The Power of Solitude


07hhimarshmhI just started reading Delia Owens’ book, Where the Crawdads Sing.  The book has spent weeks at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. However, what spurred me to open the book was an interview of the author about the roots of her rich, textured setting.

Where the Crawdads Sing is the tale of a young girl growing up essentially alone in the remote marshes along the coast of North Carolina. When a handsome nearby town resident is found murdered in the marshes, Kya is the chief suspect. While the plot sounds compelling, what draws the reader in is the gorgeous descriptive language. Owens knows wilderness.

When Owens was in her twenties, she and her then-husband lived in Africa caring for wild animals. Her Ph.D in animal behavior prepared her for wildlife care. Much of the time, Owens and her then-husband were the only humans for hundreds of miles.

Owen commented the inspiration for her book came from spending everyday with lions, elephants and baboons. She said that we are not so different in our behavior from the tight female packs or the strutting male baboons.

Owens now lives in a remote corner of northern Idaho. The view out her window is of towering mountains. But, Owens lives her alone. She says she gets so lonely sometimes that it feels hard to breath. She values her solitude. Her first novel is an “ode to the outdoors” that reveals “the affect loneliness can have on a person”.

As a reader, I find what shines through in Owens’ lush landscape is the power of standing still in  middle of nature. Kya, the main character, is comforted and enveloped by her surroundings. Birds, minnows and reeds come to life in the mind of the reader thanks to Owens’ quiet attention to detail. Writers can learn much from Owens about immersing oneself to tell a worthy story.

Student Study


He busts into the class, hood up,

eyes scanning the room.

It is hard to tell if his eyes

are searching for friends or warily

appraising what the content may have waiting.

J. has come a long way this year.

The sullen, young man

that entered in September,

has given way to a frequently gregarious,

slightly more open version of himself.

When he thinks no one is looking,

J. guides nearby classmates if they are confused.

What’s more…

J. is on time, mostly prepared and willing to participate when asked.

The maturing student in J. has started to peek out

from under his guarded exterior.

However, he refuses to give up the ghost in one area.

“I hate reading,” he says as automatically as one might say hello.

“Oh, that’s a shame,” I say,

“because I just got the hottest new graphic novel title

and I was going to have you try it first.”

His eyes slide up from under the lip of his hood,

“What’s it about?”

As other students clamor to get their hands on the newest book first,

J. somewhat reluctantly accepts the title.

Later on, I see him reading in a comfortable chair.

The next day, when another student asks if he is finished with the book,

J. smiles and says not yet.

“You want me to tell you about it though?”  he offers.

J. may not realize it but he is moving from resistant student to classroom teacher.




CBS Sunday Morning: The Art of Storytelling

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My very favorite television show is CBS Sunday Morning. Each week, the show mixes news, human interest stories and nature to provide a perfect 90 minutes on the weekend. Since life is busy, CBS Sunday Morning often becomes “must see tv” on a weeknight after dinner.

It is rare for a week to go by when I don’t find a story or two that my students would love. In fact, I have a couple of pages in my bullet journal dedicated to mentor stories. I often weave the stories into reading and writing units.

What makes the items on CBS Sunday Morning so memorable is the storytelling craft employed. The stories: have clear arcs, offer emotional connections and use sound, sights and other sensory details to bring the “reader” in.

One of the best storytellers on the show is Steve Hartman. He took over the On the Road series made famous by Charles Kuralt. I recommend you open a few of the clips on Youtube. Hartman finds quirky, often quiet stories. His stories are a mix of interview, narration and strong imagery.

Whether relating the tale of a 95-year-old WWII navy man walking across America to raise funds to care for the last of a WWII Navy ship, meeting a whole community learning sign language to relate to a two-year-old girl, or sharing the story of three students and a community building “magic” rock, Hartman lets viewers see good in the world. Given the negative tone of discourse these days, CBS Sunday Morning is just the thing to add light to the day.

My favorite moment of each CBS Sunday Morning show is the “Moment of Nature” at the end of the show. CBS’s cameras capture nature across the country and the only sounds are those picked up by the microphones. I stop and breath deep with each moment. Try it yourself and you will be hooked.

