Banking on Inspiration

When I signed up for this year’s SOL Challenge, I was already “banking” ideas, nervous about finding myself in a topic-empty vault. In one of my posts, I mentioned Ruth Ozeki’s brilliant novel, A Tale for the Time Being. My daily notebook tells me that I finished it on February 21. By that date, I had decided to accept the challenge.

My beach walk that day revealed a treasure, and I had just finished Ozeki’s tale, set in Japan, post Fukushima Daiichi’s nuclear disaster in 2011. Debris and its unpredictable, far-reaching travels plays a major role in the narrative.

Then I see this bottle rooted in sand. I have committed to picking up garbage for several years now, but I am startled upon closer inspection. The writing is clearly Japanese; I take it for a sign. I bring it home thinking “possible post” and “Holy */%, North Pacific Current!”

By now I’ve looked up the type of mussels that have clearly found a home, a real bottleneck of mollusks; they are goosenecks, and my daughter-in-law, who helps me use Google Lens to pinpoint the species, and I feel like true discoverers. Later that week, she sends me this :

All of this just to say, I made my way through #SOL21 without spending this post in my “bank”—until today. Thanks to my fellow bloggers and everyone at the TWO WRITING TEACHERS site who made it possible. I am inspired more than enough by all of you!

The Golden Shovel

Many Slicers have used this poetic form, and I thank them all. I will give it a shot, dubious as I am, fully aware that I am not following the rules perfectly even as I do so. (We’re so near the end of the Challenge, and I commit to one-poem-per!)

The quote comes from “Close”by David Whyte, a stunning poem I discovered through Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings, a treasure trove of inspiration.

“Close/is what we almost always are: … close to giving the whole thing up.”

Fear lies in being close.

I know what that feeling is,

no matter what

it floods us. We

find ourselves saying “almost”

to avoid saying “always.”

Those forever words, are,

what makes us close…


Good Words

The school’s weekly bulletin, to which I’ve paid very little attention, tells me that there will be a virtual author’s visit today. I should’ve received a Zoom link—we’re a Google school and use Meet pretty exclusively for classes—but I never got the link.

I text my most reliable-to-respond-rapidly teacher; it’s 6 a.m. here but well into morning in NJ, who forwards me a link, letting me know that she never received the ZOOM link either and had to scramble to find it. Now I’m not feeling so forlorn; they didn’t forget about me, the virtual LANGUAGE ARTS teacher after all.

Math teacher that she is, we still have to iron out the time difference with the wackiness that is a school schedule, all those strange times (10:37, for example). I realize that, if I want to attend, I will join an hour before I meet with the seventh graders, my first class, an hour before I’m due to teach. No way am I missing an author visit.

Dan Gutman shows up in all his wacky glory live from NYC! His presentation is mesmerizing, and honest, and FUNNY! Do you know Gutman’s work? I had only been familiar with his baseball-themed middle-grade novels. At one point, I’d tutored a fifth grader who wasn’t keen on reading but lived and breathed baseball. Gutman was a natural fit and saw us through to just where he said he wants to get all kids: to love reading.

Gutman owned that he hated reading as a kid. He wanted to write books that entertain, and make them WANT to read. He unabashedly claimed that he’s not trying to teach any lessons, but that one. He’s talking my language.

He gave the kids his nine-step writingmethod, beginning with setting and ending with a snappy title, obstacles, sidekicks, twists in the middle. He celebrated the virtues of notecards as outlines that you can move around ‘cuz documents get too long, and “you can’t see everything.” He presented what we hope to teach and have the students apply to their writing. Coming from him though, it sounded like TRUTH.

When the kids reflected on what they remember, many talked about his rejection letter portfolio. Gutman has kept his stack of rejections from name-brand publishers—lest he ever forget what it took to get to be the author of 165 books. He asked the kids, “What do you think should happen to rejections like these?” To answer he tore one in half, ’nuff said.

They also liked that he has only met his illustrator/partner Jim Paillot, who lives in Arizona, once in their 17-year-long collaboration for the Weird School series and yet considers him a great, true friend.

