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.

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)

 

 

flicker

“For some things/ there are no wrong seasons./ Which is what I dream of for me.”

–from “Hurricane” by Mary Oliver

Hope flickers in the darkness.

Yet,somehow, when we need it most, we see everything but that light. We sink into seeing only the misery that surrounds us instead of squinting to see the light of hope in the distance. The choice remains within us to live into hope…to anticipate miracles that may arise in any single moment…to believe that there is more to come because right now is only temporary and each day brings a new promise.

In the toughest times, it is hard to take ownership of that choice.

In the midst of the most difficult days of my inner ear illness, when I thought I would have to quit my job and give up driving…when I thought my hearing would be lost forever and my kids would never remember who I “used to be”…it was in those terrifying days that for the first time in my life, I lost hope. I felt like a burden to all around me and I saw no chance of healing. For the first time in my life, I sank into the darkness and elected to remain there. Anything else felt too difficult, felt impossible. I could see no way out, could find no silver lining, could not understand anything beyond my own suffering.

And all I can say looking back on that is this: in denying myself access to hope, I denied myself healing of mind and spirit. In succumbing to the quicksand of my despair, I cheated myself out of moments, days and weeks of my life. I was waiting for someone else to throw me a life preserver or to reach out a hand and make it easier all the while missing the point that I had the power to save myself. I could not heal my illness, but I could in fact heal my heart.

Rediscovering that flickering light was no easy path to walk. Learning to trust it again took even longer. Walking forward in that light brings rest to my most difficult days now and also brings gratitude for the journey to its reclamation.

(Day 21–I’m exhausted…this is short and not what I had wanted it to become…I suspect a revision of this will turn into a future blogpost)

creativity exonerated

“Hope is always accompanied by the imagination, the will to see what our physical environment seems to deem impossible. Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”

Jericho Brown, The Kenyon Review Conversations

“Let the world we dream about be the world we live in now.”

from “Livin’ It Up On Top”, Hadestown

So, it was a long day. Friday shouldn’t make you earn the weekend the way this day demanded I dig in and persevere. My attitude shift from Monday that brought lightness of being and joy to much of my week wavered under the weight of the stress. I found myself losing my breath again, feeling exhausted.

Yet, in the midst of all of that, the two quotes above flitted about my thoughts lending hope and injecting energy.

Being a creative person and seeing possibilities when other, sometimes more practical, people mostly see roadblocks…being a creative person driven by the hope and the belief that more often than we realize, the impossible can be imbued with the spark of life…can lead to a bit of a frustrating existence. The litany of naysaying often easily exceeds the necessary check of optimistic idealism. The constant defense of what goodness will come when we just try the new seemingly unattainable possibility is exhausting. But the hope that is intertwined with this creativity, even and especially when called into question, rejuvenates and restores the spirit so that intensity of vision remains in focus.

As frustrating as my optimistic creativity can be for those that have to work and live with me, it instills in me the hope that drives me forward…that drives progress at my school and in my home forward. It makes me who I am and is the catalyst of any goodness I might be able to offer this world. I refuse to apologize for it any more in the way I used to feel compelled to. And honestly, on a day like today that is filled with demanding stressors, it is this creative hope-filled vitality that impels me forward and that allows me to continue dreaming. (It also doesn’t hurt that today is Friday…)

~hope~

The college admissions process, if I am being honest, is a destructive force in the life of high school students (I have other language for this but it’s not quite appropriate here). The urgency for students to make the very best grades in only the most challenging courses available hijacks their high school careers, and in many cases their quality of life and mental health. Students feel burdened to focus solely on a journey toward acceptance into college rather than on a course of self discovery; they are trained before they ever venture through the doors of high school that earning the highest grades supersedes learning for the sake of learning; high school becomes a means to an end rather than a place to dive in and truly engage in exploring curiosity. Teachers work hard to battle against this disruption in the educational lives of our kids, one that owns the potential to strip the true value of learning from their high school experience.

As a high school English teacher and principal, I could express concern for days on this subject. And not because my students are delicate flowers who can’t face the challenge–quite honestly, they persevere through it in a way most adults could not manage. My concern comes from the knowledge of what their high school careers could look like and the distorted version they are forced to live.

