Love and Marriage

The beginning of the book I’m working on is coming along. This particular story has a romantic bent, so I’m anxious to get to that part, but I know that it’s important not to rush there.  The anticipation of romance is sometimes more important than the romance itself – in a story, anyway.

Real romance is different.

My little sister is getting married tomorrow.  I’m her Matron of Honor, so the most important writing I did this week, by a long shot, was writing the toast for her reception. It’s not a toast about romance, exactly, but I thought a lot about love and marriage while I was writing it.  In particular I thought about what makes a lifelong partnership work, and why it’s so unbelievable, so spectacular, to find a person with whom one actually wants to spend the rest of one’s life.

This week, DOMA was struck down by the Supreme Court.  My sister’s wedding will be all the sweeter to me now.

Here’s to all of you who have found your partner in this life.  I wish you every joy.

Every Two Weeks

When I started this blog last year, I wasn’t sure what it would become, exactly.  I only knew that I wanted to start keeping tabs on the process of bringing Tyme (the series I’m writing) to publication.  I also wanted to write about what it’s like to make time for writing in a life that’s already full with family and a teaching career, because I think a lot of people can relate to trying to fit their writing into an already overstuffed life. 

Making a blog is easy.  It takes seconds.  Deciding what to put out into the world is considerably harder, because the Internet is permanent, and it’s important to approach it with clear boundaries in place.  My guiding rules are these:

Rule 1: I won’t post anything that I wouldn’t share with my students.

Rule 2: I won’t post anything about my son that I think he might later wish I hadn’t shared with the world.

Rule 3: I will post something every two weeks, no matter what.

These are good rules.

Rule 1 feels stifling sometimes, because I’m an adult, so there are many things that go through my mind – and through my life – that are inappropriate for middle schoolers.  I’d love to write about these things, but I feel uncomfortable doing it at this point, so I won’t.  (Side note for my students, here’s a good rule of thumb on the Internet: If you’re kind of uncomfortable posting something, or you think it has the potential to come back and haunt you, then DON’T POST IT.  People will FIND IT.  And it doesn’t matter if you think you’ve made your page private, or if it’s a Snapchat photo that goes away in a few seconds.  Screen caps of anything can be sent to anyone, making you vulnerable no matter what.  End rant.  For now.)

Rule 2 means that a huge slice of my life is off limits, but I know I’d be ticked off if my mother had kept a public diary about my potty habits and sundry childhood mistakes.

Rule 3, however, is an excellent rule with no downside, which is why I’M SO IRRITATED that I violated it.  Today’s post is a day late, because it’s been two weeks and one day since I last posted.  DANG IT.

I know, this isn’t such a big deal.  It’s one day, and there’s no real consequence.  But it bothers me.  It bothers me because this is the best I’ve ever done keeping up a blog regularly, and I like setting rules for myself that I am faithful to – it helps me to trust myself, to know that I can rely on myself to see things through.  Like most people, I’ve made myself plenty of promises to myself that I haven’t kept, but as I’ve plunged deeper into adulthood, I’ve made a point of improving in that area, because cultivating personal discipline is crucial.  Knowing that I’ll do what I say I’m going to do, even when nobody is making me do it (especially, in fact, when nobody is making me doing it) is key to both my productivity and my self esteem. 

So I’m pretty annoyed.

The truth is, though, that I did write a post several days ago.  It’s saved as a draft, and I’ll probably throw it out, because I’m not quite comfortable with it (see rule of thumb above).  I write lots of stuff for this blog that I delete before posting – or, sometimes, immediately after posting.  That’s okay.  We all tweeze our unfortunate posts and Tweets now and then, don’t we?  And boy, don’t we all wish we could unsend a couple of e-mails?  Yeah.

The other truth is that I’m STILL WAITING SO HARD TO TELL YOU GUYS SOMETHING AWESOME, BUT I CAN’T.  I have been instructed that it’s okay to be mysterious, and that’s it.  So this is me, being mysterious and saying that I have ten million posts I want to make, but they’re all verboten, at the moment, so you can expect to hear from me a lot more often in the near (PLEASE, LET IT BE THE NEAR) future.

