Slice of Life: Visiting a Friend

On the spur of the moment Sunday, I decided to visit Walden Pond and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, about 45 minutes away from where I live. It was a beautiful fall day, and I was hoping to see the leaves. This weekend will be too busy, and before long, it will be cold up here in Massachusetts. I took my son and daughter. We walked all the way around Walden Pond.

Dylan walking
My son marching to the beat of his own drummer

The trees are indeed beginning to change color, but they are still pretty green because we had a warm spell in September and early October, and I think it confused the leaves.

Walden

We visited the site where Thoreau’s cabin once stood, and my kids indulged my request to pose.

Thoreau's Cabin Site

It is quite a small space, which I suppose was the point, but I think Maggie, in particular, was surprised to learn Thoreau lived in a cabin only a little larger than her bedroom.

There is a marker where Thoreau’s chimney foundation was.

Thoreau's Chimney Marker

But perhaps most striking, next to the site of the cabin is this large cairn and sign.

Cairn and Sign Near Thoreau's Cabin Site

It looks a bit more haphazard in the picture, but there were several very orderly stacks of rocks. Of course, we left stones in remembrance.

Stone Cairn

There are two main paths around the lake. You can go through the woods, or you can walk on the beach. We tried both.

Wood Path around Walden

The leaves were gathering in the shallow water near the edge of the lake. It’s hard to capture in a photo.

Leaves in Walden Pond

We made sure to visit the replica of the cabin, which is near the parking lot and gift shop. Dylan found a friend. He’s got a huckleberry-flavored lollipop, which you can buy in the gift store.

Dylan and Thoreau

My children didn’t know who Henry David Thoreau was, which did not surprise me. I wonder if I knew who he was when I was their age. So I told them about him—why he lived at Walden and what he wanted to do there, about his act of civil disobedience, about his last words to his Aunt Louisa, who asked him on his deathbed whether he’d made his peace with God, “I did not know we had ever quarreled, Aunt.”

He was two years younger than I am now when he died of tuberculosis.  But what an amazing mark he has left on the world. Maggie was particularly interested in Thoreau’s night in jail, as she had read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” this year in her English class.

I am not teaching American literature this year. I am sad about it in some ways because I loved teaching Thoreau, especially sharing “Civil Disobedience” with my students, and I always pair it with King’s Letter when I teach it. It’s the introduction to my favorite unit, which involves nonconformists and voices of the “other.”

We grabbed some pizza at a local place, and my children once again indulged me with a visit to Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ellery Channing, Louisa May Alcott, and of course, Henry David Thoreau are buried.

It’s quite a beautiful cemetery, and the authors’ graves are easy to find. The Thoreau family are buried in a large plot together.

Thoreau Family Marker

I was surprised by how moved I was when we saw Thoreau’s simple marker. I actually felt tears start.

Thoreau's Grave Marker

I love the fact that visitors leave him pencils. I left a stone behind, but it didn’t occur to me to bring him a pencil.

Thoreau speaks to me in some weird ways, and I’m not sure why because truthfully, I didn’t enjoy reading all of Walden. I like parts of it. Thoreau might actually frustrate the heck out of me if I really knew him. Even Emerson said, “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition. Wanting this, instead of engineering for all American, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”

Oh, Waldo. But he was engineering for all America. You all just didn’t see it at the time. I don’t know that it’s true that Thoreau had no ambition. I think what he wanted to accomplish with his life was just different from what Emerson thought he should want to accomplish.

I have been thinking a lot about Thoreau’s wisdom as captured on the sign near the site of his cabin.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Mainly because I am preparing to do something fairly big—and as much as I hate to be cagey, I can’t talk about it on my blog yet. I have been thinking a little bit lately about what I want to reflect on at the end of my life, what I hope to have done. One of the best reasons to try something you’re afraid to do is to think about how you might feel about not trying when you die. I don’t think that’s necessarily what Thoreau meant, but I do think he would approve of the sentiment that if we do not take risks and see what happens, we aren’t really living. I just realized this as I was writing, but I think I went to visit my friend Thoreau to obtain his blessing on my plans. I think I got it. There was a was a transcendent moment when the sun came out from behind a cloud and threw sparkles all over the lake, and I could have sworn I felt his presence. You can roll your eyes if you want. I know what I felt.

