Ever since I turned 50 a few years ago, I've been working on my QWP, my Quinquagenarian Writing Project. I keep a folder for each year with the drafts I've worked on. Looking back on this year's, as my birthday approaches, I've found (not at all to my surprise) that the numbers are down. In the months since my last birthday, many things have changed. My husband and I packed up the house where we'd lived for 20 years. We're in new jobs in a new school in a new country. It's a season of endings and beginnings, grieving and rejoicing, a season of learning a new language and culture, looking forward and also remembering. It's also a time of not writing a whole lot.
A lifetime ago, when I was 19, I tried on a yellow dress in a shop in Paris. I wrote a poem about that, and you can read it here. In the poem, I reflected on how a new dress can make you feel like a new person, and how our identities develop through the choices we make. And how I am somehow always the same old person.
This year, thinking again about some of those ideas, and looking to put at least one more piece in my QWP file before I start a new one after my birthday, I wrote this:
Duolingo prompts me again and again To repeat the words “Esta falda es demasiado cara,” This skirt is too expensive.
I feel I am unlikely to say this. If I find the skirt too expensive, I will say nothing. I will simply sidle out of the store, hoping to remain unnoticed.
But maybe the Spanish-speaking me is a little bolder. Maybe she feels she must express her views, holding forth on the appropriate price for a new skirt. She’ll send back her meal when it isn’t cooked to perfection. She’ll speak up. She’s not the sidling type.
She may even climb on a soapbox on a South American street corner and make speeches, calling for justice for the downtrodden, demanding reasonably priced skirts, but also living wages for those who sew them.
I want to be that me, so I repeat the words, tentatively at first, but soon with more assurance, until my voice rings out: Esta falda, esta falda, esta falda es demasiado cara!
I signed up weeks ago for a Crowdcast put on by the Alaska Quarterly Review on February 16th, but then I forgot about it and went to sleep, but fortunately they recorded it, and I got to watch it the next day. And now you can watch it too, here. It's Jane Hirshfield and Dorianne Laux talking about turning facts into poems. It's so good. (There's some salty language; not for children.)
In the first six weeks of this year, I've finished five books. I'm also including in my list one book that I'm pretty sure I read in the last week of 2021, but didn't add to my list yet.
Book 1 of 2022 was Kate Bowler's book Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I've Loved. Bowler did an academic study of the prosperity gospel movement in American Christianity, that idea that God blesses people who follow Him with material prosperity. After her diagnosis as a young woman with stage IV colon cancer, she had to confront the ideas she'd learned about and the way they differed from her own experience. In this memoir, she examines "Everything happens for a reason" and other clichés that people like to say when you're going through suffering.
Book 2 was a reread, Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen. On the one hand, this is a story of colonialism and entitlement and cringey attitudes about race. But on the other, it's a story of going to a new place and making a home. It's as the second that I read it. There's this passage, quoted in the movie in Meryl Streep's Danish accent, "If I know a song of Africa, -- I thought, -- of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of Ngong look out for me?" Blixen famously went to Africa with all her silver and china, and set up a beautiful home there where people loved to come visit. "To the great wanderers amongst my friends," she writes, "the farm owed its charm, I believe, to the fact that it was stationary and remained the same whenever they came to it. They had been over vast countries and had raised and broken their tents in many places, now they were pleased to round my drive that was steadfast as the orbit of a star. ... I had been on the farm longing to get away, and they came back to it longing for books and linen sheets and the cool atmosphere in a big shuttered room; by their campfires they had been meditating upon the joys of farm life." The downside, of course, of making such a haven is that eventually one has to pack it up. Blixen writes affectingly of selling her furniture, sitting in her nearly empty house on her crates of books, and saying goodbye to her property with her friend Ingrid: "We walked together from the one thing on the farm to the other, naming them as we passed them, one by one, as if we were taking mental stock of my loss, or as if Ingrid were, on my behalf, collecting material for a book of complaints to be laid before destiny." She adds, "by the time that I had nothing left, I myself was the lightest thing of all, for fate to get rid of."
Book 3 was New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier. I am a big Chevalier fan, loving her books based on works of art, but I didn't much like this one, which is a retelling of Shakespeare's Othello, set in a sixth grade class.
Book 4 was the latest Elizabeth George book, Something to Hide. This is the twenty-first Inspector Lynley novel, and as always my favorite part is the relationships of the police. I will always read a book in this series.
Book 5 was Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, by Tom Vanderbilt. I picked this because my OLW for the year is "BEGINNER." Vanderbilt argues convincingly for the merits of learning new things, even if you never get very good at them. "What I hope to encourage throughout this book," he writes, "is the preservation, even cultivation, of that spirit of the novice: the naïve optimism, the hypervigilant alertness that comes with novelty and insecurity, the willingness to look foolish, and the permission to ask obvious questions -- the unencumbered beginner's mind." Be a dilettante, he encourages his readers: that word is "derived from the Italian dilettare, which means 'to delight.'" He studies the mechanisms of learning (including infants learning to walk), the effects of learning on the aging brain, the role of feedback, how metacognition develops in the learner and whether it's better to learn on your own or with a teacher. Along the way, he becomes a beginning singer, surfer, swimmer, drawer, jeweler, and chess-player. I really loved this book!
