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.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Poetry Friday: PFAMS in 2020

On Thursday morning I grabbed my phone and found, to my surprise, that I had to prove my identity before I could check my email. By that I don't mean put in my passcode, or use my thumbprint, but enter a number where they could send me a code, and then enter another code, and then remember another code I'd created who knows when. All of this happened because I had downloaded software updates overnight. Amazingly, I managed to gain access, but not before I was starting to doubt that I was who I say I am. Talk about getting your adrenaline going first thing in the morning! 

It seems pretty common these days that I feel that way, that I may not actually be myself. I'm a teacher who believes in Writer's Workshop, but am I doing WW? Um, not really. I'm a teacher who has silent reading in class every day, but am I doing that this year? Nope. And I'm a teacher who teaches a poem every day - well, except this year. There are several reasons for this, such as the hybrid format, now changing to a less hybrid but still a little hybrid format, and the addition of another grade, and the new online curriculum I've been given to support the hybrid setup. But the main reason is that last year I had 80 minutes with each class each day, and this year I have 45 minutes. Who am I as a teacher this year? Couldn't really tell you.

BUT! I have my PFAMS, or Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School! This book, compiled by Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong, is rescuing my classroom from a poetry-deprived existence. Each week, PFAMS has a poem for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, complete with a list of suggestions for how to approach it. The whole thing takes about ten minutes. Done and done. I am only teaching one poem a week instead of four a week plus a song on Friday (my usual plan), but at least I'm teaching one. It is good enough for 2020. And because of PFAMS, the poems are wonderful and already selected.

This is week ten, so today I'll be reading Julie Larios' "Names" with the sixth grade, Mary Quattlebaum's "What I Want to Be" with the seventh grade, and Heidi Bee Roemer's "Food Fest" with the eighth grade. The theme across the board is Food, and all three poems come with activities, which always get me thinking of my own. (The blog,, is a great resource, too.) If I have extra time I can expand this, but since I usually don't, I can give it the minimum time and still be doing poetry with my kids. (I'm really looking forward to teaching "Names" because it's about nicknames, which are ubiquitous in Haitian culture. In the poem, everyone has nicknames, and the pastries the poem's persona is buying have nicknames too. I'll ask the kids what their nicknames are, and I can already hear the chorus that will ensue.)

Another fun aspect is that I know many of the poets represented in this anthology; many of them are Poetry Friday regulars. In week two I taught "Locker Ness Monster," a very fun poem by Robyn Hood Black. In week three I did Irene Latham's "Biking Along White Rim Road" with the seventh graders, and in week eight, Mary Lee Hahn's "Spiral Glide," a poem about a hawk. 

I've taught poems from this book before (I wrote about it here and here and here, among other places), but I've never before used it as it's intended to be used, going through and doing the poems one after another throughout the school year, starting with week one and ending (I hope I hope I hope we'll still be meeting in person in spite of pandemic and social unrest and elections) week thirty-six. I'm so glad to have this book to use, and to help me remember my teacher identity, in this strangest of years.

Today's roundup is here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

Spiritual Journey Thursday: Gratitude

I'm hosting today, so welcome, fellow SJT writers! Leave your link in the comments, and I'll round them up. Even if you're not a regular SJT writer, feel free to leave a gratitude list in the comments, anyway, or to link us to something on your blog. I intended to post this on Wednesday evening, but instead posted it early Wednesday morning. But I guess that's OK - maybe we needed an extra boost of gratitude on Wednesday this week.


I signed up for this job before 2020 began, and because it was November, I chose the theme of Gratitude. This year hasn't been at all as I had envisioned, but being grateful is still the best way to view the world, and I have so many reasons for gratitude. 

Recently, I sat in a doctor's office next to my husband, listening to the doctor talk about exercise and my husband tell about his cycling. The conversation made me think about sitting in a doctor's office in that same practice (though the practice has expanded and moved to a new location since then, and this was a different doctor), as my OB and my husband talked about cycling, a sport they both did avidly. I often felt like saying, "Hey! Remember me? I'm the one who's pregnant here - let's talk about me!" A lot has changed since those conversations years ago, and my babies are all grown up. But listening to my husband and his doctor, I remembered so many years of marriage, so many bike trips. I felt deep gratitude.

