Living · Teaching · Writing

The List of Lists

Summer for a teacher is a weird thing.

My Writing Journal, Italian Journal, Creative Journal, Bullet Journal, and Bird-Watching Journal. Or, Summer on a Shelf.

On the one hand, we need to rest; teaching is exhausting both intellectually and emotionally (in addition to physically). On the other hand, as a group, we’re not particularly good at it.

There are conferences to attend, research to pursue, classes to update, texts to consider, lessons to plan, and administrative work that does not end when the students go home.

See? I have already started. Summer, for me, is about lists.

I have begun. I have made the List of Lists for this summer. It is inclusive, if not exhaustive, of all the things I want to do in the next two months.

For work, I will write an article, choose and prepare lessons for a new book, meet with Teaching Assistants to orient them for their first semester, and prep a class I haven’t taught in a while. This class needs to be updated for semesters, which includes finding a couple of additional books and planning lessons for them and shifting the entire syllabus, since my school’s switching from a Quarter system to a Semester system changes… everything. And then there’s the more intangible “work” I don’t get paid for, which include writing this blog and pursuing that dream of being a novelist–by finding an agent for the first book and getting past chapter three on the next one.

So much for the myth that teachers have summers off.

All those items are handily subdivided in my bullet journal in tangible, “actionable,” bite-size pieces.

After work, of course, there will be other lists. I’m still working on learning Italian, but my conversation partner is in Russia for the summer, so there are lists of movies to watch, verbs to study, books to read with a dictionary close to hand, and levels of language apps to power through.

What is that? Is that work? It will help me teach Dante. Is it Self-Care? I’m staving off dementia, you know. Is it relaxing time? Sure. But also no. Whatever. There’s a list for it.

Summer is also time for home. We have some Home Improvement-type projects going, including fixing the infamous Bee Pillar for real. It is functional (read: it keeps bees out) at present, but it is not pretty. So the first item on the list is Prettifying the Bee Pillar. In fact, if we kept the list just to Finishing Projects We Started Ill-Advisedly Before Summer And Had to Abort, we would fill our summer. But we’re optimists, and we have an idle-ish pair of teens, so we’re overstuffing that list as well.

I also do a Summer Purge, where I go through a room at a time and find stuff to donate and “share” with friends and fellow teachers (mostly books for understocked classrooms). There are lists for that, and officially, the whole purge is just one item on the Master List.

And we really should do some of that stuff they call Self-Care. In fact, it probably should be first. Things that refuel me at the end of the year include sleeping well past 6 am, staring numbly at the wall—preferably while holding a cat, reading pulp fiction and Other Books I Never Intend to Teach, and doing Crafty Sorts of Things.

I should also have a list for Health. So I do. I have every good intention of improving my diet (that’s worth a whole page in my bullet journal), maintaining my water intake when there’s no built-in measure of “a bottle per class,” upping my normal routine of dog-walkies to include elliptical training, and stretching my stupid Achilles tendon ten bloody times a day to combat my tendonitis. Yes, some of my lists are written for me.

It’s ok, though. Every time I generate a list, I relieve a little anxiety. Right now, with my summer neatly organized in a series of headers with cascading columns of items to check off, I am cool as a cucumber.

Bring on the heat, So-Cal. I’m ready.


The Mild Mania of Loving Languages

Can one be addicted to learning languages? If you can, aren’t there worse obsessions?

It’s not like I do it thoroughly. I know a fair bit about a number of languages. Most of them aren’t spoken anywhere (hands up if you know anyone who speaks Gothic or Old French?), so there’s no immersion program where I can relocate for six months and come out the other side able to converse with Alaric the Goth.

Mostly it’s about reading. I do like to be able to speak, but my fear of sounding like a jerk or an idiot overcomes my desire to communicate most of the time. It has taken decades to get better at–not over—that. But I really like to read in different languages.

When I was wending my way through graduate school, trying to pin down a field of study, I embarked on a linguistics program. I told my advisor I wanted to focus on historical linguistics. He told me that wasn’t done anymore, that it was just a relic–something non-linguists think of when they think of linguists. What I should have told him was that I wanted the keys to the kingdom—the secret to learning languages. Because the real reason was that I didn’t trust translators. I wanted to read Beowulf and Vǫlsunga Saga and the Romance of the Rose without an intermediary.

That’s pretty close to what I got. I got a chance to study language and language change in the abstract and I got to know a few languages in very concrete, “this text and one other are all we know of this language” terms. Perhaps most importantly, I learned how I learn, and that did me in. I swear it’s addicting. Like Bubble Pop or crosswords, languages feel like puzzle games, and I will be that old, weird little person trying to figure out what dragoncello means in Italian.

