still appreciate my friend's answer to that one liner from me. Instead of telling me to cheer up, she responded that I should never feel bad about sounding pitiful with her. "So if you ever want to have a pity-party in an email with me, I would gladly read and welcome it."


Everyone needs friends like that.  People who understand that sometimes you just feel rotten, lousy. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad. People who just listen, and who don't think worse of you. People who don't say, "Why don't you just..." but instead "I'm really sorry." (Come to think of it, this friend isn't shy about excellent advice, either; she's the one who, when I called her crying once on a gray winter day a month or so after the earthquake in Haiti, when I was away from home in the cold US and my tropical self was grieving and also freezing, said, "Put on your walking shoes, go outside and start walking." And she was absolutely right.)


I'm feeling good these days - energetic, cheerful. I don't cry every day. (I still cry, but not excessively, just a reasonable amount for an emotional person living life and teaching middle school during a pandemic.)  I'm loving my family and friends, eating well again, appreciating my students. I'm enjoying being healthy. But it's good to know that even when I'm no fun at all to be around, there are people who are willing to receive my pity party. Not just to receive it, but to welcome it. 

Thanks, friend.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Reading Update

Book #58 of the year was a reread, and in this post you can read what I wrote about it back in May when I first read it. The book is Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid. I reread it because we talked about it in my book group. It was my choice, and as I always find, nobody else liked it quite as much as I did. But we did have a good discussion, which is, of course, the goal.


Book #59 was The Long Run: Meditations on Marriage, Dementia, Caregiving, and Loss, by Richard Sherry. This is a beautiful book, and one I'd recommend to anyone who is facing dementia in a loved one. Dr. Sherry was a professor of mine in college, and his lovely, intelligent wife worked in the library at the same institution. I was surprised when I saw her at a reunion, and she recoiled from me when I tried to hug her. Clearly she had no idea who I was. I soon found out that she had begun to develop dementia. That was our last class reunion she attended. This book goes into the details of how difficult the whole transition was for both of them, but especially for the caregiver husband who narrates the story. Looking back at memories of their whole long marriage, and including updates he posted on Facebook as things progressed, he shows us beautiful, painful glimpses of their life in those last few years before her death. I appreciated his honesty and the practical details he explained, and was inspired by the love that survived, in spite of everything. He ends with some reflections on life after losing his wife of over fifty years, including how hard it is to stop taking care of everyone when that is the pattern you have fallen into at home out of necessity. 

Book #60 was The Thing with Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and what they Reveal about Being Human, by Noah Strycker. This was a gift from a friend who left Haiti early in the pandemic, and I enjoyed reading it and remembering her and her thoughtfulness. She's a fellow bird lover, and she knew I would be fascinated by the essays in this book, which deal with such topics as how birds remember where to migrate, and whether birds are self-aware. I'm sure I'll reread this one.


Book #61 was Brazen in Blue, by Rachael Miles. This is the fifth in the Muses' Salon series. I pre-ordered it and read it as soon as it came out, as I did with the firstsecond, third, and fourth. I enjoy her knowledge of the regency period, and these are all fun reads. 


Book #62 was Orlando, by Virginia Woolf. This was the second Woolf book in my quest to read all her novels. I didn't enjoy it as much as Mrs. Dalloway. It is written in a breezy style reminiscent of Voltaire's Candide, which was entertaining for a while but began to pall as Orlando lived for centuries as first a male and then a female. I did enjoy gems like: "Green in nature is one thing, green in literature another." 

Book #63 was The River, by Gary Paulsen. I am reading the first book in this series, Hatchet, with my eighth graders right now. I didn't like the second as much, but it was fast-moving and now I can tell my students a bit about it. 

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Poetry Friday: What's it Like to be a Bird?

I wonder what it's like to be a bird. I want to write about it. I know that birds don't live carefree lives; they spend all their time feeding themselves, and they fall prey to so many dangers. Nevertheless, because they fly, they seem effortlessly happy.

