It is time to sit down and write. Concentrate. Get your thoughts together. They scattered like leaves in a wind storm. Sit down. Think. It is time to write. You can do it, and you will. Now, sit down. I sit and stare. I play with the keys of my laptop. I pretend to write. I try to think of something. I make lists of all the things I need to do – I must do. Nothing is coming. Nothing makes sense. I seek some of my photographs. Maybe they will help me find the words. Finally, I take a breath. I surrender my mind to the images, and images form in my mind.
This week, my thoughts came in quick, short phrases. They begged to be placed into poetry. January is a perfect month for reflection, and I am able to get to the center of my thoughts when I compose poetry. Everything seems to fall into place, and I feel comforted by the rhythm of my thinking.
I have been searching for something to read these past few months. I am in the middle of listening to The Once and Future King, which I started in August. I love T.H. White‘s humor and endless knowledge of medieval history, magic, and myths. I don’t want the adventure to end, so I am reading it ever so slowly. But right now, I need an intimate read. Since November, I have been telling friends that I feel like I’m entering a deep dark tunnel of winter. They seem a little alarmed, but I assure them that I am not experiencing a depressive state, that this melancholy is natural. The outside world is changing, and my interior climate is changing too. I have an intensive need to slow down and nourish myself. And just like magic – a book suggestion pops up in my inbox – Wintering by Katherine May.
I have been listening to May’s words carefully for the last two days. She describes wintering as a completely natural cycle of life. It is necessary for the animals and flora to winter in colder climes, and people need to prepare too for both internal and external winters. She weaves together a marvelously insightful story with bits and pieces of personal narrative, science, history, and literature. I am enjoying every word, and I want to slow down to savor them, but I know her words are what I need to get through this winter. I am experiencing a profound personal loss, and I need May’s words to show me the way through. I sit and listen quietly to her descriptions of whales swimming in the North Atlantic, of the Norwegian’s custom of being “in sauna,” and of her son, Bert’s, delight in Halloween.
As so often is the case, reading brings on writing for me. I listen to the images of winter and soak them in; I savor them. I sleep and wake, and my own words come to me. Yesterday, we had our first snow. A falcon stood sentinel outside my window. I wanted to capture her watchful calm, her powerful way in the face of winter.
I have been thinking about a word to choose as a North Star for 2022. What came to mind was the phrase: “Walk with purpose.” I say these words over and over again this year, guiding our students down hallways, across the campus, and out to the playground. I noticed that some students walk quickly to their destination, almost like they are in a race. Others meander and wander from point A to point B. They take their time; they are not in a hurry. And then there are ones who almost drag their feet – the procrastinators. They are happy where they are and don’t want to move on to another destination. I realize this is much like how I walk through my life. Sometimes I run head down into the unknown. Sometimes, I wander here and there, stopping to take in beauty or a sudden surprise. And other times, I slow down, happy where I am and not eager to move on. Approaching sixty-six, I feel the need even more sharply to walk with purpose. I slow myself down, take a breath, and make sure that where I am going is where I really want to be.
The more I thought about choosing my OLW, the more I felt like it would be cheating to choose a phrase. I sat myself down and told myself that this was not a time to color outside the lines. This was a time to be thoughtful and deliberate. This was a time to choose just one word.
The older I get, the more I try to hold moments in my memory and try to remember moments in my past. The remembering for me is a time to take a breath and savor the pieces of my life. Some of those pieces are traumatic, but many are sweet and healing. I know many aging family members whose abilities to remember are waning. It is a sad thing, a great sorrow. I think one reason I started this blog was to help me remember my teaching days and the way approached life in my sixties. It is a kind of testament to my life in education, art, and poetry. It is a touchstone where I can look back and remember. That is important to me. To remember is to be mindful, to walk with purpose in this life, and to be happy at my destination’s end.
