Monday, July 17, 2017

#SOL17: Middles

Alps (M.A. Reilly, 7.17.17, Hipstamatic App on iPhone)

                                  " ...You’re searching, Joe,
For things that don’t exist; I mean beginnings.
Ends and beginnings—there are no such things.        190
There are only middles.”

- Robert Frost, in "The Home Stretch, "1920. Mountain Intervals


The wife in Frost's "The Home Stretch," understands that life happens in the continuous middle of things. Beginnings and endings are temporary matters that we label as such. The past, present, and future are not absolutes. Einstein taught us that.  Beginnings and endings are not absolutes, even when we most want to believe them as such.So where do we stand?  What sense might we make of this?

David Whyte in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words explains that to come to ground "... is to find a home in circumstances and in the very physical body we inhabit in the midst of those circumstances and above all to face the truth, no matter how difficult that truth may step into difficulty and by taking that first step, begin the movement through all difficulties..."

I have been thinking about Whyte's definitions of ground tonight after watching the sky gradually darken over Lake Como. It's an apt place to think about ground--what with the Alps rising so mightily--almost within touch.  I watched as the Alps so spectacularly striking at early dusk began to lose their definition as the blue light lifted and spread. What had been foregrounded and backgrounded become less discernible until the rise of night made it impossible to differentiate mountain from sky.  The mountains seemed to disappear. It was then that the first star appeared and I thought about the length of time it might have taken for that light to reach here and how strange it feels to know that when I look at the stars I am looking into the past.


Since Rob died I have wondered about heaven. I have wondered what happens after death. Before he died he told me to search for him among the stars.


Early tomorrow, while the sky is still dark I will rise and watch the waning crescent moon and if lucky I may also see the red star, Aldebaran (Taurus the bull's eye). The light I see from the moon will take about 1.3 seconds to arrive. In contrast, the light I see from Aldebaran will have travelled 65-million light years. When that light first started, dinosaurs roamed the earth. And tomorrow at pre-dawn, I will stand 4,000 miles from my home on a deck that overlooks one of the deepest lakes in Europe, formed ten thousand years ago by retreating Alpine glaciers, knowing that the light I see from that great red star is a moment from its past--65 million years ago. Is it any wonder that we so often feel off-kilter? That my wonders about heaven and distant stars and life after death feel so contemporary, so urgent?  Is it any wonder that we seek to give definition by naming and renaming and not always understanding that we exist in the middle?


           in the middle of things,
there is wonder,
       and the scatter of sunlight,
and a tangled sense of the past.

Does the same light that reaches me tonight,
reach you too?

Monday, July 10, 2017

#SOL17: Praise the Ordinary

Rainy Day (M.A. Reilly, 2010) 
Courage is the measure of our heartfelt participation with life, with another, with a community, a work; a future. To be courageous is not necessarily to go anywhere or do anything except to make conscious those things we already feel deeply and then to live through the unending vulnerabilities of those consequences.   - David Whyte, Consolations 


It's a very rainy night in Zurich and I am eating dinner at La Zoupa, a small restaurant tucked up a side street a few blocks from the main boulevarde the rims Lake Zurich. The wide open door announces the steady fall of rain and the distant rumble of thunder. Outside a man stops, ducks under the awning to reclaim the umbrella that was blow inside-out by the wind. He quickly moves back into the rain and down the cobblestone street out of view. We are far enough away from the hotels that tourist do not make their way here--at least not during an evening downpour. I borrowed a very sturdy umbrella from the hotel clerk and wandered the mostly empty streets. It couldn't have been more perfect if I ordered the night up from God.

I enjoy cities, especially during a good downpour. Oddly, it makes sense to me--the rhythm, the pace, the anonymity. I am 4,000 miles from home, and yet Europe most always feels like home. Perhaps it's the vulnerabilities that speak most to me--the one's that arise when visiting a new place. Here the streets are less familiar, the languages spoken, less easy to the ear--and yet, beneath those difference is a familiarity that lightens the heart. Human differences are more a matter of surfaces than depths. Earlier I was reading David Whyte's Consolations and was taken by his definition of courage. He explains that courage is not doing the extraordinary, but rather living fully with the consequences of the vulnerabilities the accompany the ordinary.


I was meant to travel and note with camera, pen, and brush what I see and sense, know and unlearn, remember and forget.  I cannot recall a time when I haven't been writing, or making images with a camera, or more recently with paint. Rob and I had planned to travel extensively when we partially-retired. Even when he faced permanent paralysis he asked me to find a van he could drive using his hands, rather than feet.

