Good Year


It’s been a good year. We’ve tried ballet, and soccer. We got to the city for pizza and burgers and museums and triathlons. We got to climb on a ship at the mouth of the Mississippi. We got to stand behind a podium and tell a story. I adore the family I’m in.

This week, I’m website hopping. It’s similar to bar-hopping but perhaps not as fun, but stories happen in both situations.  Grab your favorite beverage and click away:

I’m at Coffee + Crumbs apologizing to a young mother.

I made Welcome to the Bundle’s “Best of 2014″ List with my “All the Pretty Highlights” essay.

I’m a guest blogger on Courtney Bowden’s blog series, “Show Your Real.”

I’m at Relief talking about To Kill a Mockingbird. Here is part one, part two, and part three will run tomorrow.

Merry Christmas to you!

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Play In The Snow And Watch For Friends

Harper wrote a story.


It’s about a friend who recently moved away.




p. 5 – “When she left I gave her a wintery hug. p. 6 – “And she left. Waaaaa!”


Yes, wouldn’t a snow party be grand?


This last page slays me. “Well if you don’t have your friend then you can be mine or make new friends until you won’t want one anymore. Just play in the snow and watch for friends.”

I wonder what happened in between the time Harper wrote pages 5 and 6, then 7 and 8, and finally the conclusion. Did she get sad? And if so, did she have a doubt that she couldn’t end her story? Because a lot of times, when I write a story I think I’m writing and it takes a turn, I get pretty flustered. I want to get up from my chair and fold laundry, roast a chicken, or teach myself how to knit. I want to do anything but attend to the story that took a turn away from my plan.

If she got uncomfortable, I never knew. I ran up and down those stairs bringing up toys, and laundry, or whatever else I thought I needed to do while she sat there and wrote. “I’m writing a story with page numbers,” is all she told me.

One of the greatest compliments Lauren Winner ever paid me on my writing was to say, “I wish I had written that,” in the margins of my essays I gave her.

“Just play in the snow and watch for friends.”

I love that last line. I wish I had written it.

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My Week In Words


Because sometimes it’s more important to create a secret sister handshake then making sure the toothpaste gets ON the toothbrush, and the toothbrush goes IN the mouth. There might’ve been some toothpaste flecks on cheeks and perhaps t-shirts that morning. We might’ve been late for school. But a secret sister handshake was made between these two.  I don’t worry about whether they’ll perfect the art of brushing their teeth, but I do worry  they’ll forget this moment, so I wrote it down for them.


Because this book came in the mail from my sisters-in-law (sister-in-laws? sisters-in-laws?) and not only does making sourdough bread have a lot in common with writing, but I think I might’ve found a New Year’s Resolution.


Because I think this might be another New Year’s Resolution. Maybe see something beautiful and write about it? Hmmmm…

IMG_0606Because I love YA.


Because this fell out of a book I was holding while I was teaching, and I showed it to my students, and they all went, “AWWWWWW,” and I gripped her note while I taught the rest of the afternoon.

For an explanation of “My Week In Words,” see this post.

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Christmas Gift For My Students

I wanted to get the kiddos a little something for Christmas.


I wrote them a little note sealed with some Smarties because, you know.

IMG_0590I wrapped some small presents, and they can take one on their way out of class at the end of the week. They’re really nothing special. The presents, that is, not the students. The students ARE really something special. I lucked out this year, but I think I say that every year I teach.


I wrote them all the same letter, but stuck a post-it note on it with a couple of book recommendations for each student.  I told each of them that if I could buy them a book for Christmas, I’d buy them ____________ (insert a book title I think they’d like based on what I’ve observed and what I know about each of them.)

IMG_0588 I also made them a planner page for their Christmas break.  I know, that sounds terribly lame, doesn’t it? Here’s the letter I attached with it, though. Maybe it’s not as dorky as it seems?

Dear Eighth Graders, 

When I was your age, my dad brought home a planner for me from his work. It had a brown cover with white monthly planner pages, and “Northwestern University 1989-1990” was on the front in gold letters. It could be that he meant for me to keep track of my school assignments on it, but I wrote down the outfits I planned on wearing that week.

  It was over Christmas break though, that I began to fill the boxes with details about my day: 12/21-went sledding with Celena, Chris, and Brian. 12/22-orthodontist appointment, then to Celena’s, dipped candy canes in Cool Whip. Celena’s mom got mad. 12/23-red cords, red and white GUESS sweatshirt, hair curly. Went to the mall. Bought Gummy Bears at Candy Junction, and hair clips at Clare’s. Other days, I’d write the Top 5 songs on B96, which was the Top 40 station. Sort of like 99.5.

