One Perfect Paragraph

The power of anecdotes, that’s the writing mini-lesson coming up this week. Oh, I’m a fan of that short, pointed “storylet” that packs a punch when done well. It’s useful in argument as elaboration for a claim, voice-full for an informational text, and the substance of great economic poetry. We’re starting a personal writing project now that our most basic procedural routines have been established—I know, I know, maintaining routines is eternal, but I’m optimistic—so, the anecdote…

While we’ve got our goals, and our shared learning objectives as per Kahn Academy’s SMART introduction, and Fisher, Frey, and Hattie’s The Distance Learning Playbook, we have yet to peer confer about our “pieces.” At an inspiring webinar on digital literacy offered by my alma mater Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, Dr. Boling discussed a simple acronym she espouses for peer interactions around writing: PQP; Praise,Question,Polish. Simple is my mantra, and this works for me! But we need a text to work with, another pair of p’s: practice paragraph. Hence: the anecdote.

I am using Meg Medina’s short story, “Sol Painting, Inc.” from the wonderful collection, Flying Lessons,” loaded with anecdotal examples, for the introduction to noticing and naming. Medina’s story is particularly great because she uses the Tell-Show combo with such great skill. But I always try to do, and share, Gallagher and Kittle as my guides, whatever my students are doing. All this professional preamble for my anecdote, and here it is.

“Just yesterday as I was collecting the mail from the box, mostly junk, I caught sight of a real letter. Its putty-colored envelope had a New Orleans return address, one I know well, my son’s. A thrill pulsed through my fingers, but I waited until I was inside to open it, anticipation building. The envelope lay heavy in my hands, the handwriting on its face my son’s. I turned it over, gently opened the flap and lifted out a simple, classy card. It was an “official invitation” to his wedding, the small his-and-her-immediate-family-only event that had to replace the celebration that they had  originally planned. He had drawn two boxes, one “yes,” the other “heck [hell] yes” and beneath those the date and time. Then he added the line with the address of the Airbnb he and his bride-to-be had found in the woods, where the ceremony will take place on a deck surrounded by tall trees. They will be married at 1865 JOY ROAD. Tears. That’s exactly what I wish for them, a road filled with joy.”

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Early to Bed; Early to Rise

I’m asleep in the recliner when my husband rouses me with a gentle,” Hey, babe, don’t you think you better go to bed?” Despite the obvious—I am after all, sound asleep—it’s only 7:30 p.m. and for most of my fellow Oregonians, bedtime is hours away.

“Man, someday soon I’m going to get through an entire PBS NewsHour,” I mumble as I rise and stumble to the bedroom.

“Probably not while you’re living on East Coast time,” he murmurs, and he’s right. Since I’ve started teaching in New Jersey, I am newly familiar with “shift work,” my stint beginning at 5:15 a.m. PST ( well, PDT until November 1st) and ending at 9:50 (gotta love school schedules)—unless I have to assist kids from 11:00-12:00 pm. Is this making you dizzy?

When my former principal called me about the job, she admitted, “We wouldn’t have considered it—except you’ve always been such an early riser!” My co-teacher and still-close-friend in NJ chuckled when we were discussing the offer in a later call. “You were crazy about all that grading, and reading. You can’t still be getting up at 4 a.m.?” Truthfully, 5 a.m. is my normal, no-alarm-necessary wake-up, and when I’m awake, I’m UP! So this new job hasn’t demanded that much of an adjustment for me. Except…

I had forgotten about those back-to-school nerves, that pit-of-my-stomach ache about the uncertainty of a day in front of my students. Sleeplessness is part of that, has always been, so rather than stress, and toss and turn, I get out of bed at 3 am and get to work, knowing that this will get, not easier, but more familiar.

Seth Godin published this great post on September 20th about how when we say, “I’d better get to work,” we equate that with the drudgery of routine, of “the measurable grind.” He suggests that our framing has significant power. “Maybe we’d be better off saying,” ‘I need to get back to making magic.'” I love that because that’s how I feel about my work, that “dancing with possibility” I embrace even with sleep in my eyes.

Let this year be one of magic-making for us all!

A New Dawn

It was another Tuesday when I wrote this about the mixed emotions I felt, the difficulty in confronting my decision not to return to the classroom as a substitute this year. My worry was about finding purpose. Well…

Yesterday I was hired by my former employer as a virtual teacher for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade English Language Arts learners who, in accordance with New Jersey’s options, have chosen all-remote learning. I have relocated to the West Coast since my retirement three years ago, but as my-former-now-current vice-principal quipped when he suggested it to my good friend and former-now-current teaching partner, “She’s up at 4:30 a.m. anyway, so…” (The truth is, I have taken to sleeping in until 5, sometimes even 5:30, but all that is about to change.)

