When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience. That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem “How the Stars Get in Your Bones” by Jan Richardson. We all agreed that this poem captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day. We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.
How the Stars Get in Your Bones A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.
And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
who can say what day it happened?—
See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.
See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.
Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.
I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.
This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.
Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015 when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Michael joined me, along with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante. Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.
A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.
The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.
I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.
One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.
Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.
The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.
For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.
How I respond to student writing
When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.
For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”
The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.
For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.
Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.
Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.
Definitions are important, I used to emphasize when discussed crafting an argument with my students. Definitions serve as the foundation for a common understanding of an issue. And when we want to find a definition, we usually consult the dictionary. While there are many definitions for the word witness, the following entry in Webster’s seems most appropriate to the work of teacher as witness: “to be present at, to see personally.”
Teachers are present at many events in students’ lives: reading a first book, winning a race, mastering an instrument, graduating. But as teachers, we always need to bring the personal into the classroom, to see personally each of our students. To move past the challenging behaviors or the angry words and sullen refusals to participate. As teachers, we are called to look at the student more carefully, more thoughtfully, so as to help them manage whatever challenges they carry.
“There’s beauty everywhere. There are amazing things happening everywhere, you just have to be able to open your eyes and witness it. Some days, that’s harder than others.” Sarah McLachlan
I learned this lesson most deeply when I taught adolescents in a psychiatric hospital several years ago. To say their behaviors were inappropriate and challenging is to understate the situation. And while I was often at a loss as to how to break through the students’ defenses, I found my way in with poetry. The more I knew about each student, the more I was able to connect in a kind and understanding way.
The series of poems that I began while I worked in the psych hospital grew into a collection of poems that detail the stories of many of the students, teachers, and administrators I have worked with over the span of 40 years. Writing the poems helped me to go deeper into each student’s story and at the very least, to gain more empathy. Here is one of the poems about a young woman struggling with gender identity in high school. I hope her story will encourage you to witness the people in your life as personally as you are able. (Published in Mipoesias, Fall, 2015)
Rena’s brown eyes focus on something in the distance—
She slumps in her chair
cropped brown hair frames her frozen face.
Rena never smiles
except when she talks about her going back to Brazil
or about caring for her 5 year old sister.
They make castles together and later Rena writes stories
with a heroine named Marvelous Maggie.
Rena tells me I love reading to her and writing stories.
A smile spills across her face.
Rena fails every class in 10th grade—
despite repeating 9th grade work. At midterm,
she begs for the chance to take Honors English 10 I’m bored. If you challenge me, I’ll work, she promises.
When I ask Rena how she’s doing, she looks past
me, then shuts her eyes. My parents work all the time, so I have to take care of my sister. I want to take a drawing class. Have you seen my sketch book?
“How’s it going in English?” I missed a test because I was sick, but I’ll make it up this week. I’m doing great though.
Rena doesn’t tell me she has a D average. I’m going to Brazil in January, so none of this matters.
Rena’s hair is shorter every time I see her
She sports a spikey leather collar around her neck,
wears baggy tee shirts with old Punk band logos. She holds hands
with a girl when she leaves school. When we have a progress meeting, she says I used to want to kill myself and I’ve been feeling really sad again. I don’t think I’m going to hurt myself, but I’m afraid.
Rena refuses to speak to me because I tell her parents what she said.
She turns away when I approach. She continues to fail every class.
Rena shaves all of her hair and leaves a strip long, hanging over one eye.
She dyes it green. I see her hugging a girl in the hallway.
Her clothes more masculine, her face impassive, yet defiant.
My parents won’t let me go to Brazil, she tells me.
I’m dropping out of school.
When I was a child, my mother emphasized the virtue of kindness. I can still hear her soft voice encouraging me to be kind to my siblings or be kind to my friends. But what did kindness look like?
When I was a child, kindness often meant sharing my toys or taking one of my siblings along to the library–when I really wanted to be alone. And what was the benefit? My mother’s smile or even the surprise of a fun adventure with my sibling.
It doesn’t take long to see there is a great need for kindness in the world–often on a grand scale. Sometimes we may even feel overwhelmed by the need we see on the news–refugees fleeing from Syria, flood and earthquake victims, the families of drone strike victims. What do our individual acts of kindness mean when stretched onto the world canvas? How can we make a difference?
