inhale, exhale

Breath.

Invisible (well, for now anyway, it is still September and still, it seems, endlessly summer).

Invisible except in the rise and fall of the chest; except in the fatigued surrender of a sigh.

Invisible (for the healthy and the privileged) because it is easily ignored…a state of being, an elemental piece of existence. Mundane. Prosaic. A promise fulfilled that has become a promise expected and so the gratitude that might create awareness…

Dwindles.                   Subsides.                  Withers.

Invisible until we are gasping or labored or until the air around us runs rancid and it becomes hard to find clean air to fill us up to propel us forward to allow life

to swirl,                      to swell,                    to scintillate.

(metaphorical? yes–and–no)

Invisible until we are breathless and then it is all we see, all we feel–the ache, the burn resounds as our breath seems to have abandoned us and our quality of life (its abundance and intensity and brilliance) seems to have shifted and that shift, even if minuscule, stings.

~~~~~~~~~~

Breathless: I have been feeling breathless. I have unwittingly been attempting to fill my lungs with the air of stress that has become polluted by fumes of negativity and the entirety of my being has suffered as a result. I am exhausted, heavy, impatient. While exhaustion comes with parenting and “principalling” and teaching…heaviness and impatience are not familiar territory…and they frustrate me, creating even thinner air…leaving me jealous for any life, any day, any moment removed from the needs of others and the anxiety of not meeting them as effectively as I would like. I don’t consider myself a perfectionist (I am far too disorganized for that), but I don’t like letting people down either.

Triage: I needed to stop. To step back. To assess. What was missing? Why couldn’t I catch my breath and extract myself from this quicksand of worry? Why couldn’t I take back the narrative of positivity and rewrite the negativity…spin a new story? (I am, after all, the most annoyingly optimistic person I’ve ever known…ask my students, they will tell you) Why couldn’t I see a glimmer in this wilderness that seemed to be closing in around me?

Diagnosis: Writing. I wasn’t writing. (I mean, there was the lack of exercise too, but, you know…) I wasn’t granting myself permission to do one of the few things that make me feel most myself. I was using the time excuse again. But, seriously, chasing time was part of the reason I was so breathless and I wasn’t getting any closer to catching him. The rock was at the bottom of the hill again everyday and my Sisyphean struggle only seemed to intensify. So, I had to make a determination. I needed to challenge myself. I needed to fight my way out and that fight was going to have to include putting words on the page (digital or otherwise).

Prescribed: “the positivity project” (which I am sure is not some new brand of ingenuity–rather a remake) became my road map. Writing on this blog, 30 minutes a day, everyday, for as long as I can make myself, with the purpose of promoting positivity in each entry. It just seems that if I needed to be dug out of negativity, other people might benefit from reading something positive as well.

And maybe this way I will move forward in greater gratitude for the freedom of clean, easy air. A plentitude of it. Instead of searching for breath, I will just

Breathe.

lifting the lens

I think sometimes in the midst of the bombardment of disappointments and devastation the world seems to hurl freely these days, it becomes easy to lose sight of just how much authorial control we still have within our lives. It becomes easy to unwittingly sink into helplessness and to relinquish our rights to the details of our story without even an honorarium paid. Lately, the stuff  of  life has become exceedingly good at bullying us into believing that we need a new year or a new phase of life to be able to fully enjoy and live into our existence.

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

And to sit idly, waiting for something to come along and offer immediate healing is a dangerous stance to take. In doing this we become bystanders in our own lives, rather than active participants. It is an admission and acceptance that our joy can only come from someone or someplace else. That we cannot create that for ourselves and must wait for it to be delivered on a schedule that isn’t published or even guaranteed.

In this season of giving thanks, remembering that in every circumstance we have the ability to lift the lens of gratitude rather than the scope of victimization holds the potential to restore our outlook. We have the ability to empower ourselves to seek the goodness in the scant and the beacon in the bleak. In the moments in my life in which I have felt the deepest grief and the least control over my circumstances, gratitude has unfailingly delivered a way forward while restoring my rights to the details of my own story.

There was no other way to walk toward peace after delivering a child into a world he would never know. The Oprah Show was still airing daily in the year that we lost Nathan. And you know, Oprah’s words carried weight, so when she began talking about the importance and life changing qualities of something as simple as gratitude, I paid attention. Okay, I also thought she had lost her mind. I was so deep in grief. I was so angry and for so many reasons. I was so full of shame and regret. And I couldn’t seem to let go of any of it let alone summon the strength to seek gratitude. What could I possibly have to be grateful for?

But Oprah said gratitude changed lives, so I tried it.

It wasn’t easy.

As Joy Harjo writes, “Watch your mind. Without training it might run away and leave your heart for the immense human feast set by the thieves of time.” (link below)

Gratitude is an active stance and as such required total effort on my part. Without constant attention and care, without a mindfulness to lift the lens, gratitude disintegrates before it can invigorate. There is one day that the lens was lifted for me…one day that sort of changed everything. I was leaving the house of a friend who delivered her child a month or two after we lost ours, and I had to pull over because I was weeping so hard it became impossible to drive. I had just stopped in to deliver some treats and to see the sweet babe and somehow hadn’t prepared myself for the onslaught of emotion that would follow. As I sat in my car sobbing beneath the weight and complexity of loss, I caught a glimpse of the sky. It was crystal blue–not a cloud to be seen–and it was stunning and somehow full of hope that things would not always be so cloudy and dim. A switch flipped. Through my tears and with a shaky voice, I spoke into gratitude (like literally out loud)–thank you for this amazing sky to remind me that there is still light in the world…there is still hope.

