“Kindness”–A Poem For All Times, by Naomi Shihab Nye

“I write to learn rather than to spout off what I already know.”

Ellen Sussman

naomishihabnyeI learn a lot when writing these blog posts–usually when writing anything. This week’s musing on the poem “Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye led me to new places. I had to think about why I’d been drawn to the poem so many years ago, and I also learned what led her to write the poem. It had been too long since I read “Kindness” out loud, and then I listened to her reading–which you can find at the end of this post (the 3 min. video where she tells how she came to write this and another poem!)

When Ludger and I got married, it wasn’t fancy, and it wasn’t long-thought-out either. Invitations were sent a few weeks before the late-December date because his parents and brother would be visiting from Europe.  My father canceled his plans to take his family to Arizona, and they drove down, the almost-two-hours, to be with us on our marriage day. My sister threw me a wonderful shower sometimes that December , and we found a dress, special earrings–and spent the night at a bed-n-breakfast sort of place the night before.

The most fun I had preparing for the ceremony and reception involves the poem “Kindness”: It was one of the poems I chose to include in a collection we put together. Ludger translated some of the poetry into German so his parents could read, and we hung the poems around the room. After our wedding day, we bound them between purple cover pages, for keepsake. More than photos to remember the union-day, I have the poetry to remind me of our vows.

“Kindness” by Naomi Shihab Nye was read aloud–by my friend, Najeea. It had been an important poem. I discovered it when a teaching colleague lent me the collection Words Under the Words (isn’t that a super title!?!) Those were the years just after I’d lost my mother. This was a poem I read and reread, and it gave me comfort. Then, when I moved to a small town where I felt alone and out of place, I read it as meditation and often to students those years when I would begin every class meeting with the reading of a poem. Continue reading ““Kindness”–A Poem For All Times, by Naomi Shihab Nye”

And Still I Rise–A Tribute to Maya Angelou

“People will forget what you do, and

people will forget what you say, but

people won’t forget

how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou, 1928-2014

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, the literary icon who died this week, gives her high school teacher Bertha Flowers credit for helping her to speak again after five years of silence and for igniting her interest in literature. Angelou once stated that the period of silence actually allowed her to absorb her surroundings more intensely. She had been mute after being raped by her mother’s boyfriend.

The literary master was a major figure in the Civil Rights Movement and worked directly with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She authored 30 books, and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) is the first of six autobiographies.

Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Arts in 2000 and the Lincoln Medal in 2008. President Obama honored her in February of 2011 with a Medal of Freedom — the highest honor a MAngelou quotecivilian can receive and a “thank you for inspiring people of the world to be more compassionate, loving, and to act from their best selves,” according to a Final Tribute aired by ABC.

Maya Angelou was a poet, actress, activist and educator, and she believed that “Love is what can heal all.” Born in St. Louis, Missouri, she lived for years in Harlem, Ghana, and influenced lives all over the world–including Oprah Winfrey’s–who has long considered Angelou her mentor.

She was also a cook and loved to bring people together around a pot roast,  a “Sunday Dinner” which she said is “one of the most intimate ways to be together.” She  loved country music, she told Robin Roberts on Good Morning America.

Maya Angelou was the second poet in U.S. history Continue reading “And Still I Rise–A Tribute to Maya Angelou”

Julia Alvarez & Sarah Kinsel: “Being a Poet is a Political Act”

“How do I know what I think

until I see what I say?”

Joan Didion

Julia Alvarez spoke at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland, the final event of the 2014 Arts & Lecture series–and I left inspired.

She spoke of story and of possibility. She spoke of how books change lives and the best writing surprises the writer. She believe to live as a poet is a political act. It means stepping out. It means making choices that often won’t fit nicely onto a resume. It means writing about what matters and revealing what won’t stay hidden any longer.

She told about her arrival in 1960 to New York City and showed a photo of her sixth-grade self. Her family fled the Dominican Republic after her father’s involvement in an attempt to assassinate Trujillo–the cruel dictator who reigned for more than thirty years over that island country bordering Haiti.

Before We Were Free
by Julia Alvarez

She wasn’t a reader back then, but she had grown up surrounded by story. In New York, she had a teacher who encouraged her to write down stories of the family she dearly missed.

“Then you won’t be lonely,” her teacher said.

Julia also met the library–and began to read books.

Once she began to study writing, years later as a graduate student, Julia Alvarez would realize she already knew about plot, character development, setting and climax because her family had taught her the art from at an early age through the oral tradition.

