SOLS: Bonasera’s Lament

I believe in America.

My students started working on their monologues project today, and I always use this video, the opening scene of The Godfather, as one of our mentor texts/clips. We watch the video and then they get the script and mark it up, and then sometimes we watch the video again, so they can see the differences from page to screen. We talk about how this monologue tells us so much about the culture we are about to enter, how much characterization there can be in a single page, how the actor uses his voice and face to imbue Bonasera with rage and tragedy, how the main themes of the film, about justice and America and in-groups and out-groups, are all established here, in the opening minutes.

But also, we watch it because I love it. The Godfather is and has always been one of my favorite films, ever since I sat down to watch it with my mother for the first time. She’s one of the biggest movie buffs I know, and I knew this was her favorite movie, so I was full of anticipation, but then Bonasera’s voice boomed out into our living room, and the light went up on his dark face, and I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

Our monologue work is the culminating writing piece of our Beowulf unit, and it works well and acts as a bridge to both our poetry unit and our study of Macbeth in the fourth quarter. But I also love it because it allows me to introduce one of my favorite American texts to new students every year, and reminds me of the power of storytelling in our lives and memories.

For justice, we must go to Don Corleone.

SOLS: The Sweater

30% off everything online! the email said. And with that, I knew I was going to buy something.

I hit the doldrums of February hard–for teachers, it’s often the point in the school year where it feels like the year will literally never end. The weather is terrible, spring break feels like it will never come, the delays and closings throw everyone off their schedules. Also, you’ve worn everything work-appropriate in your closet “eleventy billion times,” as I phrased it on Facebook one night. So when I got the sales email, I surfed right over and prepared my trigger finger. I threw a pair of navy tights into my shopping cart, a practical black pencil skirt.

And then I saw it. The sweater. 100% cotton, no buttons, long-sleeved, neutral in color, excellent reviews, long enough to cover my rear and soft enough to drape just right. Cardigans have long been a part of my work uniform, and they’ve become a weekend staple as well. Did I really need another one? Probably not. But something in this one called to me.

Cocoon, the description read, and I knew that was exactly what I was looking for. A warm cotton cocoon to wrap around myself as I evolve and discover what lies within me.

So I bought it, and it’s been hard not to wear it every day since–it’s exactly what I needed, during this long cold winter of the soul. I’m sitting here at my desk now, pairing it with gray pants, white shirt, and a bluish-gray scarf I never wore much before. I feel warm, protected. Cocooned.

If only they offered it in more colors–I’d buy every one.

SOLS: Delay

The best delay is the one you know about the night before: this is what I posted on Facebook last night, and it’s absolutely true. You get to set your alarm and actually enjoy an hour or two of extra sleep, rather than waking up at 5:45, checking the news, tiptoe-ing around your house to alert everyone else, and then trying to settle back in.

Turns out, the absolute best delay is one that turns into a closing, as I discovered this morning when I woke up from a solid night’s sleep at 8 to see that I could go right back to sleep, which I happily did. All in all, I probably had the best night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks, truly restorative slumber.

My students don’t take a state-wide standardized test, so unlike other colleagues in my area, I don’t feel a dire sense of urgency about the missing days. Yes, I think my Beowulf unit was probably more effective last year, when we didn’t have quite so many interruptions, but we’ll still end the book on time and I think many of them still enjoyed, or at least comprehended, it.

On a personal level, in a season of my life where I rarely feel rested, each delay and closing has offered me some respite, and for that, I am truly thankful.

SOLSC: Sunday Morning Boundaries

“Sophie, don’t you have homework?”

My daughter is curled up on the couch, blanket tucked around her, book in hand, cozy and relaxed. She doesn’t want to hear about homework. But I ask the question knowing that she told her friends last night in the car that she had some homework in almost every class, and with the memory of her most recent math progress report in my mind. The progress report I had to sign, the progress report where her grade has dropped into a level she’s never been before.

“I don’t want to do it in the morning,” she says. “I’ll do it later.”

“When later?” I say. “During this afternoon’s show when you’ll be performing, or during the cast party where you’ll be eating pizza and dancing with your friends?”

The look I get after that question probably doesn’t need to be described if you’ve ever had contact with almost-teenage girls.

