Baby’s breath poem

Sleeping child

Today’s poem is a response to Michelle H. Barnes’ “These Are the Hands” challenge on Today’s Little Ditty: “Consider writing about the place that empathy has in your own life—a time you offered compassion to another or a time it was freely given to you.”

Freely given … this is the first thing that comes to mind. Adapted from a post I wrote three years ago.

He wakes—that sound.

That rasp.Is it?

It is.

He traces it to the crib.

The baby. Just three months old.

Not breathing right.

Hand to her little faceno fever.

She stirs under his touch, still sleeping.

Breath ragged, rattling.

He is young.

It is his first child.

He goes back to bed.

But

he carries his baby with him.

Lies awake all night

with her beside him

making sure

she still breathes.

-She does.

Long after he does not.

*******

Thank you

for all the nights

you watched over me

when asthma attacked,

Daddy.

Photo: Angel1. peasapCC BY

Mourning dove blues

Mourning doves are said to symbolize providence, grace, peace, safety, renewal, and moving forward. Their low-pitched song sounds sad or comforting, depending on the listener. I dedicate this lament to the dove outside my kitchen window, whose plaintive murmur I hear in the dark, just before sunrise.

grim gray morning

grim gray news

grim gray outlook

grim gray blues

time to shelter

time to snooze

time to waken

time to muse

dream to endure

dream to choose

dream to escape

dream . . . a ruse

morning to ponder

morning to lose

morning pours out in

mourning dove coos

*******

Photo: Nesting mourning dove. Katy Tegtmeyer. CC BY

Little girl blowing bubbles

Ever wish you could keep a small child safe and innocent forever? It’s a wish as ethereal as bubbles in the wind, drifting away like childhood itself. I took this photo last summer. It’s taken this long to figure out how to convey what I felt.

Little girl

blowing bubbles

in the sun

free of troubles

How they drift

on the breeze

turning, turning

as they please

Colors shimmer

ever bright

just a moment

in the light

Wave your wand

my temporary

iridescent

bubble fairy

All too soon

time shall pass

bubbles pop

in the grass

How I wish

things could stay

idyllic as

this summer day.

Dust motes

Dust motes

Dust. ZoiKorakiCC BY

Last week I had the pleasure of co-facilitating my district’s third annual Teacher Summer Writing Institute. K-12 teachers were invited to deepen their sense of identity as writers, hone their craft, and experiment with form. Guest author Matt de la Peña led us through a series of writing explorations on Day One.

Here’s how it went for me as de la Peña used this exchange from “Steady Hands at Seattle General,” a short story by Denis Johnson, as a springboard for capturing images: 

“What about your past?”
“What about it?”
“When you look back, what do you see?”
“Wrecked cars.”

What might those two words mean, de la Peña muses aloud for the benefit of participants. 

“Wrecked cars?” Might they be literal or figurative? 

He goes on: Choose two words to create an image describing your past—when you look back, what do you see? 

At first I wrote ‘Christmas trees’. When I look back, I see them. From my grandmother’s all-silver, 1960s tabletop tree to my real Fraser fir decked in Victorian decor. Christmas trees mean another year is ending. That life and perspectives change continuously. To me they symbolize more than tradition. They mark time. Eras. Celebrations. Losses. Our children grow up; grown-ups from our own childhood pass away . . . between chapters of the unfolding story of life stands a tree.

When I look back, I see it all.

Suddenly I don’t want to use those words, Christmas trees.

In that instant, two other words materialize: 

Dust motes. 

I do not know why.

Except that I can clearly see the image of my childhood living room, a shaft of light between the drawn curtains of the picture window, the dust floating there, tiny specks of gold— 

He’s speaking, de la Peña. Asking if any of us would share our two words.

After a moment, I volunteer. 

“Dust motes?” he questions.  “I’ve not heard this before. I’m curious—why?”

