Birthday Present

Class offered by Portland Literary Arts

I decide I’ll take it, “Stamp Collecting: Another Approach to Memoir Writing,” a gift to myself on my 71st birthday. Not because I am writing a memoir with aspiration to publish, but because this is how I’ve come to build writing with my students—or did before I retired. I have always told them that we can start small, write pieces, and create longer work by finding what fits together, shaping the material we’ve got. I want to be a student again.

The class met last Saturday, and it flew by. Natalie is an inviting teacher, generous in her approach with us. We read a series of examples—”mentor texts”in the jargon I use with my young creators—then discuss them: what do you notice? what is the writer doing? what particularly stays with you when you look away? She guides us the way a writing teacher should, at least in the way the National Writing Project first taught me, and I smile as I hear invitations I’ve offered to my students tendered to me.

Of course she has laid groundwork, too, clarifying why she’s chosen the word “stamps,” talking about its meanings, the size of postage stamps, that we get passport stamps, and connects the precision and impact, even some stamps’ controversial histories. “The stamps that we are reading changed the writer; they helped to define identity; they have white space in the same way poems do, trusting the reader to find connective tissue.”

She gives us a prompt to explore during a 20-minute break in our last hour together: “Write a list of five fears you have had that came true. Choose the most interesting. Ask five questions about it. Then write 7-10 sentences about that fear.” It’s an assignment structure any writing teacher might use—the list, the selection, the inquiry, the short exploration.

When we return to the group, she asks how it worked—and two of us are frank: it wasn’t the prompt for me. To which she calmly says, “I never know how any suggestion is going to land. I’m sorry if it caused you anxiety.”

This is the real lesson, isn’t it? There have to be lots of ways in to writing, to expression of any kind. We just have to keep extending invitations.

Seeing Clearly

Tidal Slough

“When the tide came in, the table was set.” These words describe early life for the Yaquo’n tribe once located in the native coastal forest edging Yaquina Bay, now the site of the Yakona Nature Preserve.

JoAnn and Bill Barton are Newport residents who, upon learning about the history of the Yaquina Bay, committed to “…the child [this land]we never had together. We’ve nurtured and tended a small remnant of the vast fog belt forests that once blanketed the Pacific Northwest coastline.” They know they cannot undo the devastation of the past, the egregious short-sightedness and inhumanity of European interlopers, but they are doing their best to ensure a respectful future.

On a glorious Friday morning, my sister and I hike in on an old logging road, sheltered and dappled by sunlight through tall trees. Unobtrusive signs alert disc golfers to the network of holes all but hidden in the woods, 18 of them. This is our first time here, and a volunteer we have met at the gate tells us that we’ll wend our way through the wooded road about a mile before actually arriving at Yakona.

“Do you want a ride in?” she offers.”Once you’re inside the preserve, you can wander the trails for hours.” We are grateful but decline. On foot the journey is slower but what we’re there for, to discover and spend time together. We are not disappointed—trees and native foliage, sloughs reflecting the tides, blue sky, and cotton-ball clouds, and the ease to enjoy them.

The Bartons’ “dream child” began with awareness of history, delving into this area’s past, and leading to their initial purchase of 77 acres in 2013 with the express intent,”…to allow Nature to reclaim much of the 400-acre peninsula that is home to the Preserve. As we prepare to pass along the care of this land to future generations we’ll never know…” Their child has grown to 340 preserved acres.

Since returning here, I’ve thought a lot about all that I didn’t know about my home as I was growing up. Our family had its routines, favorites; like people living anywhere, life was daily and quotidian. It is only now that I realize all I missed. And of course there was no sense of missing anything then. I had it all; I led a privileged existence.

I do recall learning about the “Flathead Indians” at some point in grade school, a European description given to the very natives that actually lived long, long before I did in the place I now call home but truly was theirs.

I am grateful for the chance to see this world with opened eyes and hopeful that future short-sightedness can be partially corrected. Perhaps it starts with walking in the woods.

Beyond Sadness

Your prompt for this week:

“In ‘The Critic as Artist,’ Oscar Wilde writes, ‘After playing Chopin, I feel as if I had been weeping over sins that I had never committed, and mourning over tragedies that were not my own.’

Think of a sad song you love—one you go to wallow in, one that brings tears to your eyes. Listen to it, then write about whatever comes up. ” (from The Isolation Journals published by Suleika Jaouad. Thanks to her guest Carmen Radley.)

Found on Spotify

Confession: I am writing this on Sunday, not Tuesday. And I’m glad because this prompt, like so many from the weekly Isolation Journal’s gifts to desperate writers, triggers a powerful flood. And I’m ready to write when I read it—magic when that happens.

