Sunday, October 23, 2011


I just finished putting the final touches on the last of my college recommendations for the year. There is only one phrase that does this particular task justice:

Blood, sweat, and tears.

As difficult as it can be to capture the essence of a student in a letter, I absolutely love doing it. I love celebrating these girls: their talents, their achievements, their individual styles. The fact that I get to do it in writing is the best part. I know I've said this before somewhere in this blog, but I have a thing for letters. Elizabeth Bishop used to teach a class on the art of letters, and I would have fought my way into that class if I had been around then. Now that I think about it, I might have to teach that class someday.

In the spirit of letter writing, here is a poem/letter from Billy Collins to his readers. I spent three glorious days hearing him lecture at Vanderbilt this fall, and I listened to him read in his disarming way this poem.

"You, Reader"

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen

the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl

Go ahead and turn aside,
bite your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen—it was just a matter of time

before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.

Plus, nothing happened that morning—
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside—

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another

like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time—

me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.

- Billy Collins, from his collection The Trouble with Poetry: And Other Poems

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Names by Billy Collins

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name --
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner --
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O'Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening -- weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds --
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

"Winter in the Summer House" by Robert Watson

Home is a place we never notice
Needing much repair, and coming back
Year after year, the separated man
Filled the cracks in the hardwood floors with his own dust.

The house no longer creaked, or he no longer heard it;
The walls were painted but not covered;
Tiles of flint lay crossward on the lawn;
The trees were a silent siege; the heat went on.

As if he were custodian, he kept his tools
In pegboard tracings; sawdust neatly piled
Along the jagged band; a vise in waiting,
Capable of holding till the glue was dry.

The same old Dodge still lurched from neutral
Into gear; old leaves hissed in the vents;
Backing out was the only gamble,
And by now he knew this road so well.

Deadpan breakfasts, cakes with molasses—
All that remained from his little version
Of the triangle trade, with its casks of whiskey,
And captives in the hold who salted the Atlantic.

As if to prove he wasn’t still at sea,
He put dramatic lights up in the branches
And all the same old people in their places,
Triumphantly discarding in an evening game of hearts.

If only he had made a little room for her,
Or made a play; if, in between the deals,
He’d made a modest bid; a run in suits;
Or cast away a hopeful flush to keep the pair.

From The New Yorker

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Loving Summer

Tomorrow may officially be my last day of real summer, but I have had the summer to beat all summers, and I'm content to wave it a fond farewell. It was a summer full of love - literary and otherwise - and I'm still pinching myself at the wonder of it. I visited dear friends in New York, Denver, and Michigan; I was swept away by the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee; I became a godmother to the most adorable little girl; I saw a bald eagle; I wrote for a week straight at Bard College on the Hudson River; I ate poached lobster and tipped out of a kayak in Maine. I've spent time with the loveliest families, including my own. Not surprisingly, I've also visited eight different airports, which means I've done quite a bit of reading, too. Laura Hildebrand's Unbroken tided me through at least seven hours of flying to and from Denver. Ann Patchett's State of Wonder made for good bedtime reading in Michigan, where the sun doesn't fully set until after 10 p.m. Adam Ross's short story collection, Ladies and Gentlemen, kept me company in hammocks, on porch swings and floating docks in North Carolina. Tina Fey's Bossypants still has me laughing and quoting.

But if I had to pinpoint one particularly glorious literary feast, it would be listening to Gabrielle Hamilton's new memoir, Blood, Bones, and Butter, on Interstates 40 and 81 in early June.

My long trip home to Virginia was made mercifully short by Hamilton's story. Mountains and truck stops flew by as I listened to her spin enchanting tales of her early childhood which led to a disastrous early adulthood, then on to her journey as chef, writer, mother, and sometimes wife. Hamilton is the realest narrator I've ever read. She's all sharp edges in life and on the page; nothing gets sugar-coated. Some people might be put off by her stark stubbornness, her unabashed selfishness, but I loved every second of it. So much so that I simply had to eat in her East Village restaurant, Prune, when I stopped over in NYC for a few July days. I hope I never forget that joyful and delicious meal with my friend Court, because neither of us was successful at picture-taking that evening. We were very successful at eating: sliced baby radishes with butter and salt, shaved celery salad with blue cheese tart, chicken galantine with vegetables and broth, quail something or other, and finally, Sgropino, an Italian dessert which we deemed nectar of the gods.

