Breakaway poem play

At SOS—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, Ruth encourages playing with paragraphing and line breaks, as “a simple break changes the sound and, sometimes, the meaning.”

I am resharing this memoir poem I wrote a few months ago, wherein I played with line breaks. I am still playing with them.

This is one of my favorites. For many reasons. A scene I witnessed last year, during my husband’s recovery:

The Passing

She comes out of his study carrying it
in her four-year-old arms
and his face is transformed, glowing
as if a passing cloud has uncovered the sun.
He leans forward in the recliner as she
drops it, kicks it, sets it spinning
—Oh, no, he says, this one’s not for kicking,
it’s for dribbling, just as the ball stops
at his feet. He reaches down, lifts it
with the easy grace of the boy on the court,
hands perfectly placed on the worn brown surface
in split-second calculation of the shot
so many times to the roar of the school crowd
so many hours with friends, his own and then
his son’s, still outscoring them all, red-faced,
heart pounding, dripping with sweat, radiant
—and at twelve, all alone on the pavement
facing the hoop his mother installed
 in the backyard of the new house
after his father died, every thump echoing
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.
The game’s in the blood, the same DNA
that just last year left him with a heart full
of metal and grafts, too winded to walk
more than short distances, having to stop
to catch his breath, deflated
—it needs some air. Do you have a pump,
he asks his son, sitting there on the sofa,
eyes riveted to the screen emitting
continuous squeaks of rubber soles
against hardwood.
—Yeah, Dad. I’ve got one and the needle, too.
His father leans in to the little girl at his knee,
his battered heart in his hands:
—Would you like to have it?
She nods, grinning, reaching,
her arms, her hands
almost too small
to manage the old brown sphere
rolling from one to the other
like a whole world
passing.

Photo: Marcus BalcherCC BY-SA

More fun wordplay in my post title: A hinged basketball hoop that bends downward with a slam dunk and springs back into place is called a breakaway rim.

If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join the open-hearted group at
Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.
#sosmagic

Also celebrating poems and poets in the vibrant Poetry Friday community – many thanks to Margaret Simon for hosting the Roundup at Reflections on the Teche.

What’s in a word

Perhaps you have taken part in the “one little word” tradition for the New Year as a means of living more intentionally and reflectively, maybe letting it guide your writing. At the beginning of 2020, I had a word in mind for the year.

Reclamation.

Here’s what I wrote, ten weeks before COVID-19 shut us down:

Moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Recovering ground, inch by precious inch.

Whether life is suspended, or stagnant, or spinning out of control, we still have choices. Maybe it’s resting more. Writing more. Reading more, singing more. Praying more. Maybe it’s seeking help. Maybe it’s restoring relationships, or releasing them. Or creating something beautiful, meaningful. What we want to do and what we’re actually able to do in a day, a week, a month, a year, may be vastly different, but reclamation doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in determined, consistent bits by bits. It is deliberate and intentional.

At the end of 2020, I have to reflect on what my original vision of reclamation was, and what it became.

Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control. At the time, those words were mirroring 2019, when my husband was recovering from cardiac arrest and two heart surgeries. We spent weeks at the hospital in late summer. I never imagined the pandemic lying just ahead…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to do what you can, what’s most important, for that given day. Caring for my husband took precedence over returning to work when school resumed that fall. When I did return, I fought a daily battle to catch up, to hit any kind of stride, as 2020 dawned. In February I broke my foot. In mid-March, the governor closed our schools due to COVID. In May, George Floyd was killed. America erupted. COVID continued erupting across the world. The election…really, one runs out of words. Life suspended, stagnant, spinning out of control…moving forward becomes an act of will, a revised determination to to what you can, what’s most important, for that given day.

Reclamation, I wrote, involves choices. Both large and small. Every day.

One of my original intents for the year resembled a true environmental reclamation project: repairs and improvements around the house. Did I succeed? As I was home a lot more than ever before, thanks to the pandemic, yes, I accomplished a good bit. There’s just always more to do. One thing (don’t we know) often leads to another.

In 2020 I meant to write more. Did I? Most definitely. It wasn’t the type of writing I envisioned. I thought I would finally complete some things I started in years past. My blog post productivity increased. I ended up writing a lot more poetry than I have in decades. What does that say about the power of poetry in coping with powerlessness, inertia, darkness, even despair? Psychologists avow its therapeutic benefits. Poetry-writing invokes calmness, healing, strength. It calls to the spirit in a unique way. There’s something about the rhythms and breaks, something in the metaphor and imagery, in the cadence, the musicality, that soothes the soul and brings release. Not to mention the good old-fashioned value of hard work in trying to hammer a thing out, especially if there’s a desire to create something beautiful, meaningful.

