Overuse of the Verb To Be

before the race
Good writers use a variety of specific and vivid verbs to avoid repetition …


Recently my colleague, Jane, suggested that we think of people as “doers rather than things.” She wrote that if we can make this change we allow people to move on, to be something other than a “static” idea. And this week I’m struggling to embrace her ideas – I struggle to see myself and my family as a “work in progress.”

Over a year ago I wrote about the Boston Marathon bombing; I wrote about the strength and purpose that I find in running long distances outside. In that same blog post I complained about an injury and admitted to grumpiness. I concluded that I could live without running and that I’d get over being grumpy, but that I loved being a runner. I recovered enough to spend thirty straight days in the back country that summer. I carried a heavy pack for over a hundred miles and I felt strong. After I came out of the mountains, I ran three long trail races and worked-out harder than I ever have. I was a runner.

Turns out I was also blissfully unaware. As I amped up my training time I also collected nagging injuries, nothing serious – just tight this and tender that. I ignored my aches and pains and kept running. I suppose I was the only one surprised by my eventual inability to train. Last June, I completed a half-marathon thanks to a generous injection of steroids and gritted teeth. I haven’t been able to run more than a few miles since then. Not running makes me feel like I want to gnaw my arm off.
It’s not that I can’t exercise. The problem is that I’d begun to think of myself as a runner. Now I just make excuses. I feel the obnoxious need to explain myself, to reassure innocent bystanders that I am, in fact, a runner.

The thing is I also claim to be a writer and a teacher and a mother. Until recently I didn’t see the potential danger of these characterizations. I was proud and certain of the descriptions. I wore them around like armor, flashing them to prove my competence. I’m not sure who I thought was paying attention.

Most of us feel a genuine need to know who people are – we naturally seek common ground, or at least understanding. So we ask people, “Who are you?” “What do you do?” And most of us curate our “I am” responses. We present our best selves and edit for context. So what happens when our go-to-answers are out of reach?

One of my best friends likes to remind me that experiences make people happier than the things they buy. She read this somewhere and she has become an ambassador of “experience happiness.” Instead of buying toys and gadgets, she’s builds elaborate experience gifts for her family and makes beautiful photographs of their adventures so that it’s easy to remember the fun. I think I’d rather collect fun than categories. I’d rather remember the experience of running a race, than lament the bygone notion that I am a runner.

In some ways mothers are always mothers, writers are always writers, but at least right now in the middle of pre-teen parenting chaos, two full-time jobs, and hunting season most static identities feel too big. The categories are hard to leave behind, but change is essential to being human. Accepting that my self-imposed characterizations aren’t helpful and that they do change, should be empowering. It is at the very least inevitable; we are all works in progress. So today I will do some teaching, some parenting, and maybe even some writing. And if I’m lucky, in time I will do some running. Or maybe I will buy a road bike. Or start swimming. In any case, my focus will evolve. Right now I cannot be a runner, but I can seek experience. And change. And progress. I can always be a seeker.

~ Sarah

The Song of the Ungirt Runners

We swing ungirded hips,
And lightened are our eyes,
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
We know not whom we trust
Nor whitherward we fare,
But we run because we must
Through the great wide air.

The waters of the seas
Are troubled as by storm.
The tempest strips the trees
And does not leave them warm.
Does the tearing tempest pause?
Do the tree-tops ask it why?
So we run without a cause
‘Neath the big bare sky.

The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.


Curiousity and Sabbaticals

We bring you a guest post by  Judy McDowell, a nurse-practitioner who teaches at Sheridan College, but who is currently on sabbatical.




I am on sabbatical leave from my teaching position! I had been thinking about what “being on sabbatical” means both before I started my leave and now that I am on leave. I always thought of sabbaticals as something professors did after they had been teaching at a university for at least seven years and that they would do extensive research during that time. Although other faculty at Sheridan College have taken sabbaticals, it has never seemed quite the same and perhaps not a legitimate. So as I thought about that and wondered about why I had these feelings, I started thinking about teaching and why people teach in the first place.