Everyday after that moment, as I walked the often shadowy path toward peace after loss, gratitude was my guide…my signpost. But more importantly, gratitude was my choice. Gratitude (and well, I guess Oprah too) changed my life.

So, even now, in the face of all that 2020 has delivered, in the face of chronic illness and pain, in the face of so much uncertainty and turmoil, I walk the world wielding gratitude because that is something I can control…that is something I don’t need to wait for…that is something that even in the most treacherous moments unfailingly shines a light. It is not a perfect practice and often requires effort I don’t feel like exerting, but it is a worthwhile endeavor every single day of the week.

“For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet” by Joy Harjo, referenced earlier, speaks to this effort towards gratitude beautifully. Honestly, it is worth clicking the link and reading the whole thing–this poem is stunning and a gorgeous reminder. But just in case, at least I can leave you with this excerpt…

Put down that bag of potato chips, that white bread, that bottle of pop.

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

Take a breath offered by friendly winds. They travel the earth gathering essences of plants to clean.

Give it back with gratitude.”

(And trust me. This is not an attempt to oversimplify of the vast weight of mental illness. I am not offering gratitude as some kind of simplistic inoculation against the depths of depression or any other depletion of mental health.  Just as a way to see a less than forgiving world)

Debunking the myth of teaching poetry

Story possesses relevance in our lives that might easily go overlooked. But the stories we tell ourselves and others both implicitly and explicitly, the stories others tell us, the stories we allow ourselves to believe and the ones  we  pretend are not true all shape who we have been, who we are in the present moment, and who it is we have the capacity to become. Over time, the idea that “story” possesses this weight has won itself a position as the primary lens through which I teach English–at every level, to every kid who might walk through the door. To work towards creating an environment that allows young people the opportunity to realize that they are the curators of the stories that comprise their identities imbues the teaching of reading and writing with new energy and vitality. Watching kids discover their truth and the truth of the world beyond the stories they’ve been living and beyond what they’ve been told is nothing short of inspiring. 

I like to tell my students the story of my reading journey as evidence that sometimes the stories we assign ourselves are not always reflective of a lifetime of truth. Proof that stories can change. Despite the  joy of walking to the public library in the summer to select books to read and the thrill of being allowed to check out texts from the upper school library before I had reached the required age, I never really loved sitting down to read those books. I certainly never had a passion for reading. I faked my way through nearly every text I was assigned to read for school (which I like to think gives me great instinct to see the same behavior in students). I loved the idea of books, but hated the process of reading. I was slow when others were swift. I craved the joy of finishing the book but didn’t have the stamina to get there. 

Reading made me feel less than smart and so I chose to avoid it.

Then, in junior year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I read The Great Gatsby as part of my English III class. It wasn’t that I saw myself in this text that drew me in. I’m not sure I read a single book in high school that allowed me to feel seen. Still, this book became the spark that ignited my passion for reading. It was Fitzgerald’s lush language, his symbolism, his imagery…it was the writer’s craft…that drew me in more than the story. I felt valued for my insight into the text and I lingered over every word. I thought, in that moment, that maybe I was so slow as a reader all this time because my analytical skills were hyper alert.

And so for a long while, I thought I loved reading because I  loved unravelling its meaning through analysis. Yet, the more I grew as a reader, the more I realized that it wasn’t the work of analysis that allowed me to be affirmed by my reading process. On the contrary, it was being allowed the privilege to witness the genius of what happens to words when a writer so carefully arranges them to create a moment for the reader. It was the joy of recognizing that every writer would shape their words differently…that I could do this too…that I could play with words until I found my own voice…that I could create a moment for a reader too.

I was a slow reader because lingering with beauty should never be rushed.

I was a slow reader because even if the book was assigned for a particular purpose, that personal interaction between me and the aesthetic remained sacred and could not be denied.

Kids are always amazed by this story because surely every English teacher has always loved to read and any story to the contrary seems ludicrous. (side note…they also love it because I talk of the olden days where I had to physically go to a book store to purchase Cliff’s Notes…that cracks them up every time). But what they don’t see coming is how their own mythology as readers and writers will be debunked…and not by me, but rather by themselves and their experience.

Students in my classroom are exposed to an inordinate amount of poetry.

It is sort of my thing.

They come in to my classroom knowing that will be their experience and they prepare themselves to hate it. Their poetic experience has been nothing short of schoolified misery…poetry only for analysis…poetry only for understanding figurative language…poetry only for making class anthologies…poetry only for exposure to the classics (whatever those may be). They have not read poetry for themselves. They have often not been granted the agency to find the poems they love. They have not been given license to linger with the words, to appreciate the aesthetic. They have not been freed to write poetry the way they want, finding their own voice as they explore what is meaningful in their world.They have not had the chance to read poetry for enjoyment without an assignment or larger purpose tacked onto it, and so poetry is always for the classroom. And because so many of us who spend our days in classrooms with kids were taught poetry in a way that prevented all of this from occurring, the cycle often repeats itself.

But what if we rewrote that story?

Juan Felipe Herrera writes this in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:

“a poem, of course,
is always open for business too, except, as you can see,
it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
the mist becomes central to your existence.”
 
We have been granted the brilliant opportunity to shape the story of poetry in the lives of our kids…to allow their “spirit into the alarming waters” where “the mist becomes central to your existence.” We can let them sit with poems. We can give them the time to enter into the work with no greater purpose than to find themselves and the world. We can allow space to connect not just with what the poet is saying but with how it is being said. And we can do all of this in meaningful ways without requiring the same exact analysis from each and every kid. Is analysis of text important? 100%. This world throws texts at us daily and we need to know what  to do with them…how to make meaning from them instead of waiting for someone else to do that for us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot also give time for the appreciation of the gift of the words on the page. Just because students aren’t picking the poetry apart searching for some  aloof meaning does not mean that they are not learning important lessons about what it means to read and to write. 
