“She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor… She had embodied the Great Perhaps—she had proved to me that it was w“She had the kind of eyes that predisposed you to supporting her every endeavor… She had embodied the Great Perhaps—she had proved to me that it was worth it to leave behind my minor life for grander maybes, and now she was gone and with her my faith in perhaps.”...more
“As much as possible, if I control the content, I try to let students control the form. If I control the form, I try toA few of my favorite passages:
“As much as possible, if I control the content, I try to let students control the form. If I control the form, I try to let students control the content. I think of this as the ‘have tos’ and the ‘get tos,’ as in, yes, you ‘have to’ do a quilt patch. Yes, you ‘have to’ do a woman. BUT you ‘get to’ choose the woman you want to honor on this quilt and you ‘get to’ do your patch any way you want to" (18).
“I have planned a Significant Lesson. As I begin to present this lesson, I notice that all of the students are properly attending to what I have to say, with the exception to four girls at one back table who are quietly absorbed in doing something else. I grow annoyed. Here I am being Significant in a well-prepared way, and these four are not captivated" (39).
“Being student-centered doesn’t mean I am against parents or colleagues or administrators. It does mean I can sometimes treat the adolescent as the adult whom the parent does not yet see, the colleague may be still trying to control, the administrator may view as a threat (“What do you mean you don’t want to salute the flag!”). Being student-centered doesn’t mean I have an ‘anything goes’ attitude toward my students. On the contrary, I have very high expectations for them, not only as future professionals, but as creative and moral beings" (xxi).
Overall, I didn't like this book as much as I wanted to like this book. I wanted to like it, but I felt like too much of it was What She Does In Her Classroom - her curriculum - rather than actual teaching stories about struggles, students, colleagues, etc. In this way the book is a lot like Holler If You Hear Me by Gregory Michie: a lot of great curriculum ideas, but I thought I was getting a memoir. ...more
It contains language like this: "Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like thaThis is a beautiful book.
It contains language like this: "Ma could hold tears on her eyelids longer than anyone; some days she walked around like that for hours, holding them there, not letting them drop. On those days she would trace her finger over the shapes of things or hold the telephone in her lap, silent, and you had to call her name three times before she'd give you her eyes" (15).
Or this: "Three steel posts held up the floor of the house above. The ceiling was striped with rolls of insulation nailed to the underside of the floor with a nail gun, and one long strip had unpeeled itself, or been torn down, and now kissed the basement's dirt floor. The tuft of fiberglass was thick and pink and exposed..." (94).
Or: "They felt proud to be the kind of boys they were - boys who spat in public, boys who kept their gaze on the floor or fixed on a space above your head, boys who looked you in the eye only to size you up or scare you off. When they bit teh chapped skin from their lower lips, when they chewed up the web between thumb and pointer, when they scratched inside their ears with house keys, they were looking at memories, proud memories, blood memories, or else they were dreaming about their wild futures" (104)....more
Kim Stafford’s Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford is mostly meta. It’s a book about words and growing up with the great poet WilliKim Stafford’s Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford is mostly meta. It’s a book about words and growing up with the great poet William Stafford as a father; it’s a book about being designated William Stafford’s literary executor; it’s a book about writing a book about a man who works with words. Clearly, Kim writes for an academic audience, and for people familiar with his father’s work. Some people would hate it. I ate it up. William is a badass, a pacifist who carries a gun but uses it to light a book of matches lying on the pavement. William is a stoic father like mine: “Most expressive in his poetry,” Kim writes, “he could be reticent in life”; my dad has little affinity for speaking but loves Shakespeare. I am like William in that I wake early to write.
