Gratitude

To the members of the Two Writing Teachers community and especially the teachers who orchestrated #SOL19:

I wasn’t 100% on board with this year’s SOL Challenge if I’m honest. When I review my posts, I’m somewhat surprised that the entire month passed, and I have something published for each day. What I’m happy about is that I’m back in a “somewhat” habit and hopeful that Tuesday will arrive with renewed commitment to the weekly opportunity to engage with a community of writers.

More than writing some pieces that feel true to me in hindsight though, I am grateful to the people whose words have resonated for me, made me think and wonder. I have loved small moments in waiting rooms and the creative impetus manifest in a knit cap,  and with kids contemplating Spring Break at the request of their dad. I have nodded in sympathy with a writer who said, “I just can’t do it right now,” but didn’t let that deter her from writing when she could—and being unashamed of life’s other demands.

I’ve traveled to quilt shows and seen the world through cats’ eyes. I’ve read flash fiction that used a summit as a symbol for recovery from divorce. I’ve heard about wind storms and weddings, the love of a mother for her son-turning-forty. I’ve gone dress shopping for the last dance in elementary school and weathered a minor flood and house repair. I’ve sat at the dinner table with a mother and son who gathered over frozen pizza and made it a gourmet moment.

I’ve felt like the turn-and-talk partner to so many writers with stories to tell on the big carpet where we all are learning together.

Stories are the way we share our humanity, and this March has proved that without doubt. Thanks, everyone!

The Poetry Remains

Poems fill my in-box. I get a poem-a-day every day, thanks to the Academy of American Poets; Jane Yolen, one of the today’s most dedicated writers, sends me one of her daily poems (I subscribe), and I have written about my last year’s resolution to memorize at least one poem a month here. Poetry lights my life.

Yesterday my husband shared a random survey query: name a book that changed your life and tell why/how. This is not a novel prompt, by any means, and as I thought about it, I realized that I could make a cool graphic—a visually data-rich time line—of writing that has affected me throughout my life. (In fact, I may just do it as a creative exercise, lots of writing there!) My very first influencer would have to be The Bumper Book by Watty Piper, published first in 1946. There Robert Louis Stevenson and I became best friends. Winken, Blynken, Nod and I fell asleep together, Edward Lear’s far-fetched chorus in the background. My love of verse awakened early and has never waned.

On March 21, Yolen’s poem begins: “They are going from us/Hall, Oliver, Merwin/ Those strophic breaths stilled…Yet the poetry remains/…They have left the best of themselves behind.” I am certain that the death of former poet W.S. Merwin on March 15, 2019, completing the magic three of “vatic voices” we have lost this year, impelled her. I have written about Hall here and my love of Mary Oliver shows here, the inside cover of my current writer’s notebook:

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Today before March ends and National Poetry Month begins, I have used Jane Hirshfield’s lovely “Remembering W.S. Merwin” to create a found poem, a craft I used to practice with students and am missing as well:

William’s Zendo

a hand-made clay water pitcher

as if teaching might be poured from it

two small Buddha figures

a few incense bowls

a low block, rough-cut

wood as altar

thirst addressed

with rain and a poet’s concentration

whenever needed.

What came from William’s eyes:

the world’s wonder

just outweighing its suffering

the poems hold all

a waiting water pitcher

empty

and open.

—thanks to Jane Hirshfield

 

Sympatheia

“We should call Dan,” my husband Eric says as he sits down beside me. “We’ve talked about it, but we haven’t done it. If we don’t, we’re gonna lose him forever.”

Stark those words, and true, the consequences are clear: either we make this overture, or we will have to let Dan go; he’ll become one of those people we used to know. The actuality of it makes me feel sick. Dan has been a part of my life, albeit an intermittent o since I was a college junior and dating one of his best friends—that’s almost 50 years. Eric has known him for longer sharing youth, hometown, friends, and a raft of anecdotes.

Dan was at our son’s bris, comforted me in the kitchen when the reality of what was happening in the living room assailed. He brought his charm, warm blue eyes, genuine interest, and soft touch to that event as he did to so many others. I was there when he returned to town to bury his mom.

We knew him through serious relationships, and he knew us from the beginning of ours—two friends of his who found each other in their thirties and married. When my husband-to-be told Dan that he was getting married, Dan said, “Really…to who?”

“Trish, you know her.”

“You can’t marry her. She’s always been my girl.”

No we were never a couple, but we grew up knowing each other, sharing houses and places, Thanksgivings and Christmases, triumphs and setbacks. One afternoon we went tubing on the Ichitucknee Springs, my boyfriend didn’t want to go, but as usual, Dan was game, seamlessly endearing himself to my work friends. As the sun warmed us, and the cold clear water bore us gently along, a manatee lifted his head beneath the arm I was dangling in the water. Startling, magical. We have shared moments like that, too numerous to mention.

