Author Archives: Julie Larios

Lost Words…?

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I read recently that the British writer Robert Macfarlane – whose work I know primarily through his wonderful adult non-fiction book Landmarks – has published a children’s book titled The Lost Words.  It’s large (11×15), lushly illustrated by Jackie Morris, and it includes twenty acrostic poems (“…not poems but spells,” Macfarlane states in the preface, “of many kinds that might just, by the old, strong magic of being spoken aloud, unfold dreams and songs, and summon lost words back into the mouth and the mind’s eye.”)

The twenty words were selected from a longer list of words deleted in 2007 from the  Oxford Junior English Dictionary “in order to make room for more modern words.” Here is a list of the words Macfarlane singled out, along with a few words from his spells, and some photos I gathered. Imagine kids not growing up with these words…

ACORN

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ADDER

BLUEBELL

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BRAMBLE

CONKER

DANDELION

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(“tick-tock, sun clock”)

dandelion

FERN

HEATHER

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HERON

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IVY

Old house covered by ivy in Paris, France

KINGFISHER 

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(“colour-giver, fire bringer, flame-flicker, // river’s quiver…ripple-calmer, / water-nester, evening angler, weather-teller, rainbringer….” )

LARK

MAGPIE

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NEWT

OTTER

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“Ever dreamed of being otter? That utter underwater thunderbolter, that shimmering twister?”

RAVEN

STARLING

WEASEL

WILLOW

Spring at Dows Lake Park

WREN

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Acorn? Dandelion? Ivy? Otter? Weasel? Kids don’t use these words anymore? I guess many don’t. The words, along with others, were deleted from the OED Junior to make room for high-tech words that kids now use more frequently: block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, MP-3 player, voicemail.

But herons, ferns, newts – what happens when we lose the names for things? Do we lose the ability bit by bit to notice them? Do we lose the ability to care about them?

One of the best discussions about these deletions/additions (filled with explanations from the OED Junior editors, and protests from people like Margaret Atwood) can be read at the Fact Check page of this Snopes site  – Snopes is where people go to check out stories they can’t be sure are true. Can this story about words from nature being deleted from the dictionary be true? Yes, says Snopes, it’s true.

So – is the real crime the fact that the Junior OED deleted the words, or the fact that we don’t get our kids out into a world where they need to know these words? Where they can collect acorns and make troll faces out of them, where they  recognize what kind of bird is referenced in “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore'” where they know what the names of the flowers in their May baskets are, where they walk through a forest and can say to whoever they’re with, “Look at all the ferns…”?

It’s not about going back to word choices that are stiff and archaic. And I don’t want to return to the past and make anything great again. I welcome the word “blog” – here I am, after all, blogging away. So I’m not nostalgic for a lost world. Just for lost words. And for an attitude of inclusion rather than exclusion.

To send you off, here is one of Macfarlane’s spells, written for the tiny acorn – I love both the object and the word (and now, the spell):

Acorn

As flake is to blizzard, as

Curve is to sphere, as knot is to net, as

One is to many, as coin is to money, as
bird is to flock, as

Rock is to mountain, as drop is to fountain, as
spring is to river, as glint is to glitter, as

Near is to far, as wind is to weather, as
feather is to flight, as light is to star, as
kindness is to good, so acorn is to wood.

[As usual, I’m thrilled by both content and technique – love the internal rhymes and near-rhymes – not/net, many/money, flock/rock/drop, river/glitter, weather/feather, flight/light, good/wood – whew! That must have taken blood, sweat and tears to write that, keep it all acrostic, make the structure clean and strong, make the repetitions poetic, and still say something meaningful, from the heart!]

If you would like to follow up about the author or illustrator, here are some links:

ROBERT MACFARLANE is interviewed by a Waterstone’s bookseller  here 

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Robert Macfarlane

JACKIE MORRIS posted a look at how The Lost Words came to be – the collaborative process with Robert Macfarlane – on her blog.

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Jackie Morris

Over at Brainpickings, Maria Popova talks about the link between attentiveness and naming.

