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.

Open Highway Summer

sticky asphalt steams
against the blue scent of velvet sky —
decadent rich —
my eyes reach out to stroke
the fine curve of sunshine mountains

We roll, top down,
along the glistening ribbon
of black with white
rhythms keep time with a dream
and city lights blink
in a distant valley
to the back beat,
“you got a fast car…”

the ebony wake of your
hair disappears in silvery waves
into the highway
sunset

~LD

I Never Dared Trespass — NaPoWriMo2

(an ode: Lajitas Peak, Lajitas, Texas)

Once, I imagined stretching myself out
in the dust and rock
at the hem of her red velvet dress.

Hands behind my neck,
Elbows stuck out like tomahawk blades —
I knew I would see the dance of
the shimmery beads she wove into hair
so blue, so black
I would plummet with vertigo into
endless strands of braid.

She was so fine, and so right, this Night in the Desert
that she stuck like caliche in a breeze
to every memory and every dream
of untouchable tomorrows
that decades later
I believe I can reach up
and wind dimmed urban Leonids around me
against November’s “garish sun.”

~LD

“take your gaze upward, and write a poem about the stars”
With apologies to The Bard; One of my favorite speeches from R + J. ‘-)

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