Well,” I say, thinking as I speak, “it’s the image that came to mind, a shaft of light with dust specks floating in it . . . maybe because as a child I spent much time to myself, reading, in the stillness, in silences . . . when I look back, that’s what I see. Dust motes being partly your own skin. Shed cells. Pieces of yourself floating in that light . . . “

His expression is unfathomable. 

He says: “That’s fascinating and eerie. It lends itself to something really creepy . . .”

I consider this a compliment. 

De la Peña shares a model, “What Jimmy Remembers” from Jimmy & Rita by Kim Addonizio (2012):

Girls in white stockings and checkered wool jumpers, round white collars, red bows at their throats. Birds in Saint Christopher’s schoolyard—hundreds of them, black, spread out across the lawn in late afternoon. The brick wall of the steel mill on Dye Street he could see from the living room window, his father in there working, his mother in a shiny black dress coming in at dawn after singing in some nightclub, waking him for school. Shivering and dressing over the heating vent in the front hall. Dark-blue blazer and black shoes. A puppy that died of distemper, put in a shopping bag and into a can in Bushler’s Alley. Cotton candy on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, the barkers calling Hey bub, Hey sonny, Buster, Skip, You. . .The black hearse carrying his father through the snow, a semicircle of metal folding chairs. The green faces in avocado leaves smiling down at him. God in the clouds. Who art in Heaven. His mother, ghost now: wearing a stolen mink, flipping a cigarette from a deck of Lucky’s. His father moving toward her with a match, cupping his palms around the flame.

—All images, fragments, this bit of microfiction.

“Now, using your two words as a title, take a few minutes to write what you remember from your past, but here’s the challenge: Don’t mention those two words in your scene,” says de la Peña. “Don’t worry about proper sentences. Just write . . . “

My pencil is already scratching away against the notebook paper: 

Hand-me-down corduroy Levi’s in baby blue, green, tan, cream. Ashtrays overflowing. Trips in aging Fords to buy discounted boxes of Salem menthols. Complimentary bubblegum cigarettes. A screen of smoke in the air mingled with chicken grease. Ivory Liquid suds in the sink, stiff, dry, stained with spaghetti sauce. Bathroom wall by the tub caving in where a soap dish used to be. The biting scent of Pine-Sol as it’s poured in the toilets, rolling white like smoke, clouding the water like creamer in coffee. Vaporizer in my bedroom, rattling, sputtering. The hallway, broom leaning against the wall, a gathered pile of gray lint.  Bullet in the living room rug, in the floor, if you know where to look. Books. Books. Books. Silences. Shafts of light through the picture window, beckoning from beyond. The wrought-iron lamppost by the concrete steps leading to and from the front door, the heavy, decadent fragrance of my mother’s gardenias in various stages of living and dying on the bushes there. Church carillon chiming, loud and clear, from several blocks away: Let me hide myself in Thee. The pungent whiff of crab from the factory, if the wind is just right. Salt. Salt. On my baked potato, tin foil too hot to touch, on my popcorn, on the wind. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind. Words and words in my head and my heart, pouring onto stacks of pages that are always able to hold it all, and which never judge, which just absorb, and save.

There you have it. Dust motes. What I see when I look back, at least in part.

With apologies to Matt de la Peña, for while I didn’t use “motes” anywhere in my remembering, there was just no getting around “dust.” 

But also with deepest thanks to him for creating the conditions for this writing to occur.

Which is what good writing teachers do.

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.

Seeing me

img_4994

Come back to examine this image after you read: In how many ways does it represent the information in this post? 

The big question on Day Three of our Teacher Summer Writing Institute: How do I see myself as a teacher of writing—no matter my grade level or content area? 

The day became a collage of images and symbolism.

Teachers were tasked with using postcards and personal artifacts as metaphors for teaching writing. They used these ideas as springboards into poetry and a means of writing to inform.

Then came the birds.