In any case, barring coma or death, I will post again before the next fourteen days have gone.  This I swear by the stars! (Bonus points for anyone who knows what that line is from – no Google cheating allowed.)

Year End

Have you ever had so much to say that you just didn’t say anything?
My mind and life are full.  I keep trying to figure out what to share here, but there are only two kinds of stuff happening right now.  1) Stuff I can’t talk about.  Mostly, this is book stuff, which I’m still not free to share (soon, though, I hope).  2) Stuff that’s boring/irrelevant to this blog.  This includes… everything else.
I could write about the books I’m reading, except I haven’t read anything in a couple of weeks.  I’m flat out of energy to read.  I’ve been watching TV.
I should write, at least privately, about the stuff that’s going on in my life, but I am unmoved to journal write, at least for now.
I did write a solid handful of pages last weekend, so that’s good. I’ll write a lot more, several days from now, when summer officially starts. 
The school year is almost over.  Stress levels are high; fuses are short. End of year stuff is pretty intense.  Keeping middle school kids engaged in learning when there are five class days to go is like playing world-championship-level Whack-A-Mole.  I’m tired.  I’m not in a hurry to shove my kids out the door, or anything – I get pretty attached to my students – but once they go, I’ll need to curl up in a dark room for about three days in order to reclaim my sanity. 
The happiest and most uplifting part of the last two weeks has been discovering that my son, who is a little over two and a half, is a nurturer at heart.  We tried to give him a baby doll a while back, in an effort to counterbalance the fleet of vehicles that materialized in the night, soon after he was born. (We didn’t buy them!  They just APPEARED.) Our son literally shoved the baby doll aside in favor of a truck.  A couple of days ago, though, he encountered a baby doll and various accoutrements, and something amazing happened.  He arranged the baby in bed, covered it up, and fed it a bottle.  This was such a sweet and surprising moment that my husband and I decided to reward it.  We took our little guy to the store and let him pick out a baby of his own, which he now constantly brings to me so that I will kiss it.
So I’m stressed out, tired, and ready for a break.  But the important things are all as they should be.  Hope I’ll have more to share very soon. 

Five Reasons to Read It #8: THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN

I don’t know how I got away without reading this one before now.  I highly recommend:

THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN
by Sherman Alexie
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2007

I live and teach in Washington state.  In 2008, when I was earning my graduate degree at Seattle University, THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN was on the list of texts to choose from to help us round out our cultural sensitivities before entering the classroom.  I chose other texts at the time, but I finally read DIARY a few weeks ago and immediately started talking about it to anyone who would listen, because this book is amazing and everyone should read it.

Here are five reasons why.

1.  Even though you “should” read it, you won’t feel that way when you’re reading it.  Trust me.  Open it up and read one page, and you’ll be gone, whisked away by Junior’s cuttingly comedic voice and carried along with him as he fights to figure out where he belongs.  This is a book of bone-crushing realities about reservation life and life in poverty, but it’s a funny book.  A brutal, blunt, honest, hilarious book.  Because life is funny.  Life is funny even when it isn’t.  Especially when it isn’t.  The laughter in this book is survivalist laughter – laughter that stands as the final defense against evil and pain.  I often laughed aloud – and hard – while reading, and then suddenly I’d reach the end of a chapter and it would just break me over its knee in a few blunt sentences, and I’d cry and cry and have to wait for my eyes to clear before I could keep going.

2. It’s been banned.  But that’s not why you should read it.  You should read it because it’s been banned for being TOO TRUTHFUL about what life is often like for teenagers.  The protagonist, Junior, is a 14-year-old boy who suffers heavy doses of grief (deaths in his family).  He gets into fights, and his father is an alcoholic, who, while drunk, drives Junior around town (so does a drunken family friend on a motorcycle).  Junior also thinks, very realistically, about sex. Anyone who thinks that teenagers need to be protected from ideas like sex, grief, violence, and addiction has not spent much time around teenagers.  The stuff Junior talks about – this is the stuff that a lot of my students are dealing with every day. 

