Let Them Eat Artichoke

For the longest time, I disliked artichoke (among other “weird” looking vegetables and fruits). Artichoke looked entirely unapproachable. Artichoke looked scary, unknown and unknowable. Dislike is the absolutely easiest thing in the world. Dislike implies little to no emotional risk.

My thoughts will sound non sequitur, but trust me, as my grad school mentor (progenitor of bitch face) used to say, “Everything is to the point. Our job is to make the connections.” I should know: even when I was a sketchy teacher, I proved Nancy Walker right every single school year, and usually again during the miniscule weeks of summer break. I still do. Every year, I remember that I know for sure that our job is to make the connections.

I first gave artichoke a chance the summer of 1996 when Paulina, a dear teacher friend, gave me a book called She Taught Me to Eat Artichokes. (I think I finally know why, after a four week summer writing workshop she gave me that book – connections don’t always come instantly.) My mom was visiting that summer. My mom the gardener, the would-be vegetarian; my mom the writer and thinker and teacher. Momma and I were inspired to boil up artichoke and make hollandaise dipping sauce thanks to Paulina. Thanks to Momma, I learned about the “choke”, and the nutty sweetness of the heart.

To get to that tender nutty sweetness, the raw, fresh artichoke has to be boiled, steamed or baked a long time. A long time. An hour. Sometimes more. And like the efforts of a teacher who has watched over raw, fresh students, the cook asks and waits, offers and waits, and even after she asks and asks again in a rolling boil the work is still not done.

I waited, and watched, and offered, and asked, and “boiled” this senior class all fall semester. There was a part of me that began to think finding their hearts was too hard, and maybe I should just dislike them and move on with my life. But early in the spring, as I kept watching and offering and waiting and asking – I saw unexpected bubbles of interest here and there linking the struggles of the wife who lamented to the conflict between vengeance and survival in Hamlet; recognition of themselves and their culture in the frustration of Winston and Julia as they sought freedom. Among these bubbles of interest and hints of tenderness the purple heart beneath the choke began to appear.

The artichoke metaphor came to me in the blinding, breathless five days in which I read and evaluated ninety-four 10-page essays (sometimes more, sometimes less). But the metaphor was incomplete until the following week when I sat for three straight class days in the brand new auditorium listening to my students tell each other and their teachers what they know for sure, right now, this moment – about themselves, about excellence, about the world at large.

Unlike my students, when the talks got a little dull or repetitive, I couldn’t distract myself with games or social media on my phone since I was evaluating the nuance and structure of argument and general effectiveness of the talks. I had to pay attention to the peeling away of each teardrop-shaped leaf of experience with my complete self, my whole brain and intellect, while my students reached into themselves and exposed the tricky, hair like choke above their hearts.

At times, during the talks, I wanted to curl up on the floor under my chair and disappear as students sheared away all illusion of youthful innocence. Despite all the watching and waiting, I had glossed over important details about the needs of astronauts, the bent backs of dancers, the shadows of introverts, the power of WORDS, the losses and losses and losses and near misses. In those three days I could see how my students held each other together both intentionally and by accident through the traumas and victories of their lives and the lives of others. Being a grown-up had dulled my sense of observation and turned me into nearly pure choke. On the final day of the talks I was both shaken and renewed. My students had revealed the heart hidden beneath the protective choke, and allowed me to find the nutty sweetness the choke protects.

That was three weeks ago. Now those students are gone and they will never be that senior class in those particular groupings ever again. And they are a nutty sweet memory with a lingering burn on my tongue and in my throat. I will remember each leaf – the beast, the giant weeping Pooh bear, the surgical steel-coated heart, the twin, the son, the daughter, the dancer, the actor, the comedian, the philosopher, the coder, the triathlete, the scholar, the loafer, the lover, the friend, the artist, the broken-hearted and the whole, the insomniac, the gamer, the anxious, and the complete orange – as if I had scraped away the choke protecting them with a spoon and let the pure heart beneath meld into my own experience.

When the artichoke is gone, it always seems too soon. As if I could have savored these hearts so much more, appreciated more, loved more. The wish for more leaves me with an ache, a yearning. Yes, dislike would have been easier, less complicated. But the heart is totally worth the effort.

