“No, he was back in the bottom of the well. The WPA had given out money for well-digging equipment on the reservation, and he and Biboon [his father] had set to work using a windlass and a pile of dry stones that they had been picking from their fields for years… . The government had also issued an iron well ring. They dug out the interior of the ring and mortared the stones together on top. As the ring sank deeper, they kept setting stones into the sides of the earth.”

Thomas Wazhashk, the main character in Louise Erdrich’s brilliant novel The Night Watchman, is reflecting in a flashback, and in the scope of this narrative, it is only a drop in the bucket, but it takes me to a poem, one I haven’t thought about in awhile, one that graced the wall in my classroom for at least five years, one that a student chose for her National Poetry Month Poster poem. It stood the test of time.

I can see it clearly, affixed to a closet door beneath the clock. The student was a brilliant artist, but it’s the words that remain:

Screen Shot 2020-03-31 at 8.00.28 AM

The day that she presented her memorized poster-poem to the class, a young man in the back blurted, “Mark Zuckerberg talks about that poem in the book I’m reading.” The current movie about Facebook’s founder, The Social Network, had drawn him to the biography. His connection spurred the class to discuss Schertle’s poem, and the movie naturally, at greater length. It was one of those moments you can’t plan for but that makes teaching exceptional in the world of work.

Tomorrow is April and the start of National Poetry Month. When the kids would ask, what kind of poem they should choose for their poster poem,  I’d reply, “Make it wall-worthy. It will be with us until the end of the year.”

Teachers may be without those classroom walls for now, but the corridors of the mind are infinite. Here’s hoping we can help them find their wall-worthys.

Learn. Learn. Learn.

Ah, sometimes I want to delete ALL my emails, so full of chaff is my inbox, but when I see a familiar, personal name in the queue, my heart beats faster—someone real, so I am careful. (I will say I have accidentally deleted over 100 emails at a clip, and rather than regret, I felt liberation.)

Today that bold text announces a friend’s name and I open it eagerly. Sometimes the only text is a web address link from her, sort of like opening a present to find something you didn’t really want but find, because of the giver, you’re responsive anyway. That’s the case today, the blue underlined website, nothing more. But the words intrigue me.

First the address begins with “liberal arts,” enticing words for this English teacher-turned-Jill-of-all-trades; second Oregon State University, and I’m a fan for this higher education institution that has evolved so dramatically from its primarily “cow college” reputation when I was applying as an undergraduate (and my friend has played a role in that as a Board member); third the words “punchcovid19.” I’m hooked.

I’ve enrolled because this challenge is almost over, right? And I am an avowed challenge-addict. Furthermore, when I reach the Canvas course site and read the qualifications of the professors as well as the course overview, that frisson of returning to classes floods my system. I will forever be a student.

Just last Friday my son was saying that he doesn’t understand how people can be bored. “Mom, even with all this time, I don’t have enough for all there is to do.” Then he proceeded to list his various projects.

On the “How to Take This Course” page, this p.s.:

“Over one thousand people around the world are following along with us here on this free Canvas site as well as on our website:  www.punchCOVID19.com.  (Links to an external site.)The group following the website has their own separate discussions, but we will have opportunities to interact as a larger community. For example, we can tweet using #punchCOVID19.  More to come!”

Maybe you’ll join us?


Could Have

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

So you’re here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn’t be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

——poem (above) by Wislawa Szymborska

When the first plane hit the Twin Towers on September 11, my students who would join me after my prep first period, happened to be watching a news summary in social studies. Their teacher, at first not understanding what he was seeing, continued airing the spectacle. Then the second plane hit and Kevin, a new student to our school, jumped up and said, “My dad works in the Towers.” This proximity to the event would play out numerous times in our community, and on that day, in our school.

When the students came to me, stunned, silent, they asked me what we were going to do. By now the front office had informed all the teachers, but no one really knew what was going on.

On our nearby beach that glorious Fall morning, Steven’s dad had taken his son surfing. Celebrating his newly-retired status, he’d decided that school could take a back seat to time spent with his son doing what they both love. When the planes hit, the guys were sitting in the water. Can’t you see them there, looking over their shoulders, hopeful, awaiting the best one of the set?

From shore they could see the smoke. They were not alone as the ocean emptied and surfers stood watching the horizon, but Steven and his dad were together.