It began with the fact that 2018 is the Year of the Bird. The National Audubon Society and National Geographic, among other organizations, made this designation to honor the centennial of the Migratory Treaty Act, the most powerful and important bird-protection law ever passed. My co-facilitator posed this question: How do birds inform us? Group answers: They indicate coming changes in the weather, or the quality of the air. Their migration patterns have changed because the climate has changed; the birds are getting confused. That’s a reflection of society and the world, don’t you think? This segued into an activity called “Everyone Has a Bird Story.” For just a couple of minutes, teachers were challenged with a quick write about a bird (everyone really DOES have a bird story of some kind). The teachers gathered in a circle afterward, each reading one line aloud from his or her story, to compose a group bird poem. The effect was funny, strange, and beautiful. The closing question: How might we use this activity to inform student writers?  Answers: It’s a visual way to show students about organization and revision. Students can actually move around so that their poem makes more sense,  or to attain better flow. You can use this activity to physically show students how to group like ideas. It’s an easy way to show students that writing is fun. 

Just as the group broke for lunch, two birds—doves, to be exact—crashed into the windows of our meeting room. Generating both awe and alarm, they hovered, wings flapping, knocking against the glass as if seeking a way inside. A couple of us ran out to guide them away before the birds injured themselves.

Birds, ancient symbols of freedom and perspective, the human soul pursuing higher knowledge, the dove especially representative of peace, love, gentleness, harmony, balance, relationships, appearing at this gathering of teacher-writers as if invoked . . . so much to analyze there, metaphorically . . . .

Following lunch, the group spent time exploring abiding images. These are images that stay with us in our memories (and sometimes in our dreams); they usually have deeper meanings and significance than are obvious at first. One of mine, shared as an example: long, skinny, flesh-colored worms with triangular heads that my grandfather and I encountered when I was a child. He didn’t know what they were (land planarians, I’ve learned), we never saw them again,  and neither of us could have guessed what they have the power to do. They just resurfaced in memory recently; I had to figure out why. Here’s the story of that experience, if you’d like to read it: First do no harm.

Participants were then invited to take virtual journeys in their minds to capture the specific sights, sounds, smells of their favorite places. Others went outdoors to capture the same (see Abiding images for my original experience with this). Whether the journey was real or virtual, everyone encountered something unexpected or fascinating —something so representative of writing itself. The point of collecting abiding images is the intensity of focus, the close examination and capturing of the smallest detail, which might be used later in writing vivid scenes and settings that are necessary in both fiction and nonfiction, as well as for metaphor in poetry. Writers communicate information to readers through images. Teachers must be able to test and try ideas and creative processes—this is called birdwalking—through things like abiding images to inform their teaching and to communicate information to students.

And to write.

At this point teachers could rotate through any or all of three breakouts: Minilessons and content area writing, where they discussed ways to incorporate their new learning to grow student writers, or continuing to work on their own writing with the option of conferring with a facilitator, if desired.

As this vibrant day on writing to inform and “How do I see myself as a teacher of writing?” came to a close, my co-facilitators and I received the most welcome information from our fellow educators who span grades K-12 and all content areas, including ESL and AIG: These have been the most helpful sessions—I have learned so much about writing. There’s so much I want to try with my students! I am excited! How can I find more workshops like this? With most professional development, I am tired before lunch, and the afternoon is a long haul, but with these I go to lunch energized and can’t wait for the afternoon! The breakout sessions, where we choose to work on what we want to, are exactly what we need. Don’t change anything; just keep it coming!

That is like music—or shall I say birdsong?—to our ears.

 

Like Superman

Superman

Superman. Ian HarveyCC BY-SA

I’m seated at the old computer table, listening to second-graders read. Poetry conferences, we’re having. Revisions and final edits before their teacher sends everything off to publish a class book of poems.

“Is it my turn? It is it my turn?” he keeps asking me, from his seat in the middle of the room.

Actually, he’s not on my list of students that his teacher asked me to meet with. So I say, “Not yet. Not yet.”