Nearly a Decade of Facebook Status Fails…

(subtitle: censorship is bad, even when you are both censor and censored)

I catch myself wanting to argue on Facebook (FB) with people that I actually care about, but whose philosophies and values don’t fit with mine. Luckily, my more rational self nearly always kicks in before I go “there” – under the troll bridge. But in case you are one of my FB peeps who thinks I don’t believe anything at all because I seldom if ever post stuff other than my cats and my house and occasionally work, let me take this opportunity to give you a long list of FB posts that never made it to FB.

I am a feminist (#Ineedfeminism because at least once a week I’m asked if I feel “complete” as a woman without children – “It’s not too late,” they say). I am a humanist, and an independent voter. I believe in social justice and states’ rights and true equality of opportunity. I don’t think a party exists that embraces these apparently contradictory ideas. I love the country I was born in and the country I live in. I think international borders are political creations to make some people feel bigger and others feel smaller because of an accident of birth. I don’t believe in the concept of God that other people do. But I do believe that energy can be neither created nor destroyed; it can only be transformed. Given the opportunity, I would vote for very limited gun control and for drug legalization, but against defunding Planned Parenthood (where as a young adult I received healthcare far beyond reproductive health when I couldn’t afford to pay for a “regular” doctor). I would vote to allow people to marry (have the same legal rights granted to heterosexual persons in a legally-recognized committed relationship) who wish to do so regardless of their biological genders, and to legally recognize the identities of persons whose biological gender may not match their psychological gender. I think it is heroic to find the you-know-whats to say out loud that the conflict between biological and psychological gender exists from either experience or scientific research. I think it is heroic to fight and / or die for a nationalistic ideal that may or may not be true. I would vote to educate every person with the desire to study without charge for as long as they want to study, and the right of every person to both preventative and curative health care from a personal physician. I believe that many times medicine is not the answer to what causes people dis-ease. Though I’d love to see a woman in the Oval Office, not in a million years would I vote for Ms. Clinton. Republican candidates don’t inspire my confidence, either. I will vote.

I function in what I consider to be organic and intuitive ways that I’d like to think allow people to be their own best selves regardless of their agreements or disagreements with me: in part because I know I am flawed, at best, and in part because I can nearly always understand the points of view of others, even when I disagree passionately. I will not argue politics or religion with you or anyone else, though I am happy to have an open, honest, evidentiary-based conversation about nearly anything, as long as your evidence doesn’t rely solely on the sacred texts you cling to. As literary and cultural evidence such texts are fine and good places to base oneself, but in isolation mythology isn’t valid evidence. I don’t feel the need to be right or to convert anyone to my point(s) of view. I am a person without borders, but rather with limits.  You don’t have to “like” any of that. ~LD

Divinity in August

Coincidentally, I thought this week of Nannie’s hands, fingers running at sharp, arthritic angles into her knuckles even when I first knew her twenty-odd years ago. She was my love’s grandmother, and I loved her stubborn perseverant joy in life despite the obstacles of age. She made candy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and made the best morel mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. I used to have some of her recipes stashed on three by five cards in a box that was lost to the ravages of time, flour, use, and carelessness. I loved her as much as I could, not nearly as much as I think she deserved. When I learned today that Nannie had died, all I really wanted was some of her homemade divinity and a few extra days in Missouri for a twirl up through northern climes to hug her when I was there this summer. But decisions have to be made. Time is always too short, our wishes too long to fit in this miniscule grain of sand that is life.

Mine won't turn out as good (at least not the first time), but I'll give it a go.

Mine won’t turn out as good (at least not the first time), but I’ll give it a go.

I thought, too, of the woman with younger hands, with a life fully lived in only half the time that Nannie had, whose kids have been my students, are my students, will be my students. She died on a school day; her kids pulled from school on thin pretense to go home to grieve. I never knew her, but I had walked near her eldest son last year as their family wandered through a jungle of bewildering illness, wavering between hope and despair to end here where life and death step out of textbooks and into the living room, the hallway, the driveway, the front and backyard, and all the places that can’t be avoided because life insists on continuing in the face of loss. Her nieces wrote about her kindness and her joy; her ability to think of others despite her situation.

The next day, I got up before dawn to go to class, as I always do. I went with heavy heart and eyes swollen with a weight that didn’t belong to me, and I gave class as if nothing were different, nothing had changed. But I gave a couple of extra unsolicited hugs, and wished I could ease this path a bit for the several young people I know who were touched by her life and the many good, bright things she taught them.

And my Saturday, despite knowing that Nannie isn’t there any more, will be the Saturday I had planned months ago; classes and cooking and house chores that must be done in the interval before I go back to work on Monday. But I will tend my plants with extra care, and I will take time with my cats, and I will admire the roundness of tomorrow’s full moon. Maybe I will make Nannie’s divinity – I have everything I need, except for hugs to send from far away to my former love, and his mom, and his aunt, and his cousins.

