I heard a Fly buzz

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -” is one of the mentor texts in Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s anthology Sleeping on the Wing. I love the anthology and often use it to pique my students’ interest in reading and writing poetry. It’s a new way of looking at poetry for many students. The poems are interesting, the prompts intriguing; I often write from them myself as I teach.

Normally, I would pause here to quote the prompt that I’m thinking of, but today I can’t because my book is in the school, and the school is closed because of the Covid19 pandemic. I’m at home, teaching without most of my books. We’re making do.

Dickinson’s poem begins like this:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –


And the prompt says something like “write a poem where you intentionally set a very big thing next to a very small thing” and it says something like “consider capitalizing some words and using short phrases and dashes.”

I can’t stop thinking about this – the giant thing: death – and the small, everyday thing: the fly. I can’t stop thinking about how often even the most important moments get all wrapped up with the mundane, even the annoying. I feel this intensely as I continue to live a pandemic-normal existence in Canada, watching from a distance as my country, my home, seems to be ripping itself apart. To use another literary reference, I am, like Nick in The Great Gatsby (one of the texts my students have chosen to read) “within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

I am repelled by the way President Trump is behaving, how he is inciting increased violence and calling for violence against Americans. I should no longer be shocked by his abhorrent behaviour, but I am. I am repelled by the actions of some police officers, by extremists who take advantage of protests to foment increased discord.

I am even more repelled by the history that has brought us to this moment – though my revulsion itself is a privilege because it implies that I see this racism, this horrible foundation, as something outside myself. I can be repelled because I do not experience racism against me. I can look at this from the outside in not only because I’m in Canada, but also because I am white.

I *am* white and I am in Canada, so despite the pit in my stomach, I am dealing with every day things: the cats want to their food, the children have school work, the bills must be paid. The persistent buzz of every day of life interposes between me and this larger moment. And I can’t ignore it. Thus it is, with rueful gratitude to Dickinson, who understood that the sublime and the mundane are never entirely separate, I offer this:

I mark Essays – as they Protest
As their Voices plead for Air –
Their Silence – it surrounds me –
As I comb – my youngest’s hair

Police have turned on protesters –
Though Some strive to protect –
We all breathe in the tear gas
Of a President – unchecked

Our racism goes back – Centuries
Though now – the White man cries –
“Not me! I’m anti-racist!”
Without Action – it’s a lie.

And here I sit – in Canada –
My White skin – lets me choose –
How much I want to be involved
I sit – and watch the News.

Here’s Dickinson’s whole poem:

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

Emily Dickinson

A little extra understanding

The email caught me by surprise. Maybe if I’d woken up earlier, or if I hadn’t already had to help one of my kids with math – before breakfast! – or even if I’d felt more on top of things, maybe then I would have been more prepared, but I wasn’t. Maybe if I wasn’t cooking breakfast and checking work email, navigating my children’s schooling, my partner’s morning meeting for work, and my own job – maybe if I’d been in the school building, I would have remembered to check the timestamp before reading, remembered my personal rule of thumb that middle-of-the-night messages tend to be more emotional and less filtered and are therefore to be taken with a grain of salt. But I was at home, managing all the crazy, and the email was unexpected.

I know the student who wrote, know that the parents are often more worried than the student, know that the student is doing fine – even well! – during this time of remote learning. I can imagine the student’s frustration at being stuck at home with parents and the parents’ frustration at being stuck at home with children. I could hear all of this in the words on the screen. I could guess that the parents, not the student, had laid out the phrases that I was reading.

But it still hurt to read a even a short diatribe about how I’m not doing my job properly. Welcome to Monday morning, the beginning of week 10 of emergency online instruction.

SIGH

To be honest, I’m behind on basically everything, constantly scrambling just to stay near the crest of the growing wave of “things to do.” I’m behind on marking, on providing feedback, on creating new assignments for this new reality, on playing the video game I assigned as text. (Walden, A Game – it. is. awesome. for right now. The grade 12s who chose it are really enthusiastic about it.) I’m behind on navigating the apps and programs I suddenly need to do my job. (Look, I *know* that Screencastify is easy, but I haven’t had time to use it yet.) I’m so far behind on email that sometimes I just scratch the old ones off the list because they’re no longer relevant. At home, I’m behind on blogging, on commenting, on laundry – actually, we *just* caught up on laundry.