I’m writing this because as I do, the commitment becomes ever more real. I already spent some hours caught between sleep and awake last night. I imagine that is not 100% over either. My husband has said, “Approach this with professionalism.” He knows my passion for my profession. He also knows that I can get swept away with it.

But I am not who I was; my experience as a substitute will help me keep perspective— that so much exists beyond my control despite my worthiest intentions. And the pandemic has been an exacting and enlightening educator.

I still believe that teaching is one way to make a difference in this world. I will do what I can.

Love Letters

I open my Word-a-Day email a few days late yesterday… from Saturday, and I am once again, led like the hapless rats of Hamlin by the Pied Piper of an unfamiliar collection of letters, with an “x” and a “z” nonetheless, outward, to the megalopolis of the New York Times.

I can pronounce the word without the helpful megaphone, and I’ve encountered it before, but it remains elusive, tickling the edges of memory. Scrolling down the definition appears, then the etymology. Its pedigree is true, Greek and Latin, and is followed by the example:

And there’s that link, the one that lures me to the Times, the melody carried in the title, those notes “teenagers” “link school curriculum to the world.” Once I’ve arrived, I am not disappointed. All that glitters is truly gold. The Learning Network editors explain the contest from last December to “‘connect what you’re learning in school with the world today.'” “Relevance” rings in my head, relevance and rigor, the new “Rs” in education.

They add that the editorial staff valued the ability of the 56 selected essays to eloquently and creatively connect disparate texts, ranging from art to music to print, to the requirements of class in 450 words, concluding, “…they gave us something new to think about, and we hope you feel the same way.”

I had overlooked this particular article in the world of Times offerings; it was originally published on March 13, March 13 when my first cancellation occurred as a substitute at the local middle school where I had come to feel at home, March 13 when this community learned that the schools in this county, on order of the governor, would be starting Spring Vacation a week early, minus jubilation, no end in sight.

The essays inspire—these are the proof of minds at work, of the future four walls, hard work, and collaboration can build. Two shine, towers of light in the haze.

The first is by Teva Alon that ties Edward Albee’s “The American Dream” with the Times, “Welcome to the Era of the Post-Shopping Mall.” The accomplished young author mounts a stunning comparison between the “characters fully engaged in a capitalist society” in a world of “materialism and superficiality” that Albee depicts. The mall clearly embodies Albee’s “capitalistic nightmare,” and underscores Teva Alon’s closing” “The American Dream Mall is just an extension of a capitalistic nightmare that Edward Albee could only dream of, signaling that of we are not careful, we are inching closer to a world where we truly believe that money can buy happiness.”

During this time of stay-at-home, the dramatic enforced pause that the pandemic has demanded, the imagined silence in the three-million-square-foot-mall with its commitment to our amusement, our “dreams,” our desires, echoes and with it a hope that our excesses might have been curbed.

Sara Jarecke’s essay, the one that used epizeuxis, is the other. She compares the broad topic of the “study of rhetoric” with a Times feature,”We Learned to Write the Way We Talk” by Gretchen McCulloch. She tells about her experience with Advanced Placement Language: “I stumbled my way through foreign terms—epizeuxis, amplification, anastrophe—and learned their meanings and sound,” and concludes with McCullough:”no matter how we write, either informally or a breath away from perfection, we write to connect with others…”‘We’ve been learning to write not for power, but for love.'”

That says it all.

Choosing Wisely

book cover from Amazon

Does anyone else balk at making book recommendations to trusted bibliophile friends? It is rare that I feel unerring confidence when I advise someone to read a book I love, because, to be honest, it is seldom that I don’t love what I read. If I don’t, I have usually not completed it, though that, too, is pretty rare. And it’s gotten rarer still as I’ve stuck to my resolution to write something about every book I finish.

That act of consciously attending to something about a text, whether it’s a powerful quote—even one somewhat extraneous to the book’s merit but resonant for me—or a quirk of character or place, once I’ve given that attention to a book I’ve completed, I almost always cement my fealty to something about it, sort of the difference between a first impression and a deepening relationship.

A while back during one of our almost-monthly Zoom chats (that last at least an hour), I recommended Lily King’s latest novel, Writers and Lovers, to Maria, a dear friend and deep reader. I ascribe that adjective as a distinction between her reading and mine. I’m a “gobbler” of text, she a connoisseur, one who savors and lingers. We have been held in mutual thrall with Margaret Renkl’s Late Migrations, and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, but after I suggested Writers and Lovers, I worried.

