Poem of perspective

On the the fourth day of Ethical ELA’s Open Write, Ann Burg invites poets to “Think of a moment in time— an historical moment or a personal one. Place yourself outside yourself — as a favorite tree, a flower, even an inanimate object who has witnessed this moment…”

The Upright Mahogany Howard
(c. 1920s)

I grow old
I sigh
I know you hear
my bones creaking
as you walk by
I have no mirror
but your eyes
and there I see
my beauty
is not faded
although
I’m scarred
and snaggle-toothed…
you may not realize
my proclivity
for touch-memory
but I tell you
that baby on your lap
presently pounding
my ivories 
has the feel of her
—one day,
she will play
and I will respond
living on and on
in the song
for the chords
never broken
vibrate once more
stirring the dust
of five generations
in my bones…
I am
your reliquary.

The piano was my grandmother’s most-prized possession. My grandfather bought it secondhand sometime during WWII. My grandmother intended to bequeath it to my aunt, who also played; my aunt contracted MS in her 50s and died before my grandmother. Grandma then offered it to me. I do not play, but my youngest son is an extraordinary pianist with a degree in worship music. His brother’s baby, my granddaughter Micah, ten months old, is already showing an affinity for music. She sat on my lap ‘playing’ Grandma’s piano last week, thoroughly enchanted.

Found poem: stories we tell ourselves

On Ethical ELA’s VerseLove today, Amy Vetter invites teacher-writers to compose found poems: “A found poem is like a collage…find a text (e.g. a novel) or series of texts (e.g., novel, poem, article) and pull out words, phrases, sentences that stick out to you. Play around with the words. Rearrange them until a thought or theme jumps out at you. Continue until you’ve created a cohesive text.”

My found poem comes from Natalie Babbitt’s The Search for Delicious, Amanda Gorman’s poem “Arborescent I” from Call Us What We Carry, and A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, Daniel J. Levitin.

Stories We Tell Ourselves

I read a story
about people who 
built towns
crowned a king
and enjoyed 
a great many 
quarrels and troubles 
all of which 
they created quite 
by themselves

for our brains are built
to make stories as 
they take in the vastness
of the world

we forget
looking at a city
through the window 
of a train
that we’re only seeing
the part
with the train tracks
running through it
not the whole

blow the whistle
open the door
but it is shut
and locked

the brain
makes up its mind
-it is a very powerful
self-justifying machine

and so 
for selective windowing
we would again
give up our world

Train WindowNoJuanCC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

‘Succinct truth’ poem

Today on Ethical ELA, Maureen Young Ingram invites teacher-poets to compose “succinct truth” poems for VerseLove. The idea is to write about a difficult subject with a message of hope in 10-20 short lines, playing with lack of punctuation and capitals.

Mine’s twenty-two lines but I’m letting it be.

Dichotomies

humans
are a dichotomous race
desperately desiring
dutifully demanding
historically unable
to extend grace
at least
each other-ward

the tome of our existence
a work in progress
pages of pain
penned in blood

some say that babies are a sign
that the world should go on

forgetting that worlds go on
without humans at all

although my dog doesn’t think so

there’s hope
isn’t there
as long as dogs
haven’t given up
on us

My son with his dog, Henry, who surely has a soul
and who loves with his whole dog heart

The slant of the light

January morning
clear and still
rose-gilded clouds
aflame in the sky
like a royal canopy

fiery pink
presiding over
the stone-gray world

as I drive on
smoke wafts and lingers
after a slow descent
from chimneys

around the bend
a curious slanting of light
from behind me

winter-tilted Earth
catching the rising sun
at strange angles

the treetops ahead
become gold filigree
sun-dipped coronets
adorning bodies
enshrouded with shadow

the road I travel
twists and turns

the slanted light shifts,
striking the tree trunks

turning them crimson

blood-red

like arteries

conduits of life
not competing for sunlight
in this one moment,
just standing transformed
by oblique rays

—I revel
in the winter-slanted light,
thinking of how blood rises
to the surface
and how age-old secrets
stay hidden
deep within.