Still, I know that I’m doing the best that I can, and that my best is good. I’ve read a BUNCH about online learning and teaching; I’ve been focussing on building and maintaining relationships with students where I can, calling “missing” kids at least once a week; I’ve started a weekly lunch hangout with the English Department, just to chat. I’ve been attending webinars on best practices for online teaching and anti-racist education. I’ve even created a website for Grade 12, just to have a central space for information. I’m really proud of it – even if, to be honest, the students are working in three interest-based streams, and I’m having trouble keeping all the streams up-to-date. Sigh. I know that I’m focusing hard on creating and co-creating work that the students find both interesting and important. And I’m letting my home life fill me up (well, except when I’m negotiating the endless fights about screen time), remembering the importance of time away from work

So after I read the email, I stepped away from the screen. I went for a walk, talked to my children, tried to work. I allowed myself to imagine some *perfect* responses that were cathartic if not especially kind; sadly, neither sarcasm nor lecture are effective responses if learning is the goal. I wrote a nice email to one of my children’s teachers. (They have so many from me at this point that they probably don’t read them anymore.) In the afternoon, when I recognized that the negative words were still a heavy pit in my stomach, I called a colleague. I read her the email, and we laughed and talked. We chatted about this & that, swinging from work to everything else and back again. I was able to focus on some of the more enthusiastic responses I’ve received from students. I loosened up, then used my newly-restored good mood to write a supportive response to the student.

After all, change is overwhelming, and we each deserve a little extra understanding right now. Maybe my response will help my student remember that; it definitely helped me.

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The Way I Felt

Sometime earlier this year, Glenda Funke (over at Evolving English Teacher) told me about Ethical ELA‘s monthly Open Write. As I recall, she shared this after I admitted to feeling very nervous about poetry – mostly about writing it (I pretty much hate every poem I write) and sometimes about teaching it. May’s 5-day open write started on Monday, and I’ve been tentatively following and occasionally joining. Yesterday’s prompt was called “The Way I Felt” and was based on a poem from Jason Reynolds’ novel-in-verse Long Way Down. I knew right away what I would write about – my husband and I had just come in from a glorious bike ride – but then I didn’t write at all. Poetry does that to me sometimes. Well, poetry and parenting.

Then today, Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, announced that we will not be returning to school before the end of the school year. The announcement wasn’t shocking, but it still sucked the air out of the room when I heard it. I didn’t have lots of time to contemplate what he’d said because I had too much school to work on, but the emotions swirled around me for the rest of the day. And then, yesterday’s prompt came to me, and I wrote.  (And yes, I hate the poem I wrote- I pretty much always do. But I won’t get better if I don’t write and get feedback, and writing it made me pin down a few things – and that’s what writing does.)

The Way I Felt

when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was relieved.

No more waiting
for people who don’t know me
to make a decision about
my life
my family’s life
my students’ lives
my community’s lives.

No more hoping for teaching and learning
that feels familiar
that resembles what we had started
that would be better if we were together.

No need to
send my own children to a place I don’t think is safe
make decisions about my own safety
wonder what will come next.

I sat at my work space in the kitchen
listening to the Premier speak
and my shoulders settled
my eyes fluttered closed
my breath finally filled my lungs
with a calm I had been missing.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was heartbroken.

Tears welled up behind my closed eyelids
I drew my breath quickly through my nose
and I pressed my lips together.

My children will not run on the playground at recess
or surreptitiously swap snacks with classmates
or stand in front of their peers to present.
My son will not say goodbye to the school he’s attended
since he was four.

I will not see my students again.

We will not laugh or read or write or share
together in a space that is ours.

I will not see some students again at all
they are not in my class this semester
they will not join an online chat
they will graduate and move on.

Their unknown futures will be far more unknowable than we expected,
and I will not get to wish them well on their journey.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was desperate

to remind them – my students, my children, your students, your children –
that though this is different
so different
from what we expected
they can still learn
and grow
and become.
The world is still full of possibility.

The way I felt
when they announced today that we will not be going back to school this year
was.

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Teeter Totter

Last night I was rubbing one child’s back while I read The Mysterious Benedict Society aloud to both kids. His muscles were tighter than I expected in a 9-year-old, and my thumb jittered off one particularly knotty spot and settled with a shudder into a softer space. “Sorry,” I interrupted my reading, “that must have felt weird.”

He considered. “I kind of liked it. Can you do it again?”

I could not recreate the exact sensation for him, so I went back to reading and continued to rub his back.

After that moment, though, I wasn’t concentrating on the read-aloud as much as I should have been. Instead, I found myself reliving summer moments on the teeter totter in my neighbor’s backyard. We were far too old for teeter totters: I didn’t even move to South Carolina until the summer before 5th grade, and I’m fairly certain the teeter totter didn’t arrive until sometime after that summer. What sort of self-respecting 6th grader plays on a teeter totter? And why on earth did the neighbors have one in their backyard when the oldest of their three children was also at least 11? I can no longer answer these questions, but I know for sure that for at least part of one sticky hot Southern summer, the neighborhood kids ate watermelon and rode on a teeter totter in the Pinckney’s back yard.

I really was far too old for this and, as the oldest in the group, too big, too heavy, too cool. And yet, I couldn’t resist. Rion was big enough to balance against me – or we could put together some combination of the littler kids with the bigger ones to balance things out. Up and down we rode, day after day, laughing, dripping watermelon juice and gleefully spitting out the seeds.