And if you’re interested in poetry for children, check out the Poetry Friday round-up this week, hosted by Michelle Kogan.

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The Art of “Controlled Chaos”

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The Skagit River Poetry Festival is being celebrated this weekend (today through Sunday) in La Connor, Washington. Some big names, along with local hero-poets, are on the list as presenters and guest readers – most notable is the three-time Poet Laureate of the United States, Robert Pinsky. I’ve attended the festival just once, when the organizers invited my sister Mary Cornish to be one of their presenters and workshop leaders. The setting is idyllic, of course – quaint La Connor, a small town on the banks of a slough where the Skagit River approaches the sea. The town sits at the western edge of the Skagit Flats, home to world-famous tulip fields. My father once had a small shop -“The Blue Heron” – of his handmade jewelry on the main street of town.

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La Conner, Washington – Mount Baker in the background, Cascade Range

I’ve been debating with myself whether to attend this year, and still haven’t quite decided. Robert Wrigley is leading one workshop; he’s a wonderful poet, and I worked with him briefly when he came in as a guest to talk to my MFA class at the University of Washington. Love his poetry. But I’m not sure his 2018 workshop interests me enough. Instead, I’m thinking of signing up last minute for a Sunday workshop called “Controlled Chaos: The Long-Armed Poem” with Ellen Bass, simply because I find her description of the workshop irresistible. It speaks to what I believe about poetry, and I want to share the description with readers of Books Around the Table. I’d love to study with someone who says this:

“A certain kind of poem reaches out a long arm and sweeps disparate, unexpected things into its net. It scoops in a great deal of material that is more or less obviously related. It doesnt hug the shore. It doesnt walk a narrow line. It retains a kind of wildness. It can seem untamed. And yet all the elements have enough magnetic or gravitational attraction, enough resonance, that the writing feels organically whole. To write this kind of long-armed poem, to allow the excitement, tension, and passion of chaos into our writing, we have to open the doors. We have to be willing to be surprised, startled, even shocked. We have to be willing to experience the most essential state of creativity, the state of not knowing, of being open, of being willing to be changed. In this workshop, well look at examples of the long-armed poem and I will give some practical suggestions for how you might experiment with bringing more controlled chaos into your own writing.”

“Controlled chaos” – yes! I love that phrase. This is often my goal: to embrace “the state of not knowing.” This holds for my poetry for children, as well as my poetry for adults.

And here is another element of the description of the workshop I like – Bass’s instructions about what participants “might want to bring”:

“….any or all of the following: a snippet of overheard conversation, an image from a dream, a quote from a book you’re reading, a line or two from your journal, a memory that’s been on your mind, a handful of words that have caught your attention, a song that’s been going through your mind, something you saw recently in nature or in a city.”

Like I said, irresistible. So why resist? I’ll drive south on Sunday, across the Skagit Flats, taking along some possibilities. A line in a song. An overheard conversation. A handful of words and a desire to play. Essential: a willingness to experiment with controlling the chaos through poetry.

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To see the Poetry Friday round-up this week, go to Sloth Reads.

Here are my contributions: a poem by Ellen Bass titled “Enough” [see note in comments] and a poem by Robert Wrigley titled “At the Beach.”

Enough

Enough seen….Enough had….Enough…
Arthur Rimbaud

No. It will never be enough. Never
enough wind clamoring in the trees,
sun and shadow handling each leaf, never enough clang
of my neighbor hammering,
the iron nails, relenting wood, sound waves
lapping over roofs, never enough
bees purposeful at the throats
of lilies. How could we be replete
with the flesh of ripe tomatoes, the unique
scent of their crushed leaves. It would take many
births to be done with the thatness of that.

Oh blame life. That we just want more.
Summer rain. Mud. A cup of tea.
Our teeth, our eyes. A baby in a stroller.
Another spoonful of crème brûlée, sweet burnt crust crackling.
And hot showers, oh lovely, lovely hot showers.

