Things to Teach, Things to Learn

Spent the past couple days devouring Lynda Barry’s new book Syllabus. My sister gave it to me for Christmas because I am gearing up to teach my first class in February, and it’s a fitting source of inspiration. My sister and I talk a lot about how our lives have been shaped and how we work to shape to our lives and about all the things that fall in between. We talk a lot about gaps and bridges and phases of life.

A few weeks ago, she told me “We teach what we want to learn.”

In Syllabus, one of Barry’s notes says “Teaching this: To be able to accept what comes up.”

That about sums up what I’m hoping to learn, and how I wish I could live out my days.

So, to get started on that…. I have a pretty big fear of drawing. You can ask any of my work-work coworkers, and they can tell you how funny and out of scale and crooked all my lines and shapes are, especially when drawn on those massive white boards. My inability to draw has bummed me out for as long as I can remember. I just dug out a sketchbook I last drew in back in March of 2012. But about half way through the Barry book, I felt like I had an opportunity, and the responsibility, to just see what came up if I tried without trying. In one of her classes she took attendance by having her students draw 2-minute self portraits on index cards, which she then collected and held all semester. So I pulled out an index card (which I got in my stocking!), set my timer, and went for it. So that I wouldn’t feel so alone, my five-year-old son joined me, though he spent about 10 seconds on his after bemoaning the unfairness of only having 2 minutes.

Here it is, my first self-portrait in 10 years.

O said, "Aw, you look so cute, like a kid!"

O said, “Aw, you look so cute, like a kid!”

"But two minutes is toooooo short for me." (O's 10 second self portrait)

“But two minutes is toooooo short for me.” (O’s 10 second self-portrait)

It is tempting, but I probably won’t have my students draw attendance cards.

I’ve spent the last year working part-time and going to grad school full-time. I’ve written 21,000 pages of my book and started a crown of sonnets. In a few days, I’ll reverse the order and work full-time. Writing needs to make its way back into my morning routine, which means before I wake the boy up and get him ready for school, which means I’ll write from 5 – 6:30 am. These 2-minute self-portraits are going to become part of my morning warm up, to keep my head from taking over too soon and to get my hands moving.



Big Shooters — A Book Launch for Downwind

The week before last was fantastic. First, there was my birthday, and I left work early to read A Visitor for Bear to my son’s K/1 class. All 15 of their squirmy bodies went super still when I sat down and opened the book (expect my son, who wanted to snuggle and see the pictures while I read). That night my big sister made us all a home cooked meal and an Italian cake. I even got to stay late and drink more wine, while my partner took the kiddo home and they read birthday books in my honor at bedtime.

A couple days later, Sarah Alisabeth Fox launched her first book — Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West — into the world with a stellar reading at Elliott Bay Books. Fox is both a historian and a folklorist, and spent eight years talking to uranium affected people from the Four Corners region of the American West and collecting their stories, as well as pouring through archives, epidemiological studies, and declassified government documents. The result is a stunning book that holds facts, “official fictions,” and folktale-like stories of Downwinders side by side. I reviewed this book in High Country News in September (you can read it here), and interviewed Fox last month about writing as an act of witness, and how collecting these stories changed her (not sure where that conversation will end up yet, but I’ll let you know). Listening to Fox at her first reading, in front of 100+ people, was incredible, but my favorite moment was when someone in the audience asked her how she described her book and work to her 4-year old son.


“People wanted to make a really big shooter so that other people would be really nice to them, and it made a lot of people sick.”

He then climbed under the table, where he hung out for almost the entire Q&A, occasionally rising up to stroke her leg or hip. Because kids are totally unprofessional like that, which is why we love them, right?

Seeing them up there together, leg rubbing and all, reminded me that being a mama is a pretty awesome role to have. Reading Downwind, I was struck by the early activism of mothers — women who were housewives or maybe less educated as their urban counterparts, devout in their religions and patriotism. They tended their families, their communities, the sick and the dying. They made maps of diseases and deaths. They struggled with their own illnesses, the deaths of the children. I often feel that becoming a mom has radicalized me in some ways, but it’s hard to put into words. Some of the stories in this book struck that chord, and while I still haven’t been able to fully articulate my feelings, I connected with that element. I’m grateful that a mother has brought these stories together in a book that attempts to weave varied versions of history into something that gives credit to people’s lived experiences, and holds their stories as valid and important in understanding our shared history.