Posted in Teaching, Writing

Attics, Windows, and Weirdness

Happy Monday the 13th! Muahahahaha!

I realize it’s usually Friday the 13th that you have to beware of, but once you see what I have to share with you today, I think you’ll agree that this date has a sinister side too.

The Horrors of Standardized Testing

First, it’s STAAR testing week. If you’re a teacher or a student in Texas, that’s enough to make you shudder right there. If you’re reading this post between 8:15AM and 12:45PM central time, please know that I am stuck in a silent room with thirty seventh graders and no access to the outside world, trying to keep myself from going crazy by anagramming their names in my head and making mental pie charts of the types of shoes they’re wearing. Oh, the horrors.

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More Entertaining Horrors

Don’t worry; there are other, better horrors today too. For instance, my short story, “Window,” was published today at Havok. It’s a flash fiction piece, so it’s short enough to read on a bathroom break (<– if you have a job with unscheduled bathroom breaks, thank your lucky stars) but there’s a pretty strong creep-factor packed into those few pages.

Think you’re too scared to read it? You better decide quick because the story will be free to read today only. Beginning tonight at midnight, it will be available only to subscribers. So, in order not to be reading it during the witching hour, you might as well buck up and read it now. If you enjoy the story and have a Havok account, consider rating it. The stories with the most votes will be included in the upcoming print anthology.

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If you read “Window” and survive, then check out my longer short story, “The Girl in the Attic.” This story was originally published in Growing Pains by Sinister Saints Press, but it can now be read for free in Allegory. There’s no clock ticking on this one, so read it at your leisure. It’ll give you a good reason to put off cleaning out your attic for another year.

Horrors of the Weird Variety

If you’re not dealing with standardized testing today and can’t bring yourself to read about creepy windows and attics, then spend your Monday the 13th considering this madness.

A few days ago, a couple of very good friends of mine stayed at our house. They slept in our guest room, which is also my office. This isn’t usually a problem, but these particular very good friends are also very good pranksters, and my collection of books and office supplies offers them plenty of fodder for their mischief. I never know what I’ll find (or not find for days, weeks, or months) after they visit. This time was no exception. Shenanigans were definitely afoot, and I know I haven’t discovered them all yet.

One thing they did was use my set of wooden letters to leave me a message on my bookshelf. That was easy to spot and pretty cute. They also left me a cryptic note that looks like a piece of a larger puzzle, something I haven’t even tried to figure out yet. That’s also harmless and cute. But today when I looked up from my desk, I got more than a little creeped out when I saw THIS:

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That is a stuffed pony that I loved when I was a little girl wearing the fake witch nose I wore last year for Halloween.

Not only is it really, really, really, really disturbing, but I had no idea where these very good friends got my witch nose! These people are not above a bit of snooping. I know this because my wooden letters were in the closet. Then again, they were in a box clearly labeled “SET OF WOODEN LETTERS” so, yeah, not hard to find. But my witch nose? Even I couldn’t have told you where that thing ended up after Halloween. If I had to guess, I’d say in the trash or in a box in the garage.

I immediately texted the above photo to my very good friends and asked them where the heck they found my witch nose, wondering just exactly how much of my stuff I need to keep under lock and key during future visits. The reply I got did not make me feel better.

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Um, what?!?!?! Freaking out, I showed the photo to hubby, who said, “You just now saw that? I did that months ago.”

*sigh*

Apparently, I am not very observant. When I get home from actively monitoring the STAAR test, I’m going to take a GOOD, LONG LOOK around my guest room and see what other little treasures I can find.

But I’m not going in my attic. Nope, nope.

Posted in Poetry, Teaching

Vision+Voice 2019 / Why Poetry Matters

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice reception this year.

Teaching all day + Writing Club + grading + trying to perfect that PowerPoint for Monday, and suddenly it was 6:30PM, and I was still in my classroom, and the Vision+Voice reception was starting across town in half an hour. For a quarter of a second, I considered not going. Then I dropped everything and jumped in the car.

Traffic was not in my favor as I made my way from south Austin to the ACC Highland campus. Once, my uninformed GPS even routed me through a construction zone. (Hello, men in hard hats! Sorry! Don’t mind me!) By the time I arrived at the community college, my shoulders were stiff, and I was calculating what time I might finally be home. 9:00PM? 9:30? 10:00? I felt the weight of my day bearing down on me as I walked across the parking lot.