Our little grains of sand remain miniscule, but the things we wish to squeeze onto them seem to be more and more. Sometimes the only solution is to keep rolling out with the waves, riding out in search of song-struck sunrises, and sweet, divine cloud-light sunsets.

~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

Tools of the Trade — thoughts on home ownership (week 1)

As I clamped the pliers down on the disappointingly named decorator hook and it bent into a shape utterly unrecognizable as a hook, I thought, “I should have known better. They’re called “decorator hooks”; OF COURSE they are made of cruddy pot metal that won’t hold up to any serious twist.” I had pre-“drilled” a hole using a hammer and nail, and still, the underside of the MDF cabinet wouldn’t take the pretty little hooks I’d picked for hanging my measuring spoons and cups without mangling the hooks. I sighed, such a waste of elbow grease. Did the math – about two bucks for ten essentially useless, but pretty, hooks. Lesson learned (again): if you can’t handle and examine the product before you buy it (especially when it comes to hardware) there’s a good chance that it is, well, crap. Back to the hardware store, this time for hooks which are less pretty and more functional. Fine.

In the master bedroom, as I set up the somewhat tall, massive, buffet-style table that I built a few years back, with the notion of using it to fold clothes and to hold my jewelry boxes, I’m still rather amazed that the only major flaw is that (just) one leg is about a centimeter shorter than the other three. I cut the lumber for that table with a handsaw. A HANDsaw. I measured everything carefully, but still that one leg got away from me. Though the table is hardly what you might call beautiful, it is exactly what I wanted; I should take the time to plane the other legs down to match the short one. But, I never do. You should see my plane, so antiquated as to be nearly a joke. A plane requiring elbow grease. I use it. But I try to keep it to a minimum. I’m low on elbow grease, and they don’t sell that stuff at the hardware store.

Having purchased a home, I think I might have done well to also invest heavily in a hardware / paint store. I’ve lived here four nights, and already I need a new key for the hot water feed to the washer (that side is drippy at the handle), a decent drill with concrete-capable bit, paint for the façade — not to mention the front entryway — a couple of quarts of hole-filler putty, a good pair of cable cutters to dispose of the tv cable in inconvenient places. I’m sure more such details will occur to me over the weeks and months and years to come. Maybe if I’d invested in a hardware store, I could convince them to stock elbow grease.

~LD

PS. Ridiculously happy in my new place in spite of minor details. I’m dreaming and drawing it into the shape I’d like it to take. No doubt, this will be a project of some planning and time. ❤

On Students and Other Strangers (revised from ’09)

I was led back to this multi-genre piece by the friend (one time student) who asked me to write it for one of his final projects. I was stunned not to find it in my files, and he was good enough to resend it. So while he’s off on inspiring adventures all over the place, I thought you might like to have a peek. I used to call him double-O-seven, because as a yearbook staff member, he could get his mitts on anything. A terrific person all the way around. I’m so lucky to be a teacher and learner of THIS kind of person. There are so many of them! NOTE: I’ve adjusted to make the timing make more sense now.

***

Approximately seven years ago I was accosted in the hall by a student from a grade that I’ve never taught and hassled about books.

“Ms. Head,” the strange, but vaguely-familiar looking young man said to me. “Have you ever read ‘X’ by ‘Y’?” Let’s face it: I’ve slept since then; I have no idea what books he asked about. I wasn’t really listening in any case. I was trying to figure out which of my students he reminded me of.

Still, I must have responded to the question, because not to do so would have been rude. I think there was more conversation, perhaps more questions. But I was still trying to figure out who the student reminded me of.

Time passed. A week? A month? A year? Enough time for me to forget about the hallway book-assault.

I was walking from my classroom toward the elevator. I’m sure my mind was wandering around in the stars somewhere, distracted by English department business, or NHS business, or some other business. From the far end of the hallway down by Mr. Miranda’s room, I heard, “Ms. Head! Ms. Head!!” Lo and behold, Book Boy strode toward me. I remember being amused, even laughing out loud at the eagerness that lit up his eyes and ran like electric current into his smile. I know for certain that he way-laid me twice in the hallway to ask about books, but there may have been more than two occasions. I remember being floored, knocked-flat, astonished, speechless, flabbergasted to see a student so excited about reading that he was walking the halls looking for book experts. Secretly, I couldn’t wait for him to be a Senior.

