neutrality wavers

“See, I’ve been having me a real hard time…”

A couple of days ago, I cried.

The tears weren’t prolific or anything, but as they welled up and overflowed their banks, I couldn’t help but consider them glorious and restorative gifts…only, not in the way you might expect.

If you know me, a tearful moment doesn’t sound like some kind of triumphant occasion since one of my finest skills is feeling all of the feelings, all of the time…to a fault. I am not a daily cry or a cry in front of other people kind of human, but when overwhelmed by any particular emotion, joy…anger… frustration…sadness…love…awe, tears populate my eyes and from there travel as rivulets running. These tearful moments are sort of how I know I’m living in and connecting with the people and the world around me. They are sort of how I know myself.

Well, that used to be true. Until I contracted a relatively mild case of Covid in January 2021 with no prior comorbidities, and the workings of my brain became a bit of a mystery for the long haul.

“I just kept hoping, I just kept hoping/The way would become clear”

My long hauler symptoms have been extensive and, at times, debilitating over the last six months. Irregular heartbeat, intense fatigue, frightening brain fog, weekly and ever intensifying migraines, daily headaches, weird aches and pains, sore throat, hoarseness, tinnitus, dizziness, weakness, chest pain…this list could go on.

Perhaps the most troubling lingering symptom of all evolved as a strange neutrality. Me. The emotional cornucopia… neutral. Let me explain what I mean by “neutrality”…

“So please don’t take my feelings”

I became sort of inert, feeling no strong emotions one way or the other. Like an extinguished candle. And it was so hard to explain this to anyone because I was struggling in so many ways, it was hard to pinpoint this issue. And then, people kept saying they knew how I felt…which was strange because I wasn’t feeling much. In some ways, this neutrality was kind of nice because my lifelong anxiety dwindled significantly. On some level I just couldn’t muster the energy for it. That vacation from being driven by an overthinking  brain and an overzealous set of nerves was actually a delight. Not me at all, but kinda great.

Yet in other ways, this neutral stance was painful. I would be at events that I knew were important to me, that should have felt exciting, exhilarating and joyful and I, well I was just there…present but not…smiling but vacantly…not even sure how much of the moment I would be able to remember without the lingering vibrance of the emotion. I felt so far away from everyone and everything even when they were right next to me. I often found myself surprised by people’s reactions to my words because even my ability to communicate with emotion and sensitivity had been marred. At times, I would become overwhelmed by how badly I had been feeling or by work or just by the world at large and I would want to cry to release some of that tightly wound energy, but I couldn’t do it. That one outlet seemed to have barricaded itself from accessibility. At other times, I would be in conversation speaking about emotional topics, about how strongly I feel on an issue or how passionate I am about education and while my words were all true to who I know myself to be, they felt false in speaking them because inside they seemed hollow, detached. And so that is how I have been walking through the world since Covid, hollow and detached.

“So I just kept going, I just kept going/And hoping I’m growing near”

For a while, I embraced the idea that this was my brain’s way of protecting itself. It was dealing with too much in my extended recovery so maybe adding in emotion would have been debilitating. Actually, I felt it was pretty awesome of my brain to extend that gift. I knew with certainty that when the school year was over and I had the chance to fully rest, all of that neutrality would erode to reveal the emotions it had been shielding me from.

Except, it didn’t. It lingered.

And the longer it did so, the more I realized that this wasn’t just me trying to save myself from overwhelm; this was damage done to my body, to my brain, by Covid. When I considered the work I had to muddle through to relearn how to think through the incredible Covid induced brain fog, I realized that my emotional void very much connected to that situation…maybe even lost in the dense pillows of fog circling and settling…awaiting the sun to clear them away.

“And it feels so nice to know I’m gonna be alright

Please don’t take this feeling

I have found at last”

My brain is different than it was 6 months ago. It is healing–my tears this week are proof of that for sure, but no one can tell me to what point I will heal…because no one really knows. And I just have to try to not let that defeat me. I have to take what my body gives me and know that this recovery road is less than perfect but I am still on it.

