Lucky Guess

Wordle, just like the game craze Words with Friends, had passed me by. I am surrounded by game-players, those who love Bananagrams and Scrabble, and cards, who generally love to play. However, I am not that girl.

I am a sore loser, aware of it, embarrassed by it, but boggled by changing it. I know I don’t have a monopoly on poor sportsmanship; my husband is quick to tell anyone who suggests a game, that playing with me is a risk. He swears that we almost divorced over a game of Probe.

But I gave Wordle a try, a toe-in-the-water, perhaps because no one had to know. I could let the tiles fall where they may, and only I would be the wiser. And I liked it! No purist, I used a pad and pencil and pondered. When I admitted that I had started playing, I owned up to my tactics. My son shared that the guy who invented the game, Josh Wardle, recommends my old-fashioned strategy, so…

I have embraced it so wholeheartedly now, after 14 days, that it is what I use to lull myself to sleep when I’ve awakened in the middle of the night. Conjuring five-letter words that might be the perfect start to next day’s Wordle is better than counting sheep!

On Sunday morning, day 12, I awakened ready to go. I warmed up to the Wordle with my routine: read emails, write in my notebook, read some articles, listen to Poetry Unbound and The Slowdown. Then it was time. I opened it up, that field of possibility, a bingo-board grid above a keyboard, empty and waiting.

During the night, I had chosen “PROUD” as my starter. As any Wordle pro will tell you, it’s not a great choice: no N,S,T,L,or E, but an “R” and two vowels, and hey, what do I have to lose, really? I typed it in, and before I hit “enter,” I stopped. What made me do it, I can’t tell you. I undid my choice, tile-by-tile, and typed, “M-E-T-A-L.” I don’t know where the word came from. I know it hadn’t been one of my put-me-to-sleep words.

I looked at it, “metal,” with its e and a and t and l, m the only semi-outlier, and I pressed enter—little skill involved. Square-by-square, it came up green. I had gotten the Wordle in one! A rippling “genius” banner flashed across the screen. I felt like I had when I hit my first—and only ever—hole-in-one on the eighth hole during a golf match. I had just hit my Wordle hole-in-one.

The next day, it took me all six tries, and the banner’s “Phew!” said it all.

The Morning After

Writing Our World

“We’ve decided to move the Oregon Writing Festival online in May, ” the program chair announces, and while no one is surprised—it’s November 2021, and Covid continues to ebb and flow—many will be disappointed. Today’s Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) board meeting, too, is on Zoom. This is our reality.

It means that an author once committed to work with the student writers in the high school group will renege, “Zoom-fatigue.” It means volunteers, organizers, teachers, student writers will be attending online sessions. It means a seriously reduced attendance. Zoom-fatigue thrives.

But when I am asked to host the middle school session with Oregon author Rosanne Parry, I eagerly accept. My responsibilities are small: introduce her and monitor the chat, posing questions that the students ask—and I am a fan of Rosanne’s writing. Do you know her books? Since reading Heart of a Shepherd, the first of her many novels, my sincere enthusiasm and respect has only grown. (I honestly don’t know which is my favorite.)

Last Saturday was the day, and a robust 80+ middle school writers showed up, their cameras dark, their microphones muted. I briefly introduced Rosanne and she began. And her subject matter was not what I’d anticipated. She acknowledged that up front with the students, owning that she would be talking about making a living as a writer, the nitty-gritty, how-writers-manage-financial-stability of it.

In the course of her talk she discussed the realities—irregular income, royalties, isolation, rejection, secondary income sources drying up because of unforeseen events (pandemic, school visits etc). Then she said, “It has never been the most talented beginner who succeeds in the end. If you sustain that [writing] practice purposefully, if you don’t give up…the question is: Do you love it enough to do it all the time?” and she concluded, “A life in the arts is not easy, but it’s worth the risk.”

The students were wowed because she spoke to them about the relevant and real world of writing. She respected them, took them seriously. During the Q & A, the questions leaned more toward the ones you might expect—writer’s block, sustaining attention, idea-generation. Then came the final question: “How do I write about a topic that is triggering for me, when there is something I need to write, but I’m not sure I can?”

With the same honesty she said, “I find that that is when other writers you trust can be helpful.” She admitted that not all writing is ready to be shared, even if it is meant to be written, that there are topics that are “too close to the bone” and each writer must protect themself, that stepping away from the writing is always good advice. Time, she suggested, give it time.

Hopefully in May 2023, Portland State University’s campus will be bustling with student writers. They will arrive eager to meet with fellow artists and find their people, a supportive community. But for all who attended this year, the Oregon Writing Festival’s virtual equivalent did the same.

