A few thoughts about Two Writing Teachers’ invitation to its followers to write throughout March—all 31 days:

  • Sometimes an invitation to write is enough.  If you are like me, a person who would like to develop the craft of writing more consistently, or one who is leery of her own ability, an opportunity, an open door, a bit of encouragement, may be just what you need to draw you in, to allay your doubts, to move you forward on your path.
  • Sometimes the expectation that you will write is enough.  Knowing that each and every day there is a writing obligation before you can serve as a welcome prod.  The routine of writing becomes addictive.  The first week or more, I went to bed each night contemplating what I’d explore in the next day’s blog.  I’ll admit, I even woke up in the wee hours several times and found my self pre-writing.  This is something that writing teachers will say, and I found it to be true:  Knowing you must write is often what makes you do it!
  • An audience makes a difference, and not just any audience, as I have discovered during #SOL2018.  In John Green’s latest YA novel, Turtles All the Way Down, one of the main teenage characters maintains a blog.  No one knows about it; he writes for himself, selecting powerful quotes for reflection.  Truthfully it’s an aspect of the story I enjoyed most of all, perhaps because I could relate.  Having a blog and having a blog that’s followed are two very different things.  He discovers this when he shares it with his friend Aza.  Once she begins reading it, he feels tentative about the connection the blog establishes between them, but he cares about her and her opinions.  All of a sudden, he is revealing his thoughts and feelings to an audience— it’s risky, scary, and a responsibility.  He wants to be true.  An audience ups the stakes.  Like him, I discovered there weren’t trolls waiting to topple me from the bridge I was building.  Instead there were people (especially the few who kept revisiting) on the other side, waving to me, urging me forward, glad that I’d made it.

Thank you to my audience, to fellow Challenge participants, and to Two Writing Teachers.  I look forward to blogging each Tuesday with all of you.  Now that we’ve built these bridges, let’s keep crossing them.


Language Lessons

My sister Anita writes me from Mexico about her struggle to learn Spanish.  “Sobering to see how much more naturally focused I am on what I say than that of others,” while her husband is much more adept at conversation.  Her conclusion: “…listening, the superior operative.  Learning Spanish with my husband and the reflection is, I’m ready to talk, he’s ready to listen.”  This is a sister-similarity between Anita and me.  You would think that self-awareness and a desire to change would in fact result in some behavioral shift, but, no, I’m still too much a talker.  In one way, Anita’s really lucky.  She cannot speak with the ease I can, at home with my native tongue.

I moved to Cali, Colombia to begin my teaching career, but I was 26, not 64.  Even with  relative youth on my side, I had studied only French and Latin in high school and college, and knew ni una palabra de espanol.  My ignorance, my naiveté emboldened me.  I didn’t know how difficult it would be, how many fumbling, frustrated attempts at communicating were in front of me, how many times I’d sit on a bus, surrounded by native Spanish speakers and imagine that they were discussing me, the green-eyed gringa.  As I told my sister, the word “No” is the same in both languages, something I greatly appreciated.  Granted, I became adept at “Si” as well, but only after time had made what was once a jumble of syllables somewhat discernible.

What this initial language disadvantage spawned was twofold.  First, I became a teacher who believed in active learning!  My second grade students were as ill-prepared for immersion in English instruction as I was in Spanish.  We learned together.  Math, my nemesis, became the one academic subject where we all spoke the same language, at least to a degree.  When tears threatened—on either side of this collaboration—we headed outside for a game of futbol or statues or any other release.  Out in the sunshine, in the basin of mountains, we shed our insecurities and grew together in laughter.  When chaos threatened, we sang…often.  We stood up and acted out verbs.  We talked with each other.  We spent much of our day translating, sorting through confusion.  I remember riding home one Friday afternoon thinking, “I can’t do this for the rest of my life.  It’s too hard.”

By the end of the year, however, we had taught each other, and I had decided to do it again.  Granted I flew to Miami and spent the summer taking Spanish classes at Florida International University, putting a foundation beneath what I’d gleaned on the job.  No other year of the four I’d spend in Cali held either the obstacles or the enduring classroom experience than that first.

