The Return

Poetry Unbound, the podcast, is back, and though I missed it yesterday, this morning with the gift of time, I let Pádraig Ó Tuama carry me into the world of “the best words, in the best order”(Samuel Taylor Coleridge). Today offers a poem from Rita Doves’ most wonderful, written-during-the-pandemic collection, Playlist for the Apocalypse.

“Eurydice Turning” and the opening line, benign:

“Each evening I call home and my brother answers” quickly becomes something else, the moment of loss so profound it brings me to tears. I, too, lost my mother to dementia long before her last breath. And with this invasion, her world, her self , our relationship, changed irrefutably.

In her poem, Dove marvels at the optimism of her brother, their mother’s caretaker. She sees her young mother, “younger than my daughter now,” and recognizes the disappearance of that mom forever. A bittersweet stream courses beneath this exchange between family members. She and her brother “…keep talking: weather, gossip, news.”

Now in my seventh decade, I have done the math, calculating backward from the first trip home with my three-year old son when I knew we would have to begin planning for a more stable living situation for our mother. Her story began in 1912, truly those years with her beloved brother and family were the last to disappear. She is 79 when we find a geriatric foster care placement that we, the six of her offspring, can accept as her home.

I ache for Rita Dove, for her brother, for their loss. I wonder if the specter of genetics ever haunts them as I selfishly acknowledge it does me. All this floods my morning thoughts with the first episode of Poetry Unbound. I am not glad, but I find comfort in loss shared with such love—and the wonder of poetry.

To Be a Leader

OCTE Website Home Page

When I am asked to accept the nomination as President-Elect of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) by the current President, I am gobsmacked. I joined my state’s professional development organization within the first week of landing here from New Jersey almost five years ago. (It was only recently that I stopped receiving updates from the New Jersey Council.)

I would never have agreed except that our current President is a force of nature, and a remarkable human—a kind dynamo, a one-of-a-kind dynamo! At my first in-person Oregon Conference, my husband and I arranged accommodations and drove the almost-five-hour trip from Newport to Ashland, an adventure, and an opportunity to introduce him to another part of our outstanding new home state.

Upon arriving at the conference site from our Airbnb, all bravado fell away. I knew no one here. Gone were the familiar faces and warm hugs from my colleagues in New Jersey. The banner announcing the OCTE event stretched across a brick wall at the school where it would be held. Thoughts raced and nerves pinged as I stepped inside. Smiles reigned—a good, reassuring thing, but one person actually approached me, put out her hand, introduced herself, welcomed me: I had met Laurie.

In the course of the conference I watched her calm attention, nothing harried, as she leaned in to listen and spoke in gentle words to address concerns, competent not blustery. I noticed how others deferred to her, how quick her smile, how busy she was without seeming so. I recognized real leadership.

Today I receive an email telling me that our virtual Spring Conference registration is live and Laurie has registered without a problem. I follow suit. As president-elect, I have tried to shadow Laurie through whatever challenges have come her way as OCTE’s leader—and there have been many: all in-person opportunities have been shifted to Zoom. Our organization’s finances are suffering as a result, but Laurie remains steadfast—and with good humor. Did I mention kind?

Often when we text, she’s en route to the food bank to volunteer, or walking her dog at the beach, or planning professional development for her staff, or in a meeting mentoring a new teacher. As I said: dynamo. In the last year, she has added traveling to babysit her beloved grandson on one of her out-of-the-office Mondays; the distance is over an hour each way. Her family depends on her, but her joy in it shines through.

She has gently reminded me that good leaders designate; they do not just do it themselves, rendering others clueless and unable to assume responsibility—”If you ask them, they will do,” a variation on the Field of Dreams theme. It is a lesson I struggle with, but in an all-volunteer organization, and in life, it is imperative. Laurie empowers others—leadership 101.

So when she asked me to undertake the role, I knew I would be a pale replacement. Some restive nights accompanied my decision.

But now, here I am. I have had the best possible example in front of me; I am learning from a master. A bit more time under her tutelage remains, thank goodness. And because she shares my appreciation of professional collegiality, I know she’ll remain a beacon for me.

My goal: Be more like Laurie, big smile, extended hand, sincere welcome. It will all work out.

One Word: Listen

I’m a talker, no introvert me, no lean-in necessary; I have no dearth of verbiage, so when I consider what one word will serve as a reminder to myself at the beginning of 2022, LISTEN speaks. I know it will be a challenge to cultivate better listening, but I am all-too-aware of how I need to work on this aspect of my personality.

After a few weeks, the word LISTEN floats in the back of my mind, it accompanies me, and I am actually tempering my natural inclination to chime in. On a Sunday morning, I open the weekly email from a blogger I’ve been following for quite some time. Maybe you know him? Ian O’Byrne publishes the weekly “Digitally Literate” newsletter. It’s an eclectic assortment of his digital (and other) encounters during the prior week, and he is always enlightening.

Last Sunday among his offerings is a “Watch on YouTube: What you discover when you really listen.” O’Byrne introduces me to a TED Talk by Hrishikesh Hirway. I watch—and LISTEN—spellbound, for 15 minutes. The anecdotes and insights about his listening resonate. So there are at least two of us working to listen better! While his talk is peppered with wisdom, and I do not even think about interrupting because…it’s a TED Talk, after all, I finally understand exactly what I am doing when I think I’m being engaged with another.

In a enthralling presentation, with a voice both soothing and compelling, Hirway, a musician and creator of the podcast and Netflix series “Song Exploder,” explains how his desire to actually understand the layers of the musician’s song creation evolved into something much deeper.

During the many interviews he conducted with notable musicians, he says that he realized there were other doors to be opened in their conversations and “…I started to wonder: Could I try listening to people the way I was listening to music? Because when someone tells you something, just like with a song, there can be all these layers within it.”

Too many jewels shine as I listen to this TED Talk again, but the crown of them all is his epiphany that you can’t turn the conversation toward yourself; you can’t make it about you in the guise of relating to another’s story. The infamous, “That reminds me of something that happened to me…” becomes the gateway to self rather than the door to understanding another. He says, “But it’s kind of like listening to half a song, then saying, ‘Oh, this part reminds me of another song’ and then turning that song off and going to put on another song.”

With these words, I pause the video, and think. This is my epiphany and where I will change my practice, a strategy I can apply toward my resolve to LISTEN better.

The best thing about one word? I can easily hear it.

Yesterday

The light

alerts me:

strange shadows

skitter across my pages.

“It’s a fire”

cries from outside.

There the shadow play

turns ominous.

Sooty clouds obscure

the sun’s face,

pass, are replaced.

Flames lick the blue

belly of the sky.

A homebody, walls and roof, burns.

Sirens screech red,

fill our street.

I stand at the edge

spectator of disaster.

Today

Today I am

the girl who wishes she had a poem,

the one who discovers Jill Krementz’s photos of poets

who recognizes so many faces, friends

from Dodge Poetry Festivals,

who finds as the photos scroll to the final frame:

Adam Zagajewski died last month.

Today I am

remembering my first reading of Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise the Mutilated World”

in the New Yorker, after the towers fell,

behind a stark black cover I had to study closely

to discern its secret,

and Zagajewski’s words “the light”

“gentle” —I forgot

“strays”— that, too,

but ” vanishes and returns”

echoing, echoing, echoing.

Today I am.

(Thanks to Janet Wong’s poem: “Today I Am.”)

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…

up.

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.