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

Facing fears poem

National Poetry Month has ended, and I miss it. While I may not be posting every day for a while, I continue to write.

The last prompt on Ethical ELA’s #VerseLove was on fear. Articulating it, facing it…perhaps conquering it.

This got me thinking how facing a thing for what it really is = the first step in conquering. There’s a lot of extreme anxiety in the world today. A lot of hatred. Sometimes we just don’t see things for what they are…including our own thoughts.

And so this poem was born.

Courage, peace, and wellness to you, Friends. Whatever it is…you can overcome.

My Fear Haiku

I once read a book
where people’s eyes turned inward.
They died from seeing

what’s inside their minds.
I trembled to take a look
at what lurks in mine.

Now I remember
what Granddaddy once told me
regarding black snakes:

don’t ever kill them.
See, black snakes eat rats and mice;
they’re good. We need them.

I think fear’s like that
snaking along, with purpose
something quite useful

so I never try
to kill it. Let it consume
the uglier parts

of my thoughts, and go its way
leaving me with a clean peace
and a better mind

so that all I fear,
in the end, is forgetting
memories of love.

Path of peace. The view after turning off the highway to visit my grandparents. The house is my grandmother’s homeplace, where she and her eight siblings were born in the early 1900s. Just ahead, around the bend on the left, stood my grandparents’ home where my dad and his sisters grew up in the 1940s-50s, and where I spent many childhood summers.

My safest haven on Earth. Snakes and all.

Love, life lessons, legacy, and memories live on.

Hope quatrain

with thanks to Dr. Padma Venkatraman and the Ethical ELA #VerseLove invitation to write a quatrain today on hope, especially, hope overcoming hate: What does hope mean to me? How do I see it? She suggested using a metaphor.

I see hope is as vital to our existence as humans. When I started this blog, I wanted it it to be uplifting and hopeful. The world already has far too much anger and hatred. I struggled with condensing a metaphor for hope that would fit in four lines! I finally settled on a sunflower. It’s too big for all I would say here in regard to hope overcoming hate. Maybe I will try it in another form later. Part of my inspiration comes from sunflowers being planted to absorb radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Technically lines one and three should rhyme but I claim poetic license.

For Day Fourteen of National Poetry Month

Hope Perpetuates

Hope turns its face to the sun
Warming its myriad seeds
Hope’s roots absorb toxins
Cleansing each soul that it feeds.

Sunflower. metin.gul. CC BY

Out of the tomb pantoum

In honor of Easter, on Day Four of National Poetry Month

Like Christ we also can live a new life
Out of darkness into light
Offering forgiveness amid strife
As sunrise conquers longest night

Out of darkness into light
Eyes blinking, faith made sight
As sunrise conquers longest night
On the wings of morning, take flight

Eyes blinking, faith made sight
Releasing what is past
On the wings of morning, take flight
Heart’s stone removed at last

Releasing what is past
Offering forgiveness amid strife
Heart’s stone removed at last
Like Christ we also can live a new life

*******

Note: A pantoum doesn’t have to rhyme, although mine does. It is a form comprised of repeating lines in this pattern:

  1. Begin by writing four original lines.
    1 2 3 4
  2. REPEAT lines 2 and 4 and expand ideas in lines 5 and 6:
    2 5 4 6
  3. REPEAT lines 5 and 6, expand ideas in lines 7 and 8:
    5 7 6 8
  4. FINALLY, repeat lines 1, 3, 7 and 8 in the following order:
    7 3 8 1

Finch found haiku

I have heard of found poems. I have not heard of a found haiku. But I offer one today from a favorite book: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

For Day Three of National Poetry Month and in honor of the finches who returned to nest in the wreath on my front door, having mysteriously disappeared last spring during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

bright, immutable
finch singing out brilliantly
from the wreck of time

A house finch song on the first day of spring. Richard Griffin. CC BY-SA

Xenophobia

It was a glorious fall afternoon when I took my youngest son, then four, on a quick trip to the hardware store. I was preparing to paint some baseboards in the house.

He was playing his favorite video game: Banjo Kazooie.

“You’ll have to pause that,” I told him. “We have to go buy some paint supplies. You can play it when we get back.”

“Okay,” he replied with good humor, “I’ll put it on the Eyes.”

The Eyes meant the pause screen where these colorful creatures called Jinjos just sit, blinking their big eyes.