Today was a good day.
My mother-in-law sat on the porch, eating crackers and cheese
with a watered-down margarita
and though her nails are no longer stop-light red
and she can’t remember who’s alive and dead,
still, this was a day
with no weeping, no unstoppable weeping.

Last night, through the small window of my laptop,
I watched a dying man kill himself in Switzerland.
He wore a blue shirt and snow was falling
onto a small blue house, onto dark needles of pine and fir.
He didn’t step outside to feel the snow on his face.
He sat at a table with his wife and drank poison.

Online I found a plastic bag complete with Velcro
and a hole for a tube to a propane tank. I wouldn’t have to
move our Weber. I could just slide
down the stucco to the flagstones, where the healthy
weeds are sprouting through the cracks.
Maybe it wouldn’t be half-bad
to go out looking at the yellowing leaves of the old camellia.
And from there I could see the chickens scratching—
if we still have chickens then. And yet…

this little hat of life, how will I bear
to take it off while I can still reach up? Snug woolen watch cap,
lacy bonnet, yellow cloche with the yellow veil
I wore the Easter I turned thirteen when my mother let me  promenade
with Tommy Spagnola on the boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Oxygen, oxygen, the cry of the body—and you always want to give it
what it wants. But I must say no—
enough, enough

with more tenderness
than I have ever given to a lover, the gift
of the nipple hardening under my fingertip, more
tenderness than to my newborn,
when I held her still flecked
with my blood. I’ll say the most gentle refusal
to this dear dumb animal and tighten
the clasp around my throat that once was kissed and kissed
until the blood couldn’t rest in its channel, but rose
to the surface like a fish that couldn’t wait to be caught.

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Poet Ellen Bass


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Poet Robert Wrigley

Wrigley

Questions and Parrots

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In last week’s New York Times Book Review, author Ernest Cline was asked “What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?” He answered, “Apes don’t ask questions, even if they know sign language.”

Well, that sent my head spinning. I posted it on my Facebook page, and I asked this question (of myself and of my friends): Is the ability to ask questions and to wonder about things specifically human? Or is it the singular ability to articulate/voice that wonder which we lay claim to?

Matt Smith, a talented writer I got to know and work with at Vermont College of Fine Arts, sent me a link to a page in Birdology by Sy Montgomery in which we learn about a parrot named Alex and the woman who taught him to speak (better said, taught him some English vocabulary and concepts.) Alex had been taught colors, taught how to count, he recognized letters of the alphabet and numerals, and it seemed he could even add numbers. But the goal was not just to teach him words and numbers but to understand his thought process, to “show us something of how he saw the world.”

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Alex, it seems, could ask questions. When shown his reflection in a mirror for the first time, he asked, “What’s that?” He was told, “That’s you. You’re a parrot.” He asked what color he was and was told he was gray. When he noticed someone working at a desk next to him, he asked whether that person would like some food – a banana, a nut, and when told no he asked “Well, what do you want?”

He also invented words, among them “cork nut” for an almond, because of the nut’s porous shell, and “rock corn” when he encountered dried corn kernels as opposed to the moist kernels of fresh corn. He understood how language worked. He pursued information.

Inquisitiveness, the ability to question – that is, the ability not just to be curious but to seek answers, to be curious not just internally (wondering silently) but externally (asking) or, at the very least, the desire to know more, learn more, understand more – maybe it isn’t exclusively human. Again, my head spins. Setting my head spinning is a goal I embrace, a condition I enjoy.

I also embrace the act of asking questions and seeking answers.

As should any writer.

Or any parrot.

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Winter Sunlight

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Belarusian Illustrator Anna Silivonchik

I just finished reading an article in the New York Times about the record-setting lack of sunlight in Moscow this December. During the entire month, the poor citizens of that city got only six minutes of it, total. Yes, you read that correctly: six minutes. Total. That’s the time it takes to cook a soft-boiled egg. Now divide that by 31 days….

According to the article, the city was “shrouded in an unrelenting cloud cover” which meteorologists blamed on anomalies in cyclone patterns over the Atlantic, combined with warmer than average temperatures. When interviewed on NPR about what that month felt like, reporter Charles Mayne said that the sunlight was “painfully meted out over a number of days….you could enjoy just 30 seconds or so as it came by.”

