Come Sit with Maya Angelou

Sometimes I sit with Maya Angelou. Dr. Maya Angelou. I mean, I sit on my couch with my laptop in my lap, my left knee bent, my left heel tucked under my right butt cheek, and Maya Angelou on YouTube (three and a half minutes below). She is probably the wisest, most accessible, most inspirational person I know. God rest her soul.

I discovered Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings maybe just five or six years ago, and this book catapulted into the status of my all-time favorite. Since then, I’ve reread it a few times, as much for Angelou’s style as the strength of her story. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. She would go on to thrive against all odds. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series. I still have four to go.

The Heart of a Woman (1981), fourth in the series, follows Angelou from 1957-1962, from California to New York City, Cairo to Ghana. She arrives in New York as a singer/dancer, joins the Harlem Writers Guild, becomes a civil rights activist, and raises her teenaged son. Angelou is the epitome of determination, only one of the reasons I find myself sitting with her.

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is a series of essays, a quick little read, published between her fifth and sixth memoirs. She opens up about her marriages, sensuality, sexuality—what it means to be human, American, and a black American. I sit with her in part due to her honesty.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) is the sixth of the series, and once more the title refers back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” This volume begins as Maya Angelou returns from Africa to the US to work with Malcolm X. As she arrives, she learns that Malcom X has been assassinated, and violence in Watts explodes. She meets Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks her to become his coordinator in the north, and then he is assassinated. A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya Angelou begins to write the first sentences of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.”

Still on my to-read list:

  • Gather Together in My Name (1974, volume two) follows Maya as a single, teenaged mother sliding down the social ladder into poverty and crime.
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976, volume three) spans the years of 1949-1955, Angelou’s early twenties and her struggles to support her son, form meaningful relationships, and establish herself in the entertainment world.
  • All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, volume five) recounts Angelou’s years in Accra, Ghana between 1962-1965 and her return to the United States. Racism and the journey continue to be themes.
  • Mom & Me & Mom (2013, volume seven) was published shortly before Angelou’s 85th birthday and focuses on her relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter. In earlier volumes (the ones I’ve read anyway), Baxter remains an enigma of sorts, and this final volume fills some gaps. Even though it’s still on my to-read list, I’m inspired that Angelou continued to write until the end of her life. Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.

Are you interested in diversifying your reading experiences? Here’s a list of 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read. Let’s agree to add Paul Laurence Dunbar and make it eleven. I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Sympathy

BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
 
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
 
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

(This post inspired by my friends Rhonda at Pollyanna’s Path and Greg at A Thousand Miles from Kansas for their kindness in award nominations and their understanding of my Q & A rule breaking. When you have a chance, go check out their awesome blogs.)

Kafka’s Metamorphosis on the Shore

Have you ever read a book that you loved so much? Except there is almost no way to adequately explain. Like if you tried, people might think there’s something wrong with your brain. For me, that’s Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Mind-bending, for sure.

Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. He travels incognito.

Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally.

Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound.

In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life.

  • Both Kafka and Nakata have companions who appear out of nowhere to help. How many times have you felt an insurmountable problem, only to realize that there is someone willing to help you? I know I have, over and over, and our connections with others are vital to life. Our truest, most intimate connections have the power to transform us. We have the power to choose those connections, or we can live lonely, miserable, dysfunctional lives. It’s that simple.
  • There’s a message here about a “persistent, inward-moving spirit” (329). I think that means that we flourish though self-reflection, knowing ourselves, and confronting our own souls. Yes, you can lie to everyone around you, but you’re only lying to yourself. It’s so easy to spot the faults of others, but what about your own? As much as your friends can help you, ultimately you must rely on yourself and what’s inside you for courage and honesty, motivation and strength. If you can overcome your own fear, bias, and anger, you will be the strongest person in the world.
  • There’s another message about maintaining a “pliant, youthful sort of curiosity” (329). What do you like? What interests you? Are you open to new things, new people, new ideas? Kids are naturally more curious, naturally more accepting of differences, naturally willing to try new things. As we age, we become more stubborn and consequently more stuck in our ways, but a childlike curiosity keeps life interesting. Our first inclination might tell us, I would hate a book like that, by a Japanese author, where absurd things happen. But all the absurdity serves a purpose if you take some time to consider it. As they say, never judge a book by its cover.