Then I stepped inside, and all my stress lifted away. I couldn’t believe I considered missing this event for even a quarter of a second.

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Vision+Voice is everything I love in one place. It’s students, dressed up and looking happy and nervous at the same time. It’s families, beaming and hugging and taking pictures. It’s teachers, nodding and saying how proud they are. It’s music, art, and good food. And it’s poetry.

The program was launched by Austin Community College in 2013. It’s an annual contest for students in Austin to submit poetry on any topic, in any language. ACC Creative Writing students and published poets judge the poems. One winner and a number of honorable mentions are selected from every grade level. The poems are published in a beautiful anthology, and the poets are invited to record a video reading their poems at KLRU. In addition, the first place poems are paired with a piece of art created by an ACC student and made into posters to be displayed in homes, schools, and libraries across the city.

This year, my school was honored to have three young poets recognized for their poems: Harper J (sixth grade honorable mention), Noah L (seventh grade winner), and Hadley S (seventh grade honorable mention). Hadley wrote a tritina poem called “Shooting Stars” during our class’s poetry unit. Noah wrote “Cactus Poem” (about cacti who need a break from posing for pictures all the time) based on another student’s creative writing prompt during our school’s Writing Club. And Harper, who also recently joined the Writing Club, wrote a poem called “Love Letter” which reads the same forward and backward. So cool.

I walked in to the beautifully decorated atrium where the reception was being held. I met my students’ families and congratulated the poets. I got some food, sat down, listened to speeches, watched videos of young poets reading their words, and didn’t stop smiling for the next two hours.

Seeing these young writers, ages 5 to 18, stand in front of a camera with their poems in their hands, sharing their creativity with the world brought tears to my eyes. They were articulate and vulnerable and proud and passionate and confident and true and beautiful. They give me hope for our future.

A few of my favorite lines and moments…

The second grade winner, Maple W, wrote a song called “I am still me.” It begins, “I am a monster in my tomb/ singing with the tune,” and it ends, “be nice to me,/ because I am still me.”

The beginning of fifth grader Beatrix L’s poem “The Sapling” gave me shivers:

“The spirit inside the tree
Is full of unrest.
She thinks I have come
To take away her host.”

Sixth grader Didion C’s poem “Coral” addressed environmental concerns, saying, “Fate may be inevitable/ But we can help.”

The last lines of these poets’ poems all stayed with me:

“You must ask questions of all sizes.” – Nicole P, 7th grade
“I am alive” – Andrea H, 9th grade (She was my student two years ago!)
“These streets could belong to me.” – Amy S, 12th grade

I can’t help it. I get chills when I hear these lines.

Brad Richard, the keynote speaker at the reception, gave a speech titled “Why Poetry Matters.” His words were true and inspiring and thoughtful, but I couldn’t help but feel like they were also unnecessary. I challenge anyone to listen to children read poems about life, love, nature, the earth, freedom, home, truth, and monsters without understanding—immediately and inherently—why poetry matters to our world.

I almost didn’t make it to the Vision+Voice Reception this year, but I’m SO GLAD I DID.

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Note: The poems mentioned in this post are only a few of the incredible pieces of writing in this year’s anthology. And there were so many more poems that weren’t recognized with awards, but which are also beautiful and thought-provoking. All of the poems entered this year can be found on the Vision+Voice website. I recommend getting a cup of coffee and spending an hour or so immersing yourself in them. Start with “My Home” by my student Rayaan H about his beloved Pakistan. It put a lump in my throat when he read it in front of my class earlier this year.

Links to All Poems Mentioned in This Post:

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Posted in Life, Lists, Teaching

How to Escape for Spring Break Without Leaving Home

Last year during spring break, I took my dog and ran away from home. (We came back.) This year, I decided not to go anywhere during my week off, but I still craved that feeling of escape. I wondered, Is it possible to have a low-key, stay-at-home spring break AND get away at the same time? The answer is yes. Here’s how to do it.

1. Indulge in Good Food

You don’t have to go on vacation to eat like you’re on vacation. Give in to your sweet tooth or make that favorite recipe you don’t have time to prepare when you’re working. Splurge on your taste buds.

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On the first morning of spring break, I made this giant pile of pancakes, and we ate every last morsel of them.

2. Try a New Restaurant

Splurging on your taste buds doesn’t have to include cooking and clean-up. Find a few dining spot to check out. In Austin, there’s never a shortage of good places to eat.

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I visited Hillside Farmacy for the first time this week. Their fried egg sandwich has fried green tomatoes on it. Need I say more?

