Jeff Oaks

The Writing Life, Writing Prompts, Essays on the Ordinary

Some Trouble with Poetry

It’s hard to be in love all the time, I want to say. Remember when you were young, and each poem you found was like a flash bulb going off, a revelation, a new world of permissions? Maybe even poetry gets tired, I want to say. It’s so old now. But what I want to know is what’s wrong with me, I think, that poems don’t have that light right now. I was young, maybe, and didn’t know how hard the world works to erase delight, to stymie joy, to hold onto its stupidities, its angers, its fears. I couldn’t believe that once I knew about these things that the world wouldn’t crack open, because after all, who was I? Maybe this means that I’m tired. Maybe I know too much to feel hopeful now–the extinction of ocean fish by 2048 was the headline this morning’s stab in the heart. The police forces corrupted by seemingly unchecked racism, the political field seemingly corrupted by corporately sponsored inaction, the forces of art largely coopted by fools given money to create foolishness, the forces of nature burnt down to the ground or destroyed by a humanity that can’t control its own growth, the forces of the soul corrupted by loudspeakers and mega-stadiums of greed and fear.

There are amazing writers writing now. Even I would admit that, even in the midst of this current–what? sadness? blankness? inability (like Lana Turner in Frank O’Hara’s famous poem) to get back up? There are great things happening. I hear and read about them. Conversations started and joined and enlivened by new perspectives. And which of the masters I have had–Galeano, Neruda, Rilke, Dickinson, Cavafy, Heaney, Bishop, Rich, Plath, Hughes–gave up on the essential power of the imagination, of the human spirit, to subvert the dominating powers of governments, history, sadness, cruelty, shame? You can do a little good maybe just to admit to your weakness, I want to believe.

I have been using Tumblr as a place to assemble images, some famous, some contemporary art, that struck me. This morning I was looking around and found this quote from artist Richard Tuttle:

“Our culture is anti-hand; it thinks it’s better to work with your head. Everybody aspires to go to college, so they don’t have to work with their hands, yet hands are a source of intelligence. You divorce yourself from a part of your intelligence without them. To work with disembodied hands is perfect; you have all the intelligence, but don’t submit to the sentimentality that says handmade is more valuable. The “maker’s movement” is not sentimental…”

And I’ve been thinking what I could do with my hands again: writing in my journal, drawing on paper with charcoal or painting again, putting together the long wished-for workshop on my third floor. Something to wake myself up again, get me out of my exhausted head. Solely for myself, I tell myself, even though I also suspect I’m fooling myself there, in the same way I fool myself sometimes into writing things for this blog by saying it’s just for me.

Yesterday I had a great conversation with one of my freshmen writers about humility, a topic he was writing about and wrestling with personally. What was an appropriate level of it, he wants to know. What’s the relationship between work and being humble, he’s wondering. He is in college to become a doctor but was struck by some short pieces I had them read and write responses to, including a few poems by my colleague Terrance Hayes. Did I have any room in my Intro to Creative Writing class next term? We sat a long time, talking about nothing afterward, the meal he was going to cook for his family for Thanksgiving (it involved thyme-butter, I remember), the difficulty of scheduling classes, how tired he was of school. The very stuff of a poetry.

Paris, Friday 13, 2015

The danger is getting stuck here.  

The danger is moving too fast away.

The danger is forgetting to breathe

again. To play music. The danger is simplicity,

the either/or, the us or them, the with

or against.  The danger is the blood

on the streets! The danger is inventing

the city of flowers. The danger is

ongoing, hours and hours of resistance

in the forms of patience. After hurt, 

therapy feels like pain. To take a step now

helps against a dangerous rigor later. How

to exercise the first muscles of hope? Bodies count.

Someone you know screams for more death. 

Grief and Gratitude: some notes

We don’t do grief well, my family. Gratitude either. Both of them require a level of vulnerability we don’t trust. Anger is much easier, especially if it’s combined with righteousness. 


I saw this the other day and of course posted it to my FB wall. Four Rituals a Neuroscientist recommends to fight depression basically. The short version is this:

1. Think of what you’re grateful for. 

2. Label your feelings

3. Make “good enough” decisions to act.

4. Touch people and animals
I noticed I had no problems with 2 through 4, but gratitude makes me itchy, uncomfortable. What’s the difference between it and privilege? Would making a list of your privileges be as good for you neuro-chemically as it seems gratitude is? 