*******


I couldn’t take a picture of the scene on my early morning drive to work today. I can only try to recreate it with words. The sight left me awed and grieved at the same time: that the slant of the light could turn the treetops to lacy gold, could paint their trunks blood-red, and that these conditions might never replicate themselves exactly this way again.
I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to catch the haunting colorplay between the Earth and sun.

So much depends on perspective.


Scarecrow

Mixed media by Scout, age 5

Suppose you’re a special sort of Scarecrow with a
Carved pumpkin head and a purple hat
Adorned with pink roses, holding out your arms to
Receive birds instead of repelling. Your reward for
Embracing these winged messengers might be
Canticles of cheer sung in your ear,
Refrains of comfort and even celebration as
October dies, again, reminding you, again, it’s only for a
While.

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.

What is virtue?

A Spiritual Journey Thursday offering


While walking with my son this week, out of nowhere a shape descends upon us…

A dog. Not just any dog…

A pit bull.

Wriggling all over for joy, jumping up as if he knows us.

Begging to be petted and to play.

Glossy back coat, merry eyes, laughing face (yes really). Still a puppy, soft-mouthing our hands in greeting. Same as my older son’s pit, Henry, does.

“He is beautiful,” I say to my son. “He must belong to somebody.”

“I wish he was mine,” says my boy. Never mind that he already owns one of the mightiest breeds of all time: a dachshund.

The dog follows us home. We put him in our backyard until we can locate his owner. He doesn’t like being left alone. He cries when we are out of sight. He rejoices on our return. When we sit on on the deck chairs, he lies at our feet; when we rise, he rises to stand by, ready and willing to do whatever it is we are getting ready to do.

We learn from asking around the neighborhood that he’s roamed the streets before and that people shoo him away. Uninvited dogs, especially pits, are not especially welcome. I begin to think about harm that could befall him, aside from the danger of being in the street: What might a startled, frightened, or angry person do to him?

He raises his head as if he hears my thoughts. He looks at me with a wistful expression.

We find his owners. We send him home.

The next morning, he’s back. Curled up on our front porch mat.

Poor sweet boy. He shouldn’t be allowed to roam…or maybe he’s just an escape artist.

And I realize how powerless I am to do anything except hope for his safety and enjoy him whenever he should visit. He’s not mine and he’s disappeared again. I find myself missing him, looking for him.

He’s on my mind as Spiritual Journey Thursday rolls around; he seems, somehow, to be connected to the question, “What is virtue?” The four cardinal virtues of classical philosophy and Christian theology are Prudence (wisdom), Justice (righteousness) Fortitude (strength; overcoming fear), and Temperance (restraint; self-control). We usually think of virtue as people demonstrating goodness or excellence of character (the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31), or as the beneficial quality of a thing: patience is a virtue.

I cannot help thinking that this pit embodies virtue, too. He’s a good dog. He is loving. He is eager to share his affection and exuberant joy with whomever he encounters…he’s perceptive, willing to to serve, and, I suspect, highly trainable even if somewhat uncontainable at present. Above all, he’s one of God’s creatures.

Which reminds me that within the angelic hierarchy of Judeo-Christian tradition is a class of angels known as Virtues. They are connected to motion and order of the cosmos, dispensers of grace, exceptional courage, unshakeable faith, and miracles. They are balance-bringers; in a world so unbalanced of late, the angelic Virtues must have their hands full. As I write, I imagine them roaming the streets, unseen, fervently seeking ways they can impart divine strength.

I am not sure of connections between the Virtues and the mass adoption of dogs during the COVID pandemic…just musing over shapes that heavenly comfort, courage, and sustained strength might take.

Most of all I think about the desire to serve, to do good versus harm in a spirit of fear and distrust.

Perhaps…perhaps virtue arises where it is welcomed, and when it does, it opens our eyes to the virtue of others.

