Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Yellow Wallpaper

It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.

The paint and paper look as if a boys' school had used it. It is stripped off--the paper--in great patches all around the head of my bed, about as far as I can reach, and in a great place on the other side of the room low down. I never saw a worse paper in my life. . . The color is repellant, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

So go two early paragraphs in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's chilling and fascninating short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper." I read this story to my 11th grade American lit students today (we're looking at short story writers in the late 1800s). I love reading this work aloud. As the story progresses, students stop fidgeting and become fixated on the tale of a woman who is being treated with a "rest-cure" for depression, who is isolated in a room to prevent undue excitement, who slowly becomes obsessed with the yellow paper on the walls. She is a woman who is slowly losing her mind. And since Gilman employs the woman as a first-person narrator, we as readers feel as though we're being dragged down with her.

My students had plenty of observations when we finished. Since the woman's an unreliable narrator, how much of her story can we trust? Is she really in a former nursery? At what point does she truly lose touch with reality?

I look forward to this story every year. And once again, I was glad that yet another class found this story disturbing and delightful.

Buy it today on DVD . . .

Okay, so I sound like a commercial.

"Pride & Prejudice" starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyen was released today on DVD. If you've seen it, you know it's worth seeing again, and if you haven't seen it, then you most certainly should.

(It's $16.99 at Target!)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a great fortune must be in want of a wife.

~ Opening sentence, Pride and Prejudice

Friday, February 24, 2006


"When you say life is marvelous, you are saying a banality. But to make life a marvel--that is the role of poetry."

~ Octavio Paz

(Today's entry on my Poetry Speaks Page-A-Day calendar)

Thursday, February 23, 2006

from The Valley of Vision

Thou hast taught me
that faith is nothing else than receiving thy kindness;
that it is an adherence to Christ, a resting on him,
love clinging to him as a branch to the tree,
to seek life and vigour from him.

I thank thee for showing me the vast difference
between knowing things by reason,
and knowing them by the spirit of faith.

By reason I see a thing is so;
by faith I know it as it is.
I have seen thee by reason and have not been amazed,
I have seen thee as thou art in thy Son
and have been ravished to behold thee.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1819 ~ James Russell Lowell, one of the "New England School Poets" during American Romanticism, is born in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

~ 1892 ~ Edna St. Vincent Millay is born in Rockland, Maine.

Millay is a modern American poet, yet one who wrote primarily in a traditional style (something many other poets had abandoned). Perhaps she found in art form the order lacking in her own life. Below is one of my favorite sonnets by Millay.

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love cannot fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Cold Food

I love cold food. But not just any cold food. Cold leftovers.

This afternoon I came home and discovered cold Chinese food in the fridge. It warmed my heart.

I also adore cold pizza. Especially cold pizza for breakfast. I always prefer ordering more pizza than you know you'll need since that means there will be cold pizza in the morning. Other members of my family give me odd looks. Don't you want to heat that up?

Nope. I love it cold.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sunday Hymn

We sang this hymn this morning at church.
I'd forgotten how much I like it.

Abide with Me

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who, like Thyself, my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

Words: Henry Lyte, 1847
Music: William H. Monk, 1861

Lyte was in­spired to write this hymn as he was dy­ing of tu­ber­cu­lo­sis; he fin­ished it the Sun­day he gave his fare­well ser­mon in the par­ish he served so ma­ny years. The next day, he left for Ita­ly to re­gain his health. He didn’t make it, though—he died in Nice, France, three weeks af­ter writ­ing these words.
~ from Cyberhymnal.org

Saturday, February 18, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1678 ~ John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is published.

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place, where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep. And as I slept, I dreamed a Dream. I dreamed, and behold I saw a Man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a Book in his hand, and a great Burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the Book, and read therein; and as he read, he wept and trembled; and not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, “What shall I do?”