So I am just going to say this…take it or leave it…it has become my lived experience and thus, my truth. Even a mild case of Covid can have life altering impacts beyond what anyone can tell you they might be. Be safe. Do what you can to keep yourself and those around you healthy. This is my current plan, because, let me tell you what terrifies me. The possibility of catching Covid again. Terrifies me beyond what I can type on this page. Because I am still sick. Because my brain hasn’t fully healed. Because I am just starting to feel like myself again six months after a mild case and I don’t want to lose that progress or worse. Because my pulse ox still dips into the upper 80’s and I would like for that to repair fully before my system is attacked again. I have had Covid once and I don’t need to re-live that misery (I’m sorta still living it). I’ve done all I can to keep myself and my family well. I should be safe. And yet, in this world, as people continue to tell me that Covid is no big deal, that it is a fiction, that it is nothing to worry about–essentially denying my lived experience, in this world still, I am not safe.

Lived experience can be different from our own and still be accepted as a truth, still carry weight, still be worthy of our attention. Maybe that is an overly empathic stance, but to me, it is the only way we learn to see each other with respect in this world…it is the only way we begin to act for each other  rather than just for ourselves, elevating our own singular story instead of the varied and valuable experiences of those around us. Hibernating in the blankets of that which makes us comfortable only endangers us. And so I tell this story of my experience with Covid. Not for sympathy because while a momentary comfort, sympathy doesn’t fix anything. Nope. I tell this story to add it to the collective tale of this pandemic. Because this outcome isn’t often written about. Because maybe it will help someone realize Covid is not worth the risk. Because maybe I just needed to get it out into the world.

“So, I just kept dreaming, yeah, I just kept dreaming’…Tryna figure out why”

(All lyrics from “This Feeling”, Alabama Shakes)

Seaspray

In this last year and a half of teaching during pandemic, I found myself reflecting heavily–wondering…considering… asking a lot of questions (more so than in a typical year).

Why am I teaching this material in the way that I am? Where is my focus centered–on kids or on material? Is this lesson really necessary in the learning lives of my students? How does this activity (you fill in the best word here–test, project, assignment, etc.) help kids grow as learners and as humans? How does this bring them actively into their learning process? In what ways will this learning open up their curiosity, ideas, perspectives? Is this work meaningful in the lives of the students seated before me?

When I cannot answer those questions in a way that aligns with what I know to be important in establishing a classroom that fosters engagement and is fully centered on the kids in front of me in that moment, then I know a change is necessary. In this year when so much was different and difficult and distracting, this reflection helped me maintain my focus and cull my practice. There was only time for what was truly substantive and significant. There was only time for learning that honored my kiddos, their voice, and their needs not only as students but also as humans living through a worldwide crisis (or, if you will, through worldwide crises).

It was a far from perfect year, but that intensity of inward gaze and outward paying attention to my kids created a critical cascade of change that should not disappear simply because things will one day return to some version of what was once “normal”.

One practice that withstood this crucible of questioning without much adjustment was that of daily poetry work. The work looks something like this…I bring in a poem (either one I have chosen or one a kid has recommended) printed and cut to size-ready to be taped into writers notebooks. We read the poem aloud, twice, then I ask my students (almost always) without agenda, to respond in any way that feels right to them. Maybe, the poem has struck them and they have something to say? Maybe they want to talk about structure or word choice or punctuation or line breaks? Maybe the poem reminded them of something and they want to write or draw about that? Maybe the poem ignited a creative flame and they will write in that direction? Maybe they feel a connection with the poet or they feel seen or they understand someone else’s perspective and they want to write or draw about that? This time can go any which way. It is theirs. I never pick up these notebooks. I never micromanage them. There is expectation and there is trust and in the marriage of the two, we are a community of readers, writers and thinkers.

After a few minutes of time in their notebooks, we talk. These conversations are never predictable or planned, but they are always worthwhile because they uncover learning I could not have foreseen…which is kind of the best.

