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Archive for July, 2010

Welcome to Newark

In the air, headed from my (new) home in Indiana to Princeton, New Jersey for a week of writing retreat at the house of a generous friend to artists. Down below me the earth is scrunching up its face–the ground is a vasst wrinkled brow of furrows and clefts. I thought I’d see the bright green and tan squares of midwestern farmland but I see shadow, bristle (evergreens?), crumpled hills. It looks like an enormous sheet of forest has been taken up in God’s hands and crumpled gently like tissue paper then set down again, with little toy roads and ribbony rivers added here and there. For a variety of reasons I feel an outsider in all this–a sneak and a cheater who’s not supposed to be here, writing this, in on this amazing scene. Yet I am. God’s grace feels inexorable. Indifferent almost.

And now the landscape has changed: humans smoothing out the wrinkles in the tissue and making little farms, straight hedges, flat roads and gridded football fields. The cloudscape has not changed: it drifts over all, serenely. And we fly above those clouds, majestically. Mechanically.

This week I want to write about the power of randomness, the power of restraints, the negative, the not, I want to write about the power of long lines and of short lines, the power of a naked encounter with a text and the power of encountering that text equipped with knowledge, context, lexicons, philosophy, philology, zoology. The interplay between grammar and art, grammar and music. Oh I wish I had more knowledge and more skill! I want–and I want to run from that wanting, the work that fulfilling even a fraction of those wants would require. Shame sits heavily on my shoulders, slumping its dead weight from one aching joint to the other. And my soft round belly just sits. The sun is a hard white circle in my window. The spires of Manhattan poke up small in the distance.

We turn. Blue clouds wash over the land and invite my lowered eyes to come back out to play. Roads carve through the trees. We tilt, and all I see are the bellies of couds. We tilt again, and water hoves in view, coast and coastline, tiny white boats, the city closer now, a presence, a Destination. I see a baseball diamond next to the water. I see roads paved and painted that run right down to the sea. Thirty silos–a factory. Bright chunks of painted metal–cargo trucks. Cargo ships. The Lady just inside the Verrazano. Cranes and cars and haze and arcs of bridges, a million trucks, stacked next to factory slabs. The wheels touch and rush. And the voice in the microphone says, “Welcome to Newark.”

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The school year is nearly over, and so is the experiment of homeschooling my 4 and 7 year-olds. It’s funny that I always use the word “homeschooling” rather than “teaching” to describe what I’ve been doing this year. Why? In part because, if measured in concrete hours of instruction imparted by me to my sons, this year’s experiment ended up achieving WAY less than I’d hoped or expected. Lesson plans? Jotted on the backs of bank-statement envelopes as I rush to finish my coffee before the baby wakes up. (Yes, there’s been a baby in this mix as well.) It turns out that being a good high school English teacher does not automatically or easily equate to being a good elementary/preschool teacher-of-one’s-own-offspring-in-one’s-home. I’m tempted to give the year a failing grade–but I doubt my ability to judge this experiment as much as I doubt my ability to carry it out. Instead I’ll look for the positives:

  • My respect for and trust in the teachers of my children has gone way up. The default has become: they know more than I do.
  • The one activity that truly “worked” this year, day in and day out, was reading. I sat on the couch with my 8-yr-old on one side and my 4-yr-old on the other, and together we read book after book. Any length, any topic, any style: they were rapt and I was wrapped in the peace of knowing I was doing something right. Yet another scenario where entering a text brings life, breath, trustworthy realness. What a joy to enter that realm with my kids.

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