When we feel overwhelmed by the needs of our communities, often the first response is shut down, to turn away. If we can just avert our eyes, then we are safe from acting. And then I remember what a friend who works at Baltimore’s Healthcare for the Homeless told me: “Even if you don’t want to or can’t give a person money, please look at them. Our clients say the worst pain of being homeless is the feeling that they are invisible.”
Digging deeper into my psych after that encounter, I had to admit why it was hard to look into the eyes of people who are homeless: It’s that chilling realization that is could happen to me. And in that moment, I know what I had to do. I resolved that even if I didn’t have money to give or didn’t choose to give money, I could give my attention. I could say “I’m praying for you,” or “God bless you.” It was in realizing that I, too, could lose something precious that I found a simple way to be kind. It was in realizing my connection that I could reach out.
Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness” exorts readers to do much the same thing. She starts by saying “Before you know what kindness really is/you must lose things,…” Enjoy the poem. What do you have to lose?
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
~from Words Under the Words, Selected Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, last summer when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Michael joined me, along with Laura Shovan and Debby Rippey, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante. Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.
Does teaching have to contribute to the status quo? Must it be dominated by business models that value efficiency over humanity and greed over compassion? Yes and no. But, it doesn’t have to be this way.
This is my story. It just happened. And it’s been happening for years.
I’m letting go of teaching. I’m kicking and screaming, hanging on with my fingernails, letting go.
I’m sixty. I’m “outside faculty” (literally translated from the Hebrew, adjunct in plain English). One of my bread-and-butter teaching gigs will evaporate with a just-launched Ministry of Education, free, online, self-study English reading course.
And things are not working so well at a new gig this semester, where an administrator seems to have taken a dislike for me. I don’t want this constant battle in my life anymore, the struggle to make a living doing something I believe should have value.
After three months teaching, a group of us who are “hourly” teachers this semester saw a contract for the first time. It was dated Monday, the 18th of January. It begins three months before, 18th October. And, the contract expires this Friday, the 22nd. Four-days after they presented it to us. That’s, not coincidentally, the last day of classes for the semester.
One of the many problems with this end date is that we had been told to be present at the final exams on Monday, the 25th. Please note, that is after the contract ends. And, in addition to the paragraph that say, “you are hired from this date to that date,” paragraph seven also says something that loosely translates as: to be very clear, after the end date above, you are no longer an employee of the university, unless you are explicitly given an extension in writing. There is no extension of the dates.
This attitude toward those of us who teach is as destructive to education (and, by extension, society) as almost any other force other than war.
I hate having to fight for employment rights, like getting paid. The constant battling leaves me feeling like a failure. I am letting go of this work, which is no longer teaching, but a form of war.
I am hanging on to a lot of anger. I felt it as I left campus today. Boiling under the virus, feeding its fever. I am seething. And I need to find something else to hold on to.
I teach English as a Foreign Language reading comprehension to international students, Israelis, and Palestinians, in a post-high school prep program, called in Hebrew a mechina. (Yes, these students study together in the same classroom.) I love my students. I want to hold on to those marvelous relationships with students we teachers have the honor of sharing with them, where we learn together.
Today was our last regular meeting as a class. As I often do, I invited them to keep in touch—they have my email. Use it, I said. I’m on Facebook, I added. Three have already sent friend requests. Two of them are Palestinian students.
And just before supper, a student sent me an email (uncorrected and shared with permission of the student):
Hi Michael, this is __________, from English.
I want to tell you that you are a awesome teacher. Since the first lesson, I want to stay in your class. When I heard that we have to redo the [placement] exam. It’s my first time that I started to worry about if I can still be in a specific class.
I love the way you teaching, although sometime it is a little bit boring. I still remember that you played guitar and singing with us. And you told us that the purpose of teaching us is teach us how to think, about critical thinking. Since that, I knew that I was in the right class.
This particular student comes from China. He wants to study in Israel. He knows English already, and has been learning Hebrew. He also takes math, history, physics…a full load of prep-courses that has most of the students studying from 8:30 to 5 or later.
What he wrote at the end of his email, I will hold onto forever:
And I mentioned that I have something to share with you, the topic is that the relationship between war and education.