Now, it would be dishonest to say that it’s easy for me to let their responses lead the way without my voice. Because I love poetry. Because I want them to love it. Because I want them to see all the nuances and depths awaiting them on that page. But it is also because of all of those things (namely that I want them to love poetry) that I stay out of it. If they are going to love it, it can’t feel like “just schoolwork”. They have to feel connected, invested, engaged and like they matter as individuals in the process. Once they fall in love with poetry (and they always do…always) and with some practice, my students come to notice all those intricacies on their own. And in that moment, the poetry and the meaning and the learning lingers and lasts because it is theirs. It belongs to them and not to me.

I spent last week at the beach with my family and friends. A much needed vacation after an incredibly stressful year. As I relaxed watching the waves, engulfed in the peace and serenity of their melodic journey to shore…as I felt the seaspray on my face, the sand beneath my feet, and the sun on my skin, I was reminded of two things (hang in their with me… teaching is always with me as is poetry so the connections are always close):

  1. This line of poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:       “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.”

    He’s talking about poetry here–poetry is not about the business (in other words, it isn’t crafted so we can underline metaphors and circle alliteration). Rather, it is about allowing the deepest part of yourself to connect with the work…and when that happens, “the mist” or the undefinable bits of meaning that spark only for the individual, well, that mist “becomes central to your existence” That seaspray connected me to that singular moment in my life in a way that I can promise you my 14 year old son, for example, didn’t experience. It is still what lingers with me today and I haven’t been on that beach in days. 

  2. And then also this…My friend Ellin Keene talks a lot in her work about the value of the aesthetic in the classroom. And that is what this poetry practice elevates. It allows kids to stand in the presence of something wondrous and to find connection with it…it creates time for the poetry to steer them toward meaning and creation rather than the teacher telling them how and what to think or to observe. No one had to guide my beach appreciation moment and quite honestly if they had, I might have missed the seaspray…I might have missed the mist (couldn’t resist that)…and the moment would have been more the guide’s and less mine. And I needed that moment just like my kids need the time with poetry (even when they walk in, roll their eyes, and sigh deeply the word “poetry…”).

I’ve considered over time tightening up this work in my classroom. Making it more instructive or practical. But without fail, each and every year, I watch this work shape my students as readers, writers, thinkers, and creators. I watch as it emboldens them to play with words, to shape and share their voice, to venture out onto the shaky branches of analysis and creativity. I watch as they slowly come to own their notebooks, to treasure them. I watch as they bathe in the “alarming waters” and linger in the mist of the beauty of the written craft placed before them and the works they have yet to create. I watch and am filled with awe of their courage and their ability when freed to put it to use as they wish to.

Sometimes, crafting a structure for a moment, the scaffolding, is far better than filling in the details. There is time for more precise and intentional instruction in other ways and in other spaces in my classroom. This time for poetry will remain a gift to my kids. Always.

Forgiveness, part one

I am a chronic apologizer.

My apologetic refrain, a lifelong expression of my need to never inconvenience and to always keep the peace.

I try so hard to teach young women to never apologize for their existence or their strength or their voice and yet I cannot seem to break my own apologetic cycle. So much so that apology seems to be a state of being rather than a momentary but necessary sincerity. And it is disappointing that my urge to please all the people pushes me to say “I’m sorry” when what I should be saying is “This truth is difficult and less than easy, but here it is anyway. Let’s work through it together.” That truth I find myself explaining away contritely could be some element of the chronic illness that is beyond my control but with which I deal daily or it could be some issue that felt necessary to speak up about. And I’d like to be able to say that much of the onus for my need to express apology falls on others for perpetuating an expectation that I should feel sorry. But the responsibility remains with me. It is up to me to own my power. It is up to me not to waver in the face of derision because of it. And I’d also like to be able to say that the writing that follows will be my version of a pithy list of all the things I will no longer apologize for and why.

But it won’t be.