William had a lifelong habit of writing each day before dawn, and his customary writing time was 4 a.m. “In the cell of his writing time, [he was] alive earlier than anyone, more alert in the welcome, listening,” Kim writes (5). William wrote several times about this routine: “To get up in the cold, then make a warm place, have paper, pen, books to hand, look out at gleaming rain, shadows, the streetlight steadfast… (148). More extensively appreciative:
This way of writing is available to anyone who wishes to rise and listen, to put words together without fear of either failure or achievement. You wake. You find a stove where you make something warm. You have a light that leaves much of the room dark. You settle in a place you have worn with the friendly shape of your body. You receive your own breath, recollection, the blessings of your casual gaze. You address the wall, the table… (6)
As William got older he got up earlier, rising at 3 a.m. instead of 4. He could afford to “squander everything before light, and take a nap later in the day.” Yet better than the pages that worked as mirrors for me were the pages that worked as windows, where I read about what I did not understand or already (try to) do myself. There are so many lessons in this book, and here I take them from Kim, who paraphrased them from William, and offer them again:
LESSONS MOSTLY ABOUT WRITING, TEACHING, AND WORDS Words can begin to express how it is in hard times, especially if the words are relaxed, direct in their own plain ways (4). Maybe I should have made shoes, like Tolstoy. With shoes, you know when you are done. With teaching, you never know (83). Do it now; do the hard part first (93). Can I write words to carve in stone at the transit mall? Can I write a song for saving a river? Can I write a blessing for an art school? Can I write a play to honor the life of a particular child? Can I write a poem for the wall of the pediatric intensive care waiting room? Yes, always yes (97). When I write a poem… it’s like seeing a strip of the universe between the slats of a picket fence. You are passing, and between the pickets you glimpse a little of what’s beyond (112). I don’t want to write good poems. I want to write inevitable poems (135). If you don’t welcome all your ideas when they first appear, pretty soon even your bad ideas won’t come to you. They will learn to stay away (156). If you are writing and you get stuck, lower your standards and keep going. (And my standards can get really low) (156). When you are writing and it gets hard, don’t stop. It’s hard because you are doing something original (156). The question isn’t when did I start writing, but when do most people stop – and why? (183). One should think like a philosopher, but speak in the common idiom (245). Writers are not called upon so much to be smart, as to be alert (276).
LESSONS ABOUT WHAT WILLIAMS CALLS 'THE EMERGENCY OF BEING ALIVE' A fact so pervasive as love need never be named (10). Do what the world needs and lick your wounds alone (13). Let your true self appear in a wild state. Do not be a saint (17). The Great Depression could be rich for a poor family that loved to read and talk. Without prosperity, we were free to revel in the local and the everyday (36). I work at a college, but I work for a cause bigger and farther away – the unknown good in our enemies (52). Two unspoken rules: Don’t do the wrong thing. Don’t live the wrong life (69). Obey any request, but with an independent spirit (97). The last star will not know how small it is (98). Let me be a plain, unmarked envelope passing through the world (108). You are safe because you have been educated by the world’s variety. Yet you know you are not safe, because you recognize the world’s terrible variations (113). Favor the small, the hidden, the hard-to-pin-down (128). Pay attention to the assaulted spiritual life of ordinary people (146). It is legitimate to crawl, after the wings are broken (150). Life is inexplicable, and those masterful people who base their lives on confidence and explanation deserve our sympathy (131). ...more
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is mostly the story of Walter and Patty and their struggling marriage. Patty is annoying. She complains to her friends abouJonathan Franzen’s Freedom is mostly the story of Walter and Patty and their struggling marriage. Patty is annoying. She complains to her friends about her son’s attention span, how it’s just so long, how his “infinite patience” tests Walter’s authority. “I wish he cried,” Patty says. “Crying would be normal” (8). Walter is nice. He loves Patty. Together they have a son and a daughter.
The book is a little bit the story of America. It is also, of course, a catwalk for Franzen’s mad linguistic skills. Franzen can have two characters talk to each other in the same room and only the reader will know what they’re really saying. He can master the language of plumbers and wartime businessmen. He can write character-specific metaphors that reveal those characters’ worldviews. Walter, for example, was “frightened by the long-term toxicity [he and Patty] were creating with their fights. He could feel it pooling in their marriage like the coal-sludge ponds in Appalachian valleys” (333). Walter works saving those valleys.
Franzen can describe with perfect detail; Patty isn’t sure what to think of the hotel run by Walter’s parents, the “crenellated ceramic ashtray within easy reach of the davenport… [and] the motel’s antenna (rigged, as she saw the next morning, to the top of a decapitated pine tree behind the septic field)” (125).
Franzen knows the pulse of argument, how Patty’s speech will fragment in a debate with her son: “I would only point out,” she says to Joey, “that you did sort of lie to me, whenever that was, two months ago, when I asked you if you’d heard from Connie. Which, lying, maybe not the most mature thing” (397).