I found that, if a country want to get strong, it must have to good education in the nation. And the way to show others that you are strong, is to show them you have high tech and strong military. I would like to say high tech in some way is for high tech weapons. So who will provide the nation researchers and scientists to make weapons? Education do.
So in this way. I can say education make this world worse not better. And it get worse after every year. I believe that one day this world will get destroyed by those weapons and war. So who cause this? Education.
What do you think about this?
We had a unit on comparative education. The students spent a couple of classes online, looking at websites for places like Summerhill School (Democratic education), reading articles about Tiger Mom’s and Finland’s education system, and listening to TED Talks on the need for more creativity in education.
We did not discuss war, or its connection to education. That came from an amazing student. It didn’t come from me. Yet, providing students a chance to think such thoughts and to ask such questions—that is why I teach. And a successful teacher is someone to whom a student could write: I have something to share with you…What do you think?
I will hang on to the memory of this email. And hanging on to it will allow me to let go of frustrations with the difficulties and unfairness of a system that is stacked against him more than it is me. Hanging on to what matters will help me let go of what doesn’t matter.
It will also help me let go of this form of the work.
I wrote this student a long reply, which allowed me to hang on to what I really value. And, paradoxically perhaps, to let go of the job. The end of what I wrote went something like this:
If education doesn’t ask the questions that need to be asked, or, more importantly, teach how to ask important and critical questions, then you are right, education is part of the problem. It becomes an accomplice, helping to build the structures of dominance and power. Then, it feeds the cycles of greed. All of these things threaten our world today. If education is about training workers and obedience to authority, if it teaches accepted facts and does not challenge students to think for themselves, we are in trouble.
I think that this is one of the reasons why the Humanities are under attack, politically and economically, in much of the world today. It is why many politicians attack education—not because it is “failing,” but because it challenges. And why “reforms” are regularly introduced that use over-simplified models of “manufacturing knowledge,” teaching doctrinal facts (in whatever discipline or doctrine)—serving a purpose of producing workers and even leaders who “fit,” but not inspiring thinkers who question.
We need to find ways to inspire students to think—as I see you have been doing—about our world, about how to make it better, about how to find reasonable and well-reasoned approaches to fixing the problems we see and providing a sustainable, healthy, and worthwhile future for our species.
I don’t have the answers. I hope that we will find the right approaches, or at least, good enough approaches. And I hope that education does not end up only serving the powerful, the military, and the greedy.
However, it is always about possibilities. We must look for and welcome new possibilities into our lives.
From the Jewish tradition, we have this teaching, too: “You are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:21).
I believe that we can stop the destruction you fear. I hope that we can. May we not desist (stop) from trying. May we continue to seek forms of truth, practice heartfelt communication, and learn compassion for each other. May we cooperate and share with each other solutions as we find them. And may we always look to improving the world, not simply existing, or, worse,“using up” the world.
I believe that you could be someone who makes a difference. Start with your questions. And then, look for those possible solutions. That is all I know to say to you as an answer to your question about whether education is causing the destruction of the world. Yes and no. And, it doesn’t have to be this way.
With respect and hope for your generation,
BIOGRAPHY: Michael Dickel, a writer and digital artist, currently lives in (West) Jerusalem, Israel, and teaches in Tel Aviv. He is the chair of the Israel Association of Writers in English. His most recent book is War Surround UsRose Press, 2014), available at bookstores and online.
Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey and I met in Salerno, Italy this past summer when we both attended the 100 Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Poets gathered from all over the world to share ideas, read poetry, and brainstorm how we can be effective agents of social change with our poetry. Richard stood out for many reasons, including his warm and welcoming smile. I immediately felt comfortable talking with Richard and wanted to know him better. But what made me want to share his voice on my blog is his amazing story of survival and the way he has used his own trials and painful experiences as an orphan to help other orphans.
I asked Richard to write a blog post on the theme of holding on and letting go. Here is his take on that topic.
I think what has really kept me focused and always pressing on is this. When my mother was alive, we had no option but to eat whatever food she cooked. And I mean whatever.
Who are you to say that you don’t like something, especially any food on the table? My mother wouldn’t mind you. Who are you to pretend as though you are allergic to a particular food? You will sleep hungry. She wouldn’t waste her precious time pampering you. As a result, none of us ever went to her crying for toys, a particular type of shoes, or anything kids of our present day are zealous for. We wore whatever clothes she bought. We wore whatever shoes, belts, or underpants—anything she would get us. For shoes and clothes, she always bought twice our size for the reason that we would grow into them.