In the end, I don’t think it spoils anything to say, Kafka’s metamorphosis is complete, and he has all the tools to bloom and grow. Life teaches us all about transformation when we keep our hearts and minds open. And I don’t know about you, but I’m happy that I’m not my past self.

I admit, this book might not be for everyone, but then again, maybe it is.

2020 Summer School Required Reading

Shout out to my friend Barbara over at ALTAIR 5G Theatre for bestowing upon me the Penable Award. Barbara wanted to know, “What’s your trick to regaining confidence in your life?” And this is it: intimate connections, using what I have inside (my heart, my brain, and my guts), and the childlike curiosity to keep on going because amazing things are still ahead.

(P.S. Barbara, salty, except I do love my wine, and about that song, here you go…)

 

Ode to Gatsby

“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”

That’s Nick Carraway in the first sentence of The Great Gatsby. Last spring break I lounged on the beach with a beverage in one hand and Gatsby in the other. “All the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had,” I read. People judge, I thought. Nick refrains because his father said so, or he tries. I remember my mother trying, too. She would stop herself mid-criticism and say, “I’m not going to say that. It wasn’t very nice.” And Philippians 4:8 comes to mind about thinking on excellent, praiseworthy things.

sand
Sands to Remember

Speaking of excellence and praise, what about this one for its sheer lyricism? “It was dawn now on Long Island and we went about opening the rest of the windows downstairs, filling the house with grey turning, gold turning light. The shadow of a tree fell abruptly across the dew and ghostly birds began to sing among the blue leaves. There was a slow pleasant movement in the air, scarcely a wind, promising a cool lovely day.” I want to write like that—grey turning, gold turning light. How poetic! Fitzgerald makes writing seem effortless. Writers know better.

That March day, I soaked up the Florida sun, snapped a few photos, and tapped a few phrases into my phone. In three sentences, I attempted to be Fitzgerald. It was spring break now on the Emerald Coast and we went about lounging on Crystal Beach, filling the day with a wave of sparkling sunlight, turning glittering foam. Tides of translucent sea rolled rhythmically on the sand and the gulls floated on wings and Sunday prayers. There was a peaceful simple luxury in the pause, scarcely a word, promising more of the same.

crystal-beach
Destin, FL, USA

Back in the classroom, I picked another passage for my students to try. I’ve used this one before. “That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Thomas Miller was one of my juniors in AP Language and Composition last year. His mother is Vietnamese, and his given name is Thien. He was a funny kid, tardy almost every day, but he knew I had a soft spot for him. Kids like Thomas inspire me, and he graduated last week. In response to the Gatsby passage, he wrote, “That’s my Vietnam—not the jungles or the fields or the cramped southern cities but the soothingly tranquil rains of my youth and the cold dawns and quiet afternoons in the murky light and the gathering of family members drawn by enticing banquets on clean floors. I am part of that, a little energetic with the feel of those wet summers, a little slovenly from the year I spent in a towering townhome in Saigon where townhomes rule the cityscape. I see now that Aunt Suzy, Mimi, Bambi, Vivi, Titi—they all represent a period of equilibrium and peace in my life. That’s my Vietnam.”

The Great Gatsby

Jesse James and Billy the Kid

“I wanna watch my birthday movie,” Kody said. It was Friday, May 8th. He turned 51.

I gave him a quizzical squint of my eyes and cock of my head. You would think after thirty years of marriage, I would know he had a birthday movie. Anyway, there was no time for birthday movies. Our daughter Lauren and I had planned him a surprise party at her apartment. My job was to get him there.

Restaurants are re-opening here in Houston with precautions in place at 25% capacity. Kody and I had made dinner reservations for later that evening for the first time since the quarantine, but Lauren planned enough fun to make him change his mind. I thought, what’s the difference between going out to eat or having friends who have stayed well over for a party?

