Why I write, 2021

The Children’s Eyes (When They Are Writing)

The children’s eyes
are windows to the skies
sun-bright,
moon and star-studded night,
reflected wonderlight.

The children’s eyes
are toy-wagon wheels
absorbing, bearing, hauling
so much more than playthings.

The children’s eyes
are gates in a small walled garden
which widen when they realize
the stunning flora growing within
—cultivate it, Children.

For in my own walled garden
of memory
lush greenery still grows
not obscuring
but revealing
what I now know
to be healing.

All I’ve lived and seen
eventually spills forth in story
above and through and over
the old stone wall

for even in the moonless,
star-obscured,
darkest night,
there is always
a ribbon 
of light. 

This, Children,
is why I write.

Speaking of things I’ve seen…artwork on a concrete wall in Asheville, NC.
The garden struck me as metaphor for writing, growing there in the brain.

*******

with thanks to Andy Schoenborn for the “eyes” and life experience poetry prompt on Ethical ELA this morning, to Two Writing Teachers for sustaining a community where teachers of writing flourish, and to the National Council of Teachers of English for designating October 20th as National Day on Writing.

and in honor of all the children who inspire me, every time I’ve come to your classrooms to teach writing.

Last hurrah

Twenty-four hours ago I woke with the sun by the sea, rested and at peace with the world. I spent a few hours sitting at the ocean’s sandy altar beside my beloved sister-in-law, who’s like my own flesh and blood, speaking of the past, present, and future. Remembering loved ones lost. Cherishing new little ones, our children’s’ children. Hardly any other people were out and about; the beach seemed to be our own for these few sacred hours.

“Look! Dolphins!” my sister-in-law pointed. Out in the glimmering, watery distance, a distinctive leap…dolphins, navigators of the deep, ancient symbols of protection.

Just above the surface, gliding with astounding grace despite their unwieldy appearance, brown pelicans. Flocks of them. More than I’ve ever seen at one time before. Breaking their flight with dives and a mighty splash of white spray, catching fish and bobbing for a while in the waves.

Pelicans, a symbol for resourcefulness. And sacrifice. Legend has it that mother pelicans sacrifice themselves for their young, if need be. They wound themselves to feed their children with their own blood. They are social birds which hunt cooperatively—representing teamwork. Community.

Twenty-four hours ago, I sat breathing the same salt air as the pelicans, stood in the same sparkling waters as the dolphins.

Today I pack my bags, load my car, and return to school, masked. COVID rages on. Many unknowables lie ahead.

Yet I remain at peace. Diving, leaping, or gliding, I shall navigate as called for in the ebb and flow of moments. Children await, life awaits, time does not. The ocean remains. A reminder of constancy, of strength.

Here’s to the mighty plunge.

Low-flying pelicans. Tony Alter. CC-BY

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers…strength and protection to all in this uplifting community of teacher-writers, seasoned navigators of life and story-sharing.

Shedding

Let me preface this post with a restated confession: I am not exactly a fan of snakes.

But they, like all of nature, have lessons to teach, if one is willing to learn.

I hope to always be teachable, so…

Early in the summer I found a snakeskin in my garage. Just a little one, but still.

A few weeks later, I found another.

This morning, I found a couple more.

So.

Snakes seem to have been vacationing in my garage. Let us think on that momentarily versus thinking that they’ve taken up permanent residence there.

Here is why I say this: The skins, I’m pretty sure, belong to smooth earth snakes. I’ve seen a couple over the past year or so, which is saying something: These are nonvenomous, shy, fossorial snakes that don’t like to be seen. The first one I saw was dead, lying across my sidewalk after a rainstorm. Pale gray body. I thought it was a worm until I saw the tell-tale scales. The second one was stretched out in my flowerbed mulch, black tongue flickering in and out “smelling” the air, trying to determine what I was. That’s it for my lifetime earth snake sightings. Two. They are uncommon, tiny creatures…just the size of these silvery skins left behind.

So they live in the ground around my home, harmless little things, going about their business of eating earthworms and itty bitty snails or whatever.

And coming into my garage to moult.

Which is nevertheless discomfiting. For me, anyway. Not for the bashful snakes.

I don’t especially want one to come all the way inside and hang out or anything.

