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.

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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

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

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

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

Hugging Stone — NaPoWriMo #24 (masonry)


Belly to earth, snuggling in,
back to stone, belly to stone, back to stone,
ad infinitum.
Warm in sun, cool in rain
the lizards lounge about
in our reservoirs of heat,
sneaking into sunny winter light
and dipping back in blistery boil.
We are earth made old,
time made flesh
and flesh made timeless
like wordsmiths of old
the mason has stacked us here
with care and precision
a poem to withstand all comers.

~LD

Charm against the Charmers — NaPoWriMo 3

Slivered blood from a paper cut
Parabola of kindergartener’s gut
Dried up shell of ink cartridge
And still-cool cans of Friday’s brewage –
Let no puppy-dog eyes draw me in
And may the graduation ceremony begin.

~LD

As a teacher of high school senior English, there are several points in the year (which come remarkably close together) when we are ALL just ready for the sound of “Pomp & Circumstance”, no matter how much fun we’ve had (ahem) working together. That time has come. In a week we will (finally) have our long spring break, and this wave will come and go again several times before the band actually plays that (very sticky) tune officially. In the meantime, I don’t really want to get rid of them entirely yet, but I confess to feeling empathy for my own senior English teacher and thinking that a giggle might do us all some good. =)

The Rancher

We used to see vinegaroons sometimes out in West Texas. All but harmless, the one I remember was 4 inches long and terrifying. If I didn't scream, I assure that I felt like I did.  Photo taken from scorpion-forum.com

We used to see vinegaroons sometimes out in West Texas. All but harmless, the one I remember was 4 inches long and terrifying. If I didn’t scream, I assure that I felt like I did. Photo taken from scorpion-forum.com

Trekking out
in a jagged desert sunrise
and at sunset —
fiery disc hacking its way
out of night and back in again.
Dogs at his heels,
checking feed and water,
recently calved cows
and their young;
driving fence-lines —
eagle-eyed for breaches,
coyote spoor,
and unexpected predators.
Noting the occasional wonder,
maybe a star-cactus
out of place,
an arrowhead,
a pictograph,
a tarantula,
a vinegaroon.

This is NOT "the" hat. But I added it for effect. From antiques.about.com

This is NOT “the” hat, but it was John Wayne’s hat. Close enough. ‘-) From antiques.about.com

I imagine his days,
and a light gray
felt showdown hat
comes to mind —
sweat-stain continents
mapped around the
brim and leather band –
places he dreamed up
under long rays of desolate heat,
stories unspoken,
gone now, along with other fictions.

~LD

Las Mamás Esperan que Volemos (The Mommas Hope that We Fly)

Ah, the chamberlain (if I'm not mistaken), pathetic fellow, he is.  Taken from planetirk.forumotion.com

Ah, the chamberlain (if I’m not mistaken), pathetic fellow, he is. Taken from planetirk.forumotion.com (film reference The Dark Crystal [1983])

The poor fledgling trapped in my carport looked like a Skeksis. They always do. I can’t help but feel sorry for the ugly things. First off, they’re so pitifully ugly in the midst of molting before they can fly, but after they’ve been cute and fuzzy with baby feathers.  When they get stuck in the carport, as one or two does almost every year at about this time, they always find the same perch under the bench and won’t be persuaded to move more than a hop or two. Usually within a day or so, the local street cats, the bite of starvation, or the roasting spring sun catch and break these fallen nestlings. But this guy had cojones.  All week I watched him go from hobbling the ten feet from my washer to the front gate, faling to fly and then, finally, flying short distances inside the carport and a little beyond.

Every day an army of grackle mommas that live in the tree out front kept a close eye out for any threatening movement from the cats and me.  These are serious mamasotas.  They are not to be crossed. Their presence makes clear why Hitchcock’s The Birds is such a scary movie. As I hung up the laundry last Saturday, I found myself cringing under their screechy scrutiny; there were ten or so worrying the top of the high wall around the laundry space. Even though I didn’t see the fledgling at first, I knew he had to be there somewhere; the mommas army doesn’t deign to notice me unless there’s a baby hiding out.

Sunday morning when I went out to collect the laundry, the main momma — the one with goodies in her beak — sent all the others to harangue me while she looked for the little one. Grackle mommas, aside from being vocal, are quick and wicked looking. I crept back inside, figuring the laundry could wait while the little one got fed. Monday and Tuesday I dashed in and out of the house warily, bearing glares and warning squawks with a mix of patience and trepidation.  I’ve read that crows and grackles recognize human faces and have been known to attack offensive people.  I didn’t want to accidentally do anything to offend.

Fallen Chanate / grackle, before flight

Fallen Chanate / grackle, before flight

By Wednesday he had perched his ugly Skeksis-self atop the bougambilia bush. I was impressed and hopeful that he’d been able to fly high enough to get to that point four feet off the ground. Not wanting to scare him, I neglected watering the plants. I explained the situation to the airplane plant, the ivy, the rosemary and thyme – begging fotbearance — and then stealthily refilled the water bowl I’d left out for the stranded fledgling.  The next morning he was nowhere in sight, and Momma only fussed briefly as I left for work.  When I came home yesterday afternoon he had not come out of hiding, but I’d seen him fly quite high, so I decided that he had finally gotten strong enough to fly himself away. My hope was heightened to a kind of glee when my neighbor told me this morning that yesterday he had seen the bird fly from the carport all the way up to the top of the seven(ish)-foot high perimeter gate.

Today, Friday, he lay there in the fiery afternoon sun, fat, molting, and covered in soapsuds.  His little body had tipped over in a puddle, his beak pointing south, open a crack, still in wait for the day’s feeding, his feet like broken twigs flopped uselessly. The dead fledgling simmered in a soapy soup on the concrete between the hot water heater and the washer.  I hadn’t liked him hanging out in my carport all week, and even less did I appreciate his mom’s scolding each time I went in or out with trash, to water plants, wash clothes, hang clothes.  I guess I should be glad he’s gone, but I’m curiously sad.

He came so close to flying free against the high, endless blue, croaking his misanthropic “song.” Early on, I could have shoo-ed him out the big carport door onto the sparse grass below his home tree.  I could have tried to put him in a cage and feed and water him there.  But I decided to let him use my whole carport to try to find his own way.  I guess that’s why I’m sad.  Of all the options available to me as a witness to his strife, I did the best thing I knew to do: not interfere, keep an eye out (momma grackle, me), make resources available that he couldn’t have gotten on his own, and wait for him to take wing. Maybe next year. ~LD

* * *

A few process details: After a draft workshop on Tuesday with the sophomores (oh, how I love the sophomores) I almost didn’t finish this.  The earlier incarnation had great description, but was purposeless — the fledgling was still living at that point.  But today, after finding the fledgling dead during housecleaning, the REASON came into being.  I remembered being one of Momma and Daddy’s “arrows” set free to fly into an unknown distant future. No other note is needed here, I think.

Glad you dropped by.  Leave a comment if you are so inclined. ‘-) No matter what, have a great weekend.  Summer cometh. ~LD