Whenever I'm with Courtney, things happen. She has this magical personality, and New York City bows to it. That enchanted evening, so did Gabrielle Hamilton. As we dined, I could see Hamilton's reflection in the mirror as she cooked in the back. She appeared at the bar as our meal was wrapping up, wearing a faded blue house dress and thick black work shoes. And let me just say that she was rocking this outfit. The faded blue house dress will soon be featured in In Style magazine. About this time, Court decided that Gabrielle Hamilton absolutely had to know that her biggest fan (me) was in the restaurant. Minutes later Court has the toughest cookie in New York chatting it up with us (did we think butter cookies went well with the Sgropino? we did) and signing a copy of her book to her unofficial publicist (again, me). The evening was dazzling, from the food, to the company, to celebrity tete a tete. The whole thing reminded me of a line from The Great Gatsby: “Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all. . . .”
Even Gabrielle Hamilton could happen, without any particular wonder.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Headmaster

Am in the middle of John McPhee's The Headmaster right now and feel compelled to include a snippet. While Frank Boyden was headmaster at Deerfield he apparently wrote thirty-five or so letters a day to everyone from alums to the oil man. Here is one such note, written April 30, 1930:

My dear Mr. Stephenson:

Your letter of April 22nd was received. Please renew the Full Coverage Insurance on my raccoon overcoat for one whole year.

Friday, July 22, 2011

State of Wonder

Just finished Ann Patchett's new novel, State of Wonder, a title which describes exactly how I felt after reading it. Brilliant. That is the word that comes to mind when I think about how carefully she constructed her narrative, down to the very last sentence. Honestly - and I mean this as the highest compliment - it reminded me of the kind of critical writing we were all trying to do in graduate school. Weave strands of an argument together so convincingly that your readers have no choice but to believe you. Lead them to the edge of a cliff, and when they think they've arrived, ask them to look over the edge. That is how Patchett concludes this novel. While she convincingly winds down the narrative, our view of what has happened, what might happen next, ingeniously continues to expand.

Rather than describe the plot, I will just say that what I loved about this book was the lack of clear cut answers, beginning with page one. Characters in this novel are continually faced with challenging situations that cannot be easily righted. Indeed, it is difficult to discern right action from wrong when none of the choices seems clear or appealing. I like the title, State of Wonder, because it describes how the main character, Marina, moves between difficult contexts. She is baffled and stunned regularly (anyone in her situation would be), and yet she must act despite her state of wonder at what is happening around her.

Patchett sets this novel in the Amazon, and if you read this, you go there. You're on the pontoon boat wondering what is down there in the water beneath you; you're greeted by a tribe brandishing flames, another with poisoned arrows; and yes, you're wrestling with an eighteen-foot anaconda. Have fun. The writing is that vivid, that compelling.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Dirty Life

This has been a theme of my summer and also some of the other books I've been reading lately.

After day 1 of my AT hike, I reveled in my grime-covered self. "I LIKE being dirty!" I exclaimed. The feeling of being covered in dirt and sweat with nothing to be done about it was wildly freeing to me. My hiking partner was not nearly so enthusiastic. While he took pains to clean up after each day's hike, I generally pretended that I lived in the Dustbowl and could be featured in a Dorothea Lange photo at any moment. I thought a lot about what life must have been like for women back then, cooking over a hot stove with few resources. Dirt would be the least of concerns, I imagined. In no way did I want to experience or glamorize poverty. I wanted to experience hard work and the essentials that rise to the surface when life is stripped bare.

Post-hike, I dug into Kristin Kimball's book The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Food, Farming, and Love. I am such a sucker for these memoirs about farming: See You in One Hundred Years, Animal Vegetable Miracle, and now The Dirty Life. It is generally easy for me to romanticize the difficult work of running a farm and growing one's own food. The idea makes so much sense to me, but there is a reason that few people actually take it on. Kimball's story is particularly appealing because she leaves behind a life I'm familiar with: the sometimes-glamorous sometimes-miserable existence of New Yorkers. Turns out Kimball lived on the same street in the East Village as one of my old friends, right across from the Hell's Angels headquarters. She cobbled together a living from writing and did the same things we used to do when there: ordered takeout; generally relegated the space in her fridge for ice, alcohol, and those bulky phone books; and hopped from one end of town to the other in search of...we were never quite sure. All this changes when she meets and falls in love with Mark, a man whose existence is about farming. And he convinces her to give everything up to make it her purpose, too.