Steven’s dad had retired one week earlier from Cantor-Fitzgerald, an investment firm that lost 658 people in the attack that changed our world.

That moment? His heart still pounds inside me.

Choosing My Words

Our neighbors’ email offers to pick up and deliver dinner to our doorstep. “Order whatever you want from their limited menu.” They list the restaurants, a quickly growing one of our favorites that are shuttered for now. Hotels have sent spring break tourists home, a surefire blow to his coastal town; orange cones, caution tape, and “Park Closed” signs restrict beach access. This place is dead!

Ah, that word “dead.” I only realize how it slips in, that terminal reference, as I write my response: “So generous, you guys. I’ll check out Sorella’s menu. FYI, their sea salt caramel gelato and blood orange sorbet—I know how we all feel about sorbet—is to die for. Hell, maybe we should just skip dinner and get dessert. Life is short!…”

In five sentences, I’ve used dying twice as an exclamation. I think about that as I revise, dead-tired this morning after another restless night. My other neighbor included in this invitation is confronting the specter of death, not as in “We’re all gonna die” but “You have stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.”

This is her story to tell, but I’m not handling my minute part in it well. I’m waiting for a miracle because she deserves it, and there is always hope. Cross my heart ….

Extended Poetry to Develop Drafting Stamina

Originally posted on moving writers:
Writing poetry is a rite of passage for many teens. Some discover it on their own, crafting lyrics or daily musings in dog-eared notebooks.? Some discover it in English class when a teacher invites them to write beside the beautiful words of published poets. This year, when we returned from…

Have you read Jason Reynold’s not-quite-certain-himself-what-it-is book, For Every One? I promptly bought the e-book as soon as I read the post that follows, an e-book because “right now! I can’t wait.” Today I’m reblogging because I understand why Mentor Wednesday contributor Brett Vogelsinger recommended it. It’s a resource sharing post, but it’s more. Only a few days remain in the month-long #SOL20; our writing lives our lives, will continue. Reynolds inspires.

For Every One explores the tough stuff, the difficulty of being a dreamer. It’s real and hopeful, a hand extended across an abyss, perfect for these times.

“It is only intended



“We continually have to be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Kurt Vonnegut’s quote heads my blog. Jason Reynolds talks about that same leap. Our cliffs may be different, but the leap is the same: “JUMP ANYWAY./ Dreams don’t have timelines,/ deadlines,/ and some aren’t always in/ straight lines.”


Keep jumping, every one!



moving writers

Writing poetry is a rite of passage for many teens. Some discover it on their own, crafting lyrics or daily musings in dog-eared notebooks. Some discover it in English class when a teacher invites them to write beside the beautiful words of published poets.

This year, when we returned from winter break to start 2020 together, we read the book For Every One by Jason Reynolds during a single class period. It is an extended poem — or as Reynolds describes it on the first page, “a poem in form only, a letter written in parts, an offering that I’ve now been working on for years.” I beamed to tell my students they had finished their first book of the year, a book that could also count as part our Poem of the Day routine.

Reading the book took about twenty minutes total — we listened to the audiobook while…

View original post 1,097 more words

Finding Signs of Hope in Surprise Sugar Maples

This beautiful piece by Susan Krawitz and published on Longreads  ends perfectly. “I listen to the news, but I also listen to nature.” I am, however, focused on the word “vector” that Krawitz chooses when she shares her daughter’s concern about not only getting sick but spreading sickness. An interesting word “vector.”

Of course, before right now, I’d think mathematics. I can see those graphs on the high school chalkboard, my eyes glazing over in the post-lunch ennui of a subject matter I struggle to conquer, those arrow-straight lines zinging their trajectories from a given point infinitely across a grid.

But this definition, “In epidemiology, a disease vector is any agent which carries and transmits an infectious pathogen into another living organism; most agents regarded as vectors are organisms, such as intermediate parasites or microbes, but it could be an inanimate medium of infection such as dust particles,” provided by Wikipedia, is the one. And yet, that mathematical point of offshoot into an infinite I can barely wrap my brain around—even decades beyond that high school classroom, the daughter’s concern quantified, pierces my heart.

I must return to her theme, “Sugar maple, unexpected, there when she never knew,” and hope for us all.

