Birdwatching

Our suburban backyard does not boast a pool or a hot tub or a swing set, but it does have bird feeders. Right outside our breakfast nook, I can see a small birdbath and two suet feeders. The combination of water and food ensures that birds will visit on a regular basis. We see robins, sparrows, catbirds, and jays. We see cardinals, chickadees, tufted titmice, and finches. We see pigeons, mocking birds, wrens, and doves. We see downy woodpeckers, hairy woodpeckers, red breasted woodpeckers, and flickers. Each bird has its own habits. Some prefer to eat early, while others show up later. Some are brave and chase away much larger birds if it is their turn at the feeder. Others are timid, flitting in for a brief dip in the water and a quick bite of suet. Some are comic, jumping between the two feeders and the nearby bushes. Their voices range from the chipping of the cardinal to the mimics of the mockingbird. A tiny investment provides endless hours of entertainment. 

Some birdwatchers keep life lists, travel to exotic locations to boast a sighting of a rare species. While I do pay attention when I travel to the local flora and fauna, I haven’t used a bird as an excuse to visit a particular environment, and I do not have a list of all the birds I’ve seen. I prefer a more casual approach. Sure, we have a couple of guide books, but those are to help identify the outliers, the birds who only come to the feeder on occasion, or the ones we spot on walks. Birdwatching is not an obsession. 

Birdwatching allows me to look outside, to take a deep breath, to take stock of the world. As the birds come to the feeder, I notice what is going on in nature on those absolutely normal days that are far from ordinary. The days, the months, the seasons go by too quickly if I do not take the time to really absorb what is going on. The birds force me to notice the changes that happen every day. Lilacs and lily of the valley have been replaced by columbine and peonies. The maples are putting out helicopters in the May breeze. The backyard is full of violets and buttercups. Without the movement of the birds to draw my eyes outdoors, I miss too much.

One of my favorite poems by Wordsworth begins with these lines:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

When I watch my birds, my heart is connected to Nature (yes, with a capital N), and I forget about the world and its pressure to get and spend. I’m a happier person, a more relaxed person, a nicer person to be around.

I just noticed a goldfinch at the feeder. It’s time for me to pay attention to the birds. 

 

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In the beginning

I dread beginnings, the uncertainty, the commitment, the difficulty of bringing something to completion. Each project is fraught with perils, whether it is a pair of socks (Will this color work with this stitch pattern? Will these needles produce the right gauge so they will fit? Will I remember how to turn the heel, to pick up stitches to form the gusset?), a set of placemats (Are they big enough for my dishes? Will the color look good in the kitchen? Will the binding provide the right amount of contrast?), or a piece of writing (Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it? Is my topic just silly?). Part of my trepidation is because of my inbred desire to please, but I also detest wasting time on an undeserving project. I should devote my energy to something that matters.

This morning I began a sewing endeavor, a graduation present. I can’t say exactly what I’m making so the recipient will be surprised, but I can say I am worried about its outcome. Sewing requires careful attention to detail, especially at the beginning. Once the fabric is cut, it cannot be uncut. The carpentry mantra of measure twice, cut once is equally true with sewing. So it is with great anxiety that I place and pin the pattern pieces and cut into the cloth. There are curves that must match, so even a fraction of an inch can introduce an error that can’t be corrected later. That is probably why I spent most of the morning circling the project before cutting into the fabric. But now the deed is done. There is no turning back, other than abandoning the project altogether. Abandonment is certainly an option, but I’ve invested in the pattern, the fabric, and the worry already. Since I was so very careful in the cutting, I’m reasonably certain that the technical parts will succeed. After all, I’ve been sewing for over 40 years, and the pattern is not that difficult. Practice might not make perfect, but at least it takes away surprises.