Recently, my husband and I traveled south to visit family for the holidays. As he has done on all our road trips, my husband curates music, radio shows, and intersperses his own running monologues critiquing economics, art, fitness trends, and politics as I drive.. He is indeed a Renaissance man. As he talked, he mentioned Icarus in passing. At once, words popped into my head, and I recited to him: “Falling, falling, falling – down through the distant sky – like Icarus on melted wings – Never asking why.”
“Oh, that’s good,” my husband replied, “Where’s that from?”
I laughed, “From me. I wrote that in college. It’s part of a longer poem. But I had forgotten all about it until now.”
My husband went on with his story. I tried to pay attention, but my lost poem kept rolling around in my mind. It had been published in my college literary magazine, Cul-de-sac. At the time, I thought being published in the Cul-de-sac and being part of the editorial board was the height of literary success. I had kept several clippings but had lost them all in subsequent moves. This was long before the Internet and all things digital, and I had tossed out all my college notebooks on some impetuous whim. In my twenties, I was not aware of the need to keep memories. Now, in my sixties recalling memories and emotions is a sacred, almost devotional act.
I began recreating the poem silently in my head as I drove. It was had three stanzas maybe four. I couldn’t remember the exact words, but as I recited it my head, I got closer and closer to the original poem. The rhythm of the road helped me to remember. As the words came to me, in a short time so did my emotions. I thought about why I wrote that poem; all the loneliness and insecurity I felt came rushing back. Though being sixty-five is certainly not a cakewalk, I don’t think I would want to be twenty again. Don’t get me wrong. I would like to have my twenty-year-old skin, hair, knees, and back but not my twenty-year-old self-loathing that I have worked forty-five years to overcome.
My twenty-year-old poet-self wanted so much out of the world, wanted to do so much, and I felt so unprepared. I was so desolate and so hopeful at the same time. I guess that’s the nature of twenty-something. At the time, I was taking a course on Ibsen. We read one of his early poems as a prelude to his play, The Master Builder. I was struck how his poem, written thirty-four years earlier, connected to the essential message of his play.
I was very painfully aware of how ambition and desire were a dangerous mix. I was not at all sure how to build a strong artistic identity. I think I am still struggling with that. I create work – sometimes hiding it and sometimes presenting or publishing it. However, I think I have used teaching as a safety net. If I fall, teaching could always save me. Now, I’m facing the end years of my teaching career. The art and writing are still strong within me. And that poem that I wrote forty-five years ago, still remains true.
This week, I was able to once again attend a professional development workshop in-person! No Zoom, just educators getting together in a large space – listening and thinking; talking and laughing – the essence of true learning. We were all thrilled to be out in public once again, even if we still had to don masks and socially distance. We were together and that’s what mattered. The workshop was offered by the Rutgers Center for Literacy Development, directed by Dr. Lesley M. Morrow. I have been attending workshops presented by the center for the last twenty years, and I am on the board, helping make choices on presenter offerings and other logistical matters. The presenter for this particular workshop was Kelly Gallagher, and the title of his presentation was Building Readers and Writers: Moving from Compliance to Engagement. I have seen Kelly several times before. His expertise is teaching high school writing, which has no direct connection to me in my present role. I figured I would relax and listen and not worry about learning something. But of course, I was totally surprised.
In the course of Kelly laying out the importance of writing with students, he said something that sparked my interest. He talked about the notion of writing without a plan – writing to discover what you think and know. I do this all the time when I compose my blogs. I think of a topic, roll it around in my head for several days, and then start to write. I don’t make an outline, a web, or a Venn diagram. I just write. And then I revise. And revise. And revise. Many, many times. Eventually, I edit, and then I hit the publish button. The week before, I was discussing this very idea with Hadley, one of my private students who is a gifted 6th grade writer. She expressed her displeasure of having to always write a plan before she writes at school. She insightfully stated: “Sometimes I have an idea, but I don’t exactly know how the story is going to go until I start writing and meet the characters.” She is perfectly right, and I empathized with her, explained why the teacher was asking her to make a plan, but also encouraged her to write without a plan at home and with me. Hadley and I often write together, stopping when stuck, reading our pieces out loud, talking about where we might go next, asking ourselves, “What does this story need now?,” and then continuing to write quietly. I treasure these times when we are in the flow of writing.