The second outcome endures as well.  I admire anyone who speaks more than one language, who stumbles to communicate, who faces daily language challenges.  I’d like to think that I’m less of an “ugly American.”  That expression, “Why can’t they just speak English?” smacks of a quality I eschew.  I have experienced language frustration from the other side; I hope it’s made me kinder.  I think about how I felt having lofty ideas, and well-reasoned opinions, but for want of verbiage, they circled inside my mind, trapped.

My sister’s husband gets to the heart of it: communication is about listening—about more than words.


Fond Farewell


“Hey, Ms. Emerson.  It’s Katie J.  A bunch of us are talking want to get together.  What are your plans this weekend?”  This text comes mid-week in a frenetic scramble of days since our house sold.  We are having a get-rid-of-everything sale during the day, that Saturday, and even though I know I’ll be exhausted, the kids, however many a “bunch” represents, are available, so I’ll go.

Katie’s had not been an easy group—some years are like that.  Individually I loved so many of them, but together they could be volatile, unpredictable, so that year was not one of my best.  I used a lot of self-talk to recharge my attitude, to reassert the possibility of turning things around.  They constantly challenged me to bring the best I had to the table…every damn day!

In that eighth grade class a decade ago, Katie and her best friend huddled together writing and talking, lots of talking.  One student wore the same white hoodie almost every day, flipping up the hood as he sprawled on the carpet to find his muse.  One spent most of the year during my class in the bathroom; it became a joke to his peers, but continued to plague me in the years after he graduated.  These kids wrote amazing poetry and drew caricatures that mocked their passionate Language Arts teacher.  One wrote a story about losing his lucky baseball cap at a ticker tape parade for the Yankees that stayed with me (lucky because it was returned, the kindness of strangers).

Here they are on that night, minus one who had had to go home; she’d wrenched her neck and was holding it gingerly in that we do when pain accompanies each motion, but said she didn’t want to miss saying goodbye.  She, too, would be heading west, California though, “‘cuz it’s just too gray in the Pacific Northwest.”  Now these “kids” have jobs, work in the city, are finding their places, telling me stories about those friends who couldn’t make it.  I am nursing a beer a student bought me, disinterested in all but the conversation, their laughter and easy banter forged by life shared in a small community.  We are together again, and time has worked its magic.  As the “bunch” swells and the local outdoor bar becomes impossible—the noise, the crowd, the heat—we move to the end of a dock to snap this photo before heading out and on our separate ways, another memory framed, our futures before us.


It Will Be Enough

5:30 a.m. and the familiar whistle of an incoming text message from my husband’s phone disturbs the morning quiet.  I think, “Nothing good happens this early,” and then I remember that for many people we love, it’s 8:30, and they are into their day.  I check the texts though, to reassure myself.  Sure enough, it’s a message from my sister-in-law letting us know that Passover plans are underway.  Despite her missing us and two other “regulars” at our traditional-but-not-so-much seder, the celebration will  proceed—as it should.  She has just completed six-weeks of bone marrow cell replacement for a pernicious type of cancer that was diagnosed while my husband was en route from Jersey to Oregon.

Her message concludes, “So glad you are so happy on the West Coast.”  This is my not-sister-by-blood-but-by-luck in a nutshell.  Yes, she’ll miss us, but most of all, she wants her brother to be happy and being here is a longstanding dream realized.

Here, we’ve invited friends for dinner.  As the sun sets, we’ll be eating brisket and matzoh brie, enjoying salad and pudding with raspberries, no leavening necessary.  Our family, those who mark the beginning of Passover, will call us to wish us well.  That she is doing better, that her prognosis is good, gives added meaning to “dayenu.”

Beyond Bars

word cloud

(created in from The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton, excerpted in Longreads )

Daniel Fader had recently gained recognition when I saw him in a university auditorium in Maine in 1970.  The author of Hooked on Books told a story I’ve never forgotten.  He said he’d gone into prisons to bring books to the inmates.  He’d visit regularly, would create libraries, would talk to prisoners about their reading.

At one prison, there was a young man who couldn’t read well, by his own admission, but he’d heard his cellmate talking about a book, a book “about a whore,” and he wanted to read it.  Fader shared how he’d urged the inmate to reconsider his choice, telling him that it wasn’t an easy book to read— for anyone—that he might want to start with something a bit less challenging.  The man remained adamant:  It was The Scarlet Letter…or nothing.