 
I’ve yet to teach a kid who hasn’t walked away from our time together with a new story of poetry and what it might mean for them. I’ve yet to teach a kid whose writing didn’t improve as a result of having  spent meaningful time with  poetry. When we present something as possibly bringing joy and connection instead of as a chore because “we have to do this poetry unit,” we open doors to new possibility for our students and for ourselves. 
 
We rewrite the story of poetry as one of sacred space for each and every human who allows their spirit to be pulled in.
 
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that authorship?
 
The first step? Find the poems and poets you love…not the ones that are in the curriculum guide or that you were told to teach or to read…the poems and poets you love. Sit with them. Set your spirit  free to linger in the “mist” and maybe even set your mind free to begin to play with words poetically yourself.
 
The rest, well, the rest will take care of itself.
 
(Much love to Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Georgia Heard, and Micah Bournes who  presented an amazing session at NCTE 2020 last night very much affirming my practice and reminding me of its importance…and also to Ellin Keene for her die hard advocacy for making space for the aesthetic in our classrooms)
 
 

Anticipation

Having dealt with chronic illness for the last 8 or 9 years, one of the messiest mental mud holes I needed to dig myself out from existed in a very simple sentence starter…which existed in variations of itself but always lead to the same deleterious effects. It always went  something like this: “Back when I  could…” or “The old me could have…” or “There was a time in my life when _____ was possible”. The trouble with these statements emanates from their constant glance backwards which blinded me to my current truth. And maybe that was my mind’s ulterior motive. If I was always idolizing and gazing back at the “old me”, then the current version of myself was only a temporary imposter. I didn’t have to accept this new human with her new limitations, in her new situation. She was a lesser version of old me and I didn’t really like her very much. Her life seemed less than the one I had been working so hard for so long to create. I wanted more. I wanted what I felt I deserved.  I looked to every outlet that might offer healing because this would not  (NOT) be what defined my existence for the rest of my life. This was a “right now” scenario and I would fix what people told me could not be fixed. I tried acupuncture,  chiropractors, physical  therapy,  vestibular  rehab, essential oils, neuro-otologists, audiologists, oral  surgeons, dentists (this list  goes on for a while, you get the picture). And while I might find relief, no one held the cure…the magic potion that would restore old me and extinguish new me. I felt I had tried everything to heal myself.

But sometimes…

…we have to look within first.

One day, in a moment of defensiveness, I told a friend,  “I have a neurological and inner ear disorder; I am hearing impaired. So what?!”  And it was one of the most freeing moments of my entire life.

I had said it.

Out loud.

In the world.

For someone else to hear.

I had spoken the truth that I had been working so furiously to deny and to walk away from. In that moment, I began to nurture acceptance rather than denial. In that moment, I began to slowly and steadfastly heal myself rather than futilely and frantically try to eradicate my disorder. The path toward acceptance possesses an inordinate number of thorns and there is no map to navigate it well. It requires resilience and dedication and also, as I came to learn, anticipation of who I was becoming rather than disappointment over who I had lost. I did not need to mourn that girl who could do some stupid number of burpees in two minutes…I did not need to mourn the adventures she would never seek (because let’s face it, “adventure” was never really my thing anyway)…I did not need to mourn any of it because she was still a part of me and together, we were becoming someone stronger, someone more beautiful, someone who despite limitations still had plenty to give to this world.

And so in anticipation of who I was becoming, I fought harder.

As 2020 wears on and I feel like so much in this world is changing and shifting, I once again find myself gazing backward. “Remember when we could…” “Remember when we didn’t have to…” “Remember the days before…” Of course we all remember all these things, they are a part of us and our stories. And for a substantial piece of our lives they dictated our narratives for us. They are not lost forever, though, just in a holding pattern of sorts…wrapped in bright paper waiting for us to unwrap them again when it is safe and maybe with the newfound gratitude we are all bound to feel for what was once just the everyday.

I  find myself making this note in my notebook at school regularly: “Anticipate who you are becoming in all of this”  It is a necessary reminder when the work of reimagining school on a regular basis grows exhausting and frustrating. It is a necessary reminder when I decide how I will  react or respond to those around me at work, at home, in my community. It is a necessary reminder that this is my story and I am not a static character. I am dynamic. I am changing. And I can shape that change and my attitude about it.

Opening my mind and my heart to accepting myself, presented some of the toughest work I’ve faced…and that work doesn’t end, maybe not ever. Some days issue considerable challenges while others tender feelings of accomplishment and joy. Regardless, all the days are situated in anticipation of who I will become on the other side of the struggle and what work I can do in the moment to make that person a better one than she is today.

Neither a neurological disorder nor pandemic can change that…unless I allow for it.

All you need is shade

I’d  like to be  under the  sea

In an octopus’s  garden  in the shade”

(The Beatles)

Imagine…

It is a beautiful but unseasonably warm spring day in a time before music festivals had been extinguished by the blight of pandemic. It is a day full of food and music and joy and laughter…and sweat…so much sweat. As the day draws nearer to its closing, you stand amid what seems an endless sea of humanity in anticipation of the headlining act, and in that moment, you realize that under the oppression of the heat you are faltering.  A  little  shaky, a little sick, and in need of relief, you glance skyward in hopes that even a single cloud might be dancing toward the sun to offer a brief respite. Only, there is not a cloud to be found and a bit of panic starts to settle in because you have convinced yourself that in fact you cannot survive the show without some kind of shade. Suddenly, there are too many people around. Suddenly, you are questioning your decisions–why didn’t you wear a hat…why didn’t you buy an extra bottle of water…why are you even still standing here in this misery when you could be at home, cool and comfortable…why does no one else seem bothered by this?

