Not a Breeder

I guess it’s too late to be a grandma
Too late to make cookies, brownies, pies
to spoil the kids of the kids who will never
come knocking on Thanksgiving morning
or in the swelter of fourth of July or their birthdays
or a random Sunday Cowboys’ game in October
I guess it’s too late
to be the grandma of the smartest, most gorgeous
grandbabies to ever set foot on earth
too late to be grammie, or ama, or mamaw or gran or meemaw or lala
too late too late
unless lonely poems
suddenly start breeding.

~LD

***

The funny thing about being human is that we live constantly within the conflict between two (or more) desires and dreams. I want to be clear; I don’t usually feel this way, but there is a little part of me that sometimes feels it and whispers around the other thoughts in my head. At those times, I wish I’d had babies back when I was sixteen or seventeen and didn’t know anything at all. Twenty days out of twenty one, I’m so so glad I didn’t . . . but then again. I blame Napowrimo’s prompt for today. ~LD

Betrayal

"nothing is real"

“nothing is real”


You strolled into my embrace
out of desert afternoon sun –
gangly and long, all elbows and knees,
bleached and browned
by summer’s long, slow touch.
Your ivory smile, framed in blurred crimson,
filled my sight and burned my throat
like moon shine.
Words stacked up impossibly,
unexpectedly,
behind surprise
and a kiss withheld
because my ankles wavered
on a tide of standing and sinking.
We were, suddenly,
perfectly,
broken.

~LD

Tuesday Teacher Fantasy

Fantastic thinking is in order this thundery, rainy, hail-ish, Tuesday afternoon. You know, the kind of thinking you do when you sit around building blocks with a little kid (or several) and talk about how great it would be if you could eat only cake (or ice cream, or froot loops) all the time, for breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. Or that summer lasted for ten months and school only lasted for two. And, “wouldn’t it be the best thing?”

“I’d have chocolate every day.”

“No way. I’d have a different kind at every meal and I would never, in a million years, get bored.”

“Oh, I know! I will ALWAYS get the corner piece with the extra icing. Oh, yeah.”

Oh, yeah. It would be the best thing.

books...

books…

Today, I think, the best thing would be, once a week to pack my reusable grocery bag the night before with a couple of the books I’ve got going on at the moment; I’d grin in anticipation of the coming day. Load the coffee maker and fixin’s carefully in a separate bag. I get to school around 6:30, just like always, and I hang an appealing, artful sign on the door that says READING DAY! I grab a pillow from the reading corner and arrange it near my desk, a kind of cozy cubby there in the corner under my “Fan Club” sign and photos and love notes from former students. I’d set my books for the day next to the pillow to wait, while I set up and start the coffee.

By 6:45 I am settled on the floor with the coffee maker bubbling away comfortably on the other side of the room. Picking up the first book in the stack, I slide my finger behind the bookmark holding my place and fold the book open. I graze slowly among the words as the sun comes up behind the mountains east of campus.

Eventually, students begin to slip into the room. Because it’s READING DAY, they already know to mumble a good morning. Maybe some of them pour a cup of joe with the tiniest of splash and swirl. Maybe not. First hour students would be so lucky! They could swing by Starbucks on their way to school and get something extra special and it would still be hot, perfect, creamy coffee / tea / chai / chocolate. We’ve a routine on READING DAY! one long-established and cherished of muttered greetings and the shush shush of pages turning.

There is no studying and no one tries to. There is no last minute rush to homework, and I don’t have to check. We each have our space of floor, desk, or wall, our cushion and the book we are working on. Some of use ear buds, and some of us don’t. No devices are opened by anyone; everyone is reading an old-fashioned, paper, analog, book of their choice.

For forty-eight minutes, there are no phones, tweets, whatsapp, instagram, texts messages, emails, parents, principals, or teachers. Just twenty-five or so souls breathing across ink spilled in delightful patterns that dance across paper in story form. Our breath steams, filling the room with the vaporous forms of places and people, near and far, known and unknown, real and imagined.

The building’s bells do their thing, and students slip away reluctantly to physics, philosophy, or some other part of the curriculum, and another group of students slips in. Later, for a couple of hours I’m alone, and I refresh the coffee maker before I return to my quiet corner, where I’ve started the second book in my stack for the day.

Just as I start to feel a little restless and maybe even lonesome, the last group of the day cracks the door open and enters to complete the ritual for the week. They settle to read, until the sound of a waiting line of cars starts to ooze beneath the door, and the rattle and crash of the younger grades in the hallways begins to shiver our air. We all get a little wiggly, and maybe there are a few people talking quietly, but some stay focused until the absolute last gasp before the last bell rings to free us for the day. Students fold their books closed like hands suspended in prayer around a bookmark, before they put cushions back in their place and shoulder backpacks and book bags to make their way home.