But this position is not the point of this blog…this is the “positivity project” after all! And the title of this blog is “hope”…so where is the hope, you are wondering? It is with the kids. They are always the hope.

Today, I was working with a senior on her college essay–guiding her through the process of maintaining her voice while revealing the best of herself. It was a delightful conversation–one that allowed her to maintain total control of her words and thoughts so that her essay absolutely represented her. She chose to write about a problem she would like to solve; she chose to write about civil discourse. Okay, so it is a given that anyone choosing the challenge of modeling civil discourse in our divisive and often vitriolic world and anyone willing to encourage others to participate has my attention. But the fact that this 18 year old is so driven by the import of this challenge delivers hope to my heart and reminds me why we do the hard work. It is important to note at this point that civil discourse is a sincere concern of hers and not just some concoction of desperation for admission to college. And her words reveal that:

Before I didn’t grasp how allowing vulnerability and discomfort into a conversation could solve the problem at hand. I didn’t realize that they were valuable and essential things I should embrace. I didn’t realize that what made me uneasy was the fundamental element that makes conversation helpful.”

Hope.

Because if everyone understood this and lived into it, the world would be a far more unified place to exist–people would live in community rather than in polarity. Rather than seeking means to always be in the right, we would spend more time listening, considering, understanding–even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it means sharing in an honest and meaningful way. We would come to conversations in love rather than hate. We would be better humans.

Hope.

Because she will make this world a better place. Because she already has. Because if we listen carefully, this legion of teens we are torturing with a grueling college admissions process will show us the way. They are already leading us in the right direction. Let’s give them the credit they deserve, swallow our pride, listen and act on their guidance.

Hope.

In her words, “ I know that if society wants to reach true productivity there has to be a constant, earnest conversation. No loopholes..can be tolerated so those engaged are dedicated to working for the common good and not their personal interests. 

I don’t know where I will end up after college or what profession I’ll venture into because I am unsure about a great deal of things. However…I recognize that I have a passion and a gift for encouraging other people to listen and for exemplifying how to discuss respectfully, and I have no intention of wasting it.”

 

 

 

Light

Some days are armed with the power of transformation–arriving as ordinary as any other yet abounding with redemptive reminders that distract our gaze from its habitual focus. Some days extinguish the anguish of negativity, doubt, and worry that heavy the burden we shoulder and we walk into a new day renewed.

It has been a difficult few months and my boots have become weighty. I trudge from day to day (with a smile across my face, regardless)  knowing that this sensation, this looming shadow is ephemeral in nature. It is not the end. There will be more. There will be goodness. There is still love. But sometimes, it can be hard to keep my eyes above the waves. Sometimes, it feels easier just to give in to the shadow, to shroud the possibilities of positivity in the obscurity and confusion of doubt.

Today, though, there was a moment that changed all of that. Today was quite possibly the most perfect Jazz Fest day one could experience–the weather, as friendly and laid back as the people, welcomed us serenely as we strolled from stage to stage and from food stand to food stand. It was living into this day, however, rather than simply letting it happen to me that has reformed my vision, my heart, my head. Tonight, I am new. I am ready. I am grateful. Tomorrow will be met with fresh perspective.

This shift ignited with a moment I’ve witnessed countless times in my Jazz Fest experience…the moment when the Economy Hall Jazz tent erupts from seated passivity into the undulating zeal of a Second Line. They marched; they strutted; they sashayed; they paraded; they danced. Some with eyes closed, others with eyes wide; there were smiles stretched wide, yet some others with brows furrowed as music overwhelmed their being; some with open hands waving high, others clasping an umbrella or napkin or hat for flair. I’ve come to expect this scene–honestly, if it wasn’t there, it wouldn’t feel like Jazz Fest at all. Yet today, somehow it appeared differently to me.

Today, the people became the poem—each moving individual a unique line in a much larger piece, creating, contributing to the rhythm of the whole, breathing life into its body. Each moving individual providing some sort of punctuation to guide the reading–a full stop in mid motion for one, a quick pause for another and some, whose fluid movements never ceased, overflowed their line and rolled right to the next. Enjambment made physical. Yet, all together, they composed a singular poem…proverbial poetry in motion…and it was stunning.

