Monday, December 31, 2007

It's Not Goodbye...

I've brought you some pictures. Pictures of Aurora County: the real Aurora County, Mississippi, which is Jasper County, Mississippi, where my father was born and grew up, and where my stories take place. This is Louin, Mississippi, the real Halleluia of LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER and THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS; this is Comfort's Snapfinger, Mississippi. Look closely and you'll see my grandmother's house (not the pink one) -- she's the real Miss Eula -- and the path that Ruby takes from the house to town.

I grew up summers here. These pictures were taken in July. Louin was a thriving town in the Thirties before the Depression hit. It was a tiny town like Halleluia when I was a kid. Today it's... older. More tired. But I still love it.

It's almost midnight. Almost 2008. I'm hanging on to the last hour and forty-nine minutes of 2007. It's hard to let go.

And it was a hard year. Well... maybe hard isn't the word. A challenging year. But what year isn't? As Uncle Edisto says in EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, "Open your arms to life! Let it strut into your heart in all its messy glory!" yes, yes, yes.

Let's see, messy glory: I lost one editor this year, and then another. But I watched THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS come into the world with lots of joyful noise, and I ran right behind it, on tour... everywhere, it seemed, for so long! It was a pleasure and a pain, and a complete joy.

I met new friends. I visited with Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, read ALL-STARS on Thacker Mountain Radio, drove through the dark night through the Mississippi Delta with Jim Allen, doggedly planted my gardens through the long, dry summer in Atlanta, got married in July to a long-time love, paid for my daughter's last year in college, saw my grandson for the first time in five years, made quilts for my grandgirls, visited kin, welcomed family, watched the rain fall through Christmas week in Atlanta, and criss-crossed the country, teaching.

Not in that order. It's late... stream of consciousness is taking over. My husband is gigging on New Year's Eve, of course. He and his bandmates are jazzing the year in for party-goers somewhere here in Atlanta. I'm going to get a long, hot bath now. I have played in my closet for the past two days -- with all the traveling I did this year, I scarcely got unpacked before I packed again, and I ended up just throwing everything in the closet at some point. I bought a dresser this summer, but I never had the time to fill it. So it felt so good, as one year was ending and another beginning, to gather my clothes -- every piece of clothing I own -- and sort them, wash them, dry them, fold them, hang them, make a pile for Goodwill, and make a pile for IRONING, can you believe it?

I kept thinking of my mother as I buttoned all the buttons on each shirt I hung, just the way she taught me to (and just the way I rarely do), as I folded each blouse just-so, a third this way, a third that way, now fold in half and give it a pat... and I found myself remembering how often I would come home at the end of a school day and see my mother ironing in the family room, watching ANOTHER WORLD. She ironed everything and taught me how to iron as well -- collars and sleeves and pillowcases and... well, I got a hankering to iron; I miss my mother.

So I ordered my drawers and closets, and then tackled the mountain of paper in my office -- another catastrophe of the tour. I found things in that mountain I'd forgotten I had... things I didn't know I had. If you haven't heard from me and have expected to... well... you will. I found it. Them.

Once I had the office ordered, I made myself a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup for supper. Ate it on a tray with a tall glass of cold milk and watched an old movie (TOP HAT, Walter) and smiled. Sighed. I never eat grilled cheese sandwiches anymore. Comfort food. Good. Muenster cheese is the secret. Lots of muenster cheese. Sssssh.....

It's so blissfully quiet here tonight. Not at all like the raucous, lovely years when I had four kids at home and made egg rolls for an army on New Year's Eve, played charades with the neighbors' families, and went outside at midnight with the kids to bang wooden spoons on pots. No, not like that anymore. Everyone is grown up. Everyone is away. Everyone is finding his or her life. And so am I. It is good.

It's a good year, when one delights in what is joyful and grows, even Grinch-like, through challenges. It has been a good year; and it's hard to let a good year go.

It's hard to let you go, too. You've stuck with me through thick and thin this year, on the '07 Book Tour for ALL-STARS; I have so appreciated your good company. So I'll tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm going to migrate you over to One Pomegranate, if you are already a subscriber to the '07 Tour Blog. If you are already subbed to One Pomegranate, you need do nothing -- you're already there. If you are a subscriber to the Tour Journal and have not subbed to OP, you will be receiving an email in the next couple of days from OP, asking you to confirm your subscription to OP -- One Pomegranate.

