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. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

#SOL17: Father's Day

Rob teaching Devon in the Redwood Forest. 
I know more about love now. More about marriage too. It's ironic to have learned so much after Rob's death, but great loss brings clarity. What's important seems to shine more. After the shock and numbness wore off larger spaces formed allowing me a vantage point I had not know prior. I'm like Emily from Our Town who suddenly can see the vastness of life as if it were a movie. The smallest of details takes on weight.

Here is the day we spent in the car traveling from Mississippi to South Dakota, laughing for hours as we listened to David SedarĂ­s reading one book after the next.
Here is an ordinary moment where I read a text from Rob: Just checking in. You got Devon this afternoon?
Here are those sacred weeks after we adopted Dev and love bloomed in ways we each could not have known.
Here is the first start to love: two poets at a poetry festival.
Here is the kitchen in Fort Lee, so tiny and yet we cooked together there more so than in the bigger kitchens we would know.
Here is a Sunday afternoon in fall and Rob is watching his Giants, I am seated near him, reading, and Devon is upstairs.
Here we are at the science fair, overheated in the crowded hallways yet bursting with pride.
Here we are bereft the first weekend Devon went away without us. We missed him so.
Here is the first time we saw a computer Devon built and we wondered how he learned to do so.
Here is when I lost my mom, Rob' father, my dad.
Here we are driving Max home--just 8-weeks-old and Rob would sleep with his hand in the crate all night and a clock ticking next to the best dog in the universe.

Now that I know the ending, looking back is so possible, so necessary, so tragic and so glorious.

Happy Father's Day, Rob. I'd like to think of you in some parallel world--some multiverse--being a dad, a husband, a best friend. Being you and just taking the dog for a walk.

Ordinary love.
Just that. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Poetry Break: Separation

self portrait (Paris, 2016)


  - W.S. Merwin

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle. 

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

#SOL17: Suck Out all the Marrow

from my art journal. June 2017.

On Sunday, after I went food shopping for the week and came home and used the meat that had been in the refrigerator to make a double batch of chile, adding an extra pound of grass fed beef I had just purchased--and after I set 8 chicken breasts to marinate in a lime mustard marinade in the refrigerator--I then got my brother a can of soda as he requested.

Hey, did you put new cans of soda in the fridge? I asked.
This can should be ice cold and it's kind of lukewarm, I said handing him the can of Pepsi, recalling he had put the cans in the fridge the day before. Only he drinks Pepsi.
Yeah, I noticed that yesterday. How old is the fridge?
15 years. We bought it when we moved here.

Then I remembered. There had been a persistent smell. Onions. Each time I opened the refrigerator this last week I could smell onions and I was wondering why but not wondering too hard apparently. I was distracted. Preoccupied. I had been out most of the week in the evenings and when home I was so busy with a curriculum project that I had not cooked since Tuesday night. As Devon only seems to know how to order food, he too was not in the fridge very often. It remained closed and unnoticed.

Then I remembered a year ago having to call the repair person because the refrigerator was not working correctly.  Like this time, ice continued to be made and yet the frozen fruit was slushy and the almond milk was almost cool, but not quite. The repairman told me we had a year or so left. My brother took a look and told me the year was over and so I bought I new refrigerator that was delivered yesterday, as it had been promised.

After the situation was handled and my brother left for home and Devon was tucked upstairs in front of a computer he built, I sat on the sofa and sobbed until I felt cried out. It was an eye-sore and blotchy kind of cry. When something breaks in our home, I feel the break in my bones, my heart. It reminds me that Rob is no longer here. I would not normally cry over a broken appliance. But on Sunday, I did.

Then, Devon and I went out and ate Mexican food for dinner.


I have needed a lot of help recently. My brother spent last weekend staining the back deck that had been power washed. I cleared most of the furniture off the deck on Friday night so it could be ready for him. Today a handyman is coming to fix a problem in the bathroom and my brother is returning to finish the deck staining. Yesterday morning a repairman fixed the air conditioner. Two weeks ago, my other brother climbed up a ladder and cleaned a bird 's nest out of the dryer vent and now the dryer works better.

All of this highlights what is most hard to accept. Rob is truly gone and my level of competence is woefully low.  On Monday our son graduated high school--and though Rob was there in spirit I have been told, he was not there in flesh.

Milestones are so double-edged.

Yes, I am proud of and happy for Devon. Very. Yes, the loss is more acute at such times.


If you have recently suffered a loss, it might be best to ignore the books, the carefully worded columns by psychologists, and the advice from well-meaning friends who try to situate grief as something you will move beyond. This is inaccurate. There is no moving on as if the life the two of you created together could be something packed away.

There is no moving on.  That is mythical.


For me, after loss, living has become more of a decision made and remade. I never lived so overtly before. Life's sweetness and pleasures have become more noticed, as have the wonders and ambiguities that mark my days--not because days, weeks, months, and a year has passed since Rob's death, but because living now requires a deliberateness it did not require before.

Living is harder, more noticeable.


Every overt decision made builds strength. Thoreau told us:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms...”

I had not lived.

My neighbor, Dawn, told me that every day we are shedding bone. This resonated. It almost seems as if sorrow allows for new bones to grow--ones that can carry the burden and joy of grief and hopefulness; sorrow and pleasure; uncertainty and caution.  Thoreau closes Walden by saying,
"The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star."

