November 28, 2014

What I've Been Into - Autumn 2014

Hi all,

First, I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving. It's my favorite holiday: gratitude, good food, and family. I hope you spent it with those you care about most.

This fall has given me a lot to be thankful for. My darling boy is just a few months away from turning two years old, and this autumn has been so full of his mind latching onto everything and finding ways to communicate that it's been, well, magical. How does a child just suddenly string a six-word sentence together? And his personality, this mini-man, who is forming in front of me? Tonight he was all about "running hugs," the kind where he takes off from across the room and propels himself into my arms, all while laughing his little boy laugh. Which is loud. Which is music. Amen.

Work has also been incredibly fulfilling. I love my life as a mother. But I also look forward to doing what I do inside of my classroom. I find such satisfaction in sharing literature with kids who want to learn! Who are engaged! Who are grateful--for their education, their teachers, their opportunities. The hardest thing about this new job is realizing I might never want to leave.

And I can't teach literature and writing without wanting to make some of it myself. I haven't exactly had an abundance of that thing called "free-time" lately (as you might deduce from my paltry list of movie and TV titles below), but--spurred on both by the energy of my students, the support of my professional community, and an opportunity to give a reading with local author John Jodzio earlier this month--I cobbled together enough time and motivation to write my first real piece of fiction in probably two years. Watching a toddler learn to use words is magical, and so is realizing that--rusty or not--I still can, too.

That about sums it up for me, folks. A lot to be thankful for. A lot to look forward to. Ideas. Space. Quiet. Joyful noise. A world that's cold, but also so very very warm.


Books (& two plays!):
  1. The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Oedipus the King (again). Rereading, though time consuming, is a powerful reminder of how valuable it can be to give anything in life more than one chance.  
  2. Old School by Tobias Wolff -- About a teenaged boy at a private school who is awkward and self-conscious and in love with books. Oh, how I put off grading essays in order to read this one! 
  3. A Room With a View by E. M. Forster -- I listened to this one on my way to and from school, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. Probably a bit to do with the British accents and the big vocabulary words and Italy and the main love interest's name being George.
  4. The Plague by Albert Camus -- Weird. Weirder than anything I've read in a long time. But the rats crept into my dreams, so I guess that means it was successful?
  5. Fences by August Wilson -- A powerful, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a black man and his family in the 1950s. Felt incredibly timely as I watched and read and thought about Ferguson.
TV & Movies:
  1. Catching Fire -- Watched this one quiet Friday night by myself anditwasgood.
  2. Django Unchained -- While introducing Huck Finn and discussing my students' exposure to slavery via media, many of them mentioned this movie. Ah, Quentin Tarantino. You would make an interesting history teacher, I'll give you that.
  3. The Politician's Husband -- Another British mini-series that found its way to Netflix, and somehow found its way onto our screen. After the final credits, the hubs and I both had a strong desire to watch some Downton Abbey.

Articles, Essays, & Posts:
  1. "We need to talk about injustice" by Bryan Stevenson -- I feel like I might have heard about this civil rights lawyer/speaker/writer before, but after hearing a recording of a talk he just gave locally, and now having watched his 2012 TED Talk, I'm certain I won't forget his name again. Challenging, important stuff.
  2. "Stories We love: 'In The Heart of the Heart of the Country' by William Gass" by Ann Valente --  A piece about that thing y'all know by now is at the heart of my heart: landscape.
  3. White Bean Chili -- Colder weather means we are cooking up soups and stews and crockpots over here. This recipe was simple and good.
  4. "Fall Colors Around the World" -- Because the colors this autumn really were stunning (and it's important for me to remember how lovely October was, since, you know, November has been a whole lot of below-freezing-is-it-March-yet-murk).
  5. "Fingerprint Words" by Matthew J.X. Malady. Something this ol' English teacher found pleasure in pondering.
  6. "Gate A-4" by Naomi Shihab Nye. Yes, just yes.