If you don't want to be subbed to OP, do nothing, and you won't receive further emails. If you do want to sub to OP, click on the link provided in the email, and that's it. Easy peasy. From then on, you'll receive your blog posts from me as One Pomegranate. And you won't hurt my feelin's if you've had enough and need a rest. Come back and see us now and again. We'll keep a pitcher of sweet tea in the fridge for you. We'll keep the front room picked up ----------------------------------------------

You don't need to unsub from the '07 Tour Blog. This blog will remain active and online, although I won't be posting here, as the '07 Book Tour is officially and completely and terrifically over. What a run we had with ALL-STARS -- thank you so much, so very much, every one of you: booksellers, readers, teachers, students, librarians, parents, kids, drivers (Hey, Jim Allen! Hey, Carol!), friends and family, and a Grand Slam thank you to Harcourt Children's Books, especially everyone in marketing who put together such a fabulous tour and worked so darn hard to make sure it came together so splendidly. My baseball cap is off to you, gods and goddesses, all.

You can scroll down and read specifically about each bookstore, each bookseller, each school, each town, each conference, each MEAL I ate, just about... happy sigh, I'm so glad I kept an accounting. I will not forget you. And you will not be allowed to forget me! I will keep coming back, hoping you will welcome me back into your lives, bookstores, schools, libraries, homes, with the next book, the next story, the next time.

You were more than awesome. Meeting you all this year was like playing in Dodger Stadium with Sandy Koufax, listening to Vin Scully announce the play-by-play, sitting in the stands under the lights during a night game, watching the ballet of a perfect game.

It was a symphony true.



Saturday, December 29, 2007

Amoxicillin and Blogging

My daughter says it's stress-related (she should know). My friend James Walker used to call it "a punctuation mark." You know what I mean. I'll bet you've been there: getting sick as soon as you can let down your guard or stop all the movement or, for me, finish up the many months of tour/travel/schools/conferences/company/holidays.

I did fine until the night after Christmas, when I knew I was coming down with... something. We drove through the night from Charleston, S.C. to Atlanta, and I felt punier with every mile. I woke up the next morning to a fever and sore throat and finally got myself to the doctor when swallowing became impossible. Upper respiratory infection. Strep. Pass the antibiotics and other assorted meds. I've been down for the count for two days. Better this morning. Fiddling with One Pomegranate, getting ready for launch.

You know... keeping a blog was Harcourt's idea for the launch of THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS. I was reluctant -- so reluctant -- to join the hordes of bloggers in the nusphere. What did I have to offer? And why should anyone (including me!) bother to read what I wrote? I knew little about blogs or blogging, but since I'd done the tour journal for EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS and it had been so warmly received, I committed to this blogging thing, "but only for the tour!" I said. Folks at Harcourt replied, "... you won't know how you went without one for so long!" No way, I told them. I was such a curmudgeon. And they were right. Way. (Thank you, SteveH and Roseleigh. You may forevermore say "I told you so.") But how to make a blog useful and meaningful? That has been the experiment.

I've been feverishly (ha) reading blogs for months now, trying to get my head around what makes them work -- or not work. I love the sense of community I find in blogs that work well. I rarely read comments on these blogs (and I know from personal experience that most comments come to me in email and not directly on the blog). But after reading hundreds and hundreds of blogs over the past several months, I can feel when there is a community gathered around a certain blog -- can't you? I can feel when there is a give and take, a sharing of ideas, a meaningful conversation. I'm now convinced that blogging can be and is an essential communication tool.

The blogs I've enjoyed most are very focused. I've already mentioned Orangette. Here's her blog description: "a blog-style collection of stories, often autobiographical and always gastronomical." She posts once a week. I know I'm going to get a story and a recipe -- a doable recipe for me -- each Thursday.

I love Angry Chicken, too, Amy Karol's blog. Always something to make with your hands -- I like reading about cupcakes in 1/2 pint jars or vintage aprons. I printed out her gift tags this year and affixed them to Christmas presents. My favorite: "I totally want to get one of these for myself, so let me know if you don't want it." I bought Amy's book for Christmas this year and affixed this tag to it when I gave it to my daughter.

Then there's Keri Smith's blog. Friends and I have had so much fun at Keri's site this season, becoming guerilla artists. My friend Jo Stanbridge has been making tuckboxes. I've made the little magic books. Mostly I love Keri's voice and sense of simplicity. Her openness and honesty feeds my soul. Here's her take on blogging. It's the Nov. 15 entry.

There are more blogs than I will ever find or read. I see that I gravitate toward cooking, gardening, hand crafts, home, and steer clear of politics and other writers' blogs. Why is that? Maybe I want comfort reading from blogs, or how-to, or inspiration. And maybe, just maybe, I have a bone to pick with writers' blogs. I've read dozens of them, and I want to know: What are we doing with our blogging, writers?