——Thank you, Longreads, for sharing.


Susan Krawitz | Longreads | March 2020 | 4 minutes (915 words)

It wasn’t the threat of a maple syrup shortage that got me into the woods with a power drill, hammer, makeshift buckets, and spiles, but my daughter’s request to tap some trees. The sun was out but the sky was cloudy, and the blue behind them looked bruised. And though the woods were quiet, the road I live on was far less so. There were dog walkers, joggers, and some people on bikes; a classic midsummer scene, but a very unusual one for an end-of-winter Monday. Local residents are very resident now, and so are the usually weekender ones. Alone together, we are hunkered down on this rural Catskill hillside, and in that suburb, in those cities, all across the world. We are buckling in for who knows how long, and finding ourselves with too much to think…

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This Is Personal

When I watch the PBS NewsHour, the single television information broadcast I allow myself right now, the governor of Louisiana explains his growing concern over both the rise in  Covid-19 cases and the state’s ability to respond should the trajectory continue, I remember my son’s telephone call two weeks ago.

I know it was a Friday because the best bakery on the Coast opens Thursday through Sunday only. A childhood friend of my husband’s was visiting, a former Oregon resident, and invited us to go with him and his wife to stock up on goodies. The night before he had shown up at a gig my husband played at a local bar. We log all gigs on our shared calendar.

Pacific Coast makes the best bâtard, baguettes, and sweets of every stripe—cookies, muffins, brownies. People form lines outside and by noon the display cases are empty. On this gray day months away from the crush of summer tourism, we breeze right in, have a wide array to choose from, and leave bags-in-hand and salivating.

We decided to stop for a late lunch at South Beach Seafood Market—another “hot spot” with both outdoor and cramped-but-cozy  indoor seating. Patrons cluster inside today. Our food has just arrived when my phone rings. It is my son calling from New Orleans, he often picks post-work on Friday when he’s walking the dog to touch base, so I step away from the table and head for a secluded corner of the market to answer.

“How are you guys? It’s bad here.” At this point in our rural setting, the most dramatic concession to what will be called a pandemic has been that the schools started Spring Break a week early. I tell him that. Truthfully it all seems so distant and unlikely, the gravity. (We had no cases then and have none diagnosed now. The state, nonetheless is shut down.) His voice is upbeat, but he is beneath it, concerned.

He explains that cases are mounting, and that because of Mardi Gras when about 1.5 million people travel to NOLA combined with the incubation period, just now the “seeding” effect of all that tourism, all that revelry packed into their city the end nowhere in sight is playing out. Caution is the watchword, but immediately it registers: the damage has already been done. And my son, no alarmist, is alarmed.

This is a possible theory that Governor John Bel Edwards advances on the NewsHour then stipulates that only after the crisis is over, and the analyses begin, can anything be confirmed. And we’re nowhere near that now. A friend of ours commented that when the first cases happen here, “This shit’s gonna get real.”

I said I wasn’t going to write about the corona virus crisis again, but I have to, you understand. For us, our son and his fiancé sheltering-in-place has ultimate urgency. For us, and for so many worldwide, this shit is all-too-real.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

“Moue” that’s today’s Word-a-Day on one of the three sites I check almost every day. Retirement, or what’s become semi-so, has afforded me an opportunity to become even more attentive to single words than ever. People who know me would laugh at that. I’ve been teased by many for my working vocabulary, but it’s true.

Word of Day awesome!

This is on my desktop. Need I say more? My son once told me that he never calls on New Year’s Day because he knows I’ll be at Barnes and Noble buying the new Page-a-Day calendar. Nice excuse, but there’s some truth.

I’ve written about the annual spelling bee, so now the stakes are even higher. Man, I love a great word, the smaller the better. Those are the ones that pack a punch: din; massif; pelf; hoise. Sometimes I know the words on my list, but like acquaintances, not like friends; I recognize them, but I wouldn’t take them out for dinner. They’ve made the list though, so I’m committed to getting to know them better.

I used to tell my students as I held up the dictionary: “You know those,” and I’d wave my arms to include the shelves full of books surrounding us—books I’ve told them I’d gladly sacrifice one of them for to make room for new ones 😉— “they’re all in here.” And I’d wave the dictionary for emphasis. “All writers do is put what’s in here in the right order.” They’d groan, but they knew how I felt about our most powerful tools, no doubt!

