We can’t go back

In the 1590s, Shakespeare penned:

Now is the winter of our discontent
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour’d upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried

Now is 2020: The year of our discontent. Heavy clouds of pain, anger, injustice enshroud our houses, our cities, our minds, our days. COVID-19 cases still spike, yet to reach their peak. Flocking to the oceans no longer makes for a “glorious summer,” with crowded beaches described as ‘Petri dishes’. Many people are still out of work; some have lost their entire livelihood. Stress levels are so high, my dental hygienist tells me, that offices are being flooded with people whose teeth are cracking from grinding and whose joints hurt due to anxiety-induced inflammation. America is a nation, if not indivisible, then certainly fractured, almost soul-split (anyone recall Tom Riddle and his horcruxes?) over the complexities of recognizing and amending institutional racism to something as simple as wearing a mask. We ask: When and how can we go back to school, safely? No one really knows, although plans are being made, submitted, approved. A greater question: How can we go back to school, to life itself, as it was?

We can’t.

We must not.

Now is THE time to be discontent with what was. With what is. A time to break down and a time to build up, to reinvent, redefine, reunite.

In light of everything, a litany:

We can’t go back
to what what works for some but not all
to ideologies and theories
over actual ideas and self-actualization.

We can’t go back
to wearing blinders
to plowing on
in the same mentally-furloughed furrows.

We can’t go back
to resurrect what we’ve killed
on the altar of systemic oracles
on the sudden late revelation
therein lies no salvation.

We can’t go back
from ages and ages hence
to tell the children we’re sorry
and to plead for retroactive grace.

We can’t go back
to repaint our story.
We can only begin
, here and now,
creating an inviolable mosaic
from our broken pieces.

A ‘thought mosaic’ of student reading interests at a Family Literacy Lunch event. Vitally important questions for educators and systems: How are students being honored as individuals? How much learning do students get to “own” vs. what’s delivered to them? Is greater value placed on conformity or creativity? On enduring or endeavoring? On internalizing and imitating, or imagining and innovating? Are students led to believe that their thoughts, ideas, experiences, perspectives, preferences, worries, hopes, and dreams have validity? How often do they get to reflect on these, express these, vs. being confined to and assessed on rubric responses to reading and writing prompts? Now’s the time for examining—microscopically—every standard, curriculum, practice, and program for the seeds they actually are in this organic microcosm of society.

I’m the one who leaps

On Ethical ELA today, Margaret Simon shared the work of fellow Louisiana native and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Jericho Brown. For the Open Write challenge, Margaret encouraged writers to use an echo line, anaphora, in composing poetry, something Brown does so magnificently. You can read an excerpt of his work and many other moving poems on being “a marcher or a leaper” here.

I lifted a line of Brown’s from The Tradition: “I’m the one who leaps.” My poem is based on a long-ago story told by someone who mattered to me, so much …

I’m the One Who Leaps

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

I’m the one who leaps
not like the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch
listening to hounds on the hunt.
Baying, fever pitch, nearing, nearing
when in the clearing
bursts the fawn from the brush.
White spots still visible
here and there
on the body running, running
right toward the farm boy standing rooted
to the old front porch.

No time to think
No turning back
Hounds closing in
-the fawn cries, that final sound
a creature makes when it knows
it’s reached the end.

The boy stands rooted.
No time to think
he just does it
he just opens his arms.

No time to think
The fawn just sees,
sees and leaps …

The farm boy
who caught the fawn
on the old front porch
became a preacher
standing rooted
in the Word of God.

Be the one who leaps,
he told us children,
into the Father’s open arms.
You cannot save yourselves.

I sat rooted to the pew
hearing the hounds on the hunt,
seeing the fawn
and those open arms.

I’m the one who leaps
not from here to there
but within.