Here are some things, big and small, on the gratitude list generated in my head at that doctor's appointment:

1. A husband who still loves me and thinks I'm beautiful, after 31 years of marriage

2. Our children, one of whom texted while we sat there, having just arrived safely home from a bike trip of her own

3. Doctors to help us when we're sick and to encourage us to stay healthy

4. Health, and a continued ability to walk and bike and enjoy the world, even though lockdowns of several kinds have narrowed our world lately, and sickness has slowed us both down

5. This gorgeous, complicated island where we are so privileged to live

6.  Books to read, including on the electronic reader that was in my bag and that I'd been reading in the waiting room before the appointment

7. Birds, including the ones we'd seen from the car on the way there

8. COVID rates in this country that are far lower than what was predicted, even given the incomplete statistics we have (when we discussed this with the doctor, and asked for his opinions, he said he thought God had been good to us)

9. Friends, including the one we'd talked with in the waiting room

"Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." James 1:17


"We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory." The General Thanksgiving, Book of Common Prayer

Carol  has a bunch of goodies for us this month, from gorgeous fall photos to a found poem to a suggestion to take an "awe walk." So many reasons for gratitude! 


Linda shows us a wonderful thing for which she's grateful, and even included a photo and a poem!


Fran is speaking my language by quoting Reepicheep, the gallant mouse!  

Margaret is in with a gratitude poem, a lovely photo, and an invitation to participate in gratiku.

Karen  talks about a book she's been reading called Liturgy of the Ordinary (it's been on my wishlist for a while, and maybe this is the push I need to read it!), and shares a gratitude list. 


Ramona went for a walk and took glorious pictures!


Tuesday, November 03, 2020

Slice of Life Tuesday: Holiday and Feathers

Yesterday was a holiday here in Haiti. November 1st and 2nd are All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, and both are important holidays. 


I don't know if you noticed, but there's a lot going on right now. In the US, and in Haiti. We are all preoccupied by what's in the news, and what's going on with our families, and what's supposed to happen today and in the weeks ahead. The news is bad everywhere.


But yesterday? Yesterday was a holiday. I woke up very early, which I do every day, and read for a while, including a chapter from the Bible. And then it started to get light, an hour earlier than it used to just a few days ago. I grabbed my binoculars and went outside at 5:30, before it was really light enough to see, and watched birds in my yard. Seven species on my eBird checklist, and Day 56 of my checklist streak. What a way to start the day!

I had breakfast with my husband, and I chatted on Zoom with a friend on another Caribbean island, and yeah, I worked (I am a teacher, after all). I ate some leftover pizza for lunch. I worked some more. I rode six miles on the exercise bike. We had talked about taking advantage of the long weekend to try to make some more complicated plans, find something fun to do, but there was just too much going on. Today we are going to a new setup at school, with twice as many students on campus. That's required a lot of preparation, plus Friday was the end of our first quarter, so there was grading, always and always the grading. 

But I did get to take a few minutes to work on my bird biology course (I wrote more about that here). The current chapter is about feathers. That may seem like a trivial or insubstantial topic, but believe me, it isn't. There's much more to feathers than meets the eye. As I read about the different kinds of feathers and how they are counted and how they grow and develop and how molting happens and how feathers are pigmented, I thought about the words of the twelfth century mystic Hildegard of Bingen, who called herself "a feather on the breath of God." 


All we have is the present moment, this day. Our concerns for the future, our regrets from the past, our worries over all the things: the election in the US and the stories of grisly crime in the Haitian news and the new demands at work - these are all beyond our control. We are feathers on the breath of God, buoyed up on His love and asked only to do our best and to trust Him for the outcome. 


And even for the feathers that we are, it's always good to have a day off, to rest and refocus so we can go back to work with some new energy. Here we go!