“The benefits of gratitude start with the dopamine system, because feeling grateful activates the brain stem region that produces dopamine. Additionally, gratitude toward others increases activity in social dopamine circuits, which makes social interactions more enjoyable …”

All these quotations are from Alex Korb’s The Upward Spiral. I’m trying to feel for the difference between being grateful “toward others” (who have helped one see or grow in some way, I guess) and being grateful for “the things” you own as in

“One powerful effect of gratitude is that it can boost serotonin. Trying to think of things you are grateful for forces you to focus on the positive aspects of your life. This simple act increases serotonin production in the anterior cingulate cortex.”


Why I’m interested in the difference between gratitude and privilege is a good question. There have been enormous crimes committed in the name of privilege of late, masked as a number of things–self-defense, social need, love, adherence to religious dogma. I have been, as I want to think anyone with a heart and mind is, reconsidering many things I’ve likely been taking for granted, namely, what is a privilege I want merely to hold on to because it makes me feel safe, what is something to be grateful for because it opens me up to change? 


Once I would’ve crushed without thinking the small white spider who just showed up at my elbow as I write this in the coffeehouse; spiders make me feel unsafe. But this time I didn’t kill it. I looked at it. It’s beautifully made, a thing I’ve always thought about spiders. I watched it tap and walk around the edge of the table and then disappear underneath. I felt the restless sense I always feel around spiders when they disappear around me. There is no way it can hurt me, I know. I keep writing; I put it in my writing. Am I grateful to it? 


I have a student with a theory–that those people who have to work for the things they have respect them more than people who are so rich they can instantly replace whatever they lose or break. It’s not a terrible theory to hold, but I couldn’t help but point out to him that whenever he describes the things he has worked hard for, he invariably portrays himself as guarding those things, as being obsessed with keeping them safe, as terrified of loss. Think of what an advantage the rich have then, I said. They don’t have to waste energy on preservation. And think about how trapped you can become, spending all your energy to preserve the fruits of your labor, if that fruit is only things. 


Somewhere there’s a story I read in which a beggar and a king both beg the Buddha to teach them. Everyone assumes that this will be a story in which the beggar will show himself, through his suffering, to be the king’s moral superior, but then the Buddha tests them both. He sets the king’s whole kingdom and magnificent robes on fire. Then he sets the beggar’s sole possession, his loincloth, on fire. The king lets it all burn. The beggar screams and runs away. 


Gratitude can be a way not to grieve. Gratitude can be a way to get to grief, which is why my mother poo-pooed it. She hated to feel grief. The avoidance of it was a major part of her life’s work. She told me that once. She called me as I was walking my dog along the river one evening and said, “I just realized what I’ve been doing my whole life is avoiding grief!” She had the sound of a woman suddenly standing in sunlight. I think I said Congratulations!, thinking then that she was pleased to have arrived at such an insight.  “But at seventy-six, what the hell am I supposed to do with knowledge?” she said, clearly at a loss.

Luckily for us, and I wish I could have told her then, writes Alex Kolb, “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.” 
I do remember thinking that that moment of realization did help her later, when she was first diagnosed with cancer, and even later, when it was clear her time was limited. She’d long gotten rid of anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary in terms of things, so why not all the old fears and angers too? She was so grateful to have two doting sons at the end. As for grief, she worried more about ours than hers. 

The Field

Once upon a time, my mother and I pulled off the road, walked into a field of golden grass and weeds, and disappeared. We took a bucket of chicken I think we’d bought in Geneva, either at KFC or at the local knock-off The Red Barn. I don’t remember if we had a blanket, if we had anything to drink, if there were biscuits or napkins or sporks. I don’t remember what we talked about or might have talked about. I don’t remember why we were on the road, although I do remember it was a country road, a road that wound through and around farmhouses, stables, fields. It was a day of bright light and tall weeds, so I’m guessing late summer or early fall.

We were probably playing hookie from our lives. My mother loved to drive. It rested her mind, I think, to be moving. Her favorite things involved travel, adventure, seeing new things. When she was upset or bored or depressed, she drove, inventing sometimes errands she had to run, things I needed for school, groceries that could only be found a half hour away, books in distant libraries she wanted to read. There were a million excuses, but she liked the ones that sounded practical, that she wouldn’t have to explain to anyone, or more likely, since to my knowledge nobody asked, she didn’t want to explain those excuses to herself. She’d grown up in a very practical family; those habits were deeply engrained in her.