At the moment when I took these photos of an Antillean mango hummingbird on a wire right above our gate, we were hearing about chaos and burning on the streets of our city, Port-au-Prince. The bird, above it all, didn't care. Instead, he danced.


Here's a poem I read this week about a bird asking the opposite question: what's it like to be human?



by Anna Kamienska

translated by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon

What's it like to be a human

the bird asked

I myself don't know

it's being held prisoner by your skin

while reaching infinity

being a captive of your scrap of time

while touching eternity

being hopelessly uncertain

and helplessly hopeful


Here's the rest. Read all the way to the end to see the punchline, the bird's response to the human's description of what it's like to be human.


Matt Forrest Esenwine has the roundup this week. 



Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Recess Duty


Recess duty looks pretty different this year. Nobody's running and playing on the field; instead, they are all sitting at our outdoor cafeteria, distanced from each other, decorously eating their snacks. There are only a few of them, anyway, since half of the class is here at a time. 

But some things are the same. I still squint up at the birds on the wire and resolve to bring my binoculars tomorrow. I still talk and listen. I still soak in the Vitamin D from the sun. 


And today, as I walked back to my classroom with the sixth graders, a familiar smell hit my nose even through my mask: newly cut grass. When I was a child, that was the smell of Saturday mornings, and even though this is no Saturday morning, but a challenging school day with responsibilities both online and in person, a hybrid school day in this strange 2020 world, I had a rush of those feelings that the smell of cut grass and the sound of the lawnmower used to fill me with all those years ago. Those feelings that life was good, that I was safe and cared for, that the world was as it should be. 


Back at my desk, checking my to-do list for my free period (Do I have a Zoom conference? Did some work come in to grade? I need to work on next week's online lessons.), I am trying to hold on to the smell of cut grass.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Poetry Friday: Learning to Adjust

by William Stafford, from his book Even in Quiet Places, which apparently is out of print and costs a fortune, but you're welcome to borrow my copy if you come over and I'll even make you a cup of tea which we can drink in a socially distanced fashion. 

Keisha has today's roundup.

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Direction


In the book of Exodus, the children of Israel followed a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. They might not have known exactly where they were going, but they knew which direction to go. They just had to follow.

Technically we are supposed to do the same, right? Just follow, step by step, without worrying too much about the destination? 

It's sometimes hard to know how that plays out in real life. I would like the pillars (cloud and fire). But when I think of fire, I think of the raging, out of control ones in the western United States right now. I think of my computer charger catching fire on Sunday - actual flames, which thankfully I was able to put out with no injury to myself or damage to property. If you know God's in the fire, it's one thing, but fire without that assurance is scary. And clouds remind me of hurricanes. In the absence of pillars, it's not always easy to interpret the guidance.

How should I find direction in the decisions of my everyday life? I will pray and seek counsel, and then I will start taking steps. I don't see pillars ahead of me, but I ask God to help me make good decisions. This is scary. Often the stakes are high. 

"Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." I'd prefer that the light not be a raging fire. I try to trust even when I'm afraid. 

Karen has the roundup.

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Shot

This morning I took a syringe and an ampoule of Vitamin B12 to the school nurse's office, and then lay down on the bed while she injected me with more energy, more enthusiasm, more optimism - all the things that precious stuff brings into my life. 

Earlier this week, I did some research on the history of Vitamin B12. As I've written here before, this summer I was diagnosed with a condition called pernicious anemia in which the body can't absorb Vitamin B12 any more. This condition was first identified in 1855, and at that time, there was no treatment or cure for it. It was almost always fatal. In 1934, the doctors who figured out a cure for pernicious anemia received a Nobel prize for their work. The treatment was to give patients large amounts of liver. But they didn't know what it was in the liver that was making the difference. It wasn't until the 40s that they were able to isolate that substance, which they named Vitamin B12. In the 50s, scientists developed ways to produce Vitamin B12 in a lab.  Some people can take it orally, but for people who don't absorb it well, like me, shots can deliver it directly to the bloodstream.