Perhaps the most interesting take I had on “reclamation” in January 2020 had to do with teaching—before the scramble of completely reinventing it:

I write this not only for myself, but for other educators and instructional coaches struggling for clarity and a foothold in an ever-changing, shifting field: Beware the great chasm between theory and application, between programs that are packaged as “the magic bullet” and cost a pretty penny, but fail to deliver. Be aware of the great gulf between data that’s visible and the stories of human children, not so visible. Push back all that encroaches on growing the children, that which would inhibit their love of learning. Reclaim that for them. Know them and their families and their stories. Know your colleagues and their stories.

—I bolded the part I find most haunting, in retrospect. When I wrote those words I had no clue that children would be learning from home for months, that families would be scrambling to manage it, that devices and hotspots would have to be distributed on a massive scale, that people would lose jobs and loved ones to COVID, that food insecurity would become so widespread, that crisis and survival would keep some students from their learning, let alone a love of it.

What remains true, more so than ever, is that data can’t capture it all. We do need to know families and their stories. We need to know each other’s. From what else are compassion and empathy born? How else will we move forward, together? Reclamation in this sense involves pushing away whatever encroaches and consumes. It involves building something new, taking back what is being lost, reasserting rights…I am thinking of teachers now as much as of students, submerged by systems, structures, checklists, machinery. Of reclaiming a sense of humanity from processes, protocols, and programming which are, in the end punitive. When, if not now? Was a time ever “riper”? I wrote: It’s hard daily work, reclamation. Progress is slow to see for a time. The point being, start.

I also wrote: We reclaim the very heart of our humanity when we share our stories.

I have never been more grateful for the outlet of writing and the writing communities that feel like home to me. Writing taps an inner strength we may not realize is there; sharing the stories knits us to one another by our heartstrings. In a time of distance, isolation, stress and anxiety, with spiking mental health issues, connection is ever more vital. Therapists say that one of the best things a person can do to reduce stress is to write or journal (writing therapy and poetry therapy are real things). In the action of framing thoughts, or facing fears, we collect emotional resources, resilience, and creativity lying dormant or hidden as we wormhole our way through. One more line from my pre-COVID January 2020 vision of reclamation: In this day of restorative practices and social-emotional wellness, why are people not writing more? Here’s a point to ponder: a study by the National Literacy Trust in the UK (June 2020) says that children are turning to imaginative writing more than ever as an outlet for self-expression, creativity, and well-being, now that they have time and freedom to do so…

Life is, after all, writing us. In the words of Albert S. Rossi, clinical psychologist and Christian educator, which I’ve read before and rediscovered this week: We don’t live life. Life lives us.

As the page turns from 2020 to 2021, we’ll see where life leads. It may be in charge of the story, but we are in charge of the craftsmanship.

On that note, I am thinking twice about choosing a word for the new year. Maybe I’ll just see what it wants to say for itself.

In the meantime, resting more, reading more, singing more, praying more absolutely helps. Seek more help when needed. Be more gentle with yourself (a lesson I am still trying to learn).

Keep on writing alongside life.

*******

with a debt of gratitude to Two Writing Teachers and the ongoing Slice of Life Story Challenge which is, above all, a joy

and to the gathering at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog, a divining rod of inspiration

Abide

Autumn. Hallowed season, full of color and oblique light, slanted and golden. Echoes from distant places wafting in chilly air, laced with spice and earthy riches, tasting like promise. Leaves falling like pages of a book turning, ending another chapter, moving to the next…

A time for contemplating life.

And trees.

And what they have to say, about being alive.

I am drawn by research on ways that trees communicate with one another. Their intricate root system (scientists call it the “wood-wide web”), their pheromones, their electrical pulses… so much more is going on than what we humans can see or hear. Trees can warn each other of danger; they can nourish and heal each other.

I stumbled across a book I am going to need, The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World, by forester Peter Wohlleben. Journalist Richard Grant writes of Wohlleben’s observations on the topic in “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” (Smithsonian Magazine, March 2018):

Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches. Reckless youngsters take foolhardy risks with leaf-shedding, light-chasing and excessive drinking, and usually pay with their lives. Crown princes wait for the old monarchs to fall, so they can take their place in the full glory of sunlight. It’s all happening in the ultra-slow motion that is tree time, so that what we see is a freeze-frame of the action.