Fader gave him a copy of the novel and expected, as he told us, defeat.  For a period of a couple months, he didn’t see the inmate when he’d visit.  Truthfully, he said, he’d almost forgotten about the entire exchange.  One day, the prisoner was there, in his cell, waiting for Fader.  He proffered the well-worn book, corners creased, cover softened, though the bars and in a soft voice said, “That woman, she weren’t no whore.”

Tears come to my eyes these many years later when I remember Fader’s story.  Already “hooked on books,” and enthralled by the power reading has had in my life, I read Hinton’s excerpt from The Sun Does Shine, and find, once again, inspiration.

A State of Mind

Each segment is better than the last, so when I begin composing this, I lose my focus.  That’s how generally wonderful it is to watch Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Art Beat on a lazy Sunday evening as the sun sets over the ocean.  Our neighbor drops by as the piece about Chris Cole, bike mechanic turned mechanical sculptor, begins, and I urge her to stay, to have some soup, to celebrate how amazing we humans can be.

I also think about how many other states there are, how many other brilliant artists create beauty in a multitude of ways and places.  Here is proof, and Oregon is only one of 50; that gives me hope!  Public Broadcasting gives me hope!  The fact that this country has been divided into regions, into states, seldom registers—except when I read yet another article about clashes between state and federal jurisdiction, or something about gerrymandering.

I know that since moving here, I’ve joked with friends from New Jersey, my former home, about how geographically large the land parcels are the farther west one travels, as if humans became tired of splitting things up, or negotiating boundaries.

So I love Chris Cole’s work, moving parts, rivets and welding, his scrounging through junk yards for those missing pieces that will be transformed by his vision.  Ben Saunders at the University of Oregon is legitimizing the academic study of comics and says when he retires he only hopes that its efficacy will be so entrenched that no one will question it.  The final segment features “Cardistry,” these young men who are members of an international group of avid card magicians, who oppose that label, saying there’s nothing magic about it; it’s practice, coupled with the joy of joining a like-minded community, and sharing creation.

Sandwiched in-between, third in this night’s line-up, is Ashley Mercereau, a young  woman who has returned to her native community of Cannon Beach.  “Why wouldn’t I want to be here?”   She admits that her work as an artist was a sideline until friends clamored for her designs.  Now she proudly does it all: creates jewelry, photographs her creations, markets them on Etsy, and has garnered clients from around the world.  For her, that connection—someone in Canada, or China, or France is wearing her art —gratifies and satisfies.

Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day,” while honoring nature, says, “…doesn’t everything die at last and too soon?/ Tell me what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?”  Thank you, OPB, for celebrating that landscape of natural wildness within.



More than Music

This music bears no resemblance to the ear-assaulting squeaks of beginner band in sixth grade.  When virtuoso Narek Arutyunian plays his bassett clarinet, the “licorice stick” awakens to his touch.  Before he performed Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto K. 622, the humble 25-year-old sat with conductor and artistic director of the Newport Symphony, Adam Flatt, and shared a bit of his life.

He had found music at the age of nine; Mozart, a recording of the concerto that will woo and win us over, first worked its magic on this young boy.  By age 11 he had claimed top prizes in competitions worldwide.  His parents, both musicians, didn’t want him to travel the same difficult and often thankless path.  The bassett clarinet he will play tonight, he tells us, will allow us to hear Mozart as the composer intended.  This version of the clarinet, unlike the b-flat or a instruments typically used in performance, includes the deeper octave— a haunting, resonant register—as he demonstrates.

To say Narek is passionate about music understates the waves of reverence and joy emanating from him.  In recounting an experience where he’d had two of his clarinets stolen while eating dinner in a New York City restaurant, he explained:  “It’s losing part of my soul.  That’s what I tell the police at the station.”  They tell him to “forget about it,” that the instruments are gone.  So, he says, “I go to another police station.”  The audience chuckles.  The upshot?  The instruments are returned to the restaurant, the man and his soul reunited.

Words cannot capture this.  Never has the phrase, “You had to be there,” been so true.  After his concerto, the audience rises to its feet in a singular motion, applause, applause, applause.  Earlier this week, a fellow blogger had written about feeling inadequate in the company of friends who understand art so much better than she, who can discuss with intelligence and insight.  I sympathized.  I am not one who grasps nuances of fine art or classical music.  Last night, however, analysis sat in second chair. Greatness took the stage, and everyone knew it.