Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Head Swimming with Wants

We're getting rain here in Los Angeles -- buckets and buckets of rain -- and the most beautiful winter sunsets. That picture above was taken on Saturday in Santa Monica. Carl and I were on the beach, and that's facing east, away from the ocean.

Turn around.

Today marked the first day of the second week of my new job teaching English to a group of eleventh and twelfth grade girls. I have three classes, two groups of eleventh graders and one group of twelfth. Each class is unique and one is particularly challenging. Anger and resistance make the air crackle in that room. Heads swim with wants. Take notes, I think. Keep taking notes. I have a mind and a memory like a steel trap, and these girls will join all the other hostages that wander the labyrinthine paths.

I get this newsletter every day from The New York Times newspaper cooking section. It's called What to Cook Right Now. I love it so much -- the recipes, the commentary, the links. Today I learned that it's the writer John Dos Passos' birthday (1896). I read nearly everything he wrote back in the last century, in my early twenties. I probably read him lying on a bed somewhere, maybe in the apartment where I lived with my first love, out in the country in Chapel Hill, a mattress on the floor at the top of the stairs, sandwiched between two walls and a window at the foot, a bookcase stuffed with used paperbacks. I might have been chewing on some Twizzlers when I read Dos Passos, red plastic mingling with brown must. Dos Passos was a hostage, though, wandering around my mind, lost down some dark corridor, until I read about him today.

Teaching these girls, doing the research for lesson plans, revisiting stories and poetry -- it's all packed in there, in my mind, and it seems that there's no end to what one can stuff into it. So, yeah. Take notes, I think. Keep taking notes.

Here's a passage from The 42nd Parallel that Sam Sifton, the guy from the NY Times newsletter thinks describes the writer's life. I agree.

The young man walks by himself, fast but not fast enough, far but not far enough (faces slide out of sight, talk trails into tattered scraps, footsteps tap fainter in alleys); he must catch the last subway, the streetcar, the bus, run up the gangplanks of all the steamboats, register at all the hotels, work in the cities, answer the want ads, learn the trades, take up the jobs, live in all the boarding houses, sleep in all the beds. One bed is not enough, one job is not enough, one life is not enough. At night, head swimming with wants, he walks by himself alone.

Thursday, January 10, 2019


Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

I've completed my first week of teaching three English classes of eleventh and twelfth grade young women. Here are some observations and notes:

  • a bit of Emily Dickinson -- hope and the thing with feathers -- inspired a group of let's say recalcitrant girls to write their own three stanza poems using extended metaphor and dang if they didn't do a beautiful job

  • have argued over whether or not to read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (only the 12th grade girls are reading it, now). It's old. It's hard. Cry me a river.

  •  read aloud Christina Rossetti's The Goblin's Market and are now doing a fine analysis of it (thank you, LP, for turning me on to this strange and wonderful poem). I felt a tad uncomfortable reading the provocative parts of the poem, given the sensual imagery of juices running out of mouths, etc., but this poem! the language!

  • have begun reading Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter. Remember that? I loved Hawthorne stories as a young reader and hope to pass along the weirdness (not of me but of him) to these students. 

  • have worn black tights three times this week which is more times than in the previous twenty years. This is not hyperbole

  • who knew I had so little modest clothing? I've had to purchase some things that make me feel strangely invisible which provokes thought -- interesting thoughts --we think the ways in which we adorn ourselves speak to identity but maybe they don't because I am still me however much I look like an Italian widow 

  • (the question of being told what to wear and what constitutes modesty and the concomitant questions of male authority and hierarchy and what it means to be reverent, etc.) 

I am both exhausted and exhilarated, my voice hoarse at the end of the teaching period, warranting a Rules and Expectations hand-out that includes some communication pointers and a stern demand for respect for me and for one another which translates into Refrain from interrupting and talking over one another and me. 




Monday, January 7, 2019

Back to School

I've got so many books that I've started wearing them on my back. Marie Kondo, mondo and all that jazz. Are ya'll watching that show on Netflix? I plan on checking it out as I've resisted that whole cultural phenomenon that appears to cater primarily to the privileged with me, privileged but rather content in the organized clutter that I call home.  Right now I'm trying to get into Circe, a book that was recommended by a slew of people whose opinions I admire and trust, but it's sort of mythological and sort of fantasy and -- well -- I just can't get into it. I'm at the age where I don't continue reading books that haven't grabbed me by, say, page 50. Bye, bye Circe. Hello Elaine Pagel's Why Religion. I've read Pagel's writing, and it's difficult and fascinating and right up my alley. I guess some of you would argue that religion is fantasy and myth, so then given my aversion to both genres, why would I read it? I don't know what to tell you, other than at one point I looked into getting a Master's degree in Religious Studies/Comparative Religion.

In any case, I STARTED MY NEW JOB TODAY. Yes, Sirree Bob, as they say. I've got this new job teaching English to 11th and 12th grade girls in a very, very strict religious school. It's not a Catholic school by the way, so I'm not dressed as a Flying Nun, but I'm dressed in a way that is not customary for me, and while it's not uncomfortable, I do feel a bit like an embedded journalist in a country far, far away. Taking notes, with deep respect and curiosity and a tiny bit of ambivalence about the culture in which I am thrust, black clad and modest.

I love Los Angeles as it's a place where all these different cultures collide -- under the sun, of course, with a new governor and a whole lot of lefties and a smattering of conservatives (just enough to add some "diversity" but not enough to encroach upon our liberal ways). And what the hey is going on with the POSPOTUS and the government shutdown? I'm sorry if you're a furloughed worker and hope that this is all resolved, and we can quit thinking about walls and spikes and concrete and hordes of terrorists rabidly climbing over and into our lives.

The girls were wonderful today -- bright and sweet and outspoken and even a little outrageous. I had some exchanges, stared into some very warm brown eyes and knew immediately whom I was going to love because love is a serious word (she told me) even as I'll be driven crazy.

It's all good.

Tell me what you're reading. Tell me what you'd like to read if you were an 11th or 12th grade girl and have some strict reading guidelines (no sex, no violence, no molestation, etc.). I'm making up a list of book suggestions and need your help.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Working Stiff

Street graffiti, Los Angeles, 2019

I finally got a job that I'm excited about, and it begins next week. I've been applying for various positions from a site called Indeed for the last year, and I was beginning to believe that it might be a front for some kind of data gathering Russian bot/Facebook thingamajig because literally nothing came out of it. I'm perfectly aware that I have my limitations at the age of 55, and I didn't bother applying to the kind of grunt work that offered a salary that would quickly be swallowed up by Saint Mirtha, but damn, it was demoralizing and all death of a salesman around here until Christmas week when I was hired to teach English literature and writing part time in a small private school for girls. The school is very small and very religious, with strict dress codes for both the students and the teachers. That's all I'll say about that. I am very excited and a tiny bit nervous but extremely grateful to have found something that perfectly fits the erratic schedule and overwhelming duties of my other job as CEO of Sophie, Inc. I will be jumping right in on Monday with the girls already reading Frankenstein. 

I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other. 

from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

The universe is abundant.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

New Year

Sunrise, Salton Sea, 2017

To the New Year
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning

so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible

W.S. Merwin


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