Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Secret of the Mysterious Letters


      I was eleven years old, and I was primed for a mystery.
     A Nancy Drew fan for years, I had stayed up late nearly every night, reading by the poor light of a 1970s-era Raggedy Ann lamp, devouring The Secret of the Old Clock and The Mystery of the Ivory Charm. I tapped on the walls in my attic bedroom, hoping to find a secret door or passageway, and I too memorized the creaks in the stairway so I could ascend and descend noiselessly. There was little chance a mystery of any sort was ever going to come my way, but Nancy was always prepared, and I packed my suitcase and magnifying glass, vowing that I would be ready, too – just in case.
     So many of Nancy’s mysteries revolved around important papers – wills, maps, letters, diaries and the like. While I was tapping walls and listening for hollow spots, I never dreamed that I would have my own mysterious letters to contend with, letters that have consumed me for the last thirty years.
     I was eleven years old when my dear great-grandmother passed away after a short illness. Little Grandma, as she was affectionately known to everyone from mayors to priests to great-grandchildren, was nearly 104 when she died, a powerhouse of a woman standing no taller than 4’10 and constantly admonishing all of us to Mangia, mangia! Despite years of threatening to “kick the bucket,” I was still devastated when she died, the first real death that I grieved. Grief soon gave way to astonishment when we went to her funeral and I goggled at the cars in her processional, a processional so long I could not trace it to its end.
     “Mom, who are all these people?” I asked incredulously.
     “That’s the Bruce family,” she replied curtly, trying to maneuver the car through a red light. “There’s a lot of family on the East Side that you’ve never met.”
     The East Side was a hazy place in my mind, a place where people lived who were so vastly different from us that we could never go visit them, even if they were family. Just how they were different I did not know, but I did know that East Siders stuck to their side of town, and we stuck to ours, and never the twain shall meet.
     In any case, the funeral got me thinking about Little Grandma. I had heard a lot of stories over the years, sitting around Little Grandma’s round kitchen table on Greenview on Detroit's west side, pressing grooves into the flowered vinyl tablecloth with my fingernails. Aunt Mary, her oldest daughter, and Aunt Margaret, her youngest daughter, were there too, translating as Little Grandma spoke mainly in the dialect of Alvito, her native mountain town in central Italy. I knew the big stories – how Little Grandma’s parents had been crushed in a mudslide, how Little Grandma had survived, how she had married my great-grandfather, Domenico (dead now for so long that he, too was a shadowy figure in my mind, a man who may have fathered Little Grandma’s children but who had done nothing else, he was so absent from every story) and sailed to America on the Augusta Victoria.  I knew about the mean woman Little Grandma lived with after her parents died, the evil woman who worked poor Little Grandma to the bone. Most of all, I had heard many jokes about Little Grandma’s boyfriend under the bed, an imaginary suitor named Adolfo with whom she intended to run off and marry some day.
     Little did I know how real Adolfo was, and what a story lay behind his existence under her bed.
     It was sometime that summer, the summer of 1985, a few weeks after her funeral, when once again I found myself sitting around Little Grandma’s table with Aunt Margaret, Aunt Mary, my mom, my grandmother, and my cousin Loretta. There were tears, yes, but there was lots of laughter, too, as we fondly remembered this tough little old lady. There we were, three generations of women crowded around a table groaning with food, pasta and polenta and prosciutto pushed out of the way to make room for handwritten papers charting four, perhaps five generations of the Brusca family. I didn’t know it at the time, but I – so very young, pigtailed, and freckled – had manifested a miracle. These women were the keepers of secrets, the guardians of family lore, and yet my driving curiosity and endless questions had led us here, and the Brusca family, in all its glory and shame, was beginning to take shape in those painstakingly hand drawn genealogy graphs.
     One box on the table, however, remained mysterious. Purple and tattered, the green and white label on the side read Cambric Writing on a box that had once held 500 crisp new envelopes. Now it held yellowed envelopes – hundreds of them – all addressed to Mrs. Cesidia Brusca, and almost all of them bearing the insignia and return address of the Massachusetts State Department of Corrections in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The envelopes themselves, while fragile, were carefully preserved, their stamps – some dating back to the 1920s – perfectly affixed, standing at attention, seeking my attention. 
     “What’s in the box?” I asked with all the innocent curiosity of an avid Nancy Drew reader.
     The easy conversation and laughter stopped. A shadow crossed Aunt Margaret’s face. “I don’t know if you are old enough…” she trailed off, as my pleading brown eyes begged her silently and her own eyes quickly shifted to her sister, Aunt Mary. A grave concern had settled over the table.
     It was my grandmother who finally spoke after what seemed to be an indeterminable silence. “Just a minute, Jenni, give us some time to talk.”
     Loretta busied herself with kitchen chores while Grandma, Aunt Mary and Aunt Margaret retreated five feet into the living room, whispering fiercely amongst themselves. I tried in vain to hear, but these women were crafty, clever, and well trained in shadowy conversations in the corners. They could have easily worked for the FBI or the CIA, these women, so long were their memories and so still were their lips.
     I waited, with breath hitched in my throat, hoping, hoping, hoping.
     After eons they returned, solemnly resuming their places at the table, while Aunt Mary grabbed my hand.
     “Jenni, we are going to tell you a story, but you must keep it to yourself.”
     I understood that I was about to be indoctrinated into a piece of the adult Bruce world, and I nodded silently, eyes round.
     “You know how Ma always talked about her boyfriend under the bed? These are her letters from Adolfo.”
     “Adolfo is REAL?” I asked, astonished.
     For an answer Aunt Mary carefully lifted out a letter and handed it to me. “Be careful, the envelopes are old and fragile.”
     I extracted a thin letter, postmarked in April, 1926, bearing the watermark and address of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, located in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Afraid I would tear it if I opened it, I scrunched up my nose.
     “But I don’t understand…why was he in jail?”
     Aunt Mary made a face. “Oh, he had a bad sister-in-law, oh, she was a bad woman, and he was set up."
     I didn’t quite know what to make of this, but a vision of a big-breasted woman in a Satan-red dress suddenly sprang to mind. I knew Little Grandma to be a devout Catholic who had always advised me to trust in God, so whatever Adolfo was in jail for, it must be a mistake. Little Grandma would never have associated with a real criminal.
     There were scores of letters in that box, letters that I took home and read by the same Raggedy Ann light in the late hours of the night. It was my very own mystery.
                                                  