Still, she was given to urge to escape her normal life. Since I was too young to leave at home, she usually took me along. Maybe twice a year, she’d write me a note to skip school and we’d go to the racetrack and bet on the horses. Every time we did, my school guidance counselor was also there, and he and she would nod politely. On weekends, if I were growing bored and sulky, she’d suggest I go along with her on errands. “To blow the stink off” is how she liked to phrase it.

We’d drive out, windows down in those days without air conditioned cars, out past the houses and names we knew, out past the big fields of endless corn or wheat or grass whose only inhabitants we could see were big hawks perched on fence posts or telephone poles, out and out until I’d forgotten the point of our driving, why we were going and to where. Often, she’d stop at a barn or garage sale, and while I tried to vanish with embarrassment, she’d get out and look at what other people were willing to part with, have a little conversation with a few strangers, and then get back in, usually empty-handed, and drive on.  

We’d meander like that until we got to where she’d said we were going. Or we’d get to a place where I assumed she wanted to go–a store, a library, a lake. Usually, it would be a place where we could do something, where we could return to the world of doing things.

Maybe that why when she pulled over that one day, it surprised me enough to make a memory of golden grasses and bright but not hot light. I loved my mother, and I often loved having her all to myself on those drives, and I mark that picnic with her, that time in which we both disappeared from whatever was going on in our lives, as one of the most important moments in my life. We left the car behind on the side of the road. We found a place among what I imagine now as the buzz and pulse of late summer, early fall insects. We opened our bucket of joy, and we let the world absorb us. For ten minutes, an hour, how long, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me now. How long does a poem by Rilke take to read? How long does it take a horse to run around a track? No time at all really. 

What Have You Learned From Your Students So Far?

It’s the third week of teaching here, which means the window for painlessly adding or dropping classes is over.  The syllabus we spent our time arranging, thinking about, imagining, scheduling, is our musical score, our contract, our travel guide. We have the students we’re going to have for the rest of the term. 

Now come the tests of all of that. My students are beginning to push back in small ways against the requirements of the first big essay assignment. I’m getting the occasional email with the “I had a question about the assignment…,””Would it be okay if…?,” or “What format do you require?” Sometimes the answer is Check the syllabus; sometimes it’s that sounds interesting; sometimes it’s a longer exam plantation of what I was thinking a student should practice in the piece. 

The texts, which looked so promising in the summer, so full of life and potential, have become blocks of utilitarian weight, things to be talked about, explicated, worked through, struggled with. God, they have to be re-read!, second-guessed, frisked for triggers and difficulties, inspected for deficiencies. Everything has now become The Work. Everything now will be expected to contribute to The Class, The Goal, The Product. 

Mostly, that’s perfectly fine, and as it should be. But I was thinking the other day of the kind of anxiety that descends upon us teachers about now because of that quiet pressure that will surround everything we’ll do from now on. So many of my friends have gotten sick, reported “nervous breakdowns” (not the real kind, of course, but that kind of anxiety that’s been waking us up in the middle of the night), and just generally become grumpy, prone to one word answers, lingering in public places, asking everyone How are you doing? 

I’m in a department that loves to “conceptualize” everything we do. It leads to some amazing teaching but it’s also fucking exhausting right now. It implies that everything is conceptualiz-able, and implies that it can be controlled or sculpted ahead of time if only the instructor is smart enough, the concept rigorous enough. “Rigorous” is an important word in our department too. 

But now is the time when that the hopefully irresistible force of the syllabus meets the possibly immovable object of the class. Which one will change? If you’ve taught for a while, you know the answer is both, but even if you’ve taught for fifty years, you can’t always predict how or where or when or why. It becomes part of the joy to see what happens. 

If you’ve a new teacher, it can be terrifying because you don’t yet know that you can handle whatever happens. When I started, as I’ve said elsewhere, I thought I had to keep control over everything. It took a few years before I realized I could survive even when everything I’d planned went wrong. I learned to do something fairly simple: I turned and asked the students what was going on for them. 