(Thanks to all authors, organizers, teachers, volunteers, and students who helped make this event a success!)

Seeing and Believing

Songs in the Key of Life (thanks, Stevie Wonder)

A writing assignment I love, and reprise in various iterations every chance I get to work with fellow writers, is a variation of an idea from the amazing Jim Burke and his brilliant The English Teacher’s Companion. My copy is the early edition and in it, scattered among the gems, is a way of generating a personal essay from an adjective. The example I use most successfully when I write with my people is: “I am lucky.”

My first anecdotal support is always, “I am lucky in love,” and I begin telling the story of meeting, then re-meeting, my husband. I married him after spending maybe 14 days together, hours of expensive phone calls notwithstanding (remember those days when phone time had a real cost attached?). The day I called my parents to tell them we were heading out to a notary public’s office to make it official, I prefaced the announcement by asking my mom, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

I could almost hear her worry in that, “Oh, Patricia,” but I hurriedly reassured her and off we went. After the brief ceremony, we headed out for a long weekend on Captiva Island, but beforehand we stopped to stock up on some snacks. I was reaching for the passenger side door handle, my new husband almost to the driver’s side when the reality of what we’d done struck. I froze, our eyes met, and he saw that …what? panic, perhaps?

We were 33, two never-been-marrieds, failed-at-relationships, maybe-it’s not-in-the-cards-for-me-and-I’m-okay-with-that types, yet here we were on this boldly bright Miami street—married.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, puzzled, worried, uncertain.

“It’s forever, for the rest of our lives. It’s …”

“But,”and he paused, then spoke, “It happens one day at a time. We can do this.”

And despite the number of times we have had to reassure ourselves, to remind ourselves of the gift of another day and our ability to handle what life brings, we have done this.

Happy Anniversary, Eric, 37 years so far, with a song for every moment. I remain lucky.

San José del Cabo, January 2022

Each Moment

I’m not sure when I first learned of Suleika Jaouad and her pandemic project the “Isolation Journals,” it may have even been here during the March SOL blogging challenge, but I continue to receive her emails and store the gems she offers from a variety of creative souls in an email folder. When this Sunday letter arrives, I read it with amazement and some trepidation.

Suleika is, once again, going through cancer treatment recovery, as she was when I first “met” her and began the “…Journals” journey. When her memoir about survival and thrival, (I know it’s not a word, those red dots underscoring alert me, but if you know her, then survival definitely does not do her justice), Between Two Kingdoms finally was published in book form (the New York Times had been featuring her) I rushed to buy my copy.

In this week’s email subject line, “Reasons to Live through the Apocalypse,” she says, “…small joys have been my sustenance,” followed by, “I do want to make a distinction here between the practice of celebrating small joys and the culture of ‘toxic positivity,’ where we’re told to be ever-grateful, to always search for the silver linings, to put a positive spin on all experiences, even the profoundly tragic…” It’s difficult for me to reconcile what she does with her spirited, loving response to adversity and not view her as a paragon of—living.

This email features, prompt 192, features a poem from Nikita Gill, a list enumerating small joys, all in the dailiness of living, and stops me at every period. Each one takes leads me to a memory.

“Reasons to Live Through the Apocalypse” by Nikita Gill

Sunrises. People you have still to meet and laugh with. Songs about love, peace, anger, and revolution. Walks in the woods. The smile you exchange with a stranger when you experience beauty accidentally together. Butterflies. Seeing your grandparents again. The moon in all her forms, whether half or full. Dogs. Birthdays and half-birthdays. That feeling of floating in love. Watching birds eat from bird feeders. The waves of happiness that follow the end of sadness. Brown eyes. Watching a boat cross an empty sea. Sunsets. Dipping your feet in the river. Balconies. Cake. The wind in your face when you roll the car window down on an open highway. Falling asleep to the sound of a steady heartbeat. Warm cups of tea on cold days. Hugs. Night skies. Art museums. Books filled with everything you do not yet know. Long conversations. Long-lost friends. Poetry.”

Her list invites us to do the same. Where does it take you?

When next Tuesday arrives, National Poetry Month will have ended, but with luck, we will still be here, living, fingers-crossed. Thanks, Suleika, for the reminder.

Natural Remedy

Silver Falls State Park, Sublimity, Oregon, Saturday, April 16, 2022

Sublimity: the quality or state of something being sublime or exalted. That’s what the dictionary says about where we are—and it epitomizes our early spring hike to see Ten Falls.