                                                            ***
Unlike Nancy, however, I didn’t solve it in under 200 pages, or even in under twenty years. It has taken me thirty years at last count, has landed me in Boston, Concord, and Leominster, Massachusetts; in Ellis Island in New York; in Rome and Florence and tiny mountain towns in central Italy. The story is hundreds of pages long. I still have the letters, but I also have so much more of the story – newspaper articles, pictures of gravesites, birth certificates, death certificates, letters from the warden, century-old pictures of the prison, but despite all of the materials I have collected and all the research I have done, one big mystery still eludes me:
     Just who was Adolfo Mattacchioni, and why was Little Grandma hiding him under the bed?
     Here is what I do know: it all started one dark and stormy night in a little mountain town in central Italy: Alvito.

                      

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Persuasive Strategies for Organ Donation

On your own personal blog, analyze your strategies you used in your post. Did you use all three appeal (ethos, pathos, and logos)?  Why or why not? Which approach do you think works best to connect with a blog and its reader?

In my persuasive blog post "Don't wait to DONATE your organs!" http://english209winter2015.blogspot.com/2015/04/dont-wait-to-donate-your-organs.html, I believe I used ethos, pathos, and logos equally, providing for a well-balanced argument that I sincerely hope will persuade readers to take action.

My ethos and pathos are inextricably intertwined, but I will analyze them separately.

