This week I participated in a webinar with poet Georgia Heard offered by my state reading council. Heard spoke about wanting students to see the world like poets. Then she shared specific ways to help students find poetry, write using mentors, and revise their poems. The point of revision, she noted, is to match the words you wrote on paper with what’s in your heart.

I have read most of Heard’s books and used her poetry techniques for as long as I have been teaching. However, there was one revision lesson she shared this time that I heard with fresh ears: don’t teach students to use thesaurus dot com, rather teach them to use the thesaurus in their minds.

The example she gave was the word gray. She shared this screenshot of an online search for synonyms:

screenshot from webinar with Georgia Heard

The results of the search through the thesaurus in her mind were very different: wrinkled elephant gray. This is how those words appear in her final draft of “Where Do I Find Poetry?”

“In trees dancing on a windy day,
when sky is wrinkled and elephant gray.”

from “Where Do I Find Poetry?” by Georgia Heard

What a simple revision technique! I have been sifting through the thesaurus in my mind ever since Heard planted this seed.

As I walk, I notice there is finally green on the trees. I wonder, what kind of green? The green of young spring leaves. Young green.

At the food pantry I notice the tidy rows and rows of cans and boxes. They are neatly organized, like soldiers, I think. Orderly rows of canned food waiting for deployment.

I open the back door to let my dog into the yard and hear the white noise of the wind in the trees, now that there are finally leaves to flap around. I have always thought it sounds like waves. Now, I think about what kind of waves because using a thesaurus is always about specificity. It is not a search for a word, but rather a search for just the right word. Wind and leaves dance together like waves rolling over themselves far from shore, like a waterfall spraying stones.

This close attention to word choice walks hand in hand with imagery, and something about Heard’s reference to the thesaurus in our minds makes revision buzz with purpose and heart. I think it might have caused me to see the world a bit more like a poet.

The People Lover

Percy hangs next to the cabinet above our kitchen sink.

Meet Percy. Percy, the people lover.

My mom introduced us in the late 70s. For many years he had a paper tag, proving his title was not an invention of hers, but rather the name with which he arrived.

For as long as I can remember, in each of our houses, he has hung above the kitchen sink. I don’t remember exactly when I become his keeper, but I am sure it had everything to do with my fondness for him and was not at all a result of nobody else in my family being interested in displaying him.

He is not particularly attractive. Nor is he precisely crafted. But he does have charm for days and a wide open heart. As a people lover, Percy serves as a gentle, ever-present reminder of what we are here to do: love.

This week, I have been thinking about the ways physical objects (like Percy) shape, represent, and remind us of our identities.

In a recent class meeting via Zoom, a usually quiet student typed into the chat box, “Could I show you my bookshelf?” You can imagine how my teacher heart just about melted at the request. When he shared his books, his classmates responded with kindness and awe. It was such a gift to be given this tangible representation of who he is.

That moment prompted me to think differently about the following week’s optional invitation for my students to write and share. I remembered a regular feature in FLOW magazine called “Museum of Me.” In each issue, a different creative soul shares a photo layout of treasured objects with an accompanying annotated list explaining some of the backstory of each item.

In Issue 31, the introduction to the feature reads, “The story of your life is often revealed in small, personal objects.” I love that. We are longing for ways to connect, so I thought my students and I could try creating our own. Mine is below.

There is something special about opening your heart wide to others by giving and by being open to receive. My good friend Percy told me so.

Think Small is My New Hobby

This week’s invitation is to notice small . . . then notice smaller. The invitation reminded me of a favorite quote:

from And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman

There is comfort in “thinking small.” I first came across this quote while I was reading Kalman’s book to distract myself as I waited for my dad to make it through heart surgery. It was a good fit at that moment in time. Now, every time I read these lines, I am transported back to the seventh floor Sky Lobby at the University of Chicago Center for Care and Discovery. Throughout my dad’s cancer treatment and his subsequent medical care, I became closely acquainted with the space.

I can close my eyes and see the smooth stones placed side by side, like a natural puzzle, lining the short expanse of rooftop just outside the wall of windows giving a view of the city. I don’t carry an image of that city view inside me–just the casual order of the matte stone rooftop surface. There was so much to admire in the long shot–all that thriving greenery makes for a friendly introduction to the strong and solid skyscrapers in the distance. But I remember focusing on those stones between page turns.

My view from the seventh floor Sky Lobby at the University of Chicago Center for Care and Discovery

You see, thinking small is not something I have to work at. It is kind of how I move through life. Thinking small is like a default setting I use to reset.

So, it is no surprise that I have taken up a new hobby that involves noticing the small things–I have been staging Instagram photos of the books I read (you can see the fruits of my new hobby by clicking on the READ tab at the top of the page, or heading to my instagram @rushreads).

Even though thinking small often comes naturally to me, there always new things to see. Knowing I am going to create a vignette to showcase the book at the end means I read with a slightly different lens. I notice and hold onto details that might not otherwise call for my attention.

For instance, when reading Christina Soontornvat’s amazing book A Wish in the Dark, I might not have taken notice of the pattern of sensory images related to fruits if I wasn’t looking for concrete objects I might be able to pull from the story for the photo. Although I did not end up using fruit at all in the final image, my reading experience was much richer for having noticed. I can still see the joy on the faces of Pong and Somkit when they hear the sound the mango makes as it pops away from the tree before falling into Pong’s hands.

In turn, I may not have noticed that the poplar aspen trees in our backyard make a similar popping sound as they release dangling seed pods from their grasp.

from a distance the dangling seed pods look like leaves

Because of my attention to concrete sensory images, I can still clearly imagine the tangerine smell that always signaled Ampai’s presence to Pong. Thinking of that tangerine while Soontornvat’s story lingered in my heart, I spent just a few seconds more lingering over the scent while I squeezed lime juice into my latest batch of guacamole. I breathed more deeply and noticed the separate fragrances of fresh cilantro and citrus.

For now, whether reading or walking through the world, thinking small is my new hobby. It helps me handle the complicated too-muchness of it all.