We are standing under a rock shelf, thundering water reminding us of sheer power. Can you see the trees, once huge, towering, scattered like so many matchsticks in the creek below? Yes, it’s a creek and that will be apparent once August rolls around, but for today, the words “water shortage” seem impossible. That is one of the reasons we came, snow still caught in the uneven terrain of cliff sides, gradual melt swelling water’s rush.

So many greens here, and the uneven sky, gray blanket giving way to blue before blue beats a hasty retreat. We climb, surrounded by living walls. These are not the tame, manicured stuff of your DIY shows, oh no. These are what nature offers. Silver drops, snow surrenders, cascades from fern tips, drips, drips, drips. One can only look up in wonder.

As we hike out, now flanked by civilization, an asphalt road winding its way to the parking lot, our path running a meandering parallel, snow and hail begin to fall, white mixed with sting. But the sporadic swish of passing cars stops. We are in a silent forest once again, Doug firs proud, old, weathered yet sturdy, shelter us. Headed for home.

The Return

Poetry Unbound, the podcast, is back, and though I missed it yesterday, this morning with the gift of time, I let Pádraig Ó Tuama carry me into the world of “the best words, in the best order”(Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Today offers a poem from Rita Doves’ most wonderful, written-during-the-pandemic collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse.

“Eurydice Turning” and the opening line, benign:

“Each evening I call home and my brother answers” quickly becomes something else, the moment of loss so profound it brings me to tears. I, too, lost my mother to dementia long before her last breath. And with this invasion, her world, her self , our relationship, changed irrefutably.

In her poem, Dove marvels at the optimism of her brother, their mother’s caretaker. She sees her young mother, “younger than my daughter now,” and recognizes the disappearance of that mom forever. A bittersweet stream courses beneath this exchange between family members. She and her brother “…keep talking: weather, gossip, news.”

Now in my seventh decade, I have done the math, calculating backward from the first trip home with my three-year old son when I knew we would have to begin planning for a more stable living situation for our mother. Her story began in 1912, truly those years with her beloved brother and family were the last to disappear. She is 79 when we find a geriatric foster care placement that we, the six of her offspring, can accept as her home.

I ache for Rita Dove, for her brother, for their loss. I wonder if the specter of genetics ever haunts them as I selfishly acknowledge it does me. All this floods my morning thoughts with the first episode of Poetry Unbound. I am not glad, but I find comfort in loss shared with such love—and the wonder of poetry.

Well-Taught

Screenshot, 3/5/22

She was always special, you know those students when you have them, earnest yet joyful, engaged and interested, smart and kind. A colleague of mine once said, “The truth about Brigit, and students like her, is that they really don’t need us; we need them.”And I have never forgotten that. A middle-school miracle among my eighth grade charges, shining on those around her, and making them shine, too.

And that glow of knowing continued growing. In her senior year as a student at a selective high school, she chose to complete her senior project with me. She committed to four days a week, four hours each morning, working with my latest crop of eighth graders on a technology integration project. But she did so much more than that! I was to be her mentor; in fact, the learning was reciprocal.

She became a working member of our teaching team, and the kids loved her. We were participating in the National Writing Project’s collaboration with Google in their “Letters to the President.” The enterprise demanded a lot of preparation and conferring while students worked as writers with a true purpose and audience. Naturally Brigit added to our technology knowledge, but more than that, she engaged with these student writers, and students who once eschewed writing, changed. She nudged them gently toward expertise.

On her final day with us, the project successfully completed and her time with us over, we met on the rug for cake and conversation, a parting “chalk talk,” and she invited them to ask questions. “So are you going to college to be a teacher?”

“Oh, no, ” Brigit replied. “I’m not going to be a teacher.”

Puzzled the young man continued, “Then why did you come here to be with us for your school project?”

“I learned to write in this room. That’s why I came,” she replied without hesitation.

She didn’t look up at me; her eyes remained on the student—it was a matter-of-fact statement, and one that is hardly the truth—but if she had have, she’d have seen a light there that has burned brightly ever since.

This is not my only Brigit story. New stories arise as she, a now-thirty-year old, continues to include me in her life. Today she and her husband(!) and I are hiking during their visit from New Jersey to Oregon. Maybe I’ll have a new chapter to share next Tuesday.

Feline Finale

Cowboy keeps my seat warm.

Are we really doing this? Is it really our last post? I don’t know whether to applaud or groan. These mornings together have brought us closer, haven’t they? But it looks like the time has come for me to say a few words. Let me settle in…

I have been here as you raced to the keyboard and have joined you after rummaging through my food dish so conveniently placed in the corner of your desk because…the dog! After a few strolls from end-to-end of the L-shaped haven you call your office, inspecting carefully for anything out of order (I love your disorder is what I’m saying),I have curled in your lap, ready to write.