Photo: Running fawn. Cropped. USFWS Midwest Region. CC BY

Blanketgeist

One recent morning, dark and dreary, as I pondered, weak and weary, after binge-watching vintage noir films (as if one needs more psychological drama on top of taking one’s husband for another ER visit due to his sky-high blood pressure and pains in his still-healing heart, rising pandemic numbers and escalating real-life horrors televised nonstop on the news, hurricane-spawned thunderstorms, demon-possessed Internet connectivity, and Election Year), I’d had enough couch-cocooned passivity. I tossed my safe warm blanket aside. I got up, showered, dressed, fixed my hair and makeup even if I wasn’t going to see another person but my husband and son, who’d taken his dad to pick up new prescriptions. I would face the day and whatever it held, head-on.

Having pulled myself together, feeling quite in command for the first time in a while, strolling back through the living room, picking up random bits of fluff from Dennis the dachshund’s destruction of yet another furred squeaky toy (why do we keep buying these), I noted one of my guys sitting on the couch.

Huh. Could’ve sworn they’d already gone to the pharmacy... barely glancing, bent on my fluff-retrieval mission, I said, “Hey, didn’t know you were—”

Whoever it was, sitting there on the couch, wasn’t.

There were no feet on the rug.

No legs, either.

It was the blanket. Sitting on the couch, right where I tossed it.

Now, this is when it either really pays, or really, really, really doesn’t pay to be a reader/writer/film noir binge-watcher.

Because, voilà! A STORY.

And because, Heaven help me, I know too many, truth is stranger than fiction, brains can’t always process what eyes are seeing, I overdosed on ghost stories and tabloids like National Enquirer and Weekly World News as a youngster, watched too many Twilight Zone marathons as an adult, it’s my fault I’m this wired from excessive cups of coffee, that my mind short-circuits with what and why and how, as in: How could the blanket land exactly like that and look so like a person? Albeit a kind of smallish one? Unless… unless it happens to be covering something heretofore invisible… and how long might it have been sitting here without my knowing?

But it’s only the blanket, right?

I check the driveway. Yeah, my guys are gone. No one’s here. Just me and Dennis, who saw me cleaning up his toy-wreckage and promptly took off for the bedroom to hide under the bed.

I eye this blanket. I walk around it.

All those times I told students to think what if? comes back to haunt me… What if the blanket has taken on a life of its own, after I cocooned myself in it for so long? What if my melancholy has taken form, substance, become a Thing, made manifest by the blanket? What if I’m just, like, finally losing it (would that be so terrible)?

—POP—

I almost come entirely out of my hide to leave it lying beside me as yet another separate Thing. I was beside myself …

It’s just the house popping, does it all the time, you’d think I’d be used to it by now (why is it SO LOUD, it sounds deliberate … what if someone is living in the attic? has been living there for ages and I haven’t known? … don’t be ridiculous, the floor up there is incomplete, no one has fallen through the ceiling… yet…).

Well.

The blanket isn’t moving.

It’s just sitting. Rather benignly.

I decide to take a few photos (proof, you know. In case of… whatever).

That’s what I said I was ready to face, right? The day and whatever it held? Head-on?

Be careful what you wish for…

So silly. Absurd. Over it.

Time to reveal what is and isn’t real. I reach for the edge of the blanket and

—is that faint chuckling I hear?

Memory poem: Pier

For Day Three of a five-day Open Write Challenge on the Ethical ELA blog, Margaret Simon invites memory poem writing. See her glorious sensory poem and one penned by her second-grade student, as well as other offerings and the inspiring “mystery of memory” mentor-poem from Nikki Grimes, here.

Today’s poem challenge begins with the word Think, followed by a word linked to childhood associations and evocative detail. Grimes’ poem begins with Think food and leads to her grandmother’s pineapple upside-down cake and food being “so much more” than nourishment. Margaret’s poem begins with Think dirt and brings the reader into a very real moment of making mudpies (you can feel and smell it) and the deeper context within.

Memoir is probably my favorite type of writing; it is a chance to stand once more in your childhood shoes, experiencing the world just as you did, only framed by knowledge gained since. I had to think a while before an image came to mind foe this memory poem. Then I had to think a while longer about what it meant …

Here’s “Pier.”