And if I called on the most quiet student first, I could usually get to the heart of the trouble. And there are many kinds of trouble that can be going on: for freshmen now homesickness is setting in, the full import of their multiple class work is setting in, illnesses are beginning to sweep through the dorms (listen for the sniffling during in-class writing sessions!), they are struggling with their identities, majors, love lives, social lives, alcohol consumption.  It can also be, in even the advanced classes, that the students need to adjust to the requirements you’re making on their abilities to read, write, think, speak, and imagine. 

So, what if you shift down your expectations a bit? What if instead of covering three things that day in class, you cover one thing? What if you ask them to write instead of talk? Or vice versa? 

I sometimes think that any teacher training program ought to include lessons in improvisation the way any theater program will, because much of what any teacher does is perform.  You might have then at least one resource if a class plan fails horribly. I also think it wouldn’t be a bad idea if teachers took some time to actually talk to their students, which many often do, afraid that asking questions might lead to an unproductive intimacy or a diversion from the syllabus which is so over-scheduled that to divert from it is to almost guarantee an unrecoverable disaster to The Product. 

It’s hard to believe that a bad class doesn’t mean the end of your teaching career. I think that every time I’ve had one. Oh, it’s over. I’ll never be able to face them again.  I had the same problem with dating early on. And with friendships. And with publishing (if a journal rejected poems I sent, I never sent again!). Over time, with experience, I learned that things fall apart and you can almost always find a way to make things come back together. Maybe it’s just a change of approach. Maybe it just needs a conversation with a friend or colleague, so you get out of yourself.  It might take a little time. If things go really bad, you always let the class go early; almost nothing will earn you more points with the students than letting them out. Very often, one of them will email you later to say, “you know, I’ve been thinking…”


Establishing Authority: Finding a Teaching Persona–some notes for new TAs

Hi all,

I haven’t blogged in a while because I’ve been working on a number of projects, including getting my life back after my wonderful time in Scotland, which, while truly wonderful, also screwed with my normal schedule for fall preparations. I still have some work to do on my syllabi but otherwise I’m pretty much caught up now. One of the things I’m doing this year is serving as a member of CEAT which is our acronym for the Committee for the Evaluation and Advancement of Teaching here at Pitt. We work with graduate students who will be teaching Seminar in Composition for the first time. We just had our orientation week, aimed at helping the graduate students get a sense of what they’ll be doing as they enter into the conversation about writing and teaching here, which is a serious and deep and complicated one.

One of the things we wanted to talk about to the teachers was establishing your authority in your classroom, and once I finished my notes, I thought I might use them as a blog post and so cover up the lack of a blog posts the last month. I know many people who are out there teaching, maybe for the first time, maybe for the hundredth time, and these would be helpful to the first or these might provide an occasion for the latter to add their own experiences and exercises and advice.

Good luck to everybody!


Notes of Establishing your Authority in the Classroom

In the largest sense, something to think about here is what authority might look like or sound like to you. Think about your best teachers. How did they establish their authority? why did you pay attention to them? Do they have methods can you borrow from? Make a list of things that you liked as a student.

In terms of practical ways, dress: Are you a three piece suit teacher? Are you a polo and khakis teacher? You don’t want to be either too casual or too uncomfortable. A light armor of business casual is good enough for me. I believe in basically having a uniform look every class so I fade away as a spectacle. Generally, choose a spectrum of comfort for yourself and play with it a little to see which one you might feel most comfortable in.

In terms of personality, I’d also urge staying cool and move toward warmer and take your time. There will be a terrible temptation to become warm very quickly and you might resist that for a little while, at least until you know everyone’s name without the attendance sheet, which I recommend doing as soon as you can. You may be the first professor to actually know their names this term. You may be the only one to know their names all year. That is a powerful thing, and will go a long way toward giving you some respect. Remember they want to feel as if they and the subject are being treated respectfully, not tyrannically or over-casually. If you can figure out that balance for yourself, you’ll go a long way toward finding your teaching persona.


Some related practical advice and warning about keeping your authority intact on Social Media as a Teacher: I’m on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and I blog on WordPress. One of the great effects of social media is that it breaks down certain social walls and allows conversations between people who might not otherwise know or feel they are allowed to talk to each other. It has made me connections with other people that have really enriched my life.