Writing is a different beast. Beginnings do not predict success or failure. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts.” Unlike sewing, it is more important to put some words on the page than to wait for just the right words. The honing, the craftsmanship can come later. Writers will still procrastinate, but we should not stop ourselves from writing because we don’t have a perfect draft in our minds. In fact, the very word “essay” comes from the French “to try.” Writing gives us an opportunity to figure out how we feel, and it is only after making complete hash of language and ideas that we can discover what it is that a particular piece of writing is about. I would even argue that words that spring from our brains like Athena fully armed from Zeus’s forehead are often without merit, just so much fluff.

Writers need to struggle with their thoughts, with their intentions. A piece of writing that begins in one place often justifiably ends up somewhere far, far away, mainly because we are often not sure of what with think or what we feel about our topic. Our students might begin writing an argument against the current education system because that is what they heard on Fox News, but as they warm to their subject (and begin researching and actually thinking), they might discover the problems in education can be traced to poverty. If they had limited themselves to writing what they thought they knew, their writing would have merely parroted a single source. Their first draft might have followed the rules of argument and grammar, but it would not bring the students to a better understanding of the problem.

Writing is not about following a pattern to get to a predicted outcome. It is about struggle and discovery. It is about the joy of putting together words in a unique way, a way that only this writer could express herself at this particular moment. It is about telling our own stories in our own words. When we share our writing, it is inevitable that we find something we would like to change, but if we wait for perfection, we will never be a part of the discussion.

Thank you for letting me be a part of the Slice of Life discussion.

What are you really reading?

For over 30 years, I taught literature. I never flinched as I introduced classic books to my students, and almost without exception the kids loved them. At the end of the school year they asked me for a list of my favorite books, even though they knew it would not influence their grades. As an extension of my job, friends have asked for book recommendations, and I have never hesitated to suggest challenging books. I have been known to say, “You have to read A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Or “The Things They Carried is an amazing read.” Or “I think you’ll love Consider the Lobster.” I have argued with a university professor at an airport over the necessity of teaching The Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare. In other words, anyone listening would consider me a literary snob. And the listener would be right.
However, just as gourmet chefs sometimes have a secret love for junk food, English teachers may also enjoy books that would not appear on the top-100 list for Ivy League students. At least this English teacher does. I can get absorbed in mysteries set in tearooms or knit shops. The protagonist can be a caterer or a pet groomer. I can usually guess the murderer on page two, but I still enjoy watching the story unravel—if the characters are interesting.
My two reading worlds have been a little like Berlin before the fall of the wall, and there has been no reason for me to acknowledge my guilty pleasure. However, my husband and I have been spending a lot of time in the car, and when we are driving eight hours to visit friends, we don’t always have access to our favorite NPR programs. We’ve filled in the gap with books that I’ve downloaded to my smart phone. It is not that easy to find books that we both enjoy. First of all, the esoteric history books that my husband usually prefers are not good candidates for listening. The same holds true for the books on my A list. A case in point is Cormac McCarthy’s On the Road. It is one of the greatest books written in the past twenty years, so I thought it would be a great book for us to share as we drove to visit friends. It is a powerful read, but it left us too depressed to enjoy our vacation.
Some books have been successful. Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures was the perfect combination of story and history to keep both of us entertained. The Swan Thieves, on the other hand, did not hold my husband’s interest at all. The True History of the Kelly Gang was good, but we missed a lot of the story because it was told in a heavy Australian accent. They used “adjectival” the way someone today might use a particularly harsh expletive, but I haven’t been able to find where it comes from, and hearing it bothered me throughout the 15 hours we listened.
I knew we would be driving this week, so I decided to take a risk and share one of my favorite mystery writers with my husband. This decision was more serious than you might imagine. Yes, he knows that I read books with lurid titles (Scones and Bones is one that he found particularly humorous), but I don’t want him to think that my reading taste is completely frivolous. So, I’m introducing him to Louise Penny through Bury Your Dead. The protagonist is a police detective, at least, and not a caterer who solves mysteries on the side. The setting is in and around Quebec, where we spent our honeymoon. As we started listening I worried that it would not engage my husband who never reads mysteries. I worried that he wouldn’t have enough background to follow the characters who reappear in most of the books that are set in Three Pines. I worried that he would find the story too fluffy, too unsophisticated. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the story jumped around from one set of characters to another without any apparent link, and I could see a furrow form. But before long, Penny’s beautiful prose, her quiet humor, her deftly-handled characters had my husband smiling, chuckling, and even talking about the characters when we stopped to stretch our legs.
Now I’m sharing my story, and this book, with you. This disclosure has given me the courage to reveal what is actually on my nightstand instead of the more literary book that is waiting in the wings for me to have the concentration required to complete a difficult text. I hope you don’t think any less of me. Maybe you’ll even look for a copy of Scones and Bones.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but memories are more precious

