On Sisters, Words, and Writing

Last Friday, my big sister flew to see me. From the airport, we drove thirty-eight miles to the beach, checked into a historic hotel, exchanged our street clothes for swimsuits, dashed out to the pool, and lingered, cool beverages in hand. Freedom persisted. Our feet hit the sand. The tides rolled in with the ocean breeze. Seashells appeared to be found. Fish tacos beckoned, and we answered the call. It was a weekend of sisterhood, a salve for my soul, a respite by the sea, one last hoorah before the inevitable back-to-school.

As I unloaded my deepest, darkest secrets, I heard my speech sprinkled with words like—actually, honestly, literally, ironically, hopefully…. When had I picked up this nasty adverb habit? An overuse of basically unnecessary words? (I meant to do that). When I say honestly, does that mean I’m not being honest the rest of the time? And if something is literally happening, isn’t it happening either way? And who knows if whatever seemed to me ironic was actually ironic? Even my computer (as I typed the last sentence) says: More concise language would be clearer for your reader.

Even at the beach, Steven King’s words echoed across time and place:

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King

By the way, King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, is a worthwhile read. Apparently, it didn’t break me of my verbal adverb compulsion. But you know what they say—the first step is admitting you have a problem. Obviously, I have teaching on my mind.

A summer ago in my last Creative Writing class, my professor said words that resonate still. I wrote them down:

“Stories are made from words. Your story is only as good as you have command of the language.”

Dr. James Boyleston

I love words, and I love the beach. Where better place to study? These words I found online:

“When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

Mark Twain

“Poetry is all nouns and verbs.”

Marianne Moore

Now, I can’t read without seeing how the author uses adjectives. I hope my students will see the same. This year when we read poetry in class, we’ll test Marianne Moore’s theory about the nouns and verbs. Mark Twain, I see your adverb, and I think anything in moderation works fine.

These words I found in a book about writing called, Sin and Syntax:

“A dependence on is and its family screams ‘rough draft.'”

Constance Hale

The key word is dependence. My past students have counted be verbs “am, is, are, was, were, be, been being” in their writing and reduced the number through revisions. Constance Hale suggests an 8:1 ratio of action verbs to be verbs. I think I’ll have my students test this idea with the stories we read.

And these words I found in my all-time favorite book about writing, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer:

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.

Francine Prose

The word-studying English teacher in me notices a few adverbs above, but also the parallelism of the adverb/adjective pairs: “seemingly obvious” and “oddly underappreciated.” I also see a number of those “be” verbs, “is” and its family, and that’s okay. Sometimes an “is” makes our clearest points. Other times our writing advances with action.

And these words I found in a comment on my blog:

We wouldn’t teach piano without having the student listen to Chopin or teach painting without looking at great art. Too often, English teachers give assignments without enough models of the form first.

Evelyn Krieger

I’m betting Evelyn Krieger has read Francine Prose, but as I head back to school, I appreciate her reminder.

My big sister headed home Sunday. Goodbyes are hard. I can’t help thinking my mother conspired from on high to make the trip possible and see her girls together, beachside.

As the days of summer dwindle, part of me is grateful for a new school year beginning, and part of me is sad for the vacation ending. Such is life. For everything there is a season. The waves come and go, the moments come and go, the feelings come and go. Everything is temporary.

A World in a Grain of Sand

Photo by Dmitriy Zub on Pexels.com

This week I took a class, a class for English teachers to teach better, and I learned stuff—a lotta stuff, like the little writing trick I’m sharing today. Part grammar, part analysis, part creativity, the task at hand involved both the left and right sides of my brain along with the beginning of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence.”

To see the world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Is to hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

I read these four lines for the first time and said to myself, “Huh?” Believe it or not, understanding takes time, even for English teachers. Lucky for me, my teacher gave me a thesis:

In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Yeah, I had to think about that, too.

Then she gave me a handout that said, Write an introduction that follows one of the grammatical patterns below:

  1. Begin with a sentence containing three absolute phrases, then follow it with five short sentences, each beginning with a participial phrase. End with the thesis.” (My teacher provided an example).
  2. Begin with a short, blunt statement followed by an elaborate series of balanced sentences or sentences with parallel elements.  End the paragraph with a metaphor that leads into your thesis. (Another example followed).