The wait seemed interminable, but eventually one August I saw that curiously familiar face pass by me in the hallway, “Good morning, Ms. Head,” he said as he reached for the brushed steel handle of my classroom door. While his work was often far from perfect, or less than punctual, his enthusiasm masked unsightly flaws.

All year long, his writings were daring, and sometimes wrought as with iron or steel: the sound of the furnace roaring in our ears and sweat obscuring our eyes. From the thoughtful analysis of nature symbols in Hardy, to lyrics that take the shine off the enameled gloss of self-destructive relationships, R– has a way of making old things new again, and new things familiar and comfortable.

Let the resplendent blade of the sun
bear down on the time-faded sands
Let the moon sprinkle false rains
over desert hills
Let time glide down the window pane
while I slip another page through my fingers
and look up to see the bookwright’s back
far down the hall from whence he used to come…

~LD

Sorting — a piece of thought (think piece)

Packing up the things that have helped turn the house I’ve lived in over the last 6 years into a home I’ve found a lot of trash (and tossed it) and a few treasures (and packed them carefully into boxes). Pictures of family now gone, big groups of us together, lost earrings, broken earrings that I can use to fix another broken pair, but mostly a lot of trash. And I’ve listened to music relentlessly. New to me music (Kodaly, Ysaye, Sibelius among others), and old favorites (Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, CCR, Def Leppard, Beatles). The music makes the packing easier, somehow. I’m reluctant to try to explain.

* * *

As the things that make my home my own gather themselves (apparently) into carefully arranged boxes and bags and piles, I find myself in the most curious position of thinking about how odd life is, and that the things that make me most uncomfortable are also sometimes the things that give me the greatest delight.

As much as I hate packing, and moving, I am kind of in love with moving right now. I assume that’s because this particular move is to a house I am buying. I’ve always had a knack for making a house my home regardless of who it belonged to, but this time, for real, the house will be mine (someday, many moons from now when all the payments are made).

I have loved taking down every little detail: fan pulls given to me by a dear friend ages ago, the unicorn doo dads, the remarkable number of art works done for me by former students, tapestries I’ve carted all over creation. Even the sorting of DVDs, clothes, earrings, photos and papers has been interesting and enlightening. What a life!

As I sort, I try to figure out, again, how to explain to those who despair of my ever returning “home”, that this is home. Truthfully, I’m probably closer to “home” now than I might have been had I not ever come to Mexico to work for a year, and finally to make my life. In miles, anyway. I think it’s the international border that causes discomfort. Or maybe it’s the US perception of Mexico as a dangerous place over the last few years.

* * *

There is nothing particularly remarkable about moving. People do it all the time. I have wrapped bottles and treasures of various sorts in newspaper and stashed them in boxes: shells, glass unicorns, bottles of patchouli and lavender oil, the gaming pc and its wireless keyboard and mouse. I’ve stumbled across photos I didn’t even know existed (how does that happen?). I’ve sorted through old medicines and vitamins and thrown out anything that was in doubt. I’ve gone through my closet and tossed or given away anything I’ve not worn in a year. I decided to pack all soft things (clothes, sheets, towels, etc) in plastic bags. I’ve thought about what I might need in my new place, and what I can use and what I can live without.

I despised this house when I first moved in, and was sure I wouldn’t be here more than a year, two at the very most. But now, six years later, I’m grateful for the space this house has given me to grow as a person, to let go of ideas that no longer fit what I want, what I need. As annoying as the daily little league games are every day of summer vacation, I will miss their white noise blending with the mockingbird songs in the morning. I want to pack up the mockingbirds and take them with me. I’ve already told them. I think they are following me. I will need a tree to give them.

In a year or so I will be fully unpacked and know what I really need, what I really don’t. In the meantime, the anticipation of Christmas in July is enough to keep me going. The idea of doing all this alone (buying a house, packing, moving in, unpacking) before I began, was rather overwhelming. But now that I’ve begun, I am starting to see how all this work can come together to build a new, or maybe a continued, version of a life I’ve longed for, even if it looks nothing like the original yearning.
~LD

Happiness will be found

One of my students wrote an essay about Raymond Carver’s poem “Happiness” for the literary analysis assignment this week. I didn’t even know that Carver wrote poetry, or maybe it’s among the many things I’ve forgotten. In any case, as I sat with my hot coffee (cream and 2 sugars) Saturday morning marking the student’s analysis, I decided to give the poem a quick read. In this case, the quick read, turned into an entire leisurely stroll down that lane known as Memory.

