Category Archives: Bits and Bobs

Excerpts from a Letter

Well, we have been back in school for a few months now and much has changed. First, I no longer sit like a lump at school. I have a lot to do at the primary school now that my observation period is over. I focus mainly on remedial work. I work with the three to five of the slowest learners from grades four to seven. I was originally supposed to be teaching them the same lessons that the English teacher does in class. After my initial assessment, however, it was clear to me that this would not be possible. The majority of the kids have trouble or cannot read a book meant for an American second grader. A few of them cannot read at all.
… I am working individually with [Grace,] a girl from grade six. She didn’t know the alphabet when I first met her, let alone letter sounds. Last week she read her first book. It is a simple book called “Cat”, but it is a book all the same. The teachers here are all really hard on the learners… When I had a parents’ meeting with Grace’s mother and the English teacher… they told me that she was a lost cause, beyond help, lazy, and doesn’t want to learn… After she finished reading the book, I went and brought that teacher into the room. I asked Grace to read for her while this teacher watched. She read the whole book with no help and no difficulty. The teacher sat there dumbfounded, while Grace proved her wrong.
Grace is one of my many learners who improve daily. My boy from grade seven who had trouble even writing his own name also read his first book last week. Lesego from grade five was able to tell me the entire alphabet correctly for the first time Friday. My learners who are more advanced than these kids and do know the alphabet and letter sounds have improved a grade level at least in their reading. I will take many things away from this experience I am having in the Peace Corps. What I will never forget, however, is the smile on a child’s face when they are proud of themselves. The small things are why I am here.
My library is underway. Nine other Peace Corps volunteers and I have teamed together to get a huge shipment of books through Books for Africa. With a lot of help from our friends and family back home, we are coming along nicely. The Department of Education here will help deliver the books to the different schools [when they arrive]. I have managed to get shelves donated and other things I will need for my library, so I believe it will be a success.
My primary school also wants to start a garden. It is a big task to undertake in a village with sand as soil and no water. I am doing what I can with my principal to try and make this happen, however. I will be attending a Permagarden workshop put on by the Peace Corps in the beginning of April. I also recently attended a Permaculture workshop organized by Food and Trees for Africa. Food and Trees for Africa is a great organization. They give trees for free to schools that will take care of them. A school can ask for as many as they want and whatever kind they want. I could ask for 500 plum trees if I wanted. I will partner with them in a project called Trees for Homes. They give a tree to every person of the village. The people are able to choose if they want a fruit tree or a shade tree. If they choose a fruit tree, they choose the kind of fruit. A person in the village then gets paid a stipend to make sure the trees are being taken care of properly. It is a big task to organize, but being able to bring hundreds of trees to my village gets me beyond excited.
…It is cooling off a bit. That means it is no longer 104 degrees in my room. Now it is down to a chilly 80. It is funny to think how cold everyone was, myself included, when it got down into the 70s. We were all wearing sweatshirts or jackets and shivering. I was under my nice cozy blanket. Winter is going to be brutal.
That is it for now. I just returned from my neighboring truck stop (kind of like a 7-11 with a smaller selection open for less time) where ten kids came to greet me screaming “Ausi Lerato, Ausi Lerato,” and it looks like they have now followed me home.
Love to everyone back home,
Katie or Ausi Lerato (Ausi- sister, Lerato- my African name, meaning love)
To donate to the Siphumelela project and help get these books shipped to Katie’s learners, click here. Please spread the word, tell as many people as you can about this… all these kids want are books.
And, of course, we’re your happy depository, so drop off whatever you can, whenever you want.

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“Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,”… elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.”

See what Your Brain on Fiction looks like.


Just when you think a phenomenon has gone and died forever, someone ends up in the hospital over a LITERARY ARGUMENT. Can’t wait to know what this was about. (“Tolstoy was the master!” “No, you ignorant scum, Turgenev is God!” “How dare you! [Punch]”)

Kidding aside, I hope the poor guy is okay.