Then I had time to do my homework, and did I ever need time! I chose number one. I didn’t even look at number two. Directions tend to be abstract, examples concrete. I’m not sure my ideas connected to the micro and macrocosm, but I circled back to the idea of spirituality. I’m quite sure I could tweak the thesis for my own purposes, and I have no doubt I could use these sentence structures in other types of writing for a little variety. Here goes my try:

Gratitude shaped through observation of the little things, a higher power revealed through the earth’s creation, the meaning of life discovered, human fulfillment lies in the noticing and the appreciation. Toiling about our busy days, we fail to savor the wonder of our world. Worrying about the future, we fail to welcome the moment. Dwelling on the past, we fail to move on to the here and now. Yet, by taking time to truly see, we improve the quality of our lives. In his poem “Auguries of Innocence,” Blake uses analogies to convey his concept of the relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the material world and the spiritual world.  

Had I ever taught an absolute phrase before? No. But I quite like the effect. The phrase, “gratitude shaped through observation of the little things,” could be a sentence if I added an “is” between “gratitude” and “shaped” (gratitude is shaped through observation…) However, action verbs strengthen our writing, and besides, that sentence includes the passive voice vs. active voice. (Who or what is doing the shaping? Gratitude doesn’t shape itself. Active voice example: Our observations shape our gratitude). Anytime I can eliminate linking verbs (am, is, are, was, were, be, been, being), I do. As written, the absolute phrase functions as an adjective describing “human fulfillment.” In my opinion, the first sentence is a bit long, but the structure is malleable. I could lose two of the three phases in the first sentence if I so choose. All of this makes sense in my head, but the teacher-provided example clarifies the concept. We all need examples. We need teachers to explain. In 21 years of teaching, I have never had a concrete way of teaching the skill of writing an introduction. With this example, I have a brand new tool. I suppose I should go ahead and teach a few more years. This week’s teacher has taught for 36. How inspiring!

Next, came the sentences beginning with participial phrases. The assignment asked for five. I stopped at three. The participle looks like a verb but functions like an adjective. Past participles end in -ed. Present participles end in -ing. Add a prepositional phrase, and voila, you have a participial phrase: “Toiling about our busy days…Worrying about the future…Dwelling on the past.” These phrases describe us, or the “we” above. The parallelism lends a rhythm. A facility for language develops style.

I hope you give this grain of sand a try.

Bleh vs. What If?

Bleh, bleh, bleh, bleh,
bleh,
bleh,
bleh.

Bleh and bleh,
worry and fear,
sad and mad,
shame and guilt
and regret.

And yet—

What if?
I have the power
to rewrite my story.

What if?
My words and thoughts
have creative power
to transform.

What if?
I think on noble things:
health, wealth, and love,
faith and gratitude,
peace and hope
and joy.

What if I believe?
Life is good and generous,
and miracles are in motion
beyond my wildest dreams.

What if I say?
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Summer Reading

For my 2022 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I set my goal at thirty books. As of May, this teacher had fallen behind her own self-imposed schedule. So, as my grading wound down for the year and summer approached, I committed to flipping extra pages and finishing the unread books on my shelves. Funny how some of these books have faded already to a distant memory. Here are some snippets:

Considered a classic of the Harlem Renaissance and regarded as influential in both African American literature and women’s literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in rural Florida in the early part of the 20th century. After two marriages, Janie finally finds love, her voice, and ultimately herself. A co-worker recommendation. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t read this one before now. I gave it 5 of 5 stars on Goodreads and plan to use it in the classroom next year.

“She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

The winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is the story of a lesser-known novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging and loneliness, creativity and grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, and a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy. This was a re-read for me, the last book of the school year for my students, and 5 stars on Goodreads.

“I’ve got a theory. Now hear me out. It’s that our lives are half comedy and half tragedy. And for some people, it just works out that the first entire half of their lives is tragedy and then the second half is comedy.”

Andrew Sean Greer, Less

The winner for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys follows the life of Elwood Curtis, unjustly arrested through a cruel twist of fate and sentenced to a Florida reform school in the 1960’s. Based on the Dozier School for Boys with a 111-year history of cruelty, abuse, and murder, the novel sheds light on the current reality of the United States. I listened to this one on Audible during my commute and wished that I had read it with my eyes. Still, I gave in 5 stars.

“Even in death the boys were trouble.”

Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed in 1895, shortly before Wilde’s imprisonment for indecency. With mistaken and hidden identities, the flip-flopping of truth and lies, Wilde’s most-beloved play satirizes the superficiality of Victorian England and the snobbery of the aristocracy. Some of the absurd and witty banter might have gone over my head, so I gave it 4 stars on Goodreads. However, Wilde made me think about earnestness and duality, so I’ll give this one another chance.

“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.”

Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

The favorite novel of one of my fellow English teachers, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven did not disappoint. Published in 2014, this post-apocalyptic tale takes place before and after the “Georgia Flu” pandemic, which kills most of the population, and follows a troupe of nomadic Shakespearean actors across the Great Lakes region. The weaving of time and plot lines pushed Station Eleven up into the 5 range for me.

“What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Published in Swedish during 2012 and in English the following year, Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove depicts the story of a grumpy, hopeless 59-year-old man, who grieves the love of his life. Ove annoyed me at times but reminded me that no feeling is final, and I couldn’t seem to put the book down. I gave it 4 stars.

“Love is a strange thing. It takes you by surprise.”

Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ov

I started Constance Hale’s Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose back in January. Not necessarily a fun read, but not finishing was not an option. I most appreciated Part 3 on the lyricism, melody, and rhythm of writing and rated this book 3 stars on Goodreads.

A dependence on is and its family screams “rough draft.”

Constance Hale
Revised and updated edition. Originally subtitled How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose. Now How to Craft Wicked Good Prose. Nice move, Constance!

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave.

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail tells the story of losing her mother, divorcing her husband, and shooting up heroin for a while before setting off on an 1100-mile, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, ultimately, a journey of self-forgiveness, strength, and redemption. 4 stars.

What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to f* every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?

Cheryl Strayed, Wild

Another co-worker favorite and a best-known of Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway illustrates a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an upper-class woman in post first world war England, with a parallel story of a war veteran, Septimus Smith. I have no doubt I missed some nuance in meaning; however, Woolf’s exquisite stream-of-consciousness prose warrants a 5 and a re-read one day.

It is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Inspired by the story of a Belgian woman who assisted downed Allied pilots to escape Nazi territory, Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale portrays the storylines of two French sisters during World War II. A good story of love and survival, less-authentic than other works of historical fiction, 4 stars.

But love has to be stronger than hate, or there is no future for us.

Kristin Hannah, The Nightingale

Anne Lamott wished her father had written down everything he had learned while alive, so just before her sixty-first birthday, she made a list of her own for her grandson and niece. Almost Everything: Notes on Hope is classic Anne Lamott, somewhat repetitive if you’ve read much of her, but quotable nevertheless. And I’m a fan of hope. 3 stars.

John Lennon said, ‘Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end,’ and as this has always been true before, we can hope it will be again.

Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope

Dawn of the Silver Moon (Shawnee Friends Mission #1) by Margaret Mendenhall (my former Sunday school teacher and wedding pianist) depicts the life of a Quaker girl living in Kansas territory in the 1840s. Shawnee Indians abduct Lucy in an act of vengeance toward her father, and she builds a bridge between cultures through her faith. There were times when I told myself, “That’s impossible,” but by the end, I felt that nothing is impossible with God.  4 stars.

I think…I just heard God speak to me…He said, ‘Be not afraid. It is not as it seems. All things will work together for good to those who are called according to my purpose.’

Margaret Mendenhall, Dawn of the Silver Moon

For years I’ve followed the story of Maggie Doyne, a girl from New Jersey who took a gap year after high school. During her travels, the trajectory of her life dramatically alters when she has a surprise encounter with a Nepali girl breaking rocks in a quarry. At age nineteen, Maggie invests her life savings of five thousand dollars to buy a piece of land and open a children’s home and school in Nepal. Maggie Doyne’s memoir Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope is a coming-of-age story that shows how ordinary people have the power to change the world. An inspirational 5 stars.

No matter where I go, I always seem to end up in places like this one—alleyways, outskirts, trash heaps—the back pockets of a place where less desirable things and people get stuffed away. I’ve been traveling all over he South Pacific and living in India on my gap year, but still, a mix of sadness, fear, and shame hits me under my tongue every time I see these hidden, tucked-away places. Little kids go to work in some places. They’re porters, laborers on construction sites, domestics, agricultural workers. Watching them work is jarring—watching them work with a smile, even more so. The girl pulls herself up, shakes the pebble from her skirt, and sizes up a new hunk of shale.