She shuffles into the dining room, which has always been designated as the homework central command center. She completes her math homework, shuffles back over to me with her planner in hand so I can see she’s done what she’s supposed to do. I quietly show her a few places where there’s an answer or number missing, and she quickly corrects it. She moves on to making Spanish flashcards.

This is not the most pleasant part of parenting, the part where you show them clearly that you are not their friend, that you are the mother drawing boundaries and establishing limits, not the mother singing along to Uptown Funk in the car or buying sparkly owl necklaces at Target. This is the mother who threatens to block your favorite websites, the mother who forces you to sit back down and persevere at your least favorite subject.

Get a head start, I say. Check your work, go over every detail. Email your teacher and ask when you can come see her. Show me your planner so we know what you need to do. What other subjects do you have? Check the calendar; do you have any projects due this week?

What I’m really saying: I love you so much I’m willing to make you unhappy with me to help you learn these bigger lessons, ones that will stay with you long past order of operations and the friar’s speech. Someday, I won’t be able to stand right by your side and guide you, so these precious days that I have now will have to be enough.

Poems for the Brink of Hopeless

Poetry knew where hope lived and could elicit that lump in the throat that reminds me it’s all worth it.

That sentence comes from a breathtaking personal essay published in the New York Times recently about a mother making “a quiet stand for hope” as her daughter struggles through some tumultuous waters and using poetry to send her daughter whatever resilience and optimism she could.

Of course, this piece resonated with me on every possible level: mother of daughters, teacher of girls, writer and lover of poetry. I loved that the writer was self-aware enough to see that her biggest gift to her daughter was staying out of her way so she could navigate these challenges on her own, and that the poems were small but powerful gestures to show her presence, distant though it may have seemed. When I shared it on Facebook, I commented that I’d be stockpiling good “shoe-poems,” and many of my friends asked me to share what I collected. So here are my best suggestions for poetic messages of hope, ones I can see myself slipping into a bookbag, lunchbox, shoe or pillow to create a lifeline of words and support between me and my own girls.

Here are three mentioned in the piece itself, all of which I love:

Manifesto: Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

I Knew a Woman by Theodore Roethke

Here are others I’m adding to my own personal stores, ready for when I think my girls might need them:

A Valentine for Ernest Mann, Naomi Shihab Nye: I’m choosing this one for several reasons; it’s accessibly written with some clear images, and because when we are at the brink, we need to know that “if we re-invent whatever our lives give us we find poems”–it’s an empowering idea, to turn pain into beauty, and my students found it inspiring when I taught this poem last year.

Planetarium and Diving into the Wreck: I love Adrienne Rich’s work, but I included these two almost solely on the basis of these two lines: “I am bombarded yet I stand,” and “I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” There’s an essential resilience there that I find myself responding to, again and again.

The Weighing, Jane Hirshfield: Take a minute and dwell on “and still the scales balance”–beautiful.

Colors passing through us, Marge Piercy: “Here is my box of new crayons at your feet” and “a sing song of all the things you make me think of”–the string of vivid images in the poem remind me to stay in touch with everything beautiful I see around me, and I like to think it would for my daughters too.

A Blessing, James Wright: what adolescent doesn’t sometimes wish she could “step out of her body”? What adolescent doesn’t need reminding that there is a blossom waiting to break free inside of her?

Still I Rise, Maya Angelou: the ultimate in empowerment poems, this is a favorite among my students too.

woman, Nikki Giovanni: a great break-up poem for women, young or not, floundering after heartbreak

Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like, Nikki Giovanni: because young women should be encouraged to be “full of themselves” sometimes.

Thanks, W.S. Merwin: “Waving, dark though it is”–the bravery and hope in that line, in a poem full of determined gratitude; it makes me feel comforted and inspired, every time.

My school’s philosophy has two phrases in it that guide me on a regular basis, qualities we hope to instill in our students and value as a community: “tenacity of purpose” and “resilient spirit.” These ten poems express the striving towards that resiliency, that determination to see the light in the world even when all seems dark.

SLOS: Challenge

Before the sun came up this morning, I completed the participant form for the Slice of Life Story Challenge, promising myself and the Slice of Life writing community that I would write and share a slice of my life every day in March.