But then the show begins…the crowd roars as the first few chords resonate…

…and everything shifts.

As though suddenly inoculated with protection against the heat,  you find yourself relinquishing the internal panic in favor of the auditory peace of the moment.  

Washed over, baptized if you will, by the waters of this magical, musical oasis, you are            no longer languishing, but living.

You are no longer ailing, but alive.

The temperature has not changed.

The circumstances are nearly identical to what they were just moments before.

But in the shade of the music, it is all bearable and you can continue in spite of it.

Not only that, but you can find enjoyment in the midst of what was misery.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Early in our days of life at home not so many months ago, I found myself reaching out to known places of comfort. Only, as was also true of the world, what I thought I knew, no longer carried weight. I could not focus long enough to read a page of any of the books in my many stacks of “to be read” without swiftly realizing that in fact I had retained nothing and had to reread the page…again and again, until I finally put the book to the side in frustration. I  blamed the books for a while, assuming that they just didn’t suit me, before realizing that the books were innocent and it was my overwhelm that was to blame. In the face of not being able to escape into fictional worlds, I began countless blogs in an attempt to at least log the truth of my own reality, but I lacked the stamina to see any of them through to completion. And so I turned to exercise, but that too looked different at home–alone, without my friends and the benefit of peer pressure to drive my intensity. This list of “Amy’s Pursuit of Peace” goes on for quite a while and it always seemed hampered by the ever present worry of ensuring my family was at the very least “okay” as well as the constant stress of running and reimagining school from home (and also cooking…endless cooking).

It seemed every place I turned in search of shelter only tossed me deeper into the desert. No effort made seemed enough to construct substantial enough shelter from the ever brewing storms brought on by pandemic life at a time that was also marked by violence in the face of a courageous symphony of voices crying out for overdue racial justice and change…by a country defined by its division…by a litany of natural disasters unfurling their fury as though all the turmoil we felt on the inside suddenly took form in our weather. Smoke clouded vision and smothered breath; flood waters rose leaving trademark ruin in their wake; winds whipped, tearing trees and towns to pieces.

And yet, we had to persist. It was the only way to survive–fight the fatigue and carry on even when you think the next best step is too much. There was little rest, not enough relief, and the idea of a true shelter to shield us from it all became nothing more than a mirage as I stumbled through the heat longing for an oasis.

And then, one day I was walking in my neighborhood (a newfound point of peace in the midst of my surrounding mayhem) and my music was on shuffle because in a world confined to mundanity of home, a little surprise adds color to the day. The Beatles’ “Octopus’s Garden” came on and I had to smile.

“I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’s garden in the shade
He’d let us in, knows where we’ve been
In his octopus’s garden in the shade

I’d ask my friends to come and see
An octopus’s garden with me
I’d like to be under the sea
In an octopus’s garden in the shade”

I mean, at first, yes, it was just delightful to imagine this garden with its caretaker who “knows where we’ve been”, and the thought of my friends being able to be there with me when we had spent so much time apart was lovely. But then I realized that in seeking full on shelter, I was actually entering a labyrinth of frustration. I had been asking for too much in desiring something that would repel the truth of the world and keep me safe inside while it happened around me. Impervious protection was not truly the goal. It would have summoned comfort, sure, but it would have also encouraged weakness rather than inspiring strength.

What I really needed instead was a little shade. A brief break to regain my strength. And even if the comfort of shade would not produce itself in obvious ways, I had to seek it out in unexpected places (an octopus’s garden, if you will).

I think we are all pretty uncomfortable right now and for lots of really good reasons, you know? It is just a hard time to be human in this world. There are no immediate cures for the myriad ills we face and in the middle of the desert, with not a cloud in the sky and no true waters of restoration in sight, shade is what we must seek and also create to get us through. My tiny pauses of peace in the shade would not be found in the usual places because the world is not its usual self. I had to initiate invention and be bold in seeking and recognizing the small moments that allowed me to catch my breath so I could be emboldened to face the next moment of struggle. I had to plant my  own trees under which I could sit from time to time to regain myself and my well being…under which I could sit from time to time to remember that even though my circumstances have not changed, there is still joy to be found and love to share.

It takes energy to create shade that will give life. And energy can be hard to muster the longer we endure.  I am trying to remember to name my shade when it is present, to rest beneath it and to recover and in my rekindled strength, to then turn my gaze away from myself and toward extending shade to comfort those around me. Because that is how we will truly survive. Selflessly together. In order to have the determination to reach the true oasis of renewal on the other side of this desert of tumult, we have to be in this with each other, for each other. We won’t all get there at the same time, but if we take comfort in the shade we create and find and share, we will all get there eventually.

found poetry

Last school year ended.

That’s it, really. Just done.

No hugs goodbye, no ceremony, no final exams…it just…ended. A day came that we said would be the end and that was that. Screens closed. Silence deepened. Separation spread.

Pandemic possesses the power to distort structure and plans and tradition…the power to permeate even the simplest aspects of our lives until every last detail of our day feels saturated in its heaviness. When school closed in mid-March, there was no way to predict the vastness of what it would mean to go home…especially for my seniors.

As the days wore on and their hope for a more “normal” end to the school year depleted, the struggle to persist in distance learning heightened. Sure, they were lucky to have the opportunity to continue their learning when so many others didn’t, but in the face of so much that seemed lost, in the face of the lack of closure they longed for, finishing the year, I imagine, just felt sort of pointless. Yet, they persisted.

