The early train: Slice of Life 23/31 #SOL20

This morning, I woke knowing what day it was. My mother-in-law had posted this message to remember her son, my brother-in-law, D’Arcy:

12 years ago today, my son boarded what I have come to think of as “the early train”.  You know the train – the one we all inevitably, eventually board.  To those of you who have recently, or are about to, undergo a loss that stuns and overwhelms you:  I can’t tell you how, or why, or when, but for me the time came when thoughts of my son turned from searing hand-on-the-stove kind of pain to a flooding of tenderness with the embrace of the deepest love I have ever known.  I suspect that time will come for most of you. It won’t come quickly, though you might feel it in brief waves, early on. Hang in, hang on, reach out. 

Year after year, I am touched by how she expresses herself on this day. She shares freely what is often hidden and, though I know she will scoff, I feel that her sharing has become wisdom. She will say it is simply what it is – we don’t get much choice in situations like this. He is not here; we are. We must continue to live.

Today, I am sharing a poem. It makes me quake in my boots because I am *always* nervous about poetry – and obviously this is one I just wrote this morning, so now I’m sharing a draft! That said, I am inspired by the way fellow bloggers Not The Whole Story or Reflections on the Teche or Nix the Comfort Zone express themselves in poetry (not every day, but often). And an old friend suggested that poetry is a good way to deal with uncertainty.

I can’t quite explain why all of this came together for me in this way, but there it is. And, I want to be clear: the death in the middle is not my child but my brother-in-law. We miss him every day.

Untitled for now

My first son came slowly.
He hesitated, reluctant to be rushed.
“Push,” the midwife urged me, “you’re going to have to push.”
Wait wait wait
I was focused, determined
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, as the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
White white white
A thin covering over the gray, dirty snow we wish away.
For a few minutes, a few hours, forever
The world is purified.
We remember the beauty of Winter
While we long for a Spring we imagine, beautiful.
And Spring will come
Messy, muddy, melting until the rotted remnants of life
Revealed as death under the dirty snow.
Spring will wake
Wet, insistent, unrelenting with its green promises.
Spring will force us to accept the hope
Concealed by this thin white cover .

Twelve years ago today we woke to a changed world
Because twelve years ago today he did not wake.
No fresh snow covered the gray.
Spring’s muddy mess pushed forward, pushed forward
And he did not.
That year we fought hope forever, for mere moments.
Yet Spring came, unrelenting.

My second son came quickly
His will to be in the world overwhelming.
“I’m pushing,” I cried, though I had just sent the midwife for medicine.
Now now now
Animal, insistent
Pushing, pushing, pushing
Against the waves, with the waves of urgent pain.
My world for as long as I could remember
My world forever
My world for mere moments
Receded then returned as
A flooding of tenderness, the deepest love I will ever know.

Today, the snow falls lightly
A reminder that last week, last month, last year
We played in this cold, wet miracle.
Tomorrow, the rain will come.
We will revel in the messiness of Spring,
The searing pain of the memories transformed
To a flooding of tenderness,
The deepest love we will ever know.

The pain is really the briefest sense of undertow as we play in the waves of his presence.

 

And here is the poem my mother-in-law wrote this poem a few days after D’Arcy’s death:

The Early Train

some are travelling northbound
their cheeks flushing pink with the cold
some are travelling sideways
moving west or moving east
some lose tickets, miss the gate
either way, theirs is to wait
and some    are bound for the early train
one      has taken the early train

copyright © mls March 29 2008

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Wood, with a gift for burning

Monday night and again I am sleepless. I have sung the songs, done the dishes, folded the laundry. I have chatted and texted and messaged. I have prepped and stretched and even – just for tonight – taken the pill, so that I can get the sleep I need.

Instead, my brain is awash with Adrienne Rich. She has come out of nowhere, her words interrupting my reading, her lines repeating ceaselessly in my head. She will not be ignored.

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
O.K., then, yes I’m lonely

I am not lonely, I think back to her – or at least to her poem. What are you doing here?

Another stanza arises, unbidden. This is what comes of memorising verse, I grumble in my head.

If I’m lonely
it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
in the last red light of the year
that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
ice nor mud nor winter light
but wood, with a gift for burning

My God, how I love this image. If I remember the words it is because the image is burned into my brain. If I could paint, I would paint this. I would take a photograph that would be this stanza. I would write it again as a book, as a hymn, as a prayer. 