Find something I can drive with my hands, Rob told me, just one day after he had neuro-surgery to relieve metastatic spinal cord compression.
Drive with your hands? I asked.
Yes. A van perhaps.  

We did not know he was seven weeks from death.  Just hours after surgery, he could feel the pressure of my fingernail as I stroked the bottom of his right foot and we were so encouraged. During the next week as he tried to teach his body to walk again, the cancer that had been located in the apex of his right lung began to spread to his left lung, ribs, spleen, and liver.

When we talked about our future, we spoke about traveling. We imagined month-long holidays in the United States where we visited cities and towns. We wanted to document, consider, and most of all, praise the ordinary. As we thought about more permanent retirement we tried to figure out how to make Tuscany or the west of Ireland work.


Tonight I am in Zurich, far from home. As I left the restaurant I realized I did not need the umbrella and so I closed it, letting the soft mist that was falling cool my skin. As I walked, I noticed how the streets, once so deserted, were now filling with people who had ducked inside restaurants or bars to wait out the storm. It was as if the whole city exhaled.

It's a lovely evening and as the rain stopped, the light returned and though it was after 9 p.m. it was not dark. Sometimes life feels this simple, this right.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

100 Days of Faces Completed

Days 97-99

Day 100
At the beginning of April, 2017 I took on the challenge of drawing/painting/photographing 100 faces in 100 days.  I wanted to learn how to better represent the human face. Mostly I painted and although I have a long way to go, I can see that I took more risks as the project progressed, quieted the critic in my head, posted work I did not like and work I did, and lived within the constraints of time (mostly) and materials.

Below is a brief video that shows the 100 images in the order they were created.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

#SOL17: A Lifetime

They've Wandered Down the Years to Now (M.A. Reilly, 2012)


I had expected a lifetime.

I never even questioned that we would not retire or live together well into our 80s. I looked into the future and saw us together.  Rob was not a sickly person and the two times he had pneumonia, he bounced back within a week.  It wasn't until two years ago that he first complained about a sharp pain that traveled across the right side of his chest.  We sat up at 3 in the morning, cups of tea before us at the old round table and Rob calmed down as we made a plan to see the doctor.  He had googled the ailment and came up with a diagnosis--a far kinder one than what would later be confirmed as stage 4 lung cancer. By 4 am, we were back asleep.


Holidays remain difficult.  Grief does not sit itself inside me as it once did. These days when sadness announces itself loudly, firmly--it is brief and yet the initial sting is no less staggering than it was a year ago.

Fourth of July usually meant that my brothers would come for a cook out. This year was no different except of course there was no Rob. He always grilled and took such delight in it. We planned the menu, considering what I could cook on top of the stove or ready ahead of time and what he would grill--usually vegetables, meat, some kind of fish. We worked well together and always after my family left for the night, we would clean up and spend some time just talking--usually over cups of tea. Ours was a simple life.

Last night after my brothers and a friend left and Devon was tucked away in his room, I was rereading a book I had read more 20 years ago and I it caused me to remember the Cape that Rob and I had renovated in the mid-90s. That winter saw more than 100 inches of snow fall and we lived beneath the blue plastic canopy that covered the roof of our home. We were in our 30s and all things seemed possible and death did not seem like it was just two decades away. Ours was such a happy and artful home--the one where we first brought Devon.


It still cuts like a knife when I think of how brief my husband's life was. I had expected a lifetime.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

#SOL16: No Legitimate Time

Rob in Montana many years ago. We were on holiday. I think now that my husband was almost always laughing.


What I mostly know, now that 16 months have gone by since Rob's death--nearly 2 years since he first got ill, is that love does not diminish. It does not lessen with time. Grief still arrives and brings with it waves of sorrow that open into deep pockets of joy. There simply is no legitimate time for grieving. There are no periods that are more or less acceptable. Time is far too slippery here.

Feel what you feel. To deny sadness is to have it inhabit your body, like the starling that now lives inside the exhaust fan on the side of my home.  It is better to feel than to hide.  Hiding requires not being.