I needn’t have. On Saturday we will have a Zoom dedicated to W & L, and Maria has invited her book-lover daughter-in-law, too. In rereading it, another habit I’ve yet to cultivate with any great success—”Too many books too little time” my mantra— I’ve deepened my infatuation. We’re in a relationship now.

A truly captivating story demands that we pass it on, doesn’t it? With any luck, everyone wins, and the wonder grows. So that’s what I’m doing today, passing it on. Fingers crossed… .

Emily and Me

These Fevered Days Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson, written by Dickinson scholar Martha Ackmann, may not be everybody’s idea of a great read, but I am in awe of Emily, her poetry and her choices, and have read many books about her. The premise of this one though got me thinking about my own “ten pivotal moments.”

When Emily was only 14, Ackmann contends, she wrote a letter to a friend—Emily was a devoted correspondent— and despite her disavowal that those words held any significance (Emily’s standards were high, even then), she wrote, “All things are ready,” knowing that her writing, her exploration of her rich inner world would sustain and, one day, distinguish her.

I’m no Emily, and I feel almost profane as I claim that when I was little, I knew writing would matter—always. While my father wanted to make sure that we all attended church, that we received the spiritual education that had comforted him, taking all six of us to actual church services wasn’t manageable. What he did do was get us to Sunday School for the hour before. Once we were stowed in our respective age-appropriate rooms, Hinson Memorial Baptist Church on Portland’s east side took over.

I was eight or nine when I noticed that the religious school’s monthly newsletter, printed on more substantial paper than the Oregonian that hit our steps each morning, featured an opportunity for kids to write in response to a prompt. A small photo was included with each winning submission, and this publication wasn’t merely local! Some of these kids came from places like Illinois—imagine that!

The invitation that moved me to write asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” And I knew the answer: a missionary. I wasn’t thinking about audience when I wrote my response; I wrote from my heart. I did want to become a missionary—long before Poisonwood Bible.

I’m pretty sure I waited for an immediate response and equally sure that when I didn’t hear anything for a day or two, I forgot about it. But the day came when a letter addressed to me announced that my “piece” had been chosen, to please send a small photo. The envelop also included a five dollar prize. Five dollars! That was what I got from my parents for Christmas shopping money for my siblings! Five whole dollars, a check, my first, from my writing.

Even without the money, that my words meant something to someone else, meant the world to me. One of my ten pivotal moments? Yes, I was “ready.”

Part of the Whole

“From the redwood forests to the gulf stream waters…” This lyric weaves through my head as we stand surrounded by stately giants. Imagine living 1500 years. The “Big Tree” we’ve hiked to inside Prairie Creek Park has. But it is far from alone.

Richard Powers’ Pulitzer prize winning novel Overstory talks about the intimate communication between trees, their roots forming a sustaining connection deep beneath our often oblivious feet.

Before we chose which of the wilderness trails to explore, we stopped at the Visitor Center across from Jedediah Smith State Park. Google is fine for an overview and provides interesting backstory about Smith, but the two people who greet us offer something we’re cherishing much more these days: human contact, granted we’re all masked and regulation distanced, but still…

They tell us that people have been visiting in a steady stream, though in reduced numbers, but assure us that we’ll have some company wherever we go. And we do encounter others, families, and lone hikers, bird and photo enthusiasts, but oh, it’s quiet in this cathedral of trees. This silence is a presence. I ponder Mark Strand’s poem, “Keeping Things Whole,” as fellow wanderers eddy around us.

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in   
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

To be still and sentient demands a discipline I often lack, but here among these ancients who pulse with life, their stillness and movement a mystery to me, I feel whole and part of it all.

On the Road

It’s another Zoom meeting on a Sunday afternoon when my son Sam and his bride-to-be Alex announce that they are canceling plans for their wedding in October. While not a surprise exactly—they have been deliberating this decision for months now—it is a disappointment. In the grand scheme, it’s almost petty, but on a personal level, sad. They are going to get married, probably sooner than any possibility of a family-and-friends fête arrives, but no specifics are offered.

When we receive the email letting attendees know even though we had been forewarned, it’s like opening a barely scabbed wound.


I had been excited about the prospect of these two wonderful people joining forces, but especially, and selfishly so, because for the first time, all five of my siblings had been invited. (There have been many marriages among my nieces and nephews but none to date had included all six of us.)

I let my imagination bear me away on wild wings, beach walking to images of the six of us loudly laughing and carrying on in some chill New Orleans venue, jazz in the background, crawfish on the table, and shared joy, a reunion. It is a rarity when our tribe gets together; the bonds that unite us are enduring yet forgiving. Love underpins it all, but we are an independent, far-flung bunch, and this event would pull people from Hawaii and Wyoming, Oregon and Mexico. The last time we had all been together was at my aunt’s funeral nine years ago. An updated photo featuring bright and sunny smiles in festive finery would have been a much-desired addition to our family album.