Kimball doesn't sugarcoat anything in this memoir, and as I read about their life, it became clear that their gargantuan plan to run a farm that would feed their community could end in disaster, divorce. Maybe even death. But I ate up the passages about her own transformation because they touched on a truth that seems fundamental and also elusive in a digitized, virtual age:

"I had never in my life been so dirty. The work was always dirty, beyond what I'd previously defined as dirty, and it took too much energy to keep oneself out of it. I had daily intimacy not just with dirt dirt but with blood, manure, milk, pus, my own sweat and the sweat of other creatures, with the grease of engines and the grease of animals, with innards, with all the stages of decomposition. Slowly, the boundary of what I found disgusting pushed outward. The thought of bathing was unappealing at the end of the chilly spring day, with the unheated bathroom so far from the woodstove and morning milking so near. Some nights I would only peel off my outer layer of clothes before leaping under the thick comforter, leaving pieces at the foot of the bed for easy access in the morning dark. My wardrobe from the city had sifted down to one small drawer of unruined things, reserved for off-farm use, which meant they never got worn. The rest had been added, piece by piece, to the general-use bin. I discovered the insulating properties of silk, which gave my collection of lingerie new purpose. Some days I farmed in a black cashmere V-neck that I used to call my first-date sweater. In its youth I'd pampered it with dry cleaning and padded hangers. Now it was flecked with hay, two holes worn in the elbows.

I let my hair grow out, not by conscious choice but because making and keeping an appointment to cut it never reached the top of the priority list. I forgot to pluck my eyebrows. I hardly ever looked in the mirror, and when I did I saw that all the outdoor work was etching new lines around my eyes, weathering my complexion, bringing out the red tones, the freckles. I began to feel the weight of my skin on my brow, my cheeks folding down at the sides of my mouth. My new life was marking me. It was happening so quickly. There were intermittent spells of resistance, during which I'd pluck and moisturize and exfoliate, and then there was a period of grieving for my old self, who seemed to be disappearing toward the horizon, and then I relaxed into it" (129).

I liked this passage because it reminded me of what it was like living outdoors for a week. Beauty and hard work become connected and take on whole new meanings.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Commitment issues

I've been thinking about this blog, its purpose, and all the slacking I've been doing. I've read so many great books lately and when asked about them I can only utter a mild, "duh..." I'm sure I'm really instilling confidence in folks who know I've spent the past year teaching AP English. What can I say? My brain is on summer break.

In June I hiked a portion of the Appalachian Trail, which was quite possibly the coolest thing I've ever done (note: coolest, not the choicest diction out there. See above for summer break disclaimer). I had been planning this trip for six months prior, spending spare hours in REI after tennis matches and tournaments, rehabbing my bum left knee after practice, and reading for all the trail info I could glean. The best and worst thing that I read in preparation for the hike was Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods. Let me say right now that this is the WORST account of hiking the AT out there. Having finished/skimmed to the end, I'm not sure why Bryson hiked it. He was not in it for any good reason, and the entire text of his book confirms this. Most of his trip was spent hauling himself to the nearest Motel 6 or steak dinner off of the trail. I'm not sure he experienced a single moment of transcendence on the trail, which is impressive in a soulless sort of way. The best reason for reading this book was to accidentally discover key information that changed the course of my hike: there is no camping in the Great Smoky Mountains. Now that you too know this crucial information, you never have to read that bestselling piece of junk.

The best book that I read - and serendipitously found in an Asheville bookstore the day I came off the trail - was Jennifer Pharr Davis's Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail. I loved loved loved Davis's story. In 2005 in her early twenties, she bravely and somewhat blindly set off to thru hike the trail. She hiked in sneakers and an ill-fitting pack; she never once filtered water; she ditched her stove about a month in; and she out-hiked just about everyone else that season. I loved the lack of pretension in her narrative voice and in her aspirations. I also loved reading her self-revelations, some of which I could relate to after my one piddly week. One habit she developed later in her hike which I admired was to sit for an hour on a rock or by a stream to listen and watch. I've realized recently that moving through woods (running or walking) is not the same thing as sitting in them. It is amazing how much I miss even when I'm surrounded by nature. Being still is the way to catch the best of what the woods has to offer. My hiking partner already knew this: he hunts, and so he sits for hours in the woods at a time. As a result he hears things that I am only just starting to hear.

There are many passages I shoulda woulda excerpted here if I had decided to blog sooner, but here is a section from Davis's Maine stretch:

"I ... knew that something deep within me connected with nature, hard work, and simplicity. I learned that I was both stubborn and tough, a lot tougher than I thought I was, especially when I let other people help me. I knew that I was beautiful, despite what other people said, and I appreciated my body based on what it could do instead of how it looked. I also knew that I was truly blessed, blessed with wonderful family and wonderful friends."

