Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road, Robert Hershon

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.


Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road

Don’t fill up on bread

I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge
My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?
What he doesn’t know
is that when we’re walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand

Famous, Naomi Shihab Nye

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.



The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean, Catherine Pierce

April is National Poetry month in the United States, and since I’m traveling with extremely limited internet access April 19-May 1, I would like to share a few poems while I’m gone. I’ll be back on Thursday, May 2 with a full post.

Because I’ll Never Swim in Every Ocean

Want is ten thousand blue feathers falling
all around me, and me unable to stomach
that I might catch five but never ten thousand.
So I drop my hands to my sides and wait
to be buried. I open a book and the words
spring and taunt. Flashes—motel, lapidary,
piranha—of every story, every poem I’ll never
know well enough to conjure in sleep.
What’s the point of words if I can’t
own them all? I toss book after book
into my imaginary trashcan fire.
Or I think I’ll learn piano. At the first lesson,
we’re clapping whole and half notes
and this is childish, I’m better than this.
I’d like to leave playing Ravel. I’d like
to give a concerto on Saturday. So I quit.
I have standards. Then on Saturday,
I have a beer, watch a telethon. Or
we watch a documentary on Antarctica.
The interviewees are from Belarus, Lima, Berlin.
Everyone speaks English. Everyone names
a philosopher, an ethos. One man carries a raft
on his back at all times. I went to Nebraska once
and swore it was a great adventure. It was.
I think of how I’ll never go to Antarctica,
mainly because I don’t much want to. But
I should want to. I should be the girl
with a raft on her back. When I think
of all the mountains and monuments
and skyscapes I haven’t seen, all the trains
I should take, all the camels and mopeds
and ferries I should ride, all the scorching
hikes I should nearly die on, I press
my body down, down into the vast green
couch. If I step out the door, the infinity
of what I’ve missed will zorro me across
the face with a big L for Lazy. Sometimes
I watch finches at the feeder, their wings small
suns, and have to grab the sill to steady myself.
Metaphorically, of course. I’m no loon.
Look—even my awestruck is half-assed.
But I’m so tired of the small steps—
the pentatonic scale, the frequent flyer
hoarding, the one exquisite sentence
in a forest of exquisite sentences.
There is a globe welling up inside of me.
Mountain ranges ridging my skin,
oceans filling my mouth. If I stay still
long enough, I could become my own world.

For more on Catherine Pierce, go here.

This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, Sherman Alexie

For the last few weeks, the London weather has drawn me to books about the area – damp, quiet books that I’ve loved, but which say nothing to me off home. Alexie’s words, though, always bring me back to the open skied West. I leave tomorrow for Spain, and then DC, and in less than two weeks, I’ll be home again. As I stand on the brink of this trip, it makes me desperate for the hot, dry climate I’ve come to love, and rereading this story – one I’ve had occasion to go back to many times since I first saw the film Smoke Signals and learned of the author whose work inspired it – grounds me.

I love that I can find it regardless of where I am in the world too. So much of Alexie’s work is available for free online. He often posts flash fiction at The Stranger, but it all it really takes is a quick search and his poetry and stories come up in multiple locations. As much as I rely on the publishing industry to get paid myself and have great respect for the needs of other authors to sell their materials in order to make a living, there is something deliciously appealing about good writing available for free. Libraries, of course, are the best resource for that, but sometimes, when there’s no time to spare, finding a beloved story made freely and easily available can be the perfect cure for a difficult week.

And this has been a difficult week. I’ve already complained enough about the challenges of having a dead computer while traveling, and typing this all on a tiny phone screen only serves to reinforce my intense longing for my (formerly) good, old laptop. Every deadline has been a challenge, every bit of writing, a thumb-numbing slog. I’m ninety percent sure that typing with only two fingers is restricting the output of my brain – picture a brook, dammed by a fallen tree – the tiny trickle that manages to seep through is almost as useless as no water at all. As much as I enjoy reading on my phone is how much I detect typing on it, and my love for the kindle app knows no bounds.

So forgive me my brevity this week, and take the time you might have spent here to check out Alexie’s lovely little stories. It will, I hope, wrap you up in his particular American loneliness – a feeling that tiptoes down the line between sadness and strength.