I have subsequently vowed (on Facebook, if that can be called vowing) to stop my rants about the rain and the short days we suffer through every winter in the Pacific Northwest. The average duration of sunlight in Seattle during the month of December is 52.9 hours; in Moscow, the average drops to 18 hours. I do remember one winter where Seattle had measurable rain for 90 days in a row. That was dismal. But six minutes of sunlight in 31 days? Compared to that, the Northwest is a balmy paradise.

If you follow Books Around the Table, chances are good that you’re a writer or an artist or a creative person of one kind of another. Creative people can be instinctively hermit-like; we can stay at our desks or workshops and lose all track of time. I’m writing about the lack of light today only to encourage all of us (you, Readers, and myself) to go outside and soak up the light this winter whenever we can. Bundle up, put on boots, put on a hat and good mittens, but get outside. Sunlight helps our bodies remember their circadian rhythms; it helps us fight depression.

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Artwork and Desk/Tools of Illustrator Phoebe Wahl

Sometimes, we need to resist isolation: a nice smile from (or to) passing strangers on a cold but sunlit day can make all the difference in boosting our moods. We can go from dour to cheerful in one walk around the block.  Better yet, we can embark on a ramble, completely unfettered. We can let the light fill us up.

It’s true that hot cocoa, a fire in the woodstove, a cozy chair, and a good book to read are lovely during the winter. No doubt about it. But don’t forget to let the light in (or let yourself out into it) whenever you can. Remember what Thoreau said:

“What fire could ever equal the sunshine of a winter’s day, when the meadow mice  come out by the wallsides, and the chicadee lisps in the defiles of the wood? The warmth comes directly from the sun, and is not radiated from the earth, as in summer; and when we feel his beams on our backs as we are treading some snowy dell, we are grateful as for a special kindness, and bless the sun which has followed us into that by-place.”

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Sunshine on the Snow (Replica of Thoreau’s Cabin, Walden Pond)

The reporter I mentioned above, Charles Mayne, said this: ” Well, you know, those six minutes – I mean, I pretty much remember every single one of them. You’d be in the middle of your day, working or meeting a friend. And if you were lucky enough to be either outside or near a window, you know, you’d suddenly feel this kind of shift in your mood, you know, something along the lines of – I think it’s called happiness….”

 


[In honor of all the snow around the country, I’ve posted a poem for Poetry Friday titled “Winter” by Walter de la Mare. You can read it over at my blog, The Drift Record.]

 

 

“Rare as Georgia Snow”

Winter Weather Deep South

Last week snow fell from San Antonio to Atlanta before moving up the Eastern seaboard to a more likely spot for a winter snowfall, New England. I know my good friend Leda Schubert was thrilled to see the snow fall in Vermont, where she lives (“the center of the universe,” as she calls it.) But across the country the headlines were focusing on the South: “Snow snarls flights at world’s busiest airport,” read the headline in USA Today (and don’t you’ love a good headline…”Snow snarls flights” – isn’t that poetry?)

Snow in Atlanta put me in mind of a beautiful poem by Kevin Young. It wasn’t written for kids, though I’m hoping we can all expand our sense of what kind of poetry is appropriate for kids. Read this one through. It’s simple, direct, it looks effortless. Certainly a 10-year-old child could hear it and think about it; not all poetry for kids needs to be rambunctious. The ending is a bit of a puzzle, but not beyond pondering – and why not let poetry teach children that life is puzzling?

As simple as it looks, there’s lovely music in the way the words flow and the sounds the words make. Music – melopoeia – that’s one of the three elements that poet Ezra Pound attributed to poetry. The other two are phanopoeia (the casting of an image) and logopoeia (harder to define.) I think of logopoeia as intellect – the mind coming in to play, usually discerning meaning behind the music and the image.

In any case, here’s the perfectly-titled poem. Ditty: “A short simple song.” Remember to read it aloud, and you’ll hear the music. And just imagine: a person rare as Georgia snow! The minute the poem starts with that opening phrase, you belong to it.