My song has to be “It’s Quiet Uptown” from the musical Hamilton. From the opening piano notes, staccato and singular, soon joined by the chords followed by a subdued yet clarion female voice, the chills rise and the tears prickle—even now, years after I first heard this song.

It is this phrase that unleashes any reserve, “They are trying to do the unimaginable.” And that “unimaginable”is the death of Alexander and Eliza’s eldest son Phillip in a duel. A duel Phillip undertakes for his honor, the honor of the family.

Have you read Dalton Trumble’s scathing indictment of war, Johnny Got His Gun? “…did anybody ever come back from the dead any single one of the millions who got killed did any one of them ever come back and say by god i’m glad i’m dead because death is always better than dishonor?” Not to minimize or misrepresent Trumbo, but this sentence captures one dimension of my visceral reaction to “It’s Quiet Uptown.”

I can only listen through a parent’s ear, a mother’s heart—and it leaves me weak. Once I decided to have a baby, I enrolled in a lifelong club of captive caring. When I listen to Lin Manuel-Miranda’s plaintive melody and lyrics, I find my bona fides exposed to the world. Hubris and hope mix in parenthood, but hope triumphs and a child emerges. “It’s Quiet Uptown” articulates my greatest fear, my personal echo, my very own unimaginable.

When I am encouraged to write “…whatever comes up,” this arises, haunts, and thankfully when the song ends, moves to my mind’s recesses eclipsed by the immediate real joy I find in motherhood.

In-Stability

Frivolous? Perhaps…but I love my stability ball. Has it emerged in prior blog posts yet, my obsession with fitness? I have carried its weight for so long that I’m sure I must have. Willa Cather said, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” Commitment to exercise has been my “basic material” for longer than that.

Last week, once again, a confluence of factors—age and enthusiasm (and magical thinking that I’m still 25)—hobbled me. Post-pickle ball adventure, I tossed throughout the night with a persistent pain, lower back, left quadrant…blah, blah, blah.

My parents, forever role-models, never complained about their ailments, eschewed pills, were made of sturdy stock, stoics til the end. I aspire to that. Not for me the litany of injury, pain, and ailments when I gather with my peers. I work to remain sympathetic but silent. My husband bears my woes, however, and I his. (I’m hoping my parents also shared this private support.)

When he injured himself a year ago, neither waiting nor rest failed to remedy, so he went to the chiropractor. In rolled our newest family member, the healer, that purple globe tucked in the corner of our living room that receives highest praise: the stability ball.

Not for the first time it was to this loyal fixture that I turned, sat, and rolled when my injury screamed and patience waned. In two days, after gentle arching, stretching, and popping, I had my active self back. I could write an ode!

I will return to teaching day after tomorrow, my first subbing gig, and while I’m excited, I know the havoc it wreaks on my exercise routine. The students head to swim team practice just when I’m free to swim. They don’t finish until almost 6 pm, and by then, I’ve lost momentum.

I’ve thought about using the rowing machine at the rec center, traveling there without going home first, and that is an option. But today I researched the exercises available for my stability ball and found, “1o of the Best Stability Ball Exercises,” boasting “…Want to know the secret for strengthening your core, protecting your joints, and getting more muscle-building benefits out of every workout? It’s stability. Or, a stability ball, to be exact.”

The plan. I’m going to add this to my rotation—and try not to hurt myself!

Just Wondering

Top View Of Group Of Children Sitting On The Grass In Circle by Scopio from NounProject.com

“Whoever becomes Oregon’s governor this November, the cleaning of the Augean stables of our education department should be very high, if not first, on her list of action items.” (from The Oregonian, opinion, 8/30/22)

Oregon ranks 37th in the list of Pre-K-12th Grade ranking recently released by the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The writer of this opinion piece begins by disputing the claims of an earlier “our top educational challenges” editorial by Oregon’s DOE Colt Gill.

Not why I’m writing this—great word choice in the closing paragraph, right? I am always on the lookout for that, for words I don’t know, for references that another writer has used that are unfamiliar to me.

I confess that mythology never grabbed my enduring interest. So “Augean stables” triggers my search for context. Here’s what Merriam-Webster says:

“History and Etymology for Augean

Latin Augeas, king of Elis, from Greek Augeias; from the legend that his stable, left neglected for 30 years, was finally cleaned by Hercules.”

The story hinges on the the Labors of Hercules, this being his fifth and intended to humiliate rather than elevate. Those stables were full of dung, the product of healthy cows. Hercules reroutes rivers to sweep through and eliminate the filth. Augeus is irate and reneges on the promise he made to Hercules, an agreement to give him half the cattle if the task could be completed in one day. (Thanks, Wikipedia.)

Don’t mess with the gods, Augeus—even I know that.

And curiosity has led me here, to Augeus’ demise and an understanding of an allusion, an exploration engendered by a single phrase.