When I calculate the benefits of this virtual world we’ve explored—and often rued—I think of today and how wonderful for all of us that authors continue to spread the good words.

A Simple Recipe

When I wake up to the morning before the sun, I know what I have on my plate: Clementine Cake, a recipe first discovered on the New York Times Cooking site. I like the cake, no mistake there, but in truth, its creation connects me to people I love who love it.

John Willoughby’s Clementine Cake begins here!
The ganache grand finale!

One of them lives across the country. We had a tradition, I’m probably the one who started it because I love birthdays, where I’d bring in something for my fellow teachers, the “lunch-bunch,” to share on any of our birthdays. For my friend Vanessa, it was the clementine cake. She loved it. She had even tried to make it at home, “But I don’t know what I did wrong. It didn’t taste like yours!” Another friend claimed the same. “It must be magic, what you do. Are you sure you gave us your recipe?” This cake became the signature birthday celebration fare, and the giving gave more to me.

Then I moved to Oregon and began to build new friendships. I served the clementine cake at our first neighbors’ get-together. While my good friend Michele admitted without a shred of guilt, “I don’t really like cake,” (Uh-oh), her husband Bob exclaimed, “Wait a minute. This isn’t like any cake I’ve ever had!” By the end of the evening, I had a convert and another cake-fan-for-life. As they departed, I offered a portion that remained. Michele demurred, but Bob, “If it makes you happy… I’ll never turn that offer down.” Now I’m thinking, “Send a slab to Bob,” even before the first slice is cut.

Another dear friend suffered an almost-fatal fall a couple of years ago. She was hospitalized after surgery in the town half-an-hour north. In the wake of the trauma, she lost her appetite, but none of her indomitable personality. We joined a group of people who made the trek during the week to spend time with her: Sundays were our day! Her recovery was a long one. During our visits, we had the best time telling stories and laughing. But her eyes would light up when I came through the door bearing the chocolate-covered, citrusy confection—her appetite returned, too—the best medicine.

Baking is an act of love. During the pandemic I’ve found whether flan, muffins, cookies, or cake, I can pass it along. I did it before; I’ll do it after. Sweetness is a message worth sending.

Thank You, Beverly Cleary!

Beverly Cleary has died at 104 years. I don’t have anything else to say—really. Maybe it’s because I am a Portlander by birth and that Beezus and Ramona spoke to me from an early age. (I was “Ramona, the pest” to my older brother and sister! “Ramona did not think she was a pest. No matter what others said, she never thought she was a pest. People who called her a pest were always bigger, so they could be unfair.”) Henry Huggins and all the kids on Klickitat Street became my neighbors, too.

Just recently Oregon’s Art Beat (OPB) featured Beverly. If you haven’t watched it, maybe you’d like to? In it Portland’s children recount their love of Cleary’s books, books that still resonate, no matter where you live. As Cleary herself said, “‘I think deep down inside children are all the same…They want two loving parents and they would prefer a house with a neighborhood they can play in. They want teachers that they can like. I don’t think children have changed that much. It’s the world that has changed.'” (NPR Obituary)

I remember coming much later to her autobiography, A Girl from Yamhill, first published in 1988 when I had departed from childhood reading. But the loves of our childhood return if we’re lucky enough and wise enough to recognize their worth. My son had just been born when I sat in the big armchair in New Jersey, his dozing self cradled in my lap, and returned to the world of my childhood, the Portland neighborhoods I knew by heart.

A good, long life she lived—life that continues through her books and the kids who read them. I just put A Girl from Yamhill on my “hold” list at the public library and discovered that there’s a later memoir that I haven’t yet read, My Own Two Feet. I’m adding that one, too.

Public Service

Lately I view take-out as a public service. My husband and I have interacted within our much-loved community so little over the last year, and consequently have supported our local businesses infrequently. Now, with vaccinations open to all, and the number of cases declining, we are committed to ordering take-out at least once during a two-week period. We are not yet comfortable with sit-down, I wonder when that will happen truthfully, but pick-up we willingly embrace. (I am aware of the privilege inherent in this as well 😔 .)