The very last assignment that I asked my AP Lit seniors to complete (outside of their senior projects) involved the composition of a found poem. During our time in quarantine, each of them selected a poet, collection of poets, or poetic movement to engage with. Their early work in this project involved research, connection, analysis, and reflection. For their final assignment, however, I wanted to offer a new opportunity. Something that asked my students to consider the poetry as it was but to also be creative, whimsical, intuitive. I wanted them to take what they thought they knew and to redesign it. This found poem work asked them to craft their own poems, for their own purpose, but, as is true of all found poems, their lines would be pulled entirely from poems already written-in this case, those they had been studying. In a world where my students felt powerless to recreate or rearrange their own circumstances, granting them agency to re-envision poetry seemed the least I could offer.

If I am being completely honest, I wasn’t entirely certain how this assignment would present at the deadline. In any typical year, seniors would have already checked out, but this year…the year of quarantine…the year of the thief of so much… this year, they really needed to be done. I just wasn’t sure that their stamina stipend included constructing a found poem for Mrs. Clark.

True to form, though, they proved my concern to be the product of faulty reasoning.

Not only did many of my students attach notes to their poems explaining how much they enjoyed this work or how much they learned from it, but the work they composed was simply stunning.

Imagine…Adrienne Rich’s poetry re-envisioned and reconfigured to speak for women in the present moment, and I believe for the found poet herself…the lines of various Native American poets merged to create a new poem reflective of respect and understanding of belief and of a people not often honestly taught or depicted in school…Various Victorian poets blended together to set to the page something all at once true to the original movement but entirely relevant today…

Or this…a collection of lines taken from Naomi Shihab Nye and assembled by my student, Lucy…a collection of lines that when removed from the contexts of their original poems and bent to the perspective of a new vision creates new art, new meaning, new power.

Passage

(a found poem arranged by Lucy Vanderbrook from the works of Naomi Shihab Nye)

How can we live like this?

Everything we love is going away,

The spaces we travel through are short

Each thing in its time, in its place,

Otherwise it is just a world with a lot of rough edges,

 

Someday we will learn how to live

We will try not to argue among ourselves

We will forgive any anger we feel toward the earth,

When the rains do not come, or they come

 

Later our dreams begin catching fire around the edges,

Stories, poems, projects, experiments, mischief

Knowing a bigger world loomed. It’s still out there,

Now we are young or ancient

Everything grants you your freedom

But we are still adrift

And then there was also this collection assembled by my student, Molly…lines borrowed from Modern and Contemporary Poets arranged to both signify the moment we currently face and also identify what is still important…what will save us…

Key of Our Times

(lines borrowed from Cummings, Dickenson, Schwartz, Clifton, Nye, Levertov, Harjo, Rilke, and Grotz—arranged by Molly Heurtin)

Remember this

love is more thicker than forget

 

Calmly we walk through this April’s day

There is a sadness everywhere present

We have changed, a little.

Number provides all distances

How much – how little – is within our power

you have seen it growing.

the immense loneliness

In the dark.

 

then you see the sun shining down

A spark of kindness made a light.

kindness – the deepest thing inside,

Deeper than the sea

Sorrow, the other deepest thing

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore.

As I read poem after poem, I found each carefully crafted to possess its own depth, its own beauty, its own perspective. I found flickers of the familiar in something brand new that presented both comfort and excitement in the reading. I found young people who were writing their way out of their heartache by naming it with the words of others.

And then a thought settled, spread roots and grew…we are in this new moment with so much unfamiliarity, so much unknown, so much fear (don’t deny it). We are grieving the difference between today and yesterday without seeing that yesterday is still today, just rearranged. We have not lost all and there can still be beauty and goodness when the lines we loved so much collide in new and unsettling ways. But our eyes have to be open to the possibility that within this sometimes (often) frightening and foreign landscape we have been forced to navigate are paths tinged with the familiar leading us to something new and beautiful—even if that is only shared vulnerability or the ability to name that kindness is all we have left.

And no, I’ve not lost my sensibility here-I know that the loss of lives and livelihood, the loss of health and well-being cannot be reduced to a platitude. But I also know that there is no making it through without hope.

And what I learned in witnessing the transformation of what was to what could be in those found poems delivered a picture of hope to me that I had not considered…the possibility that while life might look different, we possess the power to distort the loss of what was into what can be.

sticking around

“And if sun comes
How shall we greet him?
Shall we not dread him,
Shall we not fear him
After so lengthy a
Session with shade?”

(Gwendolyn Brooks, “truth”)

Trauma. Tragedy. Crisis. Disaster. Gross Injustice. Neglect. Cruelty.

In the immediate moment of each of these, as humans, we are good at launching ourselves into action. We unite, we donate, we speak loudly, we act. We are present in the lives of those in need in part because innately, we want to ease someone’s pain and in part because it feels good to know we have helped.

Flood waters know no justice, they hold no mercy. They devastate without warrant, without restraint, without bias. Unstoppably powerful, all we can do is react to the destruction they deliver.

15 years ago when Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast, and more particularly to me, the city of New Orleans, there was an immediate flurry of assistance. Footage made readily visible the dismantling of the city, the dispersement of a people, the deaths of too many…images scrolled our screens revealing the destruction of property, the rescues of terrified families, the conditions of those stranded in dire circumstances. At first the access to these images and information on television was helpful, but it also simultaneously tore a hole in my heart. So many strangers with no connection to my city also had access to these same images I was seeing and at the same time as me–images that felt so intensely personal–images that fueled commentary which had the ability to be both inspiring and ignorant…empathic and vitriolic.