Maggie Doyne, Between the Mountain and the Sky

I’m always thinking about my next book and still have some waiting on my shelf. Dare I ask what you’ve been reading?

No Feeling Is Final

June has been my least fruitful writing month in years. With bigger priorities, I didn’t care to write about bleh and couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for fluff.

Then, a week ago, I attended an online workshop led by my former student Monique Mitchell.

Monique was my student in sophomore English back in 2007. I’m not sure I realized at the time that she had moved from California to Texas to live with her aunt, but I remember her as a gifted writer. We just connected and stayed connected. I never suspected she almost failed her freshman year.  

Three years ago, Monique was living in LA, working for a literary organization, freelancing, and teaching writing workshops. She invited me to lunch at the airport Marriott in Houston, where she was guest speaking at a conference. In the hotel lobby, she oozed good vibes and embraced me with love. In the hotel restaurant, she told me how a job opportunity had presented itself in Ghana. She planned on moving soon. We spoke about our wildest dreams, the power of words, and self-limiting beliefs.

As we parted ways that day, she said, “The world needs your voice,” and she told me she loved me. I said it back. Speaking of powerful words and wildest dreams, I suddenly found myself pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing.  

While scrolling Instagram not long ago, I saw that Monique has returned to LA. She had created an online workshop called “Into Existence,” a beginner’s course to speaking your dream life into being. Needing inspiration for my dream life, I signed up.

Within the first six minutes of the course, Monique said so much that resonated. I wrote down these words:

“Life is a reflection of my beliefs. It’s a reflection of my language, and it’s a reflection of my choices.”

Monique Mitchell

This idea isn’t new to me. My dad always said, “Crystal, you can choose your attitude.” And sometime along the way I discovered Dr. Wayne Dyer’s teaching.

For years, I’ve said, “You can choose hope or choose despair, and who would choose despair?” Then that time after a hurricane flooded my home, I settled on a formula for life:

Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope.

But for the last year or so, after watching several of my loved ones suffer, I’ve felt justified in my anger toward God. Yes, things have gone my way, but I had chosen to wallow in worry and fear and anger and sadness. At the end of the workshop, I realized the need to uproot my toxic thoughts and plant some healthy ones—like a renewed faith and gratitude and peace and hope.  

A week passed and so did my father-in-law. He was the best dad and grandpa, kind and generous, an amazing golfer and a gifted joke-teller. Tommy fought the good fight and finished the race. Cancer sucks, and of course, I’m sad, especially for my family. Still, I’m thankful he no longer suffers. That feeling in my heart, the one that catches in my throat, means I loved him. And love is life, life is love, if we’re lucky.

Anyway, God, I’m sorry about being so angry for so long. Please forgive me and help me with that. And thanks for welcoming Tommy home. ❤️ P. S. Thanks also for your words in Jeremiah 29:11. “‘I have plans to prosper you…plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” I’m open to receiving miracles beyond my wildest imagination.

On the First Day of Summer Vacation

A week ago last Thursday, I awoke not to the sound of an alarm, though I am quite alarmed. I awoke to the sound of a person with intestinal issues in the bathroom down the hall, not a new sound, instead a very familiar sound that has persisted months too long unchecked. How does one insist that another adult sees a doctor when that adult is averse to seeing doctors? I suppose one could wait for another health issue to arise, like blindness.

And so that is how I finally insisted that my thirty-two-year-old son see a doctor, or at least let the doctor see him. After having chicken pox last summer and refusing medical attention then, my son has experienced hearing loss, chronic bowel issues, a fungal infection, and eyesight loss. Last Monday, I accompanied him to an appointment with a general practitioner, who referred us to five more doctors, including a psychiatrist. I was able to schedule appointments with the ophthalmologist and the dermatologist within the month of June, the gastroenterologist for July, the ENT for August, but for a psychiatrist, we are currently on a twelve-month waiting list. I literally laughed out loud on the phone when the scheduling assistant disclosed the timeline. This is just one of many problems in the US for seeking mental health help.

So, on the first day of my summer vacation, I headed to the island for fish tacos and fresh air, the sun and the sand and the sea. The waves rolled in and retreated, rolled in and retreated. And that is life. Situations come and go. We inhale and exhale. We live and die. Everything is a cycle. In four hours, I drove there and home, and I promised myself another trip tomorrow, four hours, there and home.   