 

Ditty

You, rare as Georgia
snow. Falling

hard. Quick.
Candle shadow.

The cold
spell that catches

us by surprise.
The too-early blooms,

tricked, gardenias blown about,
circling wind. Green figs.

Nothing stays. I want
to watch you walk

the hall to the cold tile
bathroom—all

night, a lifetime.

 

Kevin Young, 1970

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Poet Kevin Young

By the way, it’s Poetry Friday. Diane is hosting the round-up over at Random Noodling. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

 

Altered Books

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Altered book created in Debra Goldman’s workshop “Story, Art and Transformation.”

Well, this post is not about writing books but unwriting them! Or re-writing them. Re-imagining them. Turning them into something else, even when that something else is another book.

I took an “altered books” workshop the other day, led by the muti-talented Bellingham artist Debra Goldman.  It’s clear to me that altering my book will take a long, long time, because my approach to creativity seems to be so verbal. What I want to do is push myself into more visual territory, and that’s going to be a challenge for me; it will take real pushing…and maybe more than one workshop session. But I imagine many moments of surprise ahead, and surprise keeps a writer — and most artists, I believe — attentive.

My inspiration – my models – were two books, one by Tom Phillips titled  A Humament, and the other A Little White Shadow by the poet Mary Ruefle.

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A Humament is filled with pages where most of the text has been painted over, leaving only words that Phllips conceives of as a new narrative. He used a forgotten 19th-century novel titled A Human Document, written by W. H. Mallock, and “plundered, mined and undermined its text to make it yield the ghosts of other possible stories…which seem to lurk within its wall of words.”  The text of every original page has been painted or transformed in some way, leaving only the words Phillips chose for his “alteration.” Here is part of one page looks like:

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So the text which descends down the right-hand side of the page reads “memory, turning seventy, renewed with a muse of quaint treated news.”

Another page, which lets quite a bit more of the original text show through, looks like this:

imageIt reads, “I could be a book, explaining everything on margins / I could be a photograph lifted from his heart, /  Ah! Tomorrow”.

Mary Ruefle’s book, A Little White Shadow (the original 19th-century novel’s title was used), is equally interesting: only 56 pages long, it’s more like a chapbook of selected pages from the original (Phillips’s book is small but hefty – 368 altered pages!) The poems Ruefle finds are delicate and haunting, and the sense that these poems represent a palimpsest, a fragment of something washed or scraped away, gives you an extra little shiver.

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My beginnings are pretty clumsy, but I’m going with the idea of found poems. So far, I’ve cut to pieces the cover of Sandra Cisneros’s book Woman Hollering Creek, eliminated one word fom the title, and added a question mark. My altered book will be titled Woman Hollering? Here’s the unfinished title page:

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The found poem on the title page is a little strange, but I tend to like strange:

What they don’t understand
and what they don’t tell you —
in just three paragraphs —
is how a girl can “go bad”
while selling cucumbers,
and why she wants to yell.

That’s taken from the front flap of the cover. The cucumbers on the left-hand page were colored in with green pastels, and the text underneath is gibberish – machine language, not English. Maybe that’s what hollering is? Anyway, I’m having a ball finding the poems within the original text…but the visual imagination is still lacking. Debra Goldman’s suggestions and advise will help, I’m hoping to fill the spaces around the found poems with metaphorically connected images and shapes. We’ll see if I can do it, and I’ll post more about the book/experiment as it develops. Meanwhile, here’s my advice (to myself, as well as to you): Surprise yourself by doing something new. It’s like mental yoga – it stretches you.

National Book Award Shortlist

 

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Rita Williams-Garcia

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Ibi Zoboi

Just want to make sure you all know that the shortlists for the National Book Awards have been announced. On the list of five authors for Young People’s Literature are two wonderful writers associated with Vermont College of Fine Arts; first, the brilliant and adorable Rita Williams-Garcia, for her book Clayton Byrd Goes Underground; second, Ibi Zoboi, a graduate of VCFA, for her book American Street. Ibi had Rita as an advisor for her first semester at VCFA and those two must have really clicked. Congratulations to them both…to all five shortlisted authors in the category, actually… (and, as we used to claim gleefully for VCFA when I taught there, “World Domination!”)