In years past, I’ve always enjoyed pushing myself in different ways as a writer and blogger by committing to post each day for a certain month, but this year, I’ve really wavered on making the decision. I’m navigating several specific personal challenges right now, and I just wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle anything else, even something as low-stakes and supportive as a daily public writing practice. Apart from the particular details, I’m facing a vast horizon of uncertainty, which is especially difficult as I come to realize how much I rely on routine, control, and familiarity to make myself feel secure. Gestures that used to be as simple as a reflex are now fraught with tension and emotion, leaving me feeling unmoored and unraveled.

As I learn how to detach from all the aspects of life I cannot control, I return to writing. Writing has always been a way for me to tune into my own pulse, my own heartbeat, and remember that true rhythm. It has helped me keep in touch with my own inner voice, and see my life more clearly, and I need both of those abilities now.

This isn’t really the typical “slice of life” post that I’ll be writing, but it is my decision to recording pieces of my life each day in March, to help me see the greater pattern and remember how to chart my own course.

Join me and the Slice of Life community, posting every Tuesday and every day in March!

Around the World Challenge Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan

While it fits well with my around the world reading challenge goals, In the Shadow of the Banyan is also one of the books I chose for myself as a Christmas book this winter; I don’t even remember how I found it, but I was attracted to the unfamiliar setting of Cambodia and a historical moment I know little about as well. I’m so glad I took a risk on this debut author’s moving narrative of loss and turmoil in a beautiful but devastated country.

The era of the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot in Cambodia is murky at best; we as a country have told ourselves many more narratives about our involvement in Vietnam than we have about our involvement in neighboring Cambodia, which endured years of civil war, extensive bombing by the US, and invasion by Vietnam all in conjunction with the Khmer Rouge’s version of Communism. Banyan tells the story of Raami, a child in a family evacuated from Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge began its campaign to turn Cambodians into “revolutionary peasants.” This formerly royal family begins a terrifying odyssey across the Cambodian countryside, facing starvation, forced labor, torture, death and enforced separation along the way. Vaddey Ratner, the author, experienced similar deprivation as a child escaping the advent of the Khmer Rouge, and this authenticity brings another emotional layer to the experience of reading the narrator’s struggles.

What I really loved about Banyan is how Ratner evokes the poetry and beauty of Cambodia’s culture and landscape, even while she is depicting the destruction of its people. Raami’s father is a well-known poet, and his poetry and thoughtful conversations with Raami are one of the many ways Ratner helps the reader see the power of language and storytelling, even in the harshest circumstances. Unfortunately, Cambodia is only one of many former European colonies that have suffered turmoil and despair in the following decades, but Banyan makes its story distinct in its tragic loveliness.

Recipes We Loved This Week

Spinach Lasagna Roll-ups: I added browned ground turkey to the sauce to make it a little more filling, served it with garlic bread, and this was a big hit with the whole family; would definitely make again.

Sweet potato waffles: I admit that I bribed my kids with putting some mini-marshmallows on top to compensate for the fact that I was offering them a veggie-based waffle. If I was a real food blogger, I would have taken pictures and called them Thanksgiving waffles–instead, you get a description and a strong A+ recommendation.

Cheddar Mini-Meatloaves: This is my favorite meatloaf recipe, one I’ve made many times before. I like the oatmeal instead of bread crumbs, and the ketchup glaze on top is a winner. This time I was out of quick-cooking oats, so I subbed steel-cut oats and let them soak in the milk and egg for while before mixing it all up. A+ reviews all around.

Banana chocolate chip crumb cake: this was our special Valentine’s day breakfast, and it was delicious! I didn’t have any plain yogurt so subbed in more butter, used four smallish bananas instead of three large. Excellent Valentine’s breakfast.

Around the World Reading Challenge

So I’ve made myself some reading goals for 2015 and I’m working on this new class on Middle Eastern literature; how can I keep track of what I’m doing and how I’m progressing?