And wouldn’t it be the best thing? Oh, yeah.

~LD

A Word on Notes … A Note on Words

Recently, a musician friend sent me this quotation and the question that follows: “If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.” — Jean Sibelius

Would you debate this one?

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata — Mozart

At first I leaned toward agreeing with Sibelius about nuance and richness of music. One reason I don’t write much about music as a generality is that I’ve read too much bad writing about music: “It always meets me where I am and never asks any questions. It can pick me up when I’m down, and mellow me out when I’m sad / mad / jealous / etc.” And to some extent that has also been my experience with music. But to a much greater extent, my experience with music is cerebral as well as emotional and tends to defy words.   Like many other people, my life has been bookmarked with music: the sweet and sorrowful memory of my great loves, losses, accomplishments, ridiculous decisions, and moments of simply living — at the beach, in the forest, on my bike, in the city, under Christmas lights, holding hands, kissing in the rain — all come with their accompanying harmonies, melodies, drum lines, oboes, cellos, electric bass, and of course, violins. Suggesting that, in fact, music does tend to speak deeper and, indeed, embrace more widely than mere language.

As I learned a second language, and came to be able to use it (relatively) well, I became aware of many limitations in my native language. As a writer who works toward a precarious mix of precision of words and bending of language to build an idea or an image, such limitations quickly frustrated me. I solved this problem by using Spanish words where nothing quite “fit the bill” in English, even though I know that most of my readers aren’t bilingual. Here again, music overcomes the limitations that culture, education, and social expectation impose on language.

But then I ran across (with an entirely unrelated motivation) a TED talk by Jamila Lyiscott in which she addresses the problems and joys of being “articulate” in her 3 languages. (It’s worth a look. Her talk / poem brought me to tears – no small feat.) She says, “I speak a composite version of your language because mines was raped along with my history. I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us that our current state is not a mystery.” Listening to her speak I thought again about the way that being bilingual has changed the way I write, and even what I write about. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve become convinced that the changes in my poetry over the last five years or so are indebted to my daily immersion in my second language. I don’t think that anything other than someone else playing with language(s) could have made me think those exact thoughts. Not even music.

nobody told you

…no one alerted you…

In the end though, I can’t fully agree or disagree with Sibelius. There are times when language reaches places that music doesn’t even try to reach. When I write a poem, I know that readers will see the exact images I write, even if they don’t attach the same emotion to them that I do. I know that I use words to reach certain unspoken taboos, emotions, memories in readers, and I’m also aware that the places my words touch are not fully predictable.

I think much the same about music. Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov and the other favorites tell stories in musical phrasing and pitch and key (and …), which have the advantage of bypassing languages and cultures in ways that language cannot, or are unlikely to do. Still, I feel certain that the government of Germany in the 1930s and 40s did not hear the same stories in Wagner that I hear. That music reaches me as a listener is without question; that the intent remains intact from Sibelius’ ear to my ear, must remain a question forever, as I cannot sit down and ask him about any given piece. His experience is not my experience, though we are both human and from Western cultures. These intersections in culture may influence my response, but I can never know if my response is the response he sought.

I’ve heard and read artists of many genres who say that it doesn’t matter that their audience “gets” the same thing that they imagined. The matter and substance that the audience picks up go far beyond the original intent, encompassing both more and less than “intended.” In this sense, art is not a spectator sport. In spectating we also participate actively, a fuerzas, and in general the artist and her intent is no longer a factor. The art becomes art via the interpretation of, and interaction with, the audience. Without that dialogue, art of any stripe is meaningless.

A little piece of me (the bogus English teacher part) wants to suggest that perhaps Sibelius should have put a bit more time into his writing, maybe experimented a bit with things outside his ken and comfort zone. Maybe in words, too, he could have transmitted more than he imagined. But then again, his music has left so much to think about, so much to experience in the worlds and scenes he weaves over our eardrums and nervous systems. Perhaps, he was right. At least for himself.

So to answer the question, I don’t think I’d debate Sibelius at all. But I wouldn’t mind sitting down over a good glass of wine and talking it all through with him in front of a Finnish fireplace. I’m certain I would learn much about how to listen and be a better audience of music. And, who knows, he might learn a thing or two, as well. ‘-)

~LD

Encounters with Treasure

Some thoughts on Joyce's ribbon seeking boy in "Araby".

Some thoughts on Joyce’s ribbon-seeking boy in “Araby”.

A ribbon marks the page
where she sketched out
the verses that became
the lines on her face.

The ends of the ribbon
peek out from acid leaves,
frayed and faded
by years of exposure and neglect.

But here in the gutter —
lying next to her forgotten,
scattered-ink hand —
the shine on the ribbon

still holds the color of truth.

