An Open Letter to my Muse #sol16

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Erato, the Muse of Poetry by Edward John Poynter (1870)

Dear Muse,

You and I have had a tempestuous and fickle relationship these past twenty years. When I started writing poetry at 13, I mostly hung out with you for fun. It wasn’t serious, a fling. We got hot and heavy in high school, and I wrote some real passionate love poems about you in college (I was a Creative Writing minor, after all). Then, as I started teaching, my time became more and more pressed, and there was less and less room for you in my life, it seemed.

I tried to schedule dates with you, sure — the random graduate-level poetry workshop or narrative nonfiction class. Haphazard meetings during the Creative Writing electives I’ve taught over the last five years. We even produced some stuff I’m really proud of, and you helped me get published a few times!

Then, of course, I got pregnant, and while you’ve been around a bit to help inspire me to write about pregnancy and childbirth and parenthood, I’ve mostly been left to change dirty diapers and navigate the world of full-time working mom life on my own. Thanks for that.

So when the chance came to participate in the Slice of Life Story Challenge, I jumped at the chance. (Well, I missed our appointment on March 1st. Oops. Sorry about that.)

And here we are, on the last day. We made it!

Did you get as much out of this as I have? It’s been hard to find the time, sometimes. Between teaching, parenting, professional development, a fellowship, connecting with my husband, cleaning, doing laundry, cooking, running, yoga, relaxing, reading… I made a commitment to you, and as a result, at times over the past month I’ve let other things slide. I can’t always find balance. I worry that when I don’t have the looming responsibility of meeting with you every day, I will backpedal. My life is hectic, and sometimes your voice is so, so quiet.

But overall, thanks for sticking with me every day for the last 30 days. We have an unshakeable bond, and every day with you is a gift that I feel I could never pay back. I promise I will try to keep scheduling weekly appointments with you, and if I don’t, feel free to come kick my ass.

Love always and forever,

Me

slice of life

Friendly face #sol16

I think I have one of those friendly faces. You know, the kind of face that strangers want to talk to.

Take last week, for example: I had a meeting in Boston and split an Uber back to the north side of the river with a colleague. On the way to her house, we chatted in the backseat about our project, family, her cooking class. Then she exited the car, and I gave the driver my address. It would take 10-15 minutes to get to my house, depending on traffic.

During those 10-15 minutes, I learned my driver, Carmeleau, was from Haiti. He had three children, two boys and a girl, and a baby on the way. He owned the Prius he was driving, plus a tow truck and a sports car. He made five figures a month driving for Uber. He showed me pictures of his kids and his cars on his phone at a stoplight. When I mentioned that I also had a toddler, he asked me questions about my son, and I told him about my Haitian students and how I never remembered any of the words they taught me. When we pulled up to my building, he taught me how to say goodbye in Haitian Creole, laughing that I needed to make sure I remembered it!

I will probably never see Carmeleau again, but I lost nothing by being friendly. By listening, by engaging in conversation, by talking to someone different than me — if anything, in that brief moment I gained a temporary friend. I saw humanity. I connected.

What would happen if more people opened up and accepted “friendly”?

slice of life

Ekphrasis #sol16

Today I assigned my Creative Writing class to write an ekphrastic poem: one which responds to another work of art, literature, poetry, song, film, etc. We looked at a variety of examples, including the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Brueghel and subsequent poems about it, such as the poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams and W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts”.

Tonight, I’m going to do the assignment I asked my students to do. In part, this is because at the end of our genre study, I’m going to ask them to revise poems and create a chapbook, and I need some of my own “shitty first drafts” to model this process. But also, I am really enjoying using my Slicing this month as the opportunity to actually get some writing done, when so much of my time at home is otherwise spent balancing chores vs. exercise vs. parenting vs. mindless relaxation.

So, my process (which I’m going to try to document here, if only to share it with the class):

First I had to seriously think about which piece I wanted to respond to. I flipped back through my notebook and came across a free-write I did with them in class, in which I wrote about my least favorite words. That led to a meditation about hate speech. Our culture and media is currently saturated with discussion of race, class, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, in a way that I don’t think it’s ever been before. It’s quite thrilling, actually, and it directly connects to my own personal journey of becoming and being a teacher for social justice. At the end of this thinking process, I was led to this photograph:

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“A photograph taken by Will Counts of Elizabeth Eckford attempting to enter Little Rock School on 4th September, 1957. The girl shouting is Hazel Massery.” (Original caption)

And here is my ekphrastic poem. Enjoy.

Words that Wound

One mouth frozen
twisted with such hate
it becomes obscene
like a snake about to reel
and devour itself again.

Her words have been forgotten
but they have no less power
to wound–the words thrown
like a dagger:

the words that prompt
the dagger itself.

How can one speak
with so much venom
without choking on the poison
and slowly dying from within?

