I Can’t fix this

I have always been a “fixer.” When I was in college, friends would come to me for advice, for ways to “fix” their relationships, for words of wisdom. One of them even told me to give up on being a teacher; I was much better suited to a career as a psychologist. Thankfully, I didn’t take her up on it. It’s true that I try to fix everything, but that stems from the fact that I abhor conflict. I like things to be “nice.” I like smooth sailing and gentle breezes. For me the most difficult time of being a parent was when my children were teens. Conflict then is inevitable, but I tried to fix that. I tried talk. I tried understanding. I tried rationalizing. Letting go, letting them find out for themselves—that took time and multiple failures before we all emerged on the other side, still family, still friends, still loved and loving.

The current crisis in our little family threatens to thrust me into the role of “fixer” once again. “Mom, you can’t fix this,” my wise daughter tells me. And I know she is right. Mental illness is an illness without fault. It’s an illness without blame. It is an illness that a Mom Mom is powerless against. I’m like a female Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. All solutions are either temporary or elusive. We need to educate ourselves about the realities of the disease and its treatment. In the meanwhile, all we can do is offer love and support for the patient, the spouse, and the children.

As a young woman, I thought, like Scarlett O’Hara, that anything could be repaired with the right amount of effort.  I still have hope that this sentiment is true.  Our lives have changed, but all lives change over time. Like Scarlett I will straighten my back, raise my chin, and soldier on. I will let things happen without trying to make things happen. And that is the greatest challenge of them all.


Friends matter

Friends Matter

Last week we were plunged into a family crisis, which I will not go into here. It will be an ongoing problem and it struck us with the force of the proverbial ton of bricks. My husband, the rock that we all depend on to keep us tethered, has once again assumed that role. I, on the other hand, have teetered between constant sorrow and outright panic. How he puts up with me is beyond my understanding.

Friends have provided support in so many ways the most important of which, to me anyway, is giving their time to listen. When I say, “I can’t talk about it,” they stay quiet and wait. When I express my fears, they listen. If I cry, they offer their shoulders.

I have been lucky in life to have made good friends; even those I don’t see regularly can be counted on for support. We all need family and friends. Recently I read a newspaper account of a man who lived alone in rural Maine, surviving by pilfering food and supplies from homes in the area. He managed this existence for over 20 years. Can you imagine what that must have been like? Mental illness is likely a factor, of course; however, the thought of having no one to talk to for over 20 years—that just boggles my mind.

Some religious orders practice monastic silence, spending their time in prayer and work. But they are a community, and what they do daily, though conscripted, is dependable and serves a purpose. I’ve read that solitary confinement among prisoners, on the other hand, induces anxiety and can lead to severe mental incapacity, from hallucinations to the inability to think clearly.  The difference between voluntary silence and forced aloneness is the difference between lucidity and confusion.

We need people; we need friends; we need each other.

Grow where you’re planted

I’ve always loved the month of May. Not only is it my birthday month, May is also the time for digging in the dirt, planting window boxes, and hanging baskets. May is green grass and leafy trees and lily of the valley and impatiens and pansies and begonias.

When I was a young mother, my husband and I purchased our first home. My birthday gift one year was a pink dogwood tree, and we planted it in our otherwise barren front yard. We were not gardeners my husband and I, but we did the best we could, following the advice of the nursery. After several weeks, the poor tree looked bedraggled. Something was wrong, but we had no idea what to do. A neighbor stopped by to see if he could help. An avid gardener, he saw the problem immediately. We had over watered, and the solution, he said, was to dig up the little tree and dry it out. We propped it up against the garage, and watched and waited. After about a week, our neighbor proclaimed that it was time to replant. He improved the soil by adding fertilizer, cleared away debris, and declared that the dogwood would thrive. He was right. Forty-four years later that tree is still blooming. My son, who was a baby when we moved into that house, drove by the old homestead last weekend and texted me a photo of the front yard with the tree in full flower.

I wonder how often I have “over watered” –given too much guidance, too much direction, too much counsel.  How much better that dogwood tree fared after a bit of benign neglect, after having time to dry out and start over again. We owe our children the opportunity to grow where they are planted, to bloom in the sun that they find for themselves, to experience the joy of independence.

Your Turn Lesson -Transition

Your Turn:  Using Transitions

Transition words and phrases help readers to navigate their way through a piece of writing. Teaching young writers how and when to use transitions is time well spent. Younger writers can start with transition words that show time changes and proceed to more sophisticated transitions as they grow as writers.

Hook: Revisit the mentor text Trouper by Meg Kearney

Note the use of transition words for change of time. The introductory sentence uses “before” several times, repeating the word to show Trouper’s life in the time before he was adopted. Point out also the use of “while,” “next,” “then,” “last,” “until,” “now.” (Other transition words can be discussed with older students as well, such as “because,” “although” and so on. Be judicious about not trying to cover too much in one lesson.  We suggest sticking with time transitions to start.)

Purpose: Writers: Today I want to show you how you can use transition words to help your reader to discover why something is important at that place in time.  You can change the meaning of your sentences depending on the transition words that you use.

Model time transitions:

Show two sentences on sentence strips or project on the white board:

Dad and I played catch.

Mom made our lunch.

Demonstrate how using transitions works with the words: Meanwhile, After, Before, and While.

Dad and I played catch meanwhile Mom made our lunch.

After Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Before Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Dad and I played catch after Mom made our lunch.

While Dad and I played catch, Mom made our lunch.