For more Sherman Alexie, go here

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley

My computer died last week. Out of nowhere, thin, yellow, vertical lines appeared, and everything froze. I did a hard reboot, the computer worked for two or three blissful minutes, and then the same thing happened again. This time, when I rebooted, I didn’t make it past the Apple logo before the same thing happened. The fear that gripped me then was nothing compared to how I felt two reboots later, when I was looking at a black screen and every five seconds, a long beep would interrupt my gnashing of teeth.

This was clearly not one of those problems that was going to simply disappear. I really wanted it to be. I left my poor computer alone and went to dinner, fingers crossed that when I returned, this hiccup would have passed. I would have access to all of those things I unwisely had chosen to write in Word rather than Google docs. These problems usually sort themselves out with a little peace and quiet, I assured myself.

I was wrong. Also, an idiot. Because only an idiot would get her hopes up, only to return to that screen of death and be reduced to inconsolable weeping. I was actually pretty proud of myself for lasting as many hours as I did before I resorted to crying; back in the day, I would have given the thing one or two good thumps and promptly run out of ideas that didn’t involve a large hammer or a window. This is what I like to call progress.

Nevertheless, I eventually troubleshot my way into the depths of despair, having called the US Apple help line and tried in-store UK service without any luck whatsoever. My husband dropped the machine off at a local repairman who handles machines still covered by Applecare (thank God it doesn’t expire until July), and now, I’m waiting. In a few days, we leave for Spain, and right now is supposed to be my last hard push for deadlines before vacation. That hasn’t so much happened though, since I can barely bring myself to type on my tiny phone screen any more than I have to.

Can you blame me for retreating into the comfort of the second Flavia de Luce novel instead of facing the mounting anxiety I have over unsaved work on my hard drive? I think not. I’m well within my rights to crawl under the covers and enjoy a little scientific suspense. I find her character and the world she inhabits so comforting, and it was charming to discover that the second book was nearly as much fun as the first. To be fair, I’m one of those people who loves to find a good series; of course, when I picked up the first book, I did so specifically because I didn’t have time for a series right now, but apparently, Fate had other ideas. It’s been quite a while (okay, maybe eight months) since I found a series that hooked me fast, but it’s a feeling that I love.

So many of the books I read these days are wonderful stand alone experiences, but when I find a world I can slip into again and again with genuine pleasure, it makes trials like computer implosion a little easier to bear. It won’t get my work done, of course, but hopefully a few chapters here and there of the next volume will bolster my spirits and give my thumbs a well deserved touch screen vacation.

For more on Alan Bradley, go here.

Also, please note that while I’m waiting for word on my computer (and when I’m on vacation next week), I may not respond to email queries or comments as quickly as usual.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

What intrigued me more than anything was finding out the way in which everything, all of creation—all of it!—was held together by invisible chemical bonds, and I found a strange, inexplicable comfort in knowing that somewhere, even though we couldn’t see it in our own world, there was real stability.

I didn’t make the obvious connection at first, between the book and the abandoned laboratory I had discovered as a child. But when I did, my life came to life—if that makes any sense. Here in Uncle Tar’s lab, row on row, were the chemistry books he had so lovingly assembled, and I soon discovered that with a little effort most of them were not too far beyond my understanding.

Simple experiments came next, and I tried to remember to follow instructions to the letter. Not to say that there weren’t a few stinks and explosions, but the less said about those the better.

As time went on, my notebooks grew fatter. My work was becoming ever more sophisticated as the mysteries of Organic Chemistry revealed themselves to me, and I rejoiced in my newfound knowledge of what could be extracted so easily from nature. My particular passion was poison. (p 4)

This book is about a ten-year old girl in 1950 who uncovers a murder and goes about solving it using, primarily, her extensive skills in chemistry. Are there other novels written about great detectives? Obviously. About women? Sure. And scientists? Indubitably. But how often does one run across a protagonist who is all of these things at once? Rarely.

Matilda comes to mind, although she’s a very young genius (and not specifically a scientist)  and one of the characteristics I particularly like about Flavia de Luce is that she’s not. She’s inquisitive, of course, and fannishly dedicated to her field of study, but she isn’t so different from her peers in other respects. She fights terribly with her two old sisters. She goes off exploring on her bicycle for hours at a time. She hates the food she’s made to eat. All very normal, relatable quirks. She does have a way of unsettling adults with her precocious interest in the murder that has occurred (unlike Nancy Drew, who somehow managed to solve murders and be considered absolutely darling at the same time), but I know plenty of unsettling (and precocious) children.