Ethos: I have lost a cousin to kidney failure, so I have an intense personal experience to share. I also admit that my cousin and I were not very close - I don't pretend that we were best friends. There's an honesty to that that I believe adds credence to my ethos. I'm also up front about the financial situation that was vexing me that summer  - a situation that now seems trivial in comparison to Cassie's death. (We always think that we have it so much harder than anyone else, but boy are we wrong!)  I am also, and perhaps most importantly, registered with the Michigan Organ Registry, so what I am asking readers to do is something I have already done myself. (I'm also registered as a potential blood marrow donor with Be the Match, but as that is not related to kidney donation I decided to leave that part out.) 

Pathos: The tragedy of a 29 year old beautiful young woman falling asleep one night and never waking up is simply heartbreaking, as is the toll it took on her immediate and extended family. I did not want to make this maudlin in any way; the reality of the situation is horrifying enough without me embellishing her illness and passing. There's also a delicate situation here: I don't know as many details about her life or her death as I should or could, and I would never want to call her parents to glean those details for a blog. I know they still suffer every day, and I respect their privacy.

Logos: I cited information and statistics from Gift of Life Michigan, The University of Michigan Medical System, and the Secretary of State. I gave specific numbers and bolded and enlarged them in order to catch the reader's eye. I gave links to all of the sources I used and explained the ease with which someone can sign up to be an organ donor and provided links to make that happen if the reader felt persuaded enough to do so.

I think the strongest persuasive tactic I use is when I ask readers to join me on the registry. I can't go back in time to see if I would be a match for Cassie as a living donor, but I can move forward by maintaining my name on the Michigan Organ Donor Registry. 

Weaknesses: I could have addressed myths about organ donation (disfigurement, closed coffins) and religious issues, but I chose purposefully not to because that leads readers down a road that discourages them from taking action. I tried to be as straightforward as possible to avoid that kind of thinking, which often deters would-be organ donors from signing up.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blogging to Persuade




In the Science of Persuasion, the participants discuss 6 keys to persuading readers:

1). Reciprocity

2). Scarcity
3). Authority
4) Consistency
5). Liking
6). Consensus

In a blog, reciprocity is key; you have to have something specific to offer readers if you want readers to follow you and comment on your work. It can be a juicy secret, the key to dropping pounds quickly, a cure for beating anxiety, or one of a million other examples, but you must hold out the apple for the reader and hope that he or she will bite. 


I think the most successful blogs rely on consistency. Pick a theme and stick to it. I'm reminded of Julia Powell's blog; she had something new to share about her cooking project every single day. I think bloggers that are too scattershot tend to frustrate readers. Mandyfish varies widely in her topics, but she's always funny; her quirky sense of humor keeps readers coming back for more. Consensus plays a part here too; if I see a Facebook post from a friend who has posted an intriguing blog post, I'm much more likely to not only read the blog post, but to poke around the blog site as well. Social media helps to proliferate blogs (and a whole lot of other articles, ads, goods, services, etc.) like wildfire largely because of consensus.


Bloggers must develop a voice, and that voice has to be likable, for the most part. If, as William Zinsser notes, bloggers descend into the depths of whining and overexposure, they may see a spike in readers for a day, a week, or a month, but they will lack the longevity needed to sustain a blog for the long term. No one likes an Debbie Downer.



Authority is mostly irrelevant in a blog. Bloggers (like myself) often use pseudonyms, and the details of our backgrounds are obscured, invented, or buried entirely. I won't allow my students to use blogs for academic research because so often the blogger's identity is shrouded in mystery, and we have no way of knowing if he or she is credible. Without that ethos, I am always a bit wary reading a blog (at least for academic work).


Scarcity doesn't even apply to blogs. There are a million blogs about a million topics, and if you check out WordPress, they claim that 50,000 new sites are created every day. 


That last statistic really gives me pause. I'm just one lonely fish out here in a limitless pond.




GULP.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Finally!

"If the personal essay frequently presents a middle-aged point of view, it may be because it is the fruit of ripened experience, which naturally brings with it some worldly disenchantment, or at least realism." -The Art of the Personal Essay

We live in a world that is so laser-focused on preserving youth, it was incredibly refreshing to read that the personal essay benefits from a more, shall we say, seasoned outlook on life than that of the highly touted millenials.

I don't exactly have a "seasoned" picture of myself. I'm a goofball.

I'm nearing 41, and it has taken me a long time to get comfortable in my own skin. I skipped a grade as a child and felt like an outcast for most of my schooling. Even now, my excitement for Edgar Allan Poe, my penchant for dressing up in character, and my big personality often draw unwelcome attention. I no longer care the way I did in my teens and twenties. I don't remember if I cared much in my thirties, as they were such a blur - teaching, earning my master's degree, raising a toddler to her "tween"age years. I don't bother much with fashion trends and am happiest shopping at the Salvation Army for some hidden find. I'd rather be judged by my character than my dress size, and I try hard to be a good mother to my teenaged daughter. I'm never afraid to look the fool if it means that either my daughter or my students will learn something from it.

My life experiences have been intense. I am emotional, sensitive, and highly attuned to others; whether in moments of grief or joy, I have lived vicariously. I'm stubborn but open-minded; what I lack in patience I give in love. I care deeply about my family, my friends, my students, and my work. I bite off far more than I can chew and am never satisfied until a project meets my own exacting standards. I love researching in academic databases - it makes me feel a bit like Nancy Drew on the trail of a clue. I'm enthusiastic, joyful, fearful, and creative.  I am passionate about social justice issues and tend to side with the underdog. I believe strongly that we are all interconnected, all children of the Universe, and I am certain that it is my job to show my students, through literature, that we are so much more than we are told we are, and that we can become even more.

I say all of this because I think I possess tremendous power with my writing for so many reasons. As a woman, as a mother, as a teacher, as a researcher - the intensity I bring to my everyday life is the same kind of intensity I try to bring to my writing. I have been through so much in my own life, and, by a conservative estimate, have taught more than 3200 students in the last sixteen years. I have seen a wide swath of the cross-section of humanity, and I believe I have the ethos to write about the human condition with some degree of authority.

Most of all, I refuse to write about something unless I give a damn about it. And I give a damn about an awful lot.



Monday, February 16, 2015

What Does It All Mean?


Whatever memoir I choose to write, I am looking to construct a larger meaning from the experience. Why does this specific experience matter to me in the grand scheme of my life? Why should - or would - it matter to anyone else? 




In the last ten days, my family has suffered tremendously. My Aunt Cindy suffered a heart attack and spent three days in the hospital; as I was taking a shower last Saturday morning, preparing to visit her, my husband came in to tell me, gently, that she had already passed away. During the same weekend, physicians admitted my Uncle Bill to a different hospital to treat his pneumonia. While there, doctors discovered he had suffered a mild heart attack at home. When the nurses took him for a routine echocardiogram last Sunday, he suffered a massive heart attack and underwent CPR for 20-30 minutes, leaving him brain damaged and on life support. This past weekend, my Aunt Arlene made the heartbreaking decision to remove his life support. We wait for news of the worst kind.


In the paragraph above, I have barely scratched the surface of what has happened. It certainly is no memoir - yet. There's little in the way of emotion in my bare bones account, nor catharsis; in fact, as my uncle clings to life, we have not had the chance to process what has happened to either my Aunt Cindy or my Uncle Bill, or to assess what kind of hole their deaths will leave in the fabric of our family. There's also the question of what I should include - my own feelings, yes, but what of those of my husband or daughter? As I mull over this subject as a possible memoir, I think of William Zinsser's advice, of the advice of Marion Roach Smith: what is this about? It is about my sadness and grief over the death and severe illness of two of my favorite relatives. It is not about how my husband feels or how my daughter feels, nor do I need to add in every last cousin who came to the hospital. As much as I love them, I can leave them out. And perhaps this isn't the memoir to write right now - it's too fresh, too painful, and definitely lacking resolution. I can't complete the memory because I am still in the middle of making it - however agonizing that might be in this moment. 

