The Gate of Desire

I should say that this year’s Key West Literary Seminar — how the light gets in — was organized around 14 metaphorical “gates,” each meant to provide an entryway to talk and think about literature of the spirit. Saturday morning’s gate was Longing and began with a talk by Mark Doty about Desire. He said that language begins in wonder and awe, and that our response to that wonder is naming. How interesting, he noted, that our mouth is the place that connects us to all that is outside of us. He recited several poems, beginning with one of his own: “Messiah (Christmas portions)”and what struck me the most were these lines:

If art’s
acceptable evidence,

mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?

The poem continues — and then these lines to end the poem:

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
the choir insists,

might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
quickened, now,

by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
Still time to change.

The poem and Doty’s commentary made me think of Whitman, the way he used desire and male-male sexuality in “Song of Myself.” Desire, Doty explained, is the very point of difference for gay men (his specific reference — obviously true for women as well), and so perhaps that point of difference, that desire, was well worth celebrating. (As I sit here and read and grade Scarlet Letter papers, I’m also thinking of Hester and of Hawthorne. Was that his point? “Aren’t we enlarged by the scale of what we’re able to desire?” Hester is punished for seeing the possibilities beyond what society offers her. I see so many similarities between her life and Margaret Fuller’s. Fuller’s tragic death, a retribution for daring to imagine a new kind of life.) The light, then, is ours. We’re the lucky ones.

More insights from Key West!

Here it is, the last day of my time in Key West — and of course, I meant to post continuouslyphoto-54

while I was here — but there was no time, so here I am, on my last night here, playing catch up, trying to capture this incredible week here in at The Key West Literary Seminar and Writers Workshop. As I mentioned in my earlier post, the theme this year was “how the light gets in: literature of the spirit.” photo-55The seminar runs from Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon. Some of us who received scholarships and financial aid were asked to choose either Friday or Saturday morning to attend or skip, and I chose to skip Friday morning, visiting the Hemingway House instead. photo-56

Saturday afternoon began with a talk and reading from Mary Rose O’Reilly who quoted Gerard Manley Hopkins: “What I do is me and for that I came.” Her take on those words: “If you don’t bring your face of God into the world, that face of God doesn’t get brought into the world.” During a conversation between Robert Richardson and Coleman Barks, “What Can We Really Say About Spirit?” — the invocation of Rumi (thanks to translator Coleman Barks) and his poem, “The Guest house.”

This being human is a guest house.

Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,

some momentary awareness comes

as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!

Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,

who violently sweep your house

empty of its furniture,

still treat each guest honorably.

He may be clearing you out

for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.

Meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes

because each has been sent

as a guide from beyond.

Both Coleman and Robert Richardson talked about the word “consider” — whose Latin roots mean “study the stars.” Words, they reminded us, are objects first. “Stick to things; words will follow.” Sound advice for writing! More to follow…

How the Light Gets In

I’m writing from Key West, where I’m attending the Key West Literary Seminars (KWLS) — as the grateful recipient of a teacher scholarship. I’m here for a week, one glorious week, and weather-wise, the timing couldn’t be more perfect. It was a bit more complicated to leave school for one week after just heading back post-Christmas vacation, but I’m sure the students are also thrilled for some writing /catch up/ down time. They have plenty to do in my absence!

The theme of the seminar this year is How The Light Gets In: literature of the spirit. I’m going to try to post throughout the week.

Festivities began last night at the Tennessee Williams Fine Arts Center. What an amazing evening! We were treated to music by the Paul Winter Consort — gorgeous, uplifting music against a backdrop of stars and light. Music, Pico Iyer told us in his introduction, clears the mind and truly lets in light, perhaps more sharply or clearly than words can. Iyer talked about Leonard Cohen, who said we must “say Amen to the way things are.” He talked about visiting Cohen in the various places he has lived, stories that illustrate Cohen’s deep understanding revealed in “Hallelujah.” Cohen has also said that”Light comes through many windows.” And here, Iyer noted, Cohen is paraphrasing Emerson (it always comes back to Emerson) who said, “Cracks are where the light gets in.” And perhaps, Emerson was quoting Rumi who said “Our wounds are how the light gets in.”

We were then blessed- – and I use that word deliberately — with poems by Marilyn Nelson, Mark Doty, Barry Lopez, Coleman Barks, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirschfield, and Mary Rose O’Reilly — all coordinated with music from the consort. And I was transported, brought to that place of knowing, of feeling the light enter, of reaffirming once again my strong belief that it is in our art, in our music, our words, our dance, our painting, that we find and reveal the Divine, how I, at least, understand God.

When I listened to Pico Iyer’s words — “It’s important, what we feel on our knees as a lover and a monk,” I was reminded immediately of Whitman, whom we’re reading in my 11th grade English class right now. I thought of the sexual imagery he uses throughout “Song of Myself” as a sacred metaphor, the way he uses the body, too, in both sacred and profane ways, and how, in our class discussions, sometimes I see that light enter my students’ brains and hearts, how I sometimes feel it too, a flash of understanding, a glimpse of something more powerful than the words on the page in front of us.

