My senior year of college, I lived in a grey house on the corner of Sherman and Gladstone in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It had a great big yard we used once for a graduation party, a kitchen with enough room to prepare ramen and brew coffee, plus sit around a wooden kitchen table, our books open for studying but it was talking my roommates and I would do instead.

Upstairs were three bedrooms, one of which was probably more of a nook, but my one roommate turned into the cutest bedroom with cement block bookshelves, cinnamon smelling candles, and DIY picture frames.

She had a window in her room that faced the street and a tree whose leaves turned the most brilliant yellow I can ever remember seeing. Almost every day in the fall of 1997, I would walk upstairs to my bedroom and think the lights were on in her room as I observed the literal glow beaming into our hallway. I’d peek my head in and she’d look up from a book she was reading and say, “It’s the tree!”

“Goodness,” I’d say because there was nothing else to say about leaves that could show off like that.

Just one fall I got to witness the glittery light those leaves sent through my friend’s window.  Soon, it was 1998 and we were in the burly, wear-all-the-layers Michigan cold. Mornings were dark, afternoons were murky and they turned into dark evenings, and all the leaves on our tree were gone, sunk into the ground.

My friend liked to play Sarah McLaughlin’s “Full of Grace” during this time of year: “The winter here’s cold, and bitter. It chills us to the bone. We haven’t seen the sun in weeks, too long, too far from home.” She’d play it over and over while she applied to med schools, filled her journal with her neat penmanship, scratch the wax of her candles towards their wicks so they’d continue to burn. I think the song named something for my friend so she could keep working. Even if the thing that was named was homesickness, the dreariness of winter, the mounds of work we all had to do.  Something about knowing someone else knew about these things soothed her.

Me, I ran away. I remember the day well. I was in a counselor’s office going over my Meyers-Briggs (that damn test). The counselor felt concerned about my pursuing a career in teaching given my “extreme introvert and planning” tendencies.

It was a Thursday afternoon when he tried to define who I was and who I might become. I thanked him, threw the test in the trash, got in the car and drove to South Bend to see Jesse. The entire ride I sang along to “Closer to Fine” by the Indigo Girls. “The less I seek my source for some definitive,” I bellowed as I crossed the St Joseph River, “closer I am to fine.”


I was thinking about that tree outside my friend’s window recently as I sat in the carpool line waiting for Hadley and Harper. Normally I get to school about ten minutes after school is over due to the time it takes for me to travel from my school and get to theirs. But on this day, I got out early and all I wanted to do was drink Starbucks, sit in the car, and read a book while I waited for the girls to come bustling out of school.

What I should’ve been doing is grading papers, answering emails, using those extra minutes to maybe prep dinner, clean the house, do something productive. But I wasn’t in a “Full of Grace” mood. I was in  “Closer to Fine” mood.  It happens every winter: I get sick of the work. I get sick of all the things to do. I get sick of all the have to dos.

Sometimes, even though I just treated myself to coffee, I want some ice-cream.

IMG_0794And after eating ice-cream I want to go to 5-Below.


And while I never want to go to the pet store next to 5 Below, sometimes Hadley and Harper do, so why not?





No searching for definitives right now. Just a little mindlessness, thank you very much. Even though I probably won’t see them, those leaves will shed their light again. I’ll look for that kind of light elsewhere. There’s a tree outside my window where I write. A cardinal visits it now, and in the fall it’s a pretty outstanding red. I think that’ll do.

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Snow Days

We’ve had a couple of snow days here and there. Last week, we had a day off from school plus a delay, and Saturday the snow started to fall around nine in the morning and didn’t stop all day.

Snow days are always a nice pause. I wondered if I’d think that when I went back to work, and I do. It’s a nice time to hang out. I love teaching. Everyday I’m in front of class I feel like saying, “Hey there, Ol’ Callie.  Nice to see  you again.” But last week, I was reminded that it’s quite fun having nothing to do but be with Hadley and Harper.

We did some art projects.



I played around, too.  A few years ago I wrote down a line from Mad Men that has haunted me ever since I heard it. One of the characters on the show got a short story published in The New Yorker (I think that was the magazine), and the last line of his story went like this: “Making everything ordinary too beautiful to bear.” What a great way to live, I thought. So I wrote it down and put it on a bulletin board above my desk, and I think that’s what I try to do when I write.

We did some sledding.



The girls set up “PE stations” in the living room.



I don’t want you to get the wrong impression. Staying at home also provides plenty of opportunities for epic fights.  Like once, the girls had an all out brawl over how one spells “poop.”  Harper insisted one spells it with an “e,” and wouldn’t listen to Hadley when she tried to explain that this would make the word, “pope,” giving whatever it is one was trying to say an entirely different meaning.

