On community

The recent blog series by Two Writing Teachers, Seen, Valued, Heard: Writing to Establish Community, brought to mind a piece I wrote on community two years ago—long before the current pandemic, the transition to remote learning, and our vastly-intensified struggle for social justice. We are all reminded, many times over, that for a communityever how large, small, or microcosmicto flourish, it is imperative that every member sees, values, and hears one another.

What IS community, really? So much more than we tend to think. Philosopher David Spangler wrote: Some people think they are in community, but they are only in proximity. True community requires commitment and openness. It is a willingness to extend yourself to encounter and know the other.” The words of priest Henri Nouwen: “Community is first of all a quality of the heart the question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but, ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?‘” And this line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who died in a concentration camp, strikes me deeply: “The first service one owes to others in a community involves listening to them.”

As an educator, as a human being, I continue to reflect on “community.” Here’s my composition from 2018, followed by a double acrostic composed this morning.

When I think of the word community, I first envision a neighborhood where people are bound to one another by a sense of civic responsibility. A grouping of people or houses does not a community make; a true community develops from like-mindedness about the good of the whole. Protecting one another, helping one another in times of need, maybe beautifying the area . . . on a deeper level, think of these variations of community: Commune, communion. These words have a spiritual color to them. They imply an even greater like-mindedness and focus. Definitions of the verb commune include a passionate, intense, or intimate discussion, the exchange of thoughts and feelings; to commune, or for there to be communion, people gather together out of a desire to share, tap into, or celebrate something profoundly meaningful to all. Such a rapport implies that partakers are there not just to get but to give.

So it is for a community of writers. A grouping of people with pencils, papers, and laptops, within the classroom or without, does not a community of writers make. To write is to put pieces of one’s soul on a page; this, in the scheme of human undertakings, is an unparalleled act of courage. A writing community, then, is a gathering of the courageous in a place where it is safe to share the pieces of one’s soul on the collective pages, with the responsibility to hear, value, and honor one another, and even to help each other beautify the arrangement of words for greatest effect. The writing community is vital to the writer, for, ever how old or young, writers sharpen one another, encourage one another, celebrate one another, and grow together in an atmosphere of commitment, accountability, expectancy, sometimes breathless awe, and glorious release.

Above all, let us not fail to see that hidden word in “community”: unity.

Connected by the arc
Of our humanity, we are more than able to
Make one from
Many, to create a vital spectrum
Upholding both me and you.
Numinous, luminous, an
Iridescent inscribing of graffiti
To us, from us, in ink of heart-bent light
You and I define our sky.

The view of my neighborhood, taken from my driveway last week, between thunderstorms.

The fledgling

Simply walking down the street
found a fledgling at my feet.
Tiny baby on the hot asphalt
from where’d you fall? By whose fault?
What left you in the middle
of my street
wobbling on your new, new feet?
Yellow beak wide in a silent cry
flailing wings so small to fly.
Should I touch you?
Dare I try?
Baby bird, what can I do
to keep harm from befalling you?
How long could you last
if I just walk past?
Wait—I think I’m hearing
—yes, your mother nearing
and your father, too,
—they’re both here, calling you.
They won’t come very near

as long as I am here.
How wretched it is to back away
my wrenched heart will break—it may
—but from back here I see them land
see you hop-hop toward them, and
—you’re not too steady
—don’t know if you’re ready.
But to think I know more than a bird
about what’s best for birds, is absurd.
So I turn and walk, fighting my fears,
fighting my instincts, fighting my tears
—it’s a hard, hard thing, just walking on
praying, Baby, you’re soon up and gon
e.


*****

I have seldom felt so helpless or torn as I did on encountering this baby bird one late afternoon. Although tall trees line the street (a quiet cul-de-sac), I couldn’t possibly guess which one held the nest, if I could even reach it, for returning the bird. I thought about my Aunt Jack, who found a baby blue jay when I was very little; she took the foundling home and raised it to adulthood (he was never caged, had free rein in her house, and here’s a post if you’d like to read about him: Kilroy). I wondered: Should I take my fledgling (I think it’s a finch) home, too? Could I raise it? Or would I be tempting fate, tampering with nature when nature knows far better than I about taking care of itself? How long had the baby been struggling here on the road when I (heaven help me) nearly stepped on it as it flailed? Should I scoop it up carefully and put it by the side of the road in the grass… where there are cats… and snakes… then, the frantic parents showed: Which side did THEY want their baby on?