Discuss how the different words change the meaning of the sentences by changing the sequence (order) of events.

Guided Practice:

Prepare three sentence strips:

Marty saw the tabby cat.

He recognized it.

He picked it up.

With the students’ input use three transition words: First, Then, After that to connect the three sentences. Then try other transition words, After, as soon as, immediately to connect the sentences. Ask students to turn and talk about how the meaning changes depending on the transitions they choose to use. After sharing their thoughts, ask students to work in pairs to connect other sentences, such as the following:

The tabby cat shivered.

It was afraid.

Liam spoke in a gentle voice.

They can experiment with connecting the three sentences with other transition words:

Because obviously, even though, although, without warning, because, then, for example.

Independent Practice

Give student writers a handout of useful transition words. (Although, Because, Before, After, At the same time, Even though, Finally, First, Meanwhile, Next, Then…)

Ask them to go back to their drafts and highlight transitional words they have used.  Writers can choose a paragraph in their drafts or in their writer’s notebook to revise by adding transitional words.  Give students the opportunity to share their revisions in small or whole group.

Reflection:  Ask the class to respond to one of the following questions.

What do you now know about using transitions?

When will you use transitions in your writing?

Why is it important to use transitions?


Why (not)?

“Poetry is an art form; poetry is a craft.” Bill Knott

I am savoring the new book  I Am Falling Into Myself a collection of selected poems by Bill Knott. It has been edited by his friend and colleague Thomas Lux, who wrote the admiring and inspirational introduction to the volume. By all accounts Knott was a complex, sometimes depressed, often combative personality who happened, also, to write poetry that I read with awe.

He writes sonnets, one line poems, one two-word poem—three if you count the title, lyrics, free verse and rhymes.  His poems are filled with surprises. He often uses nouns as verbs and can make more happen with fewer words than any poet I’ve read in my 70 years of reading.

Lux tells the story of a chance meeting with Knott on a subway in New York in the late 1970s, where Knott showed him a notebook filled, “over and over, with different variations on two lines that showed up in his great poem ‘The Closet.’” That’s craft; that’s art; that’s workmanship.

When I read poets like Knott, I despair of ever attempting another poem. How can one presume to stand beside such talent? Yet, we writers persist. We have something eating at us, and that something just has to come out. When we encourage ourselves to persist, we make a conscious decision to be brave, to take a risk, to share our stories. I think that all teachers of writing must be writers who share their writing stories as well as their written stories.



say it’s love

that made me do it

say it’s fear

that makes me pause

before I accept

say it’s ignorance

that supplies

my hollow words

say it’s life

that in a moment

climbs the hills

and sees another valley


Laundry Day

When I was growing up, life was predictable. I knew, for example, that if it was Monday, Ma would be doing the wash. Tuesday, she’d mend; Wednesday, iron, and so on. Meals, too, were predictable. Every Sunday we had pot roast; every Friday, Ma’s pizza. In regular order, we all knew we would be awakened by the smell of coffee brewing and toast popping up in the toaster.  When we came home for lunch, we knew it would be ready and waiting for us. That predictability was comforting. It was reliable. It implied that things would never change. The poem that follows is an homage to those memories.

Everyone knows that

On Mondays, all the mothers

Will be busy doing the wash.

If it’s summertime, we kids will

Press our noses

Against the white sheets, and

Breathe in the fresh scent.

We’ll unpin the shirts and socks and unmentionables

And pile them into the laundry basket,

A chore we enjoy doing,

Even though we have to stop playing

And wash our hands with soap first.

When it’s windy, the clothes snap and flap

And dance on the clothes lines.

Up and down the block

All the back yards have the same

Look.  Rope lines and poles and baskets and pins

In every one.

When I grow up

And live on this street,

On Mondays,

I will do the wash.


Celebrate Poetry


can be

the magic


which you say

you want,

but only

if you


stand willing

to pull

that rug out


from under

your own

feet, daily.   Bill Knott (1940-2014)


In this week’s Sunday NY Times Book Review, Kathleen Rooney critiqued “Selected Poems, 1960-2014” by Bill Knott. I wasn’t familiar with his poetry, but the  April 3 edition of the New Yorker also reviewed his work. From these two sources (and the excerpts printed in each review) I became curious. As April is poetry month, I thought learning more about Mr. Knott and his work would be an endeavor worth pursuing.

Knott was brilliant but morbid and an eccentric to boot. In 1968 he published (under the pseudonym Saint Geraud)  “the Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans”.  Towards the end of his life, he self-published collections via Amazon. A friend and colleague of Knott’s has just released a collection through Farrar, Straus & Giroux:  “I Am Flying into Myself: Selected Poems, 1960-2014” which I have just ordered. From the reviews in both publications I am expecting a roller coaster ride through (as Rooney says: “free verse, strict rhyme and meter, with subject matter zany yet poignant, romance, terror, and hilarity.”)

I admire poets, and though I have written “poems” myself, I don’t consider myself to be a poet. Love of language notwithstanding, I lack the ability to communicate that “shock of recognition” that true poets exhibit. Yet, I persist. Why? I guess I want what Bill Knott suggests is possible—that stamina “to pull /that rug out/ from under/ [my] own/ feet daily.” Instead, I’m more like the speaker in another of Knott’s short poems “Security.”

If I had a magic carpet

I’d keep it

Floating always

Right in front of me

Perpendicular, like a door.

April just may be the month (the cruelest month?) to try again.