3. Teachers should read this book.  Teachers who teach kids in poverty MUST read this book, if for no other reason then for the moment in which one of the teachers sarcastically welcomes Junior back to class after a long bout of absences.  We who work with low-income kids from struggling families know that it’s a fight to keep them in school.  We know that attendance is difficult, that families don’t or can’t always prioritize education, and that it’s impossible to teach kids who don’t show up.  This can be back-breaking for teachers, who are evaluated on their ability to teach kids, period, regardless of whether they’ve been absent thirty times.  For this and many other reasons, it can get tempting to use sarcasm in the classroom.  This book reminded me why we must never, never do that.  We don’t know what’s happening at home.  Even when we think we know, we just don’t know, and we must show our students respect and kindness no matter what. 

4. The basketball game.  The one Junior really, really wants to win.  The one I wanted him to win.  And the way Alexie jerks the whole thing out from under us – out from under Junior and the reader at the same time.  Oh, my heart.

5. Even though it’s an intensely personal and semi-autobiographical book about Alexie’s own youth on the Spokane Indian Reservation, it’s also an even-handed book, at least as far as race and affluence are concerned.  Alexie doesn’t draw lines between types of folk.  People aren’t necessarily evil because they’re wealthy and white, nor are they necessarily kind and decent heroes because they’re poor and brown.  There are wonderful people – and awful people – everywhere.  And that’s important to acknowledge, always.

BLOCKED

I don’t believe in writer’s block.  To me, those words suggest that it’s okay to say, “I can’t write today, I’m blocked,” and then to shrug with a vaguely tragic air, as though this invisible, magical “block” were a valid excuse for stalling.

Not that I can preach about this.  I spent yesterday consciously talking myself out of a non-writing rut that’s been going strong for about three weeks.  And I succeeded, but barely.  I really had to claw for it.

I have all kinds of internal tripwires that stop me from wanting to write.  Often, out of lazy habit, I label these tripwires “writer’s block” – but they’re not.  When I am tempted to call myself blocked, it’s usually because:

1. I’m bleeping sick of my idea.  I sit down to work.  I open the document.  I wince, groan, make a barfing sound, and close the document again, because it’s ugly in there and I hate it and I can’t remember why I ever loved it in the first place.  I tell my husband that my stupid idea is stupid, and I accuse him of not being willing to be honest with me about how stupid my idea is.  My husband never takes the bait.  Wise man.

2. I’m tired.  Most writers I know don’t have the luxury of just writing for a living – most of us have full-time, non-writing jobs.  Even the ones who “just” write for a living do much more than that.  They revise, teach, coach, consult, support other writers, make school and library visits, appear at bookstores and conferences, self promote, construct and maintain social media platforms, take care of their families, manage their homes and bills and taxes, and still try to wedge in some exercise and find the time to read.  Some days, I feel like I’m the only one trying to do all this.  I think “If I were a writer with just one job then this would be so much easier.”  Uh.  Would it?  Self pity, party of one, your table is ready.  We’re all tired.  We’re all overextended.  It doesn’t mean I get a pass.  I can write anyway.

3. I’m afraid I suck.  All the time.  All. The. Time.  The fear of suckage eats at me.  EATS.  And sometimes?  I do suck.  (If you can relate, here’s Maureen Johnson talking about why we should all Dare to Suck).  I can still write anyway.

4. I’m afraid someone already wrote a better version of what I’m writing.   They probably did.  I can still write anyway.

5. I just read a book that was so amazing and beautiful that it was like someone kidnapped an angel and made pages out of it, and I’m having the spiritual epiphany – again – that I have no right to write if I can’t write like that.  Again, maybe so. But it’s not for me to decide.  I should never be the one who decides that I’m not worthy of running the race.  I think of Cyrus, the amazing popper/animator from the last season of So You Think You Can Dance.  That man went into those auditions with his crew, and they all gave brilliant auditions in their genre, and they all went to Vegas for finals week.  In Vegas, one of the crew was eliminated.  Another bowed out – he wasn’t told to leave; he just didn’t believe he could dance outside his genre – and maybe he was right.  Maybe it was too hard.  But Cyrus thought it was hard too, and sometimes he looked downright ridiculous, and yet he kept going.  He left it to someone else to decide if he wasn’t worthy of being in the lineup.  And you know what?  They never did.  He made the show.  And he was awesome.  So basically, we all need to be more like Cyrus, is what I’m saying.