It is, however, a story of loss and grief and despair, and perhaps with time, I will be able to construct some kind of meaning out of this adversity for myself in a way that will also reach a reader's heart. 

Monday, February 9, 2015

What to do, what to do?

If I had to write just one memoir, what would I choose? Alas, I have no rags to riches tale, so I will stick with more pedestrian topics as I muse over my options...

1. Teaching comes to mind first. I have been a high school English teacher for sixteen years, and there's no shortage of kids and situations I could write about - I mean, I regularly dress up as a flapper, as Edgar Allan Poe, as a Beatnik poet, as Walt Whitman; I've fallen off of a desk while acting out "The Raven" (I was dressed as a raven at the time); I've had my students build rafts for Huck Finn, act out scenes from The Catcher in the Rye, and perform their own poetry to an audience. My students have gone on to become doctors and lawyers and Hollywood producers and actors; some have passed far too soon or ended up in jail. 
The most cathartic experiences I have had as a teacher are BY FAR those students who have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles and who have managed to overcome those obstacles in spite of everything working against them. I can think of four or five very special students who would be excellent candidates for a memoir project; their stories would be compelling and full of pathos - no one would be able to read them with a dry eye.
2. Before I was a teacher, I was a journalist. I wrote for my college newspaper, served at an internship for a local paper, and worked at Detroit-area TV and radio stations. This is the most manageable choice, as it narrows down to a five year time period and ultimately culminates in my wedding, as I met my husband through the industry. I could easily find the emotional turning points - the heartbreaking stories I had to report on, the car crash I suffered when I fell asleep at the wheel and totaled my car (I was working overnights at the time), the grandiose speech I gave to my boss when I quit the TV station, full of 22 year old bravado that I don't think I could muster in this day and age. 
The catharsis would ultimately be the decision I made to leave journalism and to pursue either a PR career for nonprofits or teaching. The freedom and lightness I felt when I quit - as terrifying as it was - was worth the struggle. I am certain that anyone who has ever hated his or her job would absolutely relate to my story.


3. The memoir I want to write, the memoir I need to write, is about my journey in search of  my family history. I was eleven when my great-grandmother's death propelled me on this quest, and this summer marks thirty years that I have been researching the genealogy on my mother's side of the family. There are so many a-ha moments that would provide the emotional turning points - surprising discoveries along the way - as well as the deaths of those who held secrets that they took to their graves. This is undoubtedly the most daunting of the three suggestions, but I am heartened by some of the advice that Marion Roach Smith gave in her NPR interview. If I can construct this by asking myself "What is this about?", deciding on a concrete answer, I can strip away the extraneous material and focus on exactly why this story matters to more than just me. I am so laser-focused on this idea that those ancestry.com commercials will look like chump change after I say all I need to say.

The catharsis would be that what I have learned about my great-grandmother - about all of my family, really - is that we are survivors. We suffer, but we suffer well, and we keep going no matter what life throws our way. We all descend from a woman who stood no more than 4'9" tall, but she is a giant in my eyes. Whenever I am confronted with another obstacle or tragedy, I think back to all she experienced in her 103 years on this planet, and I am heartened. I come from strong stock, and I can withstand - and triumph - over anything life hurls at me. 
  

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

(not) having it all

DFP sweet spot.JPG
I swear, sometimes the Universe seems to be swinging a large mallet over my head.

As I continue mulling over self-care and self-love this week, this article appeared in the Detroit Free Press today:

Christine Carter has just published a new book called The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and at Work.


Of course I am planning to read the book, but this was absolutely the BEST advice in the article:
"One of Carter's first steps was to borrow an idea from management guru Peter Bregman: Pick your life's top five priorities. Then she pledged to spend 95% of her time on activities that support those priorities and to say 'no"'to virtually everything else. 'Because we can't do everything, we need to make choices,' she says."