However, I can’t say the same for this brilliant commenter who chose to type the following words at 3:37 pm on March 19:

“This is why I don’t read books. People who read tend to be anti-social and violent as we see here. Plus aren’t all great writers drunks? Probably rubs off on their fanbases.”

So right, yet so wrong.


Books I can’t wait to read next week:

V.S. Ramachandran, the Director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at UCSD: “In this elegant and provocative book, Sam Harris demonstrates—with great intellectual ferocity and panache—that free will is an inherently flawed and incoherent concept, even in subjective terms. If he is right, the book will radically change the way we view ourselves as human beings.”

Free Will, by Sam Harris


“A powerful, blazingly honest memoir: the story of an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike that broke down a young woman reeling from catastrophe—and built her back up again.”

Listen to the NPR interview here.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed


“In When I Was a Child I Read Books [Marilynne Robinson] returns to and expands upon the themes which have preoccupied her work with renewed vigor.

In “Austerity as Ideology,” she tackles the global debt crisis, and the charged political and social political climate in this country that makes finding a solution to our financial troubles so challengin. In “Open Thy Hand Wide” she searches out the deeply embedded role of generosity in Christian faith. And in “When I Was a Child,” one of her most personal essays to date, an account of her childhood in Idaho becomes an exploration of individualism and the myth of the American West. Clear-eyed and forceful as ever, Robinson demonstrates once again why she is regarded as one of our essential writers.”

When I Was a Child I Read Books, by Marilynne Robinson


Books I’m glad I read last week:

“Stunned to learn that her son, Sam, is about to become a father at nineteen, Lamott begins a journal about the first year of her grandson Jax’s life.”

For those of us who cherished Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year this is something wholly different, but still in possession of the same wit and tenderness.

A Journal of My Son’s First Son, by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott


Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth: “Susan Cain is the definer of a new and valuable paradigm. In this moving and original argument, she makes the case that we are losing immense reserves of talent and vision because of our culture’s overvaluation of extroversion. A startling, important, and readable page-turner that will make quiet people see themselves in a whole new light.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain


“Julia Severn is a student at an elite institute for psychics. Her mentor, the legendary Madame Ackermann, afflicted by jealousy, refuses to pass the torch to her young disciple. Instead, she subjects Julia to the humiliation of reliving her mother’s suicide when Julia was an infant. As the two lock horns, and Julia gains power, Madame Ackermann launches a desperate psychic attack that leaves Julia the victim of a crippling ailment.”

Doesn’t that sound like loads of delicious fun? It was!

The Vanishers, by Heidi Julavits

Have a quiet, wonderful weekend, everyone. And happy reading!


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“one of those magical places wise people like to talk about”

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Welcome, Spring!
Here’s how Lilly feels about you:
“Such Singing in the Wild Branches”
Mary Oliver
from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays
It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves –
then I saw him clutching the limb
in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still
and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness –
and that’s when it happened,
when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,
and the sands in the glass
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward
like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed
not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them
were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last
for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,
is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?
Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.


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Take me home!

Austin Kleon, of Newspaper Blackout fame, gives you permission to steal. He also tells you what’s good stealing and what’s stupid stealing. Also, why you’re stealing even if you don’t know you’re stealing. And, importantly, how to get out of your own way while stealing. In Steal Like an Artist, a tiny adorable book with lots o’ drawings, Kleon shares maxims, tips, quotes, anecdotes, rules… inspirations(!) for the creative person.  For those who need permission to screw up and write/paint/dream/grow/      insert creative verb here      drivel before they produce the masterpiece each of us is capable of (it’s okay, even I can’t tell if I’m being ironic here.)


Here’s Ray Bradbury in 2008  for The Big Read, presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. Definitely worth eight minutes out of your life.


The Guardian, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, asked some authors for theirs. Here’s Geoff Dyer’s list. Click here for the rest.

1 Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.”

