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Archive for October, 2014

Cora PoolerHands down, Cora Pooler by Dottie Rexford is the best Amish novel I have ever read. It’s got everything: mystery, beautiful writing, great characters, and an enticing plot line.

Cora, the title character, left her Amish community twenty years ago due to the birth of an out-of-wedlock baby. (Yes, it happens in those communities too.) Cora gave away the baby, refused to name the father, and was shunned by the community.

She went to live as an “Englisher,” the name the Amish have for people living in modern society. When Cora feels the need to reconnect with and reexamine her Amish past in a way that will resonate with any reader older than twenty, there is a subtle yet palpable shift from the vibrant fast-pace of city life to the mysterious romance of nature. Rexford’s descriptive abilities are powerful and bring the reader fully into the sensory elements of a scene. I relished such evocative phrasings as “I heard birdsong, running fox feet crackle the dead ground leaves beneath them [. . .], the drop of a weak branch heavy with ice.” There is a cozy mystery feeling to this story, reminiscent of a Daphne Du Maurier or even an Agatha Christie novel, save with a reflective, religious twist.

Amish girls

Amish girls

Surprisingly, Cora has never left faith even though she has left the Amish. When she decides to return, it is to unravel mysteries of her family’s past as well as of the heart and soul. The reader will appreciate the skillful implications of every decision and thought Cora has.

Rexford presents us with a microcosm of the timeless battle of faith versus faith. She does it with the patient, delicate strokes of a maestro. The picture left in the mind’s eye is unforgettable. This is a book readers will wish to retain on their bookshelves, for it is filled with gorgeous writing. If one reads only one “Amish” novel in a lifetime, this should be it.

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It would be an understatement to say my students inspire me. Content is the A number one thing that grabs me–that and realness. When student writers do that, I don’t see any grammar or punctuation errors because I am so gripped by story. Last week I had the honor to read many such essays.

This is one of the best: 944706_638532842827353_1720103819_n

The Balancing Act of a Competent Marine Sergeant/Squad Leader
By Stephen Perry

Sergeant Caleb Bensen wasn’t an immensely imposing man. Bensen only stands at about 6 feet tall and weighs in at just under 180 pounds. An imposing figure, while not always necessary to a squad leader, helps to inspire fear, which is useful for motivating subordinates. What makes Bensen such a magnificent squad leader is his ability to command respect, not only from his underlings but his superiors as well.

Bensen is possessed of a skill that is highly valued in the Marine Corps: competence. Few other leaders in our company could boast the level of competence that Bensen had. Whereas other leaders would complete tasks by the book, which means that simple tasks might require hours to perform, Bensen could find a simpler way of doing things that would save everyone time. The commanders would often take note of Bensen’s ability to coordinate so well with the members of his squad. While no leader was by any means ignorant, many lacked the creativeness of Sgt. Bensen.

Several of the other leaders in the company would always find ways to set themselves apart from the members of their squad. This is to avoid what is known as fraternizing and to ensure orders are always obeyed. A friend telling another friend to run through a hail of bullets doesn’t persuade with the same weight or urgency as an order given by an aloof superior. With Bensen, however, not one member of our squad would ever question such an order (even though he was on familiar terms with his subordinates). Bensen was more than just a leader; he was also a friend. Bensen had no issue with sitting on a post with members of his squad through the long hours of the night while others might prefer to relax in the heated command post. Bensen would always rather stand in the cold among his friends.

Short fuses are a part of everyday life in the Marines. I can hardly remember a day in which nobody was being yelled at for something. Bensen on the other hand very rarely needed to yell. That’s not to say there wasn’t punishment distributed for any wrongdoings, but Bensen was never mad when he did these things. Even while Skyping with his fiancé who was back in the USA, Bensen always managed to keep his calm composure. Bensen was able to keep his calm even when others would snap at him. He was able to recognize that others were just going through a hard time.

Bensen was able to lead his men through some of the darkest days of their lives. His ever-contemplative mind, friendship and composure prevailed in our time in Afghanistan. For not all the battles we fought together were physical; many of the battles we fought raged within ourselves. However, thanks to my leader Caleb Bensen, I survived those times. His success as a leader delivered us all, enabling us to return home.

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G3There are times when people really and truly should write. Those times are not always completely concerned with writing for money.  The motivation for writing may be a little bit about money, but the satisfaction and therapy achieved from writing can be priceless, transcending values imposed by money.

I have felt much in tune with these non-financial factors in my capacity as writing teacher as well as that of writing judge.

In the first case, I have been allowed into the lives of students through their essays. I have  learned what my students are coping with, what they have learned from, and what they are aiming for. Sometimes the goal a writer describes is something as humble as being happy to go to work. The significance of that goal is without measure–our physical and psychological health is impacted by our happiness or unhappiness in our workplace.

I am not sure my students understand how valuable their writing is to me. Everything they write tends to impact and inspire me. This is useful writing, from student to teacher. Though I take advantage of these opportunities to demonstrate where an apostrophe shouldn’t go (as on every single –s) or where a semicolon needs to be replaced by a comma, knowledge for which I am paid, these student essays inspire me in their content and spirit.

Nothing is too trivial to make an impact. Recently, a young lady who has followed me from English 252 to English 125 confessed that she put a happy face on her Facebook Wall after a disclosure that she worked with her sister. In reality, she was not as happy as the happy face indicated. She wrote in her essay that she had been hiding a bad attitude about her job. As a young mother of a baby, all she really could think of was whether she had expressed sufficient milk and if she would pass her classes. The last thing she wanted to do was log eight hours a day in an office with her sister (who was kind enough to insist upon employing her).

This essay resonated with me deeply because I too have been guilty, at times, of harboring a bad attitude. Sometimes I grow impatient with my job, which is to teach academic writing complete with all the formatting, grammar and punctuation necessary, to college students. Naturally I would rather be J.K Rowling or Stephen King. I would vastly prefer sitting in my ivory tower writing acclaimed masterpieces of fiction.

This same young lady explained in her essay that she was able to start changing her attitude. She found that filing or any other mundane duty she had to be nagged to accomplish in the past became something she learned to take pride in, thanks to her change in perspective.

Her words pretty much flew up into my face. Like any other human being, I too have struggled with this change in attitude and found that when I win, I am happy. When I feel useful and helpful to students, I feel really good about myself. But there is the icing on the cake that I am focusing on here–my students’ essays are interesting. They help me forget where or who I am, they make me think about someone else’s day, family or life, and I often find parallels with my own life.

This has always been one of the pluses of being a writing teacher. I am positive that every other writing teacher will agree.

I also work as a writing judge. While many of the books I read are similar to each other, there are often unique entries. Some of these entries are by writers whose lives have been so unexpected,  and who are so brave, that again I am seized wholly.

Writing does that. It links humanity. It gives us a sense of communion and community. Social gatherings, though useful, are liable to ostentation, discrimination or other weaknesses that may prevent noble human interchange. When we write, we get real, and we touch each other at the center of our beings.

 

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