“You’re not the only one who has a birthday movie,” he said.

I laughed. How many of my birthdays have I watched—wait, this is his birthday. Of course, he knows my birthday movie, but that’s a story for another day. “What’s your birthday movie?” I said.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” he said. The title rolled off his tongue.

He has watched it over and over, but somehow, I had never given the whole thing a chance. All two hours and 39 minutes.

The surprise party was a success. With a bang, we broke the rules of social distancing, cancelled our dinner reservations, turned up the music, and ordered pizza. We were modern-day outlaws. Without masks or guns.

When Saturday morning arrived, the time had come for the much anticipated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time I gave the 2007 movie a chance.

The narrative prose is exquisite, the cinematography stunning, and the cast star-studded. Brad Pitt is Jesse James. So there is that.

Apparently, I’ve always missed the beginning. The narrator captivated me with his lines as the images played out:

“He was growing into middle age and was living in a bungalow on Woodland Avenue. He installed himself in a rocking chair and smoked a cigar down in the evenings as his wife wiped her pink hands on an apron and reported happily on their two children. His children knew his legs, the sting of his mustache against their cheeks. They didn’t know how their father made his living, or why they so often moved. They didn’t know their father’s name. He was listed in the city directory as Thomas Howard. And he went everywhere unrecognized and lunched with Kansas City shopkeepers and merchants, calling himself a cattleman or a commodities investor, someone rich and leisured who had the common touch. He had two incompletely healed bullet holes in his chest and another in his thigh. He was missing the nub of his left middle finger and was cautious, lest that mutilation be seen. He also had a condition that was referred to as “granulated eyelids” and it caused him to blink more than usual as if he found creation slightly more than he could accept. Rooms seemed hotter when he was in them. Rains fell straighter. Clocks slowed. Sounds were amplified. He considered himself a Southern loyalist and guerrilla in a Civil War that never ended. He regretted neither his robberies nor the seventeen murders that he laid claim to. He had seen another summer under in Kansas City, Missouri and on September 5th in the year 1881, he was thirty-four-years-old.”

And that’s the movie. The last seven months of the life of American outlaw Jesse James with slow somber themes. Brad Pitt portrays him as mentally unstable, alternating between genteel and manic. No surprise. I recognize the look in his eyes.

Jesse James

The stage was set for my next literary endeavor of my grad school Maymester, Michael Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Another American outlaw. Same time period. In the afterword about his writing process, Ondaatje says that he started writing with a vague idea of Billy. “Twenty-one killed. Dead at twenty-one…I invented every gesture and choreographed every gunfight. I stole jokes from my friends and woes from people I knew less well.”

“What I discovered I had at the end of two years of writing poems and prose and imaginary interviews and songs and fragments was a manuscript somewhat like a valise containing the collected raw material for a collage. And so there followed another year of rewriting, refocusing, restructuring, and compressing all that material into some newly invented organic form that would contain the story…I learned everything about editing a haphazard structure in the time I spent choreographing and rebuilding The Collected Works of Billy the Kid…After the strict editing of the individual pieces I became obsessed with the arcing of the story, its larger architecture, as opposed to the clash of juxtapositions or plot development.”

An excerpt from The Collected Works of Billy the Kid:

After shooting Gregory
this is what happened
 
I’d shot him well and careful
made it explode under his heart
so it wouldn’t last long and was about to walk away when this chicken paddles out to him and as he was falling hops on his neck digs the beak into his throat straightens legs and heaves a red and blue vein out   Meanwhile he fell and the chicken walked away   still tugging at the vein till it was 12 yards long as if it held that body like a kite Gregory’s last words being   get away from me yer stupid chicken
Billy the Kid

U is for Untamed

When people ask my opinion on must-reads, Glennon Doyle’s memoir, Love Warrior makes my list. It’s the inspiring story of a woman who has overcome bulimia and alcoholism and then faces her husband’s infidelity. It’s about the healing process and finding trust in self. Love Warrior is one of those books that I marked up, and as promised, it changed my life.

