Archive for the 'Commonplace Book' Category

“November came down…”


“November came down, skies like dark slate, winds bitter.” — John Jakes.


The first books out of the boxes.

I haven’t yet tackled the stacks of book boxes up in my office. Not all the shelves are assembled and in their proper places just yet. We’re almost there, but not quite yet, so it’s better to leave those boxes where they sit.

But most of the boxes from the main living areas of the house are opened and unpacked, and what emerged from them are the books that were strewn around the house at the time the movers arrived. It’s an eclectic mix for sure, but a strangely comforting one at that. I’ve found everything from Little House to Diary of a Wimpy Kid, from Colorado and Utah tour books, to some old Dean Koontz, to Walden and Other Writings. These books have emerged from boxes labeled “kitchen misc” and “Living room” and “MBR: books and mice.”

As I unpacked these books, I simply placed them on tables in the rooms they’d been in, as if they’d never been disturbed, as if, in some other alternate universe, they’re still in Pennsylvania. Or maybe it was just the Universe’s way of knowing what books I’d need right away, because tucked in among them I found, of course, a small smattering of poetry books, including the latest from my teacher back home: Selected Poems, by Christopher Bursk. This morning, I opened up his book and found these lines:

…. Don’t
let go, you whisper. If I do
there’ll be no way
you can save me. My fingers hurt from grasping
yours. My body’s too great a weight
for anyone to lift. If it wants to fall
that badly, maybe
I ought to let it. I can’t
hold on forever, can I?
Yes, you whisper.
The word reaches down into the darkness
where I dangle.
Yes, you can. It is a command.

I can’t quite think about the fact that, come this January, I won’t be sitting down to another master workshop with this amazing poet and all my friends and fellow writers back east. But I can take some comfort in these lines, pretend for a little while that he was talking to me the whole time, that he looked into the future and saw me dangling here amid a confusion of boxes and half-assembled bookcases, and knew exactly what I needed to hear this morning.

Learning to lift the veil.

Mom says each of us has a veil between ourselves and the rest of the world, like a bride wears on her wedding day, except this kind of veil is invisible. We walk around happily with these invisible veils hanging down over our faces. The world is kind of blurry, and we like it that way.

But sometimes our veils are pushed away for a few moments, like there’s a wind blowing it from our faces. And when the veil lifts, we can see the world as it really is, just for those few seconds before it settles down again. We see all the beauty, and cruelty, and sadness, and love. But mostly we are happy not to. Some people learn to lift the veil themselves. They they don’t have to depend on the wind anymore.

— Rebecca Stead, When You Reach Me

While living in Pennsylvania, I had the good fortune to meet and befriend an amazing group of poets. One of them in particular had mastered the art of lifting the veil. Every time we talked, you’d get a little taste of what it was like, got a little better (braver) at lifting your own. She passed away in February. I wasn’t able to be with her that night because I was chaperoning a homeschoolers dance. I wish I could have taken a picture of what the sky looked like that night: a dense and beautiful fog had settled over everything, lighting up the snow covered fields. It was probably the most beautiful winter night I’d ever seen in Pennsylvania. But I was rushing that night, and didn’t stop to snap a picture. So, I’ll settle for this shot instead:

This is what the sky looked like as I drove home from her memorial poetry reading later that spring. And for once I took the time to stop the car and snap the picture.

And just now, while I was typing this out, the sun came out for just a few moments, brightening up my office, laying a swatch of warmth across my desk, after I don’t know how many days of dark and gloom. Like she knows I’m thinking about her, and knows how much I wish I could sit with her just one more time, and watch as she lifts her veil, showing me just how easy it is.

Getting Schooled.

From Harper’s magazine, September 2011 issue, which arrived in my mailbox this week. “Getting Schooled: the Re-Education of an American Teacher,” by Garret Keizer. I checked the Harper’s website, but I didn’t see the article up there yet, so I don’t have a link.

In the essay, Keizer writes about returning to teaching in a public high school in Vermont for one year, after a 14-year hiatus, and reflects on the differences between then and now, and also on some of the similarities.

A long essay, but well worth every word. Timely reading for me, as we gear up for another year of homeschooling. Some excerpts:

I’m a bit surprised by…the number of students who readily identify themselves as “attention deficit”. If such a disorder exists, as I’m inclined to think it does, I’m glad there are medications to treat it, although hearing someone say “I’ve got ADD” in a culture of such vast distractedness is a bit like having a fellow passenger on an ocean liner tell you that she feels afloat. Who doesn’t?


During one of the first staff training days, the district superintendent tells us that 10 percent of all high school education will be computer-based by 2014 and rise to 50 percent by 2019, the implication being how close to obsolescence our methods and we ourselves have become. No one ventures to ask what would seem to be the obvious question, which is what sort of high school education Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had and what they might have failed to accomplish without it.