The last time I read any Carver it was for a class in post-modernism. We read some of his short stories, all of which I found resonant but disturbing. I’m sorry I don’t still have my notes to tell you what my 23-year-old self put down as reaction to his work. I do remember I didn’t like his stories. Resonant but disturbing was difficult to incorporate into my worldview back then. I was not surprised though that this little piece of poetic imagery brought to me by a student prompted memories of (again) the way images speak softly but clearly to our experience, reminding us to pay attention.

Reminding us, for example, of the parallel qualities of our lives.  Don’t we all have coffee (or tea, or juice) in the morning just at dawn, our minds full of “early morning stuff that passes for thought” (lines 3-4): what to wear, bills pending payment, the dog needing to be walked, the car washed, and the yard mowed. We collect up the leavings of responsibility, like the speaker in the poem, and erroneously call them thoughts.

Then the speaker looks out through a window, sees the boys, delivering the newspaper (in our world of digital instantaneity, how quaint the analog world looks where a person delivers the news written on paper). They are silent in their happiness. The boys are so utterly consumed with their happiness that there is nothing to say about it. I can imagine that they say nothing because, perhaps — like so many of us with our coffee in the morning — they don’t even realize that they are happy. For a moment, I wonder if the speaker is being wry, that perhaps these aren’t happy boys at all, but rather sleepy, burdened boys who have to get up to deliver the paper to help generate family income. But then the speaker suggests that he believes “if they could, they would take each other’s arm” (lines 12-13) and the human contact implied doesn’t seem to be seeking comfort in a time of need, just sharing “doing this thing together” (line 15) and doing it “slowly” (line 16), as if it needed attention and time to savor. I imagine them running off, later and faster, in afternoon sunlight to a record store to spend their early morning cash.

Our speaker, still at the window, looks out on a lovely but melancholy “pale” moon that persists even though “the sky is taking on light” (line 17-18). The sick, the tired, the worn are pallid, but happiness? How can this pale moon be part of a snapshot of supposed happiness? Our doubts about the speaker’s assertion are answered when he explains the sight of this pale moon as “Such beauty that for a minute / death and ambition, even love, / doesn’t enter into this” (lines 19-21). Sipping our own steaming cups, we know this feeling. It is a feeling so rare that it tends to escape us. A moment in which we forget the transitory nature of our own humanity, and the day-to-day struggles to make meaning slip away into the wave of happiness before we are washed back out to a sea of routine.

The speaker didn’t expect happiness to be delivering the paper as he took his morning coffee, and he knows, as we must, that “It comes on / unexpectedly” (line 22). I look out my kitchen window, washing my coffee cup, and think about how to talk to my student about her incomplete analysis, and the sun shines white through the glass. I am still considering happiness and the melancholy that comes with it, but there aren’t really words, because I guess I know that the experience of poetry is sometimes like the experience of happiness; it “goes beyond, really / any early morning talk about it” (lines 22-23). Maybe that’s what I’ll tell her.

~LD

Carver, Raymond. “Happiness.” The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. 2 June 2003.            Web. 8 Mar 2014.

Post script for my students: Yes, you CAN do this. Yes, it IS literary analysis. I’m sure there are many flaws in this piece, intellectually and compositionally. When you find them, let me know so that I can make the appropriate revisions and rewrite as needed. Notice that picky and petty things like the author and title in paragraph one, as well as in-text citations and bibliography are still present. The thesis is also present, although it is NOT in the first paragraph.

Post script for everyone else: I did this mainly to see if I still could. ‘-) Let me know what you think. If you don’t know the poem, click on the link in the bibliography to give it a look.

Makin’ Cookies: The Almost True Story

The process is nearly rote now, even though I only bake cookies once a year, twice at most: nearly always at Christmas, and less reliably near July 4th.

Sugar, brown sugar, shortening, vanilla, eggs: beat until creamy and light and most of the sugar crystals have gone smooth. The flour, soda, and salt look on from a nearby bowl supervising. Forget to pre-heat the oven.

Lick the beaters, or if you must, pass the beaters to a small person(s) to lick. Sneak a lick off each beater as you hand it to a small person. Keep your back turned so they don’t notice. If they catch you anyway, tell them you are testing the dough. Make the small people share if there are more than two. Forget, accidentally-on-purpose, about raw eggs.

