Last night I stumbled across these entries written in one of my notebooks during a trip to Belfast in 2005. I've typed it up for you because I still feel the same way about skies. And gratitude. Turns out I'm still, more or less, the same person as I was back then. Pinch myself and command myself to look up.
By 6:00 a.m. the sun is already alive high in the sky. A real blue sky, few clouds. The tiny room I stay in is full to the ceiling with light. ALL THAT LIGHT remembered through one small window. Light burning to the heart of my sleep.
Later each day I marvel at the morning sun’s precocious brilliance. Oh I know it’s really a matter of latitudes, but in my mind the Belfast summer sun is simply ambitious, determined to get the work of the day started, and the sooner, the better.
If you want to see blue sky over here, you have to be equally ambitious. 6:30 a.m. ambitious. Because by 10:00, that giant blue chalkboard is hidden, and the sun is lost behind bank after bank of clouds. They blow in suddenly, blot everything out. Even I, daughter of Texas (don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes!) find this to be a fickle sky. You can never trust it. One minute it’s balmy. Next, thunderheads have rolled in, and they don’t spare you any wetness, neither. Raingear a must regardless of how the sky looks when you leave the house.
Today Julia and I went to Castle Hill, a high hill at the edge of town, a mountain by my Texas standards. The weather was foul when we got off our bus and started climbing toward the park path. The clouds flicked spiteful spit down on the pavement, dampening our hair, stilling hopes.
Then, suddenly: hot sun, blue sky. We sweat up the steep path. The perspiration rivers down my back, pools tellingly below my pack, dribbles down my arms.
Halfway up, Julia points out blueberry bushes she saw the last time she was here with Ralf. We check them out, and though the peak of the season has passed, we find perfect, late-formed jewels hanging amid the tiny juice-stained leaves. We pick and eat them until our hands are painted as well.
Julia tells me of her own berry-picking, mushroom-hunting childhood escapades. “Our dog was just the right height to graze straight from the bushes. Of course, you didn’t want him around when you were picking, such a slobberer, but he was so funny coming home with his big happy grin and lolling purple tongue.”
Some two heaving hours later, we arrive at the top, at the cliff’s edge. Wind so strong I fear it. Julia remembers a dell (think: crater in the hillside) where we find shelter from the wind. We plop down, lying on our jackets, and admire the green of the field and the blue of the sky. I squint up at the whipping seas of grasses. Also the heather, a lavender wonder. The real stuff of books. (Macbeth’s witches: “We shall meet upon the heath.”) I try to photograph the wild whipping of that grass, which puts me in mind of the celebrants of some ascetic sect for whom self-flagellation is a must. Photographed, though, it seems to say only, GRASS. Not “the grasses beating themselves under a broad blue sky.”
We are talking of past loves and fault lines in relationships. Our backs press into the earth as we eat the butter and cheese sandwiches we carried up in our packs.
And then it happens.
Our eyes are closed to let lids soak up the wonder of it all, but we can still feel the change. The sun vanishes from us. Just like that. Clouds whip across us fast, pitching raindrops in earnest. “Jesus,” I mutter, “from where…?”
Julia, ever the geographer’s wife, explains. Our nearness to the coast means that when the sun shines bright, it heats up the water of the sea. Said water rises in vapor, forming clouds. These clouds gather, then roll in on inland winds.
“But now it means we’ll get soaked,” I cry.
“Well, let’s hurry!”
Out of the dell we can see that half of the world is still holding strong under benevolent blue. The other half is in the storm. We run down a goat trail, sliding on the rocks. I laugh hysterically as I skid left and right across the steep path. Julia shouts caution. As we find a real footpath and run down the hill it becomes clear that we are on the dividing line.
We’re running at the edge of the weather, tracing its skirt.
The sky at sunrise: suddenly, mountains of orange and gold, a sea of pink. Rivers of light. A whole changing skyscape. Gone before I can raise anyone else in the house. But I saw it. Majestic.
Light flying toward heaven or space. Heaven—ascension—angels—words we must have invented for skies like this. A miracle of color and cloud. How could you look at this and not see BEAUTY? Beauty—a construct, yes. Beauty—subjective, yes. But... how could my heart not rise to that?
I try to send my gratitude in volleys heavenward. Then I look up and see SKY and am amazed again. Simply: I feel more thankfulness than I can give to other people. I have to do something with it, send it somewhere. Up feels right.
Here's the full Q: How do you work writing into your life? I often find myself without any time to write, or if I do have the time, I am not in the "zone". I am tired, or worn, and so I end up going for months on end without writing. That makes it hard to get better and hard to get anything done. How do you manage this?*
A: The first thing to know is that you are not alone; the practical problem of sitting down to write is one that every writer has to face. We all find our tricks for simply doing the work.