BUT It is a leveling technology; it can create false intimacies that will undermine your authority. You don’t want to be social with your students. You also don’t want to be reachable all the time to the students; they get really nervous sometimes and will not necessarily have the inner restraints not to want to chat with you at all hours of the day. Don’t give them the chance to turn to you for every little question they might have. They get your email but not your phone number, too, by the way.

So, my social media rules: I don’t ever friend or accept friend requests from undergraduates. Never. Graduate students, because I don’t usually teach graduate students, are fine. It is in general inappropriate to friend anyone you will need to give a grade to or may be in a position to grade. It is also inappropriate to quote from student work at any time on social media, so never do that. Even if you think you’re praising them. General questions about teaching are okay to talk about with friends, of course, but be careful to keep questions as neutral as you can. Don’t call students (or your fellow colleagues) idiots or brats or sexist or racist or homophobes; they may very well be, but everyone here is learning and trying out ideas and discarding ideas and becoming new people, and although it can sometimes sound like it’s complaint we live on here, it is really hope and curiosity and possibility. In general, deal with your own questions on your own wall or account or blog but especially leave the students out of it.

It is hard sometimes; you will get exhausted and frustrated by teaching and you might despair or want to scream to somebody to get the frustration or panic off your chest. And there is always social media for us to turn to. Resist. Raise a firewall against it. This is a good time to pick up a journal and write it all out. NOTE: I will always have free journals in my office if you need one. This is a time to actually talk to real people, face-to-face, not to your social group who might not have any idea what you’re doing but will have all sorts of ideas about what you should do about it. Facebook cannot hug you or buy you a coffee or hand you a Kleenex the way a colleague who has gone through the same damned problem can.

Personally, because I’ve seen this happening more and more lately, I’d also suggest you resist turning to the hivemind of Facebook every time you have a question in your teaching, for answers or for “more suggestions for reading about how to deal with….whatever.” That is one of the great uses of social media but it is also a danger—that we stop thinking for ourselves, that we constantly ask others for suggestions and figure out how to address the questions that will come up for us in our own classrooms on our own. You’re going to face problems that are incredibly local and weird to your class and how you deal with them will form your authority to teach. That is exciting from where I stand, having done that for almost three decades, but I understand if it feel terrifying to those of you who might not have done it before. But, trust me, you will. You’ll be great.


You don’t expect yourself to have all the right or correct answers to everything.

You should know when there are real answers to things. Like your attendance expectations. Students may ask you how you grade and how will you answer? Be transparent as you can about what is important to you. Students will be appreciative. Know why you’re asking them to write this particular assignment, what the goals are, that there isn’t a single way to get there but what the important things to work on are if things become unclear. The difficulty with being clear about your expectations and then sticking to them is that the first part can be easy because you’ll have a list of things to read to them the first day and you can refer to that if any questions come up, but, when a student comes to you after missing a number of classes that put her over the absence limit, and she begins to cry or plead or call you and your rules unfair, it can be hard to stick by your rules. Similarly in class, if you’re going to ask people to comment on things in class but then you don’t let them talk, your authority can suffer. Students do not like to be let down, but they do want to be surprised that writing can be interesting.

Most of them have read and love reading, but they come in skeptical of this class, of us, of the purpose of having to write in an academic context. They are right to feel all of that, I think. It’s our job to help them see the possibilities. Because, ideally, we love to write, we think writing and reading are great, we know how much fantastic thinking and feeling and life-changing work is out there, we will embody our enthusiasm about writing and reading and thinking. They want to see adults who believe such craziness, which is why they’ve come to college in the first place. I hope you believe in those things for all our sakes.


When I was beginning, I was very much the nervous introvert, and I wanted to be liked too much. I think I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to control everything, which is what I thought I had to be, forgetting of course that almost none of my favorite teachers were like that. I thought I needed to map out every second and therefore I left no time for actual discussion. Some people can get away with that, and can do beautiful jobs. But when I did that and asked a student a question and got an answer I wasn’t expecting, I didn’t know what to do. I went completely blank, like an actor forgetting his lines.  It turned out that the improvisation I had to do after that was actually what my students needed. They needed conversation, which is after all mostly improvisation. Conversations don’t happen in a too tightly controlled classroom.  Leave yourself some room.