I felt tremendous gratitude on the trail, mostly for my childhood and my parents. When I was little my sister and I built forts relentlessly. We built them wherever there was a pine tree and patch of moss. We were obsessed with moss; we collected it to make carpets and pillows. We knew what made a good tree: the sturdy branches of magnolias or dogwoods or cherries. Pine branches were best for sweeping out the fort. Willows made the best curtains. I must have spent a lot of time walking in the woods as a child, because the feeling of deja vu swept over me the second we started our Appalachian Trail hike. "This is familiar," I kept thinking to myself. What a gift.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

I don't have time to write this

Too bad, writing it anyway. It's been a remarkable morning.

After spending all night mulling over how to wrap up Gatsby with my seniors, I was still coming up short. Somehow I managed a few anxiety-fueled hours of sleep. I dreamed that I tried to teach "The Waste Land" in the morning instead and utterly failed at it. My attempt at winging it lead me to search for my notes the entire class. When I finally pulled them together, the bell rang. Also worth noting that an esteemed history teacher who normally resides two floors above was in attendance.

Miraculously at five a.m., it dawned on me to teach dramatic monologues. So my students are writing poems in the voices of Daisy, Tom, Myrtle, Gatsby, and T.J. We'll see how they turn out.

But the really remarkable moment happened later when my other senior class embarked on our study of Emily Dickinson. She never fails to work her magic on them. One of my most lackadaisical students (the Lady Gaga fan from an earlier post) latched on to "Hope is the thing with feathers" and wouldn't let go. She wanted to know when she could start writing an essay on it, and how many pages she was allowed to write. The others came around a little more slowly, but by the end of class they were exclaiming how "cool" Dickinson was. All because of this little epigram:

IT ’S all I have to bring to-day,
This, and my heart beside,
This, and my heart, and all the fields,
And all the meadows wide.
Be sure you count, should I forget,—
Some one the sun could tell,—
This, and my heart, and all the bees
Which in the clover dwell.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

here I am

I thought I had better acknowledge the silence that has been this blog of late. I have been wondering a little about my lack of energy/desire to write because its not that I haven't read great things (check out Patti Smith's luminous prose in Just Kids). Its not that I haven't had interesting moments in the classroom this fall and spring (the students' modern-day Macbeth newscast; dancing with my freshmen down the hall to African drumming; watching a despondent student come to life when we read an editorial about Lady Gaga during class. She LOVED it; she read it aloud in its entirety; and she pronounced Jean Paul Sartre "Sartart" through the whole of it) that might be worth writing about in order to remember later. This blog has always been a natural outpouring of the work that I do, and the joy that I take in it. So what has happened to it?

My guess is that I have not adequately adjusted to my increased workload this year. Three preps, including AP English, has run me intellectually ragged. One sign of this would be the list that I've tacked up in my house titled "Summer." I can't get to things the way that I used to, and so I am relegating them all to the months of June and July.

What's happened to my love of writing? Something's got to give here. I need a new system. Think I'll put that on the "Summer" to-do list, too.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


This work never fails to move me. Today, it is these lines:

Macbeth: How does your patient, doctor?

Doctor: Not so sick, my lord,
As she is troubled with thick-coming fancies
That keep her from her rest.

Macbeth: Cure her of that.
Cans't thou not minister to a mind diseased,
Pluck from memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?

Doctor: Therein the patient
Must minister to himself.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Reading Lately

Here's the roll call for January, all of which I'd recommend:

First, pair the novels Wench by Dolan Perkins-Valdez and Property by Valerie Martin for a chilling look at slavery from two very different female perspectives. Eerily, these novels could be twins of each other.

On a lighter note (er, not really), throw in some Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. This I read with 30 adorable teenage girls who were obsessed with Harry and his quest. As dark as this book is, we had to lighten the mood with a chocolate wands, cauldron cakes, butterbeer, and a Quidditch match.

Then make a radical swing into Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, my new favorite novel. I read this in grad school when I didn't have a clue about what life held in store for me. Older, wiser, and weathered, I have to say that Janie Crawford's story resonated in a new way. Loved it. I think my kids were 50/50 on it, but just give them time.

Revisit Kate Chopin's The Awakening with another class. This, too, gets better every time I read it. My students had absolutely no sympathy for Edna this time around. Ruthless!

Make an almost impossible segue into Macbeth. But Nature has fouled up January and early February, so if for that reason alone, it seems like a fitting choice.

Delve further into the dark side of humanity and friendship with John Knowles's A Separate Peace.

And on that note, why not go even further into the darkness with Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's disturbing and brilliant new novel? This I read in snatches, usually when I can't sleep. Not that reading this novel helps with that problem any.

Monday, January 10, 2011

An Object of Beauty

Steve Martin's new novel about New York's art world in the 1990s:
decidedly awesome.

Nothing quite like good reading on a snow day in Nashville.