    Finds & Arrow Signs:
    1. Deerdorff Apple Orchard in Minnetrista, MN -- Delicious, beautiful, and there's wine!
    2. Barebones Harvest Festival -- I wasn't able to go this year, but I learned about it through a colleague, and it's definitely a way I will spend Halloween in the future.
    3. Betsy Bowen -- A wonderful local artist who works in woodcuts. I'm certain some of her illustrated children's books will find their way onto Elliot's shelves.
    4. Echinacea Goldenseal -- Right as the weather took a serious cold turn, both my husband and I were waylaid with terrible viral yuck--until, that is, our mothers stepped in with their soups and supplements, including this particular herbal powerhouse. We healed right up. Our systems are now solidly armed for winter.
    5. Chocolate croissants -- Thank you, French Club. That is all. 

    Hope you are well, friends. Thank you, as always, for reading along, commenting, and being a part of this community, no matter how much space exists between. An early Merry Christmas, and best wishes for the rest of your 2014.
    ~

    November 1, 2014

    Resilience: On Working and Mothering

    We have been having conversations lately, my son and I. Last night while I was putting on his pajamas, it was about the man on the road walking his dog. A week ago it was about porcupines, and how, for him, they have somehow come to mean "ouch." This afternoon, we looked at the leaves. They were so red--this one line of maples--and when I said, "Aren't they beautiful, El, all bright like that?" he said yes.

    "Yesss," he said, drawing out the sibilance, nodding his head. He looked up at me. He was wearing a winter hat. He was holding my hand.



    His father and I worry sometimes about him. More accurately, we worry about my leaving in the morning, followed by G's leaving from the daycare door, followed many several hours later with one of us returning, sometimes both (but often not before he's in bed), and how he interprets our comings and goings, how he feels about the drive away from home, if there is a part of him, come 3:30, 4:00 in the afternoon, that waits.

    Sometimes, after I've returned from work and picked him up and squeezed him and whispered to him and asked him about his day and interpreted his new words and kissed him and kissed him, I say, "Elliot, are you okay? You doing okay, little man?"

    "Yessssss," he says, and I hold onto that just like I hold onto his hand.

    As he has grown, and as I've progressed through motherhood, I've watched both of us relax into the new selves we continue to become. As a baby, he needed my arms to fall asleep, and the moment I tipped my body forward to set him down, he would feel it, tense up, resist the change and cling. Tonight, all smiles, he asked for his bed, for his Monkey and Morty and Blanket; he didn't even need me to sing our special song, although as I tucked his blanket around his body I sang it anyway. And I think about the way I was those first months, questioning everything, hours on the internet searching out the answers, puzzling over a little red dot an inch above his ankle. I still worry, sure, but he knows now about "shaking off" a bump or bruise because that's what I've taught him, and I suppose inadvertently it's something I've relearned, too: we are resilient.

    Someday I will be able to explain to him about work in a way that is more than a one-syllable word, this thing I leave for. I will be able to talk with him about Reuben and about Reed, about Zoe and Madeline, about the way certain students are curious and others funny and others afraid, about the way my heart is somehow big enough for these rooms of people. "I may come home tired," I will say to my boy, "but isn't it something remarkable that I never come home less?"

    I've asked myself: Can I do both well? Mothering and teaching, giving and giving and giving, and getting back.

    Let me tell you: The answer to this question isn't on the internet.

    We are each being pulled and stretched and pressed and bent. How can this not be our daily experience when life is so big? When there is so much to want--not things, but much. I will flail a little bit, dip my toes in the chaos. I'm convinced that if there is a truth to find, it is there.



    This afternoon, the wind picked up the maple leaves--those bright and brittle stars--and sent them flying frenetically, unpredictably, beautifully down the road.

    "Do you want to chase them, El?" I asked. And off he went, joyous, running and running, bending himself into the future, despite all the times before that he has fallen down.