My boy loved the Eyes. Would often pause the game just to watch them.

I could not see why the Eyes were so enthralling, but… moms are busy people, and I had things to do.

He paused his game with a last loving look at the Eyes, and off we went.

The round trip took about fifty minutes.

Upon arriving home, I thought it odd that a random piece of wood was lying on the back deck. It wasn’t there when we left…

Odder still: the back door standing ajar.

And that the bottom of it had been split wide open… hence that random piece of wood, and more pieces, in the doorway.

I couldn’t quite make sense of it.

I stepped into the house.

The comforter from my little boy’s bed lay in a heap in the middle of the living room. The soft blues, green, yellows, and oranges so out of place, there…

The TV was gone.

And the Nintendo.

In those split seconds, you don’t think I am currently messing up a crime scene, here in my house.

You think, What am I seeing? What has happened here? How much more…?

You go running room to room to find out.

It took only seconds to ascertain. All the TVs, gone. Older son’s gaming system, gone. Husband’s desktop computer, too. One pillowcase from my bed gone; bedclothes rumpled and mattress shifted where…where someone must have run hands underneath (do people really hide cash under their mattresses nowadays?).

My wedding rings still lying on the dresser in plain sight (I was planning to paint, remember) but the closet door open and my husband’s jewelry box, containing some of his deceased father’s cufflinks along with the shells from the twenty-one gun salute at the military funeral…gone.

“Mama! Mama!” My son’s voice, in the living room.

I race back down the hall.

He’s standing, facing the spot where the TV used to be. He looks up at me, confused:

“Where are the Eyes?”

That’s when it all snapped into focus:

“I have to call the police, honey. Bad strangers came and took the Eyes…”

*******

Shortly after that is when the nightmares started. They lasted long beyond the years of child night terrors. Waking up believing someone was in the room, when no one was.

He couldn’t understand it, why bad strangers would come and take the Eyes. He asked over and over: “Why?”

We eventually replaced the Nintendo, eventually got another Banjo Kazooie game.

But a young, tender psyche paid a price. It was violated, just as our home was violated.

Bad strangers haunted his dreams for years.

One might expect that he’d grow up hardened, possibly angry, understandably mistrustful.

He is none of those things. The nighttime xenophobia never diminished the brightness of his being.

In his twenties now, my son is a gentle spirit. Kind, quiet and deliberate, with a quick, razor-sharp wit. He’s our musician, listening over and over to rhythms and patterns and chords that he can replicate on a number of instruments. A singer, a natural harmonizer; I know he hears things many of us do not, or maybe it’s just that he hears them differently and more beautifully. At seventeen, he achieved a childhood dream: He got a position as a church music director.

He’s recently left it for another calling. A full-time job, see.

Part of it involves going into people’s homes to take away something precious.

I don’t imagine many young people dream of going into the funeral home business but that is what my youngest has chosen. He refers to it as “a ministry.” He now encounters strangers in their time of greatest need, speaks words of comfort to them, enters their homes, and helps to carry their loved ones away for final arrangements. On these “death calls” he leaves our house wearing a tie, dressed in his best, out of respect for the strangers he will encounter and their dead.

He is at peace with himself and with others. A calming presence.

It occurs to me that the opposite of xenophobia is philoxenia, “friend to strangers.” It is the basis of the Biblical word translated as hospitality.

A good stranger, then, to the people he encounters. Once he saw an elderly lady with a walker eating alone in a restaurant; he paid for her meal along with his own, and left without telling her.

My precious boy, overcoming the darkness, being a light in so many ways… has it ever occurred to you that you are the Eyes.

To this day, the boy loves “the Eyes” – he even has a stuffed collection of Jinjos.
In the video game Banjo Kazooie, the player must find where the witch has hidden the Jinjos, and rescue them.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approach: On Day 24, I am writing around a word beginning with letter x. 

Incomplete

It started with the greatest intentions.

The cross-stitch Victorian Santa stocking. I figured I could have it ready by the baby’s first Christmas. Such a lovely commemorative heirloom…

I got to work, not realizing how tiny the stitches would be, how difficult linen is to work with, how maddening it was to undo and redo wrong steps. I hadn’t done much cross-stitch before. But I had to keep working. It was a labor of love for my baby.

After he was born, I embroidered his name on the banner over Santa’s head. Christmas was still months away; I had plenty of time.