I have thought a lot about the blessings that modern medicine have brought me. I had to get glasses when I was nine, and my poor eyesight would have been a significant disability without them. I was able to get Rhogam shots during my pregnancies and after my babies were born (thus preventing another type of anemia for them). I was vaccinated against all kinds of illnesses, and so were my children.  So many blessings, not available to everyone in this world.

I never thought I would get a vitamin deficiency, but I am so thankful that research and science have prevented that from being a death sentence. Every month, when it's time for my shot, I will gratefully lie down on the bed in the nurse's office and thank God for Vitamin B12.

Friday, September 04, 2020

Poetry Friday: English

Since I'm back in my classroom (today is our fourth day with kids), I decided to get today's poem from a book on my classroom shelf. This is from a dilapidated copy of Eleanor Farjeon's Poetry for Children, originally copyright 1926 (this edition is from 1951). The book has "Discard" written in red marker inside the front cover, but it seems to me that it still has some useful years left.




As gardens grow with flowers

English grows with words,

Words that have secret powers,

Words that give joy like birds.

Some of the words you say,

Both in and out of school,

Are brighter than the day,

And deeper than a pool.


Some words there are that dance,

Some words there are that sigh,

The fool's words come by chance,

The poet's to heaven fly.


When you are grown, your tongue

Should give the joys of birds;

Get while you are young

The gift of English words.


Eleanor Farjeon


Our school is doing hybrid learning, and I have lost half of my class time. Most years I teach two periods a day to each grade (seventh and eighth). They are called Reading and Writing, but as you can imagine, they intertwine a great deal. This year I have one period with each grade, and I also have sixth grade added. Plus my groups are different on different days, and Wednesday is a cleaning day, so we're all at home. (And I'm managing my online groups each day, too, as well as teaching the kids who are at school in person.)


I had resigned myself to giving up my daily poem habit - for now - but then I decided to compromise with PFAMS - The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School. I have to share the poems on Thursday and Friday, not just Friday, since I have different groups those two days, but I will at least have a weekly poem! 

I am so glad to be back in my classroom and to have kids here. Long may it last! 

Carol Varsalona has today's roundup. She's looking back on the summer, and has a beautiful gallery of poems and images.

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: First Day of School



I made an impulsive decision this afternoon, sitting at my desk after an astonishingly smooth first day of school. We are doing a hybrid plan this year, and our students haven't been in our classrooms since March. Today the first groups came to school, and we got the whole process underway. They got lockers and heard about COVID policies, went up and down specially marked staircases (not up and down the same ones; some are for up and some for down - making me think of that classic book on teaching, Up the Down Staircase), sat six feet apart wearing masks. I've been fretting for weeks about how it would go, and it went fine. Tomorrow we'll do it all again with the second groups, while today's students work online. 


The decision I made was to participate in Slice of Life, a Tuesday ritual that I've watched others doing for years.  Here's today's roundup of other people's Slice of Life stories.


Today I sat at our school's outdoor cafeteria and ate lunch with a new colleague. We live in Haiti, and our weather only keeps us from eating outdoors once or twice a school year when it rains during the day. We have picnic tables, and for this year they have been specially painted with yellow circles to show where it's OK to sit - only three kids per table. 


My new colleague asked how long I had taught at our school, and when I told him the year I moved to this country and started working here, he looked startled and told me that was the year after he was born. He's 28. Yes, I've been around here for a while. This year is definitely the weirdest and most intimidating, but I've faced challenges before. I think of my first year, when I learned that my students were used to a revolving door and plenty of starry-eyed young teachers from the US, and were not that eager to make my acquaintance. Year two was infinitely easier as far as acceptance from my students, but that year the US invaded Haiti, or "intervened" as they put it, and we had a tank in our parking lot for months. There was the year of the hunger riots, when protesters ransacked the convenience store across the street from our school, damaging it so badly that it's still sitting empty today. There was the year of the earthquake, when I left the country with my children and didn't return until six months later. There have been years of political turmoil, years of difficult classes that stretched me and made me want to quit some days, years of struggle in my personal life. 


And all those years brought me to this year, with new challenges. Can I meet them and survive? Or even thrive? Let's find out!