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)

 

 

concession

Well, in order to preserve my sanity and that of my family, I’m changing the rules of this blog challenge–but by all means, there will still be king cake at the end. Despite recognizing days ago that this would have to happen, I hesitated to rearrange the challenge at all. In my weird brain, I had convinced myself that I would be letting people down (you know, like the 6 people who read this blog with any regularity–I was worried about them…). And even though I wasn’t really enjoying the writing after 12-14 hour days at school (difficult days at school) and even though I knew I needed to take care of myself first, I couldn’t bring myself to jeopardize the streak.

And then a good friend asked me who made the rules in the first place.

Yep, I made those rules so I could change those rules and it would be just fine. I could give myself a couple of more days off in the week without lessening the value of the work (actually, the work will probably get better). I could, quite simply take care of myself without having to answer to anybody else in doing so. And, if I am being honest, I do not give myself permission to do that often enough. The very same good friend also asked me to list the things that I do just for myself. I could not produce a rich and diverse list in return. Sure I could think of things like working out and writing and my Wednesday night class. But the working out has to happen at 5am at a sacrifice to sleep. And the writing, while most nights I love it, has also been crafted at a sacrifice to my family and to just giving my brain a break. In that moment, I realized a couple of things: First, I need to seek more ways to do things just for myself and (this is critical) not feel guilty for that. Second, I will be a better human for having done so.

So, the Carnival season blog a day challenge rules are changing. Instead of one day off per week, I’m taking three. And if I am traveling for work, I won’t force the issue. If a blog happens, great and if not, also okay. No king cake will be consumed between now and Mardi Gras Day. As long as I continue to maintain a regular writing habit between now and Mardi Gras Day, the king cake will be mine then and not before.

Excited to write with less pressure for a daily requirement. Excited to enjoy the process a bit more. Excited to take care of myself.

(Day 27)

selfish?

I lost control of the remote and all television viewing when I married my husband twenty years ago. The birth of my kiddos only compounded this situation. In order for me to possess the power to decide what I will watch, I pretty much either have to be at home by myself or the last one awake (which is why I’m only on Season 3 of Downton Abbey with so many other seasons of so many other shows in an ever growing queue of  “to be viewed”). And I’m not going to lie, what the people in this household decide to watch remains questionable at best. To justify that statement, I should mention that currently these boys (lead by my husband) are flipping between some station with a guy selling vintage coins and a reality television show depicting people who go around the country in an effort to haggle and then buy other people’s junk. If somehow something else were to be added to the mix, I can almost positively promise it will be the Golf channel.

Riveting, right?

I wish I could say this lineup was an anomaly, except this happens just about every single Monday night with the remaining nights of the week reflecting equally debatable viewing options. Some days my lack of voice in these matters bothers me and pushes me ever closer to ensuring some kind of “she-shed” becomes a reality. However, at this point in my life, I often find myself grateful not to have to make another decision in the day. Honestly, with the way my days have been going, I would be happy not to turn the television on at all. I would be happy to enjoy the quiet, to find some stillness, to enjoy the peace of solitude. A few months ago, while out of town at a conference, I settled into a quiet hotel room where no one needed anything from me and where I fully intended to wield the remote without contest. Except, I didn’t. I didn’t watch a single show. I wrote and read and rested and my sense of well-being was restored.

My days are typically punctuated with noise, chatter, questions, complaints, jokes, laughter, and more. I’m not griping about that because I am grateful for my job, my students, my colleagues and my family. I am only noting that quiet moments in this span of my life are few and far between. I am constantly in a state of problem solving, constantly in response mode, constantly in motion. Spending the last couple of hours before falling asleep for the night in a state of calm, quiet relaxation seems to be a bit of a luxury or even a guilty pleasure. As a mom, those quiet hours do not exist when I am at home, and I struggle to find a means to give them to myself despite knowing that I am a better human when I have had this time to decompress. Life as we live it moves too fast for this kind of pause, yet I live in recognition of the necessity of it.

And so I guess my realization in this is that I need to spend less time frustrated over terrible television, feeling ignored or secondary, and more time placing my own self first and seeking even just a few moments of solitude. Even if that solitude has the ambient noise of someone proclaiming the value of mint condition coins…

(Day 25…I’m tired…I literally typed up my resignation from this challenge…and then erased it and wrote this instead…why don’t I do this blog challenge in the summer for goodness’ sake?!)

cloudless

Today was cloudlessly perfect, crystal blue skies seemed to stretch endlessly. And this day lulled me with its pristine beauty.

If only for a few minutes, I escaped my standard Sunday stress and simply enjoyed the sneak peek of spring. It was in those relaxing moments, I remembered that “winter” (well, “sort of winter”–we don’t really have “real winter” here) would soon be tempered by the mild breeze of spring which would eventually settle into the sweltering days of summer. I remembered that no matter how long these cold, damp months linger, eventually it will be festival season in Southeast Louisiana which will be followed by the sno-balls and freedoms of summer.

