Learning decay wordplay

Today on the Ethical ELA blog, teacher-librarian-poet Linda Mitchell kicks off a five-day Open Write invitation by using lists for composing poetry (read her beautiful “Wishing Well Price List” poem and other inspiring offerings here).

Now, I am a notorious list-maker, so much so that my husband once asked: “What are you writing now?”

To which I replied, absently, while hunched over a scrap of paper: “A list.”

“ANOTHER list? For what?”

I hesitated to confess, but I did, in a decidedly small voice … “A list of lists I have to make.”

So. If I am going to base a poem on one of my myriad lists, I must choose quickly or I’ll never begin.

The first thing I turned to in my scrawly notebook idea-keeper was a list of rhyming words based on the phrase “learning decay.” I heard a fellow educator use it recently, expressing concern for children returning to school in the fall after having been out for five months (or longer) due to COVID-19. That idea has been sitting dormant … maybe waiting for just this moment, this prompt, as a lens to lend focus. What can I make of this list? What would help prevent “learning decay” for kids? For ANYONE? For me the answer is always twofold: Read. Write. Always.

One last thing: Kids need to know that writing is more than an assignment and generally hateful chore. They can do it anywhere, anytime, about anything. There are no limits, only endless discoveries. A notebook is a gateway for making sense of the world and discovering what you think and feel … a safe haven, a springboard, a sounding board, a lifeline, a reliquary for housing fragile new ideas, precious fragments of self. It can be on paper. On a screen. It can be a recording. A drawing. Any means of capturing thoughts, impressions, expressions. I use multiple mediums, myself. You’re reading one now. To me, moments spent writing are never wasted; growth is inevitable.

Here’s my rather rapid-fire poem based on “learning decay” and the list of rhyming words in my notebook:


Learning decay?
No, not today.
Strive to allay.
So invite play:
a word ballet,
a thought bouquet.
True soul portray,
not self-betray.
Notebook away,
the cost defray –
Recoup the day.

Poetry Friday: The web

Photo: Morning Web by Jen Gray on “This Photo Wants to Be Poem,” Reflections on the Teche, Margaret Simon.

Teacher-poet-friend Margaret Simon posts a weekly image on her blog along with an invitation to write: “This Photo Wants to Be a Poem.”

Yesterday’s photo, shot by Margaret’s friend Jen, featured a dew-studded spiderweb framing the sun. A compelling call to compose … leading to my first attempt at a non-rhyming loop poem:

Sunrise feels like hope
Hope for a new day
Day of repairing damage done
Done to one another
Another day to try
Try starting afresh
Afresh with distilling dew
Dew droplets, sacred diamonds
Diamonds glittering in the light
Light illuminating the torn web

Web of our intricate interconnectedness.

May we all be found working on our corner of the web—and in the corners of our own hearts.

Thank you, Margaret and Jen, for inspiration to weave.

Check out other offerings at the Poetry Friday Roundup – thank you, Tricia, for hosting today.

A child is a poem

I recently encountered acrostic analogies, thanks to my friend and endless source of inspiration, Margaret Simon. The basic idea is to find your word and then compose analogies on each line, related to the acrostic word.

The word Child came to me pretty quickly:

Courage is to character as
Hope is to heart as
Imagination is to idea as
Love is to life as
Discovery is to delight

It takes courage to be a child. So much is unknown; there’s so much to learn. I think of my granddaughter, age four, sighing heavily at the end of a long, pre-pandemic day. When my daughter-in-law asked what was the matter, my granddaughter said, with utter bone-weariness: “It’s hard to be a kid.” I think of how natural hope is to children. They hope for summer, for pizza and candy, for snow enough to build a snowman, for specific toys, for special things, for being with special people. Hope seems hardwired into children, as does delight. I originally had “dazzling” in place of delight, thinking how discovery causes a child’s face to light up, sometimes drawing a vocal Ooohhhhhhh and a smile. Dazzling seemed temporary, though. Not sustainable. Delight feels more permanent, a better fit with imagination and a synonym for joy, just as intrinsic as hope to children.

Revisiting this Child acrostic today has me thinking that a child is a poem.

A miracle, how you came to be
You were not, but now you are
Materializing in ways I could not foresee
Stardust forming its own new star
Your own direction you’ll go
Your own rhythm and rhyme you’ll make
In all your wanderlust, just know
That whatever path you take
I’m part of you, you’re part of me

Life interwoven, yours and mine
Images of each other we’ll always be
Written in every line.

Read it as if it is referencing a child—doesn’t matter if it’s a child of your own, any one that you’ve loved or taught, one you’ve happened to encounter, or possibly the child you used to be.

Then read it as if it’s addressing a poem. Certainly one you’ve written. Maybe even one you’ve read.