I didn’t realize that my schedule was no longer my own, that when he slept, I should sleep.

I learned. Quickly.

Christmas came and went, with only half of Santa complete.

Well, my sweet boy’s stocking could be ready by next Christmas. He would not be so babyish then; I would have a little more time to work on this.

I’d never had a toddler before…

It wasn’t finished by the next Christmas. Or the next. We used substitute stockings instead.

Somewhere along the way I finished Santa. I got the the toys stitched. All that remained was Santa’s bag!

A striped bag, with lots of light and dark variations of the same colors for depth and shadows.

It was gorgeous.

It was also my cross-stitch Waterloo. Around that time, my second baby was born.

I folded the linen. I placed it in the craft box as tenderly as a loved one laid to rest in a coffin. With acknowledgment of my abject failure for a eulogy. It was over. There was no point in trying to go on. How could I in good conscience make such a keepsake for one child and not the other, anyway? It wasn’t going to happen. I thought of other people’s beautiful needlework with longing and awe. I mourned how this craft turned out to be so unsustainable for me.

That linen remained buried in that box for years and years… until I came across it one day while looking for something else. I unfolded the cloth bearing Santa and my firstborn’s name. Sadness flooded me. He wasn’t little anymore. He was in his teens. The guide for completing Santa’s bag was missing, somehow misplaced, if I even wanted to attempt it. Could I paint a bag on? Would that look terrible? What if I ruined the linen? Could I cut a little bag from felt or cloth and stitch it on? Why even think about this, now?

That’s when I decided.

He would have his stocking.

I took the linen and the backing to a seamstress (my expertise with real sewing being limited to the reattaching of buttons). “I know this looks weird,” I explained. “I started it for my son before he was born and never got around to finishing. It’s as done as it will ever be. Can you just put the back on, please?”

And so the linen became a stocking, at last.

It’s hung on the mantel every Christmas for a couple of decades now, with those disembodied toys poking out of their invisible bag. I never even finished outlining them, save the teddy bear.

Loose threads, if you will.

Except that every stitch that is there holds tight, for it was placed with utmost care, with the stuff of hopes and dreams. Each one is infused with great love, which never fails, despite imperfections and intentions. Efforts made in love are never wasted. That the picture is incomplete does not mean that the whole is ruined or meaningless. Or that there’s no beauty to be found in it. In fact, I’ve read how there’s something incomplete and fragmentary in all great art since Gothic times, left for the audience to complete (Arnold Hauser). Not so applicable to a cross-stitch Victorian Santa. But maybe an unfinished thing is finished in a way that is different from the picture imagined at the beginning. Maybe it’s a lesson in acceptance.

If nothing else…it certainly makes for interesting conversation.

Inspiration fires the soul
Never imagining
Candles will burn down so soon
On the windowsill of willpower.
Maybe I mourn intention
Passing away
Leaving my imperfections
Exposed for all to see.
That is when inherent beauty comes to light
Even in loose threads, left untied.

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. This marks my fifth consecutive year and I’m experimenting with an abecedarian approachOn Day 9, I am writing around a word beginning with letter i. 

Blue Valentine

Sunday dawns oyster gray, cold.

Rain rolls down the windows like tear-streaks of the wind, which howls in anguish under the eaves like a maimed creature.

In the backyard, pines stand in solidarity, like soldiers at a burial. Knee-deep in a sea of mud.

All dreary in its own right. I do not need to color it more so with my own thoughts, or to further stir my restive soul. Day after day after day of rain. No snow. At least no ice.

Am I unhappy?

No.

It’s Valentine’s Day. My husband and I have exchanged cards, chocolate, a sampler of hot sauces. “Burning Love,” the box reads. The flames on it are certainly a bright spot.

Am I tired?

Not as much as I was at the end of the workweek, the final one of remote teaching. We return to campus this week. Hard to envision the epic regulations to be enforced, the acrobatics of keeping elementary children distanced in imaginary bubbles.

Am I worried?

Concerned is a better word. It is a time to be like the pines, standing in solidarity despite the grayness, the bleakness, the muddiness, the wearing-on of things. I don’t know if I have it in me. This is not like me. My patience is peeled unusually thin; turpentine burns too near the surface. I do not like the feel of it.