To cultivate curiosity in our students, to titillate imaginations? That is truly the Herculean task.

The Right Letters—the Right Order

And isn’t that fundamental to accurate spelling? Our local high school fundraiser, a rowdy community team spelling bee, returns this October 23, after a two-year hiatus, and once again, I am joining the intrepid cast of crabs pictured here:

F/V Tommy Boy takes to uncharted waters—once again

I have written about my maiden voyage during a March challenge in 2020, but I didn’t know if our team, or the event, would return. Hasn’t uncertainty about what our unfurling days will bring and planning accordingly characterized life lately?

But live to fight another day we shall. And I am excited, excited and nervous to be honest. How much have I lost in the limbo of time away from competition? So today in commitment to bolstering my skills, I return to my retirement notebooks to review my word lists.

Yesterday “cicerone” joined “foehn,” “crepitating,” and “cant,” a few from this notebook’s list. Will any of them appear? I can only speculate—”foehn: a warm dry wind descending a mountain, as on the north side of the Alps,” actually has enough pluck to be a possibility.

It’s when I go back to the notebook labeled, “Nov 2018-April 2019,” the one fat with mementos, newspaper articles, cards, printouts, that I realize I’ve tucked a few “Word-a-Day” calendar sheets between the pages—words I wanted to own. One of them is “oneiric.” And it is special because…

It’s odd enough to show up in the later rounds for quick elimination of the last teams standing, but more because it is one of the words I skimmed yesterday while reading Gabrielle Zevin’s latest novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. And in my race to gobble plot, to find out WHAT HAPPENS NEXT, I didn’t register its presence.

Like a Cassandra, this word resurfaces, “oneiric: relating to dreams or dreaming” to remind me—ignore these sneaker words at your peril. Not to mention that actually paying attention to this single aggregation of letters deepens the meaning of the novel. The word was not a frivolous choice. Oh, writers, I bow before you!

We’ll see what floats our way in October, but between now and then, I will be deep in the sea of words around us.

Out of the Fog

Goal achieved: Under five minutes!

The “fog that comes on little cat feet” can also be dispelled by the same. On Sunday I sat down to puzzle my way through the morning. Yes, Wordle, now dordle and quordle too, but undoubtedly the grandfather: the Daily Jumble.

The Jumble, a feature of the Oregonian forever, was delivered to our front door daily. While my mom worked her crossword in pen, my dad stuck to the quicker relative—the Jumble.

I am the middle child of six, sandwiched between an older brother and sister and a set of twins and a younger brother—truly a “middle.” I’ve read quite a bit about us sandwich-filling kids and I can say that I became one of the driven ones. When my older brother and my younger sister, one of the twins, began their fierce daily wrangling with the Jumble, the attention of my father as the true prize, I bowed out. I did not want to compete when I knew I couldn’t win.

But I’m not 13 anymore, and the Jumble summons my father in a companionable, not competitive, way. Online it can be even easier than with pencil and paper. As a player today I can type one of the scrambled letters, and if it’s the wrong choice, red flares. So to complicate things, and in homage to my past, I solve on paper.

And the new habit brings me joy, not frustration. I can celebrate victory, and an occasional defeat, quietly, privately, imagining my father’s face and gentle hand on my shoulder.

On Sunday the Jumble is more challenging, six-letter words rather than five and six words rather than four. Two days ago, I set the timer by activating the first letter, picked up my pencil, and began puzzling. My goal is always to solve under five minutes. As I toyed with the letters, the timer tick, tick, ticked. I was stuck, stuck, stuck.

My cat Cowboy, off exploring, had returned to our desk and sauntered from food dish to his lap—mine—and as he made his descent, it struck me—the remaining unsolved scramble:

So…that fog that settles can as easily lift as little cat feet find their safe harbor. Thanks, Cowboy!

Poetry in Motion

My desktop is littered with possible blog post prompts that spoke to me at one point. Here, a few weeks ago, a writer left (I apologize I don’t know who, but if anyone does, please let me know for credit) a wonderful detailed prompt about crafting a poem from a news article.

It was the creative blueprint that drew me initially, and I have used news before as inspiration, but no, nothing fired today. Then I saw the headline in the morning newsletter (tmn) “The queen is leaving the building,”and noted the New York Times headine, “Serena Williams said she planned to retire…” I needed no more incentive.

Not easily a fan girl, and even less a poet, I just want to go on record: Serena is an exception. The article tmn links comes from the September issue of Vogue, free for all, and a tribute to her. View it yourself, and see what you think.

Star Shine

The word, ‘retirement’?

[not] a modern word

call it: WHAT’S NEXT

call it: EVOLUTION.

Two feet in

the future, that star hers—

burning, reaching

a new sky—

brighter

because of her.