Tell me a child is not a poem.

Or, at the very least, poetry in motion.

Bocelli: Amazing grace

Last night a concert by tenor Andrea Bocelli was televised. He wanted to offer a message of hope to the world; his own country has been ravaged by COVID-19. And so he was recorded with only an organist on Easter Sunday in the Duomo di Milan, resplendent and empty … when he walked outside, alone, to sing “Amazing Grace” on the cathedral porch, the screen displayed the empty streets of major cities around the world.

Listening, watching, I thought this is one of the most abiding images of our time.

A golden shovel today, in honor of Bocelli, his gift, the wounded world-in-waiting, the healing power of music, prayer, and hope:

How amazing
this lone figure of grace
standing on the church steps singing of how
prayer and hope turn bitter times sweet

while in the deserted streets his angel-voice is the
only sound.

Photo: Andrea Bocelli. laurentius87. CC BY-SA. Edited with Cartoona Sketch.

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

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

Write bravely

Today concludes the thirty-one-day Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers. Today I cross the finish line with many fellow Slicers, having written a post each day.

But the writing doesn’t end here.

Nor does the challenge …

That’s the thing. Now, more than ever before in our lives, is a time to write.

The photo above is of a pocket notebook a friend and mentor gave as a parting gift to all who attended her retirement celebration years ago. Her love of writing and advocacy for teachers as writers inspires me to this day. She also passed the torch of facilitating district writing workshop training to me … until this year, when it is no longer offered. But I carry the notebook with me everywhere I go, just to remind me …

Teachers, students, families, friends, citizens of the world, all … today I offer the same to you, in the ongoing composition of life: Write bravely.

*******

write your stories

share your glories

write bravely

write for healing

name the feeling

write bravely

write all your rages

fill all your pages

write bravely

write through your tears

conquer your fears

write bravely

write of the past

save it at last

write bravely

write of your sorrows

and your tomorrows

write bravely

write them for you

and for me, too

write bravely

write bravely

write bravely

Self-care offering

During the month-long Slice of Life Story Challenge on Two Writing Teachers, fellow Slicer Leigh Anne Eck decided to host a virtual Spring Fling party. The price of attending: Three of your best self-care tips for enduring this time of sequestering (my word of choice, as I am already weary of “social distance” and “quarantine,” even “shelter in place”… more on that later …).

Thanks for the invitation, Leigh Anne! Here’s my tripartite offering.

Self-Care Tip One: Remember, revisit, relive.

Think back on the happy moments of your life. Maybe in childhood. Maybe connected to a place you love. A person you love. The moments don’t have to be major ones like weddings and personal victories; they can be simple, really happy moments. A time you felt safe, secure, at peace; it may be laced with laughter or wonder. Then go back. Recall the setting—the lighting, the season, details of the surroundings, smells, objects, who was there, motions, words, thoughts, and why you felt happy. If you stay there a while, the scene will fade in clearer and clearer. Write it. Write your memory. Bring it out of the attic of your mind. Dust it off. Let it breathe. Write it in present tense, because you are actually there, living it; the moment is now.

Self-Care Tip Two: Write a letter of gratitude.

Think of someone who’s been a guiding influence or great inspiration in your life. Maybe someone who believed in you when you needed it most, or someone who’s encouraged you. Write a letter to this person to say “thank you” for impacting your life for the better. It could be a person who’s been part of your life for a long time, or one who appeared for a short but important while. Tell this person why you’re so grateful for what he or she has given you. Then … call this person and read the letter. Or send it in written form. And, if your person should happen not to be living now: Light a candle this evening and read your letter aloud. Or find a favorite place outside to read your letter aloud; maybe take a gratitude walk at your favorite time of day and read it aloud.

Variation: This could even be a letter to a favorite pet. Or to God.

Self-Care Tip Three: Abide.

I can’t take long walks at present because of a broken foot, but when it’s healed, I’ll resume walking around the churchyard with my youngest son. Many times we talked and I got to hear the innermost workings of his mind and heart. Other times we walked in silence, and I absorbed the images around me. The gardenias budding and the waft of their sweet perfume (impressions come with images). The sparkle of quartz in the little rocks scattered along the pavement, the tiny wild violet growing in a crack. The long limbs of the weeping willow, whispering and dancing in the breeze, the setting sun turning the white steeple to fiery rose-gold … you get the picture.

Just walk. Abide in nature, in silence. Take a notebook to capture what it shows you. Write what you see. These are abiding images. Listen to their whisperings, stirrings, songs. Write (and sketch or photograph) what comes to you, and abide.