Wohlleben also discovered chlorophyll in a huge beech stump from a tree felled four to five centuries ago—meaning it is still alive. Grant writes: There was only one explanation. The surrounding beeches were keeping it alive, by pumping sugar to it through the network. “When beeches do this, they remind me of elephants,” he [Wohlleben] says. “They are reluctant to abandon their dead, especially when it’s a big, old, revered matriarch.”

I contemplate these words, considering the trees undergoing their autumnal change. Communicating with each other, communal to the end…

For some reason, lines of the old hymn, “Abide with Me,” come to mind: The darkness deepens…change and decay in all around I see…

What might the trees say?

Let us reserve
our resources
pool our energy
by the still waters.
By this reservoir
we drink our fill
after the darkness
we shall be here, still.

They shed their fragile, light-capturing organs because it would require too much energy, would be too costly, to try to keep one’s leaves alive in winter’s dark, icy blasts. They cannot live if they don’t let go.

Is there an inherent message? Resharing from a previous post, “Don’t Should on Yourself”:

Shed your shoulds
like leaves in woods
Trees shorn of fragility
preserve their ability
to survive.

Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’
like leaves curling with regret
Spiraling, sigh by sigh
piling inside, dead and dry
cluttering today.

Beware should’s false measure
robbing Now of its pleasure
Shed those shoulds
like autumn woods
composting for tomorrow.

For me, in the autumn of my own existence, everything is bathed in oblique light, slanted and golden…I walk my wooded path, here and there scattering extensions of myself, posts and poems and words, stopping to gathering those of others, a communal communication that never ceases to amaze and which has everything to do with survival. Perhaps writing stems from a deep-seated need to renew, to live life anew, to make something new and beautiful from the jumbled pattern of our days, while they last.

In the great scheme of things, it’s a collective glory-story.

Can’t you hear each leaf whispering, as it falls:

Abide.

*******

with thanks to the nourishing, beauty-scattering Poetry Friday community and to Robyn Hood Black for hosting today’s Roundup.

Trebek tribute

I love writing to photos. I often do so here on Lit Bits and Pieces (some of my recent favorites: Old Red Barn, Dancing Ghosts, and from earlier this week, High In the Sunlit Silence). Today’s prompt on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog is writing to a photo, taking special note of the background.

Ordinarily I’d comb through my nature photos for a chance to let the background reveal its secrets, capturing impressions in light of what they seem to be saying to me… but this week a person looms large in the foreground of my mind and so I write to these images instead, out of gratitude, remembrance, and mourning…

-Alex Trebek from the retro run of Jeopardy! when taping ceased this summer due to COVID-19. Alex became the new host the year before my husband and I were married. As young newlyweds, my husband and I competed against each other, keeping tally mark scores (which were occasionally disputed…). Our children, from babyhood onward, knew Alex Trebek. As a toddler, our oldest pronounced the surname “Tra-jeck.” He’d announce along with Johnny Gilbert: “And here’s the star of our show, Aaaa-lex Tra-jeck!” Alex eventually asked to be introduced as the host; he said the show belonged to the contestants, for they are the stars.

As time passed, our oldest accrued his own set of tally marks and eventually wiped the floor with his dad and me. We were hardly competition for him. He took the Jeopardy! test a few years ago and didn’t become a contestant; we urged him to keep trying… these days, his brother, eight years younger, who looked at the rest of us with a sort of reticent fascination and maybe concern over our addiction to Jeopardy! through the years, regularly whips his parents.

And so, across four decades, Jeopardy! marked family time. It marked learning. With it we watched our children come into their own. It marked our personal friendly, sometimes fierce, but always fun, competition, all presided over by Alex like a modern-day oracle, a witty human version of Apollo or Odin, the holder of knowledge, wisdom, mysteries, trivia…

We grieved when Alex shared the news of his pancreatic cancer last year. We marveled at his spirit, his courage.

I’ve watched several interviews since his death last Sunday. These lines stay with me:

How do I want to be remembered? As a nice guy… I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

While looking at this photo of young Alex I can’t help noting the red and blue background in the context of 2020, hearing his voice echo: I never went out of my way to malign anyone…

We still have so much to learn.