6.  I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the bleeping plot/character/voice.  Sometimes, it’s just hard work.  Hard, gritty mind work, without the soaring, speeding sensation that sometimes does accompany writing. When something in the story is broken, and I know it but can’t quite put my finger on the solution, I get miserable.

I’ve been staring my current manuscript in the face for the past few weeks without writing a word.  My current “block” has been a combination of all of the above factors.  I’m sick of my idea, I’m tired, I suck, someone already beat me to it, other books are more worth reading, and I’m not all that clever anyway.

The easiest way to dismiss all this is to say “I feel blocked,” and stop writing. But yesterday after work, while my toddler napped, I wrote three pages.  Just three – not my usual gush.  Three beautiful, claw marked pages that probably suck but are evidence that I am not, in fact, blocked.

Or maybe I am.  The point, I guess, is that I can still write anyway.

In fact, I’m going to make myself a little deal, right here.  Every time I slip and say “I feel blocked” I’m going to write 500 words.  Yeah.  That’s right.  How do you like them apples, you little demons of self doubt?  Am I scaring you?  GOOD.  GET OUT.  SEEK YE ANOTHER HOST, FOR HERE YOU SHALL FIND NO SUSTENANCE.

7. I’m possibly going insane.  Oh well.

I can still write anyway.

Five Reasons to Read It #7: EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO

Happy Friday!  Here’s a good one for all you teachers and parents of middle and high schoolers who are looking for something funny, engaging, uplifting and relevant.  I recently finished:

EIGHTH GRADE SUPERZERO
By Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2010

Here are five reasons to read it:

1.  It’s About Something.  Specifically, it’s about how Reggie McKnight, the young protagonist, grapples with his social status and his personal beliefs until he realizes that he is capable of making a meaningful contribution to his community. “Think global; act local.” Little pebbles have big ripple effects. This book follows Reggie’s personal ripple effect upon his world. Without shoving it down your throat, without even making you feel guilty (somehow, I don’t know how Rhuday-Perkovich managed it), this book is about bullying and homelessness, family and politics, community and transformation – and even God. 

2.  Even though it’s About Something, that something is wrapped tightly around Reggie, a very human 8th-grade boy.  And boy howdy, is he ever an 8th-grade boy.  I am something of an expert here, and Reggie’s voice, both in his mind and in his mouth, sounds not one false note.  He sounds just like them, was all I could think, as I read it.  He’s my kids.  They will love this. Sure enough, just yesterday, I saw one of my kids reading this book.  “I really like that one!” I said, and the kid nodded and grinned.  “Yeah,” he said. “It’s good.”  The middle schoolers, they do not give these compliments lightly.

3.  Because Reggie is a true 8th-grade boy, this book is very funny.  I laughed out loud many times.  I snickered a lot, too.

4.  The Dora shoes. My inner 8th-grade girl fell in love with Reggie in that moment.

5.  Rhuday-Perkovich deftly manages a large cast and a broad idea.  Reggie deals with different casts of characters at school, at home, at church, and at the Olive Branch shelter, and as these casts intertwine and affect one another, things actually become simpler rather than more complicated – which is kind of the point.  Nicely done.

Teacher Appreciation Week

As teacher appreciation week comes to an end, I want to write about a few of my K-12 teachers, whose lessons remain in my life though we parted ways decades ago.

Mrs. Kelly, who singled me out and made me feel special.  In 3rd grade, she gave me my first stage role – a flower, in Alice in Wonderland (I got to say part of “Jabberwocky” and can still recite the whole poem).  In 7th grade, she gave me a leading role in the musical.  A year later, she didn’t give me the part I wanted, and I learned that I would not die from disappointment.  She wrote our shows.  She took us to a real recording studio to make tapes of the music.  She gave us a taste of professional excellence.