He manages, somehow, to sneak between his classmates. I look up from notes I’m making to find his impish face beaming up at me. His tiny body wriggles in the chair beside me.

“My turn!” he insists.

I call across the room to his teacher, who’s also conferring with students: “May I PLEASE work with our friend here?”

“Yes, sure!” she answers. “I’m about to meet with him, but if you want to  . . .”

If I want to?

How can I say no?

“Okay, YOUR TURN! Read your poem to me,” I tell my exuberant conferee.

Grinning, he shoves his paper over to me.

There’s nothing on it. Not even his name.

“What, you haven’t written anything yet?”

He shakes his head. He’s still smiling. “No! But my English is bigger!”

He remembers.

At the beginning of the year, I assessed his reading. Just as I was about to console him on his having missed all of the words, he patted my arm and said, “You have big English. Me”— he patted his chest— “little English.”

His perception of everything around him is astonishing.  Whether he has all the words for it or not.

I’ve noticed, in the hallways, that he doesn’t greet me as Haley! anymore. Now it’s Hi, Mrs. Haley. That when I say How are you? he says, I’m good.

“Yes,” I say, “your English is a LOT bigger. That’s for sure. Now, this poem. What do you want to write about?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know.”

“Well, what do you like?”

His face lights up. The response is immediate: “BASEBALL!”

“Okay, so, what do you want to say about baseball?”

I take the paper and pencil.

“I like baseball,” he says.

“Perfect.” I write down the words. “That’s your first line. What else?”

“I like hitting the ball with the bat.” He acts this out. He’s a boy full of endless energy.

“Great. That’s your second line.” I write it down. “What else can you say about playing baseball?”

He thinks, gets excited, garbles his words. Something about running . . .

“Wait, slow down. Did you say running?”

He nods, bouncing in the chair. “I run like SUPERMAN!”

Superman . . . 

The first time I saw him, over a year ago, when he came to the United States, to our school, he had no English at all. Unused to a school setting, he frequently had outbursts because he couldn’t communicate his wants, his needs, his questions, his feelings, anything.

He was a frustrated, forlorn soul.

Wearing a Superman shirt.

My first words to him were, “Hey, you’re Superman.”

I pointed to the on his little shirt.

He didn’t understand, but he smiled.

Now, he understands.

Within five minutes, the poem is written. I point to every word, reading to him, then he points to every word, reading back to me. I watch him bounce away to his desk to copy the poem over in his own handwriting.

I write, too:

So you run like Superman when you play baseball.

Maybe you really mean that you fly

because you do

because you ARE Superman.

We shall stand marveling in your wake

it’s a bird, it’s a plane

it’s you.

Supersonic.

*******

For an earlier encounter with my little friend, read Big English

For the record, poetry is an excellent way to help English language learners—really, any student—write more. Poems can be brief with less emphasis on conventions. Energy can go freely into capturing images, ideas, emotions, and building vocabulary.

The tree I’d be

Cypress trees.jpg

Sunlit Cypress. Teresa PhillipsCC BY-SA

A few days ago,  I happened upon this captivating tweet:

I am well on the way to becoming a tree myself. I put down roots. I sigh when the wind blows. My sap rises in the spring and I turn towards the sun. Which tree would I be? Definitely a walnut tree.

-Roger Deakin, journal entry for April, quoted by writer Robert Macfarlane, Twitter, 04/04/2018

Macfarlane then asks: “Which tree would you be and why?”

—A cypress.

That was my immediate thought.

But why?

After all, one of my favorite scents is Fraser fir (the predominant Christmas tree in North Carolina). I vacuum the stubby needles at holiday’s end and try not to empty the canister for as long as possible, because the fir fragrance fills the air with every subsequent use. The trees of my childhood are dogwood, pine, live oak, magnolia, sweet gum. I have early memories of sun-dappled sidewalks covered with “helicopters”—one-winged seeds, or samaras—that spiral down from maple branches. I tossed the helicopters again and again, as high as I could, to watch them swirl like propellers. Crape myrtles lined my grandparent’s yard; I climbed their smooth trunks, sat in the crooks of their branches, countless times.