In A Short Course in Happiness After Loss, Maria Sirois describes the sudden whiplash of grief that happens well after the process of grieving has seemed to end:
The heart hits hard against the cage of the loss we thought we had somehow ‘resolved’ and we find ourselves on our knees, paralyzed on the blue kitchen tile, staring at the Tupperware we had taken out of the drawer to sort . . . and we can’t remember why because we can’t breathe, can’t hold our head up, can’t possibly organize anything because all we can feel is this rush of pain and the pressing crush of its sensation. As if we have been t-boned by a Hummer. Whiplash and slam.
I am writing this here so I will have a reminder, not of the ways that grief works, but rather of the ways that resiliency rises like a righteous set of wings that shadows grief. In the first months it is impossible to see this. Lately, I connect the two: grief gives way to resiliency. By naming the terror or sitting still in a sadness, grief is less the monster I have not faced and more the process I know too well.

Now and then, these waves of grief also bring stories of Rob and others. Remembering is a sweet gift. 

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

#SOL17: Stories and Storytellers

from my art journal, 2016


Acceptance is so inadequate a word. An online dictionary defines acceptance as:

willingness to tolerate a difficult or unpleasant situation.

An unpleasant situation does not describe the death of a husband, nor is it merely difficult, or even a situation. And certainly, there was no willingness at least on my part to tolerate his death, as if being tolerant was somehow related to being bereft. Yet, in so many descriptions about grief, learning to accept the death is supposedly a kind of stage suggesting healing.

I want to suggest here that it isn't acceptance that marks a turn in the road of grief, but rather the shift in stories that are told about our loved one(s) who have died. Healing is better expressed when we can see them through the length of their lives, not just the tragic ending.


Words feel inadequate, even when they offer us a start.  Earlier,  I was reading Jane Hirschfield's opening poem, "After Long Silence," from After. She ends the poem with this line:

"Yet words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins."

Her words started me thinking and I realized that it wasn't explanations that have most helped after my husband's death.  Knowing the five stages of grief still feels awkward and wrong. So no, explanations did not help often. Rather, it was stories that others told that lifted me.

Stories heal.


Stories of others who have walked where I was walking helped to illuminate a path that was more often than not, dark. Grief grows shadows and stories lift those shadows, revealing what rests beneath. Stories give us the courage to look beneath the sadness. Stories reveal parts of ourselves we simply did not know before.

Those who tell stories of their own grief and recovery help to translate the animate life that was lost into something new and lasting. This is perhaps the gift that grief brings. This is what Shakespeare was on about in Sonnet 18: "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee."


What now feels like a million years ago I read Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and never forgot her opening:

“I will tell you something about stories 
[he said]
They aren't just entertainment. 
Don't be fooled. 
They are all we have, you see, 
all we have to fight off 
illness and death.

You don't have anything if you don't have the stories..."

I had barely turned 20 when I read this book and frankly I was baffled. I was too young, too inexperienced to understand how stories and death might connect and it remained a mystery for decades until my sweet husband's death allowed me to link stories, illness and death. I see now that this story I have been telling, writing here and sharing with you for nearly the last two years has been nothing less or more than how I answer the deep need to tell you about Rob--to keep him alive in words.

Stories transform lives-- especially for those of us who have lost so greatly.  It is a sacred job to tell stories. In some ways this is what it means to be a survivor--to be the one who lives.

Friday, June 23, 2017

#SOL17: Faith - A Poem My Husband Left Behind

Rob and Max (Many, many years ago)

16 months after Rob died I have found the courage to sit down at his computer and to begin to browse. It's a stormy night and somehow the mood seems right or perhaps the courage I needed to do this is somehow present.  Rob left behind 40 notebooks and a computer filled with images and poems and stories and the the first 6 chapters of a novel he was writing when we first me. Lemmings. 

I have been thinking about a poem he wrote--one I fell in love with as I was falling in love with him. I can remember him reading the poem aloud in in the basement of an old mill in Paterson, NJ at some poetry event. The emotion his voice captured. The passion. It remains.

He wrote "Faith" when he was 33-years-old. What legacies there are that he has stored and left behind in this old computer. Such gifts.

Rob Cohen



I stood on line
in a chinese takeout place
on 9th ave
while the owner
his back against the counter
& spoke
on the telephone

I wanted to know
an american phone
could speak chinese
as if the technology
were language dependent

& I thought
of all the prejudice
I was taught
about foreigners
that each country
has a separate history

that all those people
in all those places
are different

that this
is america
& our technology
is ours

do you picture china
with phones?