    October 12, 2014

    Gossips

    These are the colors
    that flood the ears with whispers
    and rumors of rain



    October 3, 2014

    Ways to Say Autumn


    in Latin:  autumnus
    n French:  automne
    in Italian:  autunno
    in Spanish:  otoño
    in Portuguese:  outono
    in Arabic:  خريف
    in Lakota:  ptaŋyétu
    in Cebuano:  tingdagdag
    in Somali:  deyr
    in Greek:  φθινόπωρο
    in Chechan:  güire
    in Thai:  ฤดูใบไม้ร่วง
    in Persian:  پاييز 
    in Czech:  podzim
    in Finnish:  syksy
    in Japanese:  
    in Chinese:  秋天
    in Danish:  efterår
    in Dutch:  herfst
    in low German:  harvst
    in Old English:  hærfest
    in Icelandic:  haust

    Or, in Me:
    haystacks
    gravel-road drives
    dark earth and morning
    dried herbs
    acorns
    bonfires
    wild rice
    yelloworangeredbrown
    tractors and harvest time
    pomegranates
    warm cheese
    corners of swirling leaves
    dawn fog
    pumpkins
    auburn skies
    I see you, you see me
    thinner trees
    cheers from fields on Friday nights
    warm soup
    hearty bread
    frost
    moon all golden, so high



    August 30, 2014

    What I've Been Into - Summer 2014

    Hi all,

    Well, I'd say summer is almost over, but the truth is summer has been in the rearview for me for over two weeks already. My new set of students filled up my new campus on Monday, and brought with them the very tangible feeling of fall. Make no mistake: it was still hot outside. But school is scholarly and high hopes and eager nerves and very much what's next. I am dog tired. And can hardly sleep for the thirty-two things on my to-do list. But also: how many folks can say they get this--this influx of life every autumn? Besides the kids and the content and the fact that, you know, I get to talk about books and words for a living, I am so grateful for the way the school calendar is cyclical, for the way even when it's harvest time, for me the world feels new.

    That said: summer was wonderful. WONDERFUL. So much time outside with my dear boy. There are ridiculous tan lines on my feet from my sandals, and this fact makes me grin, because the last time I had lines like these, I was twenty-one and living along the shores of the Chesapeake.  Do you know what this means? My eighteen-month-old son is keeping me young. And that is a beautiful thing, my friends--the way our children open us up to experiences we thought were past. 

    It was also a lovely summer in that Elliot really started to sleep well: full nights and predictable naps, sometimes for a few hours in the afternoon. And--fully rested from the night before--it was then that I propped up my feet and read. Lordy, was there reading going on at my house these last three months. Honestly, I stopped keeping track of all the smaller articles and essays and poems I consumed (not to mention board books); the list just would have been too long. But! But. The titles below comprise a smattering of where my brain has been this retreating season. 

    How about you? I would love to hear about your summer highlights. And I'd ask for book recommendations, but at this point? Maybe just the keys to your cabin in the Northwoods would do. :) 

    Hope you are well, friends. Think of me when you see those yellow busses! Education is such a privilege.


    Books (& a play!):
    1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain -- It's been a long time since I read this one (an admission I will make for many books on this list). I found the Duke and King section a bit long, but I also found myself smirking and occasionally laughing out loud at certain shenanigans. Twain does know how to get you shaking your head, wondering at the craziness of the world.
    2. The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne -- Another reread from my high school days. For whatever reason, I remember not getting then What All The Fuss Was About. Having read it now as a mother, though, I came away with a much deeper appreciation of Hester, her role as a mother-rebel, and her strength. There are also so many philosophical conundrums/discussion points/questions... this one had me wearing out my pen's ink in its margins, and--nerd alert!--that kind of thing really gets my brain-blood racing. 
    3. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Oh, the sentences. The sentences!
    4. Oedipus the King by Sophocles -- Although I've taught Antigone before, this was my first time through OtK. There was so much dramatic irony all the way through that I could hardly stand it--in a good way. Sophocles knew how to work an audience.
    5. Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in Work and In Life by Dr. Joe Brewster and Michele Stephenson. This was summer reading for my school's faculty. It was a fascinating and frustrating read, and--in the wake of Ferguson--incredibly timely. The authors came to our school to speak during teacher workshops. Although it's hard to pinpoint answers and solutions, the biggest take away was the importance of the what's next question. The fact that we have to ask it, and then think on it, and then do better.
    TV & Movies:
    1. Mad Men, Season 6 -- Eh. Getting tired of Don's remoteness. The masks we all wear, even from ourselves, yes, but... eh.  At least there was that amazing scene of Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing.
    2. Her -- Weird and colorful and full of love-letters and great lines, which, you know, I like.
    3. Game of Thrones, Season 4 -- We finished this season all hushed and heavy, and after its final episode, we crashed into the pit that is No-More-Episodes-Until-Winter.
    4. Sherlock -- I'm not really a crime-show kind of girl, so I was skeptical when a friend suggested this series after I bemoaned the loss of GOT. Happily, we really like it! The lead actors do a great job.
    5. The Killing -- After Sherlock,  we became completely sucked in by this crime series (it's official: we are Netflix junkies) (I think this is perhaps what happens when you are parents of young children with early bedtimes) (Yes?). The cliff-hangers at the end of each episode were extremely detrimental to my husband's and my need to Go To Sleep. I haven't felt that tied to a ticking-clock kind of show since, I don't know, 24?