Is my spirit failing me this Sunday morning? I should think not. It is a seasoned spirit. Today also happens to be the anniversary of my husband’s ordination, many, many years ago. We were so young, setting our feet on a path we could not clearly see, but we walked, and we walked, moment by moment, in sun, in shadows, over years, across decades…and here we are. I am grateful. He has already gone to church. I am getting ready, mulling this miserable scene beyond the blinds. I should have kept them closed.

I wish I could see the bluebird. He shows up almost every day, if I’m watching at the right time. He sits on the deck railing for long stretches. Little messenger of brightness.

Why should seeing him make me feel better-? Maybe hope is electric blue. Never thought of that before.

I sigh, and am turning away, when I catch a fluttering of wings…

The female. Not the bright blue I am longing for, but still. This means a nest may be in the works, nearby! Might I see baby bluebirds this spring? Dare I hope for such bounty? Do I deserve it?

She takes a bath, there on the railing. I think of Esther’s yearlong preparation for her union with the King.

And then my little lady bird is gone. I wait. The railing remains bare. He will not come. Maybe it’s the rain. I can’t keep watching. Must get to church or I will not be in good graces with the pastor, which is a problem I don’t need, since I live with him.

Happy Valentine’s Day, bluebirds, I say in my mind as I bundle up to leave.

And then, at the last, a flash of blue, landing on the railing…it’s him, it’s him! No, wait! Both! I have never seen them together before.

Rain never interferes with the mail and this is surely addressed to me as much as an envelope bearing my handwritten name.

A gift of love, my blue Valentine.

One day I will be poised just right to get a photo of MY birds, which look exactly like this. Eastern bluebirds are known to begin nesting in February. Let us hope…

Update: The Phrontistery definition: “valentine – of birds, to sing to a mate.”

If you are so inclined, here’s a little poem written on the occasion of the first sighting last week: First bluebird.

*******

Photos:
Vintage postcard. Kaarina Dillabough. CC BY-SA
Eastern Bluebird. 611catbirds, too. CC BY

A bowl of snow

Deep in the night, it came.

I wake to the sound of it falling.

A faint, feathery swishing against the bedroom windowpanes. A silvery glow at the blinds, beckoning. I crawl out from under the warm covers to peer through.

It’s a different world. Softer. Purer. At peace in its perfect winter-white blanket, illuminated by the full moon. Big flakes descend to the ethereal stirring of wind chimes.

I imagine animals curled in their cozy dark burrows.

In the spirit of affinity, I return to mine.

I waited well into the morning before texting my son: Is she so excited?

His daughter, age five, has been longing for snow. Some winters pass without it here in central North Carolina.

He texted right back: She’s so wound up. We have already been out to play. We made snow cream. Put sprinkles on it and ate it for breakfast.

How awesome is that, I thought. She will remember it all of her life, this snow, getting to eat it for breakfast.

Magical moments. They will be stored away, deep in the hallowed halls of her mind.

I was just rereading The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. They explore moments we remember and revere the most. Some are tied to great emotion or to shared meaningful experiences. Others transcend “the normal course of events; they are literally extraordinary.”

The authors write: “The most precious moments are often the ones that cost the least.” They relate the story of a three-year-old who succumbed to a severe E. coli infection. They describe (brace yourself) her kidney failure, horrible pain, portions of her colon being removed twice, her heart failure and resuscitation; she desperately needed a kidney transplant and a compatible donor could not be found. At Halloween, her costume had to be laid on top of her because of all the tubes. She was still in the hospital as Christmas neared, and it began to snow:

For a child from Vermont, it was cruel, having to watch the snow through the windows. Wendy loved to make snowmen, to go sleigh riding. She hadn’t been outside for two months. Her lead nurse, Cori Fogarty, and and patient care associate Jessica Marsh hatched a plan. If Wendy couldn’t play in the snow, they would bring the snow to her. But it was more complicated than that. Because of Wendy’s heart condition, the staff was monitoring every milliliter of water that she consumed. So Jessica went and filled an emesis bucket with snow, weighed it, let it melt, and poured it into a graduated cylinder. Now they knew how to translate the weight of snow into its volume of water. So they went and filled the bucket with exactly the right amount of snow so that if Wendy ate it all — as three-year-olds are prone to do — she’d be just fine.