And we went to church and gatherings always looking like some caricatures. We were so embarrassed by our clothes, we felt like we were covered in blisters. No matter the number of holes in our clothes, despite their magnitude, we remained calm. We had to remain calm despite the mimicking and mockery because it was insane to cry.
It was suicidal to bother our mother to get us things she had no money for—like toothbrushes, as if without them we couldn’t grow. Kids in our world today ought to be grateful. We never had toothbrushes. Forget about toothpaste. And we didn’t bother Mom. We used chewing sticks, because she and my father both used them. She knew that whether we had toothbrushes and toothpaste or not we would grow. For her, our growth was more important than things.
When I look back, although Mom died about 17 years ago, I think I’m still angry. We thought she was being so hard on us. We felt she was denying us the joy children expect from their parents. But no. Mom was doing the right thing even though we saw ourselves as victims of pain and suffering, poverty and hunger. She saw us as victors. Now I realize that she was training us to become responsible adults although we saw her treatment to be very brutal.
When I look at children in our world today, I marvel. When I look at American children, European children, Asian and African children—who are blessed with many things—I expect them to be grateful. I expect them to hold their parents in high esteem for the effort they are making to get their children a life they never had. I say, applause for all the moms and dads. And especially for single mothers. They are treasures.
The other day I was at Accra Mall (a mall in Ghana). I saw a scene between a mother and her child that I had also seen while I was waiting to board my flight in the Istanbul airport last year. A little boy was pestering his mother to get him a toy car. This wonderful mother didn’t give in. She stayed in the queue. When we finally boarded the plane, the little boy was still crying and sniveling. And I could tell that this elegant looking mother was greatly disturbed, because her son’s tears were attention-grabbing and quite frustrating. When we landed at Heathrow Airport, she rushed into a toyshop and bought her son the car he wanted. I didn’t see this mother to be rich. The little boy was just fortunate. As I was passing by, I saw the price tag and I was thunderstruck. £200 sterling? For a toy car? That’s my yearly rent back home.
I have also seen kids crying out loud for pizza in pizza shops. “Mom, buy me pizza.” I have seen children crying for all kinds of things. “Mom, I need chocolate.” “Dad, I need a new iPhone.” “Mom, I want to go to this-or-that University.” If we had said things like that to my mother, she would have given us a reason to shut up, if not a slap.
Sometimes I wish I were in that little child’s shoes. Anytime I see kids—and even some young people—behaving in that same way, it irks me. Sometimes, this feeling makes me mad. It makes me feel like I was imprisoned in my childhood days. It makes me feel like I missed my lucky days. For me, I see it as if my parents ruined my best days. But no. I have come to realize that Mom did her best for me .
And my best days are still ahead of me. So there is no need for me to blame my mother for whatever she did or didn’t do. Because whatever she did or didn’t do, I have grown, and I am still growing. This realization has helped me to let go of the pains I suffered, the shame that befell me when I was growing up. This realization has helped me to put my past behind me. I used to get mad at my parents for failing to take us to the cinema, take us abroad, or even take us the mall to shop. But my parents never even heard of a mall.
Now that I am a man, I appreciate the efforts of Mom and Dad. They did not harm me. Instead they helped me. And this is why I cannot hold on to my childhood insecurities. Why hold on to those thoughts and feelings when you can let them go? My past is behind. Today is mine to enjoy. Stop holding on to your childhood setbacks, pains, insecurities. Cut your attachments. When we hold on to the terrible experiences we had as children, we only ruin our future. We become hurtful adults with no sense of belonging. Today, let go.
“The place of great promise at times is the place of great pain as well. What you can do is more important that what you cannot do.”
~Richard Botchwey, The Tale of An Orphan: A Lesson to Learn
Richard Paa Kofi Botchwey is an internationally published Ghanaian writer, a poet, and a social entrepreneur. His first book, The Tale of an Orphan a Lesson to Learn, was officially published in the United States on April 1st, 2012, by E-Magazine Publishing. He has appeared on the Pauline Long Show (SKY TV UK) and Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) in United Kingdom as well as several television and radio shows in Ghana. Through his non-profit organization, Orphan Trust Movement, Richard has helped many young people across Ghana with his amazing life story. He is currently working on several charitable projects and writing his next book, If I Were an American.