Think pier
and danger comes to mind.
Weathered gray boards
armed with splinters
meant for tender young feet
encased in sneakers
that Grandma made me wear.
Sneakers stepping deliberately
from slat to solid slat
avoiding intervals of nothingness
where water laps dark and green
below, moving and moving
until it seems the whole pier
is floating out to sea
with me.
Summer sun beating down
casting our squatty silhouettes
on grainy gray wood-canvas.
Grandma’s sunhat fluttering
in the river’s breath
brine in my nose, my mouth
endless expanse of silver-green water
glinting, beckoning,
reckoning—
there are no rails.
There are nails.
Tie the string to the raw chicken neck
toss it over—plop
and wait.
Let the nail-anchored string
rest on your fingers
until it moves with strange little jerks
then pull so so slowly
so carefully.
Use both hands but
have your net ready
for the greedy green-brown crab
with fierce orange ‘pinchers’
—keep your fingers away!—
and legs painted bright watercolor blue
soon scuttling around in
Grandma’s galvanized tub.
Think pier
and she’s right there again
between me and danger
showing me how to navigate.

Photo: Pier. Richmond AACA. CC-BY. Cropped and converted to black-and-white. The pier of my long-ago childhood memory is so like this one.

Learning decay wordplay

Today on the Ethical ELA blog, teacher-librarian-poet Linda Mitchell kicks off a five-day Open Write invitation by using lists for composing poetry (read her beautiful “Wishing Well Price List” poem and other inspiring offerings here).

Now, I am a notorious list-maker, so much so that my husband once asked: “What are you writing now?”

To which I replied, absently, while hunched over a scrap of paper: “A list.”

“ANOTHER list? For what?”

I hesitated to confess, but I did, in a decidedly small voice … “A list of lists I have to make.”

So. If I am going to base a poem on one of my myriad lists, I must choose quickly or I’ll never begin.

The first thing I turned to in my scrawly notebook idea-keeper was a list of rhyming words based on the phrase “learning decay.” I heard a fellow educator use it recently, expressing concern for children returning to school in the fall after having been out for five months (or longer) due to COVID-19. That idea has been sitting dormant … maybe waiting for just this moment, this prompt, as a lens to lend focus. What can I make of this list? What would help prevent “learning decay” for kids? For ANYONE? For me the answer is always twofold: Read. Write. Always.

One last thing: Kids need to know that writing is more than an assignment and generally hateful chore. They can do it anywhere, anytime, about anything. There are no limits, only endless discoveries. A notebook is a gateway for making sense of the world and discovering what you think and feel … a safe haven, a springboard, a sounding board, a lifeline, a reliquary for housing fragile new ideas, precious fragments of self. It can be on paper. On a screen. It can be a recording. A drawing. Any means of capturing thoughts, impressions, expressions. I use multiple mediums, myself. You’re reading one now. To me, moments spent writing are never wasted; growth is inevitable.

Here’s my rather rapid-fire poem based on “learning decay” and the list of rhyming words in my notebook:


Learning decay?
No, not today.
Strive to allay.
So invite play:
a word ballet,
a thought bouquet.
True soul portray,
not self-betray.
Notebook away,
the cost defray –
Recoup the day.

Poetry Friday: The web

Photo: Morning Web by Jen Gray on “This Photo Wants to Be Poem,” Reflections on the Teche, Margaret Simon.

Teacher-poet-friend Margaret Simon posts a weekly image on her blog along with an invitation to write: “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem.”

Yesterday’s photo, shot by Margaret’s friend Jen, featured a dew-studded spiderweb framing the sun. A compelling call to compose … leading to my first attempt at a non-rhyming loop poem:

Sunrise feels like hope
Hope for a new day
Day of repairing damage done
Done to one another
Another day to try
Try starting afresh
Afresh with distilling dew
Dew droplets, sacred diamonds
Diamonds glittering in the light
Light illuminating the torn web

Web of our intricate interconnectedness.