Because here’s the thing…I know that list. I teach that list. I remind others to abide by that list. But my own complicated truth is that I struggle to uphold it in the moments when it matters. This impulse to apologize is composed of threads so intricately woven into the fabric of my being, that to unravel them takes more than a confident written assertion.

And so I will begin in a different place. One that makes sense after a difficult, well, exhausting, day of apologizing needlessly, making myself smaller, and then quieting the things I know to have been important.

That place is forgiveness.

Because, while I cannot undo this habit immediately, I can give myself some grace in the process of trying to. I can forgive myself for faltering.

Today, I forgive myself for questioning myself when I should have questioned others.

I forgive myself for forgetting the value of my work and my voice in that work and for allowing the noise of others to intrude into what I know to be my worth and my truth.

I forgive myself for saying I am sorry when it didn’t need to be spoken. For giving others the easy way out by sacrificing myself so they could have it.

I forgive myself for walking away instead of sticking it out…for lowering my voice instead of furthering it. For turning inward to hide instead of seeking new ways forward.

I forgive myself for adding conditionals into my language that dilute my purpose in order to placate others who shouldn’t really require anesthetizing wording.

I forgive my body for its complications and for the pain, fatigue and challenges it elicits. I forgive myself for not taking the time I need to be well in order to be more for others. I forgive others for not being able to see past the carefully crafted performance of my smile to understand that I am unwell and just scraping by.

I forgive myself for being a flawed human, and at the same time I love myself for being an empathic one.

I celebrate myself for allowing empathy to enter and steer my relationships and how I reach out to and speak up for others.

I celebrate my heart for recognizing hurt in the humans around me and for wanting to be a salve in the healing.

I celebrate who I was yesterday, who I am today, and who I will become tomorrow because as I continue to revise what I have been  and who I want to be, I am grateful for the whole of it.

And this is how forgiveness works. Releasing the burden of hurt (whether it exists within or without) somehow (and rather unexpectedly) removes the scales from our eyes allowing us to see the good which, today, dug me out of a pretty deep hole. Love begins with forgiving the self because if we cannot forgive ourselves, how on earth will we be able to extend love and forgiveness to those around us. Writing this was a great reminder of that truth (especially since I had no idea where it was going when I began…I just needed to write). “Phase One” by Dilruba Ahmed is a great reminder as well…a beautiful one…and I unapologetically offer it to you to read.

patience

I don’t remember myself.

I’ve been sick before. Invisibly ill in insidious ways.

Lonely, as those surrounding me tried to understand, but without experience, had no foundation to allow for true belief in the turns my story had taken. Frustrated, as no one seemed able to resolve my ailments or even to incite a brief remission, a bit of respite, a break. Exhausted, afraid, broken-hearted and broken bodied. All of this. I have been all of this before in the midst of illness and yet despite the array of emotion, I’ve always been able to remember myself…for better and for worse.

The constant specter of who I used to be, what I used to be able to do haunted me without reprieve. I longed for the previous ease of propping up a smile…for the freedoms of frivolity without worry for an unforgiving symptom set…for working out without abandon because I was in charge of this body and we would be fit…for being able to honestly answer “I’m well” when asked how I was doing. I knew who I used to be, what I used to have, what I used to be able to do and I was jealous of her. Constantly. Achingly.

It took years to accept the terms of my new circumstances. To accept that the girl I used to be was still part of who I was becoming rather than extinct. That she was fully aware she was participating in a merger wherein her strength and joy and skills and hope were maintained and sharpened in this new fire faced. She populated my everyday though her life looked different. It took years to own and honor that there is no old me and new me, only me in this moment and I am always going to be in some phase of evolving into who it is I am meant to become…to honor that I still have control over the shades and hues I show and shower. But this process always included recognizing and celebrating who I’ve been along the way. And recently, that has become more difficult.

