microcosm

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

propulsion

Footsteps–

Metered, methodical

propelled by necessity rather

than spring or even verve.

 

Purposeful–

Not a shuffle or saunter

but serious, maybe

tinged with resignation.

 

Carrying–

Weight beyond

her body as the sieve

of her mind, too fine, clings.

 

Progress?

Maybe…or maybe

that’s her chosen belief because

if she admitted she were only

treading water, if she realized the depth

of the ocean below…then

drowning becomes reality, and

progress a myth.

 

(Day 26…I am nearly positive I am changing the rules on this blog challenge, adding another day or two off, but tonight there was this poem. Again, honoring my commitment to share the requirement that my poetry students share their poetry no matter how uncomfortable. Still a work in progress. Sharing anyway.)

really rough draft

As my poetry students begin diving into the real work of writing their own original poetry, it is time that I venture in the same direction. It is time to move away from simply admiring poetry and from shaping poetic prose, and into actually crafting poems myself. This is not comfortable territory for me, partly because I feel like I know who I am as a writer of prose-my voice is clear to me as I employ it and this grants me confidence. As a poet, I almost feel as though I’ve lost my voice or as though I am in the midst of some identity crisis. I don’t know what kind of poet I want to be or could become. Imposter syndrome possesses undeserved strength and takes over my mind convincing me that I should just not even bother to explore my poetic identity. It drowns out all of the rational writing advice I so freely give to students and persuades me to put the pencil down…even when I know better.

Today, my students read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “The Stolen Camera” and heard John Mayer’s song “3×5” and considered what it might mean to really see the world and hold those images only in our minds. Then, they went outside to find something in the natural world to truly take in…all the while knowing that they would be writing from this experience. In a quick write session after our time outside, I wrote the following lines after paying specific attention to two trees standing side by side, one dead and leafless and the other fully alive and overwhelmed by green foliage. This is truly a very rough draft, composed in maybe 8 minutes of class time and not edited since…sharing here is my way of reminding myself what this process will feel like for my students. A level of vulnerability is required when drafting writing and turning it in for feedback–in doing this we are essentially saying, “Here, let me pour myself across the page and you can then dissect my truth and tell me where I have been false” This is not easy work. But it is critical work. So, here is that untitled draft…

Barren brown branches stand strong,

though morosely self-aware—

right next door stands

another set of branches,

generously glorified by the green

leaves clinging in pride reveling

in their vitality.

 

Death and life—side by side

coexisting peacefully—

as though friends…

Unaware one should fear the other

Unaware the other is fueled by the one

 

—One eye…then the other

In closing the first, death

dominates the landscape in front of me.

In closing the other, life

blooms brilliantly verdant.

Looking through both eyes reveals

the truth of the world—

 

Not all is death.

Not all is life giving.

Both…together…side by side…

giving weight to the world—

balance to our existence—

an end to the beginning.

 

Shielding one from the other

is neither prevention nor protection.

Only loss.

 

(Day 16! Got home super late from a lovely night out but still managed to get this writing done!)

exchange

“Poems change landscapes rather than photograph them”

Jericho Brown 

I woke up yesterday morning absolutely elated about the prospect of returning to school. You might question this stance. I get that. After all, what sort of individual finds excitement in exchanging dreamy leisurely vacation days for weighty exhausting workdays? Maybe I should have felt grumpy about having to wake up early and wear real clothes and makeup, but this time, I simply couldn’t.

What I knew as I awoke that morning was that with the opening of the second semester also came the start of my semester long Poetry elective. This is a class that is altogether indulgent on my part. It is not a course that is steeped in technicality and terminology. It is not a course overwhelmed by analysis and singular right answers. I could teach that class, and kids would learn plenty, but they would miss the point.

My poetry class is more of an invitation, an entry point if you will.

I simply want my kids to fall in love with poetry. I want them to find themselves in poet’s lines and then to be willing to then put themselves on the page. In reading poetry, I want them to better understand the people of this world whose experiences differs from theirs–to recognize that just because someone else’s truth is different from their own, doesn’t make either truth wrong. It just makes them different–and we can respect difference. We can learn from difference and the brevity of poetry makes us more amenable to remembering that. I want them to witness, to understand what an arrangement of words can create not simply on a page, but within our spirit, within our minds, within our core-and to know that their words can do that for other people too. I want them to not just know but to feel that they are in fact poets. Will each of them be published? Probably not–half of them didn’t even sign up for the class intentionally…they just “lucked into” it:) Does that mean they aren’t poets? Not in my opinion. They will do the hard work, write themselves into the identity, and it will linger with them even after they leave my space.

How can I predict this lasting identity with certainty? Well, I suppose I cannot.

Except, for this.