 

Tick-Tock, School Clock

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Is there any tick of the clock more predictably sobering each year than the one which moves us from August 31st to September 1st? From the August of hot days, U-Pick berries, lake docks, family picnics, sand castles, country fairs, campfires, s’mores, and sitting around doing absolutely nothing, to the September of school hallways, bells, classrooms, rows of desks, blackboards, textbooks, math problems, vocabulary lists, lunch lines, tests, rules…? Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely loved school when I was a kid. But I felt the solemnity of the calendar page turning from the last month of summer to the first month of autumn. It seemed like a moment of radical transformation: you go to bed wild and free and wake up…changed…that is, you go from this:

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to this:

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from this:

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to this:

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 from this:

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and this:

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to this:

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and this:

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from this:

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to this:

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and from this:

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to  –  aaaaacccckkkkkk! – it makes me shudder –  this:

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I was a happy kid, loved school. I was a good reader, interested, eager to please, well-behaved, teachers liked me, I liked learning things, and I loved school supplies: pencils, erasers, notebooks, Peechee folders, lined paper, glue, staplers, binders, loved it all. Loved getting new saddle shoes every year. Loved looking forward to school picture day. My school pictures looked almost exactly like the one below – lots of stripes, lots of plaids, boys in rolled dungarees, girls with sweet collars or their dresses and barrettes in their hair (and by the way, this teacher had thirty-six students in her class – they look to be first- or second-graders – that is WAY too many students for one primary teacher – I hope she survived the school year):

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I didn’t like chalk, math, or cafeteria food, and I would have preferred wearing dungarees, too, but that’s about it for the negative side of all things academic. Despite being quite happy in the classroom, I loved recess best, and my memories of the playground – jump rope, hopscotch, tether ball, jacks, tag  – are vivid.

My mom was a teacher. My dad was a teacher. My aunt was a teacher. My husband was a teacher. My sister became a teacher. I ended up teaching for several years. And, as I say, I loved school. So why can I still remember staring at a clock exactly like the one pictured above, seeing the minute hand move backward for one second, then jerk ahead to the next minute? I’ve got that double-tick of the clock imprinted on my muscles and bones and brain. The hands on that clock moved SO S-L-O-W-L-Y. When the bell rang for recess, I was out the door running like a banshee, screaming with delight all the way to the playground.

I salute all of the wonderful teachers now who are, without doubt, much like the teachers I knew and loved when I was in elementary school – Miss Nelson, Mrs. Frizzi, Mr. Threewit, Mr. Bloyd. Teachers still hang wonderful bulletin boards with bright pictures, just like this:

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They keep their classrooms cheerful and organized, and they manage to create quiet little nooks and crannies for some of their quieter little people:

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They read to their students, they encourage the kids who struggle, they correct endless papers, they wake their students up to the wonders of the world, they do work that is vitally important in terms of producing good citizens for a democracy, kids who learn to listen, kids who learn to ask the right questions.  Good teachers open metaphorical doors, the hardest kind to open.

And every September, teachers deal with a classroom full of kids whose families have just turned the page of the calendar from August to September. These teachers still have – and the kids in their classrooms still have  – sunburns that have not faded. The scent of hot dogs and s’mores cooked over a campfire linger somewhere just outside the doors next to the attendance office. Even the principal dreams about his August paddle board lessons while he tells students to slow down, no running in the hallways.

I wish all the teachers reading this a wonderful, satisfying, bump-free school year, full of unexpected pleasures. When you’re reading the list of class rules, just remember that many of your students are still thinking about what it felt like to somersault off the dock down at the lake into the icy cold water. They are still going from this:

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to this:

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and from this:

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to this:

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It takes awhile to get into the groove of school. Sitting at a desk can be hard after running through sprinklers for three months. It’s even hard for the kids who love school. And for their teachers.