No, I would leave it exactly as it is.

When she died, The New York Times called Adrienne Rich “one of the great poets of rage.” I was astonished. Rage? Really? Then again, I only know a few of her poems, and only one stanza of one poem has burned its way into my brain. So really, I know nothing. Tonight, with her words haunting me, I check the article again – I’ve only just remembered this characterization, and I feel a sudden intense need to understand because this poem, this is not anger. I see this: 

Ms. Rich is one of the great poets of rage, which in her hands becomes a complex, fluctuating power that encompasses the roots of the word “anger” in the Old Norse term for “anguish.”

Anguish. Of course. Not anger – so hard for me to understand, to express, to feel – but anguish… I can understand anguish. I imagine what it means to be the poet of anguish, the goddess of anguish, the writer of anguish.

I don’t feel anguish or anger tonight; instead I am starting to feel sleepy. Rich’s image persists as my eyes close. Am I ice-fast this cold December night? Perhaps the words arose because of the last red light of the year? No, I know the truth. Oh, Adrienne. Tonight your rowboat rocks me to sleep; tonight I will dream knowing that I, too, am wood, with a gift for burning

(Read the whole poem – Song by Adrienne Rich – here.)

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Watching the Game

Image result for basketballThe last time I was in a gym watching a high school basketball game, I didn’t even own a cell phone. I’ve nearly forgotten how much I love high school basketball: the excitement, the daring three-pointers, the hard-won rebounds, the turnovers, the exhaustion. Walking towards this afternoon’s game, I wonder why it’s been so long since I’ve done this. (I know the answers: work, children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue.) Today, I arrive partway through the second quarter. I can hear the noise of the game long before I open the door: the squeal of shoes skidding to sudden stops; the pounding of feet in counterpoint to the relentless beating of the ball against the floor; the staccato whistle punctuating the game.

As I enter the gym, I’m overwhelmed by the powerful sweaty musk of teenage boys’ concentrated effort. The bright lights and echoing space make me feel simultaneously terribly visible and ridiculously small. This is their place, not mine, I realize. I perch uncomfortably on the bleachers and am immediately engrossed by the game. 

I want to tell you about the players, many of them young men who have shared and currently share my classroom. I want to tell you about their intensity, their focus, their grace. I want you to hear their voices raised loudly, unselfconsciously, in unison as they chant: “De-fense! De-fense!” I want you to see how easily they communicate, how confidently they move, how intensely they focus. But I don’t really need to. I know that what is particular to my experience of these boys in this game at this moment is also universal: if you have ever seen a high school game, if you have ever cared for a child playing in that game, then you know what I am seeing as I sit in this bright, echoing gym.

Still, it has been years since I’ve actually watched a game. Five minutes ago, I could have told you that many of my students are at their best when they are playing their sport, but here, now, I am experiencing this truth all over again. The basketball court is 200 steps and 2 million miles from the English classroom down the hall. I need to come here more often, but now I need to go home. Children, chores, appointments, commute, fatigue… I miss the end of the game as I drive home in the rain.
______

I kept thinking about the boys after the game, and as I rearranged the voice notes I’d created as I’d watched, I realized how engaged my senses had been. So, I started a poem about the game. Here it is – unfinished, but you’ll get the idea.

Their restless feet fly across the floor
pause
then propel their bodies upwards.
Released from their desks, their bodies
unfurl
stretching towards the orange circle above them.
Uncurled now
from the orange prisms of their pencils,
their fingers flex around the sphere
that is their body’s
focus.

Only as I wrote the poem did the parallels between my experience in their space and their experience in “my” space (though I do try to make the classroom “ours”) come into focus for me – unfamiliar smells, uncomfortable seating, unappealing lighting,  watching apparent experts do something I can’t do and which I have no urgent desire to practice or perfect. This realization, this deepening of my thinking about a situation, is why I write – and maybe why they play. For me, writing takes a tangle of  my thoughts and straightens them out. Basketball, though I enjoy it, provides me no solace, no direction. I suspect many of my students might feel that something close to the opposite is true for them. Maybe this is why I need to make sure to see more games. 

