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

 

Ask for help

Since day 1 she’s been glaring at me. By day 5 I work up the confidence to ask if something is wrong. “No,” she says casually, “I just have resting bitch face.” She’s 16. I laugh with her, but seconds later wish I had pushed back. I wish I had said, “No, not bitchy. You look sad, scared, wary and maybe just a little doubtful. You look like you and you are not a bitch.” But I didn’t.

Every day I say, “I need you to put your phone away.”
I say, “I know this is hard, but the phone is keeping you from doing your best thinking.”
I say, “Maybe you could create a 20 minute reading playlist so that you can read without touching your phone.”
She puts her phone away politely, but it always comes back out.

She has already failed English once. She does not like to read. She does not write. Still, when she wrote her goals in her notebook on Friday, the first one was “Read every day for the assigned time with no phone distraction.” She doesn’t say a thing about it, just hands me her notebook at the end of class, like she does every day.

We’ve read memoirs almost every day since school started. We’ve read poems and essays and picture books. We’ve looked at craft moves and done our own mini-writes. She doesn’t do much. “Resting bitch face” I remind myself when I look at her. I want so badly for her face to tell a different story.

Today we start 100-word memoirs. She checks her phone several times. She goes to the bathroom. Then she starts to write and does not stop until time is up. She shares a line with the class. As class ends, I ask students to write down one or two things they want to work on in their memoir tomorrow. She calls me over.

“I think it’s good the way it is,” she says. I feel my protest rising, then squash my first reaction. “Ok,” I say. We pause.

“Will you read it?” her eyes go down, her face turns away from me.

Her memoir is beautiful and powerful. She will edit it – we will edit it together – but her words, her story… it blows me away. I tell her so.

She says, “I want to enter that contest, the one about ‘One Strong Woman.'”
“Yes,” I say, “I think you should.”

In her notebook, her other goal is “actually ask for help.”

“I’ll help,” I say.

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

Summary of Debate

I am close to finishing my summer writing courses. So, so close, and yet… so far. One long piece of creative non-fiction, one 1500-word research essay (with a proposal – how is that long enough for any real research? Whatever. I’ll take it.) and one 500-word close reading. I can get this done. 

In the meantime, I am amusing myself and, hopefully, the poor “tutors” who have to read these assignments day in and day out. It was with them in mind that I wrote the following slice of life. The assignment calls for a one-paragraph summary of both sides of “a specific, local debate” in under 250 words. I had to present the two sides in an objective, neutral manner. I decided to go extremely specific and local…

Debate: What Is That in the Sky?

The debate in our car is heated: is the giant glowing white orb that we see in the sky above us the moon or is it something else? The person taking the affirmative position states that it is the moon and develops her argument relying almost exclusively on logos. She begins with a concession, acknowledging that the glowing orb does, in fact, look larger than usual, which is part of what attracted the attention of the passengers in the car. She continues to support the affirmative position by pointing out that, despite its size, the orb is in the place where the moon is usually seen, looks like the moon, and appears to be moving along the moon’s expected trajectory. Finally, the person in the affirmative attempts to use ethos, pointing out that years of experience in observing the moon makes her a credible source for determining if the orb is, in fact, the moon. For these reasons, the affirmative asserts that this is the moon. The person defending the negative position contends that what they are seeing is not the moon. This argument, too, relies largely on logos. For one, he argues, what they see in the sky right now is clearly much larger than the moon. The person assuming the negative position points out that he has never seen a moon this large. He then refers to authority, maintaining that “someone” recently read him a book about planets and that planets are, in fact, very large. He concludes his point by reminding his opponent that he, too, has seen the moon many times, which gives him vast experiential knowledge, if not quite as much as the other side. He closes with a clear statement of position: “I know a lot about moons, and that is not the moon.” In summary, the affirmative position is that the large, white, glowing orb in the sky is the moon; the negative position is that it is not the moon but, more likely, a planet.

In case you are wondering, it was the moon.

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm
Join us at https://twowritingteachers.org every Tuesday.

Writing and writing

I have been writing A LOT for the past two weeks. For reasons that are both complicated and idiotic, I have to take three English courses in order to be allowed to take two courses which will officially make me “fully qualified” for the job I’ve been doing for seven years. Short explanation: don’t move countries mid-career.

At any rate, with some (ok, a lot of) cajoling and support from my (wonderful) colleagues and husband, I finally decided to get this credential issue out of the way this summer. I had it all planned out, but… someone made an honest (and costly to me) mistake, and I ended up registered for three on-line undergraduate composition courses in August. (Side note: The reason Comp 101 is not on my transcript is because I effectively tested out of it – when I was 17.)

I’m not going to lie, I spent more time than was healthy feeling sorry for myself. Then I spent a fair amount of time doing the whole 1990s “rage against the machine” thing – just another version of feeling sorry for myself, really. My friends and family practically achieved sainthood merely by listening to me explain how dumb this all is. Finally – finally – I got down to work. I’ve been writing A LOT.

It’s been fascinating.