This battle back against what has evolved into Long Covid is different from all the other times I’ve faced health challenges (and there have been many). This fight has dissolved much of what I knew of myself. My brain is so exhausted and so foggy that I find myself behaving, responding, acting in ways that feel unrecognizable, strangely resistant to careful reflection and observation, interrupted moment to moment with absence of memory for what comes next, but it’s all I have the energy to produce. I find missing the small goodness of the beauty on the horizon, because I am tethered instead to what is currently right in front of me. Don’t look up or around or too far forward or back or you will lose what it is you have to do in this singular moment. Blinders are required but the blindness harbors despair for as missed moments pass, they grow heavy. I feel sometimes as though I’ve become a completely new human without the reference of experience and knowledge of who I was, of who I’ve been, there to guide me. All of my energy is focused on surviving days, getting through them, taking care of all those who count on me as best I can, which is great but I know that for now, I am not enough and also a bit of a stranger, even if only to myself. There are small touches in my manner that have evaporated and all of me is too depleted to attempt any sort of rebirth or refurbishment. Simply getting out of bed and forcing myself to get ready for work is enough to warrant a nap, but there is no time. I have to simply keep taking steps even when I have to fabricate the energy to do so.

And so I proceed having left my former self in the shadows with the hope that she will be waiting for me when I am able to pause, to take care of myself, to fight harder for recovery from something that very few fully understand. I hope that she will be there when it is time to measure this process of becoming. I repeat daily that this is just for right now, but right now exists for an undetermined period of time and there are pieces of my personality that I am not willing to sacrifice to Covid. Intrinsic empathy, generous kindness, careful words and reflection. I don’t need to be the same person I was before. That would be a denial of the experience and all it extolled. I lived it and am living it. Denying it later would make it all worthless. But I need to heal enough to deliver those elemental sparks back into being. That is the day I long for.

Until then, I will keep reminding myself to go slow and that today is not tomorrow yet. Change will come.

I can be patient.

open window

As I sit here to write this, I am sick with Covid and on my seventh day in isolation from my family, my students, the produce section at Whole Foods, and the world at large. My individual existence has taken one giant pause as I work to help my body heal and recover–and yet, the rest of the world carries on with a swiftness that renders me unable to compete. My emotions during this time have spanned the spectrum…at times angry (I’ve been so careful, so cautious, but I work inside of a school so exposure is a daily danger)…at times sad (My youngest texts me regularly from two rooms away that he is sad and misses me and I cannot even offer him a hug), at times joyful (as technology creates opportunities for connectivity even in the face of confinement). But, more than any of these, there has been panic…overwhelming fear facilitating full on panic attacks…more in the last seven days than in the last seven years combined. Not knowing what this virus will exact upon my system or the war it might wage on my family is terrifying to me. Will I be okay? Will the people I love be okay? Will I end up in the hospital, perhaps more alone than I am now? Will this linger? Will I survive?

That last question feels a bit dramatic, maybe. Except, it is the truth of the trek my brain has traveled. So, dramatic or not, it has been my reality. Why? Well, my body often exists in opposition to all I’ve done to care for it. It seems to enjoy testing the limits of my endurance, to place on trial my capacity to persevere. If there is a weird ailment, side effect, strange medical possibility…my body will seek it out hungrily…voraciously…fervently. What sounds like hyperbole, trust me, is not entirely such. I am exceedingly kind to my body, feeding it well, keeping it fit, all the things–yet it persists in rebelling. Vertigo. Unrelenting Migraine. Hearing Loss. Shingles Induced Nerve Damage. This list goes on. And so, I’ve come not to trust this body to behave itself, to follow the rules, to exist within the bounds of normalcy. And so, yes, my panic is a result of a lifetime battle with anxiety, but also as a result of not ever really knowing what my body’s next trick will be. And this, as well as concern for compromised members of my family and community, is why I’ve been so careful, so cautious, even when others thought it ridiculous. Yet, here I am anyway.