As I watched this diverse group parade, I considered that on any given day these people would have absolutely no reason to stand next to each other let alone dance together. These people were so visibly varied that they might not have much in common (or at least they might assume so–we tend to lose sight of the commonality of humanity in the face of obvious differences), they might not agree or see eye to eye. They might argue. They might even fear what they don’t fully understand about each other and never strike up a conversation at all. They might come to dislike each other. They might never have danced with each other.

Sometimes words just complicate a simple existence, you know? We feel they are steering us toward truth when in fact they are simply rearranging facts to make us feel more comfortable with the “truths” we create. We feel we are using them wisely when in fact we might be using them divisively instead. We fail to employ them to build others up because it is simpler to destroy. We fail to ask questions and instead assert assumptions.

Today, in the presence of music, words weren’t necessary and the people moved with unity–uniquely dancing their own Second Line but doing so together…respecting differences, even admiring them and thriving as a result. Today, I saw what the world can be when we tear down language of “them” and “us” and instead, embrace the dialogue of “we” and “us”. Today, I saw a vision of the beauty that arises when we simply let those around us be themselves without judgement because we are too busy being ourselves to find fault. Today, I saw the possibility of living together harmoniously in a world that seems to fight with fervor against such a dream. Today, I saw hope and it overwhelmed my heart.

A single moment taken in, considered. Renewal granted. Replenishment.

Light in the darkness exists, if we simply take the time to seek it out.

endurance

There’s this section in Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, “Jerusalem,” that lingers…sort of always there, but every so often pronouncing its presence with a sense of passion.

“I’m not interested in

who suffered the most.

I’m interested in

people getting over it.”
There is beauty here that is simple, pure and I think often misunderstood. My students sometimes see these opening lines as insensitive…lacking in sympathy, empathy, human kindness. But what is missed in that interpretation is that she doesn’t write that she isn’t concerned for those who have suffered. She is simply less concerned with the misguided competition for who has endured more and is more intensely intrigued by the human process of getting over it–the ability to move on…without harboring hate. Because in the “getting over it” the substance of the human soul and the intensity of perseverance, the will to not just survive but to flourish becomes evident. The getting over it is the example, right? It is the inspiration to the rest of us, the paragon we look to in the midst of our own suffering. Without that inspiration, it’s hard to believe we can surmount the struggle. The “people getting over it” embody the hope that we need to carry on. (and when we persist toward healing, we in turn become that hope for others…a pretty cool cycle, right?)
Later in the poem she writes, “Each carries a tender spot:/something our lives forgot to give us.” Suffering isn’t unique to the individual, rather it is a quality of humanity. We all suffer to varying degrees (we all carry “a tender spot”), it is what we do with that pain that makes the difference. Do we choose to become bitter? To hate? To live in anger and frustration? Or do we choose to forgive? To extend grace? To live in acceptance and hope?
It isn’t always easy to envision a path that leads to the “getting over it”…and sometimes even once we locate that path, it is rather thorny. And sometimes the path requires more energy than we possess in the moment, so we sit down and rest…not wallow, just rest…so that we can unearth the strength, the courage to continue toward overcoming.
The poem ends with the hopeful line: “It’s late but everything comes next.”
In this world that swells with selfish selections…that swirls with negativity and heartache, fear and hatred…this line fills me up. It is late. But nothing is over. There is more to come. We haven’t seen it yet.
Let’s get over the tender spots and marvel at those around us who do the same. Let’s remember that hate doesn’t have to be our answer when wounded. Let’s keep our eyes on what comes next. Let’s live in community, in forgiveness, in a world where getting over it, healing is more interesting than some strange competition over who hurts more. We all hurt. At some point, we will all hurt. Let’s embrace our humanity and rise above that struggle to live our lives with meaning and intent.
Because that is, after all, the blessing of each new day.
(Day 44…loved revisiting this poem)

empowerment

Words, language, have become a means of survival.

Air, water, food, shelter, words. Sincerely, their necessity has reached this level.