    Articles, Essays, & Posts:
    1. "The Secret Rules of Adjective Order" by Katy Waldman. Because I'm a nerd.
    2. "The Gorgeous Nothings: The Envelop Poems of Emily Dickinson" by Michelle Aldredge. Because Emily Dickinson.
    3. "Give Me Gratitude or Give Me Debt" by Glennon Doyle Melton. Just some very practical advice on living simply an appreciating what you already have.
    4. "The Shortening Leash" by Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin. Articles like this become ever more fascinating to me as my child becomes more independent. I'd love to let him just run off into the field/woods/wildblueyonder... but can someone give me a 100% objective answer regarding when that would be safe?!
    5. "On Self-Reliance" by Ralph Waldo Emerson -- Have I read this before? I must have. But it hit me as all new, and quite powerful. His quotes on the potential hollowness of consistency felt fresh and right on.
    6. "On Civil Disobedience" by Henry David Thoreau -- This might be revealing too much about me, but HDT was sort of my high school literary crush. Lots of Walden reading. Lots of writing down his quotes on post-it-notes and affixing them in my locker. This essay reminded me of my sixteen-year-old-self, how earnest I was, and how little I really understood about the Transcendentalists. I'm very much looking forward to reading this essay with my students and talking it all out.

      Finds & Arrow Signs:
      1. Thai Chicken Curry Flurry -- Coconut milk! Delicious.
      2. "Teaching With Heart: Poetry That Speaks To The Courage to Teach" -- An anthology of prose and poetry that I just happen to have contributed to. Some great work if you are looking for inspiration or a perfect English-teachery gift.
      3. "Descant" in Midway Journal -- A short story I wrote in one fell-swoop while reclining on a dorm room bed at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I'm pleased to see it in this fine publication.
      4. Highway 61 along the St. Croix River Valley -- Although I've been to the southeast corner of Minnesota many times, its beauty never ceases to impair the safety of my driving. "Look! Look there!" Thank you, dear Signe, for falling in love and marrying a farm boy from Rollingstone. May your happiness vault up into the sky like these cliffs.

      August 18, 2014

      Butterfly Garden at the Minnesota Zoo



      I've spent a good amount of time pointing out and exclaiming over ants, worms, beetles, spiders, and other small insect creatures this summer, so forgive me if I sometimes get completely taken in by the grace of these airy dancers. My boy calls them simply "butter." And, yes. But also, can we just pause a moment and consider how incredible it is that anything at all can flap its bits of wings and fly?

      July 30, 2014

      The Sound of Water

      Ten years ago I drove down Highway 43 at dusk, watching the sun melt into a haze of orange over Deep Lake, and with one particular song that seemed to evaporate into the heavy air on repeat, I pulled my car into his parent's driveway. He was home from California, and in that moment, shooting baskets with his brother and two friends under the garage light and an assemblage of summer-drunk bugs. He wore a yellow shirt, thin and wide on his shoulders. When his gaze met mine through the windshield glass--that smile, that shirt, that sun, those bugs, the rest of our lives: there they were.