With few exceptions, we don't talk about our process or what we're writing... it's as if it's a big secret and we're protecting it from... what? Exposure? Being stolen? Watching the story leach out of our minds and never be captured on paper? Diluting the story? I don't know... certainly there's nothing wrong with not talking about process -- heck, I might not be able to do it, when it comes right down to it, but I want to try. Because... I'm a writer. It's what I do. So I'll write about what I do and how I do it.

What a departure! I've been as secretive about my work as the next writer. So let's see what happens. I'm rethinking everything,including blogging, here at the end of 2007, a fabulous, challenging year.

So. A blog that chronicles the writing experience -- creating a writing life. That's what I want to do at One Pomegranate. I'll talk about writing from life experience and I'll chronicle the work in progress, as well as my teaching, gardening, cooking and, well... my life. It feeds the writing. And vice-versa.

So much of writing isn't actually pen on paper. It's Moments plus Memory plus Meaning. I talk about this a lot when I speak. We take moments from our lives and, using the memories we have (and those memories change over the years) of those moments in time, we assign them meaning (which also changes) -- we create stories from those moments. A post from One Pomegranate that illustrates this well is the Caroling Post from Dec. 22.

Perhaps I am naive and will discover I'm a fool, as I try to chronicle this process, but I hope not. Just as Keri Smith writes about being an artist and Orangette offers up recipes, I want to chronicle the wonder of how a life turns itself into stories. Not for self-aggrandizement; for sharing. For hearing your stories in return. For connection and community and kinship.

Blogging is how we are finding one another in this ever-bigger world, how we are discovering like voices and minds and hearts. I want to be a part of that discovery. So I'll write about what matters to me, and I'll keep looking for you, your voice, your mind, your heart. It's a symphony true, this searching, in whatever form it takes, as Walt Whitman wrote, as Norwood Boyd and Elizabeth Jackson said, as House Jackson learned. A symphony true:

After the dazzle of day is done
Only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars
After the clangor of organ majestic, or chorus, or perfect band,
Silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony true.

Time to take the amoxicillin. I can swallow today. My fever has broken. I am out of bed and out of the woods. Life is good.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The Christmas Cross-Dresser

Story at 11.
Over at One Pomegranate.
Happy Holly Daze!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Eve Cake

I love putzing in the kitchen and futzing in the garden as much as I love writing. I think. Yeah, probably I do. The cooking and gardening (and sewing and knitting and...) feed the writing. I just haven't had the time this year for much putzing or futzing (potsing and shooshing, in (mispelled) Danny Kaye/White Christmas language).

So here I am, a domesticated writer, on Christmas Eve, offering you a banana cake for Christmas. You can find the recipe at Orangette's food blog. Her recipes are tantalizing, but it's the writing I read her blog for. I read about shopping for muscles at Pike Place Market with a friend or savoring the delights of cookies, and I am treated to Story with a capital S. I love her Stories... which is what I'm all about, as you know from reading One Pomegranate (where I posted a story about Christmas caroling and the meaning of EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS a couple days ago).

I'm not surprised to learn that Orangette (her name is Molly) has a book coming out next year -- I will be in line to buy it. I love reading cookbooks. Occasionally I make something from them. The photo above is Orangette's Banana Cake with Coconut Cream Frosting. Here is a look at how it turned out for me. It was as easy to make as Orangette promised it would be, and it was as delicious as I'd hoped it would be. (Plus, it's gorgeous.) It's a dense, sweet, bread-cake affair -- Hannah and I didn't need the icing to fall in love with it, but when we said so, Jim piped up with "I LOVE the icing!" so there you have it. Some of us are icing fans, some of us are purists.

I omitted the rum, and substituted vanilla in the icing -- still fantastic. We cut huge wedges of this cake for ourselves last night, and ate it in front of the fire. We left plenty for you. Help yourselves. I'm going to adapt and add this recipe to a bevy of home-made directions I'm compiling for... something.

I've been wanting to write an Aurora County Cookbook, for one thing. Comfort has been shoving recipes in my face, so has Ruby's mother (well, she waves them), and even Finesse has gotten in on the act. She does an interpretive dance -- you should see her movements for "stir vigorously."