If I close my eyes, I can still remember being the one down on the ground, looking at Rion on the other end of the board, trapped in the air… waiting… waiting… and then – now! – I push off hard and whoosh up to the top where I stop with a hard bounce against the board. Now I am suspended, looking down at Rion, knowing she will push soon…but when? waiting… waiting… and then, whoosh back to the ground where the seat hits with a hard juddering thump. Sometimes we hold each other suspended for breathless seconds between each motion; sometimes we find a rhythm and go up and down up and down with unthinking regularity. One way or another, the fun of it is in the motion, the unpredictability, the sense that where we are is not where we will be, and that we will have to cooperate to keep it going.

Sometimes, in a tiff, one child would hold another high high high in the sky and then, all anger and meanness, hop off the bottom altogether so that the other person would come down fast with a jolting, horrible whomp. Fights ensued. Teeter totter might be soothing in its regularity or wonderfully unpredictable, but abandoning someone to fall on their own was the unforgivable end of the game.

“That HURT!” we raged, eyes nearly streaming with tears because it did, in fact hurt, or it could have hurt or it might hurt next time, or maybe just because the game was over for at least a few minutes and everyone had to content themselves with the dullness of predictable gravity.

My memories were interrupted when the chapter I was reading ended; it was time for bed. Up and down, up and down. We had had a good day, I knew, though some parts were noticeably less good. This whole time has been like that, really.  Up and down: now I can make a list of the good bits – waking later in the mornings, snuggling longer with my children, working out most days – and the bad ones – missing my friends, not seeing my students regularly, feeling like a failure for some part of most days. I give my son’s back one more rub, wondering if I can rediscover the teeter totter, remember the joy in  the waiting, the whoosh and the whomp that are all part of the ride. Use my memories to make my present more bearable. Maybe. Maybe. But not tonight. Tonight it’s time for sleep. I shoo the boys off the bed and head towards their rooms to tuck them in and sing some songs.

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Relax

Kindergarten naptime followed a routine so clear that I can remember it more than 40 years later. First, all of the children went to the box and got out one of the colorful sleeping mats. Then, we put them in a circle on the taped lines. Something calming and comforting came next – did Mrs. Kay read to us? sing? I can’t quite remember, probably because I was getting sleepy. What I remember very clearly, however, is the final step: relaxation check.

We lay very still on our mats and relaxed. Mrs. Kay, whom I adored, walked quietly around the circle, gently picking up the hand of one kindergartner after another. If we were relaxed, our arm would fall easily back to the ground. By the time she was finished, most of us were asleep.

Except for me. Oh, I was plenty tired – I’d started kindergarten “early” and was the youngest in the class, so I needed my rest – but the relaxation check drove me to distraction. I simply could not remember if I was supposed to keep my arm up or let it fall down when Mrs. Kay lifted it. I would settle onto the mat, and my senses would go on high alert. I listened for my beloved teacher’s soft step and strained to hear if the other children were letting their arms drop or keeping them up. As Mrs. Kay approached, my body tensed. I held my breath. Would I get it right? Up or down? Up or down?

I must have figured this out over time. I know I napped because I remember waking up. It’s possible, even likely, that these anxious moments only occurred for a week or two near the beginning of the year, but emotion makes memory and I remember the desperation of wanting to relax in the right way more than I remember relaxing.

This memory surfaced as I read aloud to the kids tonight and my older son postured and played and then stuck his arm straight up in the air. “Settle your body,” I said and he giggled, then relaxed into the story.

After the kids were in bed, I immediately started thinking about just a few more things that I needed to get done. “Settle,” I told myself sternly, “relax.” But somehow I’m forever back in kindergarten, wanting to please, wanting to sleep, trying to remember whether my arm should be up or down. Up or down? Up or down?

If only Mrs. Kay were here to shake my arm gently, lean down to me and whisper in my ear, “It’s ok, Mandy. Let go. You can sleep now. ”

 

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Dutch Baby

My younger son trudges sleepily into the kitchen, still snuggled in a brown minky blanket. “‘Morning, Mama,” he says, as he shuffles over to give me a hug. Up close, he contemplates me for a moment, then apparently decides to go for it, “Can you make us a Dutch baby this morning?”

It’s Tuesday, but COVID19 and closed schools mean there’s no particular rush to get out the door, so it’s easy for me to say yes, even though I made this yesterday. I stretch away from the kitchen island where I was trying to sneak in a little work before the kids woke. Then, I begin a series of actions so familiar that I do them without thinking.

I wash my hands and turn to the oven: preheat to 425. Open the drawer by the stove and pull out the middle-sized bowl. Scoop half a cup of flour – no need to be too precise – and use the same measure for half a cup of milk. Find a fork. Mix – or not. Crack in four eggs and mix again.