The notion that the very same teachers who made the greatest difference in my life need to be purged from the ranks is dispiriting enough, but the outrageous suggestion that the “brutal facts” of education have more to do with the schoolhouse than with the larger society in which my students live is enough to make me want to spit. Or teach.

And, finally:

If the bell schedule and the calendar are the body of a school, transcendence often comes as an out-of-body experience. When a classrom teacher can somehow manage to get kids “out of school,” either physically or psychologically, then school can begin. Sometimes that happens simply by inviting students to stay after school….Sometimes it happens through a special project, the more hands-on the better—paradoxically, “out of body” often translates in practice to contact with the physical world, to running, drawing, making something real.


Again, this is timely reading for me, as we are starting our next official year of homeschooling next week. The struggle remains for me, as a classical home educator, how to balance the book-work with enough moments of getting out into the world and allowing a bit of real learning — a bit of transcendence, perhaps — to happen. It doesn’t always work out the way I imagine it should, but should is a problematic word anyway.

So, we’ll study a little, and then maybe take the dogs for a walk. Or we’ll study a little and then maybe look out the window for a bird or two. Sometimes we’ll get up and just decide to go to the lake or the city for the day. And that will be okay.

 I have no beautiful school room. I have limited amounts of patience, especially when the kids begin to gripe and bicker. Sometimes we’ll make tea and read poetry. Sometimes we’ll all get angry and have to take time to cool off before we can work together again. But we’ll be learning something all the time, I guess.  Even me.

Especially me.

Do they even realize how they inadvertently promote homeschooling?

My 7-year-old checked a book of poems out of the library last week called, Did You See What I Saw? Poems about School, by Kay Winters. Here’s one of the poems in the book:

If I Were in Charge

Waiting in line,
a long thin line
takes time
every day
from our play.
We start
then we stop
while we
straighten our line
missing more time
on the way.

Why can’t we bunch
as we go to our lunch?
Or walk in a group
for our soup?

There’s a rule
in each school
about standing in line,
a stupid straight line.
I resign!

My daughter brought this book to me last night while I was in the midst of a grumpy moment, brought on by an attempt to sit down and write a few lines of poetry myself. Said attempt was foiled by an almost constant stream of interruptions, all of which began with the words, “Hey, Mom…?”

Twenty minutes of this sort of thing, and the poem I was working on had disappeared from my thoughts, and I was struck with the frustrating realization that if I were to put them in school next month, I’d have about seven hours a day to sit in silence and write whatever I damn well pleased.

Then my daughter brought me this book, and I flipped through it, and so many of the poems served as yet another reminder of why I’m doing what I’m doing. Sure, there were a few little poems about the specialness of teachers. But really only a couple. Most of them highlighted the many irritations, both big and little, about industrial schooling, like the example above.

And speaking of that poem above…. Let’s just examine that title for a moment: If I Were in Charge.

Notice how the writer uses it to give the child a voice. Notice how that voice understands the condescension inherent in the endless lessons in waiting-in-line. Notice how the voice understands that the best course of action is to simply leave. To resign. And think of how many kids out there that want to say that exact same thing. But never get to.

Um… yep. We’ll keep on homschooling, I guess.

“Have had no thoughts today…”

Excerpts from a letter written by F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter:

…I am glad you are happy—but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed page, they never really happen to you in real life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.

Have had no thoughts today, life seems composed of getting up a Saturday Evening Post story. I think of you and always pleasantly…

 Fitzgerald ends his letter to his daughter with this list of things not to worry about and things to think about:

Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t wory about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions
Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful instrument or am I neglecting it?

[From William J. Bennett’s The Book of Virtues for Young People, pp. 86-87]

I read this to the girls today during lunch, having come across Bennett’s book purely by chance at the library last week. It was one of those books I’d heard mentioned frequently in homeschooling circles, but never felt compelled to rush out and purchase. So, when I saw it on the shelves, I grabbed it and brought it home to peruse, and now we read a little from it every lunch hour. And now that I’ve read this letter, I do believe I’ll buy a copy for the house.

I can’t help but remember how my own father never gave me any advice, except with regards to what I should be reading. I’d send him a letter, and he’d write back: “Go out immediately and get yourself a copy of Madame Bovary.” Or he’d send a letter with a postage stamp with Hemmingway on it. “Look at the man on the stamp,” he’d write back. “Read him.” My father lived a life of missed opportunities, estrangement from family, homelessness and addiction. He was the Hemmingway Defense defined, you could say, and a failure as a parent in every possible way.

Except one, I suppose.

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