The Gift

It’s the day after Christmas, and I’m alone in the house, drinking coffee, kitties sleeping nearby. It has been a most wonderful Christmas, maybe the best one ever (though full disclosure– I might say that every year) — but right now, this is a truth. I am full and blessed and humbled and joyful. I am thinking about one special gift.

On Friday, the day before Christmas Eve, I got word that Johnny died. He lived next door to my mother and was a fixture in the small Massachusetts beach community, one of the few all-year-rounders, like my mother and her husband. Fastidious by nature, he cleaned houses and got summer cottages ready for owners who arrived in time for 4th of July. He vacuumed his entire house every day, often starting at 4 a.m., and when I complained to him that I could hear the noise from my opened bedroom window–and even in later years through the closed window with air conditioner on– he was startled to realize that running a vacuum at such an early hour wasn’t everyone’s version of normal behavior. And his windows–he had to have the cleanest windows anywhere; he washed those, too, every day.

In many ways, Johnny was larger than life. I think it’s safe to say that his idol was Diana Ross, and from time to time, he would emerge onto the balcony of one of the houses he was cleaning, dust rag in hand, to pose as the icon, reciting the words to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and maybe belting out a few lines. My partner then was from Charlottesville, Virginia, and when we arrived at my mother’s for our annual summer visit, Johnny would stick his head out the window and shout, “The South will rise again!” in his version of a drawl. He lived alone, preferring it that way. No one, he said, could get used to his habits. Or he to theirs. He loved the beach community but he didn’t often go to the beach, preferring instead to wander over in the late afternoon, cigarettes and Diet Pepsi in hand, to sit on the porch steps and chat.

Johnny minded growing older, and he suffered loss with tremendous anguish. It saddened him deeply when my partner and I broke up, though he welcomed my current partner with characteristic flourish, and he meant it. The people he loved, he loved fiercely. And in those earlier days when my partner and I arrived to his Scarlett O’Hara battle cry, he would find us, too, in the dark early hour of our departures, to hand us money and food for the trip back to Virginia. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

In his last couple of years, Johnny didn’t live in his home any longer; he couldn’t take care of himself. Though only sixty-six when he died, his health had deteriorated too much. The streets of our little beach town just aren’t the same without him–his strong Boston accent (“how AH ya?”) shouted from his bathroom window while he leaned out and smoked, his shuffle up and down the street, cleaning rag in hand, replacing everyone’s trash cans after the garbage men tossed them in disarray, or pulling out of his driveway in that red Solara to get the daily meatball sub from Brant Rock or the red geraniums that he planted and cared for with such attention. Children loved him; he was everyone’s favorite uncle.

Johnny was a gift in my life. His friendship and love were uncomplicated offerings that I accepted gratefully. His presence was something I counted on, and now, here, in my Virginia study, I miss him. But I’m buoyed, too, by his love and by his generous spirit that live on in all who knew him. Johnny Franco, I miss you, dear friend. Your love and your life are treasured gifts. Thank you.


The Day After

Some version of this has been rolling around in my head all day. I have never felt so despondent in my life. We’ve been through the Reagan years and all the resulting deaths because of his blatant disregard for the lives of gay men and his (non) policies around the HIV epidemic; we’ve been through both of the Bush presidencies and their resulting chaos and needless wars — and yet. Somehow, nothing is as terrifying to me as the results of yesterday’s election.

I am crushed. I woke feeling despair.

I teach American literature, and today, we were discussing Thoreau. How fitting to think about his words in “Civil Disobedience” when he wrote:  “Practially speaking, the opponents to a reform in Massachusetts are not a hundred thousand politicians in the South, but a hundred thousand merchants and farmers here, who are more interested in commerce and agriculture than they are in humanity, and are not prepared to do justice to the slave and to Mexico , cost what it may.” How that resonates. How many Trump supporters are claiming on Facebook that they are not the voice of hatred and discrimination, that they elected him for other reasons? To them I say, you are guilty. You are as guilty as if you said the words yourself. You are certainly guilty of caring more about commerce than humanity.

Thoreau continues: “It is not a man’ duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous, wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it no thought longer, not to give it practially his support.” (emphasis mine). Voting for Trump is giving him your support. Voting for Trump is saying that you don’t care about people of color, or LGBTQ folks, or immigrants, or the disabled, or non-Christians. It is as simple as that. Because if you did, you wouldn’t have voted for him. You couldn’t have.