When he moved to Asheville, he invited us repeatedly to visit, and we vowed we would. As Eric quipped yesterday, “Hey, Dan, what are promises if they can’t be broken?” Of course that was at the heart of it. Dan would return almost every fall to visit his brothers in Jersey. He’d come for dinner with mutual friends or alone, and the nights would unspool in threads of story and laughter; I was usually the first to leave the table, the sounds of friendship drifting upstairs, my lullaby.

We left New Jersey in a whirlwind of activity: fast house sale, quick packing, and Westward Ho! No backward glance. The glances, though they have been few, came later. Looming in the rearview for us was Dan and the lack of goodbye…our broken promise, and a history we held.

Yesterday we reconnected, and today my email from the Daily Stoic talks about the importance of sympatheia:

the idea that “all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other.”

It clarifies that even though Stoics espouse the value of independence and strength, this does not mean that we should be isolated. We need friends, “We are made better by caring and being cared for.” This wisdom comes at the right time. It reminds me how lucky we are in the lives we share with others.

Before we end the call, Dan says, “Now we’re in touch. Let’s keep it that way.”  He mentions that he and his longtime girlfriend have been thinking about a trip driving up the coast highway, our coast.

No promises, just possibilities—more than enough for me.

First There Is a Mountain…

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I came to Donovan’s lyrics, “First there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is,” only after I’d discovered D.T. Suzuki and his Essays in Zen Buddhism and Alan Watt’s The Way of Zen. Today I begin reading my newly purchased copy of Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell’s book, Beyond Literary Analysis. The epigraph from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets reads:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring

will be to arrive where we started and know it for the first time.

A variation on the Buddhist theme, Marchetti and O’Dell reveal wisdom and our conundrum as writing teachers. Finding better ways to open the world of written communication to students demands a professional curiosity and a commitment to revisiting what we think works, and what we know doesn’t but at least it’s solid ground—familiar—in order to grow ourselves and our students.

I have so many of these books, professional ones, and have written about how, when I relocated, I left a hefty library of them behind, yet here I am, into year two of retirement, still buying them, reading them, pondering what they say, revisiting and reframing what I do, much of which I’ve already intuited through years of practice. There is no “silver bullet,” but there are incremental shifts toward better instruction, toward the mountain, so I will continue my exploration.

“Don’t…”

It’s the advanced class that arrives third period, 32 of them loaded with smarts and spirit! I have my orders: Students should complete their essays on Machu Pichu. I have spent the prep period preceding this group to go over the assignment, the assigned texts, the writing prompt demanding a persuasive piece detailing the reasons why Machu Pichu is a worthwhile travel destination and using the texts to support the three reasons: architecture, culture, and nature.

I know these kids a bit, having substituted before. Seventh grade is a slippery age; they are not to be fooled. As I present what their teacher has left, the groans begin, and frankly, I get it. This is, for the most part, a cut-and-paste project. The students have completed multiple choice questions the day before in a sequence that provides them with all the pieces of the essay. Now they must type their multiple-choice selections into essay form. It begins with an introduction that concludes with a thesis and proceeds from there. In the end, all the essays will read pretty much the same.

Riley raises her hand. “What I don’t get is why we’re doing this. It is exactly the stuff the other classes are doing, but we’re supposed to be advanced. It’s just”—and here she characterizes correctly—”cut-and-paste. We’ve already found the parts and put them in order. It isn’t even our words we’re using.” I begin to explain that they can own the writing, revise to make the lede and close their own. This does not seem to quell the grumblings.

Another voice repeats, “Why are we doing this?” So I do what I usually do, ask them, “Why is your teacher having you do this?” They throw out torture, busywork, the standard responses, and after it gets repetitive, I interrupt.

“If I were your teacher, I would have you do this, so you’d have a template for writing your own persuasion and understand one logical way the parts could fit—not the only way, mind you, because truthfully professional writers undertake this same assignment for legitimate travel magazines and newspapers. They actually convince people to travel to Machu Pichu—for real—and they get paid to do it!” I’ve got their attention, so I finish, “What they do is own it, make it their own. Shakespeare said, ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ and that was three centuries ago!”

They get to work. I have no idea what sunk in, but they are good kids, and I’ve told them the truth. Riley raises her hand again, and her friend hisses, “Don’t, Riley.”

I go to her, and she’s sort-of working, sort-of chatting, and I say, “How may I help you?”

“I hear you,” she says, “but I don’t believe it,” and she begins typing, the right-answer packet open in her lap.