*******

with thanks to my Spiritual Journey writing friends and to Linda Mitchell for hosting on this first Thursday in August. As it turns out, “virtue” is supposed to be theme for September. Today the group is focusing on “respect.” I caught this after I wrote the post, alas, which leaves me with a choice: write another one and save this for September or let this one fly, regardless. I’m choosing to post now. It is, after all, written from a place of respect for the cosmically happy adventurer we’ve taken to calling “Harold.”

Backwards poem: This day

I recently began experimenting with “backwards poetry,” in which you read the lines right to left as in the Hebrew and Arabic languages.

For Day Six of National Poetry Month, I am playing with these lines and where to break them most effectively. They’re fun to read left to right but remember, they’re intended to be read from right to left…which version do you like best?

The source of my inspiration follows.

Take #1:

at
each of end the
think day
this has what
brought day
what and me
I have
it given

Take #2:

at
day, each of end the
this has what think
what and me brought day
it given, I have



Puttin’ on the dog (Henry writes)

My Dearest, Dearest Readers,

Heartfelt thanks to each of you for joining Me this week as I mark another year of being alive.

Yes—it is My birthday!

Or—ahem—at least it’s the annual day set aside for marking this monumental occasion, as I was projected to be approximately thirteen months old when I inherited the kingdom over which I currently rule. Thus saith the veterinarian to My Family when I was … er … adopted as a … (sigh) … foundling.

Which by no means affects My jurisdiction, mind you, nor My inalienable rights.

Speaking of which: As We share the same birth month, I felt that I could afford to be magnanimous to the United States of America by donning a bit of stars and stripes. I assure you that this is not an attempt to throw the nation a bone, as it were, nor to outshine any festivities:

Although I am looking quite glorious for five years of age, don’t you agree?

Let Me just say that while My Family is busy celebrating the paramount importance of My birth, I am truly and humbly grateful for every minute that I live. Indeed, I spend the whole of my existence, every minute of every day, asleep as well as awake, attempting to convey the indescribable magnitude of My love for them. I can scarcely keep it from bursting forth from My exceptionally big heart, with every single beat.

They are, after all, My People. Who dwell in My home.

Our relationship is one of complete mutuality (as long as I am patted and scratched for the length of time I deem to be appropriate, and as long as I am provided with delectable morsels at exceedingly regular intervals).

With proper obeisance shown Me (and ONLY Me), all remains peaceful here in Our tiny realm.

And so it is no wonder that an artist was inspired to capture My likeness on canvas, as befits one Who reigns supreme. I therefore give you this portrait in commemoration of My birthday, that you might henceforth hang it in your heart gallery alongside your own sovereign rulers:

img_2433

Henry Rollins Haley. 2019. His fifth year.

Always,

HRH*

*not His Royal Highness, although I can see how it would quite easily be inferred. This is America, remember? In the absence of a title—alas—I simply sign My monogram.

Off now to rest My aching toenails (how DO you Humans spend so much time on these atrocious devices??) and to locate Me a Person for snoozing against.

[Editor’s Note: For your convenience, Henry has archived all of his posts under the Henry Writes category. He says this will have to suffice until he has his own site, etc. ]

Knots

Last week was my spring break.

From school, anyway.

I spent almost the whole of it cleaning my house and purging stuff that should have been pitched long ago (which I vow to do every time I watch Hoarding: Buried Alive, chills crawling up my spine, icy fingers squeezing my heart). As I worked through closets, drawers, cabinets, the garage, I actually felt lighter myself, like a ship might feel when its ballast is tossed overboard. Of course I thought a lot, wrote a lot in my head while I worked, metaphorical stuff like we don’t often get to lighten our own burdens and decluttering is not just liberating; it’s healing. Basically all sorts of take-charge-of-your-life analogies, for that, in essence, is what I was doing, reclaiming my life from a surfeit of junk.

Until the knots.

I was on such a roll in the garage, once it was cleared, dusted, and swept (it’s much larger than I remembered), that my eyes fell upon the dog’s leash which hangs on a peg by the door.  It’s a moderately heavy chain, as Banjo, our yellow Lab, is an enthusiastic, massive beast, pushing 100 pounds.

There were knots in said leash.

This irritated me.

To an inexplicable degree.