Last night my husband went to pick up our order from a recently-opened Greek restaurant, Gyro Guys. After perusing the menu online, we found options for everyone (s0n and daughter in the mix and en route from a long work day). I always complicate things a bit as the sole pescetarian, but no such difficulty this time. The vegetarian special looked amazing: dolmas, baba ganoush, hummus, Greek salad, pita…perfect!

We were beginning our gustatory adventure when my husband commented that the food was a bit expensive. The four different selections were arrayed on the table in all their splendor: schawarmas, gyros, salads. I looked at him and he demurred, “Just an observation.”

He followed that with, “Well, I did give a really healthy tip, so…” He explained how the young man at the counter had been so pleasant, asking about how his day went and welcoming my husband as a new customer. “I think it’s a family operation. He was so polite and …” He needed to say no more. We are suckers for people who do whatever they do with pride and a measure of happy thrown in. (I have written about the service differential before; it means a lot!)

I smiled, nodded and said, “Whatever you gave him, he earned it. And the food is delicious, too!”

A Winner, No Matter What

Choosing a text for a book club is not an easy task. This summer I’ll be leading a discussion for the Oregon Council of Teachers of English. (Summer—seems so far away, right?) Last year’s pick was Tommy Orange’s There, There. I had met him at the Baltimore NCTE Convention and listened as he held us spellbound with his story. The choice was an easy one.

Maybe you can help me decide. I know OCTE members want another novel, it’s summer after all, and the Council’s recent focus has been on untold stories from voices that broaden our perspective, so that adds another layer. Right now, I am thinking of these:

What about Jess Walter’s latest novel, Cold Millions? Have you read it? It tells the story of the rise of labor unions in Spokane, Washington at the turn of the 20th century in the voice of one of the two brothers struggling to make a life. It is an immigrant story, a tale of our foundations of inequity and the quest to set it right. The characters—all of them—capture the reader, at least they did me. And while Walter disclaims it as history, there is plenty that is REAL about it.

I am also entranced with Louise Erdrich in general, and The Night Watchman in particular. Based on the story of her grandfather, this wonderful narrative filled with people that a reader wants to meet, fairly leaps off the page. The threads of lives interweave to create a tapestry of time, place, and themes. Brilliant—and of course, a perspective with heart and craft.

Have you read any of the work by Jenny Offill? I loved Department of Speculation, but her latest, Weather, is the one on my shortlist. How does she do it? There is so much information embedded in this pastiche construction, so much worth considering. It is “about” climate change, and so much more. She makes it impossible to look away, and yet, it’s only at the conclusion that I realized the cumulative impact.

Finally, I’m torn between two. There is Ruth Ozeck’s Tale for the Time Being which has the most brilliantly written adolescent character I’ve ever read—and I’ve read a lot of them (this is NOT a YA novel, and Naoke,”Nao” is NOT your typical teen, and yet…). And there is 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. I don’t know where to begin with this one. It is the one I finished most recently and would love to discuss with…someone. Both of them are set elsewhere—outside the States, and widen the world.

That’s where I am now. Do you have any recommendations? I’ve got until June to decide. You know what? I’ll post them all, ask for additional recommendations, and see what happens. It’s a book club, after all! (I’d still love to hear your thoughts.)

The Kindness of (not-so-much) Strangers

234…That’s the number of emails I have yet to read this morning. I sign up for everything to get promised freebies, dynamic downloads, looking for that “Abracadabra” insight that will make this teaching thing better for my students, and so, too, for me.

Do any of you have this problem? I have written about excellent professional development experiences afforded me this year, both at a cost and for free, but truly I am a bit burned out right now. I am probably not alone, but it feels like it. The only thing I’m pausing for now after school hours is POETRY (well, to be honest poetry and Rebekah Dell Edwards’ in our Blended Learning group and Betsy Potash at Spark Creativity.)