Kelly explained that the “Writing process includes daily practice with finding and shaping words to express ideas, creating confidence, flexibility, and joy. He spoke eloquently about the importance of volume in student writing. Writing needs space and time to grow. It isn’t perfected overnight. A writer has to create, explore, discover, take risks, fail, and start all over again. It is the teacher’s job to help design that time and space, that love of story, that sense of adventure.
At one point during the workshop, Kelly had the attendees read the poem, “Learning the Bicycle” by Wyatt Prunty. Then he asked us each to select a line that stood out to us, write that line on a sheet of paper, and then start writing off of the idea we had selected. We got to work. I selected the line: “And her certainty she will always fall.” It jumped out at me as I read. “Yes, that’s me, always ready to fall, waiting for the moment, tense and certain.” I began to write, crafting a poem that pleased me.
The next day, I was working with Hadley. We were finishing up reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson. We had about 20 minutes left in our session. Poetry would fit in perfectly, so I read Wyatt Prunty’s poem to her, and I asked her to select a line and then start writing. Hadley took up her pencil and leaned her head toward the paper.
After several minutes, Hadley lifted her head. “I’m stuck. I don’t know how to end it,” she declared. I listened as she read her poem aloud. I didn’t have to give a word of advice. Hadley picked up her pencil and put her head down again and started to write. Quickly, she finished and said, “ I’m done, but it doesn’t make any sense.” She read the entire poem to me, and I was stunned by its deep beauty. I was surprised that a twelve-year-old girl could express her self-doubt so clearly and maturely. I told her how incredible her poem was, and she looked at me with her dark brown Hadley eyes and said, “But what does it mean?”
I turned to her and smiled, “What do you think it means? What were you trying to say?”
She implored, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me. Do you know?”
I took a breath and a chance. “I think it means that you are growing up, and the girl on the inside doesn’t always match the girl on the outside. You are trying to find your identity.”
Hadley pressed her lips together in thought and nodded her head. “How can you write when you don’t know what you are thinking?”
I smiled again. “Well, that’s what we’ve been talking about: writing without a plan, writing to discover what you are thinking. It takes time. And sometimes it surprises you!”
My words seemed to satisfy Hadley. She picked up her pencils and put them back in her case. Our writing time together was done for now.
It is time of gathering. Bare branches stretch up to the sky. The last of autumn’s glorious colored leaves cling to the trees. Squirrels and chipmunks scurry across the frozen ground retrieving nuts and seeds they have collected. An ever- changing assortment of birds alight on branches, flit from fence post to fence post, come to feed on the seeds a samaritan has left on the ground. This time of year is a time for celebration, a time to bring friends and family together, a time to reflect for all we are grateful for. And still I feel a sense of sadness. A loss for the green and growing. A loss for summer’s promise and spring’s renewal. I await the winter mornings with trepidation. But her icy fingers beckon. and I know I must follow. Everything has a season. I am fortunate to live in a place where nature surrounds me. I take comfort in the industrious birds who decorate the landscape before me.
So many times, when talking about reading, teachers put an emphasis on decoding and comprehension. They want to make sure kids are reading accurately and fluently. They want to make sure they teach their students how to predict, how to find the main idea, how to infer from the breadcrumb trails the author leaves her readers. They want to check off all the boxes. And yes, these are all important, but in the midst I think we are losing the importance of the story. Why is this story important? How does this story connect to you? How has it changed you? What differences has it made in your thinking, in your life? Isn’t that what reading is all about? Isn’t that what keeps us reading? It isn’t my ability to read accurately and fluently; it isn’t my proficiency in finding the main idea or making an inference, it is my love of and connection to the characters in the story. I want to crawl into their lives for a while and live their experiences. That way I become more them and less me. I am able to take on different points of view; I am able to grow in my thinking and being.