Speaking of voting…

Silver fox: Another shot from the retro summer run. In 2018, Alex let viewers vote on social media for him to keep or not to keep his beard. Results were never exactly determined, as apparently Alex’s wife said let it go. That was enough for him.

In September our youngest gave his dad Alex’s autobiography as a birthday gift. At the outset, Alex says he’s not a writer, that he isn’t comfortable writing about himself.

But he did it, for us to know “Alex Trebek, human being” a little better.

This self-avowed “non-writer” writes:

I’ll be perfectly content if that’s how my story ends: sitting on the swing with the woman I love, my soul mate, and our two wonderful children nearby. I’ll sit there for a while and then maybe the four of us will go for a walk, each day trying to walk a little farther than the last. We’ll take things a step at a time, one day at a time. In fact, I think I’ll go sit in the swing for a bit right now.

The weather is beautiful—the sun is shining into a mild, mild looking sky, and there’s not a cloud in sight.

His family was with him when he passed.

Mine mourns. On receiving the news, our four-year-old granddaughter wept. “Who will be the host now?”

Just one more answer
Elucidating, eloquent, as an era ends.
Our minds can hardly contain the vast
Potpourri of knowledge showcased.
Alex, your legacy to generations
Remains like the ultimate
Daily Double—
You enriched our lives, exponentially.

He is a permanent figure, there in the background of the story of our lives.

Final words—the back dust jacket of Alex’s book.

If you want to write in community, SOS: Magic in a Blog invites you to share your heart.

The witch’s flight

Mixed media by Scout, age 4.

One purple Halloween night
the mean old witch took flight
on her broom, headed east
to find her favorite sugary feast.
The sloth is the witch’s pet,
up the tree, as high as he can get,
sleeping under the crescent moon
—”HAHAHAAAA!” cackles the witch,
“I’ll be back soon!”

*******

poem collaboration by Scout and Franna, who wish you a Happy Halloween.
Scout says “Watch out for that witch.”

Don’t ‘should’ on yourself

Years ago, as I was lamenting things I wish I’d done differently as a literacy coach, my mentor leaned over and put her hand on my arm. Shaking her head, she uttered this unforgettable phrase:

“Don’t should on yourself.”

I wrote it on the cover of my coaching notebook. I would tell it to teachers. We laughed and something was released. The work would still be work, endless and immense, but one felt a bit lighter approaching it.

There are some foundational, common-sense shoulds. One should bathe regularly. One should wear clothes in public. But many shoulds serve as self-imposed bars to remind us we aren’t measuring up, somehow. That we are less. I always loved to write but was trapped for years by the exhortation: “A writer must set a regular writing schedule.” Period. Oh, I’d think, that’s what I should do. That’s what real writers do. If I don’t, I’m not really a writer. Except that my life isn’t ever arranged in such neat compartments of time. Schedules have to change too much. Then: “Writers write every day.” —I should do that! I want to do that! When I didn’t, a niggling sense of failure tugged at my spirit. Cobwebs of despair wound round my heart. The inner critic gloated: “Toldja. You don’t have what it takes.” Scraping should off myself took a long, long time—it likes to fossilize, layer by layer. Its armor is self-guilt. Its color, regret. Should doesn’t need the sharp spear of fear; it is the deadweight of an anvil, iron forming in the soul, shard by shard.

Should isn’t battled with mere acceptance. That’s dangerous ground. I did have to accept that I couldn’t write on the same schedule, every day, but I couldn’t stop there or I would never write. The secret weapon, for me anyway, was reimagining. What do I really want to accomplish? What does success look like for me, within the pattern of my days? I wanted to write more and to write better. I had stories to tell. Eventually they led to this blog. The blog led to wanting to uplift others—there’s already plenty in the world pulling us down. I found myself uplifted in the process. I write several times a week, some weeks more than others. I write whenever I can carve out the precious pockets of time…and for the record, thinking about writing is writing, which I do in the background of my mind all day, every day. A hasty note capturing a fragile new idea before it sprouts wings and flies away is writing. On a Post-It, in the margins of my planner, in notes on my phone, eventually transferring to a notebook… whenever the idea appears, I stop for a second to see it, translucent, barely formed, and catch it. To me that’s the most important thing a writer does. One cannot spin without a thread of silk. And so I had to reimagine what writing looks like, what it really is. I shook off should and carried on with far more productivity on my own terms—without feeling guilty for stopping to rest whenever I need to.

When Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog encouraged writing as a way to “shed your shoulds,” I was reminded, once again, that should is too often an unnecessary, subconscious burden…

Shed your shoulds
like leaves in woods
Trees shorn of fragility
preserve their ability
to survive.

Hear should rustling: ‘Don’t forget’
like leaves curling with regret
Spiraling, sigh by sigh
piling inside, dead and dry
cluttering today.

Beware should’s false measure
robbing Now of its pleasure
Shed those shoulds
like autumn woods
composting for tomorrow.

The moral of the story, Friends: Don’t should on yourself.

Scrape that mess off and use it for fertilizer.

*******

I’ve joined an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join, too.

Of stifling, stories, and stars

What stifles you?

This question appeared today on Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

The first thing the word stifle conjures for me is heat—stifling southern summer afternoons, air turning to bathwater.

Hard to breathe.

Which makes me think of COVID-19.

And masks.

It’s hard to breathe with a mask, if you have to expend much energy, if you have to talk very much… I know, because I wear one when I’m out and about.

In thinking of masks, I come to another layer…

Filters.

There to help protect. To keep harmful stuff out.

Or in. Depending.

Masks may be somewhat stifling.

Filters aren’t stifling at all.

It’s the lack of filters I find stifling, out there in the daily atmosphere, the zeitgeist of our times. Words of fire, of ash, of acid rain, meant to destroy…when their creative power could be harnessed instead to edify, to transform, to transcend. To honor. To heal. The poets know it…

I can only be vigilant with my own filtering. With what I let into my own mind, heart, and soul. With what I let flow in return… recognizing that

Fear stifles creativity
Inner critics stifle courage
Loudness stifles contemplation
Turmoil stifles contentment
Excuses stifle commitment
Regret stifles today—and tomorrow

—I’d like to continue the acrostic with a sort of reversal using each letter of “stifle” and “filters” on every line but I am tired now. Tiredness stifles the brain.

Humanity is stifling. As in, one’s own. Today an education colleague and I joked that we were done with Earth, having had enough of not-knowing, of virtual realities of teaching, of the inability to move forward with life in general and the tolls taken on us all in so many ways. We kidded about going to live on the Space Station. Even now, recalling, I am “slipping the surly bonds of Earth,” as WWII fighter-pilot-poet John Gillespie Magee wrote, to circumnavigate our planet every ninety-two minutes, seeing fifteen sunrises and sunsets in one day, like the astronauts do. To be among the stars…

Which evokes another favorite quote, this one from Muriel Rukeyser:

“The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”

And so I slip away from the cosmos, down through our protective atmosphere, back to my own country, to my home, my family, my little spot carved out here in the kitchen, to the waiting keyboard, feeling again the heaviness of humanity.

For us all.

For our very atoms, for the stories we live and breathe.

I reach for the words and it’s a little like reaching for the stars. Not those beyond but their remnants within; as scientists say, we humans are made of stardust.

Well then.

Seems we should be about filtering light.

I’ve enjoyed the open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join.

Flavor of fall

Someone I love just gave me this “Brew” cup and infuser ball along with loose black tea leaves mingled with cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, milk chocolate curls, and calendula petals what’s not to love?
I am sipping liquid Autumn.

In my online writing voyage, I’ve just come to a new port of call—Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog.

Those words, stories and magic, are all the passport I need to disembark and discover…

Today’s open invitation is writing about a favorite fall food, or one loved as a child.

My mind goes immediately to the breakfast cereal Count Chocula. I look for it at the beginning of every autumn now, but, if I recall correctly, it used to be available all year round when I was a child. I could be wrong. At any rate, I hadn’t seen it in decades when, maybe three years ago, it reappeared on grocery shelves as if by magic—poof! Voilà! —catapulting me, wide-eyed, open-jawed, straight back into childhood, to age 8? 9? 10?, hunkered over the cereal bowl, immersed in a book (for one cannot eat a bowl of cereal without a book, right? Isn’t it some unwritten law?). I wouldn’t stop at one bowl, see. Usually it was two. Maybe even three… suddenly my father is walking through the kitchen again, scowling: “First ketchup! You use way more than you should. Now this. Nobody needs to eat this much cereal…I’m buying three gallons of milk a week! For only two kids!”

What would he say if he could see how many boxes of Count Chocula I have, at this very moment, squirreled away my cabinet? Yikes!