My number one piece of advice is to set a very, very small daily goal. Instead of beating yourself up for not spending three hours writing, give yourself lots of kudos for making twenty minutes (or even ten!) happen. I wrote a lot of my first novel in ten-minute chunks of writing with my students.
*Question courtesy of the National Writing Project·and readers of Figment.com for the National Day on Writing. Read highlights of the event in·this post·or listen to me and four other guests talk about the National Day on Writing for the NWP blogtalk radio program here.
My secret weapon for building classroom rapport: literacy letters to establish instant connection with studentsMonday, 14 May 2012 10:37
I'm wrapping up a semester of teaching here in Paris, which always gets me reflecting on my practice--and on the relationships I've formed with students and other teachers. Recently someone asked me how I could put up with a certain class (notoriously difficult assignment where I am), and I had occasion to share my secret weapon with her. And so I thought I'd share it with you, too.
The idea is deceptively simple, and it comes from Randy Bomer's fantastic book, Time for Meaning. (I talk about Time for Meaning more here.) Here's what you do: whatever subject you are teaching, you write a letter to your students sharing some of your experiences (positive and negative). Next, you ask students to write back to you, personally, with some of their own stories. You can give them prompts, but you also want them to have the freedom to share whatever they'd like you to know. Finally, you read the letters and write back, personally, to each student. That's it.
Now, I know that last part--writing back--might sound a bit overwhelming, especially if you are teaching high school and have many students (one semester I had 210). But even in your case, it is so worth it. You will reap much in terms of connection--and increased motivation--because of this up-front investment of time.
Why does this work? By making yourself vulnerable to students--presenting yourself as a human whose had good and bad times, not the superman/superwoman ruling the universe--you make it easier for students to be real with you. When they are honest, they often reveal their particular blocks when it comes to your subject matter (whether it's math, English, foreign language, or another topic). Their letters will humanize their struggles to you, too, making you more willing to work with them. And by asking for--and proving you have read--their stories, you show that you are actually interested in them as human beings. I talk more about teaching through weakness (or vulnerability) here.
What does a literacy letter look like? I have a whole folder of lit letters I've written over the years; here's one from one of my high school English classes to give you the idea.
I’m so glad to be here; I have high hopes for our time together. But let me get down to the point of this letter: who are we as readers and writers?
The fact that we can read and write--no matter how we feel about the subject--is a blessing we all owe to a teacher. Ms. Keyes, my kindergarten teacher, pointed a ruler at words and told the class to recite them. I hated the thwack her ruler made against the paper and the rasp of her voice calling, “Neeext?” But I loved how the words turned into pictures and ideas in my brain. Somehow, when she pointed at the word “apple,” a secret window in my mind opened to a shiny, sweet fruit. The word “forget” made me think of the sick feeling I got when I went to bed without remembering to tell my dad that I loved him.
With each book, I seemed to grow a little bit as a reader. I imagined myself as a vine climbing up a wall that extended infinitely far into the sky. There was so much to learn--how characters thought and changed; the way places influence people; what happens when tragedy strikes; the way things work in other families, countries, time periods, or planets (in science fiction, of course).
Reading never got easy, but it got GOOD. I read everywhere. I worked in a photography lab as a teenager, and I always brought my book, a dictionary, and a stack of index cards with me. While photographs developed in deep trays of chemicals, I would strain my eyes to see in the darkroom’s red light. When I came to a word I didn’t know, I would look it up and write it down on an index card. I’d even write a sentence to help me remember. (No, it was not a school assignment; I was just that dorky.) When I scan the top shelf of my book case where I put The Sound and the Fury, The God of Small Things, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Kite Runner, No Telephone to Heaven, Anna Karenina, and my other favorites, I remember the words I learned with each book.
All of this is just great, right? But my experiences with words have not been one long success story. Every time I go to Mexico, I’m reminded of how vexing it is to have an idea but not know how to express it. Since I speak Spanish as a second language, I sound like a stuck record repeating, “¿Cómo se dice…?” during conversations. And when I first starting reading in Spanish--¡Ay, Dios mio! After four pages of a novel, I felt exhausted. Writing a simple note took me an hour and lots of paper. By the end, my fingers were sliced with paper cuts from using my Spanish dictionary so much. Even now, years deeper into the language, I feel less intelligent, less interesting, and less funny when I try to express myself in Spanish. It’s like I’m a shadow of myself--a shadow with bad grammar. But the language itself is worth it. So are the relationships it’s made possible. I keep plugging away.