Recently, I have been reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson with a sixth-grade student. She is a proficient and prolific reader and writer. She loves Percy Jackson novels and all things Greek mythology. She was in a rut. Whenever this happens, whenever students gets stuck in their reading, I often turn to poetry novels. I find that verse creates a space where kids can take more chances. Verse seems to challenge their thinking, but does so in a gentle, playful way. By reading Brown Girl Dreaming, Hadley and I are able to step into Ms. Woodson’s reality. We get to see and feel what a brown girl growing up in the south experienced – parent conflicts, loving grandparents, sibling rivalry, the love of reading – all things we can connect with. There are also lots of historical and geographical pieces that nudge Hadley’s knowledge and make her curious to want to know more. This is the very essence of reading; this is why we read.
We are almost at the end our journey with Ms. Woodson, so I thought we’d take a break and write using the first line of the title poem of the novel for inspiration. When I ask students to write, I also write alongside them. I think this is so important. We write quietly beside each other and somehow there is such power in this simple act. Hadley types. I write long-hand. She marvels at how fast I can scrawl words across a page. I find that the act of writing by hand magically connects my mind and fingertips. Sometimes I wonder what my fingertips are writing. How exactly am I creating? It’s like my fingers have a mind of their own. Hadley pauses. “I’m stuck,” she says. Well, I say, “Let’s read it out loud and see what comes to mind.” She is twelve now. She does not like hearing her own voice, so I read her poem aloud to her. She reaches for the laptop again, “ I got it now,” she says and continues. I love being within this process with her. I don’t want it to end, but it does. She is finished. She has run out of steam. She says that she is done. I do not argue. I read it one more time aloud to her. . I read mine aloud, and we enjoy the fact that Ms. Woodson’s one line could create two different poems. We are satisfied.
November 11th is Veteran’s Day, a day to remember and lay honor to all those men and women who have fought for this country. It is celebrated on November 11th because that day in 1918 marked the end of World War I: “The war to end all wars.” But of course, it didn’t end all wars. It was made a national holiday in 1954 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It became a day to honor American veterans of all wars. For many years, I’d thank my father for his service in World War II, but I truly did not know what he had sacrificed until he wrote a memoir, The Timid Marine: Surrender to Combat Fatigue, in 2005 when he was seventy-nine-years-old. Only then, did I start to put the traumatic pieces together and how his trauma became my trauma, not on the beaches of Okinawa, but in the suburbs of New Jersey. When my father was a soldier, PTSD was not a known disorder, and there was no help or treatment for World War II veterans.
In 2013, journalist Dale Maharidge wrote a book about his father’s experience in World War II called Bringing Mulligan Home: The Long Search for a Lost Marine. In preparation for writing his book, he came across my father’s self-published memoir, and they became fast friends culminating with a heart-felt acknowledgement to my father at the beginning of Dale’s book. In writing about his father, Dale was able to come to terms with his own childhood upheaval and start to understand and explain the true cost of war.
As I read my father’s memoir, I realized how much his war experiences had infiltrated our family life. Some of my most traumatic childhood memories were directly connected to his wartime trauma. I turned to poetry to make sense of it all. I took pieces from my father’s memoir and turned them into poetry. Then I intertwined his poems with my own creating a trail of lived experiences, trying to come back from war not broken, but whole and blossoming.
So, to all our Veterans of this Veteran’s Day 2021 – Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You have paid dearly, as have your families.
For Two Voices: Father and Daughter
Marine Boot Camp –
Parris Island, South Carolina 1942
All the days of summer
That year of our young lives
Were spent in a continuous monotony
Of drills and abuses and marches
Learning the ways of the Corps,
Learning to be heroes.
