Friday, December 21, 2012

Books can heal

It's been a week since the devastating tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut at Sandy Hook Elementary School and I have tried to find words to express my feelings on this subject. I am a writer, I should be able to write something profound, but I am at a loss, still, for the right words. I am sitting here in my kitchen, sick with a cold the size of Texas, waiting for my tea water to boil. The rain is pouring down tears. My head aches, but so does my heart as I scroll facebook messages, as I read articles about a funeral for a little 7 year-old boy attended by the entire NYC Fire Department, as I remain quiet, reflecting in my moment of silence. This tragedy has cloaked the nation. These are our children.

I sent books to Sandy Hook School along with a promise to come to the school to write with the children, when they are ready, and if they want me to come. I hope they will.

I have tackled life-altering subjects before. My book, Elephants of the Tsunami dealt with the December 26, 2004 immense tragedy. The book was sent over to Thailand on a healing mission. I wrote that book to heal my own sorrow, and for the children I taught, who were scared from afar. I never thought it would be sent to Thailand and I was worried that it would hurt those Thai children, that it would bring back memories of that day. But Wachiramat, a Thai teacher working with 600 children in the villages of Khao Lak and Pang-nga, where 5000 people lost their lives in 5 minutes, told me that the words were so beautiful and that even though the story was sad, it helped the children heal. The children would never forget that day, but the book brought them out of themselves for a moment.

How do we heal? Time, maybe. Love, for sure. Pie, absolutely. Books? I'd like to think so. 
All I can do is what I can do. I can't bake a pie, I can't sing or play the guitar. But I can write and when I do, all my love goes into what I write. And I have written, co-written and edited books for children and teens. All those books are in that box.

So when that box of book arrives at Sandy Hook Elementary School, my hope is that the children will pick them up and read them and laugh and be taken away to that wonderful place only books can take us, if only for a few precious moments. That is my wish. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Looking for Purpose

The birds are at my feeder this chilly, windy morning. They seem frantic. They can't seem to get enough of the oily black sunflower seeds I put out for them just yesterday. The storm has passed, the leaves are almost all fallen, my daughter is safe in New York City and my parents are without power still. Maybe the birds aren't sure we're safe yet.

I took a run today down a country lane to clear my cloudy head. Lots of boughs were on the ground, but the air was clear as I ran. After a storm kind of clear. Lots of things stirred up, making room for what's coming next.

I've been thinking a lot about my purpose here on this fragile planet. Am I a writer? Am I a teacher? A poet? A jeweler? A mom? A friend? A sister, daughter? Maybe I am all of the above. Maybe I'm allowed to be everything and not have to choose one over the other.

I made a bracelet the other night. It was made with leather and beads. It fit just right. I wrote two poems yesterday, and neither of them rhymed. I called my mother to see if she was fine, I took a walk with my sister, texted my daughter, had dinner with friends. Kissed my son on his head as he went off to work. Fed my dogs and cats. I loved.

Is that enough? Maybe it is. Maybe there is inspiration everywhere. I think I just need to remember that.

Tonight is Halloween. Samhain. The night the veil between worlds is lifted, when humans can dance with the fey. I wrote a book about it. It just won a silver medal. I can write another, I can. And I will. Maybe I'll even go out into the moonlight tonight and step into the between. Who knows where I might end up. But that's what it's about. The not knowing. The process. The journey.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Summer of Faeries

What a summer! Full of sprites and faeries, real and imagined. I've been to Spoutwood in Pennsylvania, and Enchanted Ground in Guelph, Ontario, to Maryland and Binghamton, NY where the fey world is alive with dancing, singing, fire circles, pageants, processions, and a faerie rade or two. Fiona, Maggie, Rionnag and the rest of my fey family were introduced to readers young and old. Here are some pictures of the people I shared my summer adventures with.

Monday, June 4, 2012

A Teacher's Year to Cherish

For anyone who questions why the U.S. should adopt a fair and tolerant policy toward immigrants, try teaching ESL, even one class. Get to know an immigrant.

I have been teaching English since I was seventeen years old in various forms and descriptions. I have taught abroad and at home, I’ve taught privately, one-on-one, and in large groups. I’ve taught mothers with babies at family centers. I’ve taught businessmen and doctors, factory workers and dishwashers.

I’ve held classes in my kitchen and on my patio, in church basements and in high tech classrooms, even on living room floors in the Bronx. I’ve taught children and I’ve taught adults. I have taught literally hundreds of people to speak, read, write and understand English.

My students have come from Vietnam, Burma, China, Czech Republic, India, Guatemala, Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Germany, Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Tibet, Kazakhstan, Russia, Greece, Brazil, Peru, El Salvador, Thailand, Taiwan, The Philippines, Costa Rica, Japan, Italy, Hungary, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Hong Kong, France, Poland, and from many countries in Africa including Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Liberia, Congo, and Ghana just to name a few.

People who don’t understand the nature of teaching English think I must be brilliant to be able to speak ALL of those languages. They ask me how I learned so many. When I tell them I do not speak all those languages, and I use ONLY English when I teach, they are shocked and confused. But my students understand.

English is our unifying language and whether we speak it through pantomime at the beginning level, or move on to read and discuss literature at the advanced level, it is what binds us and makes us into a community.

