Letter Home — prose part 1: A Rainy Morning

Every weekday morning around 6:10 or so, I open my front gate and hand my things to José, my regular taxi driver for the past four years.  The independent, headstrong part of me still finds his insistence on walking my bags the five measly feet from the gate to the car annoying and somewhat insulting.  I pass him my bags with a “Buen día, José,”  in any case — reminding myself that his insistence is more about his culture than it is about any weakness, real or perceived, of mine —  and lock up while he loads the car with my lunch bag and messenger bag overburdened with the laptop and the student papers or administrative paperwork I brought home the previous workday.

I fold myself into the front passenger’s seat and buckle up. The morning is dark, that darkest moment just before the sun comes up behind the backs of the mountains all around, surprising them from their slumber. As we begin the twelve-minute drive toward the colegio, I look up to and count a remarkable number of stars for a city sky. Lately, what I assume to be Mars has loomed large, sharp and bright near the ragged, mountainous, eastern horizon.

José’s kids returned to classes nearly a full week after my students did, and he tells me of their various adventures. Their first day of classes, it rained, a frog-strangler that came just as José was dropping me off that lasted until right before the first bell rang an hour or so later.   I stood in the hallway outside my classroom with the yearbook camera trying to capture the sheets of rain in the floodlights above the campus quad, while across town, José’s three kids offered to walk the last blocks to school because the line of cars was impossibly long. He made them stay in the car, and told me that he told them that being late on the first day wouldn’t be that big a deal, especially not in the rain.

After giving up my feeble photographic efforts, I walked down the hallway to the teachers’ room and made myself a cup of coffee, and returned to the open-air hallway to sip liquid wakefulness and absorb the rain with my senses.  Later that day, I knew, when the rain had run out of the clouds, the sun would turn dampness into smothering humidity, but in that moment, with the sun barely peeking through the clouds over my shoulder, it was cool and there was time in the Chihuahuan desert morning to think, to feel and to breathe safe in the embrace of the Sierra Madre.  I would deal with the heat when it came, and marvel in the sketch of my shadow on the damp sidewalk as I found myself home again, wishing we could have a little more rain. ~LD

by Carlos Reyes Avila

“En el desierto todo tiene el mismo nombre
Díos y el diablo viven juntos
y andan de puntillas correteándose las sombras…

…vivimos demasiado cerca de dios y del diablo
hay que echar solo un ojo a la laguna
para ver la forma en que se dibuja
tu sombra sobre la arena…”


from The Desert Isn’t for Cowards
rough translation (by me)

In the desert everything has the same name
God and the devil live together
And walk on tiptoe harassing the shade…

…We live too close to god and the devil
Just take one look at the Laguna
To see the way your shadow
Is sketched on the sand…

(Many thanks to Julio M. for the reminder about this poem, and the inspiration it brought today.)


Building a fire…

Building a fire . . . in my head

After three days of meetings and classes and refreshers and precious little time in the classroom, I was beyond ready for the weekend. But in a weekend filled with obligatory fun, and the class I’ve been taking for my own development, Sunday was the only day left to submerge myself in the work of bringing my brain back around to thinking about something besides all those folders of writings I’ve been working on this summer.

I sat in the study and put on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon and looked at the computer screen.  I skimmed back through last year’s planning to remind myself of where to start and to look at my marginal notes so that I’d remember what I wanted to do differently. I closed my eyes to concentrate my breath with Waters, Gilmore and Wright reminding me to “Breathe.” In the darkened room of my mind, I reached over to my classroom “switch” and turned the yes voice on.

As I unknotted the step-by-step plan for the first two weeks of the sophomore composition course, sparks were flying down the millions of highways in my brain sweeping up stray threads for activities and retying together my “teacher” self. I will never get every little thing across, I know. Even if I could get it out there, most of it wouldn’t stick. Better to hit the big ideas and let them figure out little ideas on their own. The biggest big idea is to get them to turn on their “yes” voice. The second big idea is to convince them to keep it on.

I learned about the “yes” voice reading Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones way back when I started teaching (approximately 10,000 years ago).  I wish I had the book at hand because I’m sure what Goldberg said about it was exactly perfect. Since I don’t have the book at hand, let me give you my stewed down version. Back when we were little people, before the school system got its calloused, dirty hands on us, we used to get truly enthused about, well, stuff.

Your stuff was probably different from my stuff, but I want to give you an idea here; bear with me.  I remember lying on the white bedspread in Grammie and Pa’s guest bedroom looking at one of the books from the hall shelf before I fell asleep one Saturday night.  This particular book had articles with pictures about prehistoric animals.  My two favorites both had big teeth: the wooly mammoth and the saber tooth tiger, both recognizable, but still utterly foreign. I read and re-read the informational blurbs and studied the drawings. After that, any time I saw something related to wooly mammoths or saber tooth tigers, I would feel my belly go all fluttery (don’t pretend that this didn’t happen to you, you know it did) and I’d want to see every teensy piece of new information that presented itself.  “Wooly mammoths!”

That fluttery feeling is the feeling I need to pass to my students on day one. Day ONE. In previous years I’ve had inconsistent success with this lecture (one of the few talks I give all year), but last year was spectacularly successful.  I think what makes it work is the “fire” I bring.

Today was the day to start my fire.  Lay the coals out interspersed with newsprint and ocote sticks. The coals are the old, solid texts we always start with – Beowulf, Canterbury Tales and the ballads, Shakespeare. The texts I know and love so well make a good base for this fire, and we will be burning through them together all year long. I can’t help but get excited about them; they never fail to show me a new face, even after all these years. Newsprint and ocote sticks come in the form of these new facets, and in the planning.  Tuesday night I will sit around and rehearse what to say on day one — shredding newsprint.

Honestly, in rereading this entry, it doesn’t sound very fiery.  But it is.  And I know that sleep will be hard to come by on Tuesday night as I compulsively feed and fan the fire. Because that’s what we do in the face of a fickle flame, we watch and wait, and feed and fan.

This entry feels unfinished, as it should.  The finish of this entry will be the day after the fire is lit and begins to spread and takes on a life of its own out there in the masses of students who will come through my door on Wednesday.

Hope your week is as great as mine will be! I CAN’T WAIT!