Have you tried bullet journaling?

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I am a list person. The habit was instilled in me at a young age. My father, a brilliant lawyer, always kept a folded sheet of yellow legal paper in his left shirt pocket. He would pull out the paper regularly to jot a note or task. As children, my siblings and I often wondered if the notes about us meant good or bad news. But, the image of his list making is seared in my mind.

I have tried keeping every kind of list/calendar possible — a large leather calendar with notes pages, a notecard holder in my jacket pocket with 3×5 index cards filled with bulleted lists, scraps of paper, mini-notebooks in my bag — you name it, and I have tried the list-making technique. That is, until four years ago when author Kate Messner blogged about the magic of the bullet journal method. If you have not heard of bullet journals, here is a quick video from creator Ryder Carroll explaining the system.

Now, much of my life is organized in an A5 Leuchtturm 1917 journal. My bullet journal offers a space to keep bulleted lists, but I can also dedicate a couple pages to planning my next teaching unit or brainstorming with colleagues. The heart of the system is the index at the front. If I start a page of mentor texts in September, I can add to that page or create another page later in the notebook for more mentor texts. In the index, I add all the pages with mentor texts and I can easily find my work.

In between note sessions, calendars and doodles, I keep my daily lists. Boxes next to an item means I still need to accomplish the task. A filled in box is pure joy — who doesn’t love to fill in a checklist when a job is finished? Once I established the routine of daily list creation in the bullet journal, I found myself limiting tasks to one’s that mattered for that day. I will usually start a page of “Things to Do” for items that don’t have to be done that day or lack a defined timeline. Honestly, I found that my weekly and daily spreads change based on how busy I am or the best way to visualize my day or week at the moment.

There are whole bullet journal communities you can follow on Instagram to get ideas for organizing your journal. But, the key is to make the journal work for you! If you want to make it pretty, get out markers and brush pens…if you want to make it messy, go for it. I average one bullet journal each school year, and one in the summer when my mind is brimming with plans, free writes and story ideas.

Here are a few pages from my current bullet journal to give you an idea:

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Tips on Finding Writing Inspiration


I just finished Sophie Blackall’s gorgeous Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, Hello Lighthouse. On the flyleaf in the back of the book, Ms. Blackwell notes that her inspiration for the book arrived in the form of an old print spotted at a flea market. The print showed a cross section of the rooms in a lighthouse. She was hooked.

Ms. Blackwell researched, visited lighthouses, read lighthouse keeper’s journals and even spent the night in a lighthouse on an island at the tip of NewFoundland. The book Hello Lighthouse is stepped in the kind of details only possible with lots of background research.

Many authors delve into their family history to find writing inspiration. Take L.M. Elliot, whose Under a War Torn Sky finds its heart in the experiences of her father, a bomber pilot shot down in World War II. Or Ruta Septys, whose father shared stories of Lithuania that found a home in her book, Between Shades of Gray.

Loree Griffin Burns, author of several Scientist in the Field books including the gorgeous Life on Surtsey: Iceland’s Upstart Island, says she is a believer in the power of first-hand research. She takes copious notes in a small notebook that she takes everywhere. She also makes audio recordings of interviewees and takes hundreds of photographs.

Author Linda Urban is a notebook fan too. Mingled together in her notebook are shopping lists, notes about her kids, and ideas that may spark a new novel. Here is a comment from Linda Urban along with one of her notebook pages:

This is a page of observations from a trip to the dentist’s office.   While I have not written a novel set in a waiting room, I can’t say it won’t happen.  And the practice of observing small details has most definitely come in handy.             Linda Urban


Ideas are all around us — consider the box you haven’t opened since your last move, a story your mother told when you were young, the deserted house in the neighborhood, or your new interest in beekeeping. Perhaps you want to follow Loree and Linda’s lead and carry a small notebook everywhere. Keen observation can lead to great storytelling.





Defacing Monuments


For tourists traveling to Washington, D.C.

in hopes of viewing historic monuments,

the city might be a bit disappointing these days.