So, I’ve exerted as much energy fighting the anxiety and the frustration and the loneliness and the anger as I have ridding myself of this virus because those emotions will not be willing guides to wellness. And so I’m consciously making a list of positives (because, annoyingly, for better or for worse, this is what I do…):

  1. I’ve learned how to be dependent on others when needed without feeling guilty and my kids are learning the freedom that is carried by independence as they learn to cook some basics for themselves (their poor father is left to clean up their messes, but baby steps-at least they are cooking!).
  2. I’ve become dedicated to self care (because I can’t really care for anyone else from isolation): I am setting better boundaries instead of always people pleasing; I painted my toenails; I am stretching every morning; I am taking all the vitamins; I am binge watching “The Crown” simply because I enjoy it; I’ve opened and climbed out of my bedroom window daily to enjoy fresh air and a peaceful moment outside; and I am granting myself permission to rest (maybe it’s the truce my body’s been fighting for?)
  3. I’ve been showered in love and support and errand running and food delivery and checking in. Friends and colleagues and family have become beacons of hope and deliverers of joy not just to me but to my whole household. And all the praise to my resilient husband who is brilliantly rising to the challenges of running the show without complaint…and whose ceaseless entertainment of our teenage/pre-teenage boys has helped them to feel less afraid while mom is sick.
  4. I’ve discovered a new reading spot! Extra time alone in my room has equated to turning a chair to face the window to the backyard. Peaceful, lovely, perfect. It has been awaiting discovery and I’ve been too busy to see it.
  5. Stillness.

I opened my writer’s notebook today and the last time I had written, ironically, was in thoughtful response to Medora C. Addison’s poem, “The Days to Come“. Rereading it brought me further encouragement…especially the last stanza:

So shall the days to come be filled with beauty,/Bright with the promise caught from eastern/skies;/So shall I see the stars when night is darkest,/Still hear the thrush’s song when music dies.”

Which also made me think of Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely As a Cloud” when he writes, “For oft, when on my couch I lie/ In vacant or in pensive mood,/ They flash upon that inward eye/ Which is the bliss of solitude;/ And then my heart with pleasure fills,/ And dances with the daffodils.”

Which called to mind Ada Limon’s “Instructions on Not Giving Up” — “Patient, plodding, a green skin/ growing over whatever winter did to us, a return/ to the strange idea of continuous living despite/ the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,/ I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/ unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.”

Which brought me to David Wagoner’s poem, “Lost,” —“…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/Must ask permission to know it and be known.”

Poetry often restores my perspective and brings balance amid whirls of chaos in a world of concern–sort of in the same way climbing out of my bedroom window and into fresh air has restored my spirit in these days of isolation. Today, poetry offered bread crumbs on the path out of the wilderness of this illness. But there is more wilderness out there for the world is not absolved of pandemic simply because I’ve encountered it.

We are all weary warriors these days. I get it. I do. But this reality continues to find new ways to make its presence felt…deeply. So it is up to us to remember that all the hope offered in these poems is something to cling to as we continue to make sacrifices, small and large, to prevent others from facing the uncertainty and danger of this invisible instigator. We need to make visible our fortitude moving forward; we need to live in love of our neighbor, taking care to take care. It is the only way forward I can find. It is a path that will be briefer with company, for together we will shine a light toward better and healthier days far more brilliantly than apart.

The window is open. I am hopeful.

An explication of a year

Somewhere along the way, poetry transformed from a carefully curated collection of words existing on a flat page into a lens through which I view the world. It is a metamorphosis that is tricky to explain to anyone existing outside of  my brain (which is everyone…so hang in there with me…). It goes beyond the way poetry in its vastness can challenge my perceptions and expose the bubble ensconcing my existence…beyond the exchange poetry makes–a telescope to view the far reaches replacing the finite view through the microscope of our daily lives. I suppose that all good writing offers such an opportunity, but in its compact punch, in its easily consumable size and portraiture, poetry invites us into the confrontation with truth without overwhelm or overstatement…leaving space for us, as readers, to linger beyond the reading…to meet the poem with our story and to wrestle as we begin to redefine understanding.