But you all know that. So chin-up, have some fun, take your students outside once in awhile, let them run around and go crazy. You run around and go crazy once in awhile, too, whether in front of the students or once you’re home.

Tick-tock until next summer.

 


[Visit The Drift Record to see my post for Poetry Friday: “Sentimental Education” by Mary Ruefle.]

 

Signatures, Technicals, Showstoppers

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I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show lately and wondering why. I’m no baker, that’s for sure.

In my family, we fall into “categories” for cooking, and my grandmother was the baker. When she died, several years ago, my sister and my daughter took on the “baker” role. I suspect I’m in the meat-and-potatoes category, or maybe it’s soups. My extended family members all like my soup; it’s all about the lime juice and salsa I add just before serving. Not star-power cooking, but it will do. I don’t long to be a baker, that’s definite.

So if I’m not that interested in improving my baking skills, why watch the Great British Baking Show (aka TGBBS)? Two reasons stand out:

#1: The amateur bakers are all so nice to each other. This is not similar to American reality TV shows like Project Runway, where competition gets ugly (and apparently the uglier, the better, because if things are too nice, viewership plummets and producers go crazy.) Honestly, I think half the reason I watch TGBBS is because I am so disheartened by the nasty stuff going on in politics right now, I find TGBBS a huge relief – everyone polite, everyone sweet. The worst that happens in this show is that a tower made of cookies falls over, or sticky buns won’t come out the pan they were cooked in.

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Yes, people get judged and one person has to go home at the end of each episode. But there are lots and lots of hugs when someone is headed home, and no one’s career as a baker is ruined, because no one on the show is a professional baker. So there’s some tension, yes, but not much. It’s all about nice, sweet people trying to make the most delicious baked goods they can. No one gutting health care, no one tweeting inanities.

#2: I see a parallel between the effort to produce good baked goods and the effort to create interesting stories. After all, creative people, no matter what they’re creating, interact with their material in certain ways. On TGBBS, the contestants work to respond to three different challenges each week: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge, and the Showstopper Challenge. I think writers do basically the same.

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A “Signature” bake involves presenting something that is uniquely YOU. On TGBBS, if the “genre” is Breads, then a Signature bread must be produced which reflects the baker’s personality and or personal traditions in some way. You see a contestant with science-based inclinations using a ruler to measure the absolute uniformity of dough for bread sticks. Think of it as a modus operandi.  If flair, rather than science, drives someone’s Signature bread stick production, then we might see plaited dough woven together in dark and light stripes. Or if the challenge is a meat pie, we see a contestant whose background is East Indian use unusual spices to enliven hers, while someone more traditional produces a straight-up Cornish pasty.

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This sounds to me like what writers talk about when the conversation turns to “voice.” We recognize certain writers – we know if an essay was written by David Sedaris or Oliver Sacks, not because the subject is different but because their voices are uniquely theirs. As a writer, you don’t want to sound like everyone else. You want to sound like YOU. Your voice, your signature – uniquely yours.

“Technical” challenges require the bakers to follow recipes and rules. Everyone gets the same ingredients and the same recipes. Sometimes the recipes are a bit vague, allowing for different results based on the bakers’ interpretations of the rules. But essentially it’s about seeing how each baker does with restrictions, that is, with less innovative and more formal tasks.

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Anyone who’s ever written a villanelle or a sestina, anyone who has had to produce a line of iambic pentameter and/or follow a rhyme scheme knows what a technical challenge is.

And I think we all understand the phrase “showstopper.” For this, the bakers must take a category (writers work in genres) and  produce something out of this world, never tried before, something attention-grabbing. It’s like a “signature,” but with an added dollop of wow. Very hard to do well, and many baking disasters occur in this phase of the episode of TGBBS. Bakers are going all out, taking risks. So for anyone trying to write the Great American Novel. Also true for any creative effort. Stopping the show with a showstopper is no easy task. Some of us never attempt it, some of us wouldn’t miss it for the world – instinct guides us at this point, I think.