But they do have me thinking (among many things) about shedding one’s skin. Metaphorically, that is. As in, what sorts of things I wrap around myself and cling to when I could be letting go and growing. Mindsets, habits, beliefs, assumptions, what have you. Which things actually nourish me, and which actually constrain me? Which are beneficial, and which are harmful? What do I need to shed and leave behind, to better move forward?

I suppose this thinking occurs because summer is waning. I return to work next week not knowing what the year ahead will look like, other than back to masked here in my district. I think about the possibility of a full return to virtual learning. It is more than a great many teachers can take. Yet… we got through last year. The children got through. There were good things in spite of the trials; there were surprises. Many from the children and most concerning ourselves. School of 2020-2021 took a toll on everyone. We had to shed quite a bit of familiarity and comfort to get things done. But we did it. We grew.

I don’t wish for a repeat any more than I wish for snakes to be summering in my garage. I cannot ignore the timing of COVID rearing its more-venomous-than-ever head again when we thought it was on its way out, just when we are on our way back into the schools. I now have a granddaughter starting kindergarten. Her little sister will be born this fall. There’s always a lot at stake when it comes to children—in the words of Herbert Hoover (ever how unpopular a president he was in his day): “Children are our most valuable resource.” There’s nothing more precious. They represent our tomorrows; they are the culmination of our yesterdays. We have to shed the fear of failing them. Not assuming the worst, or that “we can’t,” but doing daily, as only that given day dictates, what must be done for their care and nurture as well as for our own. We have to be… well, “as wise as serpents.” When it comes to plans, we have to hold on loosely, ever how painfully contrary it is to our nature.

This summer I had plans for household repairs and updates. That was before the dryer quit working. Followed by the air conditioning during the hottest week of the year (of course). Followed by turning on the water one morning and nothing coming out of the faucet; the pump died.

I did repairs, all right. Just not the ones I planned.

But I got through. I now have a new dryer and water pump. The AC unit didn’t have to be replaced, thank heaven. All is working well. Throughout this whole process I thought about adapting. I dried clothes out in the hot sun. I remembered how my grandparents never owned a dryer. I thought about that one window air conditioner they had (late in their lives) against a sweltering Carolina summer and no AC at all in the old Ford Galaxy 500; I once left a stack of 45 RPM records on its back deck under the windshield. They melted. They warped and ruffled like clam shells. I’ve never had to pump or draw water in my life, but I had plenty of bottled water and didn’t have to miss my morning coffee while waiting on the new pump.

So I attempt to bring the lesson of shed snakeskin to a point here: In the discomfort is growth. Newness lies ahead; it approaches incrementally as we scratch away at the constraints and setbacks of now. Endurance is possible. We certainly know this. Sometimes the thing that needs shedding most is our perspective…

Meanwhile, I go back to cleaning out my garage, another thing I hadn’t planned to do right now, but the snakeskins sparked it. Time to purge what needs to go and put up a shelf to keep everything else off the floor. I am working on it. Hot, tiresome, dusty work, but I can see my progress.

And it feels good.

Thanks to the snakes.

******

thanks also to the Two Writing Teachers community, where writing our way through is a way of life…courage and strength to all.

Just a little spirit poem

inspired by Denise Krebs on today’s Ethical ELA Open Write, after teacher-poet Stacey L. Joy. Stacey’s original simile poem centered on the word love. Denise’s, on the word alcohol.

Mine, on the word spirit.

Perhaps you know someone with this kind of everlasting joie de vivre…

Spirit…
Your spirit is bright
radiating like a summer campfire
popping, sparking, illuminating the night
Exhilarating spirit infused with silver starlight
Effervescent spirit of a child’s Christmas morning delight
Freewheeling spirit like an eagle in flight
An encompassing kind of spirit.

King’s Highway, Kissimmee. R9 Studios FL. CC BY

I dream a world

after Denise Krebs on the Ethical ELA Open Write today. Denise wrote after Langston Hughes’s poem “I Dream A World.”

—What world do YOU dream?