Once this prompt got me walking around in Long Ago, savoring my Count Chocula, I began tasting other things… my mother’s peanut butter cookies with Hershey’s kisses on top, slightly melted from the fresh-baked warmth. She made them when neighborhood kids gathered at our house to watch the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on TV, in those pre-cable days. I think this was in fall… there was a chill outside. The grainy-crunch cookies with their soft-bottom chocolate caps, Dorothy, her comrades, her red ruby slippers (which I later went to see numerous times in the Smithsonian), dear Toto, Glinda in her iridescent bubble, the Emerald City, the music… all magic, all warmth… there’s no place like home in the living room with friends and family, taking a trip down the yellow brick road once a year.

I do not know why memory leads from that scene to school carnivals, the caramel apples and Crackerjacks that I did NOT like, the scent of hot buttery popcorn in the air, the delicious excitement of reaching my arm into a giant clown face with a cut-out mouth for a grab-bag full of little treasures…and onto Halloween, the shivery joy of putting on a costume and going out into the cold dark night with friends who looked funny, creepy, and spooky but never really scary, in a time and place where it was safe to go trick-or-treating from house to house to house…oh, and I never did like candy corn, although it’s pretty and fun to use as decorations, like for turkey beaks or tail feathers on tabletop arrangements at Thanksgiving.

—Thanksgiving.

My mother’s carrot cake.

Locally famous, the only carrot cake I’ve ever really liked. Everyone loved it. I have her recipe. I make it every Thanksgiving and again at Christmas. Her secret: carrots finely-grated to pulp and extra cinnamon.

—And there it is.

My favorite flavor of fall.

Cinnamon isn’t exactly a food in itself, but to me, it’s the essence of celebration in my mother’s cake, the aromatic allure of my new autumn spice latte tea, the crowning glory of hot apple cider, the thing behind my longing for pumpkin spice coffee at the first hint of coolness in the air, just as reds and golds begin tinging the leaves… interesting, isn’t it, this tree-connection. Cinnamon is, after all, bark. The dying of the leaves, the dying of the year, going out in a blaze of glory, cinnamon their royal embalming spice, rich, fragrant, preserving like memory, like immortality, like being a child at home, face pressed again the window soon to reflect candlelight, the holiness in holidays, flickering bright with hope and promise when the days grow short and dark…

My best-loved taste of fall.

Well, and Count Chocula.

—Yum.

*******

I’m joining an open community of writers over at Sharing Our Stories: Magic in a Blog. If you write (or want to write) just for the magic of it, consider this your invitation to join us. #sosmagic

A cup of light

In his poem “Tuesday, June 4th, 1991,” poet Billy Collins writes of an ordinary day that would be forgotten if not for sitting “empty-headed at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.”

He begins to record his feelings, his thoughts, his surroundings. His mind travels through history. He captures images, real and imagined, in his stanzas “as unalterably as they are seated in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.”

Ontology. The study of being. Certainly this is what writers, what poets, do. I’ve said I write to know that I have lived… recording people, places, images, emotions, ideas, pulling back layers of meaning, discovering connecting threads. Attempting to capture or recreate bits of my existence, whether it is or once was tangible, or just a fleeting, ethereal breath of a thing in the mind… yet still being.

Collins ends his poem with an image of the goddess Eos, or Aurora, slipping out of bed (as his own wife had, prior to his waking and sitting down to write this poem):

But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

As I sit here, now, at dawn, empty-headed at my laptop with a cup of coffee, feeling that I have nothing to offer today, Collins’ final lines whisper in my mind. They do not demand, or bang on the door, or tug. They do not pierce; they just stand, waiting, whispering. Aurora rises from the sound, from the mist, and I see her looking in at me, too. In the grayness there’s a flutter of her plain gown, of her long hair. I see those thin arms, one hand holding the birdsong and releasing it. I hear it, airy and new and alive again, as it is every morning.

And that small cup of light she’s offering.

I can almost see her earnest face, her pleading gray eyes: I brought it for you. It is yours. Please take it.

And I think, the day is new. What gifts will it bring? Unexpected little treasures that I don’t want to miss, just waiting… and what cup of light might I offer the day in return?

There’s only one thing to do. I know it as sure as I am sitting here.

I hold out my hand.

Aurora smiles.

Photo: “Cupping the Light.”  CaitlinatorCC BY 2.0

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.