Why does cypress come to mind first, then?

Poets and writers, you know when an image appears so vividly that it holds some significance begging to be explored . . . .

For starters, my image is of Taxodium distichum, more commonly known as a bald cypress, or, my preferred name, a southern-cypress tree.

It’s rooted in the swamps of the southern United States, where my roots are. A tree at home in water, in rivers. I grew up in a place called Tidewater, entered the world in a hospital named for its proximity to water: Riverside.

My first recollection of the word cypress was my grandparents’ reference to a place on beyond where they lived, where the little dirt road curved past canals and thick woods that had grown to obscure stately houses: up Cypress Swamp, they’d say. Grandma’s best friend from first grade, who grew up to marry Grandma’s brother, was from Cypress Swamp. As a child, standing on the dirt road, looking through the treetops, if the sun was right, I could glimpse a bit of one old, abandoned house—a roof of cypress shingles.

The word sounded poetic to me even then: cypress. Like a whisper. Like something inviting. Maybe magical.

Although, through the ages, a cypress was usually associated with funerals and mourning. My affinity for the tree is clearly fused to my eastern North Carolina heritage, a reminder of the generations that have gone before me. My family tree, so to speak. It is ancient. Maybe nothing encapsulates that so well as this passage from Our State magazine, in which the author chronicles his boat journey on a river through a cypress forest:

 Many of the trees here must have witnessed those long-vanished species. They would have nodded over Native Americans in dugout canoes. They would already have been tall when the Lost Colony was lost, when the Mayflower sailed, when Attila the Hun was on the move. A few might have stood when Christ was born.

-T. Edward Nickens, “In Search of Methuselah,” Our State, June 8, 2016.

They live for so long, cypress trees, due to their ability to withstand storms; they thrive despite adverse growing conditions. Cypress wood is hard, strong, water-resistant—hence those shingles on the old country houses still standing as a forest  grows up around them. Those hand-hewn shingles sheltered the life therein. Like Noah’s ark, made of gopher wood from an unknown tree that some researchers speculate to be . . . cypress.

I cannot say the adversity, the storms, in my own life are any greater or worse than those weathered by other people I’ve known. I can only say that I’m still here. I view the cypress not as a funeral tree but one that preserves, celebrates, and affirms life; that, ultimately, is the whole reason why I write, why this blog exists at all.

On a fanciful note: Earlier I mentioned the word cypress sounding magical. When I was a child I loved the Chronicles of Narnia. I still do. In these books, C.S. Lewis borrowed from Greek mythology to depict dryads and hamadryads, the spirits of trees that took the form of young girls with their particular tree’s physical characteristics: a birch-girl dressed in silver, another with hair like long, willowy branches. Does a cypress call to me, then, because I am tall (5’8″ in bare feet)? That’s taller than the average American woman (5’4″) but not dramatically so. There must be something more, then, as to why the cypress chooses me, something unique to the tree and to me, other than our having southern roots in watery regions.

The knees.

In cypress forests, knobby projections stick up from the water. Theory has it that those “knees” help the tree breathe, enabling it to take in more oxygen. I don’t know how much truth lies in that theory, but I can tell you this: For my entire childhood I suffered from asthma and the only way I could sleep at night, the only way to breathe, was by curling up in a ball with my knees drawn up under me.

So, yes, my knees helped me breathe.

*******

In the old places

where the water stands still

they live on

holding all their stories

not evergreen

but ever-enduring

reassuring

reaffirming.

With every breath

drawn on their knees

they whisper,

“Remember.”

Real

and ethereal

—if I were a tree

a cypress

I’d be.

Cypress trees - pink

“When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and future slowly unravels before us.” echorooCC-BY