This morning I took pictures of my mother’s gardens. This weekly ritual began a month ago, capturing the blooms she has planted over the past forty years. The yard is large, and the gardens are expansive, acres that she has carefully tended.
My mother rearranges her gardens the way some people change the sheets on their beds. She is constantly puttering, moving a clump of flowers to allow more sun, or less. Sometimes she wants to adjust the color scheme. Other times she transplants the volunteers to create yet more garden beds. There is always a reason for the change, just as there is a reason for taking pictures.
My mother is 77. A young 77, but 77 nonetheless. Her yard is overpowering, especially after a winter like this past one. The last of the beech trees on the property, well over a hundred years old, was felled in one of the many ice storms. The azaleas in the front woods were eaten by ravenous deer. She is sad to see the damage but sadder to acknowledge that caring for this place is becoming too difficult for her.
She has asked me to take pictures to remember her gardens if she decides to move to a smaller house with a smaller yard. She takes me to specific places in the yard, directs specific angles, captures specific vistas. We discovered trees that were gorgeous yesterday had already passed their prime. I took the pictures anyway. To me, they were still beautiful.
Mom had wanted to capture each week with a sketch, but since she had to choose between drawing her gardens and digging in the earth, the earth won handily. Photos will have to remind her of the best of each week of the growing season. I am happy that she has asked me to document her landscaping because it allows me to have some special time alone with her, but also because it lets me see the garden through her eyes.
Despite my rich heritage of gardeners on both my mother and father’s sides of the family, I have a brown thumb. I either over or under water anything I try to grow. I am not fond of the grunt work of gardening, the weeding and trimming, and I am not good at planning. The Burpee catalog’s pictures of gardens have disappointed me too many times. They show everything in flower at the same time rather than showing the progression of blooms. My mother knows which flowers will bloom when and knows to leave space for each. She appreciates the spaces between. I am impatient. I want everything to look perfect the entire season, but without experiment and change, a garden is dull and lifeless.
My mother’s gardens are never boring. Sometimes they are overgrown by weeds or by flowers past their prime, but there is room for disorder in my mother’s world. I don’t have her ability to accept what life brings her way, in her garden and in her life. My temperament turns toward ranting and raving when things go wrong, not making lemonade from life’s lemons.
As I was getting in the car to go home, Mom noticed that the redbud tree near the driveway was in full bloom. I volunteered to take a picture, but she said we had taken enough for one day. She knows she can rely on her memory to capture those purple blossoms, and the picture in her mind’s eye will be more real than any photograph. My pictures are just triggers for the memories she has stored.

A Quilting Metaphor

Yesterday went by so quickly that I never registered the fact that it was Tuesday. I missed another writing deadline, and I apologize to anyone who was waiting to hear from me. (A girl can dream, can’t she?)

What was I doing that kept me so busy? I was quilting, making a Mother’s Day present. The process held me completely engrossed. What color palette did I want to use? Once I selected the color, I had to select the actual fabric, and then decide how to arrange the strips. Once those decisions were made, I could begin the actual construction, carefully sewing quarter-inch seams, using a foot designed explicitly to keep me from straying. Only after I had sewn all the pieces together could I get to the actual quilting, which for me is still following the lines made by the seam, but for this project, I could use one of my machine’s built-in decorator stitches. Finally, I added the binding, using a fabric I wasn’t quite sure about, but when it was in place was just the finished touch the project needed.