So maybe I'll tell some new stories in a new Aurora County book some day. Often, when I visit schools, I'm treated to all the foods from my Mississippi/Aurora County novels -- it's amazing to see spread on a checkered tablecloth at lunchtime Mrs. Elling's Chicken and Potato Chip Casserole, Comfort's Funeral Brownies, Aunt Goldie's Prune Bread, Great-great Aunt Florentine's Fried Chicken (Ruby would be aghast), Uncle Edisto's Tuner-Fish Sandwiches, and even a round tray of Ritz Crackers and Vienna sausages! I have eaten more devilled eggs and Moon Pies, and have consumed more Ruby Lavender Root Beer Floats than I can count in schools this past several years. It's all been good. (And hey, I'm off the road now and have lost a whole 7.6 pounds so far -- congratulate me. Let's not think about how far I have to go.)

Whether or not I write the cookbook, I'll be experimenting in the kitchen, in the garden, and at the page this coming year. I'm looking forward to what the new year brings. I'm letting go of the old year with glee -- but more on this next week. Happy Every Thing to Every One. I'll see you on the flip side of Christmas. Whatever you do this week, at some point... have some cake.

Thursday, December 20, 2007


Heavens, it's the holidays. (Thank you for this beautiful present, Sarah!) All routine goes out the window in December, and life as we know it is suspended until January. And, right here in Atlanta, it's snowing! Over at One Pomegranate you can read the story. It's mind- boggling what we'll do here for a little holiday spirit.

I can't even concentrate on telling you the rest of the Canterbury Woods story. So I'll just sketch for you here some of the notes I took while I was there. Pretend it's a connect the dots game and you'll be fine.

From a handwritten list on chart paper in the gym (where I did all-grade presentations my first day). How many of these techniques do I use/talk about/teach? Most. Here they are:

--vocabulary instruction
--high-level questions
--note taking
--small group instruction
--cooperative learning
--technology used by teachers and students alike
--assessment and remediation

Cathy Case, sixth-grade teacher, was brave enough to sit down with me after day one and tell me, after my session with her kids, what "hit" for her students... and what didn't. From that conversation, I rearranged and punted in a different direction the next day. Better. Much better. This is team teaching -- I could hear her, she could tell me. We're both confident in our abilities, we both want to learn how to do even better, we each respect the other's skills. I was able to point out to her some of the more subtle things I was doing, using children's literature, to reach her students -- things she could expound on in the classroom later. And she was able to tell me how to better reach her particular classroom of learners. Excellent.

These two boys are doing what I call the talking/listening part of writing their stories. Hands in the yoga of writing. One talker/reader, one active listener. They will reverse roles next.

There is cognitive coaching going on here at Canterbury Woods. Collaboration. And -- this is important -- people LISTEN here. I was amazed at how much meaningful conversation I had with Barbara Messinger, the principal (in some schools I never even meet the principal), and how many times, during a conversation with any given team member, I realized I was being heard. Really listened to. This is no small thing. It means children are being heard, too. As I saw how intently I was being listened to, I immediately thought to sharpen my own listening skills. This is how it works.

Terminology used at Canterbury Woods that I will incorporate into my classroom management techniques:

Six-inch voices
knees to knees (eyes to eyes)
If you can hear me, clap once (twice, three times)
sometimes we could look for...

From Matt Radigan, from his Teach for America experience:
"Work smarter, not harder"
and more:
Thumbs up/down
Fist of five (four, three, etc.)

Overall, I learned so much here because faculty and staff are not afraid to say what they see, to ask high-level questions, to listen, and to learn. It's a dream for me, as I am always asking, always reaching, always wanting to learn, the perpetual student. It was a great teaching experience.

Back to your regularly scheduled holidays... but you haven't heard the last from me this year! Still working on One Pomegranate, still fiddling with the look and feel of it, still finding my voice.

Thanks so much for all the mail, y'all. I am slow to respond, but I carry you all in my heart -- I do. I'm a sketchy personal correspondent, I admit it. I appreciate all you have to say about the blog -- both blogs -- and I'm glad you'll come with me as I continue blogging on One Pomegranate. Thanks.

And now I need an egg nog.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Re-Examine All You Have Been Told

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods Elementary School in Annandale, Virginia (outside D.C.) last month.

I came to teach personal narrative writing to the upper elementary grades, with a focus on grade 5, since fifth graders take the SOLs, or Standards of Learning, test (The Test) in the spring each year.

You can see me here, giving some directions to fifth graders, with some prompts written on my chart paper in the background, and an interpreter for the hearing impaired in the background -- at times we had three interpreters in the room at once, all walking around following me when I was walking around... we were like a tiny parade in the classroom.

I got used to them quickly, though, and it was clear that the students were used to this.I have been teaching in the classroom for close to twenty years, and I am still learning, still learning. Still re-examining all I have read, all I have been told, all I have experienced. Still discovering my mentors, making my own determinations, finding my own voice.