 I remember my 8th grade Christmas break well, even though it happened more than 20 years ago. And while what I shared with you in the last paragraph doesn’t seem all that exciting, jotting down those little snippets helped me love my life. It helped me wonder about it. Back then, we called it junior high instead of middle school, and I think educators decided that if we changed the name, then the awkward, confusing, hilarious, wonderful things that go on when you’re thirteen and fourteen would no longer happen. I’m not sure that’s true, but what I do think is that there is always something else growing in all that confusion, and that, if you attend to it, what seems dark will eventually shimmer.

One of your classmates recently wrote in an essay “nothing beautiful has no scars,” and he is right: what’s beautiful holds a tremendous amount of pain and failure. I believe that’s the only kind of beauty that can change us. And I think the seeds of this kind of beauty are planted in what seems like mundane details of our lives: candy canes in cool whip after an orthodontist appointment, wearing a favorite outfit to get gummy bears and hair accessories with your best friend, etc. etc.

So for Christmas, I’m giving you some planner pages. Write down what outfits you wore, how many people you texted, what hashtag you followed. Write down songs you listened to, which Christmas cookie was your favorite. Write down how the church smelled while you held the candles and sang, “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve.

 This isn’t an assignment. I won’t collect it in January. It’s a gift. A tool. It’s a lens with which to examine and wonder about your life. One of you said after reading “Dodging Skittles” that nothing like that has ever happened to you. When I was thirteen, I probably would’ve said the same thing. Except my dad gave me a planner and I used it as a collection jar to store events that would turn into memories. It would take years and years of looking at them again and again until I could turn them into stories. The work is grueling and sad, and very satisfying, and I don’t expect you to be able to do it in my class. But I hope when you return in 2015 you will be ready to practice this sort of work.

            In the meantime, the Merriest of Christmases to you. I love being your teacher.

 I hope they like it.

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Around Here – A Classroom Version


Around here I have a piece of butcher paper on the classroom wall titled “Fridge Papers.”  These are papers I’d put on my refrigerator if at home to show off to my friends and family if I could. My students just finished working on Research Portfolios, and these are snippets of their projects.  One student studied photography and used what he learned to take a picture of his own. Another did the history of fashion and created a visual that represents the evolution of a woman’s dress.  Still another took a look at different ethnicities in baseball.  All of them were quite impressive, but maybe I’m biased.


Around here we’re doing Book Club, one of my favorite ways to talk about a story.  Each student gets a job (Discussion Director, Passage Picker, Illustrator, or Quiz Maker), reads the assigned story, completes the job, and then gets together with his or her group to discuss.  Right now we are reading When I Was Your Age, a collection of Creative Nonfiction essays by children’s authors like Katherine Paterson, Avi, and Mary Pope Osborne.



Around here we’re studying Creative Nonfiction, and if there is nothing else I want my students to see when they leave my classroom is everything they have to write about is all right here in front of them.  CNF is all about taking note. It’s all about attending to what is there. Goodness, their lives are so rich with confusion and wonder right now, what else can you do but write? Anyway, I put up a paper mailbox for everyone (including, ehem, me) and when quiet work time rolls around, writing notes to someone is always an option.

IMG_0586Around here I have a bulletin board with my favorite lines of Emily Dickinson’s on it. I’ve scattered a few of the students’ words around hers. I’d like to have an entire collage of words by the time the year is up; all of them pulsing with new life, ready to begin their story.

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My Week In Words


Because I’m no good at spiritual disciplines either and I usually feel guilty about it, but if I could pursue God through writing, then I think that would be just fine.


Because I think this little sentence is the way I see the world.


Because in an earlier post this week, I gave some Advent reading suggestions, but Alissa’s meditations are the best. They will leave you hungry, both metaphorically and literally (Jesse, we have to make that Bloody Mary!)


Because I think I related to every word of this essay and I feel horrible about it. So on Thursday, when it was just Hadley and I in the house for an hour, and there were chores to do, and papers to grade, and an essay to put a final touch on, she suggested we play Dots and Boxes by the fireplace, and we did. And we giggled for a long, long time. Our house is a mess but I can’t remember the last time I laughed with Hadley like that.

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What To Read In December







I’ve divided the books up into “somewhat religious” and “not so religious,” and I’m just sick to my stomach about it.  It’s not fair to tell a reader will she will see God in a story. But I’m a sucker for a nice category, so there it is.

Here are my thoughts on these books: do yourself a favor and purchase The First Night, Good King Wenceslas, and The Children of Christmas.  Cynthia Rylant’s collection of short stories will bring you to your knees.  They are some of the saddest stories I’ve ever read.  Rylant is to sorrow what O’Connor is to violence.  Their’s is a grace that haunts.