So here I am today, a day late and a dollar short, trying to make good on my promise to myself. But what should I write about? The Slice of Life philosophy of writing about what is going on in our day made me think about the quilting I did yesterday. But here’s the problem: I am a novice quilter, so I can’t really offer any insights into the quilting process, and just writing about the day I spent quilting is hardly worth clicking on a link. But then it dawned on me. I like to use extended metaphors in my writing, probably because my favorite classic poet is John Donne. His use of metaphysical conceits makes me swoon. His comparison of separated lovers to the legs of a draftsman’s compass is perhaps my all-time favorite extended, even convoluted, metaphor. How might I use quilting as the basis for my own conceit?

I could write about how quilting is like a relationship, with the love contained in each stitch, and how the stitches (the love?) sometimes cause pain, the way I prick my finger with the needle or when my shoulders ache. I could write about the way learning to quilt is like learning to play a sport, starting with the basics and working up to increasingly difficult skills and finally adding one’s own stamp to the game. Both of these ideas struck me as too corny, and also unrelated to this blog.

Then it struck me that quilting is like writing. Both quilters and writers have to choose a project—a pillow sham or wall cover, a set of placemats or a lap quilt for the quilter, a letter to the editor or a short story, an ode or a sonnet for the writer. In each case, the decision imposes a size on the project and the amount of commitment required.

In quilting, one has to pick out the colors that will establish the viewer’s response. In writing, one has to establish an attitude toward the subject. In each case, the creator can make changes, but the further one gets into the project the more difficult it is to change.

As quilters pick the specific fabrics, writers have to select specific details. The fabric audition is much like the writer’s decision to incorporate some elements and leave out others. Some fabrics are too similar to be effective, just as too many similar anecdotes diminish the overall effect of a piece of writing. Other fabrics are too garish, just as some details might be too graphic. Quilting requires just the right balance of dark, medium, and light fabrics, some with larger designs, others with smaller patterns. A good piece of writing will do the same. In “The Philosophy of Composition,” Edgar Allan Poe emphasizes the unity of effect. Both the quilter and the writer should keep his admonition in mind.

Both quilter and writer have to decide on the arrangement of these elements. Does the quilt palette gradually progress from light to dark, or will it juxtapose the darks against lights and use the medium notes as a transition between blocks? The same holds true for the writer. Does the organization move from small details to large conclusions, or does the writer start with the conclusion and add details in support? Does the novelist tell the story in chronological order or in flashback? Will the poet jolt the reader with sudden shifts or lull him with elements that weave seamlessly together?

After these decisions are made comes the real work and commitment to craftsmanship. In quilting, one has to be very careful to maintain the same seam width throughout the project. Others before me have decided that one quarter inch works well, but even in this basic choice there are arguments. Some quilters swear by a “scant” quarter inch (to accommodate the width of the thread in the seam), while others insist on a precise quarter inch. In either case, consistency is important. Here is a major difference between the quilter and the writer. The writer has the luxury of ignoring the rules of grammar and mechanics while creating a rough draft, but before any piece of writing should see the light of day, it must be carefully checked for mechanics, grammar, and stylistic consistency to be taken seriously. In writing, there are some disagreements in style—does one use the Oxford comma or not?—but just like the quilter, the writer should be consistent throughout.

Once the quilting elements are pieced, the whole is finally assembled into a quilt, and the quilter decides the pattern that will be used to unite the top, batting, and backing. We may find unfinished quilt tops at a flea market, but these are much like rough drafts—they were abandoned before they were completed. This final step adds character, much like the writer with a draft that she wants to publish. Before sending it off, the writer should add appropriate craft. The difference between a great piece of writing and a so-so one is this step.