Mrs. Fay, who had a poster of of Kareem Abdul Jabbar with inches and feet on it, against which we could measure ourselves. She wouldn’t let us finish sentences if we spoke incorrectly (“My mother, she went…” meant we had to shut up). She let me roll a graphite-covered quarter down her face on April Fool’s Day.  Unlike our school librarian, who advised me to stop reading the Sweet Valley High “trash” I kept checking out, Mrs. Fay gave me extra credit for every book report I wrote on that series (poor woman; I wrote lots).  She knew better than to dissuade a child from reading. 

Mrs. Adamik, who challenged me with literature I didn’t understand yet, who made me memorize and recite my pronouns, and who gently told me that maybe I didn’t need to wear eight scrunchies in my hair.  She gave me singing lessons at her house.  She came to an audition for a non-school production of The Sound of Music with me, and she too auditioned.  She wound up playing the Mother Abbess and I played a novice, and that rehearsal process became my first opportunity to know a teacher as a person outside of the classroom.

Mr. Nordmark, who never accepted a single late assignment, not even from kids like me who worked hard and rarely screwed around.  He taught me the value of getting things done by the set deadline, and he demonstrated absolute fairness – if he had favorites, he didn’t treat them that way.  He also made us take notes – proper notes, TONS of notes – which he explicitly taught us how to take.  From him I learned how to process a dense lecture and study intelligently for an exam – precisely the skills that would allow me to succeed in college. 

Mr. Arkle, who blew my mind when he assigned us an E-Prime* essay. I already loved to write, but I always did it quickly, with abandon.  E-Prime forced me to choose each word with care.  It opened my eyes to the power of being deliberate, of saying precisely what I meant rather than approximating. It also introduced me to the power of revision, of searching for weaknesses and eliminating them (a process I enjoy to this day).

I could go on.  I could write about the Roehls, Father Terry, my college and graduate professors, my parents, my choir and theatre directors, my coaches, my professional mentors.  My gratitude would go on for pages.  Volumes.  Ever.

But for now: A shout out to everyone who ever took the time to teach me anything.  I try to put that education to good use every day.  Your influence continues.

Thank you. 



*I wrote this post in E-Prime. 

Five Reasons to Read It #6: THE NAME OF THE STAR

I’ve followed Maureen Johnson on Twitter for the past several months, because the woman is ridiculously funny.  Also insightful.  However, until a few weeks ago, I’d never read any of her books, and that was starting to feel wrong. So I read:

THE NAME OF THE STAR
By Maureen Johnson
Putnam Juvenile, 2011

And then I immediately read the sequel, THE MADNESS UNDERNEATH.  But here I’ll concentrate on just the first book, because concentrating is good.  

Here are five reasons to read THE NAME OF THE STAR.  For extra kicks, I shall write my reasons in the style of Johnson’s Twitter feed.

1. JACK THE RIPPER!  *glances around*  Shivery horrible sickening awful murderous JACK THE RIPPER, and the FEAR attending his crimes!  *crawls out of this blog*  *snakes around your ankles*  *drags you into a London back alley*

2. Rory, the female protagonist, has an UNEXPECTED, HUMOROUS, and TRUTHFUL VOICE.  I seem to remember her, at once point, wiping the sleepy “crap” out of her eyes. *wipes out crap* *feels better*

3. Rory’s paranormal power arises from the mundane, and I TOTALLY DIDN’T CONNECT THE DOTS until Johnson wanted me to.  *connects dots*  *reviews work*  *is satisfied*

4. Johnson’s construction of slow-growing dread is effective. I recognized the villain the second he was introduced, but the protagonist (believably) didn’t, and so I was afraid for her, and that fear grew little by little, edging up on me, making my skin crawl, because Johnson does what the best suspense storytellers do: she makes you WAIT for it.  And while you wait for the next BIG SCARY THING to happen, you get to meet FUN CHARACTERS who feel really WHOLE, and there are lots of CREEPY CLUES, and you WORRY for the characters and get ALL WROUGHT UP.  *passes out* *wakes up and eats Tostitos*

5. When I read the first chapter to my students, and I got to the part with the neck, they SQUEALED and GAGGED and then they ALL FOUGHT OVER WHO GOT TO READ IT FIRST.