The First Night, by B.G. Hennessey (the paintings inside are a collaboration of Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher) tells the story of the first few hours after Jesus was born. I’d say it captures that quaking feeling the shepherds had, though I can’t say for sure because I wasn’t there.

Good King Wenceslas by John M. Neale and Tim Ladwig tells the story of the carol.  I think I’m a visual learner because I found that the pictures heighten the drama of the words.  After reading the book, I’m not sure the song ought to have as catchy a melody as it does, but nobody consults me on these sorts of things.

If you like The Snowy Day, then you’ll love The Snow Day by Komako Sakai.  I love any children’s story that’s set in a city with kids in a condo or apartment. Especially when those books show the wonder the world has to offer. I’m glad Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.  I really am.  But I think someone needs to write Pilgrim at Lower Wacker or Pilgrim at Capitol Hill. That’s all I say.

If you’re looking for a great Advent book, I suggest God With Us which is the best around and I have no idea where it is in my house.  I’m afraid that in admitting that someone will take my Seattle Pacific University degree away, but I can’t find it anywhere. Maybe Hadley’s reading it.

Watch for the Light is another lovely collection of essays and meditations on Advent, and The Christmas Plains is a novel that is perfect for the season. Joseph Bottum recalls several Christmases past in South Dakota. My favorite part is the story of Charles Dickens the night he finished one of his stories. I believe it was A Christmas Carol. Anyway, Dickens was a bit of a party animal and was friends with a gal who was a hard working introvert but he convinced her to dance the night away and she was a better person for it. We introverts usually are.

My only caveat about Bottum’s book is that he lived in Adams Morgan for several years in what sounds like a dream row house and didn’t seem to like it all that much. I just can’t think of anything better than living in a row house.

Happy Reading!

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Right Now


{enjoying} the smell of our Christmas tree and looking at all our ornaments.  This year we went to Butler’s to cut ours down and the girls loved wandering around in the forest.

{reading} A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art. This is my third time reading it and I think Luci Shaw’s essay “A Writer’s Notebook,” is still my favorite.

{watching} Gilmore Girls. I’m incredibly wrapped up in the Jess/Rory saga this time around. I’m not saying I want my girls to find a guy who’s as belligerent as he is, but somebody who loves books and knows which record stores to go to in NYC? Someone who stands outside a restaurant and says, “This isn’t you!” when they choose to drop out of Yale and are going out with a slime bucket guy? That’d be fine with me.

Jesse and I also finished up Mad Men which I think is one of the best shows on television.

{listening to} John Coltrane Holiday and Sufjan Stevens Christmas on Pandora.

{looking forward to} seeing the Chicago skyline soon.

{around the internet} I’m in a collaborative post on Coffee + Crumbs. (This month on C+C, I’ll be apologizing to a young mother for doing something I said I’d never do. Look for that essay coming soon.) I wrote two stories for The Banner this month. You can find them here and here. And this month, I’m joining the crew at Relief Journal. I’m putting the finishing touches on my essay about Bob Ewell (Bob Ewell? Seriously?) right now.

{Seven Years Ago}: A Visit from Uncle Geoff. I could be wrong, but it seems that Hadley and her cousin Mabel have a lot of similarities.

{Six Years Ago}: What Did She Do? Hadley is getting used to her new sister.

{Five Years Ago}: Spoiled. Somehow, the pink duck that Harper took a bath in found its way to our couch and our then three year old was in it.  Not sure how that happened.

{Four Years Ago}: Morning of Crafts and Cookies. Goodness.  These two girls of mine are the cutest.

{Three Years Ago}: How to be a Kid.

{Two Years Ago}: Questions in Church. I’m sad that the pastor whose sermon this post is about has moved back to Michigan.  Washington DC, you slay those of us who want to live and work and make a difference in your beautiful city.

{One Year Ago}: Watch Out for My Butt: Thoughts on Olaf the Snowman. Of all the posts on my blog, this one is the most read. Thank you to my friends Matt and Jill who encouraged me to write it in the first place.


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My Week In Words


Because she’s quite concerned that some people don’t get birthdays on a yearly basis. And because it wouldn’t surprise me if, when she grows up she: a) knows the President, b) IS the President, and c) makes Leap Year “void.”

IMG_0474Because this child is my poet.


Because this is what the girls and I sang on the ride to school one crisp morning this week.

IMG_0476Because when I turned the radio on after dropping the girls off that morning, this is the song that was on.

For an explanation of “My Week In Words,” see this post.