Live wide awake.
Live wide.

Yes, there is more to the day than dawn.

Even after great loss.  There is always more.

That's what time allows us to know.  That is what must be savored.

It is not getting over,
                                     moving on,
                                                             being done with.

Grief teaches us to savor the now.
That's the gift.

Monday, June 12, 2017

#SOL17: Love and Love and Teaching and More Love

painting (May 2017)


I was reading a post by Kathleen Sokolowski,The Knowing #SOL17. I was touched and honored that she wrote the post in a style I often use these last two years as I have made my way in and out of the twists and valleys that so often typify grief and solace. I leave spaces in my writing--gaps where a reader might roam a bit. I do this by numbering sections, knowing the spaces between numbers will be the gaps readers compose. It's a nod to Wolfgang Iser who first named this for me.  

As lovely as it was to find Kathleen's statement about my style, what caught my eye was a quote at the top of the post:

"As a general rule, teachers teach more by what they are then by what they say." -Unknown

It seemed to demand a response.  


Devon and Rob at his 8th grade graduation, 6.14.2013
This morning my son, Devon, graduated from high school. Four years ago--almost to the day (June 14, 2013) Devon graduated from eighth grade. I wish I had taken a better photo of Rob and Devon, that day, but I didn't. Nonetheless, can't you just see the love on Rob's face for his son? Who could know that four years ago would mark the only graduation Rob would be alive to witness? Who would have thought that the day his son completed high school he would be dead for more than a year? 

Devon and Rob in Tuscany, 8.10.2013
What I want to write about here though is not that, but rather about a single moment during the graduation that meant more than I could say here.  After all of the speeches had been given, three academic awards were presented to students by faculty. The first one was given to my son by a teacher who taught him every year and befriended him surely. He began by telling a funny story about first meeting Devon as an eighth grader and then spoke about how Devon became more and more a partner than a student during his time at the school. And when he started to mention Devon leaving and going on to Stevens, he choked up, stopped speaking, and momentarily cried. In that moment, Rob Houghton taught more by what he fundamentally is, than by anything he might have said. 

These are moments to notice and savor. 
Don't look away.
We must commit such expressions of love to our memory. Our lives depend on it.


Devon left the house this morning carrying one unwrapped gift in his hand. Just one.

What's in the box? I asked as we drove to graduation.
A motherboard for Mr. Houghton.
Is that something he wanted?
Couldn't find wrapping? I teased.
We nerds don't wrap. And Houghton? He's like an original nerd.


If you listen to pundits talk about education and there's lots of chatter about higher standards, grit, data driven instruction, performance gains, STEM, and being college-ready (whatever that might mean). We pay big bucks, billions actually, to annually measure how well every learner can perform on a narrow set of outcomes so often determined by pseudo-educators and then we claim that those results represent the value of their teachers and schools. 

Pure idiocy. 

Frankly, such tests are woefully incomplete, often erroneous, partial snapshots at best, and very costly to students, teachers, and our wallets.

This morning, Mr Houghton got it right. He showed us what matters more than the ed buzzwords and is a much finer expression of a teacher, a student and the learning they have composed. Great teaching isn't about stanine growth. 

Great teaching inspires us to compose better versions of ourselves. That's what Mr. Houghton's actions were teaching us this morning. 

Love endures.  It inspires. It is the energy that survives well beyond the breakdown of our human bodies. 


It has been a tough, tough six weeks--in many ways the toughest I have ever known. And after the ceremony I made my way to Mr. Houghton to simply thank him.  

What Dev has been going through these last weeks? he began, sounding so certain.
I nodded and said, Yes.
It's been good for him. May not feel like it. But it's been good for him. He needs to get this out.

I nodded and touched his arm and think I may have said, thank you although I am not sure.


A doctor explained that for Devon it's like his dad died a week ago. Delayed grief is the psychological term. 

He was my best friend, my son would tell me. I miss him every day. 

Some pain is so big it cannot find expression until it bleeds out of us.


I wish I could have done better for my son at this moment of great pain. I wish that when I had to fail him, it would not have been now--not when the stakes are so very high. There simply is no one on this planet who I love as I do my son.  But in his eyes,  I failed him in ways that have scarred him, in ways I cannot find the words to say here. 

What I learned this morning is that others have stepped in to love him when he would not allow me do so. And for that I am grateful.


Though Devon's dad was not there this morning, my brother, Jack and my friend, Jane each assured me that they strongly felt his presence throughout the ceremony.  Jane told me in an email late this afternoon, and Jack told me before he left our home today. 

Mary, I felt him. Rob was there in that auditorium. He's watching over Dev and you. I know it. 

Each was so certain and each is gifted in such ways. We have long joked in my family that my brother is like St. Francis of Assisi. All the animals come to him: abandoned dogs and snakes; raccoons and birds. They all seem to sense that gentle kind soul he harbors.  And Jane? Well, she dreams. Always has. I imagine always will. Prophetic dreams that open her to what most of us simply miss and keep her open when she is no longer sleeping. 

Mr. Houghton, Jack and Jane remind me that there are many ways to be in this world--ways that my son has learned as well. 


Stay open to love, I tell myself--for even when I cannot feel Rob, others do and that fills me with hope.

Stay open to love I say to Devon, for it heals and redeems us when we cannot seem to find the road we most need to walk.