I’m going to leave you today with words from Paulette Alden, whom I had the opportunity to sit next to at last night’s events. These words are printed in our program for the seminar. She says: “I had a revelation. I believed in literature. I meant this in the same way that people believe in God, their need for Him. But there it was. I believed in literature, it became my religion and for all those years, in my own fail way, I had been true to it.”

I can’t wait for more!

Preparing for the Transcendentalists…

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Fall — the season of newness and beginnings, at least for teachers. I think maybe we all love the fall, at least that’s what my students confess in their journals, a confirmation to a belief I’ve long held, that the year begins in the fall, not in January, but in autumn, the season we teachers know instinctively as the time to try again. The season of the fresh start. Fall is my favorite season, almost each 11th grader begins in this new journal assignment I’m trying out this year in my American Lit classes. String Journals  — I learned about them in the Approaching Walden Institute that I attended this past summer. The idea is to give students a piece of string. Ask them to tie the string outside somewhere, attach it to something, a place they can revisit throughout the year. But the string, I tell them as we were told, is only a device. If it disappears, so be it. The point is to get outside, to observe one spot in nature over time, to reflect on that observation, and to write about it in a 2-3 page journal entry due every other week.
We are preparing for the Transcendentalists.

I think in some sense I am always preparing my students for the Transcendentalists. Fall, with its visible changes, allows us to be more aware of nature’s insistent call that we pay attention now. Doesn’t Thoreau lament that too few of us are truly awake? Isn’t Emerson’s plea for us to listen to our own true selves? Spring is too subtle with its lightness, its pastels, but fall, this season of deep, vibrant hues, calls us to attention.

My 11th graders are reading Emerson this weekend, with Margaret Fuller and then Thoreau to follow. On Monday, we’ll talk about what self-reliance means, how “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” about the ways in which “society never advances” and is a “joint-stock company.” We’ll probe and consider his words, and it is my hope that the string journals have prepared them in some small way to think deeply about Emerson, Fuller, and Thoreau. At least they have begun noticing small things in their daily world of outside.

I took my Creative Nonfiction students on a walk outside, after we read Annie Dillard’s essay “Seeing,” which they loved. We read Diane Ackerman’s “How To Watch The Sky” and several short pieces on the meaning of home. Their writing is strong and accomplished for so early in the year, and I’m hopeful that they’ll continue to soar and find new strengths as yet uncovered.

In Fiction II, my nine students, this year all girls, juniors and seniors, are drafting novels. Their goal: 100 pages of a novel by year’s end. This quarter, we lay the groundwork, writing about characters, their backstories, their vulnerabilities, their potential conflicts. This past week, we have been focusing on the outside world, the setting of the novel. I ask my students, what does it mean to be from the place your character is from? How does place impact them — their lives, their decisions, their language, their hopes and dreams? For two days this week, students created storyboards, dreaming up their novels as they worked, chatting with each other, asking questions about possible motives and behaviors, a happy hum in the classroom.

My freshmen, too, are writing happily right now, nonfiction, their most recent essay assignment focused on home and what that means. They are fierce little writers, already dedicated, desperate to write and write and write. Can we just write all day?  they beg. Please just let us keep writing.

It is a joy — right now and mostly — to work with young writers, kids who are waking up to their lives, bold and bravely putting their worlds on paper, using language to create art and new realities, sifting through their stories, finding truth and their true selves. photo-mums pumpkins

10 Reasons I Hate Grading Your Assignment: Blogiversary Post #2


This blog entry hit the nail on the head. Inevitably how I feel at least once every quarter as I grade papers and portfolios…*sigh*

Originally posted on Classroom as Microcosm:

mflfn0II hesitate to put this post out there again!  Not only does it feel outdated (I haven’t asked for a paper copy of an at-home assignment in three years), but at the time it was published, it attracted some passionate critics (and defenders); if you go to the original and read the comments, you will see what I mean.  I came of age as a blogger when this post went moderately viral and I got my first taste of what it means to blog for the “public” and not just for a small and like-minded group of readers.

Nonetheless, it is the 9th-most-shared post I’ve ever written, and it still gets a fair number of views at the end of each semester/year when teachers everywhere are apoplectic and need someone to vent for them.  What’s more, it tickles me to look back at the quaint concerns we had in 2009, like printer ink and Hotmail.

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Butterflies and Barbecue

butterfly on red flowers  What a lovely week! If you haven’t made it to the Butterflies Alive! exhibit at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (open through mid-October), you should. It’s magical. Trust me. You should go. You won’t regret it. If you click here: you should be able to see a live cam of the butterflies.

Here are a couple more pictures that do not capture their real beauty or the truly magical quality of being in the butterfly “room” while these creatures fly and land on plants, the floor, your shoulder.  black butterfly And here’s another:

white butterfly

What a delight!  I took my friend Connie to see the butterflies after we got back from five days of glorious writing at The Porches: –. Both of us finished novel revisions, and I worked on an essay revision and started a new essay.  Best way to begin the summer. The butterflies kept us feeling other-worldly for just  a bit longer.  We finished off the day at Buzz and Ned’s Barbecue, for its own “otherworldly” qualities!  Delicious.