As I was leaving work this evening after a ridiculously long day, I received a text from a former student. They wrote, “Decided I’m going to start writing every day and get back to working on my craft. Here’s a poem I wrote today, still not polished off but I wanted to share it with you:)” Okay, so a couple of things–First, these are the moments that make the long days worth the effort. Second, they attached screenshots of a draft of an incredible poem–one that wasn’t assigned or worth points, but was valued far more than any grade. There was a later text that included this as well, “…I don’t know, it felt good to write it out…”

What a lot of people are missing is that when we stick solely to the form and function …what we miss when we focus only on essays of analysis and everyone in the room reading the same teacher selected poem at the same time…what we lose when we introduce poetry with apology and corroborate the learned student philosophy that poetry is worthless or too complex is this opportunity for a kid to grow up and still be able to express themselves poetically if for no other reason than to get what is inside, out. That is a gift worth more than any A on any report card. When we allow ourselves (and our students) to find the poetry that moves us, to write about what matters to us, to discover our own poetic voice, our vision of this world is intensified and enriched. When we become poets and think poetically we have this constant unfailing gift of expression that can be wielded to heal, to sort through, to rejoice, to thank, to revel in the fact that when all else fails, words and our ability to arrange them will not.

What I knew as I awoke yesterday morning was that while some of my students might come to me not so sure about poetry, every single one of them would leave with the gift of it. What I knew was that my job this semester consisted of nothing more than opening the door and shepherding them through it…supporting them as they uncover their voices and choices…pointing out their triumphs and helping to clarify their confusion.

What I knew was that this semester would bring gifts to us all, and I could not wait to begin.

(Day Two of the King Cake writing challenge 2020–it’s nice when inspiration comes via text:) )