Don’t think that I only struggle in Spanish, either. This summer, I vowed to write a novel. For two weeks, I stared out the window and drooled. Nothing. When I wrote a sentence, it looked to me like something an inebriated Chihuahua had composed. I cried and complained. I felt sorry for myself and ate chocolate chip cookies. Then I sat back down and tried again. Instead of trying to write THE NOVEL, I focused on writing notes about the novel. “Calm down,” I coached myself, “this is not the real thing. Just write it.” I read books about writing novels. I timed my sessions at my desk to keep myself from taking a break every 35 seconds. I wrote more notes. Then--praise the Lord--I finally started THE NOVEL.
It’s not finished. I’ve got about 20 pages typed up, not the complete manuscript I hoped for. But I do know where it’s going now, and I am going to do it. I know it’ll hurt sometimes. I’ll hate the story I’m telling, and I’ll want to quit. Don’t let me, please. I need encouragement (and a little pressure), too.
All these experiences--and many more--are with me as I teach you each day. I have a passion for my subject, yet I also know that you’ve had many different experiences that may have affected how you see English, for better or worse.
In this room, there are enough stories to fill a book. You don’t have to tell me everything, but write back to me and give me a piece of who you are as a reader and writer. How do you feel when you read or write? What books or writing are important to you? Why do they matter? I’d love to hear your stories.
Sincerely, your teacher,
Keep in mind that you can change the focus of your letter depending on your subject matter. For example, when I teach Spanish as a foreign language, I focus on what it's like to encounter problems when I express myself in other languages... the point is to connect to some of the struggles your students may face.
If you find this helpful, you might also want to check out my other teacher resources here on the website.
From thoughts about babies thinking aloud to thoughts about putting children under ground... Random reflections.
Since he was about eight months old, Liam has started his day by talking to himself, often for a good half hour and sometimes even longer. Arnulfo and I are fairly addicted to the sweet sound of him jabbering away, a jabbering that is steadily resolving itself into actual language. I'm starting to realize, though, that in the next year or so--maybe less--he won't be doing his thinking out loud any more. What will I do when all of that joyful noise goes underground and he thinks his thoughts for himself alone?
I tell myself pretty much daily, in advance of this retreat of my son's thinking away from my ears, Remember. Remember what this was like.
Probably I should record him. Although it won't capture everything, a recording would be a crutch for remembering the feeling.
Yes, Liam's thinking is going to go underground, but I hope his sweetness won't. Nor his smirking playfulness, his stubborn streak, his radar for raisins and bread.
I realize, of course, that I am drifting away from the idea of language going underground. That is probably because right now I am writing a novel in which many, many children die in a school explosion. And I wonder--cringing the whole while--what it might be like to put your own child under ground.
I am writing the book, but I am also letting it spur me on to be present to my family now, to savor every second, to brace myself against loss and hope that it doesn't come.
In the meantime... I tell myself, Remember. Remember. Remember. I want to take the sound of my son's voice--his just-waking-up yammerings--with me forever.
After setting aside Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein a couple of times (never the book's fault), I am happy to report that I have finally gobbled its 452 pages in just three days. Code Name Verity·has been at the top of my to-read list ever since I read about it here, but in the end, my procrastination paid off last week since my initial eagerness was enhanced by the perfect reading environment: a·beach house on the Normandy Coast with a (distant) view of Britain and heaps of WWII history all around us.
The quick scoop: Code Name Verity takes us into WWII Britain and France as experienced and described by two plucky and brilliant young women, Maddie (the pilot) and Julie (the intelligence agent). War brings them together, and their friendship leads them to make great sacrifices as they venture into enemy territory (occupied France) together. The tone is chipper and the pace is quick once we get oriented. At first the reader doesn't exactly know who is who or who is where, and that's part of the fun. Once we do know some of the answers, the pages of the book are fairly packed with suspense and they simply fly.
Tricky Territory:·I was a bit disoriented by the first-person narration at first. Ostensibly it's the confession being written by a captured British agent, but it begins instead to tell the story of two girls' friendship. I admit that I was rolling my eyes a bit and thinking that the frame story felt very unnatural. But down the road we realize that there's a reason for this artifice: Julie (the first narrator) is putting on a fantastic performance with this confession that is also riddled with critical information. We realize this even before we switch to Maddie's POV, but it's with Maddie that all the pieces begin to fall stunningly into place via lots of tricky plotting that almost never feels forced
Voice: We get both women's voices, and they are quite distinct, but I have to confess that I especially loved Julie's. Especially her ALL CAPS rants about NOT BEING ENGLISH (she's Scottish) and--less playful--the way she manages to describe tortures inflicted on her while still being weirdly funny. Maddie, whose part comes second, has this tendency to burst into tears at the worst moments that I loved, and her straightforward sweetness (no saccharine, though, despite the wartime setting) is an excellent foil for Julie's subtlety.