~LD

~

Shattered Crystal

from warriorcatsrpg.com

Time tends to break.

In the refracted light
on a raindrop I recall
my ragged fingers laced
between your polished nails.
Across the thread of time
moon milk drips
in a long, blank line
toward a vanishing horizon,
where the visions in your fading words
are still the fire in mine.

~LD

Thoughts on Digit-itis: To be or not to be

Their screens were motionless. The group of six adolescents brave enough to put themselves in the center discussion circle barely scrolled through the electronic text they were discussing. If they’d been considering Wordsworth’s “The World is too Much with Us” the immobility would have been understandable – fourteen lines easily fit on one screen. But today, we were on Hamlet. HAMLET. I promise you, I am not such a great teacher of Shax that my students have memorized the order of events, much less specific lines from the play with which to back up their various responses to and arguments about the big questions the play poses. Not even close.

I sat in the outer circle, taking notes on the validity of arguments and other general skills and their motionless screens kept tickling at the back of my skull. I found myself wanting to say something about being a good reader, marginal notes, annotating texts – old school, teachery kinds of things.

But I held my peace because it was at least the third time in as many months that I have stumbled across this same problem. The problem of how to undo all the years of teaching people to be good readers on paper, while many of the tests we use to keep data on people’s educational progress and academic prowess are computerized.

I’m not talking about just the GRE and GMAT level exams for admission to graduate school, but also other (very respected) standardized tests used to track the academic progress of students at levels from the tiniest of first grade scholars all the way up to college graduates. Tests in which reading passages are not manipulable on the computer screen (you can’t highlight lines that seem important, much less make marginal notes). In most cases, the test taker can have a piece of scratch paper, but given the time-pressure factor, that little piece of paper seems at best useless at worst a distraction.

I used to show students how I use flag post-its to keep track of quotes I thought were important or revealing in a text. When working with a copy of a text, or textbook that belonged to me, I showed them how to make notes in the margin to remind them of their thoughts, reactions, and questions at the time of reading. I can’t say that these skills are totally useless even in our shiny, stainless steel digital era. Luckily, many of the texts we work with are available in PDF format, which allows many of these “analog” note taking strategies to continue to be useful. Really, as long as a text can be found in PDF form or converted to PDF, we can still use all the same old strategies for being good, thoughtful, critical readers with only minor alterations in the strategies.

But come test-taking time (or in the reading of Internet texts – articles, blogs and websites), these strategies are virtually useless. How does a test taker effectively keep notes on what he or she reads on a computer screen that they cannot mark? On a piece of scratch paper to one side of their mouse and keyboard. If the test taker is smart, he will include line numbers or paragraph numbers by each note he jots down. Nevertheless, these notes are not WITH the text that prompted the thought in the first place. Re-connecting the thought in the note with the text (imagine yourself switching back and forth from the text on the screen to the notes on your page – the Tazmanian Devil plays tennis) seems to me a most Herculean effort.

Is it nobler, then, to teach using etexts? Will we grow to keep track of our thoughts and where we had them in a text “by heart” in order to excel at the exams we must take to move forward toward our long-term educational goals? Will we insist that exam makers create exams in which the old analog styles of marginal notes and annotation can be performed on their digital texts? Or should we face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the only arms at our disposal the vagaries of flawed memory and analog note taking in the face of a test running at digital speeds? I find myself, like Hamlet, stuck between forms. We are much too digital, but not nearly digital enough.

While our strategies for teaching students to be good readers catch up with all that is being demanded in the digital age, I will continue to search for good PDF versions of texts, or apps that allow a reader to leave a post it in the text of a website. Until the two sides – analog test taking versus digital test taking – catch up with each other, my students’ discussions of texts will be tied either to analog (paper) texts or the PDF versions I can find online. I will show them the tools available, and trust to their ability to integrate new technology quickly. Meanwhile, in my head, all is far from Hamlet’s coveted silence.

~LD

A Poor Tribute

Preface:

Many years ago, on the occasion of the assassination of Indira Gandhi, I wrote a heartfelt poem of thanks for her daring and grief for her loss. I was little more than a child, and since then I have begun to understand or at the very least to have more experience in the twisty ways of politics, corruption, and human hate. And though I don’t know that I could have agreed — as an adult — with Mrs. Gandhi’s politics, I still see the importance of her election at that time, and am dismayed, even now, at the power of humanity to destroy the best of who we can be. My words built a fine novice poem spoken from the voice of a very young and naïve broken heart.

Twinges of that tiny outraged voice resounded in my belly today on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, when I ran across an interview with Elie Wiesel conducted by Bill Moyers in 1991.