This pause from my norm offered the clarity that the roadblocks and worry of today are as temporary as the seasons. But also fleeting are all of the good things of my life and my life itself. And in this brief flicker of time, I choose where and how I spend my focus. I choose whether I will waste it on negativity, stress and drama or if, instead, I will turn my gaze upon goodness, uplift and making a difference. I choose whether I will seek the best in the humans of this world or whether I will close myself off from understanding that different doesn’t mean wrong. I can choose to instead know that different grants an opportunity to grow in understanding, to learn, to engage. I choose whether I will become an extension of kindness and love or if I will become voice of anger and anguish. I choose whether I will recognize my smallness in a world with problems bigger than mine or if I will give into the selfish desire to always center myself.

I choose.

That is an empowering sentence…a charge and responsibility that I don’t take lightly.

When I was sick, I couldn’t just choose to be well, but I could choose how I was going to live each day. I wasn’t always successful. Some days I was so afraid that even holding conversation felt impossible. Some days I couldn’t see straight and felt at the bottom of the ocean yet still sinking. The hardest times dim the light that shines on just how many choices we have. But I always knew it was in my power to dig deep and flip the script.

Now that the days of spinning and fluctuating hearing are mostly behind me, I don’t have such a powerful force to fight against…just myself. Being mindful that the choice of how I take on each day is critical in maintaining perspective, balance and joy. Grateful for a moment be drawn into this realization on this gorgeous day.

(Day 24–note to self: in next year’s King Cake writing challenge–taking off Wednesdays and one day of the weekend is advisable!!)

Motivation in around 300 words

At first, I thought it was the king cake that kept me motivated. Then, posting each blog on social seemed to hold me further accountable. What could be a more powerful incentive than the forces of friends/family and food?

My students.

Some of my students started reading my blog. And it is just the best validation for why I believe English teachers need to be writing for themselves…and in some way, large or small, sharing that writing. My kids are saying things like “I can totally tell when you are excited to be writing and when you are just doing it because you promised you would. It makes me feel like a teacher-like when you can tell we haven’t done our best too.”

It’s the reciprocity that matters, I think.

They see me working hard and being vulnerable by posting work publicly even when it isn’t my best. And I know better what it feels like to go home exhausted with loads of responsibilities and still have to find a way to sound coherent on the page.

Even better than that, they know me as a writer which is only fair given that I know that side of them so well.

I also feel in a very real way that they will know if I miss a night. I wouldn’t just be letting myself down, I would be letting them down. And that is the accountability that keeps me going. My students traveling this journey with me is far better than any slice of king cake at the end. What we have gained along the way far exceeds that delight!

(Day 23–short entry because, well, I got to chaperone Winter Formal tonight)

Revive

In the last few weeks, I’ve allowed myself to become wildly overwhelmed–in part by the stress of running a school but moreso by something a bit elusive. What began as a low rumble of productive internal doubt, soon became a hurricane of hesitation–of blinding uncertainty and insecurity. A little self doubt typically keeps me in check, so I permit its presence. Questioning my decisions before they are final both at school and at home just seems to reflect careful reasoning. And this works.

Most of the time.

Trouble stirred recently because at some point even with this very self-aware process, I spiraled and before I could recognize what was happening, I was deep–really deep. I’m guessing this place is familiar to many. It’s the place where the refrain “you’re not good enough” echoes from the far reaches until it is all you can hear. It’s the place where every turn seems to drive deeper into the wilderness of withering confidence. It’s the place of helplessness, yet at the same time you will swear you are doing everything you can to help yourself. It’s the place where wallowing becomes the way instead of the won’t.

And you don’t even sense your citizenship to this place–that’s the insidious part. There was no intentional journey or paperwork to fill out, you just weren’t paying attention. It feels like “this is what life has become.” People can reassure you, but you’re so deep that it doesn’t resonate…they are just words without weight…the impact despite the intent.

Yet the words linger. Reminders of what you once knew yourself to be.

Funny story about this…one of my better skills is helping people (kids mostly) recognize when they’ve reached this destination and helping to support them as they unwind the spiral of negative self-talk…helping them harness the buoyancy of their spirit. Yet, somehow it seems, and not surprisingly really, I am pretty abysmal at helping myself in the same way. Goodness, even Dante needed Virgil to get through Hell and Purgatory. I needed another voice…a guide.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Somewhere around a week ago, my youngest son shared some memoir work he had composed in ELA. In this collection of pages was a half sheet of revision notes. On this page at some point he misspelled the word “Revise” and he wrote:

“Revive”

And I thought, I should help him see his mistake. And then I thought, wait a second, revive is a perfect word because isn’t that what revision does in the first place–it revives the work.

