March - National Poetry Month

I can’t remember when I didn’t love poetry. Somebody forgot to tell Mama about the hazards of reading above the heads of her four girls so I loved things like “and may there be no moaning at the bar when I put out to sea” and “nor the demons down under the sea, can ever dissever my soul from the soul” without having a clue what they were talking about. I loved the music of the words long before I appreciated the meaning in “Crossing the Bar,” “Annabel Lee,” and their many cousins.

I took a page from Mama’s book and read poetry, often just for pleasure rather than for teaching, with my children and students. Between them, my poem books are a bit the worse for wear.

In a bit of serendipity, since teachers in military communities seldom have the privilege of knowing what happened to their students, I recently ran into one of my long ago second graders here in the Pine Belt. She, now a creative award-winning teacher in the neighboring town of Petal, said what she remembered about my class was that we started with a poem every day. I’ll take that!

In recent years, I’ve become enamored with writers who create whole novels in verse. I’m not alone since the Newbery Committee has often chosen to award these books like Tranhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust, and Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover. My personal favorite authors for writing verse novels are Margarita Engle and Helen Frost. The words seem to flow in poetic form from their pens into exquisite stories. (Reality check: Any writing that appears to be that easy represents what Churchill would call “blood, tears, toil, and sweat.”)

So in this March poetry month, do yourself a favor. Reach back and reread one of those old loved poems that you understand better now that you are older, or grab a current novel in verse to give yourself a special treat. Margarita Engle and Helen Frost are a great place to start.


Finders Keepers

Finders Keepers by Andrea Spalding, first published in 1995, has come out in a new and updated edition. When I saw the blurb mentioning that the setting included the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, I knew I wanted to read the book. This World Heritage Site was a highlight of a trip my husband, my sister Ruth, and I took to Canada in 2011. The site guide said this area was operational long before the Great Wall of China or Machu Picchu.

As I began reading the book, I struggled at first with the two issues, dyslexia and honor for First Nations beliefs and traditions, trying to decide which was the important premise for the story. Gradually, they become interwoven like yin and yang. Danny Budzynski, challenged with dyslexia, is very bright but not good at school skills.  He finds an Indian lance head and new friends in Joshua Brokenhorn and his grandfather who are members of the Piikani Nation. Danny alternately grapples with his own learning disability and his conscience in deciding what to do with the ancient lance head, treasured by him in one way and his friends in another.

In the back matter, Andrea Spalding lists a number of resources for both the First Nations and the dyslexia strands of her story, including the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center that we visited and hints at personal knowledge of dyslexia in her author’s notes as she thanks Dave for “untiring correction of my garbled spelling that baffles spellcheckers.”

Her glossary and author notes add authenticity to her understanding of the struggles of dyslexia and the importance of honoring the beliefs and traditions of the people of First Nations. Besides commending the book, I also recommend a trip to the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Center if you should find yourself in Alberta, Canada.  


Denzel Washington, Philosopher

On the January 18 CBS Morning Show, the great philosopher Denzel Washington explained his viewpoint to Gail King. His words to his children were, “Do what you have to do so you can do what you want to do.” Having just seen him in Fences, I watched the interview with interest but never expected to hear any words of real wisdom.

His statement lingered with me after the program was over. I thought of how it applied to a couple of preschool grandsons. They are frequently told they must put toys away before they can go to the library or playground or before they can have a treat.

I thought of their grown brother and cousin who are pursuing a career in the arts – one as an artist and the other as a photographer. Doing what they have to do to make that dream come true, they wait on diners and bus tables to pay their rent and buy groceries.

Then I began to think how that pattern extends into life. The gardener pulls a lot of weeds and turns a lot of sod before flowers can be trained up a lattice. A writer collects a bunch of rejection letters before she gets a starred review or writes a best seller. A cellist takes a lot of music lessons and puts in hours of practice before he plays at Carnegie Hall. Almost every want-to-do has some have-to-do that comes before it.

I’m guessing the process can be made more pleasant if joy can be found in what you “have to do.” Otherwise, keeping the goal of what you “want to do” in mind should ease the task of picking up toys, waiting tables, or pulling weeds.

And if the Oscar goes to Denzel for Fences on Sunday night, it’s fine with me. He’s put in his have-to-do.


Isaac the Alchemist

Remember that you heard it here first when they start giving out book honors and awards for nonfiction. Isaac the Alchemist: Secrets of Isaac Newton Revealed by Mary Losure begs for star reviews and stickers for its cover.  

Beautiful writing got my attention early. “It was like magic. It was also very much like alchemy. As he slept that night in the apothecary’s house, Isaac was not yet an alchemist and would not be for many years. But already the seeds of magic had been planted in his mind.”

Mary Losure paints a picture of a disturbed lonely child who becomes a prickly adult more at home with puzzles about the workings of the universe and numbers than with people.  The book intrigues the reader who may know little more about the person Isaac Newton than the old legend of his discovering gravity when an apple falls on his head. (She clarifies that, too.)

The author explains how much he contributed to math and science as a forerunner to Einstein who built on his work and how much his discoveries are used today even though his original goal had more to do with alchemy. She quotes famous economist John Maynard Keynes saying Newton, “was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”

Her back matter is only slightly less interesting than the book itself including some extra tidbits not found in the text, source materials, and a bibliography.

I read my copy on my Kindle, with gratitude to Net Galley and Candlewick Publishers for the ARC, and can’t wait for a preschool math-loving grandson to get old enough to read it. I do recommend buying it in hard copy, as I will before I put it aside for him to age a bit. The pictures deserve to be examined and seen on paper one can touch.


The Chester Drawers

I’ve been writing this blog for more than five years and for the first time have a topic request. Oddly, my youngest son Mark asked me to write about this chester drawers. I am aware that most people outside the South call it a chest of drawers. I did learn to spell it, if not say it, correctly at some point in my childhood. As I recall, the person who enlightened me also made a slightly ribald comment about Chester and his “drawers,” but I need to get to the point.

The history of this chest of drawers begins before my time. It came into our family about the time of my earliest memories. A church member, who was upgrading their family furniture, thought the struggling young pastor’s family could use it and passed it along. Periodically, there was a new layer of brown paint applied, but otherwise it got no care except for the dusting assigned to the four daughters. The hourglass turned through a number of years until four girls grew up and made lives of their own, until the pastor and his wife retired and settled in her family’s old home place, until his death and her eventual need to give up housekeeping.

At that point, the four sisters sorted out and took home things that had only sentimental value. The chest of drawers went to Birmingham with Beth, the most talented DIY sister. Sensing something better under the layers of paint, she stripped it to the bottom wood, refinished it, and replaced the cheap hardware. Her DIY husband shored up the underpinnings, and it made a pretty addition to a guest room in their house. That hourglass turned through another number of years before they decided to downsize and move closer to their two daughters.

After the daughters took what they needed from the downsizing, Beth sent out an email to her nieces and nephews with a list and pictures of leftover furniture items. She said they were up for grabs with the caveat of first come, first served. Timing was perfect for Mark who was moving his family back to Mississippi and finding a house. She got a quick return email with a list of selections from him, especially for the chest of drawers that he could place in his memory in the houses where he had visited his McGee grandparents.

Despite Beth’s and Don’s best efforts, the chester drawers still has only sentimental value – a value that has my son recalling good times with Pops and Grandma. As the hourglass continues to turn, it sits in the master bedroom at his new house in Hattiesburg and draws a request for a blog.