I dream a world

where Wisdom walks the thoroughfares

holding her lantern high

where Mercy kneels in lamplit paths

unfastening her cloak to enshroud

the transgressed

and the transgressor

where Comfort seeks out the lonely, the broken

to offer a cup of cheer, leaning in

with her elbows on the table

and her palm outstretched

where Truth looks up from the old rocker

in the corner by the bookcase

pushing his spectacles back up on his nose

as he turns the page of an ancient volume

but not before smiling at the twins

Mystery and Miracles

playing at his feet

in the flickering circle of lamplight

while Love closes the curtains

humming, always humming

her beautiful song

tears glistening like diamonds

on her cheeks

and where Judgment pauses at the door

listening, one skeletal hand raised to knock

but reconsiders 

and chooses to leave

giving a curt nod to Wisdom and Mercy

and stepping aside as they pass by

—I dream a world.

Photo: “Do not be afraid…” Fan D. CC BY

A poem is a pearl


Inspired by a course I’m taking on poetry. Although I am learning a lot and have been given a trove of resources, I’ve found my output to be lackluster. The word “why” floats in my brain like a hard nugget beneath layers of questions. I ask myself: Is this my best work? (no) Has my inspirational well run dry? (feels like it) Is the attempt of something of this caliber at the end of a school year—this year in particular—a bad choice? (possibly) Do I love anything I have written? (maybe a line here and there but much of it feels stilted, stunted, superficial; my verse is not “alive,” Miss Dickinson, I don’t even have to ask). It’s a conundrum, really, how I can write poems every day for a month straight and then dive with great eagerness into a course on the craft only to find my Muse has departed. I am adrift in the ocean in a makeshift raft. Am I having a writerly crisis? (not exactly…but I AM re-evaluating my efforts). Is this my own fault? (perhaps I am not pouring myself into it as I should) If I were to “name my feelings,” what words come immediately to mind? (is “paralyzed” a feeling? How about “shy,” not as in being timid in front of others—heavens no!—but as in going to the doctor’s office and being handed a cup for obtaining a urine sample and discovering you have a “shy” bladder. Which leads me back to the thing at the center of it all: why).

I only know one antidote for writing malaise.

Writing.

Since the problem is poetry, poetry I shall write. On my own terms, for my own self.

Here’s a small beginning, anyway…

A poem is a pearl
with organic origins
that will not be rushed

hard grain entering
the shell of my skull, somehow
scratching my soft brain

provoking action
jets of milk-stimulation
solidifying

layer on layer
it materializes
from my own nacre

I can’t estimate
its costliness, completeness
beyond my own brain

…to be continued, I think…

...and, it just so happens that as I hit “publish,” WordPress tells me this is my 500th post.

Cracked pearl. Filter Forge. CC BY

Lead photo: Pearl. amboo who? CC BY-SA

Sustaining words

As I turned the pages of my academic planner from April to May, I discovered a quote from Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön…

You are the sky. Everything else is just the weather.

The implication is to just be. To remain. To not worry about things beyond your control. The storms of life may rage and wreak havoc, but not indefinitely. They pass. And they’re interspersed with moments of incredible beauty. The sky exists above clouds. It is the sphere through which the sun, moon, and stars pass…what would it mean, then, to “be the sky”? I feel more posts coming on this later…

Meanwhile, more Chödrön:

Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

On Mother’s Day my family gathered for lunch. Sunday afternoons have an ethereal quality; they are not your ordinary afternoons. They beckon sleep, or reading, or other quiet pleasures; they also offer an outlet for expending physical energy and embracing joie de vivre, joy of living. After lunch my granddaughter, age five, needed to “run and get her wiggles out.” Her mother and I watched her running through a sea of white clover in my backyard. I’d been irritated that our lawn service hadn’t yet cut the grass but as I breathed the sweet, clover-perfumed air, I thought How perfect is the fragrance of this day. My daughter-in-law and I began identifying all the different types of plants growing with the grass in my yard with the “Picture This” app on our phones: Tall goldenrod. Spreading hedgeparsley. Ryegrass. Bluegrass (who knew?). Posion ivy on the far corner of the fence under the pines (lawn crew must be notified). Woodsorrel. Wild geranium. And wild mock strawberries, which enchanted my granddaughter. She picked them and carried them around, tiny red fruit in a tiny pink hand… my son said, “I never knew those grew here!”

There are a lot of things we never realize. Such as the value of simple moments, in the living of them. We cannot imagine how the memory of these will remain with us, like the sky, for our lifetime.