Shoot! I forgot – again – to put the pan in the oven. Ah well, there’s still time. My son picks his head up from the counter as he sees me rummaging for a pan. “Can you use the small one?” I produce our smaller cast iron skillet, “Sure.” Lately, he’s liked a denser pancake; for a while we used the bigger skillet to get really airy ones.

Now, butter in the skillet – 1 Tbsp? 2? I don’t know or care: I just eyeball it – and skillet in the oven to preheat while the butter melts.

A few minutes later, I pull the pan out, swirl the melted butter to coat the bottom and sides, and scrape in the eggy mixture. Everything goes into the oven, and I head back to my seat to finish a few final minutes of my own work before the parenting work takes over for the day.

My mind wanders briefly to my high school friend, Julia, whose blog post nearly a decade ago brought this recipe into our house. I regularly think of her while I cook this. It’s funny, I muse, the people who change our lives. So often, I think about the big picture: “Who was your biggest influence? Who is your hero? Which person changed your life?” When I answer, I rarely think of my daily routine, the small things that make up the bulk of my life. But how many times have I made Dutch babies in the last decade? Easily a hundred; probably many more. I bet my boys will grow up to make these for their families. Our lives are better because of Julia. I doubt she even knows. Later today I will make tagine and think of my friend Erin, remember a moment in her mother’s kitchen when she showed me how accessible couscous recipes really are; then, as I add salt, I will think of an ex-boyfriend’s mother who told me once that when she’s cooking soups or stews she usually adds as much salt as she thinks she’ll need and then just a little more. Works like a charm.

My older son straggles into the kitchen, bed-headed and groggy. “Dutch baby? Sweet!” he  plunks himself down in a seat at the table.

The 9-year-old has set up vigil in front of the oven. He loves to watch this simple pancake puff to enormous proportions. Somehow, the flour, milk & egg transform themselves into a glorious airy breakfast concoction in a mere 12 minutes. Soon enough, perfection:

 

Perfection in the form of a puff pancake. What a gift! And who knows? Maybe you will read this post, make a Dutch baby for breakfast someday soon, and find that your life has changed just a little bit, too.

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Mango

Every time I eat a mango, I’m transported back to an afternoon in Strasbourg, France. My friends and I had spent our junior year abroad perfecting not only our French but also the art of the picnic lunch. We would pool our money and visit an epicerie for some cheese, saucisson, fruit and, naturellement, chocolate. Then we would stop at a boulangerie for a baguette and wander towards a park somewhere, maybe along the river Ill, maybe in the Orangerie. For this particular picnic someone- not me – had chosen a mango as one of our fruits.

I knew what a mango was, or at least I felt like I did. I had the sense that I liked it, but I couldn’t remember eating one. This seems odd now, not having had mango, but at the time, mango was an exotic fruit and could not be easily procured at the grocery store. This was a time before we expected so much to be available so often, when the one Vietnamese restaurant in my small town billed itself as “Chinese” but made Vietnamese if you asked. Coconut came only in plastic bags, shredded and sugary, and no one had even imagined pomegranate juice.  I knew what a mango was, but only in a distant way.

We settled onto the grass – had we brought a blanket? did we sit on our lightweight sweaters? I can’t remember – and laughed as we tore chunks from the baguette and wrapped the crusty goodness around soft Brie. Someone cut some slices from the mango and passed them around.

The smooth orange flesh of the fruit slid across my tongue and my eyes widened. Sunshine. Laughter. Something like distilled happiness. I swallowed and glanced around. What magic was this? I took another bite of the sweet, tangy fruit. Again, I was gone. Where was I? I closed my eyes. Happiness, happiness and so warm. I felt tears well up. What on earth was happening to me?

I retreated into my own sphere, still with my friends but far from them, too; far from France, far from the moment. I savoured the sweet smoothness and heard the echoes of bird calls. I breathed deeply, overwhelmed, and then… just like that, I knew: Panama. I had eaten mango when we lived in Panama, the country we left when I was only three years old. The country I couldn’t remember at all. It was the only explanation – those sounds, those senses, that feeling of freedom.

Another deep breath and I was back with my friends. I didn’t say a thing about what I’d experienced. What would I say? Who would believe that a single taste could have such power? I didn’t even know how to describe it. Instead, I laughed and chatted and walked back to classes when we finished our lunch. That night, I called my mom. I asked my mother: did we eat mango? did we eat mango in Panama? “Oh yes,” she was matter-of-fact, “you loved them, but Daddy is allergic to their skins, so I never looked for them when we came home.”

Mango. Now I can have them almost any time I want. In fact, I just had one with lunch. And for a moment, I was 19 and in France, I was 3 and in Panama. And then I was in my kitchen again.

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