Friendship (and the absence of romance): There are lots of books with wartime settings that are full of urgent romances, but here friendship and meaningful work are what keep these two women going. An inevitable question for some readers of Code Name Verity is if the love between Julie and Maddie is just friend love or love love. There are a couple of scenes that are a touch ambiguous, and if you wanted to see theirs as an undeclared same-sex attraction, I suppose you could. But you could also say the same thing for a few bits between Maddie and Julie's brother.
Really, though, insisting that every deep connection resolve itself into romance would go against one of the themes of the book, which is that certain friendships can change your life as suddenly and completely as any romance.
Cool History Stuff: I absolutely DON'T read fiction to learn history, but it's cool to brush up against not just period-related facts but also situations you hadn't considered. For example, one of the problems Maddie faces is a horny bastard in the French Resistance cell that hides her. Because she's in hiding, she is pretty much at his mercy, which is a situation I never considered, although it would be real for many people in wartime seclusion, not just those who were in prison.
Another bit that doesn't often get discussed in adventure stories: what about menstruation in prison? In Code Name Verity, Julie has a·heavily coded conversation with a radio interviewer, who also happens to be another woman. The interviewer asks Julie things like,·"Can I send you towels?,"·"You're not--?," and·"You haven't been--?" Then we get this:·
I'm sure Engel [the guard/translator] was able to fill in the blanks:
--Can I send you (sanitary) towels?
--No thanks, I've stopped (bleeding).
--You're not (pregnant)? You haven't been (raped)?
I also love how Julie has to write on all kinds of random pages (paper shortage), including a Jewish doctor's prescription pad, which she uses--incidentally--to make jokey prescriptions for one of her guards (several good shaggings prescribed). ·
Packaging: Keeping in mind that the author usually has VERY LITTLE (if any) say in the jacket copy, I found the description on the back a bit misleading because it gives little indication that we'll actually get equal amounts of narration from both women. Ditto for the cover, which only shows the silhouette of one woman. And the title, which refers only to Julie's code name even though Maddie is just as important. Maybe in my mind I'll think of it as Verity and Kittyhawk. But I admit that "Code Name Verity" has a lovely ring to it.
Highly recommended for readers who like a strong female lead, anyone interested in WWII, those who like a kick of page-turning adventure, and budding engineers/techie types. Code Name Verity is a perfect crossover novel with as much adult appeal as teen appeal.
I don't teach high school anymore, but I can't break the habit of looking for companion texts for books (my own and other). A while back, this description of The Pregnancy Project came across my screen via the School Library Journal blog:
Rodriguez, now 18 and currently attending college, shares her experiences and insights in The Pregnancy Project (S&S, Jan. 2012; Gr 8 Up), a memoir written with Jenna Glatzer. Rodriguez begins by revealing to readers the more personal side of her experiment, candidly describing her mother's experiences (she had her first child at age 15) and struggle to raise a family as a single parent; her siblings' tendency to "repeat the cycle" and become teen parents themselves; and her own determination not to follow in their footsteps but to instead focus on her education and seek out a better life.
Teachers, The Pregnancy Project is just BEGGING to be used alongside What Can't Wait. Literature circles, anyone? If I were still in the classroom, I'd love to use this as a non-fiction accompaniment... I'd serve both books up with a side-dish of Ball Don't Lie by Matt de la Peña and Hanging onto Max, which give (respectively) a pregnancy scare and teen parenting from the dude's POV. And of course, another favorite is The First Part Last by Angela Johnson.
More about The Pregnancy Project here. Teachers, keep emailing me to let me know how you are using What Can't Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly in the classroom. I love hearing all about it!
Today, our little boy Liam Miguel turns 2. He's traveled a lot of miles in his short life, and he seemed to enjoy his Paris birthday very well. I made his cake, and you'll notice the three languages (English, Spanish, French) there. Yes, he speaks them all a little; he's a very global little fellow! We're enjoying hearing him talk more every day.
Why "Monsieur Mono"? We sometimes call Liam that when he's being a little silly... or just as a term of endearment. He does an excellent monkey impression when he's in the mood.
Liam, thanks for bringing so many new kinds of joy into our lives. Feliz cumpleaños, joyeaux anniversaire, happy birthday!
My most recent writer's notebook--cute as it is--doesn't have a pocket for my lists. In the past, I've done different things like pasting in envelopes to provide for the necessary expansion space. But supplies are limited in our Paris apartment. My solution was to jack the pocket from my previous PaperBlanks notebook. Bonus? When I removed the pocket, I managed to get the elastic band, too! So now my slim little notebook is as fully featured as any gal could ask for.
Who says I wasn't paying attention when my brother was watching all those reruns of "MacGyver"? I guess it's not a duct-tape-reinforced, mosquito-repellent explosive, but I'm proud of myself. It's the small pleasures...