I’m also re-reading Walden in preparation for an upcoming workshop–APPROACHING WALDEN — to be held at the Thoreau Institute in Massachusetts. I leave in two days, and I’m pretty excited to see what the workshop entails.  For teachers, the idea is to help us develop a curriculum based on “place” — and I’m either going to work on my English 11/American Literature curriculum or my nonfiction writing curriculum — I’ll wait to see when I get there.  And, I’ll keep you posted. No matter what, it should be interesting.  I have some thoughts on Thoreau to post later too — it’s rather astounding how relevant his words are still, in 2014.

Tonight, it’s off to see THE COLOR PURPLE — the musical:  And then — off to New England and the Transcendentalists!

Summer slow down



It’s not officially summer, but since school is out, it’s summer as far as I’m concerned. This particular summer has brought some changes, first and foremost a weight loss program that is long overdue.

For the past several years, I have told myself, not deceptively, that I am — to borrow a phrase from Elden Nelson, aka “Fatty” or “Fat Cyclist” (see his fabulous blog: ), “fat fit.”  In other words, though I am overweight, I am “fit,” cardiovascularly speaking.  And that’s true.  I am an avid though amateur cyclist, and in most seasons, I ride with some regularity, usually training for a long-distance event at summer’s end.  And up until very recently, blood work would support my fat/fit theory.  But this past year, at my annual check-up, my bad cholesterol level had inched up to the higher end of normal, closer to the unsafe level than I like.  A few other numbers weren’t as good as they had been either, and to make matters worse, I wasn’t riding, maybe as a result of last year’s training for Pan-Mass Challenge when, at times, I felt resentful of the need to train and wanted just to stay home and read, write, or do anything that wasn’t training.  So I stopped altogether, though from my perspective now, I don’t remember it being a conscious decision — but instead the need for intense training was over, and once fall arrived, school started back up and time became precious again.

 Perhaps even more critically, not only did I ride infrequently (i.e. 3 or 4 times all fall), I stopped working out regularly, too.  Again, not so much a conscious decision but something I let happen.    

Now, to further exacerbate the situation, the school year was a tough one. We had, this year, more than the average number of difficult situations with kids — suicide attempts, hospitalizations, abusive parents, even a cardiac arrest (NOTE: that student is doing well today, thankfully!).  We had difficult situations with teachers — our beloved musical theatre teacher suffered a stroke at age 34 (NOTE: he is making good progress…), a dear friend and English department colleague who shattered her ankle and missed the last two months of school (she is healing well now too). It just seemed that one thing happened after another with no time to process or heal or make sense of it all.  Topping it off, we missed weeks of school in the winter because of bad weather, and while that time should seem like a gift, truthfully, missing so many days makes the in-school time more difficult for a variety of reasons.  All in all, this has been the hardest year I remember in my twenty-nine years of teaching.  

So..instead of exercising, I was more inclined to come home, open a bottle of wine, pour a glass and flop onto the couch.  Day after day after day.  And thus, the inevitable weight gain.  

But now that school is over, I am motivated to do something about it, and I’ve started the Ideal Protein diet (you can read about it here: and here:  Three weeks in, and I’m down 14 lbs. and over 7 inches.  I’m ecstatic!  

I’ve noticed, too, some important changes that are accompanying this weight loss journey:

  • Becoming more mindful in general.   Because I have to prepare my food daily, because I can’t just grab something and go, I’m slowing down and becoming more mindful of what I eat and how I am spending my time.  Mindfulness is something I have consciously tried to cultivate in my life, but this year especially, I found myself carried along with the messiness of everyday life — doing, doing, doing but not reflecting, not being conscious at all.  The shift to mindfulness is noticeable and welcome. 
  • More energy!  Part of this diet’s protocol (for the beginning phases at least) requires me to give up alcohol.  Less wine means more energy — but the supplements I’m now taking and the much healthier eating habits are contributing to that, too.  More energy means more time to do the things I love, like writing and reading and working in the garden.  Now of course I knew that flopping on the couch with a glass (or 2 or 3) of wine wasn’t helping my evening energy level, but I’m a creature of habit, and once I established that habit of coming home and having a glass of Zinfandel or Cabernet, I started to look forward to it.  My stress levels told me I needed it when, of course, I didn’t.  So, cutting out the alcohol, as much as I love wine, has been beneficial to me in lots of ways, not the least of which is redirecting my habits and ways of dealing with stress.  

I’m sure I’ll discover more benefits as I continue with the program.  
Now, one potential drawback for this program is that exercise (at least most aerobic exercise) is prohibited too, so for now, I’m not riding.  Like the alcohol prohibition, it’s temporary, and I am definitely looking forward to hopping back on the bike and climbing hills with much less extra weight!  So for the immediate future, there will be no cycling posts.  Instead — many more writing posts, I hope! 

It’s funny how one change can influence so many others.  I didn’t anticipate a general improvement in my days simply because of a decision to lose weight, but of course everything we do is connected.  Being mindful about what I eat and drink helps me to be mindful when I approach my writing.  My friendships. My relationship.  I’m grateful for the opportunity to see this play out in my life these days.  And as the summer continues, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.  

Happy summer!