My husband usually takes Banjo out in the mornings, and our son, Cadillac Man, will do it later in the day. How can they just let the leash get knotted like this? Are they going to let it go until it’s one giant ball of metal and of no use whatsoever? Do they know how lazy and uncaring this looks? 

Those were—alas—my thoughts.

Being on an organizational rampage, as it were, I couldn’t just wait for one of them to undo these maddening knots. In fact, I didn’t even think of waiting for them. If you want something done . . . I wanted the knots out, right then, so I set about it.

It was harder than I expected.

Chain links, especially tightly-knotted ones, don’t “give” very easily. I thought about my many tangled necklaces, how I sometimes poke a needle through the tiny chains until knots loosen enough for me to pull them out. I would need a tool. Say, a flat-head screwdriver.

At first, poking the knotted leash with the screwdriver did nothing.

I poked harder. 

Stabbed, to be precise.

Still nothing.

I discovered—well into an hour of beating at the first knot, my determination mounting by the moment—that if I also twisted at the knot while I struck it, the one link holding up the works would finally shift, and then the knot could be worked out.

The second knot came undone much faster.

The last knot was nearly the death of me.

I went for the WD-40. I WOULD GET THIS KNOT OUT.

Between a liberal coating of oil and my manic chiseling, voilà! A knot-free leash! After two hours of intensive focus. This was the highlight of my day.

Which is actually sad, in retrospect, but we won’t dwell on that now.

I hung the lovely straight leash back on its peg in the garage, admired it proudly for a few minutes—how it glinted in the afternoon sunlight, seriously—and then I went inside the house to plot my next attack on another project.

Consumed by my various missions, I didn’t think to mention the leash to my family that night. The next morning, I got up early and remembered, so  . . .  I will just take Banjo out myself. 

The very thought of using the nicely-untangled leash made me irrationally happy. I got dressed, put on my shoes, bounced out the door, reached for the leash, and . . .

THE KNOTS WERE BACK!

ALL THREE OF THEM!

“ARE YOU KIDDING ME?” I shouted.

Banjo cowered.

I collected myself enough to rub his belly and console him.

After taking care of the dog, trust that I hunted my husband down. There he sat in his chair, watching TV, sipping  his morning coffee.

I marched right up to him.

“DID YOU PUT KNOTS BACK IN THAT DOG LEASH?”

He looked at me like I’d lost my mind (highly probable, at the moment).

“Yeah, I put them back!”

“I spent two hours yesterday getting those knots out! Do you know how hard that was? I even had to use WD-40!  You couldn’t think to ask WHY the knots were suddenly gone? You just go and put them back without bothering to say anything?”

“I need those knots! They help me hold onto the chain better!”

I stood very still, many more unspoken words withering in my brain. My husband has arthritis. It often affects his hands and wrists. He also struggles with depth perception, having lost an eye three years ago. It never occurred to me that the knots had a purpose . . .

As if right on cue, Cadillac Man drifted through the living room in his pajamas and mad-scientist bed-hair (he is letting it grow).

“Hey,” he said. Then, after considering our faces: “What’s going on?”

My diatribe degraded into more of a lament: “I spent two hours yesterday getting the knots out of Banjo’s leash and your dad put them back in.”

“I need those knots!” my husband reiterated. “I was glad you put them there in the first place,” he told our son.

Cadillac Man raised his eyebrows. “I never put those in. I don’t know how the chain got like that.”

His father: “What? I thought you did!”

I sighed.

For it doesn’t matter how the knots got there the first time, even if I was right in my original hypothesis: they happened and kept happening because no one stopped to fix them.

What matters is this: That our worst knots in life occur from a lack of simple communication and our utter failure to see from a perspective other than our own.

The next morning, the knots were magically gone again. I thought my husband had relented, perhaps, or taken pity.

But no.

Cadillac Man undid them.

“I’d already told Dad I would take care of Banjo, so he doesn’t need those knots.”

I cannot say who’s really right or wrong anymore in this whole knotty scenario, only that it’s best to move on . . . and bless that boy.