I actually found myself fantasizing about a book where she and Christopher Boone meet – difficult to picture since both of them prefer their own company to socializing – but delightful none the less. It then occurred to me that I’ve manage to read three (ostensibly) YA books in a row set in England  (although Bradley is Canadian, whereas Haddon and Pratchett are British), and each one has been remarkable in its own way. The funny thing is, I’ve actually owned The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie since I got my first kindle back in August of 2009. It was a new release, and in my frenzy to collect books I might someday read on this novel device, I bought it and it has languished there ever since.

Well, that’s not exactly true. I actually tried to read this book four or five times in the past, and I had never gotten past the first chapter. I’m a firm believer in the patience of books though, and when, this past Friday, I was looking for something to curl up with, here it was. This time, I had no problem getting past the first few pages.  What I did have difficulty with was getting laundry done, baking bread for dinner, doing the dishes that piled up stickily in our sink…

I was completely enthralled. It was physically painful to put this book down and go on to other things – important things, things that couldn’t be avoided at all, but which I desperately wanted to forget about in favor of this book. And that, of course, meant I finished it far too quickly. I was moping around, thinking maybe I should have slipped a few of those critical tasks in just so that I could have spent a little longer with Flavia when I discovered that Bradley’s written more books about her. More! More Flavia? More science?! And poison! And well-wrought revenge?!! This was simultaneously the best and the worst news I could have gotten…or possibly that “very important things” could have received.


Alan Bradley (and Flavia) can be found here.

Dodger, Terry Pratchett

A couple of weeks ago, when a discussion popped up in the comment threads about Terry Pratchett, I asked for a good starting point when it comes to his work, since I’ve only read his collaborative novel with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens. I had no idea that he had written over forty books, many of which take place in the interconnected series Discworld. As much as I wanted to dive right in to the treasure trove of his collection, I was intimidated by the possibility of liking him so much that I had to read all of them immediately, which would really be more of a problem for you than it would be for me. I have an inkling that some of you might even get excited about a prolonged obsession like that, but probably the majority would prefer diversity in my selection (or possibility that my obsessive reading follow another author entirely). Whatever the case may be, one of the restrictions when writing a blog like this is that I feel an obligation to explore a more varied reading list rather than becoming completely immersed in one area.

The problem was, I couldn’t stop thinking about Pratchett. Although I didn’t know it back in the sixth grade when I was first introduced to Good Omens, much of the humor I loved in that novel undoubtedly came from Pratchett and not Gaiman (not that Gaiman doesn’t have his own brand of humor, but it’s one I appreciate more as an adult than I did as an eleven year old). A solution to my problem, however, presented itself, most fortuitously, in the form of Dodger, a new Pratchett novel that my mother recommended to me about a week ago.  Because it was unattached to a larger series, I felt it was as safe a spot as any to dip into the ocean of his work.

I found the book captivating in that way only a particularly endearing YA novel can be. I’m not sure whether his intention was for it to appeal to that age, and it’s certainly a wonderful read for anyone, but it did remind me of a certain coziness I found in books when I was young.  In fact, Good Omens has much the same element of comfort to it, and I think that if I reread it now (for the nineteenth or so time), it would be even clearer to me where the two men’s work overlap.

I was surprised though that I didn’t find the book laugh out loud funny. I was expecting it to be, possibly because the recommendations I got for his older novels hinted strongly at such a reaction. (I plan to find out just how hilarious he is when I get home and can pillage the bookshelves of several friends who are fans.) I wondered if it was related to the shift (necessitated due to early onset Alzheimer’s) from typing his own books to telling his stories via dictation.

It wouldn’t shock me at all to find a change like that had naturally occurred over the last few years. Dealing with the day-to-day reality of that particular disease while still writing one or two excellent, popular books a year? Honestly, I’m not sure he’s human. Both of my grandfathers died after many years living with Alzheimer’s, and I know all too well what that illness does to the brain. It chews it up and leaves a different person behind. It’s not a pretty thing, and having met people in their forties and fifties with early on-set Alzheimer’s, I know how quickly it can move. Pratchett’s book made me smile, it compelled me page after page, and it forced me to check Wikipedia to glean more information about the London history he was sharing; the fact that he can write such a wonderful book, whether it makes me laugh or not, after almost five years with this disease is nothing short of inspiring.

