Joyful Noise

Have you ever listened to The Daily, a podcast offered Monday through Friday by the New York Times? I’m not an avid follower, but if you haven’t heard the episode from June 26, I heartily recommend it. Send your spirits soaring if they need a boost and if not, well, lucky you!

Maybe a silver lining that this time home has given me is podcasts. In the past after returning home from a day of substitute teaching, I’d want silence as I chopped vegetables for salad or otherwise prepared dinner and unwound. Occasionally I experience tinnitus which a day surrounded by school sounds exacerbates. It’s merely an annoyance, I know, and sporadic, a function of being over 60 and my history of lots of loud music, but post-school silence is golden.

I’ve awakened to a poem in my inbox for years, a quiet aubade and a habit begun over a decade ago when April brought National Poetry month. Now, however, I not only read poems delivered by the Academy of American Poets and the Writer’s Almanac (also available as a podcast) each day, but I savor the sound of The Slowdown with Tracy K. Smith which she began during her tenure as United States Poet Laureate. I sit with my pen poised over my notebook and know that I’ll find something to set me writing. My journaling has blossomed with her morning reflections—five miraculous minutes.

I anticipate Friday mornings and the new feature that The Moth has incorporated into its weekly line-up, “All Together Now Fridays.” This podcast first aired in 1997 and features extraordinary storytellers. Every episode concludes with: “Have a story-worthy week.” I love that! During this enforced stay-at-home time, it offers the Friday shortened version, under half an hour, and closes with writing suggestions. Usually I’ve heard something from the storytellers that throws me into my own experiences, and I’m writing away by the conclusion. I love the FULL Moth broadcasts, but Fridays are my fix.

I listened to the June 26th episode of The Daily this morning, intrigued by both the title, “A Bit of Relief:The Long-Distance Chorus,” and the blurb that introduces a 22-year veteran Staten Island music teacher of chorus for fourth and fifth graders. I am late to this party, and I know online versions of graduations abound, but there’s something special about Gregg Breinberg.

“And such as it is to be of these more or less I am,
And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.”

—from Walt Whitman “Song of Myself”

How Do You Spell…?

It’s the first time we’ve gotten together as a group since late February. The six of us met on our patio in the early evening yesterday, a belated solstice celebration. Our three houses line up side-by-side on the Oregon Coast. We have been full-time neighbors since my husband and I relocated here, “back home” for me, but the beach house front yard where we’re coming together has been in my family for eight decades. It once perched solitary, surveying wind and water and the steady flash of Yaquina Head lighthouse. We are lucky to find ourselves here.

We’re talking about “Covid conversations,”the ones we probably wouldn’t have if we were out and about in the world, busy doing. Bob has brought a New Yorker magazine with him (in addition to macaroni salad!), the one with a Roz Chast cartoon on the cover. Curiosity piqued, I ask, “”What’s up with that?” He opens to an article featuring a movie-star-magnetic face. It’s about monetizing baseball, when that began, and the face is Lou Gehrig’s. He reads this from the opening page:

“As long as you have stars and scores, you have an industry. Hot-dog venders and parking lot attendants will be out of work, but most of the business can go on.”

He pauses and says, “So how do you spell vendors?” And I proceed to spell it the way I’ve just written it: V-E-N-D-O-R-S. (I have blogged here about our participation in an annual spelling-bee fundraiser, so maybe not so Covid-convo?!) He slaps the magazine and quips,”Why can’t they get a decent editor at the New Yorker?” Laughter. He had asked his wife Michele the same spelling question the night before, sleep capturing them both before any resolution.

Michele asks Google because here we all are, the team, wide-awake. The response comes quickly:

Google search results, screen shot

There you have it—only posers or New Yorker authors! Mystery solved.

Ah, friendship, I have missed your physical proximity, the real-time conversations. We are so lucky to be here.

The Pen Is Mighty

My newly-hired teaching teammate Christin and I had traveled to South Africa with the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and its South African Initiative. It was 2004, 10 years since that country held its first democratic elections and the formal end to apartheid. When Rutgers offered this opportunity via the GSE newsletter, I jumped on it.