Or do you see
a peasant
in a coolie hat
& loose garment
in a paddy
or perhaps
at work
        bent over
some old piece of equipment
in an antiquated sweatshop
in a rickety seaport warehouse
where there are no downtowns

this man
who spoke chinese
became more
& more animated
until I realized
his voice
was translated
by a device
which does not remember
yet carries out
an ordered transfer
of energies,
              his voice
broken into parts
& reassembled
in a demonstration
of 3rd grade science
where atoms
are made of parts
so small
that the distance between them
is comparably vast
as in a solar system
where most of everything
is made of nothing
is this the logos?

No. It is just
cheap talk.

& I wondered
was on the other end
of the line--
a chinese man
in china?

do you see him
in a 3-pc suit
briefcase in hand
as he stands
in a tall building 

     important man
with a corner office
one window
a view
of the waterfront
the other
of the countryside

He spoke to a different china

--the one downtown
is a selfsufficient village

a bunch of brownstones
where gardeners work underground
old apothecaries
have potions for everything
& the gang of 4
wears leather jackets
knives & chains

a west side story
in chinese

& because the words that carried
across connections
were messages
of a confused culture

in a broken down universe
tells us
how it is

each mystery
lessens the number of things
we understand
about democratic laws
that let a chinese man
speak his ancestors tongue
on an american phone

laws which last
& work
as we believe in them

did we want phones?

Doctrine tells us
to stay on the line

just hold on
it will work better
once we find the explanation
for all of this
we can harness
this universe, understand
its every machination

an autism
which barely initiates
is its own language

it keeps
every last bit moving
when we already know
what it means to believe
that the way we have come
is not
the way things are


Tuesday, June 20, 2017

#SOL17: Courage and the Writing Group

self portrait with iphone (Paris, 2016)


Tonight I will be attending my weekly writer's group and for the first time we will be discussing work I produced. The majority of writers in the group write fiction. Only one other is writing memoir, like me. Last week we met in the bathroom and each confessed a bad case of nerves. 

It's so revealing, I said. There's no place to hide.
I know, she added.  

It's a sizable group--usually about a dozen people. Each week, two works are discussed and everyone around the table says something, often with sharp details about the work, and at the end of the session, the author is given the written comments from each group member.  I have learned a lot the last month listening to others critique work I have read too.  We read differently and there is something rather grand about that. This insight reminds me that we ought to acknowledge and celebrate different interpretations and noticings at school instead of requiring/expecting/celebrating the more homogenous reading of texts.


Since I submitted my work, last week, I have been imagining various responses of those who have read the 15 pages. My worst fears are these:

Stop writing. Just stop.
You shouldn't try to write anymore.
What you have written simply isn't good enough.
It's too depressing.
Can't you write something more cheerful?
What was the point of this?
I was bored reading this.

Now, in my heart I don't think anyone will say this directly, but I do wonder if some might think some of this. What I do think is possible, as I have thought it too, is that some may say that the work meanders and a reader might grow impatient and wonder, what exactly do you want me to feel here? And the answer is that I don't know exactly.  I am one of those who writes to discover.  I am writing a memoir that chronicles Rob's death and the aftermath that comes with living, being a widow, and being a single parent of a high schooler.  Such change.

Crafting a memoir requires me to think about the through lines in the work. What do I need to tug and make more explicit at a structural level? Thematic level?  Figurative level? To help, I am blocking out chunks of time within the narrative and telling the stories that surface and then I will go back to refine the work by asking:

What truths emerge across the pages and across the months? How can I code this?
Are there motifs present in the work? If so, what?
What metaphors are at work? Are any extended?
What lessons seem more important, than merely interesting?
What remains ambivalent? Is that a strength?
What is repetitive and does the repetition advance or likely cause a reader to stumble, lose interest?
How does the mix of prose-poetry style work? Is it coherent? Is art work needed or not?
How does the writing look on the page?
Is the work brave?
Do I feel this? How raw is too raw?
Is there redemption?  Is that necessary?
What surprises me--catches me unaware?
Have I lost my way?

There's much to consider. For now though, I am seeing this sharing of work as courageous.  It's been a year of being courageous. Perhaps that is one of the through lines.

I'll let you know how it went.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Grammar and Vocabulary Resources for Middle School ELA Teachers

from here

In the last month, I have been asked by several middle school ELA teachers for professional text recommendations that they can read in order to strengthen their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar.  Below are books and articles that I have found most helpful.Curious what you think and what additions you might add.

Articles - Grammar

Anderson, Jeff. (2006). Zooming in and zooming out: Putting grammar in context into context. English Journal, 95(5), 28-34. 