Rebekah at Moving Writers, and I call her “Rebekah” because of the quality of communication we have had this year—I mean personal exchanges where she specifically addresses my concerns. I feel like I know her. As soon as the NCTE Convention returns, I can’t wait to shake her hand, maybe even give her a hug. She has been a rock for me.

Then there’s Betsy. I don’t even belong to her Lighthouse group, a paid-membership community, yet twice I’ve written her emails asking for help regarding something she generously shared and for which I needed clarification. Fingers crossed, I sent the request but, sort of like buying a lottery ticket, forgot all about it, because, why should she? I don’t pay anything. BOTH TIMES she graciously responded and thanked me “for reaching out.” If you have never tried her FREE hexagonal thinking tools with your kids, delay no further. I was skeptical until I tried it; Gadzooks! Discussion ensued! (The silence of crickets—no more.)

Today the Library of Congress is offering a workshop, Living Nations, Living Words with Joy Harjo, our National Poet Laureate. I will be there, because…poetry.

In April “my” organization, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE), will offer four phenomenal speakers, one each Wednesday, around the theme “Discovering Untold Stories.” Just writing about it makes me happy—and excited.

So maybe I’m not as burned out as I think I am. How about you?

Stopping by Woods

(Thanks to Tammy B’s 10min10day inspiration; it’s no accident.)

It’s salt I taste, definitely, and it has seeped softly into my mouth through the meeting of my lips. The tracks of tears I barely register. Beauty has that effect.

The birch stands amid a cluster, not too tall. I have pulled off the road on my way up the mountain pass in late autumn. Oregon offers just what these trees need: moisture, shade, space, the perfect medium. Now the leaves, deciduous and dropping their gold on the ground below, lift and fall with a gentle breeze. Sunlight is muted; the road remains empty—but for me.

It has rained earlier, the remnants drip from the serrated edges of the triangular leaves. The sound is swallowed by the soil. So the flash of wing high in the branches strikes me, drawing my eyes upward along the papery trunk. Some bark, beginning to peel, curls against the surface.

But the red wing, the upright crimson perched on a branch, holds sway. I cannot look away. Attention-getting red without artifice here; I happened along at just the right time.

I have stopped only to stretch my legs, for my trip is a long one, now lightened by this moment, this serendipitous pause. I will let tear traces linger.

Discovering Joy

Moving is cathartic—and chaotic—in equal measure. By the time we had to actually leave our house behind, nineteen years of our lives had been sorted and either boxed, sold, or booted. When we actually arrived on the West coast, we unpacked very little. Those boxes remained mostly closed until the time when we found a more permanent residence.

Once that happened, however, what we’d actually kept surfaced slowly. (Remember, chaotic? The Marie Kondo admonition to keep what brings joy? Nothing was bringing me anything toward the finale.) As I put things on shelves and in drawers and closets, I paused to ponder: Why did I choose this?

Not about my son’s first stuffed animal, though he never loved it as much as his dad and I did. We bought it shortly after we first moved to the Jersey Shore, pregnant and euphoric.

And my son’s first “big boy” sneakers? No surprise there, either. (Oh, what he’ll discard when we’re gone.)

Then I began to notice what was missing, two precious items in particular. I kept telling my husband that I knew I didn’t get rid of them. And he gently reminded me how I was using the “scorched earth” approach as the days dwindled on our deadline.

Hanukkah arrived and the menorah we’d had forever, an heirloom from my husband’s childhood, remained MIA. Yes, we had a backup, but it was NOT the menorah of our family celebrations.

The second item was a Lenox bowl given to me by a dear family at the end of a difficult year for their children; we had gotten through it together. No way had I carted that off in my daily loads to Goodwill. And yet…could I have?

A month ago, right before my son and his wife joined us here, my husband found two unopened boxes in the shed. They had been at the bottom of a stack, and we had assumed they were empty.

When I heard,”Trish, look what I found!” a shout from the shed, I popped up from my chair, fingers crossed. The prodigal precious items were there, and now here, where they belong. Home.