hope’s effort

Chronic and invisible illness has become a daily struggle rather than an intermittent one. It is exhausting, often defeating, and always frustrating. But when I am able to channel it into writing, somehow that tension and discomfort is eased. I always share the poetry of others her but rarely my own. Today that is different which brings another kind of unease. But nonetheless…it is written (and unedited), so here it is, as it came to mind and then to the page.

hope’s effort

I hadn’t imagined this particular evolution

of days. This—

well, it wasn’t foreseeable

(a game Life plays, with a smirk, knowing

its caprice will always confound human ego).

Exhaustion permeates and saturates the hours,

restricting the freedoms and felicity Joy once knew

but took for granted in her attempt to live

without bounds.

And yet…

A thread of hope rises each day—

a mirage that cleverly deceives the mind

into believing today will be different—

better. It’s what I hold to with a fervor so

vibrant that it seems to be Joy (regained) or even

Wellness (restored)—

(Is it a smile she’s wearing, they wonder, or just

gritting teeth clenched tight

in fear of revealing ___________?)

But, instead it’s just my soul—

hoodwinked, and the believing,

well, it’s kind of tiring.

Hope, these days, engenders new depths of fatigue

because the thread is too thin and elusive,

impossible to grasp

each and every, and some days,

well, I miss it completely. It floats

away—shimmering aloft, visible but…just…

out of reach…

And yet…

I always wake in search of it,

again, because without it,

I’d be laid flat in the blindness

of the not-knowing haze—of the fog

that necessitates a beacon to avoid

getting lost, or worse, giving up entirely—

which is always an easier reach—a falsely 

tangible promise of ease, an empty promise, that,

well, evaporates the moment acquiescence is 

accepted by the mind, the body in need of something, 

anything simpler than the work required in facing, 

in maneuvering the obstacles which can’t be overcome

in a single day…the work required to 

persevere through darkening shades of complexity.

And so….

When the thread of hope rises

each day, each day I will reach

for it, I will cling to it,

until its promise is fulfilled…because

the alternative, well, that’s not living, that’s 

a shadow life…a shadow of life…

that’s existence…wasted,

a promise left waiting—

–unfulfilled in my impatience for something 

immediately better, 

which, well, blinds the eye to all that is still present,

to the thread of hope rising and waiting for the reach,

each day.

And so…

I grab hold…again…and again because despite 

my body’s fatigue, my brain knows this truth—

I am not helpless, hopeless in the face of ______.

Life will change, circumstances will alter,

that does not mean they are worse—

only alive.

And that challenge, of being alive, is always worthy of 

Hope’s effort.

(all gratitude to Anthony Doerr and his novel Cloud Cuckoo Land as the line “A thread of hope rises,” which appears on p. 144 of the novel, was the inspiration for this piece)

neutrality wavers

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

A couple of days ago, I cried.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So please don’t take my feelings”

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

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

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

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

Except, it didn’t. It lingered.

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

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

Please don’t take this feeling

I have found at last”

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

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

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

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

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

Seaspray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. This line of poetry by Juan Felipe Herrera in his poem “Let Me Tell You What a Poem Brings”:       “it isn’t exactly business that pulls your spirit into
    the alarming waters, there you can bathe, you can play,
    you can even join in on the gossip—the mist, that is,
    the mist becomes central to your existence.”

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness, part one

I am a chronic apologizer.

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

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

But it won’t be.

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

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

That place is forgiveness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An explication of a year

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

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

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

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

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

But then this–mostly this…

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

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

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

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

lifting the lens

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

Except that is such a lie. Such a lie.

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn off that cellphone, computer, and remote control.

Open the door, then close it behind you.

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

Give it back with gratitude.”

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

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.

u-turn

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

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

Last night felt different.

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

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

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

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

Inhale, gratitude…exhale, peace.

(Entry 29 in the king cake writing challenge!)

microcosm

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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)