This inspired some intense thinking at 4:30 A.M. What are my top five priorities? And (harder for me), how do I say no to virtually everything else? The priorities were easy! I have been working on those all week!
1. Health (the whole package of self-care, not just diet and exercise)
2. Spending time with family (immediate and extended) and friends 
3. Writing (I have three academic articles on deck and a novel that needs to be finished, dammit! I am also delighted to be blogging and writing every day!)
4. Teaching and beyond! How can I best grow in my profession? How can I inspire myself, my students, and the other teachers around me? 
5. THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS (engage in activities that feed my soul: traveling, gardening, spending time in nature, creating and enjoying a delicious meal; turning off the soul-sucking garbage that distracts me from LIVING.)

It seems simple enough: these are my priorities, and if there is something in my life that doesn't fit these priorities, I need to jettison it. And yet, like Carter, I am constantly asked to do more, to sit on one more committee, to present one more lecture, to revamp one more class curriculum, to take on one more responsibility at work. Because I work with kids, it is difficult for me to say no. I will have to really think about whether what I am doing is benefiting the kids or the adults before I take on one more thing

Because one more thing just might pull me under.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from
     the woods
...
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not
     know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

-Uncle Walt, "Song of Myself"

As I continue to think of all the ways I can care for myself, I realized that the trips I am planning - both in the states and abroad - are part of that new mantra I am embracing, the one that has me attempting to enjoy more and stress less.

That seems like an oxymoron in many ways. Preparing for a trip is always a harried business, full of schedules and timetables and delays and new rules from the TSA. And yet, traveling speaks to that perpetual longing I feel to see new or familiar places, to leave home so that when I come back, I can appreciate it with clear eyes.

In just a few short weeks I will be traveling to see dear friends from my undergrad days in college. I have known them for well over twenty years, but as they live on the opposite side of the country, I do not see them often - have not met their children - have never visited their homes. While I will miss my family, I am bursting with excitement over this trip. Visiting these friends is soul-renewing. They knew me when I still planned to be a journalist, when I was struggling to pay for school, when I was managing a Little Caesar's to make ends meet. There's something about these college friendships that hasn't been replicated at any other time in my life. There's no artifice with these friends, only unconditional love and acceptance, and I cannot wait to soak in the sunshine of our long-awaited reunion.

I am grateful, too, for their families. They have extended the kindness of offering me a place to stay in their homes, of allowing me to tag along to yoga class, and of planning literary excursions to satiate the book lover in me.  I look forward to scrumptious dinners, fantastic views, warm weather, and the company of friends all around.

Finally, a chance to unwind.


Monday, January 19, 2015

OM...

"Yoga is the method by which the restless mind is calmed and the energy directed into constructive channels. As a mighty river which when properly harnessed by dams and canals, creates a vast reservoir of water, prevents famine and provides abundant power for industry; so also the mind, when controlled, provides a reservoir of peace and generates abundant energy for human uplift."
-B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga

During the summer, I go to yoga almost every day. It's how I refill that reservoir that is absolutely drained by the end of the school year. I eat better, I spend time in nature, I read for pleasure, and I exercise - walking, biking, paddle boarding, and, of course, I practice yoga. It is during those sunny summer months that I am able to nail difficult poses (even when I fall, I am smiling!), when my migraines abate, and when I am finally able to breathe again.


Yesterday's post got me thinking that this kind of self-love should not and cannot be reserved for the summer months only. I have to put myself and my needs first ALL YEAR LONG in order to keep that reservoir filled. Otherwise, I become short-tempered, angry, irritated, fat, lazy, anxious, unhappy, and sometimes even depressed. Last year, when my school district shut down for an extra five days following winter break, I even did "snowga" - the world had shut down, and there was nothing I could do about it, so I made the most of my extra time.


Yesterday's epiphany helped to re-order my priorities today. Instead of going to yoga this morning, I chose to go this evening with a dear friend. I went out to OU and paid my tuition and visited my cousin and my best friend who both work on campus. I took my daughter out to lunch and ordered myself a soup and salad. I visited my folks. My finger is so much better, I even took myself for a manicure.