And then, because I’m an English teacher, I thought of Eliot’s Prufrock and his “visions and revisions” and how the indecision of it all paralyzed his entirety.

And then, I realized what I was doing wrong. A light came on, my vision was restored and I knew what needed to be done. It was time to revise my thinking and my acting in a way that would revive my spirit and in doing so renew my purpose. This wasn’t about changing other people. This was about the work I needed to do for myself. You know, the work we never want to take the time to do…because it is so much easier to make our inner mess someone else’s fault…that work.

I had to realize and own yet again that I cannot control the choices my students make, though I can guide them. I cannot control everything that will happen in the school day despite planning for it. I cannot control every action of every being and while I can try to control things in my house, inevitably, it is still going to be sort of a disorganized mess and my kids will still talk back to me from time to time. None of these things are necessarily failures on my part (okay, maybe the messy house, but that is a lifelong struggle and my husband knew this when he married me!), but I had been taking sole credit for too much that wasn’t really completely mine in the first place. I needed to unburden myself from this weight but had no idea how to do that in the midst of the busy-ness of life.

But to revise is to step away from your work so that you can return refreshed and ready to breathe new life into it–to revive it.

~~~~~~~~~~~

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My step away was booked months ago before I even knew I would need it. It involved leaving both my school and my family with more going on than I should have left behind in order to attend NCTE. I wan’t sure I should go. I nearly canceled several times in the weeks leading up to my departure.  I felt selfish. While I knew this conference and the people here would remind me of my “teacher/administrator why”, I would be leaving behind a lot of people who rely on me to be there for them.

Except, I hadn’t really been there for them because I was a bit lost in my own stuff. This trip would not be selfish. This trip would restore me to the people I know and love. This trip would center my focus and energize me to move forward. This trip would give me time to reflect and to be still as well as time to interact and be social. This trip presented a shift in my physical location but also stood to present a shift in my mental location as well.

I had to go. Here’s why…

as the plane

lifted above the clouds—

weightless—free,

visions of magnificence, of blessing

struck awe

 

sunsets are the stuff of the everyday—

skyscapes from the ground,

majesty beyond humanity’s ability—

a gift—a reminder

all we have, all we don’t deserve

 

as the plane

lifted above the clouds,

a new perspective dawned

at dusk—unusual timing—yet not;

a sunset from a new angle

glowing through the grey

 

inhale, exhale

—release—

sparks of revival glow in those clouds

igniting the path

to myself

my truth

my life.

Commencement

On the evening of Friday, May 17, my seniors graduated. Commencement is a pretty common event yet I always find myself inspired and moved as I watch another group of young people venture off toward their future. This year was a bit different as this was the first group to graduate since I became Head of High School and I was also asked to deliver a commencement address. Since Friday, several people have asked me to share my words from that night, so I figured this would be the easiest way to make that happen. Below are those words–certainly, they are more significant to my kiddos and in the moment that it was delivered. Regardless, here it is…

“I love graduation night at CES. Friends and family outside of this community struggle to really understand this about me. Last year, for example, I was too sick to attend graduation and in the depths of my disappointment over my absence, I turned where anyone else would for comfort…to social media. I just knew that if I were to share my heartache over missing this special event that at the very least my teacher friends from other schools in other places would get it…they would understand. Except, most didn’t. In fact, many of them congratulated me on getting out of attending the ceremony, saying things like “the kids won’t even know that you aren’t there” and “there will be another graduation next year, don’t worry” All I could say was “You just don’t get it.” And they didn’t. I didn’t try to explain that things here are different or unique. They wouldn’t have gotten the weight of that either because our “essence” as Zoe referred to it in her Seniors Speak is far too intangible to fill a pithy Facebook response and worth far more than any number of likes, loves, thumbs up it might receive. There wasn’t enough space to express that when these young people graduate after spending so much time with us in our small, quaint setting that they are not just students saying goodbye, rather they are family moving away from home—and graduation has become a sort of formalized celebration of that bond before they depart and look to the next exciting moments in their lives. When graduates cross this stage, it means something to each member of this faculty because we have an investment in the lives of each of these young people that is made richer because of the size of our school, for though our community may be small, its heartbeat is mighty. Every graduation counts here. Every kid matters. These young people seated before you and all who have graced this stage before them have taken up a residence in my heart and in the hearts of all on this campus and while they leave us physically, there they will remain.

I consider it a great honor to have the opportunity to speak this evening as I stand in awe of this particular group of graduates. Mr. Morvant referenced them as “Living Stones” of CES the other night at our Academic Awards and while I’m sure his intent was for us to consider St. Peter, I couldn’t help but think of a line from the U2 song “Ordinary Love” —“the sea throws rocks together/But time leaves polished stones.”  While these lyrics stray from Mr. Morvant’s purpose, I also think they typify and exemplify so much about this class. To me, these lyrics consider the power of refinement an environment, even one that is tumultuous at times, can have. These lyrics also speak to the power of the company you keep in that environment—company that is not always your choice but because you share space you are being shaped by each other every single day in ways you may not even recognize—Yet, as a result of this closeness, there is  also a need to figure out how to respect the differences in those that surround you without losing what makes you the individual you are. After all, the rocks being tossed in the sea would become far less interesting if they were all polished to look identical.