There was also a fight about this person.


It started like this: Hadley said, “I think this pilot is a woman because of the breast.” (Note the singularity. We’ve moved from Superbuns to breast which is an improvement, I guess. Note also that I do nothing to correct Hadley. I’m not good at the anatomy part of motherhood.)

So Harper comes over to observe the pilot with the breast and says, “Oh yeah, that’s a woman, alright.”

Hadley, who never ever turns down a chance to argue with her sister, sees an opportunity.  “Well, Harper, it could be a man.”

“What? How could that be a man? Look at the breast!”

“Well, what you are looking at could be a man with a really strong chest.”

And in less than five seconds Harper is screaming and crying, “NO HADLEY IT’S A WOMAN! WOMEN CAN BE PILOTS, TOO! I KNOW IT’S A WOMAN BECAUSE THERE’S A BREAST ON HER!”

Luckily, that was the day of the snow delay, and I got to shuffle them off to school before anyone threw punches.


I finished my little picture and sent it off to my friend, Jill. “I think the reason we write,” I told her in a note, “is because we are startled by the ordinary things in our lives.  I think we write about them in order to bear them.”

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Create365 – Soundtrack of Your Life

In January I wrote about my New Year’s Resolution, and so far I’ve been finding ways to pursue this endeavor. I also mentioned that sometimes I’d write about what it is I’m creating, and I’d like to share the Soundtrack of Your Life project that was the first project I assigned my students in 2015.


Basically, what they were to do was choose five songs that have some sort of impact on them and write about it. They also needed to create an album cover that ties each of these songs together symbolically. I wanted them to see if they could find a theme in what it is they wrote about.


Each song explanation, or “Liner Note” as I called them, was to be 150 words long, which ended up to be about fifteen paragraphs total. The students also had to analyze the lyrics to the song they were writing about.  I’m trying to teach them how to introduce and talk about quotations instead of simply throwing them into a paper.

The trick was that they couldn’t write, ‘This song is so awesome because…” Or, “I just really like this song…” etc., etc. Since we were studying Creative Nonfiction, I talked about writing a story around the facts. So we talked about creating scene and character. We discussed how to use dialogue. We practiced a lot of metaphor.

Of course the best thing I could do was to show them what I mean when I tell them to tell me a story. So I wrote along with them. I wrote a story about the time my high school played Top 40 music in the hallways during passing periods (a brilliant idea that sadly didn’t last too long). I shared this piece with them. I told them the story behind John Mayer’s song “Daughters” and how I took that as a lesson in patience when I write.

I am pleased with the risks my students took with their writing. Once the projects were all turned in, I read through them and picked out a sentence or two to highlight on the wall in the classroom.  I wrote their words out on pieces of construction paper and taped them up.


This kid’s writing didn’t bring tears to my eyes at all.


And this kid is going to be the next Walter Dean Myers.


A lot of students wrote about Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.”  Many tried to connect Christianity to the song, and I thought their effort to do so was valiant. However, I liked this student’s observation of the “bad side” of ourselves that’s difficult to sometimes control.

One student wrote about being in the car with his dad on a day when they realized that they both liked the song that was playing on the radio. Another student wrote how “We Gather Together” is partly responsible for his family’s faith in God. One wrote about being lost in the woods and another wrote about being on the beach with her family; both of them tied music to their memories.

I’ll probably make a bunch of revisions if I assign this project next year. But for now, I’m pleased with the writing the students produced.  Especially in January, when it’s cold and dreary and nobody really feels like doing much of anything.




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My Week In Words


Because the structure of this sentence startled me in church when I heard it and I had to write it down. I guess it’s a poetic example of “fully God, fully human.”


Because I’m reading L’Engle’s Glimpses of Grace in the mornings while my coffee brews (instead of checking my phone; a terribly boring and trite habit I’m desperately trying to break). The above is a nice sentence, isn’t it? It’s a darn challenging one for me, though. I don’t think I’m fully on board with the idea. This is why I don’t participate in small talk. Or go camping. I’m not fully qualified.


Because isn’t it enough that Boo saved Scout and Jem’s lives? Maybe we ought to just leave him alone and not get swept up in the hubbub that he might make another visit outside. I’m afraid it’d be like shooting a mockingbird if he steps outside again.

(I’m writing in metaphor. I, too, got swept up in the recent news regarding Ms Lee, but I worry the book was not intended to be published.)


Because for crying out loud, Romeo. Get a grip. (I am enjoying reading Shakespeare, though. He’s slowing me down. He’s making me think about every single word. He’s making me think about sycamore trees; why they have their name and why one is placed in the scene a few lines before Romeo says his first lines. Something slow is exactly what I’m looking for right now.)

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Coffee + Crumbs Post

I’m over at Coffee + Crumbs today writing a letter to Hadley and Harper.


Come say hi?


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Testing the Waters

On Saturday night I spoke at Washington Christian Academy’s Annual Banquet. It was a huge honor and thrill, and today I’m sharing what I wrote on the blog. What I wrote is long, but if you’ve been following along in this space for awhile, you know it takes me a country minute to say what I need to say.  

Have a donut and enjoy a little story.



I’d like to tell you a bunch of stories tonight because it’s what I do. My hope is you’ll find a bit of yourself in them, as I have found a part of myself in Washington Christian Academy’s story.

Ten years ago, I moved to DC with my husband Jesse after he’d accepted a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose building sits on the East-West Highway with a sculpture of Noah’s hand out front.

For a few weeks, I unpacked boxes, found places for their contents, then, as a reward, I’d hop on the Red Line and explore DuPont Circle, Adams Morgan, or make my way to my favorite place, Georgetown. This routine kept me content for a few weeks, but after awhile, I got restless. Our first apartment on Connecticut Avenue was, after all, only about 600 square feet. There are only so many places one can put a couch. It was time for me to find something to do with my days, and as much as I would’ve like to have made the argument that one can be “called” to shop the storefronts along M and Wisconsin, I didn’t think I’d convince Jesse that this was the best use of my time.

I’d been a teacher before we moved. I worked at Covenant Christian School in Mishawaka, Indiana, a one-hallway school where I taught a 5/6th grade class. I’d been a 7th grade Reading Teacher at Goshen Middle School, a public school where once a week for an hour before they saw them, teachers prayed for their students – petitioning God to give them what they needed: breakfast, sleep the night before, safety, peace.

I loved being a teacher: I loved talking to students about books, loved watching them hold a pen and drag or push it across the page, their faces close to the paper so they could catch every bit of the story they were trying to write.

But once we moved to DC, I thought maybe it was time for something different. Maybe I’d write. Maybe I’d become a mother. Maybe I’d work at Paper Source on M Street and take my breaks walking along the Potomac River.

I suppose I could’ve pursued all those things back then, but it was in the DC CRC on a sweltering August morning that I’d heard about Washington Christian Academy. I read in the bulletin that the school was looking for teachers.

Nah, not teaching, I thought as the pastor, Norm Steen gave his sermon. I don’t remember what part of scripture he was preaching on, but he told a story about a time he was on a plane headed to California when it hit turbulence. The woman next to him was extremely concerned and preparing for the worst when Pastor Steen said, “Listen. I believe in God and I understand he has a plan for me, and He has one for you, too. And I’m pretty sure this is not it.” He was referring to the plane’s potential crashing.

He laughed, as did the congregation and this was the first time I’d looked at this idea of God having plans for me with excitement and humor paired with comfort and reassurance. I’ve read Jeremiah 29:11 in high school for confidence: God knows if I’ll be the Captain of the Drill Team, if that boy will ask me to PROM, if my parents will let me and not my brother have the car on Saturday night. God knows what college I’ll get into. I had the verse taped to my desk underneath my loft on 2nd Noordewier at Calvin and I read it as a meditation or mantra rather, words to say repeatedly in the hopes I’d begin to believe I was where I was supposed to be. Being at Calvin was my first foray into Christian education unless you count Vacation Bible School, and it turns out that developing a Christian perspective with which to see the world is overwhelming, terrifying work. But sitting in the DC CRC was the first time I identified that wondering what I would do with my one wild and precious life is turbulent but also exhilarating.

A few days later, I was sitting outside of Jesse’s building waiting for him. I was leaning against the sculpture of Noah’s hand when I began to study the bird – another sculpture – in flight. I was startled when I noticed that the bird is flying away from Noah. This is not the dove who returns with an olive branch. This could be one of the ravens – the earlier explorers – that came back with nothing.

“Seems like it’s bad for business to have the bird flying away from Noah’s hand,” I said to Jesse as he came out of work.

“What?” he said.

“That bird,” I said, jabbing my thumb in Noah’s direction. “It’s forever searching. Don’t you think you guys – a group of PhDs who know just about everything there is to know about water – would want that sculpture so that it’s the dove coming back with the olive branch?”

“We don’t know,” Jesse said. “We’re taking what we do know and testing the water.”

So a change in barometric pressure, a shift in wind, a quake on the ocean floor, and the story changes.

That evening, Jesse and I ate dinner at Cactus Cantina. We sat outside and I could see the National Cathedral peeking out over the trees along Wisconsin. We munched on chips and salsa and sipped margaritas and I thought about what Jesse said about testing water. Sometimes, he and his co-workers are the dove pointing to safety and land and resolution. Sometimes, they are the ravens; lost and uncertain and probably afraid. But always, they are working for the Hand that’s just released them.

“I think I’m going to apply for that teaching position at Washington Christian Academy,” I told him that night. “I’ll give teaching another try.”

“Teaching sounds good,” he said.

And teaching did sound good. Truth be told, I was lonely, homesick for Chicago and I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but South Bend, Indiana, too. I was overwhelmed at the thought of what I would do and where I would fit in DC. Teaching was a nice pair of jeans – the kind that you’re equally comfortable and bold in. Teaching was a familiar story, and I needed something familiar.

But this is not to say the story I was stepping into would be easy. It was August, days, in fact, before the school year began. Normally, I prepared for classes and set up my classroom all summer long. This year, I would have to do that in a few days. I taught in three classrooms, all of them portables, all of them shared with other teachers. My desk was on the other side of the school in another portable. It’s not that these were awful conditions, but this setting added to my homesickness: I was far away from what I knew – my friends, my mom and dad, my brother. Jesse was no longer a student and was now beginning his career, and I wasn’t sure what that meant for me and for our marriage.

I remember standing at the copy machine scratching my head over how to use it and wondering what I’d gotten myself into when Jeannine Shannon walked into the workroom.

“You’re Callie?” she asked with a smile.

“I’m Jeannine. I’m new, too. Let me show you how to work this thing.” And with the expertise of a heart surgeon, taught me how to make back-to-back copies, three hole punch and staple them, plus pour myself a cup of coffee all with the push of a couple of buttons. (I’m just joking about the coffee part, though she did tell me where the nearest Starbucks was.)

I decided I’d like Jeannine for a friend. Not just for her gracious help, but for the smile she wears that looks as though she’s in on some great joke.

Back in the 6th grade classroom, I met Diane Bratt and somehow (I think it was by the grace of God), we started discussing Harry Potter. This led to an invitation from Diane to attend a talk given by Azar Nafisi about her book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi was speaking at the Folger Theater, and I sheepishly told Diane I only knew how to take the Red Line and had no clue how to make a transfer on the Metro.

With a friendly flick of her hand and a “pshaw,” Diane said, “It’s easy. I’ll show you.” And so it was that I hoped I’d made another friend – one who wasn’t afraid to read and talk about the difficult stories – one who searched the difficult stories out.

I met Rachel Steen, the Kindergarten teacher who introduced me to the free daily concerts at the Kennedy Center, and Brenda Ritsema, who told me about the $6 pizzas and Old Bay Seasoning on French fries at the Stain Glass Pub. Little by little these women helped me get acquainted with the surroundings of my new setting.

That year I lucked out and was blessed with the four best classes at Washington Christian Academy. These kids were bright and curious and so, so funny. So I threw everything I had at them: Katherine Paterson, Sharon Creech, Gary Schmidt, Elizabeth George Speare, and of course, Harper Lee.

I remember once, around Martin Luther King Day, I decided to have my students take turns reading his “I Have A Dream” speech in a round robin; each student takes a few lines. One student, a gal who was so shy the only time I heard her voice was through her writing, wouldn’t read when it was her turn. I worried this might happen, and while I didn’t want to push her, I wanted so badly for her to hear herself read, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of trials and tribulations.” Or, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be more plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” If she heard herself read, I thought, or rather hoped, maybe she’d find herself in the story.

The room was thick with silence, and I didn’t know how long I should wait. If any of you have sat in a room with silent thirteen and fourteen year olds, you know it’s about as comfortable as having a root canal. I was just about to say, “It’s OK,” and have someone else read when one of my more boisterous students leaned over and gave her a friendly nudge. “You got this,” she said and nodded at her.

It’s all she was waiting for. My shy, sweet student looked back at her bold friend, nodded, then bowed her head and read Martin Luther King’s words about having a dream.

It was painful and joyful and all of us followed along.

I thought of communion Sundays when I’m supposed to walk up to the front of church and take the bread but I’m afraid and ashamed for all that I did and didn’t do – all that I will and won’t do and the Pastor offers me the bread, and looks me in the eye and says, “Jesus was broken for you, Callie.”

You got this. You’re part of the story.

Ten years later, I sat in my car in the WCA parking lot on Batchellor’s Forest on a rainy spring day, a few minutes before I was to interview for a teaching position. I was on the phone with Jesse telling him I didn’t think I could do it. That is, I didn’t think I could go through with the interview and teach. I was overwhelmed, nervous I no longer had what it takes to be a teacher, afraid I’d been away too long, thinking this was no longer a place I fit in.

Looking at the building that seemed to me like Hogwarts, I told Jesse, “I think I’d need to know too much to teach here. I have to be sure of something,” I told him, “and I’m not sure of a lot.”

Since I’m telling the truth tonight, I’ll tell you I didn’t think I’d ever go back to teaching. Once we had kids I thought I’d be at home. I imagined myself as the room-mom, the gal who made the party favors and snacks and had kids running all over her home all the time. Once I had kids I wasn’t expecting teaching to pull at my heart, and when it did, I felt awfully guilty. Sitting in the parking lot, I wasn’t sure how I’d be a mother and be a teacher. Mothering, teaching, writing, they all take everything I have and I’m usually pretty winded after spending time in these roles. Would one of them suffer? Was too much at stake?

I think now about those ravens Noah released into the world. I suppose he wasn’t terribly attached to them. After all, two (and now, probably more) of every single animal was on that boat. Perhaps he was happy to have a chance to do a bit of spring cleaning as he flung them outside.

But I wonder if he felt a bit of trepidation releasing those birds and watching them spread their wings and fly. Certainly there had to be a bit of separation anxiety. After all, he kept them safe. They kept each other company as the world drowned. I wonder if he worried that they would come back empty beaked, or whether they would come back at all.

But what else could he do? The birds had what it took to get the job done. It’s what they were created for. Noah had to release them into the unknown, that’s the only way he could learn something.

So it would be that I would swoop into teaching excited and uncertain.

One afternoon, a few days before the school year started, I was sitting in that great little café area on the third floor, my lunch and To Kill a Mockingbird spread out on the table, when Karen Lees came in to use the microwave.

“You won’t be able to sit here when the kids come back,” she told me.

“I know,” I said. “I couldn’t resist sitting next to this view.” I nodded my head towards the wall of windows whose view boasts the soccer field and a fence of trees beyond that.

“It’s great, isn’t it?” she asked as she pulled her lunch out of the microwave. It was hot so she put it on the counter and pivoted towards me to talk more while her dish cooled. Karen’s son Todd was a student of mine, an 8th grader ten years ago. I remembered, as we talked, that he wrote about whittling wood into shapes and figures. He’d written that he was never quite sure what they’d end up as, and the uncertainty caused him a bit of anxiety, but he enjoyed the whittling; so he was content to work and wait and watch.

Karen asked me about my girls, then. “They’re good,” I told her and looked down at the table where To Kill a Mockingbird was open. I was reading about Maycomb and thinking about what I would do to help the students understand Scout, Jem, and Atticus’ surroundings. “It feels weird to be away from them,” I added. “I wonder what they’re doing.” I shifted slightly and the chair made a squawk. I looked out the window at the trees.

Karen’s dish was cool enough to handle so she picked it up, but instead of turning towards her office, she walked to me. “You’ll still learn about your girls,” she told me, then nudged me in the side and smiled, and I thought of the boisterous student encouraging the shy one ten years ago: You got this.

“You’ll be surprised what you’ll learn now,” Karen added.

Months later, after we’d finished To Kill a Mockingbird, I walked into school with bags of play-doh for each of my students. We were beginning to study and write Creative Nonfiction, and I brought it in as sort of a response to, “I can’t write anything because nothing in my life is worth writing about.” The play-doh would serve as a metaphor: How can you shape something that seems shapeless? How can you use what you’ve been given to create a story?

But first they needed to play. I told them they had to make ten things, and they dove in. At first they chattered and laughed as they messed around with the play-doh. Early on, they tried to make ten things as fast as they could: a snake, the letter I, the number 1, a stick. But the longer they worked, the quieter the conversation got and the bigger risks they began to take. One made a tsunami. Seeing his classmate’s creation, the student next to him attempted a fishing pole going into the open mouth of a fish. One made a bowling ball, pins, and an alley. Another made a bird’s nest with baby birds; their mouths open waiting for their mother. All this from about two tablespoons of playdoh.

In a journal entry, they were to respond to two questions:

1. How is working with a lump of playdoh like writing Creative Nonfiction? And 2. If you are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, then you are a creator, too. How can you apply this to your writing?

A few answers:

You can turn what you thought was a mess into something amazing.

We get to mold things that are rather plain and grim into something beautiful.

We have to be confident and take risks just like God does with us.

We are called to create, so we can write about the great life God has given us. We can share our thankfulness (our finished stories) with others, too.  It would be a shame to keep it all to ourselves.


At the church I attend, the pastor calls all the kids to the front when a baby gets baptized. They gather around the water while he helps them remember what this business of God loving them immeasurably and completely is all about: “I say this every time because it doesn’t change,” he tells them.

Most of the children standing there had been baptized in this church. They came to the water differently: some were quiet, some squirmed, some cried. But they each received the water, and the promise that this is a place where people will help them grow, where they will be nourished, where they can be confused and scared and not always understand the story they are living, but that they are in a place where they can live it and those around them will do our best to help them see God.

I wonder about staying in a story and looking around even when it might not be the story we thought we’d live. Certainly, there have been a lot of changes at Washington Christian Academy, and I’m sure there are more to come. But I think that what WCA has always provided and will probably always continue to provide is the idea that God calls us to study a story that is equally joyful and painful. The work we do to stay with that story will be both turbulent and exhilarating. But most of all, WCA is the ark we stand on as we take our first steps into the world; knowing we’ve been wonderfully and fearfully made by the Hand who releases us to fling what we have into the world, forever searching, forever testing the waters.

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How to Bake Bread

To make a loaf of beer herb bread, you need to start with two packages of yeast. You sprinkle that over lukewarm water and stir to dissolve. After that, you fold in heated beer, sugar, salt, and melted butter. There’s no proofing the yeast in this recipe, and I like that. I hate proofing yeast because I don’t understand how it works. I think you’re supposed to see a bubble in the water after a while, but I don’t have the patience.

This recipe comes from Bread Book by Susan Wright and Irena Chambers. It was published in 1972 and looks like a recipe book that a bunch of church ladies put together at a Bible study cookie exchange. Except in this case it would’ve been a bread exchange. The cookbook belonged to my grandma, Clara Glunesserian Ayanoglou. When she died, I took this, along with a Sherlock Holmes book of my grandpa’s, and a locket with a picture of the two of them inside.

I have no idea why she had the cookbook, because my grandma never used them. Her recipes were created while she sang hymns and banged pots and pans, kneaded dough, and stomped around in the kitchen in her bare feet. My grandma never wore shoes and she never used cookbooks.

She also never shared recipes; none of the Ayanoglou women did. It could have been out of pride. Ayanoglou girls are stubborn and bull-headed. They love when people sneak into the kitchen to take a peek, a sniff, or steal a taste of what’s cooking, but they’ll act annoyed that you’re in there. And if you ask if you can help, they’ll slap your hand, tsk, or shoo you away. “Go play,” or “Pour some wine,” or “Fix my shower head. It’s broken.” And when you’re gone, they’ll put a hand on a hip and smile that pursed lip smile knowing they’re making a thing no one else can make, and everyone wants. Ayanoglou girls don’t need any help because no one else can do what they can do. I know because I’m one of them. I also know that if you’re an Ayanoglou girl, you need a recipe only you can make.

I’m over at Makes You Mom today where you can read the rest of this essay.  Pour yourself some coffee or tea, and come on over.


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10 Ways to Love Your Mama

Over at Tweetspeak Poetry, there’s a conversation going on about how to tell our moms we love them on Valentine’s Day.  What to give, what to tell them, etc.  “We are partial to the ways of words,” they say. So with that, I decided to have my way with words and give you some advice on what to give your mama for Valentine’s Day.


1. Tell her that in the middle of the night, sometime in the summer when you were a little girl, you woke up and walked to check in on her because she’d broken her foot in a softball game. It’s a gruesome tale and all you can do is imagine what happened because you were too young to watch the game. Tell her you saw the crutches leaning on the wall and that you probably should’ve felt sorry for her but in that moment you thought she was the coolest, most bold woman that ever lived.

2. Tell her that she bought you magic lipstick at the Clinique counter at the bottom of Water Tower in the summer of 1998, a few weeks before you started student-teaching. “It looks good on everyone,” the lady at the counter said, handing you a tube of Black Honey. “Yeah right,” you thought. You were more of a Bodyshop Kiwi Lipgloss gal, but secrectly, you really wanted that deep red color to look good on you.

Tell her it did, but you only realized it when you were walking along Michigan Avenue all by yourself holding a cup of coffee, wearing your first pair of high heels and you took a sip of coffee and the color came off on the lid and it made you so happy to be walking in the city with everyone else towards whatever it was they were all doing with their wild and precious lives.

3. Tell her thanks for making you a salad and pouring you a glass of wine and watching “Friends” with you every night that you were student teaching. Tell her it took your mind off of how hard teaching middle school was. Tell her watching Joey and Chandler, and wondering whether Ross would get back together with Rachel, and if you’d ever get your hair to look like Jennifer Aniston’s made you feel better.