He can give a sentence or a paragraph its own momentum, speeding up until the end, or gradually slowing down. Patty rants about college kids: "How about the flip-flop thing? I have some issues with their flip-flops. It’s like the world is their bedroom. And they can’t even hear their own flap-flap-flapping, because they’ve all got their gadgets, they’ve all got their earbuds in. Every time I start hating my neighbors around here, I run into some G.U. kid on the sidewalk and suddenly forgive the neighbors, because at least their adults. At least they’re not running around in flipflops, advertising how much more laid-back and reasonable they are than us adults. Than uptight me, who would prefer not to look at people’s bare feet on the subway. Because, really, who could object to seeing such beautiful toes? Such perfect toenails? Only a person who’s too unluckily middle-aged to inflict the spectacle of her own toes on the world." (372)
The rhythm here comes through repetition: Because they’ve all got... they’ve all got… because at least… At least… Than us adults. Than uptight me… Because, really… such beautiful toes? Such perfect…? Do you hear it? I went back and underlined the phrases. He bangs twice on the drum of each phrase. This is perfect for Patty, who lives with (and in) great order, and with lots of simmering rage. She sits at the drum set to conduct an experiment in making noise.
Franzen can do all that and do it well. But more than anything, he writes with authenticity about the catalogue of human emotions, leading readers incrementally through the stammering of his characters’ changing psychologies. When it comes to Walter, “the unclouded serenity of his countrymen’s indifference made him wild with anger” (314). When it comes to Patty, “the only thing that gave her hope was how well she was concealing her own inner turmoil” (159). Joey “refused to believe that someone disposing of the power of so much beauty could be devoid of interesting ideas of how to use it” (405). Franzen usually tells rather than shows, but when he tells, the telling is good. The characters here are depressive wrecks remarkable for their eloquence. Did you know? “You could love somebody more than anything and still not love the person all that much, if you were busy with other things” (42).
Franzen might write about how sibling rivals demonstrate a “polarizing specialization of achievement,” or how people who go to music festivals just love the acquisition of cultural references, or how “serious fans always need to feel uniquely connected to the object of their fandom; they jealously guard those points of connection, however tiny or imaginary, that justify the feeling of uniqueness” (137). He might write about an entire day or “a murdered afternoon… at once interminable and sickeningly swift; chock-full second-to-second, devoid of content hour-by-hour” (114). He might write about one singular four-second exchange: "From the various acceptable guy-to-guy responses available to him, Joey chose to produce a sheepish smirk suggesting mucho excellente sex, the irrational demands of girlfriends, their need to be bought trinkets, and so forth. Case cast a quick connoisseurial glance at Connie’s bare shoulders and nodded judiciously. The entire exchange took four seconds." (419)
Or he might write about the types of silence, one kind “especially grievous” and another “disbelief-flavored” (385, 386). In all these situations, Franzen’s understanding of how and what human beings feel, and the intensity of those feelings, and the gap the between how his characters feel and how they act, and how those actions affect other characters, is immense and admirable....more
On the surface, Hopkins’ “Windhover” is a poem is about a bird hovering in the air, a falcon suspended, a dangerous bird of preAnalysis of “Windhover”
On the surface, Hopkins’ “Windhover” is a poem is about a bird hovering in the air, a falcon suspended, a dangerous bird of prey to be reckoned with. With careful and sensitive language, Hopkins attempts to convey the inexpressible awe he feels in witnessing the “windhover.” He approaches the line where language is insufficient and only inarticulate sounds will do. The poem contains four exlamation marks, the words “oh” and “ah,” and even one incomplete phrase: “the achieve of, the master of the thing.” The achieve of? It’s a stop, a start. A breath. Words do not do the moment justice, and here Hopkins sacrifices his mastery of the metaphor to more fully convey the beauty of the moment.
The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet. The octet proposes the problem, the sestet solves it; somewhere in between lies a moment poets call “the turn.” In this poem, the turn happens when the Windhover dives down to a farmer working a plow, when the imagery moves from bird to human to ground, and then returns back to the sky.