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


My 11th graders are writing literary-critical papers on Huckleberry Finn. It's a tedious process, but one that I actually enjoy (though some students might beg to differ!). One of the most interesting things I've discovered as a teacher is that I have to consciously and intentionally remember that there was a time when I didn't know all "this stuff." I didn't automatically know how to write a bibliographic entry or how to properly cite sources or how to write a tight, focused thesis sentence. I catch myself wanting to assume too much about my students, thinking that they'll keep up with me as I move along at a steady clip. It's tedious (and good) projects like literary-critical papers that force me to slow down, to write more slowly on the board, to go over that thesis sentence one more time, to force my lesson plans to submit to their needs rather than the other way around. This week they're revising their papers, and it's actually a joyful experience for me to wander around the room observing as they work on their papers with partners, scratching out words, writing in corrections and advice, discussing Huck, Jim, Tom, Romanticism, religion, racism, satire. I can actually see the transfer of knowledge taking place. Sometimes it's amazing to me that my words have actually stuck! :-) And, of course, it's only because someone else's words "stuck" with me.

In the front of my notebook, I keep some "inspiration." There's a picture of an raised hand in front of a chalkboard. The quote below the photo says:

The main reason I became a teacher is that I like being the first one to introduce kids to words and music and books and people and numbers and concepts and ideas that they have never heard about or thought about before. I like being the first one to tell them about Long John Silver and negative numbers and Beethoven and alliteration and "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" and similes and right angles and Ebenezer Scrooge. . . . Just think about what you know today. You read. You write. You work with numbers. You solve problems. We take all these things for granted. But of course you haven't always read. You haven't always known how to write. You weren't born knowing how to subtract 199 from 600. Someone showed you. There was a moment when you moved from not knowing to knowing, from not understanding to understanding. That's why I became a teacher.
~ Philip Done

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

St. Valentine's Day

O, how much more doth beauty beauteous seem,
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give!
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odor which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye,
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly,
When summer's breath their masked bud discloses;
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwooed and unrespected fade,
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths are sweetest odors made.
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall vade, by verse distills your truth.

~ Sonnet 54, William Shakespeare

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Snowed In

We awoke this morning to nearly a foot of snow, our first big storm of the winter.

"The Snow Storm" (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hill and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farmhouse at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hiddden thorn;
Fills up the famer's lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer's sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.

Lincoln and Lilacs

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born.

My favorite poem about Lincoln is "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" by Walt Whitman. The poem concerns Lincoln's death, but the anniversary of his birth made me think of this poem today.

While Whitman also wrote "O Captain! My Captain!" on Lincoln's death, giving voice to the nation's grief in more traditional form, I far prefer "Lilacs." It's a long free verse poem, one that conveys Whitman's personal grief at the loss of this influential president and expands outward to musings on death and the beauty of America. As with many of Whitman's poems, I disagree with some of his conclusions on death, but I also find much to identify with and appreciate. He expresses his struggle through the process of grieving with striking imagery and repetition.

(Lincoln's body was carried by train in a grand funeral procession through several states on its way back to Illinois, a procession that Whitman describes in the excerpts below.)

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night -- O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear'd -- O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless -- O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin,

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil'd women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches list, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour'd around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs -- where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

(read the whole poem)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Movie Thoughts: Just Like Heaven

This romantic comedy was family viewing tonight. Even Olivia seemed intrigued at one point, but then lost interest, which is a somewhat good summary of the movie. I like both Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo as actors, so I enjoyed it on the whole, but it's very light and fluffy. Lots of suspension of disbelief. But I'm also a firm believer in not demanding more of a movie than it purports to give, and I knew from the beginning that this movie would be fun yet forgettable. So with that in mind, it's diverting enough. :-)

(And it has some funny lines from Jon Heder, of "Napoleon Dynamite" fame.)

from The Valley of Vision

The Valley of Vision: a highly recommended collection of Puritan prayers, which I first discovered at Heritage Bible Church (Greenville, SC) where excerpts often appeared on the covers of the Order of Service.

From my reading this morning:

Magnify thy love to me according to its greatness,
and not according to my deserts or prayers,
and whatever increase thou givest.
let it draw out greater love to thee.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

On this day in literature . . .

. . . lots of writers were born!

1478 ~ Sir Thomas More (Utopia) is born in London

1764 ~ Ann Radcliffe (The Italian, The Mysteries of Udolpho) is born in London

1812 ~ Charles Dickens (David Copperfield, Great Expectations) is born in Portsmouth

1867 ~ Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prairie) is born in Wisconsin

Monday, February 06, 2006

Remembering: Fact or Fiction?

Over the last few days at work, a few of us have been discussing the whole brouhaha over Oprah, James Frey, and truth in memoir-writing.

