September 23, 2009

Too Early to be Looking Back

I thought about my nephew all day today. He turns ten tomorrow. He's the oldest person I know who I've known since he was a baby. Now he's interested in baseball cards and starting to learn the cello. For now, he's able to move with the currents of who he is, following an impulse started by a story he reads in school or taking up an instrument he's been pining for for years.

At some point, all of his choices will get more intentional. He'll live his way gradually into a deeper sense of who he is, what drives him, and what he wants to work for or pursue next.

I wonder how much of a pivot it is to turn ten.

Billy Collins offers a solemn take in "On Turning Ten." He calls it "the first big number."

"You tell me it is too early to be looking back
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit."

I'm drawn to the dawning sense of complexity that this young man experiences, holding ten in contrast to the "perfect simplicity" of his younger years. "Now," he says, "I'm mostly at the window / watching the late afternoon light."

Though Collins dwells on the solemnity of this passage, I prefer to focus on the idea of ten as an entry point. It's a threshold. Before long my nephew will be asking even more profound questions of the world and of himself. I am excited to know the young man he is in the process of becoming. He's sure to keep his sensitivity, his kindness, his curiosity, his ambition, his capacity to dive into something with abandon, and so much more. And he's sure to surprise us all. As it all continues to unfold, I am grateful for my window on his journey.

September 20, 2009

Not a Hair of Our Head

At lunch, my oldest -- just three -- was talking again about my father. When I said something about missing him, she asked, "Does he miss me?" "Of course he does," I told her, knowing how thoroughly he would have loved her (and his other three grandchildren).

"I miss him too," she said. "Because he was my grandpa." Then she spread her arms wide, looked out the window, and said, "but he is all, all, all around."

W.S. Merwin has a poem I adore called "The Initiate." It's surreal and hard to translate into tidy sense, but the imagery names something that I associate with eternity.

He starts with the image of a "juggler" who "is led out under the stars" where "tears begin to roll down his cheeks." A few lines later "he sees the stars swimming up / in his tears," and then:

later when the morning star
is dry

he is singing Not a hair
of our head do we need to take with us
into the day

not even a hand do we need
to take with us
not even an eye
do we need to take with us
into the light"

My children will never meet my father, and still he is teaching them to see precisely what we do need to take with us into the day -- and then later, into the light.

September 16, 2009

Now I'm a Believer

I was pulling into the driveway with my girls. It was bright and sunny, the car windows were open, the Monkees were blaring, and I was singing along. I turned back as we parked and I hadn't even been paying attention to the lyrics I was belting out.

I've only been a father for three years, but already these strange pangs of worry surface from time to time when I realize that each of my children will one day fall irrationally in love with someone else. In that moment in the car, I caught a glimpse of my little one's infectious smile. She's fourteen months with a permanent glimmer in her eye, and she just beams with joy over the littlest things. In mid refrain, I suddenly realized: one day someone else is going to fall hopelessly in love with her.

The whole thing brought to mind Gary Soto's "Oranges." It's this wonderful little narrative of a boy going on something of a date -- he calls it a walk -- with a girl. He's obviously smitten. It's cold outside and they head to the drugstore. He offers to buy her something, and thanks to the compassion of the shop-owner winds up quietly trading a nickel and an orange for the ten-cent candy she wants.

Soto closes with this wonderful image of the boy and girl outside, "fog hanging like old / coats between the trees." Then he closes:

I took my girl’s hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

The whole thing is a telling of the alchemy of love, and though I'm madly in love with my girls, it was an astonishing thought for me to realize that my children are likely to elicit that pitch of feeling in someone else one day.

September 13, 2009

As the Breeze Rises

Life gets filled with images and it's hard to say why some of them stick and some of them don't. Writing them down is certainly a means of preservation. Photographs are another. In fact, I have my share of memories which may have been manufactured by photographs rather than preserved by them.

When the garbage truck passed on Saturday, I lifted my fourteen month old to one of our deep window sills so she could watch. I stood inside the curtain while she sat there, fascinated by the sight and the perspective. Is that a little cocoon that she'll have a flash of somewhere in her unconscious? What about pressing her face to the window of the playhouse in our neighbor's basement full of hilarity at some simple peekaboo? Or collapsing in her sister's bed or chasing a dog at a street fair in the city?

