At the Feet of Las Noas (remembering Paris)

Photo courtesy of C. Patrick Neagle

Cristo de las Noas, Torreon, Coahuila, Mexico // Photo courtesy of C. Patrick Neagle

Today,
beneath a tree
at a sidewalk café
I sipped a glass of lime
and Topo Chico
sweetened with grenadine;
a waiter’s smile
made me blush,
while the sun set behind Jesus
on the hill.
Condensation gathered
on the clear glass,
drawing a concerto of tiny flyers.
A young Hemingway sat
smoking Delicados, drinking
a pale green frappé,
and reading El Laberinto de la Soledad
at the next table.
A meter away,
city folk bustled by in cars;
their countenances low-lit,
glanced our way,
before returning zombied eyes
to devices where they live and work.
A cream colored pit bull, leash dragging,
sniffed around the legs of our chairs,
and apparently satisfied,
returned to her person’s side.
Later, as I walked down the street
the stars came on
blink by blink, remarkably
outshining street lamps
and passing cars —
then, I remembered
other trips,
other cafés,
other Hemingways
other labyrinths.

~LD

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Quiet Savage

I roll over in the night —

Under lonely, comfortless blankets —

my heart flopping gently against my lung,

wet and heavy.

It must be a sin

to feel this vital organ as if I were

tossing it, warm and rhythmic,

from hand to hand —

Aztec-style.

~LD

 

Braided and Dashed — Poems on a birthday eve…

Braided

Strands of silver
Woven in the old way
Hand over hand over hand

Build a sluicing melody
Rushing against the damming
Demands of time

as it speeds along
in sightless pursuit
of a crooked path

sketched onto a map
long hidden,
ragged ends folded amiss.

Dashed

Like a sunrise
across the striped limestone
hills, not so distant

Time brightens aged gullies,
green, now, with unexpected rain
life lengthens and inhales possibility

No hyphen here to join
pieces of idea,
but rather dashes
marking ends and beginnings
of interruptions.

~LD

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

Ghosts of a Bass Guitar — NaPoWriMo #21 (New York School)

Though I’m no Frida Kahlo,
against my better judgment,
I invoked my Diego
one August Friday night at eleven forty-three.

On Saturday morning I spent two hours of my life
standing in a sweaty, chatty line to change
my cable service to digital.
Suddenly you were before me —
Eddie, Charlie, David, Garrett, Armando, Jeff, Joe, etc. —
in the guise of one man, a bassist in the band.

I was next in line to update my cable service,
and you wanted to engage me?
Seduce me?
Impress me?
Terrify me?
I turned and stepped forward
to fill out the requisite forms as
a horned toad ran
over the toe of my shoe,
each step a rumbling thunder
across the desert sky
harbinger of death.

In the afternoon of Sunday
Will Smith got jiggy wid
some aliens on my newly
digitized television service
HBO? Or was it Cinemax?
And I couldn’t help but wonder
if my reaction to your visage
was silvered adequately in bullets of
boredom and disinterest to
keep you at bay.
Werewolf with a beat.

~LD

To know where some of this comes from you’ll have to check out the semi-structure provided by today’s NaPoWriMo prompt here. From where I sit, this is a remarkably, terrifyingly revealing poem. Read from it what you will. This was a toughie. ~LD

Spanning the Waters — NaPoWriMo #18 the tiniest of rubaiyats

The river rushes between steep banks
Of pebble and mud, without a word of thanks
to the hips of the bridge that spans its width,
A single step over the joist, and she is over the water’s flanks.
 
The joists are solid under the flooring beneath her feet,
Though the wooden struts strain and moan in windy sleet,
what’s behind grows dim in the veil of ice
each step only forward, toward the voice of a future she’s yet to meet.

~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.

Perhaps Compassion leads to Serendipity (a research reflection)

Preface:

I’ve been recycling writing with the best of them for ages, and I thought some of you might be interested in what’s been keeping me so busy…er…silent. So, I’m posting my homework. You heard me.

Back in July, I saw an advert for a Social Psychology course with Coursera and the intro video was so fascinating that I had to sign up (“What? Study for free at the best universities in the world? Who needs credit? SIGN ME UP!”). Thus, the same week that I went back to work, I found myself doing the reading, watching the lectures, writing the homework for the SocPsych class based out of Wesleyan University with Prof. Scott Plous. Talk about back to school.  The culminating activity was to have a “Day of Compassion” (DoC) and to reflect on what we had done that was compassionate, how social psychology applied to what we had done, how much of an impact our actions had on others, how our behaviors might be different in a month or so, and how to spread the compassion “movement.”