The easy answer here in uncovering the meaning behind this dramatic assertion is that books have saved me…allowed me an escape…or that writing has…but it isn’t that simple or that obvious, because for a long time, when I was sick and dizzy, reading and writing were not the friendliest options. However, there are realizations in life that shine a light to burn off the fog that has settled in around you…the fog that hinders your vision…not allowing you to see anything else until you recognize first the truth of what has blinded you. Sometimes you get lost and can’t see up from down or details of the world around you.  Then the moment arrives when understanding clarifies the rest and the fog becomes mist which becomes transparency.

So, I have come to learn that when my language portrays victimization (whether resulting from life long struggles with anxiety or my more recent struggles with inner ear disability), that I sink swiftly into a self induced chasm of resignation. When my language falters under the weight of whatever ordeal I am suffering, I surrender any power or control I have in the situation and I become nothing more than a sacrifice to my circumstances. However, when I shift the syntax…when I choose words that reflect the strength of a survivor…suddenly, I repossess my strength, my courage, my vibrance. When I look at a situation through the lens of accomplishment rather than through the fog of defeat, it may not change my circumstances, but it certainly alters my perception of them. This isn’t simple stuff. The words, this “survivor speak” may feel hollow at first…futile, for they are just words after all. Eventually, with diligence, the moment arrives when they aren’t just words any more because what once felt empty has not only  become your reality, but transformed your experience of it.

In the same way that words can be employed to tear down and demean or to reconstruct and elevate others in our lives, they can be engaged the same way in our own.

100 word challenge part two

Meet Gingersnap. Nine pounds of Terrier mischief & charm housing nothing but disdain for this blog challenge. Where she once spent her evenings lulled to sleep by scratches behind her ears, a computer has taken up residence. The hands that once offered her comfort, now frenetically strike keys instead. You would think that after 40 days, she would’ve given up…that she wouldn’t still be battering my arms, begging insistently for a redirection of my attention. You would think. Except, I think she is only more fervent now than she was in the beginning. A perfect example of a hope that perseveres.

(Day 40!! If only this were Lent, my challenge would be over!! Still many more blogs to write…hoping next week brings me more time and focus. This week has been tough!)

praise

I would venture to say that I read Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “Praise Song for the Day” once a week, without fail. Of all the poems in the world, why read and reread that one in particular, you might ask? And, you know, that is a really valid question. There are so many poems that move my mind or spirit toward thinking and imagining and pushing beyond, but this one is on regular repeat. Always for different reasons, but essentially because in some way or another, it continues to instill in me a sense of hope for humanity. It portrays the strength we can muster when injustice needs to be called out and then Alexander pushes us a bit more and offers up a praise song for it: “Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day./Praise song for every hand-lettered sign,/the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.” This is our responsibility. To be grateful for this gift of being in the struggle and finding ways to speak out against it…even when it is difficult. Even when we feel threatened. Even and especially when we speak out for others, with others, who are struggling more than we are…because we can, and we should. Because that is who we are called to be in the moments when justice fails. Because we are granted the freedom to do so.

And then there is this, “We encounter each other in words, words/spiny or smooth, whispered or declaimed,/words to consider, reconsider.” This idea of encountering “each other in words” steals my attention with each reading and reminds me that what I say, in every situation, no matter who is around to hear the utterance, bears significance, creates impact. As a teacher, I have to remember that no matter how powerless I may feel, in a room full of kids, I have power. To wield words carelessly can alter the course of a young person’s day, can fray self esteem, but when considered cautiously can instill confidence, encourage perseverance. I can’t make decisions for my kids, but I can select language and words that allow them to feel able to do the work even when it is difficult…I can choose words that respect their humanity. And the truth of this extends beyond the classroom. When I pause to think, to take a moment to empathize even briefly, before issuing words, I can take the time to craft the statements that reflect the kind of person I really want to be. Am I perfect with this? Of course not. Hence, this poem is a regular read because, as I tell my students, I am not above reminders!

But really, it is this that keeps me coming back to this poem…

“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.”
Love and light and hope and gratitude swirl in these lines and fill me up with a joy in
and a vision of what can be…if we only remind ourselves to be the people we were
created to be…if we only remind ourselves of the praise song for who we are and who we
have the capacity to become, together.
(Day 29!)