May we all be found working on our corner of the web—and in the corners of our own hearts.

Thank you, Margaret and Jen, for inspiration to weave.

Check out other offerings at the Poetry Friday Roundup – thank you, Tricia, for hosting today.

Dragonfly

New day. Opening window blinds to a flood of sunlight. Glimpse of pines, grass grown tall overnight (how??), weathered wooden deck railing, old white rocking chair, large cement pots draped in long ivy vines, new tendrils waving, geraniums blazing green and red, interspersed with spiky brown starbursts—oh, time to deadhead.

Within moments, scissors in hand, reaching for exposed bones of skeletal blooms, crisping, decaying, red petals shriveled, let loose, bled away, spent…

—Oh! Hello. Didn’t know you were here, Dragonfly.

Swapping the scissors for the phone-camera…

How close will you let me get?

—Surprisingly.

You’re small. Maybe two-and-a-half inches. Not like the first dragonflies I ever encountered in my grandmother’s yard when I was a child. Enormous things, terrifying… “They won’t hurt you! They eat mosquitoes”… good thing I didn’t know the old Scandinavian folktales then, how dragonflies come to weigh people’s souls, doling punishment on the bad, stitching children’s eyes closed for telling lies. Instead I learned to see the beautiful in the strange. Living sticks of metallic blue, iridescent gleams against the sunlit grass, darting any which way, impossibly. Air acrobats. —You’re very still. Not blue but yellow with bold black stripes. Clinging to a deadhead. Wonder why. Can’t cut the dying bloom away, not while you’re on it, Dragonfly. Won’t disturb you.

Returning later: You’re still present, resting on a green leaf.

Why should this feel so reassuring?

Maybe because the symbolism of a dragonfly is usually positive. You’re said to be bringers of light, restoring joy when it’s waning. Just as those bright geranium blooms are waning. Many new buds are already evident. Growth from within. The ability to change, transform, adapt—that is what we humans say about you dragonflies, as you begin life submerged in water (most of your lives being lived there) yet you eventually take to the air and learn to fly. By then the time remaining to you is short. Seems you make the most of it. Maybe you are harbingers of the soul. Not in judgment, but in self-realization, mental and emotional maturity, acceptance. A call to wisdom. A recurring word for me, of late.

Whatever motif lies written in iridescent ink on dragonfly wings, my grandmother knew it was good: You eat mosquitoes. You will not hurt me. You’re helpers. Protectors.

Sitting so still, amid decay juxtaposed with new growth… an inexplicable stab of delight, vibrant little messenger from nature, oblivious of your mission, perhaps, of nudging, not judging, human souls toward our own betterment … oh, and do you know? Could you know? In human lore… geraniums represent unexpected meetings.

Poetry Friday: Soul shine

I’m a relative newcomer to Poetry Friday. First let me thank Irene Latham for hosting today’s Roundup and Carol Varsalona for extending the invitation on social media to come and honor author Nikki Grimes.

Carol created a lovely rose-adorned Buncee card which reads: “Nikki Grimes—Do more of what makes your soul shine, because you inspire others to write.”

Those words, soul shine, beckoned me to ask … what makes one’s soul shine?

Nikki’s soul certainly shines through her poetry as well as through her faith and her literary contribution to children. I’ve read that her favorite color is purple and it got me thinking that our souls shine with all that we love, all that is most precious to us. I still consider myself mostly a storyteller with poetic leanings, but I thought I’d try capturing this idea of “soul shine” by exploring what our favorite colors might represent in a form that Nikki uses, tanka:

Your soul shines purple
with creative energy

imparting faith, calm,
stability and passion
for people, stories, and words.

My soul shines rose-gold,
a fusion of alloyed strength:
Copper for healing
in gold of faith, hope, and love
for people, stories, and words.