Leadership Is a Journey

Professional organizations—oh, I have been so lucky to belong to mine. College education: the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, Bard College, University of New Hampshire…can you tell I believe in learning?

But, my membership in the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN), my state affiliate in New Jersey (NJCTE), and now that I’m home in Oregon OCTE enrich my professional life. How I found NCTE is its own story, not for today.

Today belongs to my shift from full-time teacher-member to OCTE board member and now executive committee member, and OCTE’s decision to sponsor my attendance at NCTE’s first in-person gathering last weekend in Louisville: Homecoming. I attended the Affiliate Leaders Meeting. Truthfully, I didn’t even know what that would entail, but I figured it out on Friday afternoon when NCTE President Emily Kirkpatrick welcomed us.

Affiliate Regions (map courtesy of the Standing Committee of Affiliates)

Oregon was the only representative from Region 7. That in itself says a lot about the state of post-pandemic local organizations. I felt OREGON STRONG and proud! Fortunately so many other amazing, committed affiliate leaders attended, financially supported by their organizations and NCTE, “the mothership,” as Kirkpatrick said. And we supported each other, and learned from each other, and shared our challenges, too.

One of the presenters was Chris Bronke, head of the Conference on English Leadership (CEL), yet another from the list of NCTE sub-groups that supports all of us involved in English education. Chris has now joined the chorus of “voices in my head.”

When I was completing my Masters degree at Rutgers, Michael Smith coined that phrase. It’s funny, though, how the solos have changed since my responsibilities have shifted to leadership. This trip brought new voices into the spotlight: Bronke, Kirkpatrick; and, foremost, fellow affiliate leaders, members of this chorus. These fellow volunteers are engaged in the challenging work of supporting teachers just like themselves.

Of course my familiar choral partners remain: Michael Smith, Jim Burke, Linda Rief, Tom Romano, and Linda Christensen. I return to them, my underpinning melody line. But new soloists are being added, a shift in movement: Bronke, Kirkpatrick; and, foremost, fellow affiliate leaders, featured members of my chorus.

I’ve already written here about OCTE’s amazing President, Laurie Dougherty. With her base line, “A good leader has to teach others to be leaders,” and her unfailing example of that, she has become a consistent voice. I always await her next brilliant notes and am never disappointed.

When an organization like OCTE supports its volunteer board members by helping to finance leadership training, it underscores the message: This matters; you matter.

My applause—and respect—only swells for OCTE.

“Since feeling is first” ee cummings (photo courtesy of NCTE/ALM)

Survival

“Tell me,/which stars were my ancestors looking at?/…Am I navigating correctly?” from “Identity Politics” by Taya Tibble

On an Oregon trail… (photo by Eric Levine)

Upon reading these words in this morning’s Knopf poetry email, I flash to that moment hiking in the woods yesterday when I wondered how I could possibly find my way using the way moss grows on trees for my compass. I recall that I’ve read this is many books—north faces invite moss, but here moss blankets tree trunks entirely. Because, on this gold and green afternoon in the woods, trees towering overhead allowing only peeks of sky, I am thinking of survival.

Early this morning my book club members and I met on a patio facing the Pacific to discuss Bonnie Henderson’s The Next Tsunami Living on a Restless Coast. Among the selections we chose for this year, I knew that this one would be difficult, as the fact that I delayed picking it up until a week before our scheduled meeting attests.

I recall reading Kathryn Schultz’s devastating article in the New Yorker, “The Really Big One: An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when,” during a trip to the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2015. While it didn’t keep me from moving here after I retired as I’d dreamed, it did haunt my dreams after I’d read it.

Yet we were here, discussing the reality, our tenuous one, on the Oregon Coast, the Pacific watching us implacably, sparkling and secretive. The woman who had proposed this book is a scientist, a geologist, engaged and riveting as she gives us her take. Her stance provides distance and invites awe at all that we don’t yet know about our oceans. “We know more about outer space,” she marvels, “but it’s all so exciting, what’s being done—and ignored, if I’m honest—being learned.”

After we disperse, heading back to our lives enriched by food for thought, I lag behind to chat with a friend from my childhood. She, too, is a scientist at heart, enthralled by the stories our Pacific Northwest holds, but works as an artist. Right now she walks widely, collecting natural pigments to create paints, making her mark with the tools time has deposited, what ancestors have left behind.

It is she who has led me to this trail, I who wanted to know what she would do, where she would go in the wake of the “Big One.” Both of us solemnly concede our unlikely survival. I would head inland to Corvallis where my son and his wife live. This trail would be a start, but it stops, leads to dense forest. Then what?

I will buy good boots, have water purification straws and tablets, packable food, layers for the weather, but… I return to the moss, and the uncertainty of it all: life.