You can hardly see that it's still healing!

I still have homework to do, and I have to pay the bills, but it is astonishing how a small paradigm shift made my day so much better. I am relaxed, happy, and looking forward to yoga tonight. 

I'm back in the classroom tomorrow, so the challenge will be to maintain this kind of self-care in the face of reality. That will be a struggle, but it is one I am convinced I have to face for my own sanity. 


I cannot possibly support anyone else until I find a way to support myself.


Sunday, January 18, 2015

Where Am I Going, Where Will I Be?

In the winter of my fortieth year, I rang in 2015 by promptly slicing off my fingertip. 
While I wrote about this yesterday, I did not explain that this injury was a result of my resolve this year to eat healthier. I purchased a mandolin slicer and did not even make it through the first sweet potato before I injured myself. This has made my quest for a healthy start to the new year rather problematic in a number of ways. 

First of all, I am now quite leery of knives and sharp blades. I should have already have been leery of knives, as I am rather clumsy and prone to accidents, just as I should be leery of ovens, stovetops, fires, burning oil, and all sorts of other household hazards that have left their mark on my flesh over the years. To get back to my point, it has been extraordinarily difficult to cut and clean vegetables, to cook, and to wash dishes as the fingertip was heavily bandaged against possible infection or, worse, an accidental collision. Just washing my hair the first week required help as every nerve ending was raw and exposed, and bumping that oozing flesh against my skull sent a white hot flash of pain throughout my entire body. I'm not sure what I have been eating these last two weeks, but some of it has been healthy, and some of it has been convenient. Now that the fingertip is in better shape, I will resume my quest to cook at home, eating more vegetables and fruits, even if I have to eat them whole and uncooked to avoid any more accidents.

Secondly, my finger injury kept me sidelined from yoga and the gym for a full week. Upon my return to both, I took it very easy to make sure I did not bang it in any way, and I am also still nursing a popped hamstring from mid-December. As the hamstring injury affects my left leg and the fingertip injury is on my right hand, this made many yoga postures particularly challenging. So much for my other healthy resolution to work out every day! It looks as if my New Year's resolutions need to begin on January 19th instead of January 1st. That is fine with me - I do believe the Universe has been trying to tell me to slow down, and, well, I had no choice but to obey. Interestingly, both injuries have forced me to be much more mindful of my body and the choices I make throughout the day.



This leads me to two questions:
1. Will I continue to slow down, pay attention, and be more mindful now that both injuries are both healing?
2. Did I make the WRONG New Year's resolution? 

I'm rereading that line: Interestingly, both injuries have forced me to be much more mindful of my body and the choices I make throughout the day.

Isn't that precisely what I was trying to do by making healthy food choices and working out? Maybe the reason that I have NOT been successful at these resolutions is because I am always racing through life and prioritizing other people ahead of myself. Maybe I'm never in the moment because my monkey mind is always a million light years ahead of my physical body, and I forget to pay attention to the task at hand. Maybe I am overscheduled and overwrought with the dis-ease of being "busy," and I need to cut back, slow down, and take care of myself in all kinds of ways, not just with food and exercise.

Definitely food for thought.






Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Tale of Two Assignments


"These are the poets, the philosophers, the scientists, the thinkers whose observations and interpretations of life provide nourishment for the inner spirit of those who can learn to heed them."

It's the end of the semester at the high school where I teach, and Louella B. Cook's article from 1959(!) could not be more apropos as I reflect on the last two assignments I have been feverishly grading for weeks on end.

My sophomore students had two massive assignments this semester that reflect those "two faces of Janus" Cook references in her article. One was a formal literary analysis of one of the works of Edgar Allan Poe - a 4-5 page structured assignment in MLA format, 7th edition, held to the highest of Common Core standards, with absolutely no use of first person permitted. I slaved over the grading of these papers, meticulously circling every error I found, writing extensive comments, even with a nasty fingertip injury.