I went to a family reunion last June and spent three days with family members whom I had not seen in a long time and their children whom I had never met before. We spent one evening talking about the things that we do and where we do them. I was struck by the number of people in the group who were teachers. Not only that but the number of our ancestors who were teachers. All of them teach but none of them/us teach the same things. Is there an underlying reason for becoming a teacher? What is it that makes people go into teaching? Is there a genetic reason? Is it how we were all raised or at least the similarities in our upbringing that makes it such a dominant career choice for those in my family? Is it an acceptable career choice especially for women? Is it a desire to share information with others? Is it curiosity about the world and how things work? I suspect it is a combination of all of these things, probably not so much genetics except perhaps as that relates to temperament.

While it is interesting to speculate on the reasons for such a trend in my family, how does this relate to sabbatical? While it is not so true now, 30 years ago teaching was one of the few career choices that was considered ok for women to pursue. So this may be a reason for the number of women who are in their 50s and older who are teachers. This was definitely true in my husband’s family. His mother and all of her sisters were teachers. This is not so much the case now and interestingly many of my male ancestors were teachers, so pursuing this avenue for work is not just influenced by gender. There are some very important similarities in the upbringing of my family members. We were all taught to be curious and to read. I can remember being told to look things up, “make it a learning experience”, from a very early age and so it has become a habit. It is a habit that my husband and I have passed to our children. So does modeling curiosity teach a sense of curiosity? And sharing information, is this learned by seeing sharing modeled and does that encourage us to share with others?

I think that all of these things play a role in the backgrounds of those who are teachers. But in order to be good teachers I think that the desire to share information and a strong sense of curiosity are key. There must be a drive to learn more about the world and how things work, connect, and impact life.

So back to sabbatical. It was hard for me to apply for the time because I felt that perhaps I didn’t have anything to do that was worthy of time away from teaching. I also felt guilty about the increased load my colleagues would need to shoulder so that I could have the time off. It didn’t seem like sabbatical was something that those of us teaching at the community college level really needed.

This is faulty thinking. Teaching is about curiosity and sharing of information. In order to be good teachers, we need to be curious and pursue those paths that interest us. What better way to inspire those we teach than to model that spirit of inquiry. Learning about those things that make us curious takes time, time to seek and learn and time to assimilate and think about how what we are learning will affect our lives and how we teach. Taking a sabbatical gives us that time. So sabbatical leave is not something only university professors are entitled to take. Sabbatical leave is critical for all educators in order for them to stay inspired and in order for them to inspire others.


Judy McDowell


Speaking at Goddard College: Mumia Abu-Jamal



Recently little Goddard College in Vermont where I teach in the low-residency MFA in Writing program has been in the news because the 25 graduating members of the undergraduate BA and BFA programs asked Mumia Abu- Jamal to speak at their graduation ceremony. Mumia Abu- Jamal is in prison for life because he was convicted of killing a Philadelphia policeman. Mumia is a graduate of this program, which he was allowed to complete because it is a low-residency program, and he did not have to come to campus. My purpose here is not to talk about whether or not he is innocent or guilty but rather to talk about the language that the media used when reporting on our undergraduates’ choice. Inevitably the headlines read something like “Cop-killer asked to speak at graduation” or “Goddard College asks cop-killer to speak at graduation.”   This defines Mumia Abu Jamal as one thing, when in fact, he, like all of us, is many things, a writer, a radio host, a journalist, a thoughtful critic of our educational and prison systems.

I remember a conversation I had with an acquaintance a number of years ago. This man was a psychologist who had studied violence in a number of different cultures. He told me about a member of the Cree tribe who asked him, “Why do you English always say that someone is something? We understand the people are always becoming something and that behaviors change. We do not say that someone is a thief, we say he is stealing because we understand that the stealing behavior will change and he will be doing something else.”