We had been studying the American civil rights movement in eighth grade book clubs. Earlier that year, I had taken our students to a performance of Sharon Katz and the Peace Train; it had galvanized me to learn more. My students felt the same. Christin had been to South Africa and was eager to return. I wrote a grant to a local foundation promising an eighth grade project with community involvement to secure funding, and I got it.

I often tell my students that writing has power. Writing was my ticket to South Africa—not once, but twice. It was when I returned from my first trip though that that intrepid act changed everything. I learned that Linda Biehl, the mother of Amy Biehl, was visiting New York City fundraising for the Biehl Foundation.

We had learned Amy’s story while we were in South Africa and had briefly visited the Foundation. She had been killed in the last violent days before the first election, dragged from her vehicle, stabbed and stoned. She had been naive perhaps but innocent, there working to assist South Africans in their fight to end apartheid. She had intended to fly home to the US the next day to begin graduate work at Rutgers.

In her stead her parents embraced Amy’s passion for a better world, forgave her killers through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and engaged tirelessly in the transformation their daughter had envisioned. We wanted to involve our students in this cause and foster awareness of the common struggle for human and civil rights across the globe.

You can read more about Amy and the Foundation and its current work here. In 2004, however, Linda was instrumental in the Foundation and meeting her personally was unlikely; she was extremely busy. When I learned that she would be in New York, I wrote her an email introducing myself and explaining our mission. For whatever reason, she agreed to meet with us for an hour on Sunday morning, 10 a.m.

Meeting her changed everything for us. We now had a personal relationship to underpin our commitment, to sustain us whenever fundraising enthusiasm flagged, either our students’ or ours. We maintained our connection throughout our years-long involvement with the Foundation, raising substantial support to pay for children to attend school and after-school programs in Cape Town.

All because of a few well-chosen words.

(Thanks to the ISOLATION JOURNALS for this invitation to write. If you need a place for inspiration, please check it out.)

Of Like Minds

Above is yesterday’s journal entry as I reflect on my recent completion of Lisa Brennan-Jobs memoir Small Fry. There’s nothing particularly significant about it; I’m sure I’m not the only one who fixates on one small, insignificant moment of a larger story just because a published author has represented a similar experience.

This morning I get an email from my sister. Our communications are spotty since she moved to Acapulco over two years ago—within months of my relocation to the west coast. (So much for my dreams of us spending a lot more time together.) I provide her with a US address, though, so bank statements always precipitate some monthly email back-and-forth. She’s contemplating her derailed summer visit, something that still lives in limbo, but has fingers crossed. She misses her granddaughters so, and is talking about them and her lingering hopes. She writes:”Remember the coffee plant below Fairfax with MJB on a wall, backed in forest green?  Years ago, I told the girls it turned out to be an omen for me…”

I get chills because, even though we live countries apart, we have both thought about that same coffee plant visible from our childhood home perched in the northwest hills in the last 24 hours and for both of us it was an omen of a sort. (We have never discussed this, I swear. I was always a bit embarrassed truthfully.) Yet, here it is, both included in a conversation with her grandchildren and in my daily writing.

When people talk about “signs,” about visiting psychics, about the “other world,” the spiritual one, I balk. What I do know for sure is that we have uncanny connections with those we love right here on earth. That’s heaven for me.

A Break in Tradition

I knew it was coming when I saw the Facebook post from the Assembly on Literature for Adolescents of NCTE (ALAN) yesterday afternoon. Then this morning the National Council of Teachers of English sent an email to all members announcing that the annual convention would go virtual after an 110-year face-to-face run.

In the grand scheme of all that the world is dealing with (I tear as I type those words: no words can do justice), it’s a negligible loss, but it is a loss, one added to the endlessly mounting pile. I’ve written about the value of coming together with devoted educators, the hive of learning that professional organizations afford their members before.

As I exited the closing session in Baltimore, 2019, I received a blank notebook

When “things come together,” when there is union such as the convergence of two rivers, the flow joining to create a stronger body able to carve its way through rock over time, the apparently immovable remade, a fateful choice for a convention theme: confluencia!

And these words stored on its once-blank pages:

It’s great to not to be finished EVER!

I’m clinging to that.