I often think about writing as a means of healing. Today I contemplate writing poetry as a striving to grasp what is just beyond our reach—whether the parameters and inner workings of nature, the universe, or own souls. Sometimes it comes as an anguished cry, other times quiet awe or wonder, a celebratory outpouring of joy, always an embrace of the nearly-inexpressible, real and ethereal, images of life and the living of it. What does the soul crave most? Beauty? Truth? Understanding? Freedom? Peace? It may change as we change.

Whatever the answer … poetry beckons the soul to shine.

Peace is the lofty landing place
Of our souls’ storm-torn flight.
Exhausted, expended
Transcending
Rising still to shin
e—
Your soul and mine.

Thank you, all Poetry Friday Friends, for being the wellspring of inspiration that you are.

Lead photo: Shine. Rodnei Reis. CC-BY

Wisdom before peace

Many years ago, I attended a public event and found, right there at my destined seat, a little silver ring bearing the word SAPIENTIA.

Latin for “wisdom.”

I cannot remember the event itself, or even the location … only that, as the ring had no traceable owner, it came home with me. A bit of metaphysical metaphorica: If you find wisdom, hang onto it.

This past week I sorted through some old things in my jewelry box and rediscovered the ring.

It’s somewhat tarnished but still glinted in the light when I picked it up. Cool little circle in my hand. It seemed to say: If ever there is a time for wisdom, it’s now.

Consider this definition of wisdom (also known as sapience) from Wikipedia:

The ability to think and act using knowledge, understanding, common sense and insight. Wisdom is associated with attributes such as unbiased judgment, compassion, experiential self-knowledge, self-transcendence, and non-attachment, and virtues such as ethics and benevolence.

Meditate on those words a while, in light of recent weeks—as reeling, wounded, protesting America looks inward at its egregious wrongs of police brutality and racism, as more and more voices are raised for solidarity and reform, as people weep and pray for peace. We cannot act accordingly, cannot begin to heal and repair, if we do not think. We cannot advocate for justice and make concerted change if we are not deeply aware of what we think and how it affects our relationships with each other. We cannot obtain knowledge and understanding between us without hard conversations and self-examinations to find bias we didn’t know was there, like a cancerous lump that only grows and festers until it’s removed. Else all of society suffers. We don’t often think of wisdom as a matter of the heart; we don’t typically see it as the wrapping of real compassion and benevolence… not just in our distribution of these, but in allowing ourselves to receive them. Our wellness as a whole relies on our individual willingness to be healed. It begins with listening. In desiring better ways of seeing as the road to better ways of being. Reform is a long process… but with wisdom, it is possible.

Lastly, while wisdom plays an integral part in the relatively new field of positive psychology (what makes human life meaningful and worth living, seeking individual and societal well-being), it also has ancient spiritual roots. In the many religions of the world, wisdom is tied to balance, goodness, the future, seeing things for what they are, a knowledge and fear of God. My Sapientia ring carries the image of a descending dove; in Christian iconography, that represents the Holy Spirit. Long before Christianity, a dove represented… peace.

We pray for peace, as we cry out against injustice. As we advocate for systemic reforms, as we educate ourselves about ourselves. Yes, we have a long way to go, but we have begun.

Let us first seek wisdom.

On children and hope: Spiritual Journey Thursday

Photo: Child of Vision. Baby eye in black and white. Iezalel Williams. Public domain.

I’m a hopeful person. A hopeful writer. I created this blog in hopes that whomever encountered it would come away feeling uplifted. There’s already too much in the world pulling us down, every day. Burdens can pile until one hardly feels able to move. Grief is like this. Depression is like this. Oppression is like this.

Always, I am looking for a way, or writing my way, through to the better I believe is there. That, to me, is hope. Coming through. Knowing that possibility exists, sensing it, even when I cannot see exactly what it looks like. Eventually it reveals itself. And so I hope.

Yesterday I read that hope is not enough for one of humanity’s biggest burdens. Not COVID-19, which will eventually pass, although it will destroy many more of us before it is done. But we will be fighting diseases as long as we’re alive. No—hope is not enough, in itself, to remove the unbearable burden of racism.

