A Year of Reading (2020)

Year of Reading

Goodreads kicks out data from its archives each year as part of its Reading Challenge (I traditionally choose 100 books to read in a year and then often go past it). The collected BONE anthology, by Jeff Smith, was my longest book read (clocking in at 1,332 pages) and it was one that I started and finished during the Spring, when we were stuck at home in Pandemic isolation (Bone remains also one of my favorite books of the year).

The overall page count from the year always gets me. I read 39,500 pages. Neat.

My first book of the year was …

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

… which I definitely recommend for its magical elements and weaving of the power of story ….

and the last book of the year (I reviewed) was …

The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars

… which was interested in a different way, looking at cityscapes and architectural design.

If you are curious about what else I read in 2020, you can check it out, too.

Peace (turning pages),

Book Review: A Drop of Hope

Keith Calabrese’s A Drop of Hope is a stew of characters and connections. In short chapters, Calabrese weaves the story of a circle of friends, an abandoned town wishing well, and the hopes and dreams of many, all tied together with the possibility of magic in the world.

The three main characters — middle schoolers Ernest, Ryan and Lizzie — discover an old well, where people still toss coins and make wishes. When the kids find a secret entrance to the bottom of the well, they eavesdrop in on the wishes of others. The town is struggling, and some families are losing their jobs, and others are barely hanging on. And of course, for the kids themselves, friendship and family loom large.

In the attic of a deceased grandfather, the start of something odd is discovered and then slowly, unexpectedly, many of the wishes heard by the three protagonists start coming true as the kids try to find ways to help others. Interestingly, it never goes the way they think it will go, yet always seems to happen. The manner in which Calabrese makes the connections between the initial wish and the resolution of those wishes shows storytelling at its finest, and I tried to imagine the planning the author must have done to ensure that all loose ends get tied. It must have been a confusing writing plan, is all I can say.

The characters in this novel are quiet believable, and even if you don’t believe in magic, you will find yourself believing in the possibility of hope in the world, and how the unexpected gift often stems from not just doing the right thing in the right moment, but from viewing the world through a lens of kindness and compassion.

A Drop of Hope is a good fit for a middle school classroom.

Peace (in the wishing well),

Slice of Life: The Assorted Odds at the End

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I don’t have any Slice Moments in mind so … here are some odds and ends for this last Slice of Life at the end of 2o2o …

“Did you write your note to the tree?” is something my wife and I harp on with our boys. Our holiday tradition is for all of us to write short notes to our future selves, and stuff the paper scrolls inside glass ornaments. When the ornaments break, as they do, we read what our past selves wrote, in the present. I wrote my note the other day, trying to capture 2020 without too much gloom and doom. I wonder what my future self will think when it reads it?

A holiday song that my friend and I wrote and recorded a few years ago, and now share out each holiday season, just got its 500th listen via YouTube (it is also on other streaming platforms, but that data goes to my friend). I know it’s not about numbers, and never about earning anything from it, but that a few hundred people might have enjoyed our musical Gift of Peace song brings me joy.

A Writing Project colleague and musical friend sent an email to me, and a few of his other musical friends, wishing us happy tidings and including a video of him playing a Wilco song, as a musical gift of sorts because he had just finished reading Jeff Tweedy’s book about writing songs. I listened to his cover, and then I went back to the original (War on War is the song) and then I spent the morning remixing the song into my own version, sending the song back to my friend, as a gift in return. It was a nice creative diversion that reminded me of how much I enjoy crafting songs in different ways. My remix bent the song in a different direction.

I’ve been purposefully trying to NOT think of school yet, to give my brain a break. But an email chain from a student, leveraging the school email system to reach out to friends, pulled me in, briefly, and then, I began to lesson plan for next week in my mind, and started thinking of how our principal told us right before break to write out our goals for the school year, and how the School Committee is meeting tomorrow to figure out what next week looks like, and their decision will solidify my lesson plans ….

I almost never read a book twice but when I read Brian Doyle’s One Long River of Song collection of essays sometime before the Pandemic that mixed nature and spirituality, with life itself (even with the odd twist that I discovered him as a writer after he passed away), with a voice of Doyle that was so inviting and full of wonder, I decided I needed to read his book again. So, one of my boys bought it for me, and when I told my wife about the book and why I wanted to read it again, she nodded, and said: “This seems like the right time for that kind of book.” Indeed.

I swung by my friend’s house the other day. We’re in a band together. We stopped playing during Spring and Summer, and then resumed for a bit (socially distanced in his basement) for some of the Fall, and then stopped again near Thanksgiving. I grabbed my saxophone so I could do some practicing here at home, to stay in some shape before we get back together again. I miss playing rock and roll. It was good to see him, and we chatted about music. I loaned him a book with a music theme (this is what we do when we share books with each other) and he told me he is going to send some new music tracks that need lyrics. I nodded and waved.

