Start-of-Term Make-Overs

It’s not so much a photograph as the black-and-white computer print-out of a photograph. And it’s not so much placed on the windowsill among the framed snapshots and portrait prints of my family as it is stapled haphazardly into an empty spot on the aging bulletin board. The bulletin board whose juvenile illustrated border has been falling down for years, whose navy blue felt backdrop is dusty and faded by the sun around the rectangles where items like this not-so-much-a-real-photograph have been thumbtacked and stapled up for years. So many years.

But this picture matters to me. It’s a picture of my birthday. Or more specifically, of a birthday party my Creative Writing class threw me one year––in 2009, I think––and I’m there in the middle, surrounded by my students and desks piled high with paper plates and napkins and homemade cookies and random snack foods from the grocery store that opens before school starts and a chocolate cake with a candle on it. The photo is grainy and hazy and even a little graffitied by my daughter, who drew ball point pink hearts around her favorite students, ones who used to babysit her and her little brother before they moved away to college.

I am dramatically rearranging and overhauling my classroom this year. It began with the acquisition of a Promethean Board which necessitated moving my computer (and thus desk) to the opposite side of the classroom, and that meant moving my bookshelves around, which snowballed into moving everything else around, too. In cleaning off the bookshelves I let go of a lot of things I don’t need or want anymore, and halfway through inservice week I spontaneously decided to redecorate my bulletin boards, which I hadn’t really done ever, choosing instead each semester only to add more stuff on top of what was already there. The fire marshal might have written me up, if he’d seen it.

By any logical estimation, this not-so-much-a-photograph, this piece of paper, curling at the staple-holed corners and ripped down one edge, ought to be tossed into the recycling bin. But I cannot let it go. This casual print-out of a digital photo one of the kids emailed to me is proof that during at least one point in my teaching career, I was able to make a meaningful connection with a room full of high schoolers that was powerful enough that they found a way to throw me a surprise party in my own classroom on my birthday, complete with decorations, food, a cake, and even handmade cards and a gift wrapped in lovely paper with a bow. I seem to recall that one of them posted to Facebook a short video of them singing to me, then one of them saying, “Now get your germs all over that cake!” and all of them laughing as I––also laughing––blew out the candle and then cut each of them a slice. Only half a class worth of work got done that day, but no one really cared about that.

I keep this picture around because it reminds me that I am capable of making these meaningful connections, that no matter how difficult it is for my students to relate to me as I get older and they seem to get younger, to get less interested in school and in learning for its own sake, to get more involved in the digital world we all now inhabit to the exclusion of real, tangible interactions with actual live humans…I was able to make an impression on them once, and I will find a way to do it again. I have to believe that, no matter how difficult it feels the first couple of weeks of the school year, no matter how many people ask to be transferred out of my English class because they’ve heard it’s hard, no matter how many of them stare up at me on the first day of school with faces that have shut down to mask the fear in their eyes. I’m so tired of not being known, so tired of not being given a chance.

I’ve been giving my classroom a make-over this week. The bulletin boards are now covered in a cheerful robin’s egg blue with white and silver scalloped borders. I’ve put up new artwork––some of the best of it by my AP Gothic Lit. students from last year. I’ve even included the book launch party poster for Finis. The walls have been freshly painted, all the surfaces have been dusted and Clorox-wiped. By the time classes start on Wednesday, the classroom will look like a brand-spanking-new place that is my own, rather than a room I inherited when I started teaching in it so many years ago, and even my desk will be cleaned off. I will appear to have it together.

In this process, I’ve been wanting to give myself a make-over, too. Wanting to walk into Macy’s and head right up to the Chanel or Dior counters and tell them to give me a new look. Preferably one with a shade of red lipstick I actually like, not too pink and not too orange. Something that won’t rub off on my teacup. Maybe find a new blouse or two to go with my fabulous skirt wardrobe.

In clearing out the physical detritus, I’ve been yearning for an emotional purge, too. I’ve had some setbacks with this school year already, and classes haven’t even started yet. Monday it felt like I was being slaughtered by a thousand bureaucratic and technical paper cuts. Here I am, already back at school and my summer’s work isn’t finished: I didn’t finish the rewrites of my novel, I didn’t finish clearing out the clutter in my house, I didn’t finish reading all the books I wanted to. My thinking about all of this is so entrenched in the negative, I have to consciously remind myself of all the good things that have happened: traveling with my family, successfully launching a new book and the excellent reviews it’s garnered so far, getting two of the rooms in my house and my wardrobe really purged and cleaned out. My god, I have to remind myself, the summer is only so long. How much did you expect to get done and still have a life? I’m too hard on myself.