Little by little at his leisure
At his best opportunity
At his chosen place and time
The Drill Instructor would strike out
To drive home another lesson
He was trained to do.
“Today,” he shouted, “You will learn
One of the most important lessons
Of being a Marine.”
Even many years after the war,
Whatever object that happened
to be in my father’s hands
could possibly become a weapon:
A coffee cup, a broom handle, a basketball,
“Don’t you know how to do anything?”
He snapped as he lobbed the ball at my head.
“What the hell is wrong with you?”
I tried to duck, but he was too close to me.
“Stop crying, damn girl, have to toughen you up,”
And he kept hitting me with that basketball
Bounce….bounce… bounce… bounce…
“Can’t you do anything right?”
My head was ringing, tears were flowing
I tried to get away from him,
But he followed me wherever I went.
“Don’t walk away from me!” he screamed,
And kept bouncing that damn ball on my head,
“You’re nothing,” he barked, “You’ll always be nothing.”
I finally ran into the house and up into my room,
But his words seeped in and for years I believed him.
A Marine near me had a White Owl cigar
Still in good condition
After the long voyage,
And I was in the mood
To play a game with him –
Give you five dollars for that cigar,
He looked at me like I was nuts,
I realized that the five dollars
would not be of any use,
We would all be killed anyway.
It was the last money I had on me.
We made a deal –
I smoked two puffs of that very bad cigar
Before throwing it away,
For my five bucks I got a memory
that returned every time
I smoke a cigar in later years,
But I never bought one for five dollars again.
On a clear blue Father’s Day,
I proudly gave my father
A glass container of White Owls
Because I knew he liked cigars,
I went all the way to the mall
With my friends to buy it for him,
I was eleven-years-old.
I remember it had a bright red bow,
I thought he would be so happy
That his little girl chose a present
For him so carefully.
When my father unwrapped the container
And saw the cigars,
His face contorted from happy to rage.
He took my beautiful glass container
With the shiny red bow
And threw it against the wall,
Screaming something about
How I should have known
That White Owls were cheap, bad cigars
But how was I to know?
I was an eleven-year-old girl
Getting a pretty present for her dad,
What did I know about cigars?
The glass splintered everywhere
And I ran out of the house crying,
Vowing never to speak to him again.
Later, he apologized, said he was sorry
But I didn’t speak to him for a week
And I didn’t buy him another present for years,
I promised myself that I would never forget.
There seemed to be a shortage of everything
Sometimes we did not have a complete uniform
Needing a hat or pair of boots or jacket
The only thing you could do was requisition
Something for yourself if you wanted it
Requisitioning was a Marine translation for stealing
The Marines were great for requisitioning.
Unofficially the Corps condoned it without argument
If you needed something, you did not have
You were expected to supply yourself the best you could
Requisitioning was easy to do
And I had no problem with it
I had trained during The Depression
I’d stolen food from stores,
Pilfered clotheslines at night
to get a shirt to wear to school
Stole coins from various areas
to attend a movie or buy an ice cream soda.
Several years ago, my mother had a heart attack,
She had to have quadruple bypass,
Hospitalized for many months,
But we were sure that she would survive,
Just as she had survived colon cancer three years before,
You see, my mother was a fighter.
When we’d visit the hospital, my father would show us
All the things he requisitioned:
Basins, pillows, extra blankets, boxes of tissues -
He stored them in the closet next to my mother’s bed
- A Marine is always prepared –
That was the way he took care of my mother
Those awful winter months,
Sitting next to her bed watching television,
Stalking the hallways always on the lookout
For something she might need,
Everyone was his enemy:
He sniped at my sister, my nieces,
My aunt, my husband, and me, as usual.
No one could do anything right,
He was the only one who cared,
He was the only one who could comfort,
My father was my mother’s fortress
And in the spring she got well,
Returned home with a new heart.
I shot an old horse in the head
As it was lowered to eat some grass
I was only a foot from the horse’s head
And placed the carbine muzzle
Close to the head between the eyes,
Hoping to hit the brain.