Then there have been those days when you scooped me up with your spatula-hands, abandoning me to the warm spot you were leaving, unable to find the right words. After some clattering in the kitchen, some strolls around the house, you returned, scooped me up again so we could resettle. “Now you’re ready,” I realized, as your fingers began their erratic dance upon the keyboard. (I do love to dance myself though you keep deterring me!)

Since I have been here for you throughout the Slice of Life Challenge—SOL#22 you call it—it seems only fair that I, your favorite feline fan Cowboy, am featured in the finale post.

I want to thank your faithful readers for their comments, for their attention. (I know how loved I feel when I get yours, as your hand rests on my side and your fingers move through my silky fur, even if only for a moment.) I know how happy it made you, how it kept you going through those, “What can I write about?” moments.

I especially want to thank the TwoWritingTeachers for sponsoring and cheerleading for you throughout this March madness (and I say that in the best way). I know you would’ve been sitting at your desk without the challenge while I curled in your lap, but you wouldn’t have felt as purr-sonally proud as you do today, right now.

Thanks for making March the cat’s meow!

Reading the Room

What I see in front of me:

My embosser, a gift from a student, who loved my book talks—and my extensive classroom library. She never let me forget that day in class.

You almost have to have seen my Language Arts classroom to understand. The 20-or-so desks for the eighth graders were arranged in a myriad of ways, depending on the day and what we were doing. As I told them, desks have legs for a reason—you can move them. And move them they did, but to be fair, the space was limited, bounded by our books, books on shelves, and in crates, books everywhere!

Students found the rug in the front where we’d conduct “chalk talks” a likely spot for collaboration, the rug flanked by shelves, poetry and memoir. Some of them would try to escape detection behind the wall of double-sided shelves standing on the other side of the room. But I was a roamer by nature, so books didn’t provide that kind of successful escape for long.

On this day, the kids were observing that they could really use some more space, space to spread out when I denied them hall access (seldom, but…hard to monitor the hall and classroom; they had to earn it!). It’s true, they were bounded by books.

“You know,” Jack began, “if you got rid of some of these books…” He cast the bait and waited.

You know, Jack, ” I countered, “I’d rather get rid of some of you than any one of these books! They are my babies.”

I jest, but seriously, eighth graders? There were days…Everyone laughed.

A few months later, Shannon brought me a smallish box that had surprising heft. “Ms. Emerson, I got you the perfect gift,” she said, beaming. “Open it now!”

She grabbed a book (they’re everywhere, remember?), took a gold seal, inserted it inside the round mouth and pressed. What emerged?

“It’ll look like an award-winner,” Shannon pronounced.

My embosser, with seals of gold and blue (our school colors). She was right: the perfect gift.

Something Beautiful?

Do you diigo? Is there a social bookmarking tool you use? How do you use it? Diigo has been a part of my digital life for close to a decade, yet I learn only today that, “The name “Diigo” is an acronym from “Digest of Internet Information, Groups and Other stuff”.[2]” Thanks, Wikipedia.

I’m scrutinizing it with some intent because I know I marked an article from online Smithsonian Magazine,“Colorado Composts Its First Human Remains.” As I enter my seventh decade, I think about cleaning up after myself, leaving my workspace better than I found it. I am curious about the tags I have, overall, breadcrumbs in my digital forest.

Today I am specifically looking for my end-of-life tags, a relatively new one finding itself among other “ends:” end-of-semester, end-of-class, end-of-year and reflective of where I am now—in no hurry, to be certain, but realistic. As early as 2014, the New York Times, made my diigo with “A Project to Turn Corpses into Compost.” Ever a fan of alliteration, this drew my attention.

I have been planting this seed in the fertile minds of my husband and son, hoping it will take root, and I will continue to nurture. Of course, I won’t be here to see it mature, but as diigo attests, it is not a passing fancy. With this Colorado feature and a local news broadcast of the “reintegration”ceremony, my last wishes are gaining plausibility. Oregon has legalized human composting, the third state to do so, and this is where I live—and where I’ll likely die, so…

Have you read the picture book Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney? It has always stayed with me, the ending:

"When I grow up," I tell her, "I too will go to 
faraway places and come home to live by the sea." 

"That is all very well, little Alice, " says my 
aunt, "but there is a third thing you must do." 
"What is that?" I ask. 

"You must do something to make the world more 
beautiful . " 

I have gone to faraway places. I have come home to live by the sea. And that third thing? I don’t know that how I exit will do this, I would hope I’ve lived a life that, at the very least, did no harm, but I’ve signed up for Recompose. And maybe…something beautiful will grow.