Since 2016, I waited patiently for Glennon’s next memoir Untamed. I follow her on Instagram, so I knew the premise to come. My friend of forty-years Pamela follows her, too, and mailed me a copy. When the book arrived, I pulled a yellow highlighter from the kitchen-miscellaneous drawer and started reading and highlighting. 

Between memoirs, Glennon fell in love with a woman—Abby Wambach, soccer icon, speaker, New York Times bestselling author, and activist for equality and inclusion. Untamed tells their story and launches into more activism—racial justice, refugee rights, and women’s ability to live and work without the threat of sexual harassment and violence. At times, it feels preachy. I like Glennon most when she sticks to her story. Regardless, she is insightful and funny, her relationship with Abby loving and faithful, and her truths universal: 

 #1

“In the past eighteen years, I have learned two things about pain.

First: I can feel everything and survive. What I thought would kill me, didn’t. Every time I said to myself: I can’t take this anymore—I was wrong…

Second: I can use pain to become. I am here to keep becoming truer, more beautiful versions of myself again and again forever” (51).

#2

“There is a life meant for you that is truer than the one you’re living. But in order to have it, you will have to forge it yourself. You will have to create on the outside what you are imagining on the inside. Only you can bring it forth” (64).

#3

“A few years ago, Alicia Keys announced to the world that she was done wearing makeup. She said, ‘I don’t want to cover up anymore. Not my face, not my mind, not my soul, not my thoughts, not my dreams, not my struggles…Nothing.’

A while later I read an interview with Adam Levine. He said that while they were filming a show together, he poked his head into Alicia Keys’s dressing room. She had her back to him, and she was leaning into the mirror, putting on lipstick.

He smiled and said, ‘Oh, I thought Alicia doesn’t wear makeup.’

She turned around, looked at him, lipstick in her hand. She said, ‘I do what the fuck I want’” (101).

#4

“I have spent the last decade of my life listening to women talk about what they most desire. This is what women tell me they want:

  • I want a minute to take a deep breath.
  • I want rest, peace, passion.
  • I want good food and true, wild, intimate sex.
  • I want relationships with no lies.
  • I want to be comfortable in my own skin.
  • I want to be seen, to be loved.
  • I want joy and safety for my children and for everyone else’s children.
  • I want justice for all.
  • I want help, community, connection.
  • I want to be forgiven, and I want to finally forgive.
  • I want enough money and power to stop feeling afraid.
  • I want to find my purpose down here and live it out fully.
  • I want to look at the news and see less pain, more love.
  • I want to look at the people in my life and really see them and love them.
  • I want to look in the mirror and really see myself and love myself.
  • I want to feel alive (121).

#5

“I will never promise to be this way or that way, I will only promise to show up, as I am, wherever I am. That’s it, and that’s all. People will like me or not, but being liked is not my One Thing; integrity is. So I must live and tell my truth. Folks will come around or quit coming around. Either way: lovely. Anything or anyone I could lose by telling the truth was never mine anyway” (200).

#6

“I think of the words of Dr. Maya Angelou: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better’” (219).

#7

“After a decade of listening to women, I’m convinced that our deepest fears are:

  1. Living without ever finding our purpose
  2. Dying without ever finding our true belonging” (267).

#8

“I’m a clinically depressed inspirational speaker. I am a diagnosed anxious person whose main job is to convince people that everything’s okay. Please note that if I can be these things, anyone can be anything” (275).

#9

“I’ll tell you this: The braver I am, the luckier I get” (296).

#10

“Glennon shows us the clearest meaning of ‘To thine own self be true.’ It’s as if she reached into her heart, captured the raw emotions there and translated them into words that anyone who’s ever known pain or shame—in other words, every human on the planet—can relate to” (Oprah Winfrey, Untamed book cover).

Today I’m thankful for the Untamed perspective, the ability to make up my own mind, and a platform to pass along my thoughts. Next book—Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient.