The horse gave a shriek
And lifted its head high in the air
Before it fell to the ground twitching
And jerking in spasms of pain and ensuing death.
I shot the horse out of boredom
And the need to see something die.
The horse did not die instantly like in the movies.
I was agitated seeing the horse bleed from head and mouth
Twitching and jerking all over its body.
I wanted to end the experience.
I quickly shot the horse in the head several more times
To stop the quivering and pain,
“What the hell are you doing you crazy bastard?”
Several of the Marines asked.
“It was an old horse.” I said.
It was my only explanation
And no one pursued another explanation.
I have to find a way to release my rage,
Set it upon its own course away from me -
Good-bye Rage, you childish thing
That cripples my life,
I can no longer respond in anger
For all things lost.
Be off with you down that dark forest path,
Howl to the moon and be gone forever,
You are of no use to me,
I must take a new path,
The one in the mist,
The one lined with fear,
That path – that as the day breaks
Burns off the mist
And fear becomes flowers.
Okinawa, April 1945,
I looked into the dirt
Saw a yellow flower
That looked familiar, a buttercup.
It had pushed itself up out of the earth
In this remote rice field.
It was so incongruous growing there,
So far away from my childhood meadows
where I sued to pick them,
I turned my head without lifting it
so that I could see the sky above me,
Which was just perfect
white clouds and pale blue expanses
and there I was,
getting ready to resume running to save my life,
I held a handful of the dirt to my nose to smell it,
It looked dark and alive with organisms.
This is what men die for,
Earth - dirt - inches of it, and mile of it
Stretches of earth in the form of countries
all over the world had been fought over
and I visualized the various armies
and hoards that fought over the land
with various weapons from stones to aircraft.
I saw all the small flowers
had been pushing themselves up
out of the black earth
here the sunlight caught them
and transformed them into gold.
Now around me the enemy bullets
were kicking up bits of stone and earth.
They had located us where we fell.
Men were crying and shouting
all around in a mass confusion
Voices more frightened than my heart
that pounded in my chest.
Your golden head rises
Out of the rusty rubble,
Just another weed –
You push your way out
Between cracks in the sidewalk
Among rocks, bricks, bits of broken glass,
You grow strong –
Impervious to your surroundings
Your leaves, jagged toothed
Spread green along the old gray ground,
You are not discouraged –
You’ve never depended
Upon rain or fertilizer,
You provide your own sunlight.
I absolutely love October! And one of the reasons I love October aside from the Halloween hoopla is the advent harvest time and all the wonderful colors of the season. Gold, red, and orange abound to cheer up the dreary chilly days in the northeast. They offer solace to the bare branches and the November wind.
Pumpkins are a jolly sight and I love visit farmer markets to survey the fall bounty. There are soups, stews, and hearty muffins waiting to be made. I feel a nesting instinct in the fall – to come inside and rest, relax, and reflect. This harvest time gives me pause to think about sitting down in a cozy spot to read. This week, I was thinking about how pumpkins are quintessential to magical tales both old and new. One of the very earliest tales that included pumpkins was French writer, Charles Perrault’s version of Cinderella. The pumpkin carriage had always intrigued me and a number of years ago a group of 2nd graders and I built our own magic pumpkin carriages. And I have always enjoyed Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow to excite and scare me. Another great pumpkin character, Jack Pumpkinhead, was created by L. Frank Baum in his book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. This character is benevolent instead of scary and display all the wonderful magical qualities that Baum’s characters portray.
I learned something new this week! Jack-o-lanterns were not originally carved from pumpkins! They were carved from potatoes and rutabagas. The tradition comes from Ireland and you can read more about it here: History of Jack-O-Lanterns
In the pumpkin spirit, I decided to create my own poetic form: The Diagonal Poem. The poet decides on a word and then spells that word out in a diagonal fashion throughout each line of the poem.