It strikes me that the language around Mumia Abu-Jamal insists that he is stuck at the moment in his life when he was convicted; he is, in the eyes of the media at least, always a “cop killer.” But that moment was more than 30 years ago, and clearly Mumia has been doing other things. This language of “cop killer” also freezes that users of the language in that moment as well. One reporter on Fox News kept repeating the phrase as she talked with the wife of the slain officer and with the public information officer from Goddard. She was clearly stuck in the moment and had no interest in moving on. (Not to mention the sensationalism around the phrase “cop killer’ and its alliterative nature, which makes it stick in our minds.)   When we become stuck on the nouns, we do not allow for growth or for change on the part of the person designated by the noun or the person applying the noun.

When we think of people as “doers” rather than “things,” when we think about people as “singing” or “writing” or “thinking” or “killing” or “ stealing”, we allow them room to move on from that activity. We are not defining them statically. They are not locked in one moment of time, but nor are we.

I do not mean to diminish the crime, nor do I wish to engage in a discussion about whether or not he is guilty of the crime, nor do I wish to get involved in a discussion of the conditions of prisons, or the prison industrial complex, but I do want to highlight how our language discounts growth and change. Mumia has spent more than 30 years in prison, reading, writing, learning. He might well have something to say to undergraduates about that experience. It should not be a scandal of national proportions that a group of students might want to hear what he has to say. It speaks well for these students that they can see beyond the “cop killer” label, and can see that people are works in progress, not insects stuck in amber, labeled forever for one part of our lives.



The Intolerable List

sheridan fallIt’s hunting season in Wyoming. The days are bright and warm, the evenings chilly, sometimes even frosty. Animals are beginning to move down the mountain, away from the cold air and early snow, into the eager sites of camouflaged men and women. I tolerate hunting season. My husband has always hunted, my father hunted, my sons are learning to hunt. We fill our freezer with pronghorn, elk, and deer meat every fall and we eat lean, grass fed dinners all year long. Hunting is part of our culture, something I accept and would likely defend. But I don’t participate and I’ve made the rookie mistake of anthropomorphizing countless furry targets.

My boys are all out after big game this weekend, so I’ve had plenty of time to think about how I will make another week’s attempt at flawless parenting. I’ve sorted through backpacks, smoothed out crumpled homework assignments, and washed 13 loads of laundry. I’ve planned the week’s meals and copied the week’s football games on to the family calendar. The routine is comforting. I have successfully created the illusion of control. I’ve got this.

Then I remember that I’d rather have my kiddos home playing kickball or riding their bikes than out shooting wild animals. I’m a bit stuck (And I hit this parenting wall often). Strangely, I think it’s about tolerance – when do I let my kids deal with yet another part of the world on their own? When do I turn them lose to decide what they believe, to decide how they will negotiate the sticky differences in people and culture? When do I tell them that not everybody thinks they should get to gun down their own steaks?

I’ve often told myself that I’m raising tolerant children. They’ve got a politically liberal mom and traditionally minded, conservative father. We’ve traveled and talked openly about the world, about human rights, and culture and our family’s (wildly differing) faiths. We complain about politics and take them to the polls with us. But when it comes right down to it, there are many things I just cannot tolerate and I feel desperate to make sure they won’t either.

I am intolerant of conversations that are anti-science or anti-intellectual; I refuse to acknowledge that marriage equality and LGBT rights are anything but top human rights priorities; I no longer have the patience to debate the legality of abortion or the reality of global climate change; do not argue with me about the necessity of vaccinations or fluoride in our water. The moon landing is real. Antidepressants work. Not all Muslims are evil.

My intolerable list is embarrassing, not because the list is full of trivial matters that shouldn’t occupy brain space, but simply because the list exists at all. The very concept that there are ideas that I cannot stand to be around indicates that I suck at tolerance.

Or does it? Maybe it’s just about choosing my battles. Most people do not change their minds about religion or fluoride. Maybe I should just keep quiet (Yeah, right. I can hear my Cody’s snicker now). Or maybe it’s about education –about the need to expose my children to more differences; maybe I need to seek understanding instead of seeking to be understood.pronghorn

Frank and Luca came home from their pronghorn hunt with a dead animal and new camouflaged snow boots. I took one look at the Realtree™ boots, rolled my eyes, and tossed them in the mudroom in hopes that the boys would lose track of them in the pile of winter gear. Cody went back in and organized all of the boots, lining up my plain black boots next to the new camo. “Lighten up,” he said. I glared and said something rude.