I’m also teaching my students how to write arguments. I’m teaching them to consider all the evidence, that opinions are formed based on sound evidence. I’m teaching them critical thinking, that learning to think and write clearly is hard work but that it will all be worth it in the end. But this morning–this morning they see a different reality. They see that maybe hard work means nothing at all. They see that a reality TV star with no experience governing can be elected President of the United States (it IS a reality TV show, right?)– that the most experienced person we’ve ever had run for President didn’t win, that all her hard work wasn’t worth much, in the end. So many people during this election seemingly ignored everything Donald Trump said or did, and they voted for him anyway. (Reminds me of George Bush and his weapons of mass destruction. All the evidence said: “There aren’t any.” George Bush: Well, I believe that there are.”). And still–I think I’d rather have George Bush than Donald Trump. There. I’ve said it. (Even Paul Ryan looks good right now).

This is a scary, scary man. This is someone who is prepared to do very real harm to this country, and while the majority of Americans voted for Hillary Clinton and NOT Donald Trump, too many fellow Americans decided that their neighbors weren’t worth fighting for. They decided their pocketbooks meant more to them than people, and that’s a sad, sad day. I don’t know why I’m so surprised, and maybe that’s part of the despair. I didn’t believe it would happen. I didn’t think it was possible. I didn’t realize so much hate simmered beneath the surface. I didn’t know how many people could ignore the terrible things Donald Trump did, the things he said and his obvious disregard for others.

But like Thoreau, we will resist. We will continue to fight for what’s right. The despair will give way to anger, and the anger will motivate us. We are not going away. And I, at least, am not ready to unite with anyone who voted away my rights. Not yet. Not for a long, long while.



Guest Blog, part II

Hey all —

Here’s a link to part II of the guest blog I wrote for the summer seminar series of RETHINKING AMERICA, a fabulous blog for anyone interested in American History and/or current politics. This summer’s seminar offers a close reading of the Declaration of Independence — and my guest posting takes a bit of the Declaration and compares to American lit — namely, The Great Gatsby, Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again.”
There’s also a link provided to Part I (on the guest blog post) if you missed it and want to read the whole thing.

Enjoy! Let me know your thoughts.


Guest blog

Hello everyone!
I’m including here a link to a guest blog I wrote for a friend and former colleague — a history teacher who has put together a project for his students. He wants them to look closely at a text– really closely–and as part of that project, he contacted me and asked me to write something about the Declaration of Independence.

Of course, after I agreed I thought: what the heck will I say? Do I have anything to say? I’ve done close readings of the Declaration with my American literature students, but if you take a look at the blog, you’ll see that Ben has already said a whole lot about how to read and think about the Declaration. Then, I decided I’d connect the words and ideas of the Declaration to other American literature — because, after all, I am a teacher of American literature. And then — President Obama spoke at the DNC and I was inspired! (You can read the full text of his speech here if you happened to miss it on T.V.).

So — here’s the link to Part I of my guest blog. You can let me know what you think! (Part II will be coming soon).

Coming Soon from KJB/Akashic Books!

Forthcoming from Kaylie Jones Books — one of which is MINE!

Kaylie Jones Books


by: Patricia A. Smith

#‎PubDate: 01-03-2017

#‎KaylieJonesBooks ‪#‎AkashicBooks

“Bradley, Massachusetts, is in many ways a typical small New England town—the green, the churches, the bricked library. But a river divides Bradley in half—on one side, the East End: tight triple-deckers, Most Precious Blood parish, and the Brazilian immigrant community; and on the other, the West End: renovated Victorians, Brandywine Academy, families with last names as venerable as the Mayflower.

Deirdre Murphy and her partner Sara Jane (SJ) Edmonds have just moved to the West End of Bradley, where Deirdre teaches French to girls at tony Brandywine Academy. A dedicated teacher from a working-class background, she is well loved by her students, and this particular fall, living for the first time in an open relationship with SJ, in their first house, should be her happiest yet.

But the murder of ten-year-old Leo Rivera from the East…

View original post 248 more words

A Review of Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams

Check out this review of Harrison Fletcher’s new gorgeous memoir — then go buy the memoir!

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

51cBHWjPxtL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_By Amy Wright

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher’s second memoir follows Descanso For My Father: Fragments Of A Life, which won the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and International Book Award for Best New Nonfiction. Turning now to his mother’s story, Fletcher opens Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams with a trip back to Albuquerque after nearly a decade away from his native New Mexico.