If Thoreau taught me anything, it’s that sometimes you really need to “go confidently in the direction of your dreams.” He might add, if we were in conversation for real instead of just inside my head, “if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” After all, “there is no other life but this.”

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a weekly writing challenge hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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On Storytelling

writing photo
Photo by Damian Gadal

I am reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It’s been on my to-read list for a very long time, and I picked it up on a whim last night. These passages out of “Spin” caught my attention this afternoon:

You take your material where you can find it, which is your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That’s the real obsession. All those stories. 34-35

Later in the same chapter/story, O’Brien writes:

Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story. (38)

These passages really resonated with me because I consider myself a bit of an ambassador for storytelling. I am the family historian. I captured some of the stories of my grandparents and their own grandparents as told to them. I’ve tried to capture a few of my own stories, too. I don’t have anything like serving in the Vietnam War in my background, like Tim O’Brien does, but I do have stories. All of us do, and even though O’Brien is writing stories about the war, I have the sense he’d agree with me.

I find accepting the idea that all of us have stories is one of the biggest hurdles to writing. Many students—and for that matter, many adults—think they don’t have anything interesting worth sharing.  I think we have a skewed idea of what constitutes interesting. In many cases, if we’ve lived it, we can’t see the potential it might have to intrigue someone else. And then we might be daunted by what we perceive as our inability to tell the story.

Tell it anyway. That is what revision is for. The important thing is to get it down, record it, get it out there. And then share it. The important thing is just to tell your stories. There are lots of ways to do it. If you are more of a writer, write them down. If you’re more of an oral storyteller, record yourself. Video editing software, podcasting software, and services like StoryCorps with their storytelling apps make it easy to capture your stories or those of others. Lest anyone ever in a million years think they don’t have a story, they should listen to the beautiful and wonderful story of Danny and Annie, one of the most popular stories of all time on StoryCorps:

Since I’m thinking of Tim O’Brien, now seems like a good time to share this video I created when I interviewed my grandfather about his war experiences.

Go tell your stories.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

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The Transformative Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers

Doc Emily's Groovy Writers
Photo courtesy Andy Sidle

I spent June 27 to July 2 in Gambier, Ohio at Kenyon College as a participant in the Kenyon Writer’s Workshop for Teachers. Given how much writing I did while I was there, I had a difficult time figuring out how to begin talking about it here on my blog. I thought about it for a few days. I’m still not sure I’ll be able to put the experience into words, which is ironic given how I did rediscover a writing voice I thought I had lost.

I think one of the reasons I was nervous about going to Kenyon was that I didn’t necessarily consider myself a writer anymore. I don’t really want to characterize what I did as “giving up,” but I guess it was. I no longer did any of the things I told my students to do—to just dump out ideas, to write first and revise later, to write for themselves. I had this internal editor going all the time. Most of all, I just didn’t write. Not really. I mean, I wrote the occasional blog post. But I couldn’t have told you the last time I wrote a poem. I used to write poetry all the time. I always had a notebook for my poems, pretty much all through high school and college. I can’t even tell you when I stopped. I think one day I just thought maybe I wasn’t very good at writing poetry. I have written fiction off and on for a while, but it had even been a while since I had written fiction.

What this writing workshop did is crack me wide open. Now I have all these ideas and all this material to work with, and I feel like I found my voice again. I am a writer again. There was a time when writing was something I thought I would always do. I even started an application to study creative writing Emerson College in Boston (I abandoned it once I realized I would not be able to attend college out of state, and at that time, I lived in Georgia). My high school English teacher, Shelia Keener, encouraged me to write and has been telling me for years that I missed my calling. I do believe that I should be an English teacher, but Shelia is right that I should have kept up the writing.

I feel like I found my tribe at Kenyon. We had excellent instructors, for one thing. Real teachers who work with students in the classroom. My instructor, Emily Moore, is a gifted writing instructor. I am stealing simply everything she did with us. The participants were also writing teachers. I was struck not only by their dedication to the craft of writing but also to their dedication to their students. Many of them are practicing writers, and I admit to feeling a bit intimidated by them. They are really good writers. I was thrilled when one of our tribe, Joe Carriere, not only took on the task of creating a literary magazine out of our work, but also created a Facebook group for us. All of us wrote something to share at a reading, even our instructors. Each time we did a writing prompt, they wrote with us. In fact, Emily has a great technique of freewriting on the board with her students, making the messiness of freewriting public. It is freeing to see writers in process. I knew, as a writing teacher, that writing didn’t come fully formed and perfect from anyone’s pen, but for some reason, this inner critic inside me expected my writing to be different from every other writer. If I had to pick one moment when I realized what I had been doing, it might have been when we read the Robert Frost poem “Design.” Emily shared two versions: a rough draft and a final draft. It was like something clicked into place. Even Robert Frost wrote shitty drafts. Even Robert Frost!