Throw the flour on top of the creamified sweetness and with a sturdy spoon, stir a bit. By now the envious flour will be mostly incorporated and the dough will begin to look like dough more than ingredients. Add the chopped pecans and Nestle Toll House Semi-sweet Chocolate Morsels ®. Accept no substitutes. Not even Hershey’s ®.

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Forget that this last stirring is nearly impossible with a spoon, no matter how sturdy. Ditch the spoon and dive in hands first. Forget how the dough tries to become one with your rings. Cuss. Forget about the small people gleefully engrossed in sugared raw-egg lollipops. Hope they didn’t hear, or at worst, won’t repeat to their parents (in this case, my brothers, and my sisters-in-law).

Remove dough-encrusted rings and set them aside. You can clean them later, when you clean up the nieces and nephews (or your siblings, your kids, your grandkids — reader’s choice). Squish the dough between now naked fingers a few more times. Watch for dry patches and spaces where the flour is still just flour. Fix those dry bits with an energetic massage. Like that.

Realize that you “forgot” to pre-heat the oven and do that now. Meanwhile, enlist the pint-sized nieces and nephews to start making walnut-sized balls of cookie dough. Show them, again — same as last time — how big, exactly, a walnut-sized ball of cookie dough is. Otherwise, be prepared for the biggest balls of cookie-dough you’ve ever seen.

“That one says, ‘Ryan’s’.”

“No way, Mister. Make like four out of that one.”

“Awwww….”

Remember showing their parents how to do this when we were only slightly less pint-sized than these characters. Ok, maybe I was the one who wasn’t pint-sized, but I was only a quart, not a full gallon or even half-gallon.

Place the finger-marked, lopsided cookie dough balls on the cookie sheet at about two inches apart; you should be able to get a dozen on a cookie sheet, and with luck, two cookie sheets each round. Set the timer for 8, 10 or 12 minutes. This depends on your oven. Twelve usually works best at Mom’s (and also at my sister-in-law’s).

Take the intervening minutes to wash small hands and faces clean of illicit, raw-egg cookie makings. Remember to wash your rings while you’re at it. Find a walnut-size ball of uncookie in a pocket. Scold. Try not to laugh. At least not right now.

Wait for the magic to happen around minute 9 or 10. Turn on the oven light to give a peek, but don’t open the oven door (you’ll mess up the temperature). Flicking the switch on that light does something to people while the still pale-ish cookie dough has not quite converted to its soon-to-be cookie self.

The brothers and their respective wives, Mom, and all the small people start hovering in and around the kitchen. There is talk of milk. Is it cold? Is there enough? How many glasses do we need? Give an eye roll to conceal delight. Threaten anyone standing too near the cookie landing zone with loss of life and limb. Don’t mean it. Smile. Oh, go on, giggle.

Once everyone’s had a look, turn off the oven light. Look for the cooling racks and a spatula. Ask (again) where the paper towels are. Check the timer. Still two-ish minutes to go. Try not to pace.

When the hundred last seconds have passed, slow like the wait for Christmas, and the timer finally bings, turn on the oven light one last time. The cookies should now look done, shiny with melty shortening or butter, but clearly cookies. Experience tells you that the shine will fade as the cookies cool.

Slip the oven mitt over your hand and slide the first tray out of the oven. Identify your landing area and make the removal a clean one. There are hoverers all around, the kitchen crowded with bodies and cookie heat. Swipe the spatula under each row and gently release them to the freedom of the cooling rack.

Warn small people about heat while watching a big hand reach around and snag the first boiling cookie. He juggles it, but the cookie is safe. Broken in his palm, but safe. When the moms say go, little hands reach up, too, then march dutifully to the table where ice-cold cups of milk await. There are dippers and sippers, between them the first batch of cookies has been cut in half in a matter of breaths.

cookies2014

Now, you are alone with the rolling of walnut-sized cookie dough balls, the timing and the sliding and the cooling. Tummies small and large are warm and full of cookies and milk and have retired to the latest round of Minecraft or Skyrim in the next room.

Only you remain. Sacrificing yourself for the sake of a cookie broken on the end of the spatula, or, heaven forbid, the tiniest uncookie known to man — the last bit in the bowl.

As the last pans of cookies come out of the hot oven, lean against the kitchen counter listening to the joy, the warmth, the competition, the sheer family-ness of the moment in the other room – nearby, but still removed. Know that neither they, nor you, could possibly be this satisfied more than once or twice a year, at most.

Don’t forget to turn off the oven.