It felt like a violation. Yet, the truth of those images moved humans of this world to offer aid.

People arrived in the city as soon as it was safe to offer food, assistance, clean water, a shoulder to cry on. Volunteers came in force to rebuild and restore New Orleans as a gift to those who love it as more than simply home. And so many who could not be physically present still sought ways to be helpful through donation, words of encouragement, and other beneficence. My emotions were overwhelmed to see that influx of generosity in those earliest and most devastating of days. But what anyone who has ever experienced tragedy, loss, disaster, or trauma of any kind will tell you is this: what stands out most, are the people who are still willing to help when the news crews have departed but the immensity and difficult days of reconstruction linger. Because the healing isn’t immediate. It takes far longer than the spotlight can shine to fully recover and it is the work of those who stick around even when it is no longer popular that makes the true difference–that makes renewal a reality rather than illusion.

“Sweet is it, sweet is it
To sleep in the coolness
Of snug unawareness.” (“truth“)

And today we are in the midst of a different kind of trauma.

The murder of George Floyd, the visibility of that traumatic footage, the perpetuation of commentary from those who have the ability to inspire or to degrade, brings us to an inflection point. At this moment, as a white woman in America, I can only speak from my experience, from my truth. And this is what I know. It is easy for white Americans to stand up right now and scream “Black Lives Matter.” It is easy today to yell for justice and to demand an end to racism. It is easy right now to pray and to be visible in our outrage. The outrage is and should be universal. I in no way intend to diminish the necessity of everyone speaking out in this way, of being mindful, prayerful, and righteously enraged. I only mean to say that right now, when everyone feels this way in the face of this gross abuse of power–in the face of actions laced with bias that birthed injustice and mercilessness…in the face of these flood waters, we must stand strong…and not just for today, but until all of the work is done. Because today it is popular. But six months from now when people of color are still afraid to walk the streets of their neighborhood or through a park, where will we be then? Will we still have the same volume to our voice? Will we still be willing to engage in the difficult conversations and to call each other out for our bias and our tendencies to languish in our own privilege? Will we be able to admit that no matter how nice and kind we are in this world that doesn’t erase larger systemic issues that lead to the daily dehumanization of our fellow citizens of this world who if I am not mistaken (and here is my Christian bias) were all created by the same God? Will we recognize that while we do not have to be ashamed of being white, we 100% have to step up to work tirelessly to break down the centuries of barriers, vilification, and bias that have been created?

Will we be humble enough to be uncomfortable because for real you guys, that necessary discomfort in the work of restoring justice is minuscule compared to the lifetimes of discomfort brought about by the racism so many of us don’t want to admit still exists in this world.

As a woman, I know how powerful the “Me Too” movement has been and I am grateful for the bravery of those few who stood up and stood out elevating their voice so that I could elevate mine. But in all of my years in this work, there is one truth that I know. Change will not come about with only women using their voices. We require allies from the male population who are not afraid to call each other out in the tough moments…men who are not afraid to recognize that they have acted in ways that have demeaned and demoralized and who are ready to change…men who are willing to share the power of any moment with their female counterparts giving light to their ideas and worth to their being rather than burying them.

A similar truth exists here. This is not a momentary injustice. It wasn’t born a week ago…or a month ago…or even a year ago. This is deeply rooted and will take the efforts of all of us to dismantle. The onus does not fall on people of color to resolve this issue. The responsibility belongs to all of us to listen, to ask questions, to reflect, to understand, to own our actions, to do better, to be better, to be courageous in conversation even when that makes us unpopular. It is the actions of those who are willing to do this work even and especially when the spotlight fades that will help in making a lasting difference.

It is time to crawl out of our pits of privilege that allow us to be angry today and forget next week and to summon the strength it will take to not only face the truth but to help others do the same. It is time to take responsibility for the injustice in this world even if it feels like it isn’t your fault because for real, we all live in the same damn world–restoring justice is the work of us all. The sooner we own that as a common truth as white Americans, the sooner we can get to the work we should have been initiating in a unified way long ago.

It is time we stepped out of our own way and stepped beside our friends of color in this fight. Because the healing isn’t immediate. It will take the work of all of us to make renewal a reality rather than illusion. 

I cannot speak for anyone else, but I am sticking around until the work is finished or my time here is done. I see no other way forward in this life than that.

the clam

“And when the broken-hearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer
Let it be

For though they may be parted there is
Still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer
Let it be”

( “Let It Be”, John Lennon and Paul McCartney) 

My dog, Gingersnap, got out the other day. In the moment of her (apparently much sought after) liberation, she sprinted with the speed of exhilaration, evading capture for far too long and creating quite a caper. As I witnessed her escape and before the fear of potentially losing my sweet (albeit noisy) companion set in, I realized that her fleeing the confines of this house was quite the metaphor for how I believe many of us will feel when finally able to live fully in community again.

Except, I would honestly stay shuttered in this house for another year if somehow it would exonerate my kids and allow them the opportunity to play with their friends again.

I suppose this sounds like the voice of privilege. My kids are healthy. They are cared for and housed and clothed and fed and nurtured every single day. They have a backyard to play in and a safe neighborhood through which they run freely. Believe me, there is not a single moment on any given day where I lose sight of our privilege, especially at this moment in time. But that abundance does not release them from the grip of the emotional impact of this pandemic.