One more quote…

Rejoicing in ordinary things is not sentimental or trite. It actually takes guts. Each time we drop our complaints and allow everyday good fortune to inspire us, we enter the warrior’s world.

One of the thick, spiky weeds we identified on our backyard exploration is a species of “Everlasting.”

I said to my daughter-in-law: “I had no idea so much poetry lived in the grass.”

I think about all that would have been lost in these dappled Sunday afternoon moments, if the grass had been cut like I’d wanted. My granddaughter didn’t complain. She savored it all, blue eyes as brilliant as the sky above.

I do not know what tomorrow will bring. For now I only know we stand as we are, in our shared sky and story, moments in the making, entering the warrior’s world, a family of everlastings like those growing in the universe beneath our feet.

Where nothing is ever really ordinary.

The light

Every morning
at about this time
if I’m not yet out of bed
a curious, pulsating light
enters the room

I would like to think
it’s a Muse, arriving
from celestial regions
bearing new and fragile ideas
for the taking and keeping

or that it’s some other
ethereal visitor
out there beyond
my window
illuminating
the darkness
and if so,
I want to know
why

but no,
it’s only a neighbor
on his morning jog
right on time,
between four and five o’clock
wearing a mining hat
that casts a bright beam
before him as he runs

I think, there’s a metaphor in that
a meditation, a prayer
before I rise
to face the day
in this present darkness:
Let there be a light
on my head
a means of truly seeing
all that I will encounter

not in the inadequacy of
my own shadow, falling before me
no, let it fall behind me
indiscernible in the dark

and so I watch this soft light
bobbing along my walls
permeating my closed blinds
painting pictures real and imagined
in my mind
while the Muse
(who never really leaves)
prods with a finger
or maybe it’s more of a pulling
or a whispering
or all of these

and I sigh,
throwing back the warm covers
rising to write
while it is yet night

a light
to set the day
off
and running

Statue, “Quest for Knowledge,” Washington & Jefferson College, depicting a coal miner on lunch break. Photo by “Kathy,” CC-BY.
My neighbor wears a hat akin to this on his predawn jogs.



Earth-keeper poem

For the final Day of National Poetry Month, with thanks to Susie Morice, who encouraged poets to write of their favorite earth-keepers on yesterday’s #verselove at Ethical ELA. She suggested using a quote from an environmentalist to build the poem.

My quote is excerpted from a favorite novel:

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots…We found that trees take care of each other…seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly…trees sense the presence of other nearby life…a tree learns to save water…trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.” —Richard Powers, The Overstory

Understory Haiku
(for Granddaddy)

Once upon a time
my grandfather dug a well
in the earth he loved

he never said why
or who needed that water
maybe his neighbors

farm communities
did that; they worked together
for the common good

down deep in that hole
his shoveling uncovered 
a fully-formed tree

never saw the likes
he said, and I never asked
what became of it

but I imagine
it still lives, long after him
my understory

My grandfather, walking the land he loved most, his childhood farm. He told me where the house stood, and all the old barns…at the time of this photo, nothing remained but a wide field still in cultivation, bordered by trees. That’s my shadow at the bottom, taking his picture.

“Secret connoisseur” poem

with thanks to Karen Workun who invited a quick write today for #verselove at Ethical ELA. The idea is to brainstorm “secret areas of expertise,” choosing one to spin into a poem.

This is dedicated to Dennis. Again.

For Day Twenty-Seven of National Poetry Month

Lapland

Lapland
they say
is an icy
enchanted region
where the
northern lights
color-play
in the sky
and where
the only official Santa
actually lives
but here
in my house
I am Lapland
to a ten-pound
cream-coated
chocolate-nosed
dachshund
who will NOT stop hopping
by my chair
until he successfully
springs into my lap
or until I scoop him up
whichever comes first
and where he settles in
to snooze
with blissful
rhythmic
surprisingly loud
dog-snores
for as long
as I’ll let him
which is usually
until my leg goes
completely numb
from his tiny deadweight
yet still I sit
absorbing
his mighty warmth
like a recharging
of life
for the day
and should I have
to get up and walk
to get the blood flowing again
in my poor numb leg
he trails me
with glistening
brown doe-eyes
beseeching
the reappearance of
his cozy
enchanted Lapland
for the sweet dreaming
of his
little dog dreams