what’s at stake on Tuesday

imagesMy friend  is a middle-school English teacher, a job he loves with an infectious passion. He works tirelessly to instill in his students a love of reading and of good literature, from Tuck Everlasting to Johnny Tremain. In his classes, the students write every day. And then they read their work aloud, every single one of them volunteering in turn to stand up in front of their classmates and share their innermost thoughts. Secure in the knowledge that they will not be judged, ridiculed, or bullied, these thirteen-year-olds become better writers. They go deep, they stretch, they grow, and they come to trust one another with their most tender thoughts, struggles, and observations.

Such a sense of security and civility in a classroom doesn’t just happen.

This culture of respect is created, moment by moment and day by day, by a teacher who lets his students know that from the moment they walk through the door, their voices will be heard and honored. My friend teaches, by daily example and through ongoing heartfelt discussions with his students, that their greatest achievement in his English class isn’t a perfect test score, but the environment they create together in the classroom – a safe haven in which kindness rules, acceptance is a given, and each person’s opinions matter.

But these days, my friend is concerned. [continue…]

a hymn to October

img_0911It is one of those late, mild, autumn days that feel particularly precious in New England. We love them even more because those of us who live here know the rhythm of our seasons all too well. There won’t be many more afternoons like this one. In just a week or two, the landscape will be entirely different, scrubbed and bare, gray and frozen, far less hospitable. As I type these words, the world beyond my kitchen windows is bathed in molten sunlight. Bright yellow leaves drift down from the maples nearest the house, so that even the ground seems to glow and burn with light.

img_0895As always in October, I find myself thinking backwards, aware of the special resonance this month has had for me for as far back as I can remember. As a child, I loved October because it was my birthday month. I associated the brilliant change of season with the big change for me of being another year older; the two went hand in hand, just as did chilly mornings and knee socks. I remember brief, gasp-inducing October swims in icy waters; fried dough and ferris wheels and charcoal birthday portraits on gray paper at country fairs; the winey, intoxicating fragrance of Concord grapes ripening by the roadside. The Octobers of my childhood included pumpkins to carve, Halloween costumes to make, and so many leaves to rake into piles under my father’s instruction that my hands would sport blisters before the work was done.

img_0928Earlier today, a wooden crate of Macoun apples at the farmer’s market made me suddenly miss my now-grown boys as they once were.  How I would love to relive our old apple-picking and pumpkin-choosing traditions. Autumn was always a good time to be a mother. The truth is, having children gave me permission to be a kid again myself, to spend hours  with my sons stirring pots of applesauce on the stove, gathering acorns, and pressing the most perfect red leaves between sheets of wax paper tucked into our fattest books. [continue…]

the book you want to read now:
Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth
(and a give-away)

163560For sixteen years I had what was arguably the best job in the world. It certainly was the best job for me. As a first-time mother of an infant, I wanted nothing more than to be at home with my new baby. At the same time, I’d loved my career as a literary editor and I still had to earn a living. By some miraculous stroke of luck and grace, the universe afforded me the chance to do both.

A week after my baby was born, I got word that I’d been chosen to be the new series editor of The Best American Short Stories, an annual anthology beloved by readers and writers alike. Three months later, I hired some help, bought my first desktop computer, set up a system to keep track of everything (magazines logged into FileMakerPro, the stories themselves written up by hand on file cards), and got down to work. It was amazing — I was getting paid to read.

I dressed for my new job in stretchy old black leggings and sweatshirts spotted with baby drool. I had no set hours and three deadlines a year. The magazines arrived by the box load and the babysitter came for a few hours every morning. While she was there, and while my son slept, and in every other spare moment of the day, I read short stories.

Sixteen years flew by. During that time, two little babies grew up into teenagers and sixteen volumes got published and I read thousands and thousands of stories. I had the joy of “discovering” such new voices as Amy Bloom, Junot Diaz, Akhil Sharma, Edith Pearlman, and Nathan Englander, and helping to introduce them to wider audiences. Meanwhile, I also had the privilege of working closely with some of our most accomplished writers — chatting about what made certain stories work and others miss the mark with the likes of Louise Erdrich, Tobias Wolff, Garrison Keillor, Barbara Kingsolver, E. L. Doctorow and many others. Co-editing with John Updike The Best American Short Stories of the Century allowed me not only the happy, prodigious task of reading every story ever published in the series since its inception in 1915, but also the privilege of engaging in an intensive, congenial, two-year correspondence with one of my lifelong literary heroes.

But without doubt the greatest good fortune that befell me as the editor of BASS was my enduring friendship with writer Ann Patchett, guest editor of the final volume of my tenure. After working together for over a year, getting to know each other by email and phone and letter, we finally met in person for the first time in Harvard Square at a PEN reading for The Best American Short Stories of 2006. It was a bittersweet night for me. Handing off the editorial baton to my successor seemed like the end of an era, the end of my professional identity, the end of steady income, the end of structure to my days. I had no idea what I’d do next. [continue…]

moments of seeing: books!

MOS_front_blue
Sometimes, life sits you down in a chair and insists that you stay put, doing the thing you’re really meant to do.

Last winter and spring, recovering from two hip replacements and an excruciating case of post-op bursitis, I found myself facing some very long days.

The physical therapy exercises I was required to do were numbingly dull, until I had the stunning revelation that I could link each repetitive movement to my breath and call it “yoga.” Suddenly, even if I was just lying in bed and flexing my feet, I had my practice back. All it took was a change of attitude, from grudging to mindful. Breath equals connection. And with that simple truth, I was on my way, slowly healing, one inhalation and exhalation at a time.

Meanwhile, nearly two years after I first thought about collecting the essays from this space into a book, I finally had time and space to actually settle down and get to work. The long empty days of recuperation were transformed, by a small shift of intention, into a kind of writer’s retreat for one. [continue…]

chatting with ghosts
a visit to E.B. White’s farm

IMG_9597Have you ever wondered by what mysterious alchemy a whim becomes a wish, and a wish a reality?

I’m pretty sure it requires some combination of love and pure intention to transform an idle fantasy into an actual event. Oftentimes, a spirit of adventure is necessary, too. Oh, and a willingness to envision – even if the vision itself seems far off and far-fetched.

This is a tale of a daydream that actually did come true, a road-trip story that had its beginnings in the pages of a cherished book and then slipped right out of fiction and into real life. Sometimes, the stars line up.  Sometimes, all the puzzle pieces fall into place.  And sometimes “real life” feels, if only for a day, graced by a touch of magic.  Want to come along? [continue…]