Many of Washington’s historic sites

are shrouded in tarps and scaffolding.

Cranes extend far above Memorial Bridge

and lanes are closed as cars speed under the Kennedy Center.

Blazing orange cone and barriers mar

the view of the tidal basin

and potholes rattle cars traversing city streets.

As Washington’s monuments age,

the city has ordered a facelift.

Hopefully, the cherry blossoms

peaking in April

will distract from the

flashing construction signs

dotting D.C.’s historic byways.



70 Degrees


It is not warm enough for shorts.  Yet, as the thermometer inches up toward the 70° mark, I find myself itching to shed the warm sweaters, scarves and corduroys that have kept me warm through an unusually cold winter.

Heading home from work today, I stopped at Home Depot to pick up a new butane tank for the grill on our back patio. Our two dogs can feel the change too. They bounded down the stairs, tails wagging, straining to dart out the back door.

I carried the plate with hamburgers and hot dogs. My husband had the grilling utensils. Our backyard has yet to come out of its winter slumber. Most branches are bare and the mulch looks bleached like driftwood, thanks to a snow-laden winter.

As the dogs chase each other around the yard, familiar summer smells rise from the grill. If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the heat of a summer day fading with the sunset. It may not be warm enough for shorts yet, but after a lovely evening on the back patio, I can take a deep breath and know change is just around the corner.

Seeking Refuge


Refuge is something we all desire…

Refuge from stress,

from pain,

from loneliness,

from strife,

from hunger,

from biting cold

or baking heat.

Yet, when others seek refuge…

we look out from our places of comfort

and turn a blind eye.


Shouldn’t our first instinct be…

to grant comfort,





Sharing Space with Raccoons


Yesterday morning, my predawn walk with our dogs led to an encounter with two young foxes. Today, I set off hoping to see our fox friends again. However, just steps out the front door, another creature crossed our path…a raccoon.

The young raccoon ambled down our driveway, heading for the trashcans set at the curb. One look at the dogs and the raccoon backed into the shadows of the neighbor’s house.

The raccoons regularly visit our trashcans. We have tried bricks on top of the cans, a bungee cord securing the lid as well as a motion-activated light.  These raccoons are tenacious.

In fact, this summer when our son was visiting, a raccoon accidentally fell into an empty trash can in the morning. When Nash took out the trash after dinner, he opened the lid to an angry, albeit dehydrated raccoon. We used a pole to knock the trash can over to free the raccoon. He waddled off a bit woozy from the heat. However, the trapped experience did not deter the raccoon and his family from feasting on our trash in the dark of night.

Raccoons are funny creatures. Some mornings, I find perfectly cleaned bones and neatly arranged peels on top of the trash cans, as if the raccoon set a table and enjoyed a dignified meal.

This morning, we interrupted an early breakfast. I imagine the raccoon was happy to see me head off to work so he could eat in peace.


Come Out, Come Out to Play


Under the pooling lamplight, I glimpsed the slender figure of a young fox ahead. The fox hurried along the path to the small neighborhood pond my dogs and I circle each morning before the sun rises.

This time of year foxes are a common sight. Enough woods still populate this suburban enclave for foxes, a few deer, raccoons and other creatures to share the sidewalks in the predawn hours.

As my dogs and I approached the pond, I scanned the pathway for the fox. The fox had headed left, so I turned right to circle from the other side. My two dogs picked up the fox scent as soon as we stepped onto the pathway, noses down and tails wagging.

In the fading moonlight, I noticed two ducks gliding across the pond. My eyes searched the opposite bank for the fox. One quick movement signaled the fox standing next to a bush. But, another motion and wait…there are two of them!

Together, the foxes darted into the dry bushes. The rustling sound attracted my two dogs. Alert and expectant, my dogs pulled as if they wanted to join the fun.

One fox emerged from the bushes and stared in our direction. The second fox jumped out and initiated a chase back into the thicket. I stood transfixed, knowing that as the minutes ticked by, I was delaying my departure for work.

Slowly, reluctantly, I turned our trio around and headed for home. Tomorrow, I may leave a few minutes early in case our young friends come out to play.