It's a thrill to feel myself stretching and growing as I am standing there in front of a classroom of writers, as I have conversations about the day with teachers, as I prepare myself for the next day with students, as they ask me hard questions or struggle with their stories... and I have strong opinions about the teaching of writing, and about teaching, period.

These folks have strong opinions, too. Here are Lisa Vasu, who teaches ESL at Canterbury Woods, and Matt Radigan, who is a counselor and instructional coach. There are three of these instructional coaches/mentors at Canterbury Woods. Principal Barbara Messinger has set up her staff in such a way that she has created a base of staunch support for her teachers and students... and they take advantage of that support. It's fantastic.

Until I can tell you more, just know that Lisa and Matt are amazing. When students begin to master their English skills, Matt gives them a congratulatory high-five and says, "You've been Vasued!" Matt comes to CW from Teach For America and from D.C. charter schools. He's full of energy, enthusiasm, and smarts. And he has good hair.

I'm still processing all I learned at Canterbury Woods; moreover, I'm processing HOW I LEARNED IT. The environment I was immersed in for four days was an amazingly open and generous one -- the conversations were rich and deep and meaningful. I will never know everything I need to know -- will any of us? -- about the teaching of writing or about improving my own writing, but when I know I am learning something that is key to my understanding, I am exhilarated by the thought.

I am a perpetual student. In every way. As regards the teaching of writing, the best learning labs for me are schools that are wrestling their writing programs to the mat, always learning. They bring me in for a sustained period of time to work with teachers and students. I get to share what I have learned. I learn from them as well.

I have had wonderful and difficult experiences in many schools over the past twenty years, but two experiences stand out as the best and worst over that time. And interestingly enough -- both the best and the worst have taught me so much. Life is like that, too -- I guess I shouldn't be surprised that teaching is the same way.

Canterbury Woods is one of the best teaching/learning experiences I have ever had. I'll be sharing with you why I think this is so -- I'll tell you what I learned.

By contrast, one of the most difficult teaching experiences -- and this was just a few years ago, in an elementary school not far from Canterbury Woods -- taught me the most as well. I'll talk about this, too. I remember going home at the end of each residency day and crying with frustration, filling a notebook with what happened and with what I'd learned and with ideas on how I could change things up and make the teaching more relevant, more directed, more prescriptive for this particular environment. It ended up being a great week. It turned me inside out as a teacher and a student.

In the meantime, I'm still processing. Still learning, while I'm enjoying time with my family this holiday season, home home home. I've written more about this on One Pomegranate, which is where I'll continue to chronicle my teaching thoughts in January, and my travels, and more.

Next: How we set up the residency at Canterbury Woods Elementary School, and why it worked so well... how teachers and staff are turning teaching on its ear and giving it a polish --- and what a difference it's making in the growth and learning of not only students, but faculty and staff as well.

There is a Cavafy poem I love called "Half the House." It's about growing and learning, and at first glance it doesn't seem like it makes sense, perhaps, but I find it distills my thoughts about teaching. And living. You can find the poem online, including at One Pomegranate's latest entry, this date.

I'll leave you with Whitman's words from the preface of the first edition to LEAVES OF GRASS. They are the words I use to open THE AURORA COUNTY ALL-STARS:

"This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, and dismiss whatever insults your own soul."

Go forth with an open heart. Learn.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Take a Peek...

Okay. I'm almost ready. If you'd like to take a peek at One Pomegranate, go right ahead. You can also sign up now for this new blog on email or as an RSS feed, if you want to... there are links on the left to help you. I'll post to it as I practice getting ready for the big launch, and you can help me by giving me feedback, if you please. If you want to wait, that's fine. I'll be reminding you again before I phase out posting to this Tour Blog. So, we've got a little double-blog-dipping going on right now. But I decided to go ahead and do it this way, so we can have a little crossover time, and then, voila.

So what's over there that I want you to see? Well... I got married yesterday... 36 years ago. December 11, 1971. I was 18 years old. He was 17. That's us in the photo above. We're at Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi. I have no idea how much my life is about to change.

Yes, I know I've said I got married this past July... there's a story there. And here's another -- see that tiny baby in my lap about halfway down the entry? His name is Jason. He's 33 now. He arrives in Atlanta tonight. I haven't seen him for too long -- so I'm going to be a bit scarce once he arrives, but I'll be back. I wanted you to have this story, in the meantime. Don't forget me.

And don't forget to tell your stories -- how many times have you heard me say this at schools, conferences, etc? It's my broken record -- we are Pomegranates: So Many Stories Inside Each Fruit.