I walked back and forth a while, not too close to the scene, until the parents and their baby were gone. Where, I do not know. I didn’t see. Seems I could hear their voices somewhere in the lush pines… all I know is that, after a bit, there was no trace of birds on the street any more.

Yet I remained distressed. I had done nothing to help the baby bird. It was so tiny, so frail. Was it really so helpless? Was I? Had I been wrong? I had to face the truth, even it if it was ugly… so, later on my phone, I searched things like What to do if I find a baby bird and Should I touch a baby bird? National Geographic had an interesting take: “It depends on how cute it is.” Meaning that a mostly featherless pink baby bird not capable of hopping or flitting is a nestling and should be returned to the nest. A fledgling has feathers, can hop, and is “generally adorable and fluffy with a tiny stub of a tail.” National Geographic (bless them) says “It’s not a good idea to put a fledgling back in the nest—it will hop right back out.”

I can rest a little easier. I guess. I do marvel at the parents both coming to rescue their baby, both of them chirping and hopping, looking back to see if the baby was, too. Which it was, in its zig-zaggy way.

—They better be giving that baby some quality flying lessons now.

*******

Special thanks to Catherine Flynn who’s hosting Poetry Friday Roundup at Reading to the Core. Drop by to check out her wonderful post and the many other poetic offerings.

Resurrection fern tanka

Teacher-poet Margaret Simon features a weekly writing invitation on her blog, Reflections on the Teche, in response to a photo. Today’s offering is a resurrection fern photographed by her neighbor and friend, James Edmunds.

Few things are more intriguing to me than a resurrection fern, which seems to die but can manage to live again, maybe even after a century of drought, with a little watering. Somewhere I have an unfinished short story in which this inspiring plant appears…

For today, however, a tanka seemed called for. The form consists of thirty-one syllables, lines of 5/7/5/7/7. It is meant to be song-like.

withering, drying,
fronds curled heavenward, dying,
resurrection fern’s
thermoluminescence burns
until rain regenerates.

Here’s to holding onto the life-spark, Friends, ever how long the drought … storing the inner light for strength until the healing rains finally fall.

Photo: James Edmunds

Life is what you bake it

“‎All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.”

-Henry Havelock Ellis

Today I share my golden shovel poem inspired by the Ellis quote, posted this week on Two Writing Teachers‘ Slice of Life Story Challenge along with these questions: What are the moments you’re holding onto? What are you letting go of today?

Here’s to the art of living, to holding on while letting go, to savoring moments spent with children, making every one count.

I hold to all
moments spent with children in the
holy art
of seeing the world with fresh eyes, of
spontaneous embracing, of living
each day in newness. I hold to freedom that lies
in forgiving, that paradoxical self-rising power in
letting go. I hold to a
continuous, necessary cobbling of fine
crystal moments, their pure sanguinity mingling
with, dulcifying, the blood-tart of
a sliced heart. Letting
go of despair, of my shortcomings, letting go
of yesterday, yet believing in tomorrow, letting go and
savoring today in a bluesy canton of confidence, holding
onto the children, always the children, just holding on.

My granddaughter loves to bake. I love symbolism. Here’s our flag cobbler. “Canton” in the poem is the term for the flag’s blue square. Strawberries, heart-shaped, represent love; blueberries, youthfulness and confidence in the future. Bake it well.

The future is calling. I’m listening.

*******

Thanks also to Margaret Simon for hosting Poetry Friday. Visit her blog, Reflections on the Teche, for more poems and magnificent quotes in response to “What is poetry?”

Take heart

Written while waiting for word from the governor about schools re-opening.

Suspended animation

upended education

sense of desolation

facing the fall.

What school should be

we cannot see.

Ill winds still blowing

so much not-knowing.

Separate, there’s a cost.

So much is lost.

But not all

in one fall.

Until the surging tide

should subside

virtuality

may be reality.

Enduring

assuring

we will outlast

passing shadows cast

in empty halls

on empty walls.

By decrees

or degrees

a calling

for not falling

is conversely

full of mercy.

Choosing heartache

over heartbreak

choosing to be stronger

being a little longer

apart.

By whatever decrees

by whatever degrees

however they fall

however we start

dear ones, above all

—take heart.

Photo: Heart. Glenn Lascuna. CC BY

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

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.

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