I was pretty happy with the day, and the essay that I built from it. I hope you’ll enjoy it. And maybe you’ll notice your daily compassions and give yourself a pat on the back as a result. You deserve it. ‘-)

The only thing remaining to finish the class and get my certificate is the exam.  I am compiling notes even as we speak.  What a great feeling. Next up? Intro to Philosophy via the University of Edinburgh. (I am an unrepentant geek / nerd / bookworm.) Much love to everyone.  ~LD

***

Perhaps Compassion Leads to Serendipity (a research reflection)

Serendipity happened. The week that I contemplated how best to create a day of compassion in my life, I was also considering how to help students discover rhetorical strategies used by David Foster Wallace in the speech he gave at Kenyon College, Gambier, OH in 2005. He told this story: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” (Shea 233). Wallace concluded his speech saying, “This is water; this is water” (238).

As I was studying the speech and making marginal notes detailing Foster Wallace’s use of hyperbole, understatement, sarcasm, and appeals to pathos, logos and ethos, I didn’t notice the full title of the speech: “This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life” (Shea 232). I noticed the full title only today when I decided to include his fable in my reflection. I was clutching desperately for ways to express in writing both what I did and what I learned, and Foster Wallace’s speech spoke to a deep place in me that needed to remember that, after all, this is life.

How did you define compassion, and who were the recipients of your efforts? Was your behavior different from normal?

When I was a teen, driving my parents crazy with my little angers and frustrations, Momma said to me once, “You get to decide how your day is going to be.  You just say it, out loud when you wake up. Today is going to be great.” Later, when “bad days” diminished in number and my anger and frustration focused more on individual people, many of whom I didn’t even know, my wise Momma told me, “Try to think one nice thought about R— today. You don’t have to say anything, and it doesn’t have to be big; it could be that you like her shirt, or how organized she is. But think the nice thought.” Because these strategies worked, Momma’s wise practices have long been the basis for how I approach my day-to-day life and try to avoid the traps of frustration and anger that routine and pressure can inevitably produce. Most who know me consider me to be quite compassionate; sometimes they call it patience.

After the reading and lectures on altruism and empathy, though, I felt quite confused about how to understand compassion, so I did some additional research and decided to incorporate broader meanings of compassion into my own understanding and practice. Thomas Merton was a stoic who wrote that compassion is “the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things” a definition that fits well with the idea that deciding on a thing can make it so, or begin to create a space in which it could be so, eventually.  The connections I found between Momma’s wisdom and the concept of compassion was further confirmed in Kelebeyev’s assertion “that compassion enables people to extend the limitations of the ‘I’, enabling them to identify with the other and see him [or her] as a peer”, which helped me understand why my conflicts with R— and others, were lessened when I applied Momma’s “nice thought” practice by creating common ground, even if it was unspoken.

Because my time outside class is limited, I decided to act out the day of compassion with colleagues and students. These two groups comprise both in-groups and out-groups for me and for each other.  Our students are members of the upper economic class in our city (out-group on a personal level), while most teachers and staff are members of the working class or, at best, middle class. Some of the teachers, like myself, are in yet another out-group as we are foreigners living and working in Mexico. Still, we are all passionate members of our school community (in-group). This crossover among groups can foster many interesting and stubborn conflicts (both superficial and significant) among the different groups. I did not feel that my behavior was particularly different from my usual behavior, though I did make an effort to be aware of both my behaviors and others’ reactions to me more than I normally would, and that may have colored some of the events of the day, or at the very least my perception of events (fundamental attribution error? Maybe).

What are the psychological costs and benefits of behaving compassionately? In your view, do the benefits outweigh the costs?

The biggest cost of behaving compassionately is the energy required to do so consistently. I am by no means perfect at it, but I’d say I’m seventy-five percent consistent in being compassionate in small, moment by moment ways thanks to Momma’s “tricks”. I found it ironic that the day that I decided to pay conscious attention to my compassionate behaviors that it was much harder than I usually find it to be. I found myself wondering during the course of the day if I am compassionate enough, and what else I can do. These thoughts are not new, but they took on heightened importance in light of the rattling dissonance created by the assignment. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that even the smallest acts of compassion (allowing that a cashier who says “have a nice day” as if it were a death sentence may have had a fight with her husband this morning) provide a great benefit. My smile and enthusiasm in spite of another person’s flat aspect or down attitude may be enough to turn their day in a better direction. Whereas, an angry or sarcastic or uninterested response from me may leave them stewing. I’d like to think that at least sometimes the juxtaposition of my response to someone else’s “bad day” could make a difference in whatever is left of their day.

How did others respond to your compassion? Do you think they noticed a difference in your behavior? What attributions did people make for your behavior, and why?

The most salient feature of the particular day that I chose to pay attention to was that I got a lot more hugs than usual, mainly from colleagues, but curiously even from a few students (who are still “new” to me, so we’ve not established the strong relationship that we will have by the end of even this semester).  No one mentioned anything different about me or my behavior, not even to note that I was in a particularly good mood; I’d like to think they didn’t notice. As a result, I don’t know what, if any, attributions people made about my actions that day.