A neighbor walking their dog stopped me, and told me he liked my short story that was published in the local newspaper recently. It had come in second place in a local competition. He asked what I was writing these days. “Poems, mostly,” I told him, and he seemed a little disappointed, as if he hoped novel or short story would be my answer. I guess I could have added “blog posts” but what I should have said is, “Something, often small, every single day.”

Peace (in snippets),

Curation: SmallPoems of December

Advent candles“Advent candles” by Markus Grossalber is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My National Writing Project friend Deanna has been gathering teachers and writers together online pretty regularly, to inspire and connect. I’ve missed every one of her online sessions but I have used her prompts and poems as threads for my own small poems each morning. I am most appreciative, too.

For December, she posted and shared a slideshow of an Advent calendar, and I used those poems for a poem response each morning for 25 days (I have missed at least one; I’m not sure – but I see I used one poem, twice). I wrote these poems each morning elsewhere but now I want to curate them together.

First, my last poem – a gift of thanks to Deanna.

Now, here are the titles of the original poems with links back to my responses. You can read the originals either through Deanna’s presentation or there are direct links at the bottom of the page to each of my poems, winding a path back to the original:

Peace (together),

Getty 2020: Our Empty Spaces

Getty Images has put out a few 2020 videos, and I found this one — about empty spaces — both intriguing and disheartening. In our area, some of the local performance spaces have now shuttered doors for good or for now. But I saw that our city’s First Night Celebration is going virtual, in order to hang on for another year.

Then I saw another of the Getty videos, about tenacity, and I felt a bit more upbeat about how so many of us found a way to keep moving forward with creativity and community.

Peace (echoing out),

MusicMaking: SnowWalking (In Seven Movements)

I came back home the other day, after walking our dog in the woods after a snow storm, and noticed the different kinds of walking I had done — short choppy steps, long strides, happy walking, long breaths, etc. And then I decided to try to capture those rhythms of stepping into an instrumental beat song. This is it.

It’s best heard with earphones, I suggest, as the layers of sound are mixed in and experienced best with it close to your head. The tin cans of computer speakers won’t do it justice (in my opinion).

You can also listen here as a regular music file

Peace (listening in),

Graphic Novel Review: Naturalist

Edward O. Wilson is famous (and maybe, as he admits, infamous) in the field of science, and I know a bit of him (but not a lot) so this new graphic novel version of his autobiography was an interesting, and sometimes heady, trip into Wilson’s exploratory forays into the world of ants, diversity and the world, mostly writ small.

Naturalist — adapted by writer Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by C.M.Butzer — starts with Wilson’s natural curiosity as a child of the South, and then moves into some pretty deep science (some of which, I found myself lost in), but what shines through is a love of learning and a deep-seated wonder at the wood or swamp or river just around the corner.

The graphic novel doesn’t shy away from some of the controversies that Wilson apparently stirred up in the world of sciences, which is more divided and territorial than an outsider like me probably realizes.

From what I can tell, too, his book on sociobiology led to intensive criticism of nature/nurture and of underlying racism, connected to views on Eugenics. Wilson (who once got water dumped on his head at a conference by protestors) admits that the book he wrote was really two books (one about nature and one about humans), and that he might have been better served to separate the two.

Still, his other work in the field of biodiversity has been used to ground ongoing nature conservation efforts in science. And his two Pulitzer Prizes give credit to the influence of his work. I guess his life as a researcher, scientist, naturalist is rather complicated.

I didn’t ignore these controversies, but I was more interested in how Wilson’s personal story is one of looking deep at something that inspires you, something that can drive you forward through your life, with passion. Naturalist shows a scientist in his realm, alone at times in unknown places, systematically gathering data and mulling over the ramifications. In this, we need more.

Peace (finding it),

Slice of Life: Snow Day Play Day

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The other day, we had our first Snow Day of the school year. Leading up to it, there had been plenty of discussions among administrators and chatter among students about whether we would have a “no school” day when the storm arrived, because we had just gone full remote, working from home, due to a sharp rise in virus infections. Many other school districts (like my son’s) were already full remote and any snow day would still be a school day, from home, because it would not matter the condition of the roadways.

Our superintendent, for various reasons (including the sheer size and rural nature of some parts of our district), however, went the way of traditional Snow Day, and so we had the day off.  The next morning was the most animated morning of stories from my students that I have witnessed on Zoom in quite some time. I couldn’t hold them back. I didn’t.

There were tales of sledding, of building jumps on hills, of crashes, of trying to construct snow forts, of shoveling, of snow fights, of jumping off back decks into piles of snow, of pets in the first big snow of the year. Their faces were lit up with the memory of going outside to play (safely, I kept hoping).

I shared about our puppy’s first energetic forays into the snow that morning of the storm, and how she leaped and ran and tunneled through the snow with pure rush and abandon.

Silent Sunday

This first Snow Day was a mental and emotional break, one that perhaps all of us needed, as we grapple with the demands and limitations of teaching and learning through Zoom and Google Classroom and other platforms that engage us, but keep us removed from the world each school day, too.

We need more opportunities for them to be kids.

Peace (and play),