David Foster Wallace’s brilliant commencement address to Kenyon in 2005 begins with an old joke about two young fish swimming around, when they encounter an older fish who says to them, “Good morning, boys. How’s the water?” After the older fish leaves, one of the younger fish asks his friend, “What the hell is water?” Wallace’s point is that we sometimes cling to our natural default setting of disappointment in the tedious fulcrum of mediocrity upon which so much of daily adult life turns; in this self-indulgent laziness, we sometimes forget to appreciate the value of our own experiences among other human beings. In short, we focus on the negative of what we know we don’t have, instead of recognizing the potential beauty in what we do not yet know about what we are going to have. Wallace’s speech is one of the most impactful and glorious elucidations of the Human Condition I’ve ever heard, made even more poignant by the fact that he, just a few years later, ended his own life. I share this speech with my students every May, just before the school year ends. Yet as often as I’ve heard it, I still have trouble, sometimes, remembering its wisdom.

My classroom is looking great so far. So here is my own personal start-of-term make-over: it’s going to be okay. Look, I’m getting writing done this very morning. After my writing date, I’ll head over to Macy’s and get some new lipstick. Then I’ll go home and attack one pile of paperwork and finish my summer reading, and then take my kids to a birthday party. My students are going to be marvelous and smart and kind and find something about my classes interesting. It’s all going to be okay.

I just have to keep reminding myself, This is water, this is water, this is water…

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Haiku Contest Closure and Some Changes ’round Here

So now that the US government is back open for business, the Government Shutdown Haiku Contest is officially closed.  We had so many great entries!  Thank you to everyone who participated.  And in the comments this contest elicited from across my various social media, the general consensus from many, regardless of party affiliation or lack thereof, could be summed up in this non-competing poem:

“Crisis averted
in the eleventh hour.”
Nice work, pudknockers.

Later this weekend, I’ll be posting all the entries for the contest and giving you, the readers, an opportunity to vote on your favorites.  Majority wins in this poll, and the winner will receive a copy of TimeSlice.  Look for more details and the actual voting in my next blog post.

***

You might have noticed there was no Fashion Friday post yesterday.  I thought about doing one on lariats, which are a fun and versatile jewelry accessory, but I couldn’t get a decent picture of the one I’d made.  I thought about doing one on the trauma of haircuts — yes, really — but it felt too indulgent even for me.  I thought about featuring a hat, but the cool weather we had at the start of the week dissipated again.  In short, nothing was really coming together in time for yesterday’s scheduled post.  So I let it go.  Maybe I’ll revisit those ideas again later.

In my realm, Fashion Friday is a “blog project,” something (much like the Rêveurs Revelation Fashion Project) that I find entertaining and fun and which gets me posting on a regular basis even when I don’t have something more literary to share.  And periodically I evaluate how those blog projects are doing.  The inciting incident for Fashion Friday was that I wanted to bring hats back into fashion, and then it just expanded into other accessories.  It’s been a way for me to indulge a hobby of mine while also, sometimes, writing about more meaningful things (such as body image or beauty or self-confidence), and it’s been a fun way to get other writers involved in my site as guest contributors.

Now that autumn is here and hats are back on the horizon, we will see more of those, because I do still want to see them make a bigger comeback even in places where it doesn’t get snowy and cold for several months out of the year.  And I’m still very much open to having guest bloggers contribute to this series.  I will still, from time to time, write pieces about those issues I mentioned.  But I’m not going to go nuts trying to post something every week for the sake of posting something every week.  It’s not that there’s anything wrong with weekly posts — that is, ultimately, my goal in general — but these other things are just taking up more of my time than I have right now.

The reason for this is actually a good thing:  I have a bunch of pots on the writing stove, as it were.  Look for news about a magic realism novelette coming out in the not-too-distant future.  I may also be re-releasing one of my books of poetry that’s gone out of print.  I’m continuing work on the fantasy series I’m in the middle of — the first novel of which is currently being shopped around and which is sitting on about half a dozen agents’ desks at the moment.  The book review assignments are piling up around me.  I’m also itching to start a new novel, a stand-alone, and the NaNoWriMo‘s siren song has already begun its perilous waft to my ears.

So yeah, there’s a lot going on.  But it’s good stuff, and as much as I love my hobby, I want to devote more time to the literary stuff.

I am intensely grateful for all the new readers who have joined the Sappho’s Torque community since the inception of Fashion Fridays.  All of you, please feel free to query me if you’d like to do a guest post!  I hope you continue to enjoy the other treats on the blog between future Fashion Friday posts.

I’m considering some other changes around here, too.  You might have noticed a few little tweaks to its appearance over the last couple of months.  (Maybe not, though, as they’ve been subtle.)  I’m looking to spruce things up even more in the near future.