Discovering how you think and learn is both empowering and baffling. I know I see words in my head as I hear them, that I parse them, search for cognates, and am genuinely annoyed if I can’t figure out how something is spelled. It makes me good at deducing meaning from words, and good at slipping in to rabbit holes mid-conversation (which is usually not good). In my case it means that I have the same sense of wonder about words as I do about cloud formations, genetics, and how they cram music between the ridges of a record.

It means I recently spent a disconcerting amount of time wondering whether there was a corresponding opposite to the Latinate word “crepuscular,” which means ‘growing dark’ as in twilight or dusk. There was a word in Latin, “clarescere” which meant ‘to grow clearer and brighter’ but English didn’t steal  that one, apparently, and I haven’t found a cognate in other modern Romance languages.

This is all to say that thinking in words is a way of thinking, as is thinking in images or concepts. And as the world continues toward global community, it’s not a bad one to cultivate.

Picture Books · Reading

The Glorious, Oft-Sung Art of Word-Collecting

I can remember always loving words. The first big word I learned to spell was ‘elephant,’ and because I ran around for maybe half an hour singing the letters, I still have an audio memory of their order. I grouped them in to e-l-e, p-h, a-n-t mostly because of the sound of those letters together, but 4th grade me thought younger me was clever keeping the p-h together, since it spelled a single sound.

And that song evoked an elephant for me—every elephant tiny me could imagine, which included Dumbo and Pooh’s heffalumps, as well as more real ones I’d seen in books. As I sang, heffalumps danced in my mind’s eye with African elephants to the rhythm of my song.
That was just the first word I fell in love with.
Since then there have been so many wonderful words that have enchanted me—and I mean enchanted. They sing and they chant and they cast a spell. Mellifluous. Defenestrate. Nefarious.
Then I learned more languages. Éclat, mariposa, Kunst, grembo, uppivözlumaðr. I am an addict.
But I am not alone. And this is actually a blog about picture books.
In the last several years, there have been two picture books entitled “The Word Collector.” The first one was published in Spain in 2011 (La coleccionista de palabras) by Sonja Wimmer and features a girl named Luna, who lives “high, high up in the sky,” above people, apart from them, either in a lighthouse or in the clouds (or in a lighthouse in the clouds—the illustrations are delightfully ambiguous.)
The second book is by Peter H. Reynolds and features an African-American boy named Jerome (although the title is gender-neutral in English, of course—for just a second I had imagined another girl), who lives among people and draws the words he collects from his environment. He writes down words he hears, words he sees in the world, and words he reads in books on strips of paper and puts them away carefully.
Both of these children collect words of all different types, for all different kinds of affinities. Sometimes they like what the word means; sometimes they like how it sounds. But they also like words that seem to fit their referent—‘molasses’ tends to be drawn out, like a slow pour. That’s really a response to the inherent order of the universe, to my eye—to form following function.  And sometimes they just like how the words make them feel.
Their crises differ, though. Luna notices the world has become too busy to use—let alone appreciate—words, so she contrives to redistribute the ones she has collected like a benevolent goddess, sowing, weaving, and scattering words like seeds. She gifts the world with the fertile imagination that a substantial vocabulary fosters so well.
Jerome’s journey is both smaller and bigger than Luna’s. He drops his scrapbooks and boxes, in which he’d stored his sorted words, and ends up putting them back together in new, unexpected combinations, discovering poetry and music and seeing that they are good. He thinks about words, learning that sometimes the simplest are the most powerful—“I’m sorry” and “You matter.”
Finally, he comes to realize that his big word collection has improved his ability to understand who he is and to share his ideas and dreams with the world, and he wants that for others too. He releases his words from the top of a hill, and children below scramble to gather them.
Jerome’s story is about self-empowerment and paying it forward. Luna’s, with its visual artistry of the text as well as images, is more about sharing the gifts of beauty and connection to others. But they both begin with a sense of wonder at words and end with sharing their beloved words with the world.
Why do they both feel like gods to me when they dispense their words? Is that what Little Me was responding to—the power that words confer on their wielders? Maybe. That is old magic, as we know from lots of traditions (the songs of Orpheus, the logos of the New Testament, the runes of Germanic paganism, or the tradition of true names that can be used to control people or entities).
But so much of the appeal for me is wonder and joy at the music of a word or the perfect capturing of an idea, or—as Jerome discovers—the serendipitous collision of a few words that make something new, unexpected, and utterly splendiferous.
The Anglo-Saxons referred to language as their “word hoards.” (First—obviously—that’s that’s why I fell in love at first sight with Anglo-Saxon.) Second—I am heartened to know this glorious tradition has not lost any ground in the intervening centuries. Words are still gemstones to be marveled at, collected, and shared.
E-l-e… p-h… a-n-t. I dare you not to see one dancing in your head.