Thank U for visiting my A-Z blogging challenge. If U stumbled onto my post by chance today, I’ve been sticking to a theme of gratitude this month and working my way through the alphabet. Past posts are linked below 😊:

A is for Apple and B is for Boozer and C is for Champagne and Chanel No. 5 and D is for Dad and E is for Epiphany and F is for Faith + Gratitude = Peace + Hope and G is for Great _______ and H is for Hatbox and Honeysuckle and I for an I and J is for Jesus and K is for Kody and L is for the Lovely Lauren and M is for the Marvelous Misti and a Dirty Martini and N is for the Numbers and O is for the Oversized Owl and P—Prayer and My Grandmother’s Pearls and R is for Ripples Colliding and S is for Siblings and T is for the Tomlinsons

A to Z Challenge

Slowing Down My Pretty Horses

 

During the spring 2020 semester I’m taking a three-hour, on-line class—WRIT 6342: Writing Workshop Fiction II. One of the course objectives is to articulate how various stylistic choices shape a work of fiction. An assignment last week forced me to slowdown my reading and consider the effectiveness of a single sentence, word by word, phrase by phrase, clause by clause. When I teach again, I’ll use this assignment. Each week I have two to three assignments due. Once I submit my work online, my classmates read my work, and I read theirs. We discuss by commenting back and forth to each other.

img_3061

All the Pretty Horses Homework

From my professor: For this response you need to read All the Pretty Horses and the chapter on language in How Fiction Works. Find one sentence you would classify as baroque (highly ornate and extravagant in style). In 300 or more words, consider what makes the sentence effective. Yes, I’m asking you to write 300 words about one sentence.

“When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives” (McCarthy 5).

After his grandfather’s funeral and before we even know our protagonist’s name, John Grady Cole reveals himself as a sentimental dreamer by riding on horseback out to the old Comanche road coming down out of Kiowa country. In this place, he hears the horses and the riders of the past. Narrated in the third-person, each “and” represents an echo of the rhythmic gallop of horses from a time when Indians roamed the land and fought to keep it. Nouns follow the repeated “and” provide more details of the place where Cole grew up, the land he is losing, like the Comanches and Kiowas did, and the unfairness of it all. We hear and see, the horses, their breath, their hooves shod in rawhide, rattling lances carried by the natives for hunting and protection and the drag of travois poles for restraining horses and dragging loads over the land. In this case McCarthy compares the sound of the drag and the image in the sand to “the passing of some enormous serpent.” In Native American cultures, the serpent is a fertility symbol, and others believe the serpent symbolizes the umbilical cord, joining all humans to Mother Earth. Even the word passing makes a hissing sound.

The young boys on wild horses are not much different than John Grady, “jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses.” We later see John Grady confidently break sixteen horses in the course of four days. An audience gathers, he performs, and they are mesmerized by the act. McCarthy likens “all remembrance” to a “grail” and in this case a search for a romanticized life. This highly ornate sentence concludes by setting up John Grady Cole’s secular, transitory, violent quest, leaving his dead grandfather’s land behind to be sold and passing from Texas across the Rio Grande in search of adventure as a cowboy in Mexico.

By the way, I watched the Matt Damon movie with Penelope Cruz before I submitted my assignment on Wednesday. Then I finished the book. What can I say? I was a little distracted last week. 

Meanwhile, my daughter Lauren journeyed the six or so miles from her apartment to our house and brought over a box of six puzzles she picked up from Walgreens. We, too, slowed down. We started a 500-piece kite puzzle, revealing the bigger picture, piece by piece, and enjoyed our mother-daughter time—one conversation, one meal, one YouTube video at a time.

This past week reminded me to slow down. I paused long enough to consider puzzles and stories and relationships and priorities. We never know for sure what our weeks will hold, but for this one, I have high hopes as always.

 

The First Time I Fell in Love

The first time I fell in love, I was five—and I fell in love with a monster. The Monster at the End of This Book starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover. The illustrated Grover would read the title page, and when I turned the page, he would freak out in all caps:

“WHAT DID THAT SAY? On the first page what did that say? Did that say there will be a Monster at the end of this book??? IT DID? Oh, I am so scared of Monsters!!!”