Keep in mind that a certain amount of vulnerability can be helpful. You can say you don’t know something if you don’t know something. It’s a good model to be truthful. If your students know that you’re a writer too, that you work on poems, stories, essays, reviews, a dissertation, and if you can occasionally bring your shared sense of the difficulty of writing well into the classroom, you can encourage quite a lot of fellow sympathy and empathy among the members of the class. Don’t talk about your work very much. I will say that if I’m giving a reading that term, I often invite the students so they can get a sense of what I do.

So think about where your strengths as a person are. I’m interested in people, I’m a good listener, and I’m genuinely curious about what other people make of a shared text. I’m also genuinely interested in the work of writing, of the process of it, and I have quite a lot of information about how different writers have gone about the work. What I learned to do is to blend that basic self with a kind of self who can also shepherd that basic self’s bad habits. For example, I wander off topic easily and joyfully. I still get stunned sometimes and lose my train of thought if a student comes up with a reading that seems to come out of left field.

Questions for your journals: Five minutes: Make a list of what your strengths are, what you’re already good at—talking to groups, working with individuals, whatever you already know or feel pretty confident about.

Then make a similar list of things where you do not feel like an authority (or would have trouble presenting yourself as an authority, with any authority). Or sources of anxiety for you. These are things to talk to other people about.

Time Management:

You may at first want to put a lot of time into teaching, especially if you haven’t done it before. It takes a little while for some people to get the rhythm of teaching into your nervous system. It can be frustrating but by doing it more and more, you’ll get it. I’ll speak here a bit as a writer: Be gentle on yourself as you go through this process. I recommend setting aside some time during the week that is regular where you can write and read as you need. You will need that to keep your sanity and yourself grounded. It’s the reason you’re here, and it won’t help you at all if you spend all your time on your student writing and none at all on your own. Be prepared to find your own writing changing, sometimes radically, because of what you’re teaching. Follow the impulses out. Teaching can be immensely enriching to your writing life! But you have to do both of them in order for them to enrich each other.

You may want to simply give yourself some small deadlines-X pages a week, one story a month. Generally your workshops should give you those deadlines. Keep a journal if you don’t think you’re able to create anything directly. Maybe you can only make a paragraph of description or dialogue or make a list of writers you want to read. Maybe you can only manage to write a poem by your favorite poet into your journal. Do that then. Don’t think you have to get all your papers done immediately—you can decide to grade 4 or 5 papers a day (Brenda) or to only do two a day. I do most of my grading on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, in a coffeehouse. I grade for a couple of hours, write for a couple of hours, and then go home, walk the dog, read, watch tv, listen to my husband talk about crazy things that have happened to him at work. I also try to write when I can, usually the mornings I’m not teaching. That has made a very good schedule for me.

The important thing for me is this: be gentle on yourself and do what you can. If you feel overwhelmed, come to my office or one of the faculty’s office, and we will give you a writing prompt.

Think about your time management abilities: Are you someone who tends to wait to do all your work in one huge chunk in one or two days or someone who can work over smaller chunks over a week? Where in your current schedule can you find a little time, even if it’s only twenty minutes, to write in a journal, outline a paper idea, describe a character?

You’ll be fine. Remember to breathe.  The mantra is something like this: Be generous and breathe; all the rest is commentary.

Eating Offal: notes from Scotland

I tried the Haggis; it wasn’t bad, although, because it’s made of ground sheep offal (read: anatomical parts no one wants to visibly eat) mixed with oats and spices, all non-Scots expect it to be bizarre, awful-tasting. It’s at once a joke and a test, a question I wanted answered early about myself. The texture was a little strange to me, not being brought up on minced meat, but it was not unlike those meatloaves the cook has put just a little too much bread into.

There were a number of things that turned out to be, if not a complete pleasure, not as bad as I’d thought. The problem was always in my imagination, never on my actual tongue. 

I tried both freshly opened oysters and scallops (as in: I was on the boat I saw the fisherman’s hand use the knife to pry open the shells and then cut “free” the life (called euphemistically “the meat”) inside from its life), and as I tipped the shell into my mouth, I was surprised that the goopy sliminess I imagined (as in: a snort of snot, a squirt of jizz) didn’t exist and instead they possessed a density any slightly salted steak might have. 