So, if you don’t already know it, this is a group of strongly opinionated young people who had to work rather hard in order to learn how to share those convictions without insult or injury and how to hear opinions different from their own without judgement and clearly disgusted facial expressions. They had to learn how to have difficult conversations without it degrading into argument and vitriol. Honestly, the adults in this world have a great deal to learn from the process these kids have endured. When they believe in something, they are fiercely protective of it and that is commendable. That is how you end up with an Equality Club and a GSA; that is how you end up with a thriving golf team and a student council that fosters activities on par with schools 3 and 4 times our size; that is how you end up with costume design and a newly popular student vestry; that is how you end up with 17 young men and women some terrified, some exhilarated but all willing to stand up at Seniors Speak and share not just their learning, but their truth.

It is in fact a process of refinement. And I think part of what makes that refinement so difficult is the call to love. This greatest commandment, this call to love our neighbor is daunting because sometimes it is the people in closest proximity that can become the most difficult to love, the most difficult to forgive, the most difficult to really see because we feel we know them so well. But as we heard in the reading tonight, love “bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Corinthians 13:7-8)

These polished stones seated on this stage tonight have learned together the weight of these words as they have trekked the journey of these four years in community. Their years here while often full of laughter and silliness, coordinated dress up days and themed get togethers, have not always been so simple and this call to love has gotten cloudy and complicated at times, as it does for all of us–yet despite the seemingly enigmatic challenges and the time it may have taken to unwind them, these young people have always abided, they have always found a way to rise above, they have always sought to work it out and I believe that they will continue to do so in their lives even now as they go their separate ways. They will bring that goodness and the understanding that the single story, what we think we know, is never, not even once, the entire story, they’ll bring that to new environments, to new people they have yet to meet because that foundation is strong—because they worked to build it. Because this is the sheen of their polish. And in doing that they will absolutely become “Living Stones” of Christ Episcopal School. They will carry forward the love that was fostered in them and by them and in doing so, I hope, I expect the world will be a better place for it.

As an aside, as our Salutatorian and I discussed speeches this week, she told me my speech would be great as long as I didn’t include any poetry, and I tried not to include any, I really did, but alas, here we are and I am definitely going to quote some poetryJBut it fits, I promise…

Elizabeth Alexander in her poem “Praise Song for the Day” writes the following words that I believe speak to this call to love perfectly and also to the call that I repeat more often than any of my students cares to hear that “words matter”

“We encounter each other in words, words

spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,

words to consider, reconsider…

 

What if the mightiest word is love?

 

Love beyond marital, filial, national,

love that casts a widening pool of light,

love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

 

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

 

praise song for walking forward in that light”

Each of these young people seated before you have faced at one time or another seemingly insurmountable odds, moments that have forced them to make decisions far beyond the wisdom of their years, moments that presented challenges they may not have felt equipped to face, moments that required courage they didn’t know they possessed, yet here they are tonight on this immense occasion, not simply having survived but having overcome. Having overcome it all together. They are here tonight ready to face what the world will offer them because that offering while sometimes brilliant and generous, will not always be pretty, will not always be kind, will not always be an extension of love. Yet, they will leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge and confidence that they have what it takes to meet with adversity, hardship, crisis and to tough it out until the polishing is complete and their sheen has returned only now with more sparkle. They leave here tonight, I hope, with the knowledge that their CES family is always here to shelter, to support, to celebrate, to sing their praises. When I look at this class that is what I see—I see strength, perseverance, and a willingness to melt the skeleton and reshape when necessary. A willingness to extend love and grace—and hopefully that love will cast “a widening pool of light.” You have all taught me so much about what it means to be a human in this world. And for that, I am so grateful to each of you. Your absence here as you move forward will be noticeable and you will most certainly be missed—and not because you ran clubs or helped set up chairs, not because you made good grades or won awards—you will be missed simply because of who you are, because you are a part of this school family.

Just don’t lose sight of the fact that as you greet every new and exciting moment that you have the opportunity to consider and reconsider your words, don’t lose sight that love is the mightiest of those words and that today –every day “any thing can be made, any sentence begun” You guys are walking forward into such bright futures with so much light, but don’t forget that “we all make choices” and that it is your job to bring light with you as well.

Your mark here is indelible, Congratulations Class of 2019. We are so proud of you.”