Funny story, when all of this was just a whisper and not yet a vivid reality, it was my hyper-anxious germaphobic child that I was worried about. I just knew this invisible predator of sorts would overwhelm his sensibility and we would be back to sleepless nights wrought with panic attacks. However, while his anxiety has seen an uptick, he knows how to verbalize his concerns and how to ask for help…and he knows how to channel his anxious energy into crafty projects (literally, in the first week and a half of this debacle, he feverishly constructed a cotton candy machine out of materials he could find around the house…don’t ask…it was a long ten days).

Yet, as the days have worn on, it is my younger son, the one who is my heart walking around outside of my body, who seems to be struggling the most. He puts on a good face most days…does his distance learning work, plays soccer in the yard, relishes the opportunity to drink a hot chocolate every morning. But there are other times where he is obviously angry for what seems to be no good reason…where he is constantly complaining of being tired…where he just seems sad. He doesn’t always want to talk about it. He worries about making other people feel badly. I know this because I do the same thing. My family called me the clam growing up because I just held everything in and I see him repeating my history. It is not a good way to go through life.

“I wrote my way out
When the world turned its back on me
I was up against the wall
I had no foundation
No friends and no family to catch my fall
Running on empty, with nothing left in me but doubt
I picked up a pen
And wrote my way out”

(“Wrote My Way Out” Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda & Aloe Blacc)

Thank goodness for his social studies teacher. She has asked him to write a “coronavirus journal” each week as a way to document this moment in history and that has been my only way into understanding where his brain is in all of this. He seems to recognize that it is the only comfortable way for him to get the discomfort and the heartache out into the world…he seems to wield the power of his words effortlessly…and in their wake, he is free for a few days–relieved of their weight.  If I didn’t already fully understand the power of writing, his work in this journal certainly would have taught it to me. Some weeks he has let his comedic personality flow through, but lately, his entries have just been sad.

This was his entry on Friday (he is eleven years old…):

“So, I don’t really know what to talk about today. Today hasn’t been that interesting. All of quarantine has been really boring. I really miss my friends. It’s like I’m living in a hole that I can’t climb out of. It’s like a hole has been dug in me and there are wasps flying around in me all day. People are always saying ‘We will get through this together.’  It sounds good the first few times, but by the millionth time it’s like there is no spirit left in the words. They are supposed to be convincing us, but now it sounds like they are trying to convince themselves.”

If we think our kids are impervious to the trauma of this pandemic, we are blinding ourselves to the complete truth. It is arrogance to imply that because they are kids they have nothing to worry about, no real stress, no troubles. Their whole lives have come to a screeching halt. The adults of this world are struggling to muster the emotional competence to negotiate this crisis, why on earth would children be able to navigate these waters any easier? Their stress is real…their confusion, profound. The impact is vast and beyond what we are able to currently know and that scares the hell out of me–both for my own kids and for the ones that I teach. Yes, kids are resilient humans who tend to be wiser than the adults around them. But we need to pay attention…we need to give credit to the weight of their feelings…we need to honor their experience for being just as difficult as our own…we need to treat them as humans in need…we need to stop and see their truth.

This same sensitive kiddo is preparing to play his guitar and sing in a virtual talent show for school. He decided people needed hope so he is singing “Let It Be.” I mean, he also worships the ground Sir Paul McCartney walks upon, but he knows this song can help people feel better and he wanted to try to make a difference.

Injecting hope into the world despite the “wasps” stinging him on the inside. Maybe he is going to be okay after all?

 

Reset hope

I realized this morning that I haven’t worn my glasses in days. Well, I think it has been days, though honestly, it could be a week or more. I actually don’t remember when I wore them last. In fact, if you asked me for their current location, a reaching guess would be the best I could offer.

And yet, I don’t seem to have missed them…their ever present weight on my face, their incessant reminders of my aging eyes as I begrudgingly reach to remove them simply in order to read my computer screen, their gentle bounce as I jog the neighborhood…a gentle jog of memory for how the world moved when vertigo was a daily friend. I really haven’t missed any of those things…at least not enough to notice their absence.

But, that singular perspective doesn’t tell the whole story because in fact I do miss the presence of the distances in my life that required the glasses in the first place–my students across the classroom from me, ripe avocados from the other side of the produce section that glimmer with the hope of future guacamole, the screen at the gym that reveals my heart rate (in some way confirming that I have in fact worked out, as though the pounding heart and pouring sweat weren’t evidence enough).

Everything these days is in close proximity…my family, the pantry, my backyard, my desk. There is no distance that requires my glasses for clarity, only a distance that is too great for my glasses to clarify. I see my students on my computer screen…I read their words and hear their voices and in some ways they are still very present in my everyday. Yet, the absence of the vibrant richness of their presence marks everyday as a bit emptier than it could have been. This is not summer. This is not vacation. This is a collection of days that were promised and then revoked, without warning. Days etched now with the wispy shadow of what should be. Yet in the midst of this distance, my affection for my profession, for my school, for my community deepens, strengthens fueled by the lens of truth held up by space and time.

Even in these strange and unusual days, when we are sheltered in our homes from an invisible and indiscriminate adversary…when we are separated from people and places and produce (sorry, I miss the grocery store…a lot)…even when we are anxious, afraid, and uncertain…even now, gratitude has a way of unfurling in small moments as the first flower of spring offers hope that despite the desolation of winter, eventually the earth defrosts and new life comes to be.

And I think that has to be where my focus turns…toward the new life that has yet to take shape…the bud, still tightly wound, yet to reveal its beauty. My focus has to be on the gratitude for that moment yet to arrive. I am not diminishing in any way the very real concerns this virus instills. Trust me. I feel them deep within my core. That fear has overwhelmed and frozen my writing for over a week now and borrowed sound sleep from my mind’s vocabulary.

It’s just that I cannot exist in that hopeless fear driven space and expect to be of use to those who need me–including myself. And so, I am simply adding a new lens to the collection. This time, the lens of reset, the lens of renewal, the lens that will allow me gratitude for this pause in life and that will water seeds of hope for the goodness already present and the goodness yet to arrive.

I still don’t know where my glasses are…I’m not entirely sure when I will find them…but my vision feels sharper nonetheless.

(a poem for you in this moment…one that I shared with my students–whose insight was stunning, I might add–take a second to read it if you can…“Today” by Billy Collins)

 

 

u-turn

A temperamental sense of balance and an overly sensitive inner ear don’t make the best flight companions. Fortunately, the only moments of the journey that we tend to be at odds occur during takeoff as the plane climbs in altitude. My brain and my ear cannot seem to resolve their past communication issues and as such, are a bit  fluttery when presented with a challenge beyond navigating the balance challenges of a typical day. Each flight and airport present a unique set of circumstances, but discomfort of some kind reveals itself regardless of place or direction. Last night’s flight home brought forth one of the most courageous conversations my brain and my ear have had to flesh out in a long time.

At first, I was relieved. We seemed to be climbing in altitude slowly which always eases tension by allowing my head to adjust to the pressure changes gradually rather than all at once. And then we made a sort of u-turn. Planes turn all the time. No big deal. I sit just in front of the wing and by a window so my eyes can use the visual to explain the discomfort my head feels.

Last night felt different.

The turn was steeper and tighter and incredibly disorienting. There wasn’t a window that I could look through that could grant a stable visual. There seemed to be no steady point on which to focus, to center myself. Gorgeous pink clouds reflecting the beauty of the setting sun should have been distraction enough, but I simply couldn’t get my bearings and it equated to a terrifying minute or so during which the panic of the vertigo days flooded my system. My mind reeled toward flashes of the worst moments from that time swifter than I could stop it. Before I realized what was happening, my hands were shaking and my breath became shallow. Treacherous, sneaky fast, pervasive. Panic acts without notice and I wasn’t prepared to prevent it from persisting. My guard was down.

Eventually, after the plane leveled out, the pressure in my head did as well. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and reminded myself that, despite the painful memories this u-turn invoked, the discomfort was limited, temporary. Despite that feeling of helplessness in mid air, I was okay–safe, balanced, headed home.  Another inhale, a breath of gratitude. The exhale, a prayer of peace.

I have these u-turn moments from time to time-I feel like in some strange way, in our own ways, we all do. A moment when something triggers my vertigo panic button or rips the stitches that contain my grief and suddenly I am swallowed up. Whether fleeting or lingering, the emotion is disorienting and even when I am surrounded by goodness and love, it can be hard to see it clearly enough…even when I know the feeling will be temporary and I am in charge of its dismantling, it can be hard to find my balance long enough to wait it out.

Yet, inevitably, the moment always levels out, the pressure of the panic subsides, I realize that I am held in love unconditionally-that I am safe, and I breathe. Will the vertigo come back some day? Almost definitely. Will that be awful? Um, probably… I can live with that aspect of my life, I have to. I don’t have to like it and from time to time, I’ll be caught in a bit of a u-turn moment, but this is my lot and with it, I can still do so much.

Inhale, gratitude…exhale, peace.

(Entry 29 in the king cake writing challenge!)

microcosm

The human collective encased within the parameters of the airport possesses all manner of oddities. While this mass of people exists in this singular place for merely a fleeting moment of time, the focus is not on community but more on the individual habits and procedures that will get us where we need to be, when we need to be there, with as little interaction as possible. Skillfully averted eyes and the incarnation of air pods have heightened the already palpable vibe of “don’t talk to me.” We place bags on the seats next to us in the terminal in an attempt to avoid having to sit too closely to a stranger…or maybe just to enjoy some personal space before boarding the plane. Magazines, that so many only ever purchase in the airport, as well as screens of varying shapes and sizes act as blinders, making us appear engrossed in something important that absolutely should not be disturbed. We all meander and move with purpose and intention and with no apparent need for those around us.

Which actually makes reasonable sense in the airport, but I wonder how often we walk through our larger communities in this way–turned completely inward, avoiding conversation and community, focused only on the needs and goals of the self. It feels easier to move through life solo–or at least with a very small tribe. The fewer people who rely on you, who need things, who look to you, who could possibly hurt and be hurt by you, the easier it is to make decisions because the impact feels compact. Yet, no matter how isolated we imagine ourselves to be, or how singular each action feels, no matter how secluded we expect we have made ourselves, ripples go out into the world…for better or for worse.

The thing is this–we were made to be with each other. We were made to associate rather than detach. Sure, life masquerades as simpler when we shield ourselves within a fortress of busy-ness and singularity, but we miss so much in avoiding the intricacies and attachments and beauty of those around us. People are not always easy. Relationships are often uncomfortable. But living in community with those around us constructs scaffolding that holds us accountable while also holding us in tenderness.

The thing is also this–just because we attempt to avoid interaction or just because we deny our place in any given society doesn’t erase our presence. So, consider instead, the power of your smile or a simple thank you or any other basic kindness that possesses the potential to elevate the quality of someone else’s day. Consider instead, that when we look up from our screens and books and busy-ness, there are people, both known and unknown, waiting to be noticed, deserving of recognition. Consider instead the vibrance and richness that could decorate not only our own lives but the world at large if we just took a moment to step out of ourselves and into relationship.

(not sure the day count holds anymore since I’m not writing in consecutive days…but I believe this would be Day 28)

(and also because I seem to have strayed from sharing poetry here…it’s one I’ve shared before but it is perfect for this particular blog…“Gate A-4” by Naomi Shihab Nye)