This morning we are leaving on a road trip to meet Sam and Alex at Alex’s parents’ home in Santa Rosa. It is a big adventure—with more than a dash of anxiety—because novel virus, novel world. En route we plan a brief stay in the redwood forest before completing the 10-hour journey. The kids will meet us there on Friday after flying from NOLA. (The details of their preparation to ensure that they are being as safe as possible don’t bear repeating, but be sure, they are numerous.)

This was to be their engagement party weekend, large and merry. Now it will be small— but merry? No doubt. When I spoke with my sister yesterday, the satellite buzzed with our Hawaii-to-Oregon chatter. We had recently canceled our family-sized New Orleans Airbnb and were discussing plans to do it again when fates allow. Then she said, “You know, Trish, your trip? It might be the perfect situation, the parents in one place…,” and I stopped her.

“We’re trying not to think about it, you know ‘expectations are planned disappointment.'” But the thought, their words, “Oh, we want to get married more than ever,” has crossed our minds. I have written before about Sam surprising us— and Alex— with his proposal while visiting here in Oregon, and about how my husband and I eloped after knowing each other for a month, so…

Road Trip! Whatever happens, oh, we are so happy!

Chance Encounter

(Flicker Douglas T. Muth)

Baltimore Convention Center offers massive concourses, offshoots in many directions, and ours is wide and relatively empty. Only an hour before we had listened to Tommy Orange, author of the novel There There, deliver a wry, powerful keynote address. I had recently finished his moving narrative told in many voices depicting the lives of Native residents of Oakland, California and during his speech, urged Dana, my friend, colleague and erstwhile longtime NCTE Convention companion, to read it. She really doesn’t need my plug; Tommy has convinced her all by himself of course. How she tolerates my enthusiasm, I don’t know. Every book is “the best book,” every session “the one that will change my practice.” But she does, so when we emerge from a poetry session, and I am quiet, she knows something is amiss.

Aging has educated me to this phenomenon called ocular migraine, “characterized by a variety of visual disturbances including visual loss, blind spots, zig-zag lines, or seeing stars. Unlike other forms of migraine, they may occur without any accompanying head pain” (American Migraine Foundation). Experience has taught me that if I relax, breathe, close my eyes for a bit, it passes. After I explain my atypical calm, we’re headed for a lunch break.

My head is down to avoid light pouring in from floor-to-ceiling windows, and I am trusting Dana to navigate when I hear her voice raised, excited, my kind of timbre,”There’s your boy.” And I look up.

It’s Tommy Orange walking toward me; it’s really him. I’d love to say what I said, but I’m pretty sure dumbfounded me let Dana orchestrate the entire photo op. I’ll be honest—it remains a blur to me, but the shaking and the pounding heart, those chills that course like electric current as he heads away afterward, the “Did that just happen?” sensation? That I remember even now.

And relief, relief in the aftermath, that my migraine is gone, 100% gone. I can see clearly now. The mind, the body, adrenalin— miraculous. Tommy Orange: Medicine Man.

Cuts Like a Knife

I’m slicing a jalapeño when I smell the garlic gaining that right-before-burning bitterness that I want to avoid. Oh, those cliches, “haste makes waste” springs to mind. This little pepper under the knife has seen better days, and the recipe doesn’t even call for him, but his wrinkly countenance summoned me from the bottom of the vegetable drawer, so I’m a savior!

That slice on the diagonal, does it, and opens a lash across my ring finger, almost taking the tip off, before I drop the knife, howl, and watch blood seep. My husband jumps up (who gets to be savior now?), grabs a paper towel, escorts me to a chair, and says, “Are you going to pass out? throw up?” He knows me well, but no, I elevate and keen, ever the Sarah Bernhardt, and ask him to move the garlic off the heat. I am hoping to salvage our dinner.

It is after all, these small events that I regard as insurance against the big ones. We have finger bandages for this very occurrence, and my finger will heal despite the immediate emotional toll it exacts, fleeting in the scheme of things.

On my desk are three notifications from different health care providers regarding my annual appointments. I am healthy, but now that I have the time to be vigilant, I am. I have my physicals, my mammograms, and my monitoring appointments post hip-replacement, and they necessitate actual, rather than virtual, attention. More insurance.

The New York Times announces in bold that “A Record 5.4 Million People Have Lost Health Insurance” according to a recent study. This comes when I am safely—and I realize the irony as over-65 remains hard- hit by the pandemic—covered by Medicare.

Insurance is hard to come by these days. If only my slip of a knife were enough to protect everyone who desperately needs it.