Mary Chapin Carpenter is my all-time favorite singer—-I own at least five of her albums. If her albums were paths thorough the woods, they would be well-worn and smooth from all the hours that I’ve listened to them. Her lyrics speak to me of shared experiences and secret longings, with humor and grace.
Last week when I heard that she had a new album, Something Tamed and Something Wild, I bought it immediately. You can listen to the song and read the lyrics. Enjoy this amazing music!
Here’s a shoebox full of letters bound up neatly with some twine
Each one was like a diamond, now the jewel is lost to time
My reward is in the knowing that I held it in my hands for a little while
What else are there but the treasures in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?
For every time that I’ve been foolish when I’d wished that I’d been wise The power of regret still gets me right between the eyes
And sometimes I want to weep with nothing but the tears of a little child
What else are there but the lessons in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?
Here’s a map I’ve memorized of every where I’ve ever been
And the faces of everyone I’ve loved and left to try again
I couldn’t make out what they were saying, so instead I listened hard to what’s inside
What else is there but the voice inside your heart? Something tamed, something wild?
Some nights I’m woken up by something stirring in my chest
It’s a feeling I’ve no name for, it’s hard to catch my breath
I’m staring down the great big lonesome as I’m listening for the dwindling of time
What else are there but the echoes in your heart? Something tamed, something wild?
So the things that matter to me now are different from the past
I care less about arriving than just being in the path
of some light carved out of nothing, the way it feels when the universe has smiled
What else is there but the beating of your heart? Something tamed, something wild?
Here’s the shoebox full of letters, here’s the map I won’t forget
The voices and the lessons and the signals that connect us
Manifested to the spirit, way deep down where it goes unseen by the eye
What else is there but the love inside your heart? To a life like a firework’s to a spark
Over and above you in it’s arc
Something tamed, something wild?
Humor in poetry is the next topic of our journey through April–National Poetry Month. Many readers will think about Dr. Seuss, some of you may even remember Ogden Nash, and of course, Shel Silverstein comes to mind when people think about funny poems. But sometimes, there is a serious situation that comes wrapped in a poem–making it more easily digestible. I am offering a two poems for your pleasure from some authors you may or may not recognize. I hope you enjoy them! Perhaps you’ll even decide to share one as part of Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 21st.
Have you ever laughed about the wording of warnings? Here’s a poem for you!
The other day as I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room
bouncing from typewriter to piano
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
I found myself in the ‘L’ section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word, Lanyard.
No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one more suddenly into the past.
A past where I sat at a workbench
at a camp by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid thin plastic strips into a lanyard.
A gift for my mother.
I had never seen anyone use a lanyard.
Or wear one, if that’s what you did with them.
But that did not keep me from crossing strand over strand
again and again until I had made a boxy, red and white lanyard for my mother.
She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold facecloths on my forehead
then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim and I in turn presented her with a lanyard.
‘Here are thousands of meals’ she said,
‘and here is clothing and a good education.’
‘And here is your lanyard,’ I replied,
‘which I made with a little help from a counselor.’
‘Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth and two clear eyes to read the world.’ she whispered.
‘And here,’ I said, ‘is the lanyard I made at camp.’
‘And here,’ I wish to say to her now,
‘is a smaller gift. Not the archaic truth,
that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took the two-toned lanyard from my hands,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless worthless thing I wove out of boredom
would be enough to make us even.’
According the to Poetry Foundation’s biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, one of his main goals as a poet and publisher was “redeeming poetry from the ivory towers of academia and offering it as a shared experience with ordinary people.” I think Ferlinghetti does that quite well with this little poem, “Airplanes of the Heart.”
Airplanes of the Heart
The little airplanes of the heart
With their brave little propellers
What can they do
Against the wind of darkness
Even as butterflies are beaten back
yet do not die
They lie in wait wherever
They can hide and hang
Their fine wings folded
And when the killer wind dies
They flutter forth again
Into the new-blown light
Live as leaves.