Book 6 is the one I think I read in December of last year, The Cat Man of Aleppo, by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha. This beautiful book, which won a Caldecott Honor last year, is the story of Alaa, who watches his city of Aleppo, Syria, falling apart, and still has the energy and verve to take care of the cats who roam the war-destroyed landscape. It's not a matter of people or cats in this true story; showing love has a ripple effect, sending goodness out through Aleppo to those who have suffered unspeakably.
We're back to work in person this week, and whew! "It's a lot," as my students in Haiti used to say. (Do my students in Paraguay say that, too? I really don't know yet.)
I've got some figuring out to do, in my classroom, in my library (yep, new job at my new job), in the grocery store, in life in general. But it feels as though things are mostly moving in the right direction. I'm learning more Spanish words. I know where all my classes are (kids stay put and teachers move, per Paraguay pandemic guidelines).
Last week I posted a birthday poem, and this week I heard another one on the Slowdown podcast. It's a good reminder of two things: my birthday is coming up soon, and time is passing. Seize the days, even the overwhelming ones!
It starts this way:
by Kathleen Rooney
At first, birthdays were
reserved for kings and saints.
But it's rainbow sprinkles and
face painting for everybody
And my favorite (if somewhat gloomy) lines from further down in the poem:
I wrote my first poem of the year, my first poem since leaving Haiti, the first one in this new place. It was a birthday poem for a friend, so I won't share it here in public, but here's a birthday poem by Calef Brown. Click through to read the rest of it, the grandfather's opinion on this whole idea of using light bulbs instead of candles. It's appropriate in time of pandemic to avoid blowing on something everyone is going to eat, but on the whole I think I agree with the grandfather. Sometimes getting your wish involves a little mess.
It's February already, and our SJT theme for February is "Heart." Linda Mitchell is hosting. Thanks, Linda! (Be sure to go check out what everyone else is writing today.)
The 2019 version of me posted this meditation on having an undivided heart, quoting the 2011 version of me. I'm not sure the 2022 version of me has much to add. I'm learning new lessons about tending my heart in a new place, without the trappings of my previous life, as my husband and I moved to a new country last month. I'm learning the new lessons, but I certainly haven't learned them yet.
Linda asks us "Where is your heart on this spiritual journey we all are on?" I think my heart is in a figuring it out mode.
A metaphor I've been thinking about is my classroom in Haiti. It was my domain, a place where I'd worked for 15 years. My handwriting was on the white board, my curriculum in the files, my fingerprints on everything. I had Sharpies in every color and I knew right where they were. I had my books on the shelves and my bulletin board borders in the cupboard.
Now I don't have a classroom yet. We're teaching online, and when we go back to school on Monday, the kids will stay put and the teachers will circulate. My handwriting isn't anywhere, except in my notebook and on the yellow legal pad sheets where I write the kids' names in a list every day, trying to learn them and take attendance at the same time. I couldn't locate a Sharpie if my life depended on it, in any color. My books - well, let's not talk about that too much, because I might cry. I do have a few here, but so many of them are given away, or else back on those shelves in Haiti for my replacement.
And there you have it: my heart. From a place of belonging to a place of not-quite-there-yet. Figuring it out. Finding my way.
But what hasn't changed, I remind myself, is that I am beloved by God. My heart is a dwelling place for Him. I'm not figuring anything out alone.
Even though it's not cold, and it's hard for me to imagine winter weather, today I had to say goodbye to my baby, who is all grown up now, as he flew back to the northern hemisphere.
When we got home from the airport, it was still dark, and I felt bleak and sad. We don't know exactly when we'll see our children again, and it's hard to live so far from them. Moments with them are so precious now, because they are so rare.
I sat on the stairs outside our apartment with my binoculars, and started a bird checklist. I could hear Great Kiskadees, narcissistically singing out their own names, "Kiskadee! Kiskadee!" I saw a couple of Tropical Kingbirds swooping past, enjoying themselves exuberantly as always. I heard some parrots - probably Turquoise-fronted Parrots. And I was off, checking species on eBird. After a while I went downstairs and walked around on the grass barefoot, looking and listening, just being where I was.
I can't control my children's lives any more than I can control the birds flying over me, but somehow just being where I am saves my life, again and again, taking a few minutes to focus on what I see and hear right here, remembering the way God cares for me and for my children.
I've been privileged to live in three of the world's great cities (Nairobi, Port-au-Prince and Asunción, Paraguay) as well as spending time in many others (including nine weeks in Paris as a college student). I just moved to a new city: Kampala, Uganda. I've also lived in smaller towns in three countries. In all of those places there have been difficult days, but I've never found a city or town yet where God is not, and I don't anticipate finding one in the future, either. The name of my blog comes from the song "Love is Always There," by Carolyn Arends.