Monday, September 28, 2015


Noses and Smells
On Saturday evening, I walked out of a meetinghouse and headed to my home, about a block away. I took a deep breath of the warm night air and smelled. . . honeysuckle. It smelled so good and sweet. Growing up in Alaska, I had read about honeysuckle and imagined how it might smell since none grew there, but now that I lived where honeysuckle grew, I knew it from my own experience. I loved the scent. As I walked, I thought about what a nice little blessing it was to walk through a warm honeysuckle-scented evening. I took several deep breaths, enjoying the perfumed air.

Until I was three houses from my own. Then the air changed. Drastically. And I knew what it was.

Four days earlier someone had hit a deer on our street. Its dead carcass had lain on the side of the road for all of the extra warm days since. First it bloated. Now it was deflated. And incredibly stinky. Today someone had tied a get-well balloon to its antlers. I don't know how they got so close. In the morning, the smell wasn't so bad, but by afternoon--and especially in the evening--it was horrid. We had to close the windows in our house and be sure not to leave doors open for any length of time. (Besides the stink, there were the flies!)

We had called and called for someone to pick up the deer, to no avail. The dead body lay there still, emanating waves of stink. I tried to hold my breath as much as possible as I hurried down the hill to my house. Luckily, it wasn't far. I ran up the front steps--grabbed the knob--and found the door locked!  I knocked  quickly and loudly. No one came. I rang the doorbell. I knew my son and his family were there. My husband was there. I saw an extra car in front of the house. We had visitors. There were people in that house, but they wouldn't answer the door! At this moment, I wondered if the sense of smell I had felt such gratitude for before was going to be the death of me. Was I going to throw up? I pounded on the door. And finally glimpsed my son coming to unlock it. I burst in and shut the door quickly. "Were you trying to kill me?" I asked him. He just laughed, but he knew what I meant. My daughter-in-law and I both have very sensitive olfactory senses. We smell things the men in our family can't smell. It can be a blessing. But it can also be a curse.

baking cookies and teaching writing

I love to make cookies. I like to eat them and share them, but mostly I like to make them. How can being a cookie maker make me a better writing teacher?

1. I love how the "product" is so yummy. I love that what I make is fun and good. Other household tasks--doing dishes, for example--might yield a product I need (a clean kitchen) but not necessarily one that I simply enjoy for its own sake.

     As a writing teacher, I need to remember that utility has its value, that we need to learn to write resumes and school writing, but sometimes we need to write what feels like play, something fun that we can share with others, something that is meant to give others pleasure too. Time for dishes, but also time for cookies.

2. I like the process of making cookies. If I make cookies with grandchildren, I get to enjoy the process with them. We talk and laugh as we measure and pour and stir. It is a process to share and have fun doing together. And when we're done, we can be proud of our collaboration. But I like to make cookies alone, too. Then there is time for contemplation. My hands are busy with soothing, familiar tasks--measuring and scooping, stirring and cracking, spooning and sliding--so my mind can relax and think about what really matters.

     As a writing teacher, I need to remember that the process doesn't always have to be the same. Sometimes we write with others; other times by ourselves. We enjoy the process either way. And the process needs to be familiar enough and comfortable enough that the writers feel relaxed and able to enjoy the process if possible. 

3. The final product--a cookie--brings happiness. I don't care who you are, if someone gives you a cookie, you feel happy. You feel loved. Cookies are just little bits of sunshine, and really, can eating just one be bad for anyone? No. And they make us happy.

     This is a little trickier. Not all writing pieces give pleasure and joy to the audience. Some writing makes us think--other writing may make us cry. Some can even make us uncomfortable. But all writing has something to celebrate, something to be happy about. I need to remember to look for the joy in each writing piece and celebrate that aspect, let that aspect bring both the reader and writer joy. 

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

sidewalk etiquette

So, I'm wondering about sidewalk etiquette lately. Two recent events led to this wondering.
1. I was walking on a fairly crowded sidewalk with lots of people walking both ways. I notice a young man coming the other direction toward me, texting as he walks. He is veering into the side of the sidewalk going the other direction, heading straight for me. I start slowing down and moving closer and closer to the curb. I am not sure what to do. Say something and startle him? Just step off the curb before he walks into me and let him fall off it a moment later? Bump into him? Luckily, just as I was getting ready to step off the curb and avoid a collision, he looked up and quickly jumped back into his own lane.
2. This time the sidewalk wasn't as full. But it was raining. Coming toward me was a couple, holding hands, and walking in the middle of the sidewalk. I realized that when we met, I would either have to step off the sidewalk or put my umbrella down (or it would hit them). Since they were taking their half out of the middle, what should I do?
I don't know if anyone has written a list of rules for sidewalk etiquette. I guess we just have to take each situation as it comes?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Golden Tree: Trees on Fire

Last week I stepped outside to see the morning sun rising over the mountains and shining on this yellow tree across the street. The sun on those yellow leaves made the tree shimmer like something out of  a fairy tale. A tree of gold.

What a difference a week makes. Today, the smoke is so thick from the forest fires in the canyon that a haze covers everything.I can barely see, barely breathe. Nothing is golden today. Trees like this one are fueling the smoke that keeps us from finding the gold.

Instead, we all smell like we've been around the campfire too long. My hair grabs the smoky smell and won't let it go. My clothes smell like I sat on the windy side of the evening fire. Even food tastes of smoke. My throat has the tickle that comes before a coughing spell.

I am reminded, again, that life's moments--like a gold tree--are fleeting. We need to make mental images if we can't capture the memories with our devices.  Frost was right: nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

It's fall. Along with changing leaves and cooler evenings, school is starting. Shouts of children's voices ring out as they pass the house in the morning, new backpacks aboard, on their way down the hill to school. We have a first grader living with us this school year (along with his mom and sister while dad is working all over the country). This morning, during our new ritual of sitting on the front steps to wait for his carpool, Gabe reminded me of another sign of fall--book orders.

I have always been a reader. I taught myself to read (with a few of the side effects that always come along with teaching yourself anything), so that partway through my first grade year, I was moved to second grade. More stories there. Suffice it to say that, from a very early age, I could never have enough books. My school had a meager library, although the biography section was pretty good--I read everything in it; our town's only library was miles away and our family had only one car, which my dad took to work, so we rarely checked books out. Our family didn't have very much money, so when the book orders came, I would beg, and my parents would eventually relent: I could order one book--and ONE BOOK ONLY. As I recall, the books cost under a dollar then, a sign of times and other things, I suppose.

I would spend hours pouring over the book orders, probably a good reading experience in itself. I would narrow the choices down to five, then to three. Then I would try to think which one of those I really had to have. It was a tough decision to make, but eventually I would decide: either a Nancy Drew mystery or a Cherry Hill book about nursing. On rare occasions, something random like Little Women (my favorite book for two years). Once I tried Old Man and the Sea--fifth grade, if I remember correctly. I knew of Hemingway and thought I should read what grown-ups read. It was torture. I didn't veer away from Nancy Drew or Cherry Hill for a long time after.

Today, I have an office full of books. I have a home full of books--they are in every room of the house: literally. I have books stacked on my nightstand, my dresser, and the baker's rack in the kitchen. Books in the living room and books in the family room. Books in bathrooms and on the bench by the back door where we drop bags when we come in. I have books on my iPad and sometimes in my purse. Always in my suitcase. There are books everywhere in my life. But, still, when book orders start arriving in the fall, I feel the same sense of wonder--and desire--I remember from being young. I want to find another gem, another friend. So I still look at book orders, still dream of the wonder and possibility of a new book. And now I can do it with my grandson.