How about a Around the World reading challenge? In 2015, participants agree to read and blog about six books, one from each continent (excluding Antarctica). This will allow me to keep exploring the world through books, pushing past my comfort zone of American/European authors, and also nudge me to review the books I choose, as well as tackle some gaps in my own knowledge. Here’s what I’m thinking so far:

Africa:

My first thought is to choose Half of a Yellow Sun because I loved Americanah so much, but I’m certainly open to recommendations, as my knowledge of African literature is fairly minimal. We Need New Names is a strong alternate contender at this point.

Australia:

One of my best girlfriends was just raving to me about Liane Moriarty, so for this one, I’ll choose either What Alice Forgot or Big Little Lies–both, if I get ambitious.

American:

I haven’t read nearly enough James Baldwin, so I think I’ll choose The Fire Next Time or Giovanni’s Room (again, both, if I get ambitious). Since I hold two degrees in American Studies, I’d like to push myself to read in genres, authors, and eras I haven’t explored yet.

Asian:

This one I’ve read already and am preparing to review, so stay tuned for my thoughts on a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in the terrible Cambodian genocide of the Khmer Rouge. However, this may be where I slot at least one of my class prep books, so perhaps I’ll count Istanbul: Memories and the City or Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country here.

South American:

Even though I’ve been teaching a course on Latin American literature, I know there’s so much I haven’t read, especially as my course is more of an overview of the “heavy hitters” of the 20th century Boom: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Mario Vargas Llosa, and assorted short fiction. I’ve read almost all of Marquez’s work, so I’d like to branch out, and will be including the Carribbean in my thinking here. Perhaps An Untamed State, though Gay is the child of Haitian immigrants and not living in Haiti herself, or maybe The Savage Detectives or 2666 if I get wildly ambitious. The Sound of Things Falling is also waiting patiently on my to-read shelf.

European:

Nick Hornby’s new novel Funny Girl is a hot contender here, but then again, I’ve also been reading so much about Elena Ferrante that part of me wants to choose My Brilliant Friend instead (or in addition to, honestly).

Books on my list to help me prepare for my class, even though I don’t think I’ll teach them: Islam: A Short History, The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan, Gilgamesh

What I’ve Been Reading

Is there anything better than a bus ride or a soft hotel bed to get some good reading done? I’d like to thank my recent chaperoning trip to Philadelphia for giving me a chance to escape into the pages of the following books.

Station Eleven: this post-pandemic novel has gotten lots of hype and notice, and I think it deserves plenty of recognition; finding a fresh take on the disaster landscape, weaving in Shakespearean threads, and making us care about characters who could easily be cardboard are all pretty big achievements. I disagreed with some reviews that said there weren’t enough “bad guys” or “suffering”; I found the evocative threads of loneliness in the book, in both the pre- and post- storylines, to be one of the most beautiful themes, and again, a post-plague story we haven’t heard or seen a million times before. I especially connected with the character of Miranda, who begins as an artist working a day job with an unsatisfying job and finds herself temporarily catapulted into the foreign landscape of Hollywood; I found myself longing to see some of her illustrations, which give the book its name.

The Woman Upstairs: I’ve wanted to read this since the early reviews started appearing, and then I joined a new book club which chose this as their first read. Nora, the narrator, is such a vivid, three-dimensional character, pulsing on the page with rage, fear, and yearning, a frustrated artist-turned-teacher who finds her world shaken up by the arrival of an exotic and charismatic family. This was an immersive read that made me think of the Cool Girl from Gone Girl, that sense of rebelling against social feminine expectations. I found the ending to be a little anti-climactic, but loved the book as a whole and can’t wait to discuss it with my book club.

Lila: If, like me, you loved Robinson’s Gilead, this book comes closer to that greatness than Home, the second book in her Iowa trilogy. Gilead is an impossible bar to reach, in many ways; it’s a desert-island book for me that dug deep into my heart and soul. However, the story of Lila, the Reverend’s young wife, and the lonely hardscrabble life she led before arriving in Gilead, has its own bleak beauty, and the view she gives us of the unlikely romance between her and her husband was so touching. Lila’s stubborn pride, her lonely strength, and her reluctant tenderness all come through so clearly and made me fall in love with this book.

Currently, I’m halfway through The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, which is fascinating if you want to learn more about either of these great presidents or want to feel disheartened about the state of American journalism and/or politics/government. Sigh.