4. Tell her that you love going shopping with her not just because you love shopping but because she picks out things for you to try that you would never in a million years consider.  She says, “C’mon! For Pete’s sake, take a risk!” as she hands you a pair of red cowboy boots or a pair of army green sailor pants. Tell her you know it sounds silly but going shopping with her makes you think you can be more than what you are. Like maybe you’ll be the slugger who breaks her foot sliding into first base and not the one in the dugout who gets her tooth knocked out sitting on the bench. (Also tell her thanks for buying you an electric blue dress for Prom and a wedding dress with so much tulle that you probably looked like you’d robbed a tulle factory. Those were both your decisions and she probably had other ideas, so tell her thanks for buying them anyway.)

5. Tell her that being on Drill Team was one of your favorite things in the whole world. Tell  her that when you were young, and a song with a good beat came on, you used to try and sit as still as you could and fight that feeling to dance. Tell her you could never do it so you would dance in your room, or in the basement and make your brother dance to the routines you made up (he never got the lift part right when you were re-creating the scene from “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” but he did have a mean backspin when the two of you pretended you were cast members of “Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo”). Tell her you knew what people said about Drill Teamers. You’d known it since you were in grade school. But the risk of what you might become was worth being a part of the precision and the stomping and the flying splits and reaching your hands in the air and feeling so strong and confident and wanting to scream, “I found something I’m good at!” Tell her thanks for letting you try out for Drill Team even though you think she might’ve been a little nervous about the endeavor.

6. Tell her that you loved going to the library next door to your house but that sometimes there was a mean librarian who told you and your little brother to stop fooling around. You don’t think the two of you were fooling around but maybe you were. Anyway, you felt bad and went home and when she asked you what happened you told her what the librarian said. “Who said that?” she asked. “Was it Big Buns?” You and Geoff almost fell to the floor with laughter because she did have a curiously large rear, but neither of you had said it to the other. “You could serve coffee on that thing,” your mom said, one hand on her hip and the other stirring something delicious on the stove. “Never mind her,” she said, dipping a piece of bread in whatever sauce she was making and handing it us. To this day you don’t know what that librarian’s real name is.



1. Give her a copy of Caps For Sale by  Esphyr Slobodkina and the DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird. Caps of Sale because you loved it when she read the story and shook her pointer finger like the man in the book did at the monkeys in the tree.  And a DVD of To Kill a Mockingbird because she showed you the movie first. It hurts your feelings when people let you know that watching the movie first was a stupid thing; that only stupid people watch the movies of books first. But you know that you’d never have read the book if you hadn’t fallen in love with the image of the story first. Maybe she knew that, too.  Tell her you’re sorry you hated to read when you were little. Tell her you like to read now. Tell her that this year two of your students told you that To Kill a Mockingbird was too hard and they were having trouble keeping up with the reading. “Watch the movie first,” you told them.  “Are you sure?” they asked.  “Absolutely. Watch the movie.” It’s an act of faith, really. Maybe of witnessing. You’ll do anything you can to show them the story, hoping that whatever glimpse of it they see latches onto their soul and grows so that they’ll have to return to it time and time again.

2. Give her a CD of Motown Hits. Make sure it has Smoky Robinson’s “Shop Around,” the Temptations “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and “My Girl,”  and the Diamonds, “Stroll”. Tell her thanks for teaching you how to Stroll. Tell her you remember doing the dance at one of her birthday parties, people bee-bopping in a line and you and she strolling down the center. Tell her you wrote about it in graduate school and it went like this:

My mom and I went next. She and I danced towards each other and then she put up a hand to tell me she would go first. I brushed my hand towards the center to say, “Go right ahead.” She took four steps, spun around and stopped. She pointed to me and I copied her, adding my own flourishes. This is how we danced down the center: her leading, me following. Each time the dance got more complicated, by what I added. But she kept up and made each combination her own. We weren’t competing; we were taking what the other offered and molding it to ourselves. It was the perfect kind of dance.

3. Give her sunflowers seeds because she let you grow them in the backyard and one got so big you had to get on a ladder to reach its pedals. Tell her you remember the day you walked into the kitchen and she pointed to the backyard where that tall sunflower was lying on the ground. A squirrel had gotten to it. It’d bitten the stem so the flower would fall and he could eat its seeds. Tell her you remember that she explained all this to you as she stood by you. You were sad about the flower but it is this memory you think of as an example of how one tells the truth. Lovingly, honestly, and with a bit of wonder. “That damn squirrel was clever,” she said rubbing your tummy and pouring you some orange juice.

4. Give her a set of The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series. Because the two of you read the dust cover in the YA section of the Hammes Bookstore at Notre Dame and laughed so hard at the rules of the jeans and she said, “Oh, we have to get this.” And you decided, after she treated you to a mocha in the coffee shop, after the book was purchased, after the two of you walked past the sculpture outside of the bookstore of Mary and Elizabeth hugging for the babies growing inside them, that maybe South Bend wasn’t so bad.

If you wanted, you could show her a few pictures of her grandkids:


IMG_0735 IMG_0734

And maybe one of you:


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My Week in Words


Because since when should I obey fear? Maybe when yellow jackets are involved. Or sharks. But other than that, “Fear? You be quiet.”


Because isn’t that what we’re all trying to do after adolescence? Figure out what has happened to us? I’m not convinced the tragedy is unrequited love or two families who are unable to get along. I think the tragedy in this story is that Shakespeare knew these two did not have what it takes to figure out what happened to them and move on to adulthood. Goodness, I have so much to say about this and I don’t know if I can teach the story properly to my 8th graders.  But I tell you what: if you want me to get psyched up about something, make me teach it. Which is why I should probably teach a class in how to scrub a toilet bowl or handle raw meat.


Because I’m still reading her journal (a few entries before bed) and because I wonder if walking day to day with wildness and a sense of brutality is what you do when you’re figuring out what it is that has happened to you.


Because The Common Reader changed the way I think and write about books. I love this book of Woolf’s so much and reading this entry made me sad. If she were still alive, I’d write her a note (I write authors all the time – John Krakauer wrote me back, Joyce Carol Oates did not) telling her the difference her book made in my life. For now, I thank Lauren Winner, who told me to read it. She also told me to read Woolf’s journal slowly, which is what I’m doing because I’ll do anything Lauren Winner tells me to do.

(Also – for those of you who want to write but worry that nobody will comment on your blog, or like your essay, or even read your stories – look at Ms Woolf. She was concerned about the same things. And she KEPT WRITING ANYWAY. Pencils up, folks.)

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A Lump of Playdoh – How to Make Metaphors

My students walked into the classroom to see a ball of playdoh wrapped in wax paper sitting on their desks.


The directions were pretty simple: See how many different objects you can make with the amount of dough you have. No trading or combining, you can only use what you have. I gave them a few ideas to get them started, and then for about twenty minutes they played.


At first, they stuck with the basics. One kid made the letter I, the number 1, and a J. The more they worked though, the more creative they got.  I also noticed they would say things like, “If I can make this, I wonder if I can try this…”  This is exactly what I hoped would happen.



Of course I turned the activity into a writing assignment. This is English class, after all.  They packed up their playdoh (after I assured them they could keep it – sorry parents), and turned their worksheets over for a little reflection.  I had them answer two questions:

1. How is working with a lump of playdoh like writing Creative Nonfiction?

A few answers:

You can turn what you thought was a mess into something amazing.

Both allow me to bring them “to life.” Also, both help me to explore and discover new angles and perspectives.

Because a blob of playdoh is the truth and you can twist the truth into something new. (Clearly this kid is going to be a CNF expert someday.)

We get to mold things that are rather plain and grim into something beautiful.

2. If you are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, then you are a creator, too. How can you apply this to your writing?

To be a creator you have to give life to something. In order to successfully become a creative writer you have to give life or love to a topic or idea.

We have one good idea for a story but sometimes it doesn’t turn out how we want. However, we have to be confident and take risks just like God does with us. A boring story is going to remain boring until you pick it up and mold it into something interesting and of good quality.

We can look at the stuff he has done and the moments he has created in our lives and write about them.

We are called to create, so we can write about the great life God has given us. We can share our thankfulness (our finished stories) with others, too.  It would be a shame to keep it all to ourselves.

We must write about what we don’t want to write as God has to work with some things (sin) he doesn’t want to work with.

A few days ago, while the class was working on CNF rough drafts, one of my students was concerned that what she was writing was too sad. I reminded her of the playdoh and told her to see what she can create from what she’d be given. About a half an hour later she called me over and tapped on her notebook paper excitedly, telling me to read what she’d just wrote.  It was a bit of dialogue between two people in her story and it was funny. “I totally forgot about that part,” she said.  “It’s funny, isn’t it? I forgot that something funny happened.”

Another kid, who felt miserable because his story didn’t have a bit of conflict in it, almost fell out of his chair in glee when he discovered a piece of tension in his story. He never reads from his writing, but on this day, he proudly read what he’d found out.

Twisting the truth into something new.  That’s what I think is going on in my classroom right now. Their stories are still true.  I think the students are learning how to make them shine a bit more.





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