The quilter adds binding to hide the rough edges and provide durability. The writer has to bind her finished product as well, making sure there are no loose ends. The most successful pieces of writing will withstand the test of time because everything is tightly integrated, every detail contributing to the finished product.

Perhaps this conceit is too convoluted, too contrived, but I know that teachers of writing have to dig deep into their own experiences to help their students move from idea to polished piece. I was always looking for a new example to inspire my students to keep with a piece of writing until it had achieved its full potential. Maybe this quilting conceit will help your students. Or maybe you could challenge them to design their own writing conceit that works for them.

Happy writing!

 

Do you want to dance?

On Tuesday morning, my gym offers a dance party class. The dance moves are uncomplicated so even the most left-footed people (like me) can get an aerobic workout while having fun. The usual teacher is bubbly, and her choreography includes lots of wiggling and shaking. Today we had a substitute teacher who was clearly nervous about taking over for her. Toward the end of the class, she apologized, saying that she is an aerobics teacher, not a dance instructor. She said that she had been kicked out of ballet class.
Her offhand remarks hardly registered on the rest of the class. As the last song ended, we all gave her a round of applause, as we do for all our instructors, as we headed for the locker room. Her words stayed with me, though.
As a child, I hated gym, from the ugly uniforms to the long laps around the field to the arcane rules of field hockey and girls basketball to the group showers. Gym class was an uncomfortable place for a bookworm. It was the only class where I earned a C in my entire high school career, for failing to climb the rope to the ceiling of the gym. There’s little wonder I never took a dance class.
But this woman is different. She is clearly physically fit. She teaches many other courses, and she has an excellent reputation for leading those classes with skill and enthusiasm. But even she feels uncomfortable teaching something outsider her area of expertise, although I would argue that her class was even better than last week’s class led by the regular instructor.
As a teacher, I know I prefer to teach the courses and the works of literature that I have taught before. When we are asked to list the courses we would prefer to teach, I migrate toward my old faithfuls. When we had to align our curricula with Common Core standards, most teachers were uncomfortable with making changes. It’s human nature to want to stay with what we know.
However, like my substitute dance party instructor, we often find ourselves performing at an even higher standard when we are outside our comfort zone. It might require extra time (a rare commodity for teachers), but somehow we find the hours it takes to research the topic, to find creative activities for our students, to explore opportunities for every student to participate. When we are teaching the familiar, it is easy to go on autopilot. The things we do out of habit are not as interesting for us, so how can they be interesting to our students?
You might wonder why someone who hated physical education in high school pays for a gym membership. There are other ways to stay physically fit, right? The truth is, I like my gym. I like the classes they offer. I like the challenges it gives me. I like the support I receive from the fitness team.
Our students don’t pay directly to come to school, but they can still feel the way I do when I go to my gym. If the place is inviting, if the curriculum offers a wide variety of classes, if the teachers are enthusiastic, if the team behind them is supportive, even the most reluctant student can be seduced into a love of learning.
And sometimes, just sometimes, teachers need to move outside their comfort zone so they can maintain the enthusiasm that students need so they will want to be in school.

Poetry on Parade

Every so often, the stars align and allow a project to shine brighter than anyone could anticipate. Several years ago, that happened at my high school.

It was late winter, and every cultural organization had booked a day to promote the language, the food, the movies, the music, the dance of its country of origin. Parents were heavily involved in choreographing the events, and the administration allowed the leaders of each club to spend the entire day making sure that all activities went smoothly. Teachers were encouraged to incorporate an in-school field trip into classroom activities to support these students’ efforts in educating their classmates about their culture.

It was 2005, the same winter that Christo’s Gates were displayed in Central Park in New York City. My husband and I drove from the Philadelphia suburbs for a daytrip so we could say that we had seen a Christo installation, mainly because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The thousands of gates lining Central Park made us giddy. Strangers became friends as we walked through the saffron-lined paths.