We become what we say:
Fill us with blackened
charred words and we
eat ash, swallow fire,
and slowly burn
with hate
from the inside
out–

But fill us with love and light
and let us shine so brightly
that our pores become stars,
a constellation of hope,

and we will file the sharp edges
off their words, pack them
in downy daisy fluff, create
a spoken font
so soft
until there are no words
left to speak except
in green and gold song.

slice of life

Resurrected memories #sol16

He has no idea what Easter is, or what to do during an Easter egg hunt. But he knows, because of my smile and the tone of my voice, that what I’m asking him to do is fun.

I hand him the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bucket his aunt bought for him yesterday, and we go outside. I’ve placed the brightly colored plastic eggs, some filled with chocolate or jelly beans, others with finger puppets or small toys, around the yard in easy to spot places. But I know that he is still going to need a little bit of help to find each one.Once we show him what he’s supposed to look for, he races screeching with joy across the lawn. We are placed strategically around the yard; his father by the lawn chairs, his grandmother under the peach tree. There are twelve eggs total, and he finds them all within moments. With each discovery, he hoists his egg high, yelling, “Hooray!” before he plunks it into the pail.  Inside, he curls into my lap, and one by one I grab the toy-filled eggs first, cracking open each one so he can then pull out the tiger, the lion, each finger puppet, try it on, make it roar. Then, we give him small amounts of candy, his mouth chocolate-smeared as he asks for “More?!”

As a child, Easter meant this very tradition: eggs, a treasure hunt, chocolate bunnies. We were non-practicing Jews in rural New England; every year, we celebrated with family friends, after they had come home from church. My sister and I were younger than their grown daughters, so we were the ones to get baskets full of candy and the opportunity to hunt for dyed hard boiled eggs in their backyard. Some years it was so warm we wore shorts and t-shirts; other years, we had to dig through snow. One year, we found an egg in the crook of a tree that had been forgotten from the previous year — we didn’t realize it until we unpeeled it back inside!

I always loved going to their house for Easter. It wasn’t my holiday, but like Christmas, there was enough of a secular culture around the celebration that I felt comfortable participating. It was a little like my own observance of Judaism growing up: our family holidays were limited to Chanukah and Passover, easy to celebrate and requiring no fasting or temple-going.

So far, we have celebrated it all with K: lit Chanukah candles next to our Christmas tree, hosted Passover Seder, opened Easter baskets. He is not quite two; right now, neither God not Santa not the Easter Bunny has any sway. And yet, as I watch him pull new clothes out of the Easter basket his grandparents gave him, I wonder: how much longer before we have to start these hard conversations? This is what Mommy’s family believes, this is what Daddy’s family believes, and we are in the middle…

At dinner my mother-in-law says, “Happy Resurrection Day!” Another reminder that before long, we will need to frame this interfaith family. But for now, I feel happy, because today I resurrected one of my favorite memories from my own childhood, one that we can share together.

slice of life

By the Book #plagiarism #sol16

slice of lifeToday is Easter and we’ll be spending most of the day with J’s family and/or driving back to Boston, so I’m going to be lazy for this post and plagiarize my good friend and colleague Kim, who inspired me to Slice it this March in the first place, and who herself stole the New York Times questionnaire format for her blog, also.

I’ll be sure to Slice tomorrow all about this Jew’s annual Easter dinner with her Christian in-laws, and K’s first egg hunt, don’t worry! Now, on to the questions…

What books are currently on your night stand?

I’m finishing up Mary Roach’s Bonk, about the science behind sex and the researchers who study it. It’s hysterical! My school book group, with other teachers and librarians, is reading science and math nonfiction this month (our choice within the genre). Now, this is not my favorite genre, to be honest, but I’m really enjoying Roach’s irreverent voice. Plus, the topic is OBVIOUSLY fascinating! Also on loan from the library right now are Me Before You, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, and The Book of Unknown Americans.

What’s the last great book you read?

We the Animals by Justin Torres was just amazing. It’s a series of (perhaps borderline) fictional reminiscences of growing up in a very hectic family in the 70s or 80s, and the young man who narrates it goes through such an intense upbringing. It’s slim, and I read it quickly, and I even taught some of it in my Creative Writing class. It was lovely.

What genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?

Young adult literature, for sure! Perhaps that’s why I’m a high school English teacher? I love fantasy, dystopian sci-fi, thrillers. I also spend a lot of time with “chick lit” (I hate that title, it’s so dismissive) and memoir. I think because what I teach is literature, my tastes in my personal writing run toward the pop fiction end of the bookshelf, but I’m trying to be more heterogeneous.

Lately, I’ve tried to avoid anything that is too heavy, anything that features bad things happening to children. I don’t read a ton of nonfiction. And nothing military or war-related; if I’m going to read historical fiction, there has to be a good solid human interest story there.