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A Few Thanksgivings

This is a post for Project Reverb14, a nice website that sends out monthly prompts. You know I love a prompt, so I enthusiastically signed up. This month’s prompt had us thinking about Thanksgiving food we love, and the meals that were particularly memorable. Here’s what I came up with:

We’re making a sweet potato dish from Smitten Kitchen for Thanksgiving. I’ll never get the  potatoes sliced as thin as I’m supposed to. They’ll start out thin, but I’ll get annoyed with the tedium and lose my patience. I’ll say, “For crying out loud, it’ll taste the same if they’re bigger,” and smugly slam the sweet potatoes, that will be in quarters by then, in the oven.

We’ll do stuffing and pumpkin pie, and we’ll roast brussel sprouts after tossing them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. We’re having pork tenderloin, though. We thought about having a turkey but this year it’s just the four of us, and neither Jesse or I like turkey that much. On Saturday, we stood in front of the turkeys at Trader Joe’s while Hadley and Harper ran to the baskets of fruit strips, picking them out for their lunches.

“Let’s get filet,” I said, “I love filet.” But I regretted saying it because the only other time we didn’t have turkey in our almost sixteen Thanksgivings was the year I had a miscarriage. We had filet that year, our second Thanksgiving in DC. I remember feeling hollow and afraid, and on a drive around the city that weekend I saw a brick wall painted with Joshua 1:9 on it. “Don’t be afraid. I’m with you wherever you go,” it said, or something like that, and I laughed because that kind of stuff never happens to me, and I can’t stand when I hear other people talking about it because it seems too easy.

We’re going to make a cranberry relish with the meal, too. You simmer whole cranberries with cinnamon, dry white wine, juice from oranges, and rosemary until the berries pop. I found the recipe in a magazine a few days ago and showed Jesse because several Thanksgivings ago he’d made something that sounds exactly like this. We devoured it but lost the recipe and have been remorseful every Thanksgiving since.

“What year did you make those cranberries?” I asked Jesse when we were standing in the kitchen. I slid the magazine towards him and tapped my finger on the page where the recipe was. He looked it over and nodded, so I began to write the ingredients down on a grocery list we have on our fridge.

“I think that was our last year in South Bend,” he said, as he flipped pumpkin spiced pancakes and checked the bacon. “2003?” he added.

I think that was the year it was close to 60 degrees on Thanksgiving. Jesse and I took a bike ride in the morning along the East Race to where it emptied into the St. Joseph River. We could take a path that followed the river all the way to St. Mary’s and then to Notre Dame. I always liked to ride up to the Grotto and sit as close to the candles as I could get. Since I was little I’ve wanted to be Irish, and probably that’s because I grew up in Chicago, but after spending time at Notre Dame, I think it’s Catholic I want to be. I love all that symbolism. All those smoky prayers floating over the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus towards Gary, Indiana, the Sears Tower, or North, towards Grand Rapids and Mackinaw, and South to Ft Myers and New Orleans. I liked watching the candles and wondering about the prayers.

We didn’t need cranberries. I buy them every year in the hopes we’ll find the recipe. If we don’t, I make Ina Garten’s Cranberry Harvest muffins. You blend the berries up with cinnamon and walnuts and I forget what else, but they’re delicious. This year, though, we’ll re-create our cranberry relish.

We’re thinking about decorating for Christmas the next day. Maybe we’ll cut down a tree. There are a few farms nearby that we could go to if we want. Hadley and Harper would like that.

Growing up, that’s what my family did the Friday after Thanksgiving. We met my Aunt Joyce and my Aunt Lucy and their families at Hart’s in Rockford, Michigan, where we’d traipse through what felt like a forest and choose a tree to cut down. After, we’d have pizza at Lucy’s.

Thanksgiving was at Joyce’s, with the handmade name cards, the fancy table cloth over the ping-pong table, and a game of Pit around the wood stove in the basement. Friday was cut down the tree day, and pizza at Lucy’s. We played pool, watched movies, and drank pop from the fridge in the basement she kept fully stocked for us kids. Lucy always blasted Jim Croche and James Taylor throughout the house. I love my Aunt Joyce for her creativity and thoughtfulness. And Lucy? Well, Lucy was one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.

One year, while we were looking for a tree to cut down, my cousins had this contest going where you made a snowball then pointed to a tree you aimed to hit. Sort of like Babe Ruth. Nobody got anywhere near where we said we would. We probably hit a few people, too.

Except my brother Geoff, the youngest of the Ayanoglou cousins. Silently, he packed a snowball, pointed to a narrow space between two trees that, as I remember it, were so far away they looked like shrubs. He wound up, threw the snowball, and it sailed effortlessly exactly where he wordlessly said it would go. I think everyone looked at him differently after that day.

Anyway, we’ll make pork tenderloin and roast sweet potatoes until they’re crispy. We’ll have cranberry relish and brussel sprouts. There will be stuffing. And pumpkin pie. No ice-cream with it though, because I find that disgusting.

It’ll be our 1oth Thanksgiving in DC.

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