Exciting developments are afoot in the world of Angélique.  Stay tuned.

And watch over the next couple of days for the Government Shutdown Haiku Contest voting opportunity.  Thanks again to everyone who entered!

Cheers.

The Garden

I have a love-hate relationship with my garden.

In fact, to call it a “garden” feels a bit grandiose. It’s more appropriate to call it a collection of seemingly randomly placed plants and flower beds anchoring the edges of my front lawn. Moreover, calling my relationship with it “love-hate” is probably more generous and optimistic than the situation deserves.

I love the idea of having a garden. However, what I really want is a gorgeous refuge of healthy plant life that calls to mind the best quality of a traditional English garden: an idealized image of nature. I want lots of colorful flowers against a deep green backdrop, roses and dahlias and hydrangeas with butterfly weed and tall double hollyhock in supporting roles. I want a groundcover of whatever those charming purple blooms are that persist in growing in the shady parts of my yard that no one seems to be able to identify or sell me more of, but which are blessedly bereft of excessive weeds. I want purple crepe myrtle and blue jacaranda trees, and deep magenta bougainvillea that blooms heavily all year. I want the kind of fruit trees and vines that produce things I like to eat.

And I want my homeowners’ association to leave me alone about my yard. It is possible I want too much.

The likelihood of any of those floral desires coming to fruition is dependent on one of a few possible scenarios coming miraculously true:

1.  My work schedule changes so that I am actually at home during the daylight hours for most of the year, and not completely worn out when I get there, a to-do list a mile long awaiting me.

2.  I acquire an exceptionally talented gardener for my birthday.

3.  The position of my house changes so that it no longer blocks all the sunlight from reaching the garden spaces on my property.

4.  I move to another house which already has this perfect garden and a caretaker to maintain it.

5.  I move to someplace other than what appears to probably be zone 9 or 10.

6.  I am suddenly transported into an actual fairy tale.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, each of those six scenarios just might be equally likely to happen. So what’s a girl with a black thumb to do?

I’ve been thinking of zero-scaping, or simply tearing everything out and replacing it with artfully stacked rocks. Not a lot of support for this among the other members of my household. (Not that I can blame them. There’s a reason I don’t live in the desert – which, incidentally, appears to be better at keeping plants alive than I am. I have managed to inadvertently kill every cactus I’ve ever tried to grow. Or forget about growing – I can’t even keep cacti which are already thriving in their current state. It’s as if they simply succumb to despair when they realize they’ve landed in my possession.)

I have tried. I have made honest efforts. I have read books on gardening for my specific plants and for my specific area. I have investigated related websites and spoken with people from the local rose growers’ association and consultants at independent nurseries. I have planted in locations which seem to get enough sunlight. I have watered diligently and for long enough, according to expert opinions and directions, when there wasn’t enough rain. I have pulled weeds. I have pruned. And for these pains, I have been repeatedly disappointed, even to the point of having to occasionally do deep pruning – you know, with a shovel.

My front lawn and flower beds have been landscaped, or at least planted, a few times, sometimes by myself and my husband, sometimes by my mother-in-law (“Surprise! Happy Birthday!”), sometimes by professional lawn care services and even, once, an outdoor space designer. Yet things always fall apart due to the weather or my inability to maintain the place when I go four or five days in a row without getting home from work before dusk. I can’t really control either of those things. Sometimes I’ve bought plants that, despite their marketing, won’t grow in our zone. Sometimes the problem is with the soil in my yard, and I don’t identify the true problem or how to fix it until it’s too late. Sometimes the fruit tree I buy and then plant and then wait exuberantly for the fruit to grow ends up being the wrong variety, which was mislabeled when I bought it – for example, not sugar figs but some weird fig I end up being allergic to. And then that’s the plant that thrives and and has three successful blooming seasons a year! Ultimately I’m left feeling demoralized.

So it’s January again, which in my area means it’s time to prune and begin thinking about what to do with the space next. I must have indomitable spirit, because I’ve actually been brainstorming with my husband some ideas for what to do with these stubborn garden spaces.

It will begin with cutting back the roses, again, both the bushes and the climbing vines. And pulling out the weeds, which spitefully and tauntingly thrive, thrive, thrive. And perhaps purchasing some soaking hoses to make the job easier.

After that? Well, sigh. It’s anyone’s guess.

Yearning for Makeover: Jane Austen, Stacy and Clinton, and the Undaunted Nature of Writer’s Block

This essay has been removed because an updated version of it appears in THE MILK OF FEMALE KINDNESS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF HONEST MOTHERHOOD, along with the writings and artwork of others on the theme of motherhood.  

Milk of Female Kindness front cover

 

 

Click here to purchase the anthology from Amazon, or contact me directly at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com for a signed copy.