When the bird is hovering, Hopkins compares it to a “king” on a horse (white or otherwise). The falcon is “riding” on “steady air, and striding / High there, how he rung upon the rein.” The bird rides the air the way a dauphin rides a steed. Behind the falcon, Hopkins sees stately aristocracy. This does not mean the ground is devoid of value. Right in front of the farmer on the ground, there is gold. In his daily work and toil behind the horse and plow, there is gold. Behind the falcon may be a King, but under the horse’s hoof’s are all kinds of treasures: first “fire,” and then “blue-bleak embers,” and then “gash gold vermilion.” To plow the ground is to cut through the light; the “sheer plod” of plowing behind a horse reveals in the earth not just dark soil but gold.
The sky holds a horse, the dirt holds a sunset. In a way, it’s like two mirrors face each other, reflecting and magnifying God’s grace. We – the people somewhere in between, in the middle – are blessedly caught. In the refracted light, we can look back and forth from ground to sky, sky to ground....more
Annie Dillard’s "Teaching a Stone to Talk" starts with an author’s note that struck me the wrong way: “At any rate, this is not a collection of occasiAnnie Dillard’s "Teaching a Stone to Talk" starts with an author’s note that struck me the wrong way: “At any rate, this is not a collection of occasional pieces, such as a writer brings out to supplement his real work; instead this is my real work, such as it is.” It’s as if Dillard is saying, “I’m not like those other writers who publish for the sake of publishing. This collection isn’t some hodge-podge, slap-dash, last-minute schlock you can find elsewhere; it is a divinely-inspired, organically ordered arrangement of art.” Of course, if this is true the appropriate reader response is gratitude, not sarcasm, but still. Prove it.
Dillard starts the book in a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima, not far from where I grew up, and quickly ventures out: to Ecuador, to the Galapagos Islands, to the Poles. Her essay about attending church and exploring the Arctic (“An Expedition to the Pole”) is hilarious. Her humor functions as a compromise with the reader: Put up with my non-linear structure and occasional poetic abstraction, and I will break out the jokes.
She’s open to receiving wisdom anywhere and finds all kinds of divine surprises: “an article I had read downstairs in the lobby, in an engineering magazine” (12); “a wire-service photograph clipped from a newspaper and taped to my mirror” (82); “a frame toolshed under whose weedy eaves a little boy was pretending to write with a stone” (96, 97). She seeks and honors what she finds “on the tributaries, in the riverside villages, sucking this particular white-fleshed guava in this particular pattern of shade” (73). She dwells in the senses and thereby discovers paths to escaping the chatter in her head. When she sees something amazing, her senses turn on and her brain turns off. It might be a shadow climbing a hill (“It… knocked us out… It had clobbered us”) or a weasel looking her in the eye (“It was a bright blow to the brain… our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders”); it might just be amazing (25, 26, 67).
In those moments of transcendence, Dillard mixes the usual and unusual, sacred and profane like no one else. A highway, a pair of ducks, a beer can, a muskrat hole, wild turtles, and motorcycle tracks, for example, all appear in one paragraph (66). And she continues from there to straddle the line between reality and imagination, and blur it. She experiences both the end and the birth of the earth and shares it as some hypothetical scenario: “The orchard trees withered, the ground froze, the glaciers slid down the valleys and overlapped the towns. If there had ever been people on earth, nobody knew it” (22); “It emptied our lungs. It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled” (67); “The ice rolls up, the ice rolls back” (90); “The ice rolled up, the ice rolled back” (109).
One task I took on while reading the book was tracking Dillard’s use of metaphor and comparison. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek I had kept an eye out for semi-colons to explore how she uses punctuation to connect disparate ideas. This time I wanted to explore the connections themselves.
A comparison is made of two sides – the thing in reality and the thing it is “like” – and the connections and comparisons we make say something about who we are, our interests, our lifestyle, our body of available knowledge, how we go about filtering the world, etc. Writers like Dillard use comparisons not to narrow their topics but to expand them, not to pull closer but to push further out. What I notice in Dillard’s comparisons is that she connects her experiences and observations to ordinary things: eggs, washboards, dumplings, lens covers, trailers, pieces of thread. Without resorting to references to pop culture, she accesses a body of knowledge most people share. Not easy to do....more