Posts Tagged ‘memoir’

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen

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I can still remember reading one of the first Chicken Soup for the Soul books back when they first came out. I thought it was the greatest idea, and I’m glad that the series has continued even if I don’t read them all. (That would be difficult since there are now over 250 of them.)

I was tickled, though, when my daughter gave me Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen for Mother’s Day. Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Amy Newmark collected 101 stories that defy explanation. I don’t know why some people are given the gift of miraculous healings or divine encounters, but I rejoice in sharing their stories and wonder along with the writers at the providence provided.

Now that I am finished, I’m trying to decide where to keep the copy of the book. Should I put it in our Little Free Library to spread the stories even further? Should I leave it lying around in an easy to get to location so I can pick it up and read a story when I need a reminder that miracles do happen?

Even more I am inspired to write some stories of my own. While I have not been rescured from near death or received messages from beyond the grave, I have experienced my own moments with the divine.

What about you? What stories from your life remind you that miracles can happen?

I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai

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My mom passed on her copy of I Am Malala (Little, Brown and Company 2013) to me over the Christmas holidays. I have been thinking about Malala’s story ever since. I had heard on the news about the Taliban shooting her and two of her classmates. I had heard about her being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace this past year. Those brief accounts on the news don’t do justice to Malala’s story as told by herself.

I have to confess that I know very little of Pakistan, much less the region of Swat, where Malala lived. She opened my eyes to a country and culture that is filled with beauty and wonder, yet also suffers under poverty and oppression. Malala was blessed that her father rejoiced in her birth (in a land where sons are usually celebrated much more) and encouraged her education.

Encouraged by her father, who spoke out against the Taliban, Malala found her voice and spoke out as well. For years before she was attacked, she found ways to speak out on behalf of peace and education–especially for girls. She wrote (under the pen name of Gul Makai) of her experiences living and going to school under Taliban rule for the BBC Urdue website. She and her father gave interviews about the need for all children–including girls–to have an education. Woven in with the accounts of her political actions are descriptions of daily life with her family and friends under the most trying of circumstances: an earthquake, Taliban executions in the town square, curfews imposed by the army, the sounds of battle and explosions, even travel as displaced persons.

I am most impressed with Malala’s attitude of peace and joy throughouth. Even though she at times lived in fear, she doesn’t let the fear control her life or limit her opportunities. She wants peace for her homeland and is willing to work to help bring it about. I am inspired by her courage and determination.

I wish the students I had–those who complained about school and thought it a waste of their time–could listen to Malala’s story and see how valuable education is. It is not a surprise that groups who want to oppress people go after schools first. Without education, people can easily be misled and controlled. Education–the ability to read, write, think, and understand the world–is the first step in creating a better life. I am glad Malala is speaking out for education for all, and I hope she is one day able to return to her homeland to bring that dream to reality.

Disclosure: I participate in the Amazon Associates Program. If you decide to make a purchase by clicking on the affiliate links, Amazon will pay me a commission. This commission doesn’t cost you any extra. All opinions are my own.

It’s Monday! What are you reading?

It’s Monday! What are you reading? Is a meme sponsored by Sheila at Book Journey.  Kellee at Unleashing Readers and Jen at Teach Menor Texts gave the meme a kidlit twist.  It’s a great way to reflect on what you’ve read and reviewed the last week and plan what you want to read next.  Join up with us and discover what good books other people  are reading.

It was a quiet reading week, but I enjoyed meeting lots of interesting people that I interviewed this week. Now I have lots of writing to do!

I finished…

forgive me leonard peacockForgive Me, Leonard Peacock by Matthew Quick – Once I neared the end, I couldn’t stop listening. This is one of the most powerful books I have read in some time. Leonard will stay with me as well the questions this book raised. We never know how much the people we come in contact with every day might be hurting or how much our words and actions can impact them. I know I will be treating the people around me with more kindness and paying more attention.

chinese cinderellaChinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah – My heart ached for the rejection and cruelty that Adeline experenced within her family. As I read I marveled at her strength and courage and resilience. How did she do it? So many children would have withered under the acts of cruelty she lived with daily. She found strength in her Aunt Baba and grandfather as well as in her success at school.

I’m currently reading…

Poliser_SummerLettingGo_jkt_website_207_1The Summer of Letting Go by Gae Polisner – We didn’t read much last week with all the work assigned before break and the last games of the soccer season. Now that my daughter is on fall break, I’m hoping we can get back to reading every night.

les-miserablesLes Miserables by Victor Hugo – It’s still slow progress, but I’m still reading some every week. The rebels are regrouping in the barricade, preparing for the next wave of attack from the army.

again calls the owlAgain Calls the Owl by Margaret Craven – I just barely got started with this one, but I can tell I will enjoy it. Craven’s prose brings to life such a different time in the world.

Secrets of Writing High-Performance Business-to-Business Copy(AWAI) – Another couple of chapters read this week and another class down. I am learning that I enjoy this type of business copywriting more than I thought I would.

Coming up…

We have lots of catching up to do over fall break–all those projects that kept getting pushed back until we have more time. There’s shopping for winter clothes and a college visit. I hope to make progress on the books I’m reading.

What have you read this week?

In My Hands by Irene Gut Opdyke

in my handsI have always been drawn to read literature from the Holocaust, both fiction and nonfiction, but especially memoirs of people who lived through it. I sometimes wonder at my fascination. Why do I enjoy reading about such a dark period of history? I think reading these stories forces me to ask the question, “What would I do?” Would I have been able to cling to the best of my humanity–hope and kindness and love–as did many survivors of the ghettos and concentration camps? Would I have had the courage to help my neighbors by hiding them or sharing food? I like to think that I would, but I honestly don’t know since I have never been confronted with such choices.

Irene Gut Opdyke (with Jennifer Armstrong) shares her journey of becoming a resistance fighter and smuggler of Jews in her memoir In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer (Laurel Leaf Books 1999). She didn’t start out to become a hero, but she is a hero. I don’t know how I could have survived the horrors that she experienced as Germany and Russia invaded her homeland of Poland. It didn’t matter which side of the border she was on, the conquering armies made life miserable for all of Poland, but she still found the compassion and courage to protect those who were being hunted down.

As I read, I kept coming back to Irene’s words: “You must understand that I did not become a resistance fighter, a smuggler of Jews, a defier of the SS and the Nazis, all at once. One’s first steps are always small: I had begun by hiding food under a fence” (143). Irene did not stop with hiding food under the fence. She listened as she served Nazi and SS officers their dinner and passed along news of raids to her friends in the ghetto. She transported Jews in a horse and buggy to hiding places in the deep forest. She hid a dozen Jewish men and women in the basement of a German officer’s house. Not bad work for someone who was “only a girl.” While the Germans may have underestimated her, the Russians considered her a dangerous Partisan resistance fighter–and she was.

I may not be faced with life or death decisions this week, but every day I am given the choice to act with kindness and love–or not. It is in making those small decisions that I can develop the habits and character that would lead to the courage to do the right thing in more desperate circumstances. I hope that I will one day show the courage that Irene did.

“Trust the Gush” to “Second Genius”

True confession:  sometimes I am as bad as my students when it comes to revision–or as it may more truthfully be called–resisting revision.  You see, I can write pretty good first drafts.   I tell myself that I revise as I write, and it is true that I agonize over my words and even cross out as I draft.  But the truth is, once I have a draft down, I want to be done and go on to the next thing.

Yesterday, I had a chance to revisit my resistance to revision as I spent the day in a workshop with Tom Romano.  (If you ever have a chance to work with Tom Romano, run to sign up as fast as you can.  He is wise and witty and one of the most intense listeners I have ever encountered–a master teacher.)  Through reading and discussing and writing, Romano asked me to do the things I ask of my students but that I don’t often do myself.  It was good to take on the role of a student and remember the power of the things we do as teachers.  I came away with a wealth of ideas, but I want to focus now on two aspects of writing:  drafting and revising.

We started with a picture.  I don’t know how many times in the past year I have come across writers sharing how they use sketches and doodles and images in their writing process.  I even ask (insist, really) my students to draw when writing or responding to literature.  I assure them that it’s not the artistic ability that matters.  It’s the focus on images that is powerful.  Can I draw?  No.  So I don’t use drawing when I draft or revise.  I might be missing out on a powerful writing tool.  Yesterday, I started with a picture because Romano asked me to.  I didn’t follow the directions and create frames for a storyboard.  Mine is more free-flowing, centered on the indelible image I chose to write about.  Don’t laugh at my stick people..


The next words of wisdom offered were “Trust the Gush.”  I hope Romano won’t mind if I steal this phrase to use with my 7th graders next year.  Trust the words that pour out and don’t worry about them….yet.  Even though I was sleepy after lunch, I did get started on a story that has been at the top of my mind for some reason this summer.  I didn’t finish the draft, but I got a good start in the fifteen minutes or so we got to write.

I stared at the window crank on the car door.  Which way was I supposed to turn it to close the window?  For the life of me, I could not remember.  And it was for my life that I had to remember.

Bees covered the outside of the window.  One by one they crawled through the tiny crack that had been left open.  Once inside the care, they immediately dive-bombed the two largest targets they could find–my little brother and me.

As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms around.  So did my brother.  It didn’t do any good.  The bees kept  coming in.  Ten, twenty, thirty bees.  I could feel  jabs of pain on my head and across my arms, but I couldn’t stop it.

After what felt like an eternity, I tumbled over the seat to land behind the steering wheel.  I knew I had to shut the window.  My brother was beyond hysterical.  My dad had run off to avoid being stung.

Not bad for a quick draft, but Romano then asked us to look for “second genius” by revising, tinkering with our words.  I didn’t change much in the time we had, but I could see the impact those few changes gave to this piece of writing.  That’s the power of revision that I want to share with my students.  They, too, can tinker with changing verbs, cutting extra words, adding sensory details.  I hope they see the power for themselves.  Here are the changes I made in the third paragraph:

As the first few bees wormed their way in and buzzed around, I began screaming and flailing my arms.  So did my brother.  It did no good.  The bees swarmed through the invisible crack in the window.  Ten, twenty, thirty bees.  The buzzing swelled louder than our screams.  I could feel hot jabs of pain on my head and arms, but I couldn’t stop it.

I’m still tinkering and excited about where it will lead.


Two more memoir book trailers

Here are the last two of the book trailers my morning classes did over the memoirs we read.  I am thrilled with their productions.  I’m not so thrilled with the technological problems we encountered.  We did learn much from this experience, including patience and perseverance.

Here is another book trailer for Night by Elie Weisel:

The last one (but not least) is over The Lost Boy by Dave Pelzer:

Ghosts of War by Ryan Smithson

Ryan Smithson was just a teenager when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  After graduating from high school, he joined the Army Reserve.  At age nineteen, he was sent to Iraq.  His book, Ghosts of War (Harper Collins 2009), chronicles that year in Iraq.

Like most people here, I learn about what happens in Iraq through the news media–television, newspapers, and magazines.  Smithson gives a glimpse of what the war is like from a different perspective–that of the soldiers living through it every day.  The war in Iraq looks pretty different through those eyes.  I am glad I had the opportunity to read and learn from his story.  I want to thank my student, Jeremy, who donated a copy of the book for my classroom because it is not the kind of story I would have picked up on my own.

For my students who are still wondering why we read and write so much, I want to share with them from Smithson’s story.  Once he is back home, he struggles to readjust to the life he had before.  His family wants to know what it was like, but how can he find the words to describe it?  It is literature that gives him the answer.  First he describes how reading helped him during his time in Iraq:  “Every book was alive as I read it, lying in my sleeping bag.  I wasn’t in the godforsaken Middle East fighting a war.  I was in my own country:  a country of the mind…High school defines literature with terminology…But experience defines literature as more than words on paper.  Not just escape, but more important, words that have the power to heal” (Smithson 295).  That’s what I hope my students learn to take away from the reading they do.

While taking a college composition class (that’s a writing class), Smithson first writes about one of his experiences in Iraq.  With his teacher’s encouragement, he shares it with his classmates ate the end of the semester.  It is difficult to read, but doing so changes both his classmates and himself.  I love how he describes the power of story:  “It’s funny, but all I did besides sit in a dump truck during the ambush was write a story about it.  It’s funny, but the story is what matters.  The story is what changes, at least for a moment, the way these people feel.  And what an empowering sensation it is to share it” (Smithson 300).


Memorable Memoirs

Once again, I am blown away by your writing.  Here are some of my favorite memoirs that you’ve posted on your blogs.  If you haven’t yet, click on these for some amazing reading!

It is definitely worth your time to read these.  As always, leave a quality comment to let the writer know how much you enjoyed it!

Maus II by Art Spiegelman

I’m not a big fan of graphic novels, but sometimes I will read one that I can’t put down.  That was the case with the very first graphic novel I ever read, Maus by Art Spiegelman.  The same is true of its sequel Maus II.   My thoughts are still haunted by the words and images Spiegelman uses to portray the horror of the Holocaust experienced by his father Vladek.

Maus II picks up Vladek’s story when he enters Auschwitz.  By a combination of luck and wits, Vladek survives the horror of Auschwitz and is even able to help his wife Anja, but the horrors never leave him.  The horrors continue to haunt him even until the present day.

Spiegelman alternates Vladek’s survival of Auschwitz with scenes from the present.  Vladek’s second wife has left him (his first wife, Spiegelman’s mother, commited suicide).  Now Art and his wife must help Vladek through this crisis and failing health.  Art is torn with guilt.  He loves his father, but his father drives him crazy.

Maus and Maus II are powerful introductions to the Holocaust.  If you have never tried a graphic novel, these will convince you that the form is not just for comics.

Where Were You?

I was at school, teaching a class of eighth graders.  Here is my story:

September Sky 

            “Where did I put that stack of papers?”  I muttered to myself as I looked for the copies of the handouts I needed to give my first class of the day.  “There they are!”  I seemed to always be scrounging at the last minute to find what I needed for class.  When would I ever get organized?

            “Mrs. McGriff, did you hear what happened?  A plane ran into the World Trade Center!”  Josh told me as he came into homeroom that morning.

            I looked up at Josh in disbelief.  “Josh, you can’t believe everything you hear.  That’s how rumors get started.”  I was always amazed at how quickly news traveled around the middle school.  Somehow without radios or televisions, my students seemed to know what had happened as soon as it had happened.  Of course, by the time the news made the rounds of the school, it had often changed quite a bit.  I knew from past experience that Josh—like many middle school students—was quick to pass on news, but did not often check the accuracy of what he heard first.

            Soon homeroom was over, and students in my second period class came into the room.  Small groups of students stood around the desks, talking and laughing before beginning the work of the day.  I hastily checked one more time for the handouts on using commas that we would go over in a few minutes. 

            “Hey, Mrs. McGriff, did you hear that a plane ran into the World Trade Center?”  Cory asked just as the bell rang.  Several other students looked up at me.

            Oh no, I thought.  Would this story not ever go away today?  But still, Cory was generally a pretty responsible student.  There was only one way to put an end to this and get on with class.   

            “All right, class,” I said.  “Let’s turn on the television.  If something like this really happened, it will be on all the channels.”  I couldn’t imagine an airplane running into the World Trade Center in New York.  It’s not like the pilot couldn’t see them from a long ways off.  And besides, I knew from my experience as a pilot that small planes couldn’t just ride over New York and buzz the tops of apartment buildings.  With as many airplanes that flew into and out of New York, small planes weren’t even allowed without meeting specific guidelines. I never imagined that someone would deliberately fly an airplane into a building.

            I turned on the classroom television, hoping to put an end to this latest rumor floating around school.  Little did I know that my whole world was about to change because Josh and Cory had been right.  I stepped back from the television, expecting to see one of the morning talk shows.  Instead, the somber faces of Peter Jennings and other reporters filled the screen.  The classroom grew silent as the reporters related that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. 

            Over and over again we watched the video play of the second airplane crashing into the other tower.  Plumes of white smoke poured into the bright blue sky.  I struggled to grasp the enormity of what had happened.  Before our eyes first one tower collapsed and then the other.  There was no hope for the people left inside.  The twin towers had their own zip code.  How many thousands of people were killed when the towers crashed?  What was it like for the people on the plane, knowing that they were going to crash into a building?  Did they know what was coming?  Not even the news reporters seemed sure of what was going on.   I could not get my mind around the fact that terrorists had hijacked two, three, four airplanes and deliberately crashed them into buildings.  Every time I thought of what it must have been like for the passengers on those planes, my mind ran into a brick wall.  It couldn’t be possible.

            Fear began to fill the room as other news reports filtered in.  A plane had struck the Pentagon in Washington.  Another plane was headed for the White House.  A plane crashed in Pennsylvania.  All airplanes had been ordered to land at the nearest airport.  Where was my brother?  He was a flight attendant for Delta.  Had he been working on one of the planes that crashed? 

            Several students began to cry.  I looked around the classroom.  My students’ faces reflected the questions in my own mind.  I was the teacher.  I was supposed to have the answers to their questions, to know how to lead them through this crisis.  But I didn’t have the answers.  I didn’t know what to do.  All I had was more questions.  Could I cry in front of my students?  How could I listen to their questions when my mind was racing with unanswered questions of my own?  I struggled to think of what to tell them that could help them cope with what was happening. 

            All through the rest of the day, I watched the news reports with my classes.  I still didn’t have any answers to their or my questions.  I still don’t have answers today.  I don’t know why any one would hate our country so much that they would be willing to die and to kill so many innocent people.  As I seek to find a sense of peace and safety in a world that has been changed forever, I echo the prayer my daughter repeated before dinner each night for months after this day:  God, please be with the people on the airplane and in the building.   


Ten years later I still don’t have answers.  I relate so well to Alan Jackson’s song “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning.”  I will take time today to remember, to reflect, and to pray.  I mourn for those who died and stand in awe of those who rushed to help.  I give thanks that our country not only survived, but we have grown stronger as we pulled together. 

How will you remember and honor the legacy of 9-11 today? 

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