“People say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, my family was a small village,” she said, beaming a black and white photo onto the back-wall of the stage, a huge gathering of people. Her father was the youngest of 25! His father’s first wife died–not of childbirth–after bearing ten children. His second wife bore fifteen.

I kept leaning forward, closing my eyes, taking in her words Continue reading “Julia Alvarez & Sarah Kinsel: “Being a Poet is a Political Act””

Inside Out & Back Again: An Immigrant Story in Verse

“We must learn to see the world anew.”

Albert Einstein


Lately, I read plenty of kid-lit, especially books for the “middle grade” readers. So many writers impress me with their poetic way of telling a good story, and not long ago I walked through Powell’s on Hawthorne as a writer-friend pointed to books she loves. She reached up and grabbed Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, and I was sold.

“A good immigrant story always gets me,” she said.

This story will bring any reader closer to understanding the pain of dislocation that many refugees suffer, and it’s the sort of read that changes you a bit–leads you into a world you didn’t know you didn’t know (the best kind of book!).

Awarded the 2011 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and one of the two Newbery Honors that year, Inside Out & Back Again is based in the author’s personal experience.

Hà, only 10, hasn’t seen her father in nine years, and now she’s forced to leave Saigon because of some war she doesn’t understand. Her family flees the comfort of friends and fresh papaya to meet  glaring eyes and lonely lunches in Alabama.

[pullquote]No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.[/pullquote]

Yet during this first year of upheaval, Hà grows stronger. With the help of her older brother she learns to control her temper and to defend herself. Some kids at school ruthlessly chide her, and even her teacher lacks the  empathy we’d hope to find in a classroom, but the “cowboy”–the family’s sponsor–helps.  Hà’s mom remains a kind and gentle pillar of strength as well.

While full of both grief and healing, the novel is unexpectedly funny.

Inside Out & Back Again is  an ideal read-aloud.  For middle-grade or even high-school students, it is an ideal choice for teachers trying to blend the studies of Language Arts and Social Studies or parents who want to help their kids better understand people from around the world while also growing to love a good story.

Lai’s novel fits with other superb literature for young readers by writers like Karen Hesse–also a  master of telling historic stories in verse. Hesse won the Newbury for Out of the Dust and other books such as Rifka and Witness. She was recipient of MacArthur Fellow in 2002. Continue reading “Inside Out & Back Again: An Immigrant Story in Verse”

The Outlier: A Poem by Peg Edera & Thank You to William Stafford

“I tell you, Chickadee, I am afraid of people who cannot cry.”

Alice Walker


Peg1Portland’s icy-snow is melting, and some of us are staying warm with words.

For me it’s been sitting on the couch with one book after another, but on Friday night some lucky poets gathered at the Newmark downtown to celebrate what would have been Oregon Poet Laureate William Stafford’s 100 birthday: Li-Young Lee, Mary Szybist, Kim Stafford, Matthew Dickman, Paulann Peterson and Tony Hoagland (Ted Kooser did not make it as planned) read their own work, some Stafford poems, and they each talked about the influence the late-poet had on their own lives.

I’m sorry I missed the event, but here’s a video worth checking out to take in some of William Stafford’s wealth of words and life, The Stafford Centennial: A Conversationan OPB production.

William Stafford is known as a poet who awoke early each morning to write. Everyday he would make poems, and when someone would ask how he does it, ask about those days when the muse didn’t seem to show up, he’d say, “I just lower my standards.”

We don’t gather at 4am in the morning, but a small circle of us meet several times a month and write poetry. During our darkest months, we gather as the sun rises, and that’s when Peg Edera wrote “The Outlier”.

Continue reading “The Outlier: A Poem by Peg Edera & Thank You to William Stafford”

Teaching from the Heart–in the Freeze

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home to think about besides homework.”

~Lily Tomlin as “Edith Ann”



Back in Massachusetts for a winter-visit, my teacher-friends wake up early, lesson plans ready. Julie Bucceri meets her first group of 6th graders before 8 o’clock, and Stacey Hill leaves home by 6:45. She’ll pick up some neighbor kids and be standing in front of students by 7:10.

This week at Doherty High in Worcester, Stacey’s 9th graders talk about reasons for early puberty while her AP classes move on to genetics. But today, dressed in jeans and an “Envirothon” t-shirt over the layers, she and her team go on a field-trip (despite the below-freezing nip that reminds me why I no longer live in wonderful New England!) She’s happy for the change of pace since the days can feel repetitive. Continue reading “Teaching from the Heart–in the Freeze”