Can you see them, bringing the bowl of snow into the hospital room? Can you see that little girl’s expression when she saw it? Jessica Marsh said: “I have never seen such joy and pure innocence on a child’s face.” Wendy’s mother: “It was bliss, it was joy.” Many years later she would write: “It’s easy to forget the monotony of the endless days that stretched together during her recovery. But that one moment of brightness, that is one moment we will never forget.”*

Perhaps that is just the image we need right now, as COVID-19 drags on. A bowl of snow for a child…a bit of magic to escape the moment, maybe to carry us through.

As parents, as teachers, as writers, compassionate human beings, we have this power within us to imagine such moments, to make them happen. The most precious moments are the ones that cost the least…

Just so happens that as I write these words on this new, dark morning, flurries have started falling again.

Let us go and seek our bowl of snow. And where we might share it.

Maybe even for breakfast, with sprinkles.

*******

*Wendy’s story is from the chapter “Making Moments Matter” in The Power of Moments by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2017, 263-265). You might like to know that she did receive a transplant and went on to be an athlete.

Thanks to all at Two Writing Teachers for the power of your shared stories. Where there’s writing, there’s a way.

Capitol recollections

Morning breaks over the Capitol. March 2018.

I was eleven the first time I saw it with my own eyes. 6th grade field trip. In those days, parents could ride on the bus with the children; they didn’t have to follow behind in a car. That is how my mother got to go. She volunteered to chaperone. She didn’t have a driver’s license. I think it was the first time she’d ever been to D.C.

All along the mall, teachers strategically organized students for photos with the best view of the Capitol behind them. Everywhere you looked were rows and rows of children, many carrying small flags. Not all were American, but all seemed excited. I walked, listening to the musicality of many languages I couldn’t understand.

I cannot remember if it rained, or what we ate, but I recall the beauty of my country’s capital enchanting me. In some gift shop I bought a crinkly parchment reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I was happy that day. The Declaration came with a feather pen, to my delight. Then I spied a horse ornament on a glass shelf behind the register. Dark, stormy gray mingled with cream, frozen in the act of rearing up, forelegs arcing in the air, powerful muscles so realistically rendered, mane flowing in an imaginary breeze.

I did not know, at age eleven, that a horse symbolizes courage. That it can also represent overcoming adversity and caring for one’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

I only knew this twelve-inch plastic horse was beautiful and mighty. Captivated, I handed my last dollars to the clerk who wrapped my horse in layers of paper. I cradled it close all the long bus ride home.

It remained on the shelf in my bedroom until I married and moved out.

I’d return to D.C. again via Amtrak at nineteen, to meet my cousin who lived there. He would accompany me to an audition for acting school in New York City (that is another story). It was winter, icy-cold. Bundled and laughing, we roamed the windswept streets, past the lofty steps of the Capitol, talking of life, of the future, of being mavericks of the family.

Life takes many an unforeseen turn. He died young. I never went to acting school.

I had a family of my own instead.

Over the course of years, my husband and I made several visits to D.C. He’s a history-lover, an original poli sci major turned pastor. We took our children when they were small. Our last visit was early spring, 2018, with friends. What I noticed most on approaching the Capitol in early morning: the deep silence. Few people were out. The brooding sky made a compelling backdrop for the ornate dome, topped by Freedom. I took a picture. I tried to remember my first visit as a child, how enchanted I felt…long before I understood that relationships can disintegrate in unimaginable ways. In families, communities, countries.

The day after the attack last week, as I turned on my computer screen to meet with young elementary students, I felt numb, unfocused, ill-prepared. One by one at the appointed times, the children popped in, their faces aglow because…it might snow! A pandemic, ten months of reinvented school and life, volumes of ongoing, unfolding horrors in the news…yet they greet me with when is the snow is supposed to start?

It set a little part of my hippocampus jingling. Snow, as a literary symbol, means innocence, purity, tranquility. Even blessing.

Suddenly that old storm-gray horse souvenir resurfaced, vivid, nearly tangible, in my memory.

Strange.

I can’t say it’s symbolic of the American spirit. What does it mean to be American?

Maybe it’s symbolic of a child’s spirit. What makes it so mighty?

All I am sure of is this: a longing for overcoming and well-being.

For all.

*******

My previous post is a poem on the power of words to wound and heal: When.

Here are words inscribed in the U.S. Capitol:

On the Rostrum of the House Chamber – “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace”

Behind the vice president’s chair in the Senate Chamber – “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”)

On the stained glass window of the Congressional prayer room – “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.” Psalm 16:1

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Challenge, in itself a testimony to the power of stories and community.