Yesterday A.J. Juliani, a guru of Genius Hour and project-based learning, featured an excellent blog post about engagement, targeting primarily teachers but creating an epiphany for me regarding students. He open with a graphic showing the way classrooms are managed and writes, “What I found fascinating about his [recently deceased educator Phil Schlechty] levels of engagement is that I could see myself in the classroom working towards compliance instead of engagement.”

I have no answers here; the truth is compliance has been a goal of mine as well. But I will admit, from my perspective as a substitute, I immediately thought of Riley and of her peer’s admonition, “Don’t…. ” Why shouldn’t students question the efficacy of the way their time is being spent? And why shouldn’t we honestly foreground work with our rationale? Thoughts to carry me through Spring Break.

Time Travel

 

Zafon
Book cover from Barnes and Noble

I will not let another day escape me, this I vow as I finally turn off the light and turn my back on the world I have inhabited since early morning. The world of Carlos Luis Zafón begs me to stay, even as the clock inches its way toward midnight, but I must go, a Cinderella scurrying down stairs toward necessary sleep.

I am reading the last in Zafón’s cycle of novels set in the Cemetery of Lost Books. I read the first one The Shadow of the Wind shortly after it was published in 2005. Have you ever had the experience of talking with a good friend, and fellow book-lover, after time away to discover that you have both just finished—and loved—the same book. In that moment, parallel lives intersect and it’s magic! I was reeling still from Shadow when I spoke with Maria only to discover that she too was still wandering the corridors of the Cemetery, pondering with Daniel Sempere the symbiotic relationship of literature and life.

Lengthy novels cast a different spell than their shorter counterparts, and novels as richly layered as these must be savored…but I want to make headway, too! Generally a fast reader, I can be overwhelmed when at 400 pages in, I haven’t yet hit the halfway point. When yesterday offered the kind of gray, weepy sky that has given the Oregon Coast its reputation, I ignored the clarion call of my swimming routine, walking the dog, baking bread—everything took a back seat to reading my novel. (Notice the proprietary shift? That’s what happens with a book of this stature.)

I did sleep, awakening at about 2:15 am, seriously considered returning to Barcelona, Spain, 1959, but  fortunately denied that impulse. Now it’s a new day; the sky has cleared, the soft-edged half moon shining. Labyrinth of the Spirits sits, marked at page 573, awaiting my return. That’s actually what prompted me to finish this “slice,” one of the criteria I set. I am usually disciplined.

I’m off to the pool as soon as I post this. Maybe I’ll sneak in a chapter or two when I get home, before a scheduled ZOOM get-together with my good friend Maria, East-meets-West. We always have a lot to say after a month away. I wonder what she’s reading…

The Paradox of Aging

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photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m backing out of the driveway as the TED Radio Hour fills the car midstream, but almost at the beginning of Linda Carstensen’s interview, as I later learn when I re-listen to this segment this morning at home. A professor at Stanford University, she is the founder of the center on longevity there. Her research supports her thesis that as we get older, we get happier. She explains the protocol, how she arrived at this conclusion and what is called “The Paradox of Aging.”

Then she tells the story of two sisters whom she interviewed who were living together in a retirement community and discussing a number of losses—of friends, of significant people in their lives. She replied with her observation that there seemed to be lots of people around with whom they could connect. To which one of the sisters said, “We just don’t have time for those relationships.”

At first Carstensen’s internal reaction was that it seemed their days were filled with time, but as she reflected more deeply she realized, “…she wasn’t talking about time left in the day; she was talking about time left in life , and I realized that, at some point in life we’re never gonna make a new old friend.” THERE ISN’T TIME.

In this blog I have written about some of my important relationships. Just a couple days ago, I wrote about meeting up with a childhood friend. What I didn’t say was that she made time for me in her day, showing up to chat for a few hours later in the afternoon. After she left my husband remarked that it’s funny how well we get along when we’re obviously so very different. She is one of my old friends. She is precious to me and I can’t make another one like her now.

This is certainly true, I realize, about my sisters who number among my old friends. It’s ironic because we had our rocky times in youth, particularly my older sister and me, but now as “our time horizons grow shorter” our friendship means everything to me. I will never share that history with anyone else.

I know we lose people—this is the attrition of mobility and time—but I am comforted by the finding that “Life gets better,” that we accept more, find joy in the right now more easily, feel less pressure from “the burden of the future.” As the segment concludes, Carstensen tells about a young man who approached her following her talk and wanted to know, “How can I get older quicker?” It is, as always, a state of mind, and as the days roll on, that state, that happiness, becomes easier to access—time’s gift.