2 Don’t write in public places. In the early 1990s I went to live in Paris. The usual writerly reasons: back then, if you were caught writing in a pub in England, you could get your head kicked in, whereas in Paris, dans les cafés . . . Since then I’ve developed an aversion to writing in public. I now think it should be done only in private, like any other lavatorial activity.

3 Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.

4 If you use a computer, constantly refine and expand your autocorrect settings. The only reason I stay loyal to my piece-of-shit computer is that I have invested so much ingenuity into building one of the great auto­correct files in literary history. Perfectly formed and spelt words emerge from a few brief keystrokes: “Niet” becomes “Nietzsche”, “phoy” becomes  ­”photography” and so on. ­Genius!

5 Keep a diary. The biggest regret of my writing life is that I have never kept a journal or a diary.

6 Have regrets. They are fuel. On the page they flare into desire.

7 Have more than one idea on the go at any one time. If it’s a choice between writing a book and doing nothing I will always choose the latter. It’s only if I have an idea for two books that I choose one rather than the other. I ­always have to feel that I’m bunking off from something.

8 Beware of clichés. Not just the ­clichés that Martin Amis is at war with. There are clichés of response as well as expression. There are clichés of observation and of thought – even of conception. Many novels, even quite a few adequately written ones, are ­clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.

9 Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct. This is the most important rule of all and, naturally, I don’t follow it.

10 Never ride a bike with the brakes on. If something is proving too difficult, give up and do something else. Try to live without resort to per­severance. But writing is all about ­perseverance. You’ve got to stick at it. In my 30s I used to go to the gym even though I hated it. The purpose of ­going to the gym was to postpone the day when I would stop going. That’s what writing is to me: a way of ­postponing the day when I won’t do it any more, the day when I will sink into a depression so profound it will be indistinguishable from perfect bliss.


From a section titled Daily Program:

Mornings: If groggy, type notes and allocate, as stimulus.

If in fine fettle, write.

Evenings: See friends. Read in cafes.

Explore unfamiliar sections- on foot if wet, on bicycle if dry.

Write, if in mood, but only on Minor program.

Paint if empty or tired.

Make Notes. Make charts, plans. Make corrections of MS.

Note: Allow sufficient time during daylight to make an occasional visit to museums or an occasional sketch or an occasional bike ride…

Henry Miller’s Commandment #5:

When you can’t create you can work.


Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?

I didn’t. But I do now, because I read this book. And today I am one book smarter than I was two days ago. What is smart, anyway? This book answers that question, too. Pretty good book,  wouldn’t you say?


In conclusion, watch this. Ideas are such funny little guys.

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Tails I win, Heads you lose.

UNESCO voted to admit Palestine. As a result, the US pulled all funding. Gabon, a country the size of most Americans’ closets, pledged $2 million to UNESCO. There’s a law involved. Also, a good measure of some serious politicking. If you want to learn more, see here, or, you know, just Google it. Your head will spin. 

It’s unlikely that the US pulled funding in order to punish innocent children desperately in need of resources. It’s also unlikely that Gabon is taking the money out of its own people’s hands solely for the purpose of helping the aforementioned children. This whole thing is about something totally different and it has nothing to do with children or education or hungry, displaced people or the futures of these… Except those are the very things it affects.

In order to laugh hard enough to confuse your tears away, please watch this and this.

So far, we have collected (and ourselves donated) ten boxes of children’s books to send to the school in South Africa where Katie Roberts is volunteering. We continue to add to our growing stacks and implore you to let your friends and family know about this cause. The only problem is, we can’t send these books until the fund, called Siphumelela, collects $16,000. So far, just $5,945 has been amassed. To learn more about this, please click Here.

There are too many laws, too many agendas, too many codes of morality to contend with. All we can do is act ourselves in whatever way we’re able to, for whatever cause it is that moves us.

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the bursting-ness of the season

“Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night.”

~Rainer Maria Rilke

Three favorite spring poems that make me feel the ripe bursting-ness of the season, I always re-read these around Easter/Passover time, and give them as gifts, folded up in eggs. 

Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest, but he didn’t miss the deliciously sexual nature of the season in this poem, and I’ve always loved how contagious the joy in it is. You really must read it aloud, it’s even more luscious than chocolate bunny ears in your mouth.
by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
And this one because I dare you to read it and not go skipping down the street.

[in Just-]
by e.e. cummings
in Just-
spring          when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles          far          and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it’s

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloonman whistles
far          and             wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan          whistles


While the other two poems are about the wild, sprawling, juicy nature of spring, this one is about the perfection, the hush, the quiet majesty of blooming and beginning.
[Spring is like a perhaps hand]
by e.e. cummings
from The Complete Poems : 1904-1962
Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere)arranging
a window,into which people look(while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here)andchanging everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there)and

without breaking anything.

Spring is one of the four most wonderful seasons of the year. We love it as much as Summer, Fall and Winter here at Portrait, and we invite you to celebrate it with us as we share the art and literature that encapsulate what spring means to each of us. What whispers or roars “Spring” to you?

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Oh rapture!! Today is National Pie Day.  Well, not precisely.  Really, it’s National Pi Day, in honor of the mathematical constant π (3/14, get it?) however, we pie people are not about to pass up this onomatopoetic opportunity to adore pie. This magnificent mash-up of two of humanity’s greatest achievements was obvious to the math geeks too, since pi day’s originator, Larry Shaw, physicist at the San Francisco Exploratorium, designed the festivities to include marching around one of the Exploratorium’s circular rooms, and then…what else…consuming fruit pies!  This started in 1988.  The U.S. Congress voted it as a National Day in 2009, and more likely celebrated it by throwing pies at each other.

It’s a gorgeous spring day here in Southern California.  A perfect day to make a pie – sunny and inspirational yet fresh and cool enough to help keep gluten in check for the perfect flaky crust.  I made a pie last night, in anticipation of the day, because really there is no more ambrosial and fortifying breakfast than apple pie. This was a homey Apple Dumpling pie from Anne Dimmock’s little gem, Humble Pie.  It has some family heirloom recipes, but really it’s a read-it-again-and-again “Ode to Pie” – the Zen of making pie crust, the politics of pie, state fair pie competitions, the kinship between pie and baseball, and (something every woman should know and practice) judging a man’s character according to his pie protocol.  Her story about the mechanics who got her back on the road after a weekend breakdown and signaled with their deeply longing glances that no fee could equal the value of one of the two freshly baked family-destined pies waiting in the back seat confirms my own experience.  There is no end to the all-round helpfulness and joyous brotherhood of mankind that a home-baked pie will provoke.

The American Pie Council has declared January 23 as the non-mathematical, wholly pie-devoted National Pie Day.  Save that date for next year, and rejoice that there are several π/pie dates coming up in April and July.  Vicious in-fighters that they are, scholars have competing theories of most-appropriate pi dates.  All that could ever amuse and educate you on this subject is here  – on the Real Pi Day website, which declares that Pi day “should not be tied to the grubby political vagaries that resulted in the Gregorian calendar’s accidents of number.”  (ref. U.S. Congress, above).  We pie enthusiasts aren’t going to quibble; we’ll eat pie on all of these candidate days, and April is so packed with pi/pie possibilities (the 16th, 26th, and 29th)  that I’m going to go ahead and declare it National Pie Month.  July offers Pi Approximation Day, held on July 22 since the fraction 22/7 is a common approximation of π.  Pie thanks its kissin’ cousin Pi for all this bounty. We’ll pie-party on like an ancient Egyptian with a nut-and-honey galette, a Roman with his placenta, a Medieval Englishman dreaming of coffyns, traps, and pyes, and our 21st century PIES!


P.S. After more than 200 years in print, Encyclopedia Britannica will never again see another print edition. Just think, you’re like the guy on whose watch the pager became obsolete. Lucky you. Nevertheless, let us observe a moment of silence, please.


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