As we were driving, we listened to NPR. One story was about Wallace Steven’s poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It seems an urban elementary school had used this work to introduce its entire student body to poetry, allowing children who had been written off to become totally immersed in this difficult piece. They went on to write their own poems using “Blackbirds” as a scaffold. The students shared their poems on a nationally-broadcast radio program. It brought tears to my eyes to see how poetry could brighten the lives of students who had not seen much sunshine.

These anecdotes are wonderful, but how in earth are they connected, you might ask. Simple. The Monday after our trek to New York, I was bemoaning yet another interruption to my class by yet another cultural group as I put my lunch in the mini refrigerator in the English workroom. My rant came to a heated end with, “Why don’t we have a day devoted to teaching English?” One of my colleagues, sick of hearing me complain, said softly, “Why don’t we?”

A light bulb went off. Ours was a high school in an affluent school district with a 99% of students going to college. Why couldn’t WE take a day for everyone to read “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”? And if we could all read it, why couldn’t we use it as a scaffold to write poetry? And finally, what if we displayed those poems for National Poetry Month?

A quick calculation showed that if every student and teacher and support staff member wrote a poem on an 8½ by 11 sheet of paper, we could cover every wall of our sprawling high school with poetry. It would allow every student to become a published poet with classmates, teachers, and parents reading his or her works between classes or during free periods. We would have our own poetry installation, not unlike Christo’s Gates. Why not do this during April, National Poetry Month? I was dizzy.

Since it was only February, I had time to talk up this idea with colleagues in my department. Not surprisingly, not everyone was as enthusiastic as I was. They complained about having yet one more interruption in their classes. They worried that they didn’t know anything about the poem or about how to teach poetry. They voiced concerns that students would deface the poetry.

When I volunteered to create lesson plans that they could use as they liked, along with ways the activities would correspond to state standards, they finally agreed. We put out the word to other departments, inviting them to visit our classrooms so they could participate. We asked them to make links to Stevens in their own classes that day to extend the participation. There was some skepticism, but most of the teachers were willing to accept yet another crazy activity.

Quickly, the designated day arrived. Teachers picked up packets that included background on Stevens, lesson plans, copies of the poem, and scaffolds printed on colored paper, keyed to the students’ year of high school. I was nervous that the day would be a failure, that students wouldn’t like the poem, that teachers would agree that it was weird and difficult, that no one would write. After first period, though, I started to hear a buzz. As students entered the room they asked me if it was true that everyone was writing poetry. When I answered in the affirmative, a few of my less enthusiastic students responded, “Cool,” in a carefully calculated tone, but everyone joined in, reading the poem, discussing it, brainstorming their own ideas for something that could be looked at in a number of ways. By the end of the day, I could tell Poetry Day had been a success. Math teachers stopped me in the hall to tell me how they included the number “13” in their lessons in support of the event. Art classes had given their students the option to draw something connected to “Blackbirds.” Some teachers even shared their own poems.

The next day, stacks of poetry appeared in every English classroom. Students who never turned in assignments waved their poems at their teachers, anxious to share what they had written with their classmates and with the school. The art teachers contributed drawings that went with the poems. That afternoon a group of us started hanging them around the building.

It took hours to get all 2000-plus poems and pictures displayed, but the result was worth it.

The next morning, students and teachers alike took their time as they headed to their first classes. Students wanted to know where THEIR poems were. Students ran up to their classmates to tell them that they read their poems and loved them.

The poems stayed on the wall for two weeks, until spring break. While some of the poems did fall down because the adhesive didn’t hold very well on some surfaces, not a single poem was defaced during the entire time.

Now it’s an annual event, and students and teachers look forward to April Poetry Day the way we anticipate the first spring flowers. It’s a chance for community, but more importantly, it’s a chance for students to bask in the light of poetry and reflect their own creativity.