I read poems to my girls with the hope that they'll keep fragments of language, or at least know that I did and possibly value that as well. I write things down to be sure that I keep fragments of life. I trust the page more than my memory alone.

One image I have of my father is in his living room, his eyes fixed to pages of a book, his mouth full of Robert Frost's words. Some of my father's favorite poems are my favorite poems. The tone I remember in his readings is the tone I often look for when I read.

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and take me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

September 9, 2009

Among the High Branches

The first day of school -- today was it for me and for my girls -- is my way of marking the end of summer. Taking on the responsibilities of the school year means shifting my mind into completely different rhythms. Time speeds up and that means less time for everything to settle into the quiet and out of stillness. Don't get me wrong. I love the rapidity of the school year, the possibilities unfolding, and the chance to help students learn, open up to things, and enjoy something -- school -- that's pretty easy to get the wrong idea about.

In "August," Mary Oliver catches that moment when everything has reached its purest place. "All day," she says, "my body accepts what it is." The poem helps her hold onto the self-forgetting experience of picking blackberries, tearing up her "ripped arms," and "cramming the black honey of summer" into her mouth. It's a little psalm of sorts and a reverent naming of a kind of greedy mindfulness.

My oldest turns three tomorrow, and for the last year I've watched her in total engagement with her life. It seems that all day, every day, her body "accepts what it is." I'm nervous for that to change and at the same time I'm excited for the new understandings and questions that will come for her as she lives and grows into more of the layers of being a fully-realized individual.

September 4, 2009

With Gratitude

I tried this once a few years ago, and it failed. Why is this different? I’m not yet sure that it is. I am different. But it remains to be seen whether I can sustain this project. I think the last one was a good concept, but I set myself up for failure with a task too big to keep afloat. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about blogging, mostly by reading Seth Godin's daily doses. Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about technology and education, largely following the nourishing posts from The Fischbowl and Will Richardson's tweets.

Now that I’m heading back to the classroom to teach a writing course, I feel like I need to put to practice some of what I hope to show my students about the role that writing can and does play in the world today. Finally, I’m a few years out from finishing a writing program, and the stuff of my life doesn’t feel like it needs to be woven into poetry right now. Still, there’s some worth sharing, and I still want what I’ve always wanted -- to put poems out into the world that I can give to my sister to read. So, take two…

September 2, 2009

The Figure a School Year Makes

This was the first official day of faculty meetings at school. Students return next week. For now, there's psychic space to consider what's ahead. After next week, the whole thing propels itself forward at (mostly) breakneck speed.

Today I was reminded about the inherently hopeful exercise of beginning. Starting a year of school is so much like sitting down to write. No matter what I bring to the table with me, one of the surest delights is the promise of surprise and the prospect of discovery.

I can't help but link the arc of the school year to Robert Frost's essay, "The Figure a Poem Makes." It's about the craftsmanship of poetry. Frost connects writing to love, and I think his insights apply to teaching as well.

"It begins in delight," he says. "It inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life — not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion."

It took me a long time to wrap my mind around that idea of a "momentary stay against confusion," but I've come to see that when I read a poem that speaks to me, it brings stillness. It takes all the disorder of life and gives it -- maybe just for a moment -- a shape and a name. For as long as that feeling lasts, something makes sense, and from there it becomes easier to continue forward.

Working in a school creates the same possibilities. Luminous moments rise out of the tumult of the day, and as Frost says later in the same piece, "Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing."

Writing, love, teaching, and parenting are all acts full of promise. So much can surface at any instant and the richer the revelation, the more of a gift it is.

About poems specifically, Frost says, "It is but a trick and no poem at all if the best of it was thought of first and saved for the last... No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader."

September 1, 2009

Clear Profit

Mid-seventies, no humidity, hardly a cloud. On a day like today, even cooped up in meetings for hours, it's hard not to think of this little gem by Issa. On his fiftieth birthday, he wrote:

From now on,
every sky,
clear profit.