Yet, even beyond this, I’ve grown to see life itself as a series of stanzas, lines, poems–pieces of a collection, of an anthology, reflective of my own story and the revision of my vision, of the truths I have come to learn. Having long been a big believer in the importance and impact of “story” in our lives (both the stories we tell and perpetuate and those told to us and about us), it is no great leap to now realize that my stories are framed in verse rather than in prose.

As we ready to depart form this year of so much, there is a call to be rid of it, to move on, to not look back. Yet, in looking back, I realize there is so much that we can’t nullify or erase if we are really to move ahead. If I look at this past year through this poetic lens, there are stanzas that speak haltingly to fear that are followed by stanzas sprinkling seeds of hope…stanzas revealing terrible trauma met by those marking the path to healing…stanzas revealing the rediscovery of what is truly valuable after stanzas marking our former fault-full ambition.

There is imagery laden with a militaristic stealth attack waged by viral particles too tiny to hold in human sight. And then there is the resultant imagery looming heavy with the weight of loss (lost time, jobs, loved ones, health…so much lost). But there is also imagery erupting jubilantly with the wealth of humanity unveiled in the face of isolation and difficulty…singing from open windows, birthday parades, mass meal distribution, surging gratitude for those on the front lines, teachers delivering books to kids in need of a read.There were weeks and months that overstayed the welcome of their allotted time, of their line, and replicated their difficulty in the weeks and months to follow in an extraordinarily uncomfortable bit of enjambment.

But I think the punctuated moments offered up to pause and reflect are where I linger the most. The moments within parentheses where we brought joy and newness to our lives interrupted (as if to say, “Take that!”). The ellipses dividing the lines of our days as we pondered, “What next?” all the while realizing the danger of such a wonder. The constant question marks, line after line, stanza after stanza, as we walked through unknown regions with no map to guide us–only shifting sands beneath our feet and the next best step, which was?

But then this–mostly this…

I often tell my students that the em dash is like a poetic breath on the page–a bit of space sacrificed intentionally by the poet so we, the reader, can inhale, consider and exhale before moving on to the rest of the poem. The protests that awakened the world to the truth and still very present ravages of racism–that opened eyes to the systems still in place perpetuating daily the vast detriment that positions of privilege have birthed–began while the world sat in quarantine…hibernating, if you will, within the bounds of one giant em dash. We had the time–to pay attention, to look inward, to be unsettled by our own truths (well, as a white woman, I can only speak for my own truths), and to determine how to move forward. We had the time, without excuse, to witness, to listen, and to learn from this most difficult and complex stanza (one new to so many, but for others a repeated refrain they’ve known for years). We had the time to take the breath offered by the em dash of quarantine and to actively set forth to do more, to make change. That moment, that em dash, was gifted with intent by no Earthly poet because we are after all called to live this life in love. That love is not in name only nor can it thrive if we keep it blindfolded. This call requires each of us to act in love and that includes challenging systems that deny humanity. We needed a pause, a reset, to see this…to feel this…to live into this.

If I’ve learned anything from the stanza of this past year, I’ve learned the value of intentionality…of knowingly creating space to pause, observe, take a breath and move forward. This em dash intentionality is true in all aspects of my life–whether I’m examining if my actions speak loudly enough to my beliefs or whether I’m considering ways to spend more time making time for friends and family without the burden of school clouding my vision and my heart.

As we leave 2020, I am eager for the period that will close the verse, full stop, but I also don’t want to burn to ashes the pages containing the year, leaving them to scatter to the winds. The lines and stanza of 2020, if the struggle is to be worth anything, must color those yet to be written in 2021–so that we can be better, so we can exist in some form of gratitude for the days to come (even the crappy ones), so that we can ensure the year of too much doesn’t win. I won’t carry every line, every image, every mark of punctuation everyday, it would be too heavy. But “the mist” that Juan Felipe Herrera speaks of will linger as a reminder of all I’ve gained even in the leanest and cruelest of days.

(Also this…I love this poem as we enter a new year…“Oceans” by Juan Ramon Jimenez)

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.

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.