3. Sleep Somewhere New

You don’t have to check in to a hotel to check out of the daily grind. Make a pallet on the couch and have a movie night. Build a blanket fort. Camp out in the backyard.

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This is what I call an open-airbnb.

4. Be a Tourist in Your Own City

Take a walk through a neighborhood you’ve never been in, or finally take the time to do that thing that everyone does when they come to your town, or visit a museum. (Note: Museums are free in Austin on Thursdays.)

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I went to the Blanton for the “Words/Matter Latin American Art and Language” exhibit. I recommend it.

5. Buy a Souvenir

There’s a difference between regular shopping and souvenir shopping. You can go buy a new pair of jeans at Old Navy over spring break, and that’s fine, but it probably won’t feel like an escape. A souvenir is a strange or specific object that you wouldn’t have purchased if you hadn’t been in that place at that time. So get into get-away mode and search for a trinket to commemorate your staycation.

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To each her own, of course, but I bought an evil eye talisman from Tesoros Trading Company on South Congress.

6. Send Postcards

You don’t have to travel to write a note to a loved one about your experience. Buy some postcards of your city or some random cards or pick up freebies where you can, and send notes far and wide. Describe your pancakes, your blanket fort, your trip to the vegan ice cream shop. People will love to hear from you regardless of where you are when you write to them.

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This weekend, I sent ten eclectic postcards to friends and family members, but I forgot to take a photo of them before I dropped them in the mail, so here’s a picture of the cards that currently hang above my desk instead.

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At this point, you may be thinking, These are great ideas (thanks) but I’m broke and lacking transportation and don’t have a backyard or postage stamps. Fair point. These next four tips for escape are for you.

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7. Escape into a Book

If you don’t have the means to travel or the courage for daring feats or the stomach for adventurous eating, read about someone who does. Pick up a novel set in a foreign land or a book of essays by someone who’s been around the world or any good book with a good story. Immerse yourself in it. Read for hours, and ignore the laundry.

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This week, I read The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. It’s like a mix between the movie Clue and the movie Happy Death Day except the narrator wakes up every day in a different character’s body. It was a wild ride for sure, definitely “escape” material.

8. Call a Faraway Friend

If you’re like me, you don’t pick up the phone often enough. I mean, yes, you pick up your mobile computer and your map and your texting device and your camera all the time, but the actual phone part of that thing? You probably don’t spend a lot of time with it. Spring break is a great time to reconnect with an old friend. Call someone you haven’t talked to in a while, who lives in a different city. Then close your eyes and let their voice shrink the miles between you.

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I called an old friend this week. Well, not that old. She’s the same age I am. I won’t reveal her name here and embarrass her, but we’ve known each other since we were in the first grade, and it was really good talking to her.

9. Keep Work Out of Sight and Out of Mind

I brought home a lot of grading over spring break. I know, I know, boo me all you want. Sometimes it’s inevitable. But even though I brought those essays home, I didn’t leave them laying around, staring at me and judging me all week. I took my time off first and saved the work for the last couple of days, making sure that I was managing the grading, and not the other way around. Do your best to compartmentalize work and play. Don’t check work emails at the museum and discuss work talk over your stack of pancakes. Enjoy yourself without guilt.

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You can’t tempt me, essays! No! No! Stay back!

10. Say No

When you don’t go anywhere for spring break, that makes some people think you are free the whole week. You are, but that’s the point. You’re free, free on your own terms. Don’t feel like you have to say yes to every favor or invitation. There’s only so much fun you can fit into a week. Unfortunately, you may have to pick and choose where to spend your time and with whom. Escape sometimes means escaping from stress or exhaustion or obligation. Protect your time. Keep it free by saying no to some things.

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To all the friends I hung out with this week, THANK YOU! I had a fabulous time! To all the friends I didn’t get to hang out with, I’M SORRY! Summer is coming! (Note: I didn’t take a single photo with any of my friends this week, so here’s a picture of my dog. Today is his birthday. My parents sent him a card.)

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This spring break, I never traveled more than twenty miles from home. But I made pancakes and visited a museum and bought strange objects and slept in a hammock and read books and mailed postcards and hung out with good friends and said no to things so I could stay in my pajamas and write all day, and that gave me the escape I needed. If I have to go back to work tomorrow (and both Austin ISD and my hubby tell me that I do), at least I’m going back rested and rejuvenated. Except for my right wrist, which still hurts from grading all those essays…