Overcome with fear, Grover would muster the strength to politely ask me not to turn the page, which of course, I did. I knew Grover’s words by heart, and in my five-year-old mind, my impersonation of his Sesame Street voice was spot-on. I flipped pages as he tied them together with rope, nailed one page to the next, built a brick wall, and BEGGED me to stop turning pages. In the end Grover finds himself at the end of the book. He. Is. The Monster. And this Little Golden Book taught me some important life lessons.

Lessons from Grover: Labels lead to misunderstandings, and even monsters can be furry and lovable. Fear can be crippling, and more often than not, outcomes don’t turn out as bad as the build-up in your head.

Photo courtesy of listal.com, The Monster at the End of This Book was written by Jon Stone and illustrated by Michael Smollin.

I suppose my love of a good story started here with Grover, and I suppose that same love compelled me back to school to become an English teacher. I suppose this love is why I’ve spent the last twenty years in the classroom, and I suppose it compels me now to write stories of my own. And most of all, I suppose I owe the lovable, furry old Grover a huge debt of gratitude for forever changing my life.

That’s My Middle West

“That’s my middle-west—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns but the thrilling, returning trains of my youth and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.”

Nick Carraway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Over the past twenty years, I’ve discovered that most writing success begins with an example. Students need concrete models of introductions and thesis statements, topic sentences and embedded quotations and commentary, statements of theme and parallelism. Name the skill, any skill, an example provides the training wheels.

In my bag of teacher tricks, I dig for a creative writing assignment that I must credit to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, not to mention Plano ISD, where I taught English and learned my craft for fourteen years, and the intensive two-week Plano Writing Leadership Academy, which I attended twice, and my writing mentors, Lisa Thibodeaux and Marsha Cawthon, who facilitated those game-changing professional development opportunities.

The directions for said-teacher-trick go something like this:

Think about where you are from and use F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description above to inspire one of your own. Use some of his words as needed, and pay attention to his phrasing and punctuation.

That’s my _________—not the _______ or the ________ or the ________ _________ ________ but the ________, _______ _______ of my ________ and the _________ _______ and _______ _______ in the ________ ______ and the…  

(You understand where this is going.)

As the teacher, I can’t escape the upcoming high stakes testing, but I know the students need breaks from the test prep and loads of confidence. Did I mention bonus points for sharing aloud? You should see their little faces beaming with pride as they string their ideas together like Fitzgerald, and my eyes get a little misty, too, as I learn something new about my kids and their journeys, their hearts and the insides of their heads.

Let’s Talk about Books, Baby

I wish I could remember the specifics of all the books that follow. The details now blur in my mind, lucky for you. This could have been an extra long post. In short, I LOVED them all. In my perfect hypothetical library, these books would stand proud in my bookcases waiting for someone like you to flip their pages and escape to another time and place.

Top Favorite Books of My Life on Earth by Crystal Byers

  1. The Help by Kathryn Stockett*
  2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini*
  3. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry*
  4. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant*
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  6. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
  7. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden*
  8. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls*
  9. Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt*
  10. The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
  11. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides*
  12. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
  13. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
  14. Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
  15. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak*
  16. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou*
  17. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
  18. The Book of Bright Ideas by Sandra King
  19. Circling the Sun by Paula McLain*
  20. Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton*
  21. Me Before You (#1) by Jojo Moyes
  22. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  23. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
  24. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

I gravitate toward historical fiction and female perspective and memoir and young adult fiction. Anyway, I typed the list in random order, so #1 means nothing other than the beginning of my list. I can’t answer the “What’s your favorite book” question. I can only give you my top 24 and let you know I have trouble cutting my list short. On a second look, I asterisked the ones that truly star in my top ten or twelve, so if you’re looking for a MUST-READ, start there and Google to help you find your next favorite book. Oh, and I left off the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings series, which I LOVE, as well as some classics because I’m nerdy, but I have to shout out my all-time favorite character Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities. You see, my list could’ve gone on and on, so I just stopped at #24.

Your turn. Summer approaches, and I'm a teacher. What's my next MUST READ?