Half expecting to find his mother’s home exactly as he remembers with “Navajo rugs, prayer poles, peacock feathers, Cochiti drums,” he discovers instead “displays of porcelain saints, rosary beads, gilded lamps, and crucifixes.” After having open-heart surgery, his mother stripped her room bare of casual decorations and outfitted it with “the aura of a chapel, complete with flickering candles and a creaky wooden floor.” The ambience is ripe for recollecting, and every phrase and anecdote Fletcher gathers shines with the intimacy of worry stones and desert…

View original post 572 more words

Teaching, School, and Real Life

I want to write about teaching. I think I want to write a book about teaching as spiritual practice — in some small, small way, I think that’s what I’ve been doing here on my blog…I’ve been thinking more and more about this, and here is where I’ll try out some ideas. You can let me know what you think.

Here’s what I know: that teaching doesn’t need any more testing, and probably not even any more standards to meet either. Teaching is about human interactions. It’s about waking students up to their lives.

I tell my students every fall — I know you think that your “real life” is over here — I point to one side — and then school is over here — I point to the other side. And as long as you think that way, you’re just going through the motions. What you do in school won’t matter because you’re just jumping through hoops. 

I tell them that this is their real life, right now. It’s all we get, I say. One shot. One life. Who knows how much time we each have?

I say, I know you think your “exciting real life” starts sometime later — after you graduate, after you get into college, after you get a job. I remind them again that this is it. Their lives are happening right now.

We are reminded of this when we read Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman. It seems to hit them most powerfully when we read Whitman, “Song of Myself.”

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

Be present now, I tell them.

Richard Rohr writes in his daily meditation:

The belief that God is “out there” is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our understandings of our sexuality; of our relationship to food, possessions, and money; and of our relationship to animals, nature, and our own incarnate selves. This loss is foundational as to why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came precisely to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect, “To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This world is the hiding place of God and the revelation of God!”

He uses more Christian language than I’m sometimes comfortable with, but I think in some way, he and I are saying the same thing. Whitman is saying this same thing. This world is the hiding place of God and the revelation of God. 

Maybe you can use different language to make personal sense of this — the world is the hiding place of wonder or mystery. But what I mean by God when I use the word doesn’t reference a Being but instead lies closer to what Emerson called The Oversoul — that Divine essence that links us all together, that is within each of us.

Helping students realize they each have it? That’s what teaching needs. What it is. What it should be.

holding at bayThis is how it feels, those last minutes of vacation, of free time, the work week looming. It’s Labor Day, summer’s end. And how we want to keep those days of fall from approaching! How we long to keep summer here — days of sunshine and beach,  when we don’t have anything pressing to do. If we just…if we just…

But inevitably, the day arrives when we have to go back to work. The vacation ends. Fall arrives.

I empathize with this boy, trying valiantly to hold the tide at bay. Our whole lives can feel like this —  our children grow up, they go to college, get married — and each milestone brings change to our lives. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just hold it all back? Can’t we just keep things as they are?

Of course we can’t. Nor, really, do we want them to. And Nature reminds us of this fact. The tide reminds us as it comes and goes — advancing and retreating whether we want it to or not, the force greater than any of us and any walls we might put up.

Fall, for teachers, is like this. A new season. New students. Time to get it right. Here we go!

My essay!

So, I wrote an essay for Kevin Jenning’s new book One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Talk About What Has Gotten Better…And What Hasn’t (Amazon link here or Beacon Press link here) — and decided to showcase it to call attention to the book’s publication. Of course, I was excited– though I THOUGHT Salon was excerpting the essay and instead, they published it in its entirety.

The feedback was mostly terrific — lots of former students wrote to say what it meant to them to hear my story, what it meant to attend ARGS (where I teach) — such heartfelt and gratifying responses. Of course, there were lots of negative reactions too, mostly those left on Salon, readers who thought I was bigoted against the South, a condescending Northern snob. And I have to say — it felt strange to have people drawing conclusions about me who know nothing about me. And then, there was the one email sent to my school email address, about how I wasn’t “born gay” and how I could benefit from “straight” therapy. Straight to spam, that one!

Worse, perhaps, was the way Salon decided to “market” the essay–with the tagline “”After 21 years in a private school in Cambridge, I took a job in the South. It was not what I expected.”
First of all — that isn’t a true statement. I taught for 10 years in Andover, MA, 3 in Cambridge, MA and then 7 at VCU (in Richmond, VA) before I took the job I currently hold. Salon didn’t ask me if they could put those words in my mouth. And they slanted my essay in a way it wasn’t meant to be slanted.

Still — as a writer, it’s pretty exciting to have my work featured on — though I wish I had known the way in which it was going to be featured before it happened. (No one asked my permission, though the publicity director at Beacon Press notified me that my essay was going to be “excerpted” on around publication time).

If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the link to Salon. Enjoy– and let me know what you think!