Ehrenworth, Mary. (2003). Grammar--comma--a beginning. English Journal, (1), 90-96.

Fearn, Leif & Nancy Farnan. (2007). When is a verb? Using functional grammar to teach writing. Journal of Basic Writing, 26(1), 63-87.

Graham, S., Capizzi, A., Harris, K. R., Hebert, M., & Murphy, P. (2014). Teaching writing to middle school students- A national survey. Reading & Writing- An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, 1015–1042.

Nunan, Susan Losee. (2005). Forgiving Ourselves and Forging Ahead: Teaching Grammar in a New Millennium. English Journal, 94(4), 70-75.

Saddler, Bruce. (2006). Improving sentences via sentence combining instruction. The Language and Literacy Spectrum, 16, 27-32.

Smagorinsky,Peter,  Wilson, Amy Alexandra and Cynthia Moore. (2011). Teaching grammar and writing: A Beginning teacher's dilemma. English Education, 43(3), 262-292

Weaver, Constance, Carol McNally & Sharon Moerman. (2001). To grammar or not to grammar: That is NOT the question! Voices in the Middle, 8(2), 17-33

Books & Chapters

Crovitz, Darren & Michelle D. Devereaux. (2017). Grammar To Get Things Done: A Practical Guide for Teachers Anchored in Real-World Usage. Urbana IL: NCTE & NY: Routledge.

Noden, Harry. (2011). Image grammar: Teaching grammar as part of t e writing process, 2nd edPortsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pinker, Steven. (2014).  "Telling Right from Wrong: How to Make Sense of the Rules of Correct Grammar, Word Choice, and Punctuation." from The Sense of Style. New York: Penguin.

Sadler, Bruce & Kristie Asaro-Sadler. (2010). Writing better sentences: Sentence-Combining instruction in the classroomPreventing School Failure, 54(3), 159–163.

Strunk, William, Jr. (1999). The Elements of Style, 4th ed. Pearson. (free ebook)

Weaver,  Constance. (1996). Teaching grammar in context. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Weaver, Constance. (2008). Grammar to enrich & enhance writing. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Williams, James D. (2005). The Teacher's Grammar Book, 2nd Ed.  Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. (pdf of book)

Zinsser, William. (2016) On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. New York: Harpers. 

Vocabulary Articles

Baumann, James F. & Michael Graves. (2010). What is academic vocabulary? Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 54(1), 4-12.

Blachowicz, Camille L.Z., Fisher, Peter J.L., and Donna Ogle. (2006). Vocabulary: Questions from the classroomReading Research Quarterly, (41)4, 524-539.

Bromley, Karen. (2007). Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50(7), 528-537.

Fang, Zhihui. (2007). The language demands of science reading in middle school. International Journal of Science Education, 28(5). 491-520. 

Flanigan, Kevin & Scott Greenwood.(2007). Effective content vocabulary instruction in the middle: Matching students, purposes, words, and strategies.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 51(3), 226-238

Flanigan, Kevin, Templeton, Shane & Latisha Hayes. (2012). What's in a word? Using content vocabulary to generate growth in general academic vocabulary knowledgeJournal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 56(2), 132-140. 

Kieffer, Michael & Noinie K. Lesaux. (2007). Breaking Down Words to Build
Meaning: Morphology, Vocabulary, and Reading Comprehension in the Urban Classroom. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 61(2), 134-144. 

Lesaux, Nonie K., Kieffer, Michael J. & S. Elisabeth Faller. (2010). The Effectiveness and Ease of Implementation of an Academic Vocabulary Intervention for Linguistically Diverse Students in Urban Middle SchoolsReading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196–228.

Nagy, William & Dianna. Townsend. (2012). Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 91-108.

Snow, C., Lawrence, J.F., & White, C. (2009). Generating knowledge of academic language among urban middle school students. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 2(4), 325-344.

Swanson, Elizabeth, Jeanne Wanzek, Lisa McCulley, Stephanie Stillman-Spisak,
Sharon Vaughn, Deborah Simmons, Melissa Fogarty & Angela Hairrell. (2015). Literacy and Text Reading in Middle and High School Social Studies and English Language Arts Classrooms.  Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 1-24.

Vocabulary Books

Rasinski, Tim, Padak, Nancy, Newton, Rick M. and Evangeline Newton. (2008). Greek and Latin Roots: Keys to Building Vocabulary. Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Education

Robb, Laura. (2014).  Vocabulary is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Text Complexity. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Literacy.