Background: Frey's book, A Million Little Pieces, was picked by Oprah for her book club. Now, Oprah has the Midas touch in the publishing world -- the minute she picks your book, you're just along for the oh-so-fast ride to the top of the bestsellers' list (which gives me some sympathy for Frey). And when it came out that Frey had modified certain elements of his memoir, Oprah stood by him . . . that is, until the "scandal" refused to go away. Oprah summoned Frey to her show to account for his wrongdoing and gave him a nationally televised spanking.

But my coworkers and I aren't sure whom to side with -- the journalistic-leaning Winfrey and the "truth of hard facts"? Or the right of an author to produce a creative art form based on life experiences? And though we don't necessarily have a vested interest in the particular case of James Frey, we're tending to lean toward the side of the-memoir-as-art-form.

In yesterday's Book World section of the Washington Post, Nancy Milford offers an article entitled "The False Memoir," which I encourage you to read if this topic interests you. I suppose the whole controversy is over how a memoir ought to be classed. Is it more like fiction? There's always been a small (and at other times, not so small) group of people who disapprove of or dislike fiction, or who feel that somehow it's less than authentic because it's "not real." Or is a memoir more like non-fiction? And within the realm of non-fiction, how much right does an author have to "recreate" his experiences? And can he recreate them and still present truth? While truth certainly contains the aspect of cold, hard facts, truth also has a "non-fact" element to it. Truth is not always tangible, and just because we alter some of the facts, have we destroyed truth? And is a memoir bound to be pure fact?

Almost from the beginnings of prose writing in English, but surely since the 18th century, there's been an uneasiness about the conflict between the true story, based on verifiable facts, carefully ordered, in which you could believe and therefore trust, and one that was made-up, invented, a pack of lies and therefore untrustworthy -- a fiction. . . . In autobiography and memoir, fiction and essays, writers have often altered their pasts to suit their own purposes. They don't simply cloak and encode the details of their lives -- they invent, falsify and fictionalize the "facts" of their lives in what is, I believe, a life-saving prose strategy.

~ Nancy Milford, "The False Memoir"

Friday, February 03, 2006

Austen is turning over in her grave

My 9th graders are working on research papers. I put "MLA" on the board the other day, and then asked if anyone knew what it meant. Um, does the "A" stand for Association?

Yes, I will be nitpicking these papers for every comma, period, and indent.

They have to write their papers on an author, one who is significant to the field of literature. I even gave out a list of authors they're likely to encounter in their coming years as high school students. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Hawthorne, Twain, Dickinson.

Oh, Miss Ruffner, can I write about Nicholas Sparks?

Thankfully, I have a "the author must be dead" clause in the requirements.

And so, no, dear, you may not write about Nicholas Sparks.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

February Resolution: Read a (non-school) book

My January reading was a complete flop. I had even made a charming little chart for myself at the beginning of the month to "organize" my reading: School, Fiction, Religious, and Other. I carefully listed books under each category as my goals for the month. And I really tried not to overwhelm myself. I know from the past the absolute futility of my trying to create and then read a grand list of books (and the lovely guilt that results!). But except for the "School" category, my reading this month was rather pathetic.

To be fair, I did read Huckleberry Finn, Our Town, The Glass Menagerie, and most of the Aeneid. But in a very real sense, that's my job and I really wanted to do more than just reading for work. I started A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, a huge novel set in 1960s India, which is really good -- at least the 160 pages that I've read are really good (which means I have only 1,314 pages left). And I read the first part (out of four parts) of The Incomparable Christ by John Stott. And I'm continuing to inch my way through The Art of Biblical Narrative by Robert Alter.

I discussed this topic today with another English teacher as we graded our exams. We both have the same tendencies to immediately turn to a TV show or movie as our standard form of relaxation, telling ourselves that we "read all the time" for work. But as I look back over the month, it's somewhat discouraging that I didn't complete a non-school book. So for February, I'm determined to get back to reading for personal pleasure and profit.

(And I'd love to hear about your reading struggles and solutions!)

On this day in literature . . .

~ 1902 ~ Langston Hughes, the quintessential poet of the Harlem Renaissance, is born in Joplin, Missouri

One of my favorite poems by Hughes is "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1920).

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than
the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.