If you wanted to encourage others to behave as you did during the Day of Compassion, what psychological techniques would you use? How can social psychology be used to foster a more compassionate society?

This aspect of the assignment seems difficult to me.  I tend to teach by modeling (not that my behaviors are always model-worthy), but in the case of my students and even in some cases my colleagues it is occasionally useful to talk about and show a sense of social responsibility. We are much more fortunate than so many in the larger community that it’s important that we give back whenever we can in both small and large ways by being generous not only with our time and money, but also in our thoughts without expecting anything in return. When thinking how to answer this, I guess I’d like to be the older fish that Foster Wallace mentions in his speech, the one who points at “water” in the hope that others will notice that water is, indeed, water. This life is the only one we have, and it’s happening every second, even when we don’t notice.

If you were to predict your behavior one month from now, do you think it will be changed as a result of participating in the Day of Compassion? If so, how? If not, why not?

In a month I hope that things at school will have calmed down enough that I can extend my miniscule practices of compassion to our sister school for underprivileged and at-risk students to spend time with them not as a tutor or teacher, but as a playmate who happens to be a native speaker of English.  Otherwise, I will continue to be myself and apply the lessons I bring with me from all my life in everyday small ways.

Resources

Kelebeyev, Vadim. “Compassion.” Shalom Hartman Institute. 12 Oct 2011. Web. 10           Sept 2013.  http://www.hartman.org.il/Research_And_Comment_View.asp?Article_Id=814&Cat_Id=324&Cat_Type=research_and_comment

Myers, D. G. Social Psychology (11th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. 2012. PDF.

Shea, Renée H., et al. The Language of Composition. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2013. Print.

Strain, D.T. The Humanist Contemplative: Essays on Spiritual Naturalism. June 2010. Web. 10 Sept 2013. http://humanistcontemplative.blogspot.mx/2010/06/compassion-stoic-philosophy.html

The Last Delicious Bite — Thoughts on NaPoWriMo now that it’s over.

This scribbler's notebook and pen.

This scribbler’s notebook and pen.

And so poetry month ended, not with a bang but a whimper (at least at my house). I didn’t get the final two poems written, having intended to get two more up yesterday evening, but the siren song of my pillow won the night. Today, a day out of the classroom in celebration of International Labor Day, I spent alternating between student essays and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Obviously, I made more progress on the novel than on the student essays. It’s been many years since it took me more than two weeks to grade a set of student essays, though this round looks like it may break all heretofore standing records. After two weeks, I’m merely halfway through. But I didn’t stop in to share my woes about my current student writers. (Or maybe these woes are more about me; anyway.)

In fact, this pit stop on the way to the asparagus “florentine” and salmon filet waiting in the kitchen is to close out NaPoWriMo. Honestly, I am sad to see it go. I looked forward to reading the prompt each day with my early morning coffee, and though each day I wished I could have had the prompt the night before, the prompt dutifully percolated away in my mind after breakfast while I milled around in students’ goings on, and the day’s news, and taking out the trash, and going to dance class, and all the quotidian details.

On the other hand, NaPoWriMo has been one of those guests that after thirty straight days, really could have packed it in a week earlier and been afforded a larger space for longing in my heart. The challenge of coming up with a new (albeit often bad to mediocre) set of semi-poetic looking / sounding words and phrases to post grew to be nearly tedious. Rather (I imagine) like trying to cook for guests every single day when you aren’t a chef. Sometimes, you just order take out and call it good. So I missed two days all together, and recycled two other days. Twenty-six out of thirty poems ain’t too shabby for a self-proclaimed essay scribbler.

The challenge did jerk my imagination out of routine and jangle words and syntax around on my tongue in ways that might not have happened for any other occasion. I will play again next time, though I might not cleave so closely to the prompts.

The best part of NaPoWriMo was reading the participants’ pieces each day. Early on, I had trouble getting to sleep before one or two in the morning because I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of the whorl of all their lovely, troubling, powerful words. What a wonderful reason to stay up late!

So, I won’t be around everyday. Once a week of me is more than anyone should have to tolerate. Besides, you also have other things to do and think. I thank you for all your comments and well-wishes and reading over these thirty days; I got some thoughtful feedback that was both helpful and inspiring. I return now to my weekly (ish) posting format with full faith that the exercise of NaPoWriMo has loosened up my tongue and brain and pen. ‘Till next week, then! ~LD

Accidentally — NaPoWriMo day 25 —

surrounded by broken kaleidoscope glass
lovers’ faces refracted and multiplied by six
I could play jacks among the shards, the superball rising and falling
onesies, pigs in the pen, carts before horses
the way I’ve always played
but with your face etched on the slivers
of shattered silvered glass

~LD

* * *

Not a ballad. In fact, not even new (July 2012). So here I remind myself of a couple of things my grad school mentors used to tell us: “Recycle, reuse, reuse” and “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Clearly, the power of failure is underrated. Enjoy the weekend! ~LD