I wasn’t at home when my sister packed up our childhood home. Years later when I finally became settled with a home of my own, I received a small package in the mail with her return address. Inside I found this:

dictionary childhood

with this note:

Mary's note

I opened it, transported back to my childhood with the turn of a page:

inside dictionary

(I’ve always struggled with when to double!)

Some things never change.

Moved to Act

Timing is everything, so I begin this thinking, “Too soon?” Then, no, I decide, this, too, shall pass. We shall return to our lives, altered though they may be in a host of ways, and to our classrooms, and when we do, with a sigh of relief, an inconvenient truth will remain. The question: What will we learn?

The “C” word, climate, coupled with the word most of us embrace most of the time as a positive, “change.” My first presentation, both as an Oregonian and a retiree, to colleagues and members of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English came on the heels of a galvanizing session at the National Convention in Houston. The urgency impelled me to share some of the work my colleague and I had done in New Jersey. We had enlisted our colleagues across disciplines, science, math, art, and music to engage with this weighty topic as well.

I do remember the moment in one of my classes when a student felt what we were learning and blurted, “What are we going to do?” He had crossed that line from gaining knowledge into the realm of fear—hopelessness threatening—that line that had caused us to hesitate from the outset. It’s a balancing act and daunting with students. Fortunately action saved him and us. The students created magazines that addressed problems and explored nascent, but promising, steps being taken. For science fair topics they probed some of these more deeply themselves. In short, they, and we, were galvanized and educated.

The article I read this morning from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies is thought-provoking and heartening to a degree. One inexorable fact it states: “The virus has shown that if you wait until you can see the impact, it is too late to stop it.” On the other hand, it shares a silver lining or two about this international health crisis and prompts the question: What will we learn? I have added it to the top of an ongoing list that I share here with resources for primarily ELA teachers who care to grapple with this topic in their classrooms.

Earth Day will arrive on April 22. It’s a Wednesday. Fingers crossed, many of us will be back in class; perhaps we will still be online. Regardless, this will still be our home—the truth.




It’s the Agate Beach Golf Course on any given day, the spread of rolling green my siblings would practice on most Mondays “kids day” every summer. It rests on the east side of Highway 101 right up the street from our summer house. In those days, my mom would urge us to look both ways and send us off with clubs and dimpled balls for the day. (With the steady, speedy stream on 101 now, it’s hard to imagine.)

On this waning day, the light softening as the sun makes its way to bed in the Pacific, pianist Hunter Noack is set up on the 18th green, his 9-foot Steinway grand piano on a flatbed. There are maybe fifty of us, the lucky ones, awaiting his performance. But we aren’t confined to chairs. Greeters have given us wireless headphones—it is windy and as resonant as a grand piano can be in a concert hall, it is no match for a blustery evening on the Oregon Coast. This enables both enhanced sound quality but also the express purpose of Noack’s mission:

“No longer confined to seats, they can explore the landscape, wander through secret glens, lie in sunny meadows, and roam old growth forests.”

So says his website.

In the spirit of the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Music and Theatre Projects, which presented thousands of free concerts and plays in theaters, public spaces and parks across the country during the Depression, IN A LANDSCAPE events are offered primarily in rural communities for free or on a donation basis.

My husband and I have stumbled upon this event in a local publication listing what’s happening locally. Having relocated here recently, we’re exploring new ground, altered for me by time and distance. After all, we only have to cross the highway.

The night, the performance, is magical. I don headphones and walk the fairways where I grew up honing my golf game, music swelling as a backdrop. I’m not a classical music buff, but on this night, I become a fan. This, I understand as I’m held in its spell, was once popular music; I’m only a few centuries behind the times. And Noack is brilliant yet accessible. This is not exclusive, snooty; this is for one and all.


When I learn he is to return to play on March 21st and 22nd with the Newport Symphony, I can’t wait. Adam Flatt, who has continued my music education in the best possible way as rock-star conductor, and Hunter will comprise the perfect team.

You know where this is going. Nowhere. The shows are canceled—yet—

I still have that night to sustain me, that night when the trees swayed, and the coda confirmed, “You’ve come to the right place.”