      What I remember of that summer was like that look: heady. Anyone who has not just walked toward love but fallen off the dock into the black midnight waters of it will know what I mean. You do not know you can talk that long, grin that big, stare that uninterruptedly, kiss that hard, laugh that loud, dream that vividly, hope that unapologetically until suddenly you are doing all of those things, until all of those things feel essential and easy. I was twenty-two, just out of college, boxes left unpacked and ready for an apartment in my first-job town an hour away: not on the prowl for midnight dives. But he took my hand. And dive we did. And since then that water has been always in our ears.

      Today I am thinking about that, about the sound of water. Or about the sound water makes when it comes in contact with something else. The splat of rain against windows, or the ping against aluminum canoes. The whispering of streams and singing of rivers careening over rocks, the thunder of a waterfall. Water being poured into a glass. The drip of the faucet. The chugging of wash machines. The slice and whoosh of a duck or a paddle or a body splitting open the surface of a lake, diving down. And then how it rushes back, the water, always seeking out the state of balance.

      This summer, he and I drive down freeways to get to work, the day starts at dawn with an alarm clock called Son, and we often play the same songs over and over because they are what our little boy loves, what he claps for, what he sways to, what he points at: "One more?" We have our own home. Two careers. Several bottles of bug spray. Our driveway of responsibilities is so much longer than it was ten years ago, that the thought of playing basketball under the swirl of dusk sounds like some movie we watched one humid June evening, back when we were very young.

      Last weekend, though--young or old, tired or rested (what are these but words?)--we did walk to the lake. Not Deep Lake, as the dock on that plot of land has been sold. And we didn't dive in, as we had our phones and wallets in our pockets and our son's hands to hold. But we did step into that water up to our knees. We let our boy throw rocks and sand. We felt the undulations of other mid-lake rhythms sweep toward us and against our bodies in the forms of small waves that we heard break in soft swishes against the seaweed along the shore. There was no talk about that summer ten years ago, or any of the summers between now and then. From what I remember, we didn't talk in that moment much at all. And as much as I'm trying, I can't recall what shirt he wore. But I do know this: when his gaze held mine, hovering there above the surface of the lake, we were still hearing the same thing.



      July 7, 2014

      Looking Up


      Instead of forests,
      this summer we are Big Sky
      and pointed fingers.


      (And it feels fine.)

      June 29, 2014

      I Built My House Near Where Others Dwell


      I built my house near where others dwell,
      And yet there is no clamor of carriages and horses.
      You ask of me "how can this be so?"
      "When the heart is far the place of itself is distant."
      I pluck chrysanthemums under the eastern hedge,
      And gaze afar towards the southern mountains.
      The mountain air is fine at evening of the day
      And flying birds return together homewards.
      Within these things there is a hint of Truth,
      But when I start to tell it, I cannot find the words.


      -- By T'ao Ch'ien,
      translated by William Acker

      June 12, 2014

      Father's Day, and a Mud Puddle

      I'm well aware that not everyone has the benefit of having an active father in their lives, so this weekend, I'm going to try extra hard to be grateful first for my son's papa, who wrestles with El on the ground in a way that's all testosterone and gleeful abandon, and second for my own dad, who taught me, among other things, about the joys of being out-of-doors. I have an essay about him up at Literary Mama, right in time for Father's Day. It starts like this:
      You were never much of a hunter. Pheasants, yes. Squirrels and chipmunks, I suppose, when you were younger. But you never came home from a weekend away with a buck in the bed of your truck, because you never had much interest in deer season and you owned a sedan. I imagine some people from other places can hardly conceive of a Midwestern man without a shotgun over his mantle, a closet full of blaze-orange jackets, a copy of Field and Stream next to the john. And yet when I think of you, I do see an outdoorsman. I see you paying attention to landscapes, to the shapes of clouds. I see you teaching me to love the world.
      You can read the rest here.

      And in other news, my son found a mud puddle this week. I had a moment of, Oh! White shirt! But then there he was, stomping, mud squishing into his shoes, filtering through his socks, covering his feet with wet flecks of earth, and I thought, Isn't this exactly what I hoped for? A dozen seconds later he wanted to be even closer, even more coated with rain and dirt and grit, so he sat, and we both laughed. It's going to be a messy, beautiful summer, friends. Here's to all the reasons for those piles of laundry. And Happy Father's Day!