Seeing that poem in draft form really helped me see that I am not a bad writer. I probably need to spend more time revising. Just like my students. And a writer’s workshop is extremely valuable. Given how much workshop I have done with my students the last two years, you’d think I’d have figured that out. Somehow I always separated what I did as a writer from what I did as a teacher.

The five days and change that I spent at Kenyon were transformative. I actually see myself as a writer again. I feel like I have been given a gift. The people I met were amazing. I think I have made new lifelong friends. I really do. The campus is gorgeous. The stained glass windows in the dining hall depict scenes from books! It truly is English teacher (or English major) heaven. In addition to giving me back my writing life and helping me make excellent friends, I also met two writers and had an opportunity to talk shop and now have a year’s subscription to The Kenyon Review. I actually read poetry on the plane back home. When was the last time I read so much poetry? I discovered Andrew Grace in the May/June 2015 issue and liked his poem so much I ordered a copy of his collection Shadeland. I really, really can’t remember the last time I read contemporary poetry.

At the workshop, I ran into Sam Bradford, a friend and former colleague from the Weber School, where I worked in Georgia.

Dana and SamSam has been writing fiction for years and will be the department chair at Weber next year, so we will have a lot to talk about, and I am so grateful we are back in touch. Neither of us knew the other would be there. I was so excited to see him, but even more excited to see him connect with Charley Mull, a colleague from Worcester Academy and one of my favorite people. I made them both take a picture with me on the last day.

Charley, Dana, and Sam
Charley, Dana, and Sam

I am so glad they became friends. Charley and Sam were in the same group, which was not my group with Emily. We still had plenty of opportunities to interact.

Here is a picture Sam took of me doing my reading.

Dana Reading
Photo courtesy Sam Bradford

A photo of me with my new friend Whitney (and a photobomb with my new friend, Andy).

Whitney, Dana, and AndyAnd a photo of me with my instructor, Emily. Andy somehow photobombed that one, too!

Emily and DanaWhat a phenomenal experience. I have to thank my Dean of Faculty, Cindy Sabik, for convincing me to go.

I learned some new techniques for teaching writing. I wrote some things I feel pretty good about. In fact, I am actually thinking about pursuing publication, which is something I haven’t thought about doing for many years (and that is one reason I haven’t shared anything I wrote at the workshop here). Honestly, I thought that ship had sailed a long time ago. I truly can’t remember the last time I thought about publication for myself.

You should go next summer.

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The Kids are All Right

I just came across this tweet by Jim Burke:

Jim Burke's tweetI feel the same way. I love to hear from students, both current and former about the great things they’re doing out there in the world. Jeremy came by the school to visit last week and told me about his work with the Wilderness Society. He’s been blogging with them at WildernessU-Georgia. You can learn more about him by clicking on their About page. They don’t have posts tagged by author, but if scroll a bit, you can find some of his posts. Here are a few recent ones:

As his former English teacher, I’m thrilled he’s writing. He graduates from college this year, and I’m proud of him.

I shared Jake’s blog and wonderful photography with you recently, but here it is again, in case you missed it: Life of Jake. Jake is a gifted artist with that camera—something I didn’t know about him when he was my student, but I’ve been happy to discover it since then. He’s also an excellent writer and thinker.

Julian is really busy with college, but he blogs about GTD, organization, and productivity at 2WheeledLife. He has some helpful tips, and I have enjoyed discovering all he’s learned.

They are just beginning to go out into the world and do great things, but I’m really proud of them, and I will be interested to see what they do in the future. And I don’t worry too much about the future, because in the inimitable words of Who, “the kids are all right.” [Sorry for the paraphrase—I teach grammar and can’t write alright. See? Although I will voice my radical opinion that it should be standard when its cousins altogether and already are. Just saying.]

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