I don’t know much about Ferlinghetti, but I do know that he was one of the main poets of the “Beat” generation and he started a famous bookstore in San Francisco called City Lights. I know that he published Allen Ginsburg’s anthem “Howl,” which certainly fulfilled Ferlinghetti’s mission to bring poetry out of the ivory towers.
And all of that information is valuable. But for me, the most valuable information is the inspiration and feeling that I get from a poem. And I feel hopeful when I read “Little Airplanes of the Heart.”
The first image that comes to me is that of the seedlings that will soon fill my patio–the propellor-like gifts that cover the ground in the spring as we wait for plants and flowers to wake us up in the spring. But more than that, the poem contains the seedlings of hope and of life that continues despite set-back and loss. The phrase “butterflies of loss” conjures images of friends and relatives that have passed away. I can still see their faces, hear their voices, and I know they are as close as a breeze.
And sometimes don’t we feel like the butterfly beaten back by a hurricane? Still, there is something so powerful about the human spirit, that no matter what challenges confront us or what losses we bear, we flutter forth and spread our colorful wings , buoyed by the winds of hope.
Thank you, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for your beautiful gift of this poem. Enjoy!
Everything changed this year. The two volunteer activities that had taken up much of my time since I retired faded away. Even after retiring I had continued to do occasional jobs for the small company where I’d worked for 26 years, but it was time to make the final break.
By far the biggest change, though, came when a couple in my apartment complex moved away. More than friends, we had become family.
It started in a grocery store, where I ran into Eva and her 21-month-old son in front of the spinach. We’d seen each other around, so stopped to exchange greetings. Before we could say much, though, Alec started reaching for me, wanting me to pick him up.
“He never does that,” Eva said. “He’s terrified of strangers.”
I didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant and worried about finding someone to care for Alec while she and her husband were at the hospital. She and Noel came from overseas and had no family in this country, much less in our city. She needed someone to be a local grandmother.
I enthusiastically volunteered, and Alec started coming to spend one day a week with me. We built block towers and knocked them down, read books together, and went for walks. We danced to music; he was fascinated by my records and turntable, insisting on helping to remove records from their sleeves. He developed a deep attachment to Blue, my cat, and spent a lot of time communing with her.
Sometimes he came more often, when Eva needed to go to various appointments or desperately needed to sleep. A carseat made its way into my car and I sometimes drove him to and from the preschool he attended a couple of times a week. Then when the new baby came, Alec stayed with me for a few delightful days.
During this time, a group of us in the small apartment complex—including Eva—became close. We began our own book club, went for walks, and did Qigong together. After the baby was born, Eva had a difficult recovery, and we took it in turns to provide meals and help out in other ways. Alec spent a lot of time with me, to give his mother a break.
For another year, Alec’s visits with me remained a regular thing. When Eva became ill, he came and stayed with me again. During her recovery, I ferried him about and took him on excursions. He loves trains, so I would sometimes take him on the light rail, up to the end of the line and back. Lulled by the movement, he would crawl onto my lap and fall asleep.
Then, this year, Noel’s residency ended, and he accepted a job out of state. Alec stayed with me during the move, and then I delivered him to his new home. I left the carseat with them that day.
As though that were the signal, our tight group of friends began to break up. Several people moved away, reluctantly, sadly.
My days now stretch in front of me. Oh, I have plenty to fill them, but sometimes I think about what has been lost, not just Alec and my adopted family, but the friends from my volunteer activities and my job whom I’m not likely to see much of anymore.
It’s not the first time that the things that filled my day suddenly disappeared. In August of the year I turned fifty, my last child left home; I sold the house; and my elderly dog died. None of these events were unexpected or even unwelcome, but I was surprised by the space that opened up in my days with no children to greet, no dog to walk, no grass to cut or rooms to paint.
Yet I have been happy in this apartment, and I found my lovely group of friends here. If this time is passing, as it seems to be, I have no doubt that the next phase will be equally fortunate.
David Hinton, who has studied and translated ancient Chinese poetry, talks of the Taoist concept of tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things. Instead of seeing time as a linear narrative, the ancient Chinese thought of time as a constantly changing present, with things appearing and disappearing.
It is this way of seeing existence as waves washing over a persistent present that I am practicing now.
Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.
Bio: Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium andHere at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops, provides editing services, and (as the owner of a small press) speaks about publishing and marketing. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at http://www.bmorrison.com.