So…The Great British Baking Show. It’s so much fun to see the smiles on the faces of the bakers who have handled a challenge well. So sad to see things go wrong. So nice to see the camaraderie and support and genuine affection among the bakers, no matter whether one baker is doing well or whether the cookie tower (or short story, or picture book, or illustration, or novel, or….) has crumbled.

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As writers, we know those challenges; we know those feelings of joy and frustration. I’ve had my share of sticky-buns (in my case, poems) that wouldn’t come out of the “pan” they were cooked in.  I’ve also had my moments of being declared the equivalent of Baker of the Week. I do my best to produce a well-baked poem – sometimes it works, sometimes not.

And even if I didn’t see writing parallels behind every croissant, I’d still be watching The Great British Baking Show. From time to time I need to avoid (one hour at a time – I’m not greedy!) whatever foolishness is  currently dominating the news. Who knew British bakers would come to my rescue???

Oops – Yet Another Missed Deadline….

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Lately I’ve been missing all kinds of deadlines. Won’t go through them all, but it was my turn to post here at Books Around the Table on June 16th and it’s now June 23. Ah, well. And ah, darn it. How does this happen – time passing at warp speed? And why does it happen more and more often?

My last post had to do with a Big Move (sold our house of 30 years, moved to a new town) and all the packing and unpacking involved (still only about 33% unpacked.) In the middle of that move, I flew off to an Alumni Mini-Residency at Vermont College of Fine Arts, had a ball, recharged my writing batteries, saw colleagues and former students, delivered a lecture about the importance of reading like a writer, led a workshop, won a couple of items at the Alumni Auction (proud to contribute to the fund-raising), marveled at the glass-enclosed lounge in the new faculty residency I’d been hearing about (lovely design but….impossible to sit around in your p.j.’s talking to friends at night with the lights on….), had an important conversation with a friend and colleague that I’ve only known slightly but now I know quite well, then took the bus down to Boston, saw my daughter and her family (grandson is now ten years old, how on earth did that happen??? Ah, yes, that phrase again: “warp speed” ) for a few days, flew home day before yesterday, unpacked suitcase, began to unpack boxes again….

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Whew! Life got busy and days just evaporated. I only noticed tonight that it was my turn to offer up a well-considered thought or two about writing and or/the writing life for Books Around the Table. Well, what I’ve just described — that is my crazy writing life. Filled with curiosity and activity, but basically amorphous. Or, better said, shaped into periods of creativity book-ended by 1) chaos or 2) fallow times. I have friends who offer up the advice “BIC” (meaning “butt in chair”) and they follow their own advice – they sit themselves down and work every day. And they produce good books. I can’t seem to do the BIC thing.

Maybe because writing isn’t really a career for me? I’ve begun to wonder about that.  Writing is more a curiosity-satisfying activity for me. I love it, but it doesn’t really put food on the table for me. I’m unambitious – that’s sometimes good, sometimes not. And friends who know me know I don’t punch the clock well. But I’ve been writing in-between all the moving and traveling, so it’s not all fallow. I’ve written a series of poems called “What She’s Been Thinking Lately” about what a woman who lives a little too much inside her mind. Each poem is about what this woman has been thinking about lately – mainly about stars, tiny houses, medical research, space travel, bog bodies, the roots of Western Civilization, sink holes, mind control, biometric authentication, tissue engineering – things like that. She isn’t me, but….I’ve been thinking about those things lately.

Like I said: life has been haphazard and chaotic. Curiosity survives. I do like to share, so I remain part of Books Around the Table – and my BATT friends put up with me when I miss deadlines. I’m in awe of each one of them – they’re artistic, organized, energetic, productive, thoughtful friends. Then there’s me – often scattered, lost in thought, overbooked, late to the table, under-productive, absent-minded.  One of the nice things about “the writing life” is that you have writer-friends. So I want to say this to them officially: You know that woman I mentioned in that series of poems? She’s been thinking lately about friendship. And she’s very grateful her friends put up with her.

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