*shakes fists for emphasis*

*goes off in search of more books*

Five Reasons to Read It #5: A CURSE DARK AS GOLD

I recently finished:

A CURSE DARK AS GOLD
By Elizabeth C. Bunce
Arthur A. Levine Books, 2008

Five reasons to read it:

1. The descriptions of the mill are so specific and sensuous that I felt like I was there.  The setting of this novel is its own character.

2. Bunce not only succeeds in reinventing Rumplestiltskin but finds a way to make that crazy fairy tale plausible – and emotionally arresting – which is an incredibly difficult thing to have done.

3. It’s nice to see a romance that doesn’t hinge on a love triangle.  Not that I can’t enjoy a love triangle, but there’s a realness to the romance in this book that still manages to gleam with a silvery fairy-tale lining. 

4. I also appreciate it when romance isn’t the point of a heroine’s journey.

5. The last six chapters are hair-raising – especially for mothers, I would think – and the secret reason for all the trouble at the mill is truly devastating. 

The Relevance of Poetry

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.”

-from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

The other day, I was asked by a teaching colleague to survey my 7th graders about why they pass – and why they fail – in school.  In specific, we were trying to figure out WHY kids fail, when they fail.  We know what we think, as adults – but what did they think?  The questions were open-ended, inviting rich commentary. “When you fail assignments and assessments, how does that happen?”

What resulted was a fascinating dialogue in which the kids were a lot more honest than I’d anticipated.  I thought they might say things like “Because it’s too hard,” or “Because the teacher sucks.”  But they knew the truth.  “Because I sit next to people I like talking to,” said one.  “Because I get frustrated and then I quit,” said another.  And then the bomb dropped.  “With some classes,” said one of the boys, “like science and social studies and language arts, I just don’t see how they apply at all to real life.”  Another boy sat up straight at this.  “I have a counter argument!” he said (his language arts teacher would be proud of him).  “My dad has to write summaries about his employees all the time!”  “All right,” said the first boy, “but poetry?  When do I need poetry?  And when do I need to write, like, an argument paper?”

That was the end of the conversation, because we ran out of time, but I want to continue discussing this with them later.  I’ve been continuing the discussion in my head for the past two days.

The truth is, I’m writing this post to figure out my answer.  I can come up with any number of speeches about the practical, real-world applications of understanding science, learning history, and knowing how to construct an argument.

But what about poetry?  I remember that my 8th-grade English teacher had “The Road Not Taken” up on her wall (if you’re an English teacher and you don’t have that poem on your wall, I’m pretty sure you get fired).  I remember reading it and feeling that I understood it – which I did, I think, but only literally.  That same teacher gave us a poetry exam on which we were supposed to identify literary devices and decipher meaning.  The poem she gave us was “Eleanor Rigby”.  I had experienced nothing like it.  I remember feeling defeated by it.  She wore a face she kept in a jar by the door?  No one was saved?  What are you talking about?  (I got a B on that test.  I still remember.  I was so mad.*)

So what do I tell this kid?  How can I convince a thirteen-year-old boy of the relevance of poetry? 

Do I tell him that he should learn poetry so that he can whip it out one day to impress a date?

Do I tell him it’ll get him into college?

Do I tell him that interacting with poetry is dangerous, because it might make him cry in public one day, when he accidentally reads a poem that is meant for him, that speaks to what he has experienced, that evokes an emotion which he has long believed he suffered uniquely?  Do I tell him that he should be careful, because when he finds that poem, he’ll be awakened by the revelation that somebody, SOMEBODY knew how to put WORDS to that feeling, which means he is NOT ALONE?

What if I did tell him that?  What kid is going to believe his crazy teacher who tells him that? 

The advice of teachers and parents and other mentors are a kind of poetry.  We hear the words, we understand them, and we acknowledge that they sound true, but we can’t really know until we’ve lived those words.  Like you can’t really know a poem until you’ve lived it. 

Maybe that’s what I’ll tell him.  You can’t really know a poem until you’ve lived it.  But trust me, once you get there – and you will – you’ll be glad you listened in class. 

*Mom, I want you to know that I remember what you taught me.  Dogs get mad; people get angry.  But seriously, I was SO MAD. 

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