Bonus Hostess Gift: Leigh Anne, I’d have brought the precious request of your heart—toilet paper—but as you know, alas, “there’s not a square to spare.” Instead I bring the board games of my childhood: Parcheesi, Monopoly, Life, Chinese Checkers, Backgammon/Acey-deucey, as well as Yahtzee and jacks … jacks! Do kids know what jacks are anymore? Give me a while and I’ll remember all those cool tricks I once knew…

Enjoy this rare time with your families, my friends.

Take good care.

Dear Boy

A good dog is one of life’s greatest gifts. Today’s post is dedicated to Rin, my husband’s childhood pet.

Dear Boy,

It is late. I am thinking about you sleeping upstairs. I wish I could get up there like I used to; I feel I should be near you tonight.

But I content myself with knowing that you are here and safe.

I think about the first time I saw you.

There you came with your mom and dad, looking at all my brothers and sisters at the place where we were born. As soon as I saw you, I knew: That is my Boy. That is my Boy. I ran straight to you, your arms went around me, and that was the moment we began. How excited you were to give me my name. Rin Tin Tin, you said. He was famous and you look just like him!

I was just happy because you were happy.

Do you remember taking me to classes? I do. How proud I was to learn what you wanted, to make you so pleased with me.

I’d do anything for you, my Boy. I hope you know.

I remember that bad time when I was still a very young dog and you were so sad. When your dad left for work and never came back. I knew you were hurting and afraid; that’s why I stayed so close. I gave you all the comfort I knew how, the warmth of my body, the occasional lick for reassurance. I watched you while you slept in case you woke and needed me.

You’re my everything, Boy. You always were.

Remember how you’d throw a stick for me to fetch, over and over and over, because I never got tired of it? How I miss that! I will still fetch for you, Boy, if you would only let me. That’s why I keep finding sticks and bringing them to you even though I understand you don’t want me to run. I know I am slow and yes, it hurts my old hip—but it is what we do. It is what we always did. So much fun, so much joy. If I could have fit your basketball in my mouth all those hours and days and weeks and years you were out on the backyard court, I’d have played that with you, too. But it was enough for me just to run beside you.

Perhaps tonight I will dream of those days, when we ran and ran and you got tired but I never did. I am tired now. I want you to know that whatever comes, Boy, I would do it all again. Every bit of it.

You’re my life, Boy. I love you so.

Now I lay me down to sleep. I’ll wait for you in the morning.

Goodnight, Boy.

Rin

*******

On the morning after the Boy and I got married, his mother found Rin unresponsive. He’d had a stroke. He died later that day at the vet’s office.

He was thirteen.

I’ve always believed you knew that you finished your job, Rin. You saw the Boy safely off to his adult life on the last day of your own. Thank you, Rin Tin Tin, good and faithful servant, for giving him your all.

The Boy loves you still.

Spittin’ image

Memoir is probably my favorite kind of writing.

It’s like small moments on steroids. When I write myself back into childhood, scenes, conversations, little forgotten details are pumped full of meaning, for I have the advantage of understanding so much more than I did then . . .

This event occurred when I was seven or eight. As I write, I think of how we don’t know all that children are experiencing or how they’re trying to navigate life. Families don’t make perfect portraits. There are so many reasons why.

We are our stories.

With that in mind I’ve opted to change family names here. It gives me the final shot of courage needed to share “Spittin’ Image.”

*******

We are going to visit my grandfather.

Not my Daddy’s daddy, my Sunday-afternoons-in-the park Granddaddy who bought me red rubber boots when I started school because all my kindergarten friends had them and I wanted them, too.  We are going to see my Mama’s daddy.  I don’t know him very well. He came to visit us once, sat in our living room chair with his hand stuck out so that when I ran by, not paying attention, not being careful, his cigarette burned me.

Mama says he lives in a hospital.

I don’t know why anyone would live in a hospital. I don’t want to go see him, don’t know why we have to go.

My mother gets snappy: “He’s your granddaddy—you’re going!”

My aunts are taking us because Mama doesn’t drive. She doesn’t know how.

“Last time I seen Daddy, he was looking better,” says Aunt Bobbie, who’s driving us in her maroon Ford LTD, a Marlboro sticking out from the first two fingers of her right hand on the steering wheel. I see her mouth in the rear-view mirror. There are little pucker lines around her lips. “I believe he’s eating good. Acted happy to see me, too.”

Aunt Imogene—Genie, I call her—is riding shotgun in front of me. She takes a long drag on her own cigarette. I slide over so I can see the thick white smoke pouring out of her mouth and how it all goes right up her nose, like a waterfall in reverse. It’s neat to watch. About ten minutes pass before she speaks; Genie never does anything fast.

“Waaaay-yelllll…” says Genie, stretching the word well into four or five syllables, “at least we know he’s taken care of at the Home.”