Too late I tried the Cullen Skink, a sort of stew of fresh haddock and potatoes which I then could not get enough of, because I knew the word Skink as a salamander and I had a hard time swallowing lizard, never mind that skink means in Scots a shin or knuckle of beef and laterally a soup made from bits. No question: the best bowl was on the Isle of Arran, in an excellent small bistro called Fiddlers, which is where I finally ordered it, if only just to say I’d tried it. After that, I wanted it every time I sat down.

Carrots and potatoes and, oh holy of holy root vegetables!, parsnips. Baked, buttered, carmelized, fried, dauphinoise (mixed with cheese and cream), the quiet good of the earth, the too-often rejected. 

The sticky toffee pudding was in fact a piece of sponge cake made with dates and drenched with caramel or butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream. Pudding, that word haunted by puddles and mud and thick goos. That I hesitated ordering this even once because I thought I knew what pudding meant haunts me still. 

Pitt In Edinburgh: a dictionary 

It’s finally raining in Edinburgh. We were warned it might be constantly raining or misty or precipitating in some way, but we’ve had wonderful weather, somewhere between 50 to 75 most days. Some days have been glorious sunny and bright, some have been more overcast, but this is really the first day of the kind of rain I was expecting. It’s almost a relief. We’ve also had two full days off from our schedule of museums, buildings, and trips. 

The students’ entries at the class blog have been building up, creating, I hope, a sense of how this trip is making them think differently, reconsider their expectations and stereotypes of The Scots, and challenge themselves to be braver. If you’re interested, click on Pitt In Edinburgh and you can read what they’ve been doing for the last few months.  This week and weekend, they’ll be writing and publishing an Edinburgh Dictionary–short pieces that revolve around an encounter that starts with a particular letter. 

Writing Prompt


It’s been a long week. Here are some of the highlights:

Trips to the National Museum of Scotland, to the Museum of Edinburgh, a climb up Arthur’s Seat and a visit to Holyrood Palace. We’ve learned to hop busses, developed a set of landmarks, grown more comfortable in the city. It does take time to make mistakes, try new things, not take one’s self so seriously. I’m finding myself chatting with one of the cashiers at the university cafeteria now. She’s a generous woman, quick to laugh, to put a stranger at ease. 

We’ve had so much to do beside teaching that I’ve let the blog go for a bit. I’ve been learning to use Notability for making comments, working with students on their pieces for our blog at After teaching, after the visits to museums and hikes around town, I’ve gone home exhausted. Sometimes after dinner, I have enough strength or willpower to make comments on student work. 

This weekend, we spent in Skye, at a beautiful hostel where we were the sole inhabitants. We saw some castles on Friday on our way to the hostel, toured the island of Skye, with its fairy pools and fairy glens and a variety of sights, most of which we couldn’t see because of clouds. This morning we went out with a fisherman for scallops, tasting fresh ones from the loch, then ones sautéed in garlic and olive oil. Then we headed to Loch Ness for a boat ride on that monstrously dark body of water, then a quick trip to Culloden and the Clava Cairns to appease some of the kids who are addicted to the show Outlander and hoped to touch a standing stone on the Summer Solstice and disappear into the past. Almost every place we’ve gone has had an entrance to the fairy world somewhere nearby. The students and we professors have all looked longingly into the cracks in stones, listened hard for the sound of fairy musics. 

I write this one road home, tired and happy and full of admiration for Scotland, largely because of our guide Nory, who has been driving us around and telling us wonderful stories about Scotland’s history. Cuihlain and (Ska ha? ) , the Old Man of Storr, billy McKrinnon(?), and the whole saga of the Scots from Robert da Bruce to Culloden. He tells the stories with passion and humor, and it’s been really lovely to be a listener. I’d like to really read the Celtic myths, which I haven’t really read since I was a child. Ossian, Seamus McCrae, fairies, kelpies, and the underground kingdoms. I’d forgotten the richness of the stories, how they knit the place together. In the end, although we’ve done some wonderful things, it’s been the stories that have been the country we traveled through. 

Everyone’s ready to get back to their comforts in Edinburgh, but we’ve also been changed by the stories and the histories, the ruins, the beautiful lochs, fishermen, musicians, shaggy cows, sunstars, fairy streams and black lakes. Each monster makes us more interesting. What mountains and forests will we carry back to our comfortable beds, our familiar haunts? Every education requires some space to dream in. We want to dream now. 

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