It reminds me of a truth that had gotten lost in the fog since their deaths, which is that even as my grandfathers got sicker, they still told stories. In fact, as conversation grew more difficult for them to follow, it was one of the only ways they could communicate. Those stories were a combination of memories, dreams, and a hint of reality – and if Dodger is anything, it is that. Pratchett creates a London that hovers playfully on the edges of history, and he writes a protagonist it’s impossible not to love.  When I imagine him spinning this story aloud, I get lost in the tremendous potential of the human spirit, and I’m amazed anew at what a gifted storyteller can do.


For more about Terry Pratchett, head over here.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon

It’s unusual for me to talk about a book that I haven’t read in recent years, but I had the pleasure of seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Apollo Theatre on Tuesday (World Autism Awareness Day, as it happens), and it reminded me of how much I loved and appreciated the novel. If I’d had my copy with me here, I certainly would have sat down and reread it before writing this, but I didn’t, so you’ll have to take my word that it’s a wonderful book that deserves to be read not only because its young hero has Asperger’s/autism (Haddon has been particular in interviews over the years about the his intention not to label the character specifically, so I’ll refrain from doing so as much as possible, out of respect for his choice), but because this is a mystery story and an odyssey.

One of the topics discussed (with good reason) by the LGBT community is that it’s rare to find successful mainstream books, movies, and television about LGBT people without the focus being on their sexuality or gender identity, as opposed to stories about paleontologists or astronauts or gymnasts who are, incidentally, gay, transgendered, etc. The same is true for people with disabilities. Haddon has been vocal about how his book is not about a boy with a disability – it’s about a fifteen year old who loves math and who has, in his words, some unusual behavior problems. Now, I personally have a problem with the phrase “behavioral problems,” because in my mind, this is and always has been a book whose protagonist has Asperger’s (regardless of the author’s opinion). In my training as an early childhood educator, and as a teacher who particularly loved to work with children on the autistic spectrum, I would never label a child’s behavior as “problematic,” and it rubs me the wrong way to hear anyone else do it. That being said, I still wholeheartedly support that Haddon has written this book without an agenda beyond great storytelling.

The play, aside from being brilliantly acted, was also staged wonderfully, the black-backed graph paper walls and floor creating the orderly perception of Christopher Boone’s mind, while the use of flashing lights, loud sounds, and even some chaotic ballet brought to life an extremely compelling story. It was adapted by Simon Stephens without direct collaboration from Haddon, but apparently, he was quoted as saying the play helped him to fall in love with his own book again.

In the Q and A afterward (which I was not expecting and was thrilled to attend), two moments in particular caught my attention in relation to how this book and play are perceived. The first was from a man who asked how the occasional moments of humor – the tension breaks, as they were – happened about in the play, since he hadn’t read any such thing in the text. The second was an answer in reference to how the autistic community was responding to this adaptation. In answer to the latter question, the cast talked about a “relaxed” performance they had done a few months before that had been open specifically to people with autism (schools, families, etc) who wanted to come see the play in an environment where audience activity (the need to leave or speak or move at any time) would be completely acceptable; the volume and lighting were adjusted to be less startling as well. Every member of the cast said, in his or her own way, that it was the best performance they had done, and that the audience had been riveted, enthusiastic, and had, indeed, found great humor in the show. One of the actors said he was astounded by the sense of empathy he felt from that audience, from the brothers and sisters and parents and teachers connected with those who have autism – that they responded with great joy to the sense of community and understanding found in that place.

I went away from that show deeply touched and reminded of the many parents I worked with while I was teaching. Because I taught very young children (three months to five years), the push was huge to identify children who were struggling, for whatever reason, and to open a dialogue with the family about how best we might serve the child both at school and at home. Since I was had not trained extensively in special education, I relied heavily on more experienced teachers, support staff, and parents who had gone through the system already for advice on the bureaucratic side of things. What I rarely needed assistance with was the children themselves, and I think in large part, that stems from an overabundance of empathy on my part.

It is very hard for me not to apologize for describing myself as an empathetic person, but recently, I’ve been practicing acknowledging strengths, so I will say it again: I am an extremely, uncomfortably empathetic person. It’s difficult, sometimes, for me to be around people because I have trouble blocking out intense energy and emotion from others, but it also has made me a responsive teacher. It has made me the kind of teacher who recognizes, as Haddon has, that every child, regardless of a diagnosis, is an individual human being with very particular needs and rhythms. If that is taken into account, it becomes obvious that every child is in need of support. Every child, autistic or not, responds to stimuli differently. Some children crave routine, or solitude, or extremely active play, but regardless, children thrive on being understood as individuals, rather than as notes on a page.