Beside me in the backseat, Mama puts a Salem Menthol in her mouth and flicks her lighter, inhales. She doesn’t do fancy stuff with her smoke. She is quiet.

She is often quiet.

The ride takes forever. Finally Aunt Bobbie says, “We’re here,” and we pull into a parking place bordered by pine trees.

Mama drops the butt to the ground and grinds it into the gravelly dirt with her sandal. This is my grandfather’s Home, I guess, but Mama told me it was a hospital, so I’m confused. When we go in there are many small rooms but no bright lights, no doctors in lab coats, no nurses wearing white dresses and little caps. There’s a lot of wood paneling. The Home makes me think of a really big cabin but the people here don’t look like campers. Some are in wheelchairs, some are standing. Some are in pajamas. Not all of them are old. They stare at us as we go by and I don’t like the feel of their eyes.

Aunt Bobbie leads the way, down a hall, around a corner. I peek in one room and see a man with long white hair lying in bed with his mouth open, but he’s not asleep.

I want to run out of here.

Genie says, “Waaaay-yelll, hey, Daddy.”

He’s sitting in an armchair in a little living room area, holding a lit cigarette in the first two fingers of his right hand. All of his fingers have yellow stains. His nails are brown and long, and the ashes on that cigarette are the longest I’ve ever seen; why don’t they fall?      

Genie hugs him. Aunt Bobbie hugs him. He says “Hey” to them in a high, raspy voice. He doesn’t have much hair. His face is long, kind of yellowish, kind of gray, with brown spots. His clothes have spots, too, except that they’re actually small holes. From dropping cigarettes. Or ashes.

Mama is hanging back but Aunt Bobbie pulls her over.

“Daddy, look who come to see you. Beverly Ann.”

“Hey Daddy,” says my mother, bending to hug him, then stepping back. “How are you doing?”

My grandfather looks at her, his daughter, my mother, and I can tell he doesn’t know her.

Next thing I know, she’s yanking on my arm.

“I brought your granddaughter to visit.” She tugs. “Come on, give your granddaddy a hug.”

I do not want to.  I don’t move. I just look at him.

Genie pokes me from behind.

“Go and see him,” say my aunts. “He’s your granddaddy.”

I already see him and he sees me. For a minute I look into his eyes—they are big, green like moss—and the emptiness there makes me think of a hole in the ground that has no bottom. Or the time Daddy was holding me when he opened the medicine cabinet and its mirror reflected into the mirror over the sink. Mirror, mirror, on the wall . . . it became a mirror, mirror, mirror hall, reflected mirrors going on and on and on, growing tinier and tinier, like a never-ending nothingness. I’m frightened of my grandfather’s eyes, frightened that he’s looking at me with them, that something about them makes me think of my mother.

Then they light up. He knows me! He holds out his hand—not the one with the cigarette, I have my eye on that one—and calls to me:

“Beverly Aaaannn…” he says, drawling like Genie does.

“No, Daddy,” says Aunt Bobbie, “this is Beverly Ann’s daughter. That,” she points to Mama, “is Beverly Ann.”

He keeps right on staring at me.

He doesn’t get it. He thinks I am my mother. When she was little.

I hug him because I have to, because the sisters, his daughters, are making me. His skin is cool and frog-like. When I pull away, he’s still looking at me.

 Am I supposed to love him? I don’t know him. And he doesn’t know me.

We don’t stay long. As soon as we’re outside, Genie bums a light off Mama, who’s shakily firing up another Salem. Genie sucks deep, does her dragon-smoke thing, nods at me.

“I’ve said it a thousand tiiiiiimes, you are your Mama’s child, that’s for sure. Spittin’ image.”

“Ain’t she though?” agrees Aunt Bobbie.

I walk beside Mama. The aunts move ahead of us. Hoping they won’t hear, I whisper: “Why did he think I’m you, Mama?”

“His mind’s not right. Never has been,” she says, taking a drag, looking off in the distance at nothing in particular. “I really wasn’t around him much. I was a little girl when he left home.”

“Why did he leave?”

She turns her eyes on me. Dark brown eyes, like mine, and for a second they have that bottomless look. She’s slow to answer but not in the way that Genie is slow to do things. She takes another long drag.

“Grannie sent him away because he tried to hurt her.”

“Were you sad?”

“No.” Then, softly: “I was scared of him.”

Aunt Bobbie cranks the maroon LTD; Genie is getting in the front passenger side. Mama looks back at the Home and I wonder what she’s thinking. As I reach for the door, I catch my reflection in the backseat window. I glimpse the pines and the cloudless blue sky behind me. Crows fly overhead, cawing loudly. Yes, I do look a lot like my Mama. Even I can see that.

I feel shaky, too. I lean in to look closely at my own eyes, hoping to God I never find them so empty.