On the Last Day of School

I had one last duty—lunch duty on the patio, probably my most favorite duty in twenty-one years of teaching. Outside, in the shade, with a breeze, I guarded the gate from student escapes prior to the state-mandated dismissal time. Even though the students had taken their last exams, they had to stick around for lunch by law, so I took my chicken sandwich outside and sat alone at a long table—to monitor the gate with my eyes and presence.

Students trickled through the glass doors from the building at 12:05. Two boys sat three tables over and behind me and played video games on hand-held devices. A girl sat one table over to my right and waited for her friends. We made eye contact. I didn’t know her, but I knew she would be my student one day, so I said, “You did it. How do you feel?”  

“It’s bittersweet,” she said.

I nodded my head in a knowing way. My students graduated the week before. Their finals and last classes the week before that. So, speaking of bittersweet, I had been doing a whole lot of nothing. Thumb twiddling. Some planning. Some online trainings. Not to mention those days I had COVID. School without students is not necessarily fun. I would rather teach any day, and now my students are off to do amazing things at amazing places. Next year will be another fresh start. New students. Some different literature. Another chance to do things better. Truth—year after year.

Friends joined the girl. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. They posed for selfies and cussed a bit and cracked each other up and hugged one another hard. Some ate lunch. No one tried to escape. They were happy for the upcoming summer and to be among friends. Aren’t we all?

This year has been wild, not as in hiking the Pacific Crest Trail wild, but as in surviving my first-year teaching seniors at a performing arts high school wild. Today it’s over for now, my last day of year twenty-one, reading a book and taking selfies, a bittersweet but happy start to summer.

The Unfortunate Tale of Pico the Peacock

I didn’t really know him.

“The peacock does most of his serious strutting in the spring and summer when he has a full tail to do it with. Usually he begins shortly after breakfast, struts for several hours, desists in the heat of the day, and begins again in the late afternoon.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”

I spotted Pico back in March. He was one magnificent bird dressed in emerald green and royal blue, turquoise and purple. All alone in the world.

I knew nothing about him, but I wanted to. Was he a pet? Did he escape? Did he have a name? I’ll never know. Months before that first encounter, my friend and neighbor Stan had mentioned peacocks in the neighborhood. Then sure enough, I spotted him outside my bedroom window, scrambled for my shoes, and grabbed my phone for documentation.

Pico, March 12, 2022, 8:26 AM

Later at school, I told my students about our neighborhood peacock. They said Houston was known for peacock populations. Who knew? I Googled their claim, and it’s true. This one seemed to be a loner. I spotted him a second time. And a third. And a fourth. I snapped more photos, shot some videos, and admired him from afar. I was smitten. Only once did he speak. Was it a cry? I backed away.  

Pico, March 23, 2022, 6:23 PM
Pico, March 26, 2022, 8:43 AM
Pico, March 27, 2022, 8:30 AM

“At night these calls take on a minor key and the air for miles around is charged with them.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The King of the Birds”

Once you hear a peacock’s voice, you’ll recognize it whether you see him or not. But the calls stopped.

He was gorgeous. No reason to die.

Stan told my husband that someone ran the peacock down in cold blood. Vehicular homicide. I don’t know how Stan knew. I want to believe it’s not true. How could anyone be so cruel? So sadistic? I’ll never know.

My heart reeled at the news. He deserved better. At least, a name. So, I named him Pico. In my mind, he flew in from Puerto Rico. RIP, you handsome King of the Birds.

Embrace Your Squeak

Random weekday.
School.
7:30 am.

To my classroom
from the elevator
in an otherwise
quiet corridor,
my most
comfy
shoes
squeak.

Squeak. Squeak.
Squeak. Squeak.
Each
irksome
footfall
makes me feel
meek.

How many times
have I met
a student's eyes?
Felt compelled
to apologize?

Something like:
“Good morning.
(insert name),
I’m wearing
my squeaky shoes
today.”

Finally, one,
her name is Emma,
said, “Mrs. B.,
that was me
yesterday.
Just embrace it.”

My smile
spread wide
from cheek
to cheek.

And when
my most
comfy
shoes
inevitably
squeak,
I stand
a little taller,
embrace it,
and squeak on
and on and on...

Embracing!