I was struck by the tenderness of Dr. Wiesel’s voice. Not his words alone, but the melody and scope of honest question and wonder that permeates the sound of his voice. I could listen endlessly to Dr. Wiesel speak. The poem that follows, poor and clichéd as it is, encapsulates my side of a conversation I’d have liked to have with Dr. Wiesel, as fine a teacher and witness as I can imagine. *Namaste*

(I find it much harder these days to share such work. Not because it is intensely personal, but because I realize now how flawed my (our) perceptions of public personas can be. I hope the spirit of my thought is clear.)

May Your Work Set You Free: A Blessing for Dr. Wiesel

Seventy years ago you stepped into
a chill, rosed Polish Dawn of human indifference,
a boy no more.
And though the words
you’ve scratched out
as you’ve trod the path since that day
shatter repeatedly against the fogged mirror
of Night in our minds,
the song in your voice seeps
relentlessly between the cracks
of our human weakness
illuminating the poetry –
not of Joshua’s wars –
but of human experience,
and we are better
for hearing
the power
in your
diminishing
years.

~LD

Parts of a letter: thinking out loud in the cold

The thing about art is, as Beethoven said (Is this true? Is this a myth someone told me to make a point when I was a youngling? I will look it up later. Anyway, in my head a grizzled, bitter Beethoven speaks) there is nothing new in music (or any art). There are seven basic notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, their sharps and flats, repeated at higher or lower pitches, but the combinations are essentially finite. Measurable. Maybe even predictable to an extent (enter math).

What varies infinitely (or seems to – maybe this depends, like so many things, on one’s take on God and creation) is the certain curve and weight and touch that imparts “feeling” to a piece. What varies infinitely is whether we hear the same stories that Maxim Vengerov does in an Ysaye piece (unlikely, unless we happen to have the good fortune of being one of his master class students), or some other story entirely. With good, solid study, the stories should come near to being the same, even among musicians who’ve never met, but are unlikely to be what Ysaye himself saw as he composed. (Insert Shakespeare and Harold Bloom as the expert here if you like. Same result.)

What this tells us about a text like, say, The Hunger Games is not that it’s bad, or even especially good, but rather that Collins’ perspective on things like feminism, survival, capitalism / socialism, the conflict between love and self are presented sufficiently intelligently and artistically to pull in readers who might not otherwise have considered such important ideas (if they were forced to read them, say, for class). Ideally such texts lead them to read and appreciate (if not always enjoy), other, more complex, more artful works on similar ideas.

Naturally, many young readers aren’t ready to go there (neuro-biology works against them), but sometimes readers go back to books (and other works of art) like an old friend after they’ve matured, and see the bigger ideas then. (And yes, there are more than a handful of knuckleheads who never get it. Still, my teacher brain insists there is hope for human enlightenment. ‘-)) Even Harry Potter has at least some artistic value for bringing the old Greek myth figures back to the front of people’s minds. Ok, maybe not the front, but not the pit of intellectual despair that was 9th grade lit class with Odysseus.

So reading those books has value to the extent that they open a door for readers to be intellectually warmed up for 1984, Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare, A Clockwork Orange, and the rest. I read “lesser” works because working with young intellects is part of what I’ve chosen to do with my life and I need to know how to talk to them with some authority about the big ideas in the little stories that get their attention. Sometimes such works even have the added bonus of being “fun”, which is too often undervalued.

Perhaps the fact that we read / enjoy / participate in mediocre and bad art eventually leads us to greater and greater feats of human imagination. At the very least, the mediocre and the bad may lead us to think differently than we did before.

I agree that the artist must create for him/herself. But it seems to me that the great value in art must go beyond the interior world. Visual image (dance, flat art (like painting), sculpture, film) and auditory image (music, speech / language) become ways of relating to the world and the experiences you live. Creating art is a way of making meaning out of the (sometimes) apparent meaninglessness of being human; I’d go so far as to suggest that art requires the artist to consider an audience, even an unreal one, to offer a serving of perspective (like a glass of wine on a tray) in order for the meaning to be, well, meaningful.

And yes, I know, I’ve just effectively destroyed all my reasons for not writing lately. I think sometimes that I work harder at not writing than I do at writing. ‘-) I’m pretty sure I’ll be cold and dead before I can really not write. Weaving language and words into meaning are my skin and heart, maybe even my soul. Only my ridiculous, flawed, grown-up human brain gets in the way. ‘-) Ego is a powerful dismotivator.

I loved what you wrote: “Art (in any form) is a gift from God … designed for … people who understand it to keep them happy even when everything else is shit. (I could not find a simpler and more complicated definition than that). Life is like running in the freezing cold in the middle of the woods, and art is like finding a nice cabin with a fireplace inside, to stay there forever. One who enjoys art should never have to quit [the cabin] ever again.”

Once in a while the only way to get to complexity is simply. I’d add that life is like running NAKED and BAREFOOT in the freezing cold. But I can’t help thinking that art need not be a consolation prize.

~LD