The bottom line is I want to be a person who has the toughest conversations. I value all of my friendships – even with those who vehemently disagree with me. I do not want to live in a world where we all agree (talk about boring). Some of the most satisfying conversations begin with opposition and end with nodding. I don’t want my boys to miss out on those brilliant moments. So maybe my intolerable list isn’t completely useless. At least I am aware of my biggest biases; the first step is admission.

Stopping by Woods

2014-03-08 12.11.07


Not long ago, I had a conversation with a well-educated friend who doesn’t know a lot about poetry, and I mentioned “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” This friend said, “Well, that poem’s about death, isn’t it?”

I paused, “It might be, but it might not be.” And then I realized that a simple lunch time conversation was not going to be enough time to explain what I meant, so here’s the long answer to that comment.

Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” might be about death, but it is much more about a simple moment in the woods where the sensory experience involves sight and sound. The poem has a certain uneasiness about it, but that uneasiness is calmed and then reinstated throughout the poem. Here’s the first stanza.

Whose woods these are I think I know

His house is in the village though.

He will not see me stopping here,

to watch his woods fill up with snow.

The narrator of the poem has stopped to watch snow falling in woods belonging to someone else. “He will not see me” indicates that the owner of the woods might not be pleased to have someone else observing “his” woods, but more than that the tetrameter line with its four beats per line leaves the reader a little uneasy, unlike the very satisfying pentameter of the sonnet Furthermore, this first stanza establishes the unusual and disconcerting rhyme scheme in which the first, second and fourth lines rhyme but the third does not.

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near,

Between the woods and frozen lake,

On the darkest evening of the year

In the second stanza, that odd rhyme scheme and the unsettling rhythm are still present, but by now, the reader had become a little accustomed to them However, in this stanza, Frost established that it is late December (darkest evening of the year). He also establishes that the watcher is not alone. He is with his horse, who, according to the speaker, probably has an opinion about stopping. The “without a farm house near” and “ between the woods and frozen lake” tell us that this woods is isolated. The only beings are the narrator and his horse.

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

Here the poem really addresses the senses. We have the bells in the first line. If readers have any imagination at all, they can hear the bells in the otherwise silent landscape, silent the way only falling snow can be. Then Frost gives us the most beautiful lines in the poem, “the only other sound’s the sweep/ of easy wind and downy flake.’ The “s”sounds and long “e” sounds create the sound of that wind on our ears. If we are careful readers, we are transported to that place (or some place where we have experienced that silence) and feel both on our faces and in our minds, that “sweep / of easy wind and downy flake.” Then we come to the last stanza

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.


In this stanza, the repeated “ee” sounds echo on our ears. He breaks the rhyme scheme he set up earlier in the poem, so that all four lines rhyme, rather than having that disconcerting odd rhyme in the third line. This provides a kind of resolution. But is death that resolution? I don’t know. What I see is a man who has stopped to savor, with some trepidation, the loveliness of the snow in the woods on his way to somewhere. We don’t know if he is on his way home; we don’t know if he is on some other errand, but he has had a sensuous experience in the woods. The poet has provided that sensuous experience for us. He has left us with a repetition “and miles to go before I sleep” which, of course, leads us to the idea that these are not literal miles, or are perhaps both literal and figurative miles. However, I am not so sure that we can assume that he means that those figurative miles are about death. We all have, unless, we are really close to death, figurative miles to go before we sleep.

What I am left with after reading this poem hundreds of times is the moment, that moment when the narrator is alone in a world of falling snow, and the wind sweeps easily (reassuringly) across his face, it’s a moment of peace. The uneasy meter and the unexpected rhyme scheme lead us to think that the narrator’s world is not necessarily peaceful, but that this moment, this chance stopping provides a small moment in which the wind is easy and the flakes are soft and downy, like feathers.

Is this poem about death? I don’t know. I won’t jump to that conclusion. Rather, I will savor the sensuousness of that moment in the woods and the snow.