Parents, likewise, require a gentle touch, and this proved much more difficult for me. As adults, we have certain expectations of children, especially our own, and it can be incredibly difficult to accept that a child will have a different kind of life than that expectation. My job required me to become sensitive to the grieving process involved in letting those ideas go. When I first started teaching, I saw this grief as willful ignorance, as a stumbling block in the path of productive discussion, and it made me angry. I have to say, I still treasure those early parents, those who were willing to be patient with me as they processed the fear for what the world might do to demean their children. I can imagine the sensation of relief those families would feel coming together in a theatre, of all places! Of course they would laugh! Of course they would find encouragement from such an empowering, honest story! Of course – because for once, they could feel safe from judgement.

Both the book and the play embrace Christopher’s unique perspective of the world while recognizing the challenges he faces while performing tasks that may seem simple to others. The gift of both the book and the play, however, is that this character is approached with automatic respect from the very first moment. His disability, whatever it may be, does not keep him from living his life. Christopher is relatable because he triumphs and suffers as anyone would, and if his parents cry at night because of the way he behaves – well, every parent does. There are no easy children, just as there are no perfect adults. We choose our adventures based on the skills we are born with, as well as those we develop as we grow. Christopher is the same, choosing to create a meaningful life out of what he’s received and what he’s worked for.

Stories like this, I believe, are ones worth hearing.


To learn more about Mark Haddon, head over here. For information about the play, go here.

May I Be Happy: A Memoir of Love, Yoga, and Changing My Mind, (part the second), Cyndi Lee

After I finished this book, the last thing I wanted was to be stuck at the coffee shop with a partially consumed cup of tea and a kindle app that wouldn’t let me cut and paste. Unfortunately, the woman renting our flat needed us to vacate for a few hours so she could show it to some potential tenants, so there I was, antsy as anything, but also desperate to luxuriate in the deep peace of this book.

All I wanted was to go home and do the yoga practice Lee included at the end of the book, and I had a cheap mat there that was dying to be unrolled. Physically, I was a bundle of nerves, but my spirit had been soothed by the last few chapters, and I knew yoga could fix that dichotomy. I knew it, and I wanted it, and I couldn’t have it. I strongly suspected my whole body was going to revolt if I didn’t do something about that, so I glanced down and started reading the practice Lee had provided.

The first steps were to get comfortable and begin a process of deep breathing. I couldn’t do much about comfort, crammed as I was on a wooden chair pushed tightly into the table in order to make room for the gentlemen behind me, but nothing was stopping me from breathing. I put down my phone and the kindle and allowed myself to go a little slack. I closed my eyes and began to take slow, steadying breaths through the nose, just as I do in class at home.

I lost track of how long I sat like that, but it must have been a while, because when I opened my eyes, the tables around me had mostly emptied out. Of the two men working near me, only one of them seemed to have noticed my odd behavior. I didn’t care. I felt better, clearer, content to sit and watch the world go by. It was nice to feel so soft inside my own skin someplace other than on my mat. When it comes down to it, I believe this is one of the pivotal sensations Lee was searching for. She struggled and fell and rose again to inhabit her body with gratitude. After decades of a successful career built on treating her students with gentleness, she finally decided she deserved it herself.

Of course, deciding such a thing and achieving it are often far apart, and it is the distance between the two that create the framework for her compelling story. It’s in her vulnerability, as well as in the painful familiarity when she  backslides, that I was both most desperate for her to succeed and most desperate to follow the path she was on.

The power in her story is that it is both intimate and universal. The details of our histories may be unique, but the hurt we inflict upon ourselves is an old, cruel friend. Her optimism and her spiraling, her family, her marriage, her work – they belong to her, but also to us.

May I be safe,
May I be healthy,
May I be happy,
May I live with ease.

The instruction I had originally received was to say those four lines for three living beings: someone you love; someone you are having a problem with; and finally, for someone who is a neutral person to you. It is easy to wish happiness, health, safety, and a life of ease for those you love, but it gets more challenging to do that for someone you don’t like, and surprisingly, it is often most difficult for those you feel neutral toward. So the power of this practice is that it wakes us up to the fact that every single living being is like us; we all want to be happy and loved. It’s really as simple as that. Once that sensitivity is aroused, we begin to experience our own heart breaking in a beautiful way. This open heart no longer allows us to ignore other people or wish them ill, when we see so clearly that we are all suffering in some way or another already. (p 227).