After years of teaching children, I have returned to adult ed, teaching advanced ESL. I have never been happier. I love getting up in the morning and I can’t wait to see who will come to class. Sometimes the classes are full and there are not enough chairs. Sometimes, there are only a handful of students, and occasionally there is only one. No matter what the situation, there is always something to take away from the experience. In my classes, we learn more than just grammar and vocabulary.

In my students I have seen appreciation and gratitude, I have seen tears, laughter and I have learned their stories. Many, many stories. Sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes heartwarming. All uniquely individual. All adding to the tapestry that makes up our community. Our country. Our world.

This year, I have had the privilege of teaching people from all walks of life and many cultures, to watch them grow into more confident individuals, getting closer to fulfilling their hopes and dreams.

To my students: It has been an honor and my absolute pleasure to share my story with you, to become friends with you, to watch you make new friends with each other, and to teach you. Because of all of you, I have the best job in the world.

Thank you for giving me such a rewarding reason to get up in the morning.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Here at Arrowhead

Here I am at Arrowhead. I am sitting at a table in Herman Melville’s study, looking out the same window he looked out as he wrote Moby Dick. I am listening to the cars speeding by, a sound he surely was not troubled by when he did his writing. What a busy road is Holmes Road. I’m not sure Herman would approve.

I feel a little strange, my macbook sitting atop the table here in his study, but the curators assure me that were there macbooks available when Herman sat here, he would have used one too.

I have evoked his spirit and thanked him for this opportunity to sit here. I hope I can do him justice.

The mountain is covered with fog today, so I can barely see the outline. No whale, just mist-covered hills through the wavy glass. My own house once had windows of wavy glass. I am sick sometimes with the knowledge of what a carpenter did to those gems.

My house was built in 1810 and those old windows let in the chill air through every crack and crevasse. And I was always cold. As cold as the inhabitants from days gone by. As cold as Herman probably was here in his study on a winter’s day. And so, 1995 replacement windows were installed. In retrospect, I wish I had had the money to reglaze, repaint, reinstall, and add efficient storms over those 19th century beauties.

But modern impatience ruled the day, which I now rue, and double-paned insulated windows pushed out the old. The house was warmer, but colder too, with its new charm-lacked view. No distortions, no cracks, no waves or bubbles, no antique charm.

It makes me sad to remember how the carpenter flung the old windows into a waiting receptacle. A dumpster. Smashed and broken they were by the time I got home from work. Not one pane worth saving. I cried, but faulted only myself for not making sure these treasures were saved. Put in the old 1847 shed. Something. And now I am selling my two hundred and two year-old farmhouse and the new owners will never even have the option of putting the original windows back where they belong. They are gone.

But now I am here, looking out Herman Melville’s wavy glass panes. They make me dizzy with distortion and pleasure. It’s almost three o’clock, a time I was told that he would have stopped writing for the day. The sun is moving toward the west and the natural light, the only light that fills this room is waning. But I’m going to stay here as long as I can and enjoy his essence. I get chills when I think about him, sitting here where I am sitting, quill pen in hand, pondering.

There’s a harpoon by the window, leaning up against a bookcase filled with leather bound books. On the table are quill pens and an inkwell, a candle in a silver candlestick and a pair of spectacles.  There are some papers, letters from 1850. May 14th to be exact. My Dear Dana – I thank you very heartily for your friendly letter; and am more pleased now…
It is a struggle to read the writing, but the letter is signed, H Melville.
I wonder who Dana is.

The Hemlock trees are swaying and Mt. Greylock is even less visible than when I started writing.  On the wall is a framed piece of writing by two men, along with a pen and ink drawing of this same window with its view. Here is what it says:
to be in & of the weather
not a thing out there
but here emanating
& I a part
partaking of it
the cold, bitter cold of the past few days
the pipes froze, & no water
the heat in the house being only what we made
with our hands, wood, that is
weather being not something out there
but in & of us, I
the house & winter
            Paul Metcalf 1917-1999
And then…
“I have a sort of sea-feeling here in the country, now that the ground is covered with snow. I look out my window in the morning when I rise as I would out of a port-hole of a ship on the Atlantic. My room seems a ship’s cabin, & at nights when I wake up & hear the wind shrieking, I almost fancy there is too much sail in this house, & I had better go on the roof & rig the chimney.”
Herman Melville 1819-1891    Quote from a letter to Evert Duyckinck December 13, 1850

Well, all I can say is, I’m glad I’m starting this residency in the spring. Even then, it’s chilly in here. But I’m warm enough.
Jana Laiz April 9, 2012

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Sitting With Melville

I am reading Moby Dick again. The first time I read it I was in high school and I did not fully appreciate the scope nor the depth of the writing. Between then and now I have read many, many books by many, many authors. Dickens, Austen, Bronte, L’Engle, Gabaldon, Rowling, Berg, Collins and Stockett to name a few. I have always been more partial to English literature than to American, but it seems fitting that I should read this American classic again before I sit at Melville’s desk and set to write. Yes, you read that correctly. I have been given the distinct honor to sit at Herman Melville’s desk, to look out the wavy glass window he looked out while writing his famed tale and write my own story.

I have been chosen to be the first Writer-in-Residence at Melville’s beloved Arrowhead in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The curator, Betsy, gave me a private tour yesterday and when I entered the study where I will be privileged to write, I felt an energy fill my body that took my breath away. I was moved to tears. Melville is there still. I felt his presence.
My mind is bursting with ideas for my new project and my fingers are itching to start, but I think I will wait to begin in earnest until I am seated at his desk. And there, I will ask Herman Melville to guide me through the process.