Yes, I soldiered on like a good English teacher should, grading those papers with such fury that it even became a hot topic on Twitter when our school did not close for a "cold day" last week.
Everyone knew this was an impossibility, especially from someone who was just voted "hardest teacher" for the second year in a row. It was the talk of the school, so much so that when I DID grade an A paper, I posted THAT on Twitter.
The rub of it is, the kids strove to do well on this paper, but I doubt very much that a single one of them enjoyed the process. They had a hard time excising themselves - especially that letter I - out of the writing process. The average grade on these papers was an 84% B - a solid average, yes, but nothing that inspired them or me.

That all changed, as it does every year, when we moved on to Transcendentalism. 

We read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson. We blew bubbles in class to help understand "The Over-Soul" and sang along to U2's "One." (Well, at least one of us did.) We did yoga in class.

I assigned them scrapbooks that they could create with a minimum of requirements, and I tossed MLA format out the window. I took them out on nature walks and told them their entire scrapbook should be in first person, that they should feel free to argue or agree or puzzle over these authors, that they should pick quotes that meant something to them, that they should make this assignment their own.


When they were finally able to write about themselves, when they were able to pick the quotes, carry on arguments with authors, design and decorate to their hearts' content, their grades soared. The average grade for the scrapbooks was a 90% A-. 

Not only did I allow them to write for self-revelation, but they took their inspiration from those poets who provided them with "nourishment for [their] inner spirit."And that made all of the difference.





Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Aching to write

"Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak."

I have a secret, a tremendous secret. For the last thirty years I have been researching my family history, and I have a book I want to publish. It's not the shadow of a book, or the idea of a book, or the talk of a book - I have a real life honest-to-God book about my great-grandmother that I desperately want to publish. But I know in my heart that it's not finished. And so I keep putting off what I need to do transform this book from the giant binder stuffed in my desk into real book, one with a spine and pagination and amazing cover art that whispers READ ME when people pass it in Barnes and Noble.

I ache to tell her story. I tell it out loud to everyone I meet, but I want so much more. If novels were created via hypnotic word-weaving in thin air, publishers would be fighting over my creation, my book would fly off the shelves, movie producers would be clamoring for the rights to her tale. I'm not lacking research or ideas or a heartbreaking ending. I have a fabulous, wonderful, amazing story of the triumph of the human spirit, and I can't finish it.

The reason? I have to write about myself.

While I have fictionalized my great-grandmother's story, there's definitely something missing - the entire back story of how I got here. The story of my eleven-year-old self watching my Little Grandma's mile-long funeral procession and realizing there were dozens of relatives I had never met. The endless hours spent with my great-aunts, my grandmother, and my cousin Loretta, painstakingly creating genealogy charts for long dead family members. The breakthrough that sent me, a new mom, packing for a trip I couldn't afford to Boston. Flying across the Atlantic for the first time to Italy, to the tiny mountain town where my great-grandmother had grown up, using the language of my hand gestures and a pocket dictionary to speak to the city officials there. A surprise family member that necessitated another trip to Boston. So many documents, pictures, genealogy charts, and letters. Dozens and dozens of letters in their original envelopes, yellowed with age, letters that launched me on this quest in the first place.

But why is this so difficult? I'm blogging, aren't I? Writing about my most cherished secret? Yet it is so hard for me to construct these stories, some of which stretch back decades, to recreate them in my mind and put words to page. I'm also stymied by the living  - those aunts and uncles and cousins that may take umbrage with my memories, or be offended in some way, or who may repudiate my version of events entirely.

There's also the matter of revisiting my former self, warts and all, at particularly emotional or embarrassing parts of my life. I've spent many years trying to free myself from the stranglehold of my past, and yet I cannot do that and simultaneously tell the story of my Little Grandma's past - they are inextricably intertwined.

I must find a way to reconcile this fear, for I find that as 2015 dawns, I am once again aching to write.