Not unexpectedly, first year university composition classes have little to do with five paragraph essays. I love that I’ll be able to go back to teaching high school with this knowledge firmly in hand. I’ve written descriptive paragraphs, a summary of debate, a personal essay with research and an argumentative essay. Next up? A rhetorical analysis (which I’ve been putting off). Second year comp includes an expository essay, an argumentative essay, a persuasive essay, and a research essay. Creative non-fiction is making me write about place and culture.

I resent some of the assignments. I don’t want to write a rhetorical analysis of Frank McCourt. I have no desire to write a persuasive essay about heroes. “Who cares about this?” I grumble. Still, I mold and shape the topics, find the ideas, search for the words. I write.

It has been a long time since I wrote essays. Suddenly, I am in my students’ shoes – and not just in my memory or via my (sometimes dwindling) empathy. Writing essays day after day reminds me what a complex a task this really is. I read models, try to discern the teacher’s expectation, choose a topic from among those offered, and then I almost always pause. Sometimes I need research; always I need to brainstorm. Some days I walk around the house or the neighborhood to get my ideas in order. Good essays require good thinking.

When I started, one of my colleagues said, “They’re a bunch of 1000-word essays. You can write that in an hour or two.” But I can’t. I have to pare my thoughts down, write my “shitty first draft” (oh, how Anne Lamott’s words comfort and guide me). I have to observe and consider. I have to rewrite and then reread and rewrite again. I have to be a writer.

I’ve written eight essays so far. I have seven to go. I have drafts for four. I have ideas for all of them. I have three weeks until school starts, and one week with the kids off of camp. Can I get it all done? I don’t know. But I am going to be a much better writer for trying. That’s not an outcome I expected from this exercise.

Wish me luck. That rhetorical analysis awaits.

 

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

 

Funke inspiration

While the woman now on the stage had a magnetism that had drawn our eyes to her even when she had been over in the shadowy corner, I was, to be honest, a little nervous.

img_8730After all, I had take half of a personal day and pulled my children out of school for this. And not every author is a great speaker. But the kids had begged. “Please,” said Eric, turning his big brown eyes on me, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” His brother, more self-possessed, simply added, “I really really want to go.” 

So I had bought tickets to see Cornelia Funke, author of the Dragon Rider and Inkheart series (among others), in the middle of the day on a Monday.

I need not have worried. Cornelia Funke was, frankly, amazing. Relaxed and funny, she filled the room, putting the young moderator at ease, telling us stories, opening her writer’s notebook for the next Dragonrider book to let us see her sketches, her playfulness. I thought Eric might fall out of his seat with excitement when she opened the notebook to show us a giant jellyfish she had drawn. Thomas craned his neck to see what else she had taped into those exciting pages. And then she read to us. Her hands moved, her eyes twinkled, her eyebrows raised and “she even did the voices!”

img_8728

The room was full of mostly adults and some teenagers, but Funke was keenly aware of my two boys and one other little girl, all seated in the front row. The little girl asked the first question during the Q & A and Funke complimented her, “What a great question! No one has ever asked me that before.” Afterwards, when we talked to her as she signed books, my boys were a little shy, but they warmed up enough to tell her about the sand sculptures they built during our winter vacation – sculptures of the characters from The Griffin’s Feather. They made me show her on my phone. Delighted, she gave them an email address and told them to send them to her so she could put them on the website.

As we left, Thomas said, “I’m so glad we went. She was… inspiring. It’s like I want to draw and write more just from listening to her.” Me too, as it turns out. Me too.

 

3d17d-screen2bshot2b2014-12-152bat2b7-37-262bpm
https://twowritingteachers.org

And then… #SOL19 31/31

I woke up this morning and came downstairs to write my last slice for this challenge. I settled into the chair with the broken back in my corner of the kitchen table, now cluttered with papers, pens, a random playing card, some knitting – more or less abandoned since the beginning of March – and inexplicably, a hammer. I turned on the computer.

And then I decided I needed to make tea. So I did.
And then I decided I should read some other slices to see what people were writing for this last day. So I did.
And as I read, I really wanted to write back. So I commented.
And then one of the kids needed some help with a game. So I helped.
And then, since I was up, I decided to start the laundry.
And then one of the boys’ friends called and invited him to go to a bike park. So I encouraged him to get ready.
And then since he was getting ready, I got dressed and ready, too.
And then the father said I should come see the bike park. So I did.
And then I came home and my husband went out and I decided it was time to write. Again.
And then I realized just how tired I was. So I took a nap.
And while I was napping the phone rang and the cat came in and my younger son needed some help.

And now I’m downstairs again, and I’m writing.
And this is my life. It is busy and full and complex. It involves people and trade-offs and interruptions of all sorts. It is loving and active, sometimes overwhelming and often joyful.

And this is what slicing every day for a month has taught me this year: that this is my life. And I can still write. I can write every day if I decide to. Or not. I am allowed to be a writer on my own terms in my real life. I can write around the edges and through the middle and in the spaces in between. It still counts.

And then I realized that I am a writer.

What a gift from Two Writing Teachers who created this amazing space to help us become writers, learners and, most of all, a community. Thank you!

http://www.twowritingteachers.org

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