Who are your favorite writers?

A lot of classics: Chinua Achebe, Harper Lee, Margaret Atwood, Zora Neale Hurston, Scott Fitzgerald, Shakespeare, Sylvia Plath.

For contemporary authors, I love mid-career Stephen King, Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, Danzy Senna, Alice Sebold, Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, and a whole host of YA authors.

What’s the last book that made you cry?

Ummm, I don’t remember? It might have been Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. That book has BIG FEELINGS. It was wonderful.

The last book that made you laugh?

Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling. I went to her book signing when she came to Boston and I was so. excited. to meet her. Definitely a fan-girl freak-out.

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

My childhood hero was Anne Shirley. I wanted to be her; her life had the kind of romantic mystery and drama that boring little me wanted, and I so admired her spirit and heart. I just loved her.

My favorite antihero is definitely Dracula. I finally got around to reading Stoker about five years ago, and I loved it! Better than any movie adaptation.

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

When I was maybe eight or nine, my parents had to ban reading from the dinner table because I would read instead of talking to them. We lived on a rural road with no nearby neighbors, and other than my younger sister, books were my nearest and dearest friends.

I remember bawling my eyes out at Where the Red Fern Grows, devouring the Redwall series, loving Bridge to Terebithia, all the Laura Ingalls Wilder and Anne of Green Gables books, A Wrinkle in TimeCatherine Called Birdy. And a lot of series: Babysitters’ Club, Goosebumps, Fear Street. I was prolific. I definitely won a lot of gift certificates to Pizza Hut during our Book It! school-wide reading competitions!

What book read for school had the greatest impact on you?

One: Romeo and Juliet, because it was seventh grade and it made me fall in love with poetry and want to put words together for myself.

Two: Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. It was like the complete opposite of Shakespeare’s verbosity: spare, enormous echoes of ideas between the words. But also, if I’m completely honest, it was the first time that I read (what I perceived to be) a critique of Christianity, and for whatever reason, that meant a lot to a young Jewish teenager in rural New England.

What are you going to read next?

Me Before You, by Jojo Moyes, because Kim (the inspiration for this post!) recommended it so highly, and because the movie trailer made me want to see if I can predict what will happen before the end.

Stickler for the rules… #sol16

When someone tells me
This is the rule

It’s like a small buzzer
goes off inside my head

Some people can get away
with bending like Gumby

But I was never one
of those cool girls

At ease with asking forgiveness
instead of permission

So here’s my blog post for today
Because the rule is that I must

Post everyday, right?
And god forbid

I forget. The internet
doesn’t let you take sick days

And besides, I’m not
very good at saying

I’m sorry.

slice of life

Run #sol16

Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe in. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe out.

slice of lifeBefore I started running in 2010, the thought of long distance running seemed as foreign to me as learning to speak Dothraki. (Before I started running, the thought of running itself seemed crazy.) Even as I increased my stamina, 1 mile followed by 5K followed by 10K distances, I never dreamed of accomplishing anything in double-digit mileage.

After K was born — an event that lasted 20 hours, 3.5 of which were spent pushing, all unmedicated thanks to Hypnobirthing — my relationship with my body changed. Knowing that I was physically and psychologically capable of such sustained exertion, I began to dream past 6.2 miles.

Three days after K turned one, J and I and his siblings completed a Tough Mudder, a 10 mile race punctuated by 25 obstacles such as climbing over walls, climbing through mud underneath barbed wire, climbing over 10-foot tall walls, and in the case of our race in Vermont, climbing up and down a ski mountain. It was exhilarating!

I wanted more. This past October, I ran the New Hampshire Half-Marathon. Suffering from hip pain for the last three miles or so, I took a brief hiatus to recover. My running schedule became sporadic. I did more yoga and then, as the craziness of full-time teaching and full-time parenting slowly consumed us, I stopped running altogether. Suddenly, I looked at my Nike Run app and realized I hadn’t run in 13 weeks. WHAT?!?!

This morning, I woke to K’s voice on the monitor at 6 am, as usual. Instead of bringing him into bed with us, however, I plunked him next to his father and changed into running tights and sweat-wicking fleece. I laced up my sneakers and walked 10 minutes to meet my friend Mia, who is training for a race at the end of May after having her second child in less than two years.

After some light stretching, we started out. The light mist brushed our faces, landed on our eyelashes and clung to our hair like halos. At first, my amnesiac body argued with my brain: What are you doing to me? Then, slowly, it woke from its fugue state. My hamstrings stretched and sang. My joints loosened. Each footfall shook the cobwebs from my mind; all the stress and tension of the last week fell away like beads of sweat. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe in. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Breathe out.

We had planned to go two miles. When the electric voice of my phone called out TWO MILES  we stopped. My body was left wanting more: more footsteps, more oxygen, more miles. Until next time. It won’t be too long.

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