As hopeful as I am, I know this is true.

Yesterday evening I watched a news segment featuring families talking to their children about racism. Black families, families with brown skin. A beautiful little girl—little girl—coached by her dad on how to respond if she should be singled out by those in law enforcement. Eyes wide, brow slightly knit in concentration, the child dutifully repeated everything her dad taught her on how to move, how to hold her hands … she covered it all. Dad paused in his feedback. He nodded. Then he said, quietly: “I did all that. And they still tased me.” The little girl’s face froze, then crumpled. Weeping, she climbed into her father’s lap, into his arms.

Another parent, a mother, said that as awful as it is to burden her children with this knowledge, it’s ultimately for their protection. They need to know.

A boy and another little girl from different families said they know it’s wrong for people to treat each other this way. “We are all human,” said the boy, a young teen. “It doesn’t matter what color skin anybody has,” said the girl (is she maybe six? seven?). “We should all be good to each other and love each other.”

Love one another.

The greatest spiritual journey we can ever take.

Loving means bearing each other’s burdens; it does not mean hoping the burdens go away. It means putting love into action, working to remove the burden, the systems, the structures that oppress others. The possibility is there; our hearts just have to be burdened enough, collectively, to usher it into reality.

For what’s the alternative? Hopelessness. The deadliest thing of all.

As I tried to sleep last night, so many images flooded my mind. Mostly children. Many I’ve known over the years. Black, brown, white faces, eyes full of light, little arms open wide, always ready to give away their love. How easily laughter, wonder, song, and joy come to them … my daughter-in-law texted that my granddaughter woke up singing yesterday morning, before she got out of bed: “Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful, and everyone has to see how much I love you and how much I’ve grown.” She is four. The thought of anyone robbing the pureness of her heart is … inhuman. It should not happen to any child. Ever. But it does. It is the most terrible of dichotomies, that the big love we have for one another as children does not grow as we do. If it did, the world would be an entirely different place … and if we have any hope of it being better, it begins with acting now. Understanding now. Changing now. Breaking out of age-old racist, prejudiced molds that may have shaped us, now … or they remain intact, shaping those who follow.

I remembered a thing last night, as I finally fell asleep only to dream about children (babies, in fact, standing in a crib, laughing because they’d just learned to pull themselves up). Somewhere there is a photo of me in a crib with my doll, Suzy. So long ago. I saw her in the store while shopping with my grandmother. Beautiful doll. What was it about Suzy that I loved? Her dark eyes, like my own? Black hair and skin, not like mine? I don’t even remember the shopping trip; my Grannie told me years later how I asked for that doll. So she, a white woman from the rural South, bought it for me—in the late 1960s.

Every day, every action, great and small, every word … colors the picture of society that the children see.

That’s us, reflected in their eyes.

In kindergarten I drew a family picture that made my mother angry: “Why did you have to draw me with a cigarette?”

I blinked, and couldn’t respond: Because I always see you smoking.

Children.

On my mind when I go to bed.
On my mind when I wake.
Not just my own
or ones I’ve known.

Children.

So full of love.
So full of song.
So free with their giving
in everyday living.

Children.

We hand them the crayons.
Blank sheets of paper.

And set little hearts so earnestly
to coloring the world they see.

Children.

Is there a crayon called Hope?
To color Tomorrow?

And what will that picture be
if they copy you and me?

My little granddaughter once explained sadness this way: “I was crying with my blue eyes.”

I know, Baby. Same as I cry with my brown ones.

Everyone is a star, and everyone has to see how strong and powerful … let us all keep loving. And growing. And working together to help and heal. Daily finding the way.

That, I’d say, is what hope really looks like.

From my granddaughter’s heart: I love you so very much.

Special thanks to Ruth Hersey for hosting Spiritual Journey Thursday, and to all my friends and sojourners. You are welcome to continue the journey by reading their thoughts on the theme of Hope here.