Perhaps tomorrow I’ll share this and see what they say. Maybe we’ll all write a slice of life; maybe they won’t all be written.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

 

Words to describe the love

This summer, my father-in-law had a heart attack as he walked home from picking up a newspaper at a corner store. He and my mother-in-law were visiting family in Massachusetts, thousands of miles from their home in Arizona. By rights, Jim should have died. He literally collapsed on a neighborhood street.

But he didn’t die. Angels intervened. Neighbours sitting on a porch, enjoying the morning, saw him fall. An off-duty EMT was home and began effective CPR almost immediately. The ambulance that came for him was from a major trauma center.

For a few days, things were chaotic and unclear. Family drove in, flew in, called in and stayed close in every way that they could. And then, miraculously, Jim was ok. There were some cuts from the fall, some broken bones from the CPR and a defibrillator implanted for his heart, but in large part, he’s just fine. By the end of the summer, he was walking around, wondering when he’d be able to get back to his long hikes in the desert canyons of Arizona.

There are no words for this sort of miracle. I couldn’t write about this when it happened in July, and I can barely gather all the threads now: the wrenching loss; the nearly unbelievable salvation; the incredible rebirth; the emotions and experiences of so many people.

Today I received a beautiful letter from my mother-in-law, thanking her family for our support. My father-in-law wrote about his experience almost right afterwards,and I found his account equally moving. Each letter is haunting, so I’ve turned them into found poems. It’s the only way I can capture those few weeks in July.

My Strange Disappearance
I didn’t return in a reasonable time.
I have no memories
so I’m
reconstructing
from what people have told me.
I presumably stopped breathing,
my heart presumably stopped pumping.

Some force was certainly at work
to bring two strangers to my side
to bring me back from sudden death.

Unless I imagined this
family mysteriously appeared.

Do I believe in angels?
I sure believe in something.
I like the word angels.

-found in a letter from Jim Perry

Words to describe the love
I’ve been looking for words
But each time I thought or spoke
I felt raw and open.

I wake in the middle
of the night or
on my early morning walks.
I am swept away.
The heart-distance is non-existence.

How tender and fragile life is.

Please know that
if you need me,
I will come.

-found in a letter by Shirley Dunn Perry

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Describe Joy #SOL19 10/31

img_8273-1

He copied the phrase
into his agenda
Wednesday, February 6
“Décris la joie.”
Describe joy.
After Math.
Before Reading.

Décris la joie.
Describe how wonder is suddenly more necessary than air
when I check on him before I sleep.
The silk of his hair
The satin of his skin
The even slip of his breath.

Décris la joie.
Describe the way my heart seizes and jumps
when they bound in after playing outside.
The whirl of the air
The whoosh of their hugs
The carefree wildness of their laughter.

I ask
Have you done your homework?
Yes, he says,
It was easy.

Reflection on my process:
I originally jotted this exchange down when the assignment came home. I kept coming back to it, and tried to write it as a humorous piece because it made me laugh out loud when it happened. It sort of worked as a funny bit, but there wasn’t much to it.

I hesitated to turn it into a poem, but decided to take the plunge because Slice of Life writing is, in part, about learning to become better writers. If I can’t try new things in this supportive community, when will I try them? Also, it’s the weekend, so I had some time to work on this if I wanted.

The first and last stanzas came easily because they are what literally happened. I nearly published the poem like that, but I know I tend to cut my poems off at the knees by not offering enough development. The middle two stanzas then, were my attempt to show how hard it is for me to describe joy. I made some of the lines longer because I wanted them to reflect the complex nature of the task. I let the sensory details be shorter because, in the end, they seemed to me to be the essence of the feeling.

In the end, I don’t love it, but I like it. I’m still a nervous poet, but I like how this combines the humour of the initial situation with the complexity of the thought behind it. I’m not sure I love the middle two stanzas, but I’m glad I pushed myself to add them. And hey, maybe I’ll try another poem or two this month. We shall see.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Six six-word stories

A few weeks ago Stacey Shubitz posted a six-word story as her Slice of Life. (She, in turn, had been inspired by Jennifer Floyd’s six-word story post.) I’ve toyed with these before, but I’ve never shared any because, well, I’m never quite content with my own. (“I’m never quite content with my own” = seven words) Story of my life. (= four words)

That said, I can’t quite shake the idea, and I keep writing them. So, without too many more words, in no particular order, here are six of my six-word stories:

His tiny naked body snuggles mine.

Found my love at their wedding.

I constantly wonder what students learn.

Started presents early; still not done.

I forsook politeness to pursue learning.

One more page, then I’ll sleep.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm
Head over to http://twowritingteachers.org on Tuesdays for more slice of life stories.

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea

Susie Asado.

I am trying to teach poetry to twelve Grade 10 students who, for the most part, are not especially interested. They are very clear about their lack of interest. This year, as I did last year, I am trying to convince them that poetry is about playing with language, and that playing with language is worthwhile because it’s fun and it helps you say things the way you want to say them.

In case you are wondering, they are not interested.

This semester we are struggling. I have done all the things – the interesting intro, the playful, the different, the cool.

We’ve had a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist visit our class. We’ve imitated, tried various forms, talked, created crazy alliteration. We’ve read dead guys, living poets, and instapoets, and we’ve had visits from a spoken word poet and a hip hop artist.

But in case you are wondering, my class is not especially interested.

Now that I’m really sitting down to think about it, the unit is sort of working, but I’m not gonna lie, it’s sort of not. In fact, this year I have been tempted to give up. Day after day, I come in enthusiastic and prepared. Day after day, one girl reads a book under the table, one boy pulls out his phone and two girls whisper giggle at every transition. Four of twelve is a lot of visibly uninterested kids. Others are angling to convince me that compliance = engagement. I’m not buying what they’re selling, but that’s only fair because they’re not buying what I’m selling either.

As I write, I’m realizing that I’ve been assuming that their behaviour is designed to tell me that – in case I didn’t know – they are *not* interested, but they may actually be even more nervous than students in previous years. This lack of interest may be a disguise for some serious fear. After all, I am asking a lot of them, and the most visibly uninterested are also kids who stand to lose a lot by engaging. One thinks of herself as a writer, but she’s very unwilling to edit or consider any direction for her freewriting. (She also has a habit of abandoning books 3/4 of the way through.) One has told me that he will “probably” be interested in reading when he gets older because that’s what happened to his mom; writing doesn’t figure into his self-image. Two are reading and writing at a level significantly lower than Grade 10. (But they are reading! Hooray!) And I’ve got three exchange students who speak very little English. (But they are trying and they are learning. Hooray!) And some non-attenders (who mostly make it to English right now. Hooray!)

I wonder if when I say “play” they hear “I’m actually going to give you grades for all of this and I’m just pretending this is fun”? Wouldn’t be the first time. But they’ve met their match: I will not give up. Honestly, I pretty much never give up. I’ve got more persistence than is realistic by any stretch of the imagination.

And I want to think about today when we took Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and Gertrude Stein’s “Susie Asado” as our mentor texts. The students were pretty interested in “We Real Cool”. They liked the enjambment, the alliteration, the assonance. (They especially like the word “ASSonance.” They always do.) They were able to talk about the way the sounds were “awesome” and “on purpose.” I think they felt competent in their understanding.

“Susie Asado” was a different story. They pretty much sat, dumbfounded, in front of it. I said, “What do you notice about this poem?” and no one spoke. SIGH. I waited. Finally, one of them risked the truth: “This poem doesn’t make any sense.” No kidding. We talked about the sounds of words. We tried to imagine what on earth Gertrude Stein was doing and why anyone thought this was worth publishing. I made my naysayers put away books and phones. We listened. We talked about onomatopoeia. We watched flamenco dancing (because Gertrude Stein said that “Susie Asado” was an attempt to render the sounds of flamenco, particularly of one flamenco dancer. If you believe Gertrude Stein.) We talked about what things we know that have distinct but changing sounds – my mom driving behind a bad driver, a beach, a storm. And then we tried to write our own sound poem.

Ok, that’s a lie. Then I told the students to try to write a sound poem, and 9 out of 11 (because one was absent) stared at a blank page for five minutes. My ask was really really hard. So I suggested that maybe I should write in front of them and they could help me out. That was the ticket. And this is as far as we got. We are trying to record the sound of the hallway just before the bell rings and then as it fills with students…

Sugar sugar hover hope
Wake cake kick stick fake
Shuffle shelf shake fake yell

We did not get very far, but together we got further than anyone did alone. So tomorrow we’ll try again. Keep your fingers crossed for us. Heck, just keep your fingers crossed for me!

Sweet sweet sweet sweet sweet tea
Susie Asado

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm

Join us! Write your own Slice of Life and post it on Tuesdays at https://twowritingteachers.org