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.

~~~~~~~~~~~

IMG_4653.jpeg

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.

redeeming grief

In December of 2004, I lost a piece of myself that isn’t really retrievable. It was a week before Christmas and I found myself delivering my first child into a world he would never know. There will be no deep dive into the details of my pregnancy with Nathan and what determined our loss–if you want those, you can find them here.

This blog series is aimed at positivity so it seems odd I would bring this loss up at all, but I promise, it comes with good reason. You see, this year, Nathan, had he not been so sick, would be old enough to attend high school…and since I am a high school  principal and teacher, this weighs heavy. I walk around my school each day and I watch the antics of my freshmen–I hear the silly giggles, still tinged with junior high joy; I see the awkwardness settling as they begin to figure out high school; I reassure their parents that their kids will in fact mature and that they will find success. And I do all of this with a bit of an achey heart these days because I should be more deeply involved in this scenario than just the voice of principalian experience (and yes, I just made that word up…). I should be walking campus tickled by the laughter of my own son and his friends…I should be the parent in need of reassurance. In the midst of this realization, I felt my grief, which I have spent so long taming, rediscovering its roar.

Sadness was welling up and I was struggling to push it down.

This was so much harder than I thought it was going to be…and I spent the summer preparing for it!

But as we have wandered through these early weeks of school, I have learned to live my gratitude (which is what redeemed my grief all those years ago). These days, I walk around campus and instead of feeling betrayed by loss, I feel even closer to Nathan than usual. It is almost as if he is present with me just a little bit more each day. Instead of what ifs, I just feel grateful that I have the chance to work with, teach and help all of these kids who are as old as he should be. It is my gift back in some strange way.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life trying to figure out the purpose to my grief, and while I may spend the next 15 years trying to do the same, I have learned a few things. When I harness my grief to offer empathy to those who are suffering, the loss is less. When I view my students through the lens of “If this were Nathan, how would I want someone to treat him in this moment?”, I am a better teacher and human. When I transform grief into gratitude, my loss is vindicated. When Nathan feels alive in my heart, when I recognize that I am still his mom, his death doesn’t feel so vacant.

People question my sort of annoying optimism regularly. I feel like if they understood the loss and the illness and the sacrifices endured, those questions would dissolve. I have every reason to live angry with the world. I choose not to. That isn’t easy. It is a daily decision; it is an active lifestyle and it is imperfect. But optimism and seeking gratitude allow me to see greater purpose in the difficulty, in my life. It allows me to put myself on the side and to see beyond the periphery of the moment, of the wounds. It allows me to seek positivity each and everyday. It allows me to truly live.

And that is what Nathan would want most for his mom anyway. I can’t deny him that.

(and because I haven’t offered enough poems lately…here are a couple…“One Art” By Elizabeth Bishop“Lost” by David Waggoner (okay, for real, if you don’t click on this link you need to read this line–life changing! “…Wherever you are is called Here,/ And you must treat it as a  powerful stranger,”)

story stones

“Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness…

 

…You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

It is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you everywhere

like a shadow or a friend.”

–Naomi Shihab Nye—excerpted from “Kindness”

 

Tonight I witnessed something so beautiful that it called this poem to mind immediately. In this world we talk so much about the importance of choosing to be kind, but in this poem, Nye speaks to the interwoven relationship that empathy and kindness share.

Lately, I have been helping a dear friend facilitate a book study at her church. The book? Rachel Held Evans’InspiredThis book is a gorgeous testament to one woman’s struggle with the difficulties and questions she found in reading and understanding the Bible as a part of her faith life. Evans reveals through her vulnerability,  her creativity, and her honesty the mystery and frustration brought about in wrestling with faith. Yet she also carries her reader to the other side of the struggle in smart and sensitive ways. This book came to me when I needed it and sharing with others has been the greatest gift.

Over the last couple of weeks, we have been working through a chapter on Deliverance Stories…stories of times in the wilderness…stories of struggle that end with physical, emotional, mental salvation…stories of striving to know ourselves all over again. In order to really dive into this material, we couldn’t convene in conversation about Evans’ text or about the Biblical texts she references. In order to truly realize the weight and depth of these stories, we needed to reveal the truth of our own time spent in the wilderness. We needed to be vulnerable and to trust each other. Our small community needed to believe that our stories would be cherished and held as sacred.

That kind of bond is tough to create 4 weeks into a once a week study.

Yet, somehow, it happened. Tonight, I watched the women of this group share their deliverance stories in an incredibly bold and courageously honest way. I sat in awe of their willingness to not simply narrate their stories loosely but to extend insight and emotion that allowed us to walk the path with them…into the dark and disorienting wilderness and then out to the other side. I walked away from that room not only knowing each member of this small group better, but knowing myself better too.

Stories have this effect, when we are available to listen and to be present, and when we are willing to share our own honestly with those around us…when we feel we can let others in. Shared lived experiences create a sense of empathy within us that allows us to live more deeply into our community, to keep kindness more readily available. We are more likely to live in love and act in kindness when we have access to the knowledge that there is always more to the story than what we think we see, what we think we know. We are more likely to be better humans to each other, to celebrate each other when we empathize rather than judge, when we lean in rather than walk away.

Tonight was a reminder…of the comfort that can be found in community, of the value of story, of the nuances and shades of kindness. And I will walk into tomorrow carrying the lessons of humility, empathy, and honesty that inspired that reminder.

(Day 6 Positivity Project)

flowers and a poem

 

Today I bring you flowers and a poem. Tulips, above, and also, “Tulips” by A.E. Stallings.

Tomorrow, my students will consider both during notebook time. The tulips pictured above will be present to more fully illuminate the imagery that Stallings calls forth. Except, I want my students to witness more than wordplay and careful poetic craft this time. I want them to notice more than structure and form. I want them to do more than consider their personal impressions of these friendly flowers and to do more than write a few original lines in their presence.

All of these events will occur, but my purpose is larger than the classroom. This intentionality isn’t new for me. The kids have come to expect it.

My hope is for an epiphany that will walk out the door with them…something beyond reading and writing. Lofty? Sure. Impossible? Nope. I want to edge them closer to realizing how much more brilliant the world becomes when we pause to consider not only the words in a poem (though that helps), but also the simplicity of the the beauty that surrounds us everyday. I want them to employ their curiosity as a citizen of a world that is full of natural and created enchantments…to remember what it is like to be struck with wonder in the presence of such gifts.

I kind of think we could all use a little more of that in our lives which is why my phone contains a profusion of pictures of beautiful skies.

JFkd8ydXQyu3x7+PfOquOA

I am pretty sure my obsession with the sunset and cloud formations and rainbows and any other gift the sky chooses to bestow has exhausted my family (well, except for my youngest who has joined me in this endeavor). I am not deterred. The moments where I pause and take in this bit of grace extended to anyone willing to look up are moments of pure serenity; they are moments of poetry. And in these moments, there is an exchange that takes place that I am not sure how to put words to–a sort of gratitude, of silent adoration. Accepting this unearned gift, appreciating it, is so far removed from the cliched flowers we have all been instructed to stop and smell.

Look, the world is a busy place and we are killing ourselves to keep up, to do more, to be more. Don’t discount the fact that teenagers feel the same way. It is easy to lose ourselves in the rush; it is easy to lose our balance and our way. Stopping to see the world, to be of the world is grounding and at the same time allows us to transcend the drama of the day, the stress of the season. It is a reminder of all that we were created to be and to become…and sometimes that looks different than the life we are so furiously forming.

So tomorrow, we will pause and take in these beauties; we will enjoy A.E. Stallings’ poetry (always a gift); we will create in response. And maybe, they will walk out ready to do it all over again…on their own, for themselves.

(Day 3 “positivity project”)

inhale, exhale

Breath.

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

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

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

Dwindles.                   Subsides.                  Withers.

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

to swirl,                      to swell,                    to scintillate.

(metaphorical? yes–and–no)

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

~~~~~~~~~~

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe.