Today is National Librarian Day. Really. Write an ode to your librarian. Or to your library. Or to the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Odes are formal, song-like praise poems in honor of a person, an event, or an idea. Set it to music, maybe? Get your guitar and go sing to your librarian.
Here’s a rather free-verse ode to my librarian friends:
You are my favorite subversives, sneaking about in the racks of books, stalking the readers, eyes a-gleam: “This one, I think, might interest you,” knowing full well that you just may have altered the course of a life.
Gratitude List: 1. My colleagues. They’re such good folk. Such good folk. 2. Sunshine 3. Yellow flowers 4. Sunshine 5. Sunshine (Oh, did I say that one already?) 6. Sunshine
May you walk in Beauty!
The Happy Virus by Hafez
I caught the happy virus last night When I was out singing beneath the stars. It is remarkably contagious – So kiss me.
“It is our mind, and that alone, that chains us or sets us free.” —Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.” —George Orwell
“We must live from the center.” —Bahauddin, father of Rumi
“Some days I am more wolf than woman and I am still learning how to stop apologising for my wild.” —Nikita Gill
“Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.” —Albert Einstein
“Writer’s block results from too much head. Cut off your head. Pegasus, poetry, was born of Medusa when her head was cut off. You have to be reckless when writing. Be as crazy as your conscience allows.” —Joseph Campbell
“Ask yourself: Have you been kind today? Make kindness your daily modus operandi and change your world.” —Annie Lennox
Wangari Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya (and now around the world), told a story about a hummingbird.
When the great forest was on fire, and all the animals were fleeing for their lives, the tiny Hummingbird zipped to the river, gathered a beakful of water, and zipped back to release the water onto the raging flames. Again and again, she carried her tiny beakfuls of water to try to put out the flames. The other animals noticed, and told her how futile her efforts were, but Hummingbird kept on and on, believing that it was her duty–no matter what–to do her one little thing.
Perhaps some of the other animals were inspired to get down to work, to do their own little thing, to pass on the hope of a thousand small actions. Perhaps the fire raged on despite their efforts. Perhaps they held it back. Perhaps they even put it out in the end.
During these days which, in the deepest of the dark insomniac nights, feel a little like the Beginning of the End of Things, Hummingbird has been sipping sweetness from the petunia basket outside my window, resting sometimes on the wire, nabbing gnats out of the air, hovering right at the window and peering in at me.
When I brought my first baby home from the hospital more than 14 years ago (a world ended and a world began with his birth), I settled into the recliner, exhausted and full of great satisfaction and wonder, to nurse the tiny person who had entered our world. Looking up from the babe, I saw Hummingbird hovering at the window for what seemed like ten seconds or more (an eternity of seconds), and she seemed to be watching the New Person, and marveling with me. In the succeeding years, I have marveled back at the wonder of her own young, at their tenacity and resilience, surviving lashing storms in their bottle-cap-sized nest. At their first fledgings. At the blur of their wings as they sip sweetness. At the self-contained unself-consciousness of their existence.
And now, in a time when I am bending all my mental and emotional and physical will toward resilience and tenacity, when I am terrified for my children, my students, my parents, my self, I have Hummingbird in my days, quietly doing her thing, going about her business, checking on me through the window.
She leaves me with questions. Perhaps you want to ponder them, too: * What, in these days of going back to school, will be your sips of sweetness to fuel you through the moments of high challenge and frustration and worry? * What, as Wangari Maathai asked, is your “one little thing”? What is that thing you will do to stem the tides of destruction, even when it seems like only a beakful of water? * What does resilience look like to you? (For me, I want to picture myself in my classroom BEING tenacious and resilient.) * In the story, Hummingbird simply did her work and did not ask for help. I am not Hummingbird, and she leaves me with that question, too: How will you remember to ask for help when you need it?
So. Whatever our tasks in this time of great trouble, whatever our capacities to meet the challenges before us, let us fly with strength and power, knowing that we are doing our part. Around us are so many who are joining in the work. Let us be resilient and vulnerable, earnest and tenacious, willing to ask for help when we need it, offering to give others a spell when they reach exhaustion.
As the Talmud says: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, love mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Gratitude List: 1. Messages from Hummingbird 2. Help from a friend when I didn’t even think to ask for help 3. Colleagues. I love my colleagues. 4. The custodial staff at my school. They make me feel safe. They care for the building and the spaces we inhabit. And, they’re so good-humored. 5. Air conditioning in my classroom. If, on top of everything else, I had to go into a 90-degree classroom to teach in my mask, I think I would have given up. I don’t think I could have mustered that much resilience. Air conditioning! I have air conditioning in my classroom!
May we all do our Little Thing, doing justice loving mercy, and walking humbly.
“By expanding our self-interest to include other beings in the body of Earth, the ecological self also widens our window on time. It enlarges our temporal context, freeing us from identifying our goals and rewards solely in terms of our present lifetime. The life pouring through us, pumping our heart and breathing through our lungs, did not begin at our birth or conception. Like every particle in every atom and molecule of our bodies, it goes back through time to the first spinning and splitting of the stars.
“Thus the greening of the self helps us to re-inhabit time and own our story as life on Earth. We were present in the primal flaring forth, and in the rains that streamed down on this still-molten planet, and in the primordial seas. In our mother’s womb we remembered that journey wearing vestigial gills and tail and fins for hands. Beneath the outer layers of our neocortex and what we learned at school, that story is in us—the story of a deep kinship with all life, bringing strengths that we never imagined. When we claim this story as our innermost sense of who we are, a gladness comes that will help us survive.” —Joanna Macy
“Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all. You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.” —St. Augustine (I’m not usually a great fan of St. A, but I find this really moving)
“Eating with the fullest pleasure—pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance—is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend.” —Wendell Berry
“Literature irrigates the deserts that our lives have become.” —C.S. Lewis
“A good organizer is a social arsonist who goes around setting people on fire.” —Fred Ross
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. —Wendell Berry
Grades are due Monday. I’m focusing on the day ahead, the weekend ahead, on getting it done. Fueled by coffee, hope, and the wild burst of procrastinator’s eleventh-hour mania. I am good at getting things done on time, but not in a timely fashion, if that makes any sense. Always hoping to rectify that, and sometimes, like now, finding myself deeper in the hole than ever.
Gratitude List: 1. Good colleagues. I love working with these earnest and compassionate people. And they’re funny, too. 2. There are some clear-thinking, justice-aware folks in that room in Washington. I don’t think I am really hopeful at all that the rule of law will prevail, that justice will be done, that the democracy will be saved. Still, some people are standing up for truth and democracy and justice. 3. Reading through student journals yesterday about people they admire. Some of their answers were my colleagues (see point number one), and others were family members. One student write a gripping couple paragraphs about being inspired by Bernstein and Woodward. Another write a page and a half about Tolstoy as an inspirational model for living. I love these young people. 4. Animal companions 5. Flannel sheets
“The heart is the house of empathy whose door opens when we receive the pain of others. This is where bravery lives, where we’ll find our mettle to give and receive, to love and be loved, to stand in the center of uncertainty with strength, not fear, understanding this is all there is. The heart is the path to wisdom because it dares to be vulnerable in the presence of power.”
—Terry Tempest Williams
“To understand the world knowledge is not enough. You must see it, touch it, live in its presence.”
–Teilhard de Chardin
“When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” — Maya Angelou
“Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.” –Pablo Neruda
“Not to spoil the ending for you, but everything is going to be okay.” –Anonymous
“may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old …” –e.e. cummings
“Truth was a mirror in the hands of God
It fell, and broke into pieces.
Everybody took a piece of it,
and they looked at it and thought they had the truth.” –Rumi
Gratitude List: 1. Collegiality. I really enjoy the people I work with. Laughing together is powerful social glue.
2. Cool mornings and rain.
3. Supper at Mexitaly last night. Big burrito with mango habanero sauce!
4. These cats. I know it’s an obsession these days. Thorby is so funny, flopping on the floor for belly rubs and petting his own face. Sachs still likes quiet, secluded spaces, but I no longer have to snort dust bunnies under the bed in order to get to know him. He comes out for regular petting sessions and purring.
5. Three deer in the horse field near Highpoint last evening when the sun was slanting in.
Now we come to the Season of Revisions. I am not only speaking of poetry here; I am speaking poetically. I have habits of mind and habits of space and movement to revise and to refine. I have thoughts and ideas, plans and intentions to revise and to renovate. Perhaps my poetic revisions can be like a wave that will help me in other areas to continue to move always in the direction I want to move, to break the stasis, to step out of the rut, to live–as US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera says, “in a flourishing way.”
Earlier in the month of April, I tossed out this poem one evening:
Message from the Empress
In the orchard over the ridge
the trees have broken into a riot of pink,
lascivious against the rain-wet grass beneath.
Let us riot too.
Let us spread
our blooming fingers to the sky,
opening our mouths and our hearts,
meeting destruction with bloom,
with green, with simple beauty,
with overpowering fragrance.
Let us waft. Let us be wanton.
Last week I subjected it to a several-step revision process that I asked my Creative Writing students to engage in:
Change up the line lengths. Consider tossing in some tabs to change the shape of the poem on the page. Or center. Or right-justify.
Find six interesting words in your poem. Using an online thesaurus, your own head, or the help of a friend, write three+ synonyms for each word, and substitute them for the words in your poem.
Go back to Step Two. Retype those six words, or choose six more. Find three+ rhymes for each of those words, using an online rhyming dictionary, or the help of a friend or your own head. Can you tuck any of these words into your poem? Also, listen for words with similar sounds–vowels and consonants–even if they don’t rhyme. Can you add or substitute any of those words in your poem?
Rewrite your poem, using rhythm and rhyme. This one may feel like the most complicated one, but see if you can feel a sense of the rhythm of your words. (I have revised my revision process: originally I had steps three and four in opposite order. They make much more sense when you transpose them.)
Read through all your versions. Is there one that stands out as the strongest to you? Are there parts of different ones that you like? Mix and match. Choose your favorite version so far and type that one in.
I ended up with this:
Message from the Empress
In the grove over the ridge, the trees
have broken into a flourish of pink,
lascivious against the rain-wet green,
a thousand mouths seeking a drink.
Let us riot too. Let us fill our thirst.
Let us spread our blooming fingers,
opening our mouths and hearts, dancing
away ruin with bloom, lingering
with simple beauty, with aching fragrance.
Let us waft. Let us be wanton.
I’m still not sure that this is my best version, but I feel a real satisfaction. I hope my students can feel a little measure of that satisfaction with their own poems.
Gratitude List: 1. People who cry when they read the sad parts in books. I am thinking of a particular student wiping her eyes as she finished the last pages of her most recent book.
2. Cherry blossoms
3. The tight fists of buds in the Flinchbaugh orchards. Some tiny blooms, too.
4. This parenting gig. Birthdays remind me how precious it all is, and how fleeting.
5. People are still talking about the Senior Presentations. During Tuesday’s final group, the rooms were packed, the energy was high, and the support was evident. People were pronouncing blessings on their fledglings. I love to hear students speak of how much they appreciate their teachers–it gives me a new and deeper appreciation (already deep) for my colleagues.
May we walk in Beauty. May we shower each other with Blessings.
Gratitude List: 1. Hooray! Pippi Prius can be fixed. It took a while to get the details worked out with the insurance company, and the damage was apparently almost equal to her value, but they’ve agreed to go ahead and do it.
2. My colleagues. Yesterday was an in-service day, and much as I always wish I could just have those days to decompress or catch up on work, I always come away feeling energized and inspired for the work ahead–also, grateful for the earnest, positive, playful energy of my colleagues.
3. Our school superintendent, Richard Thomas. Since he announced his coming retirement last winter, it’s been disconcerting to think of the future of the school without him. He has helped this school system to shape a vision of itself as a community, as a place where students and teachers and staff work to become our best selves, to create a place of shalom. Yesterday we had a chance to try to tell him a little bit about what he means to us.
4. The Search Committee, who had a huge task in a short time. They listened well, heard our concerns and our hopes for the future, and found someone who seems to have vision and determination and savvy enough to step into the superintendent’s role. They have been careful to be confidential when confidentiality has been necessary, while staying as transparent as possible. Yesterday they carefully led us through their process of the past six months and shared the ways in which our new superintendent fits the values and ideals that we gave them.
5. Today. I can work all day to catch up. I didn’t get as much done last weekend as I wanted. I plan to go to school on Monday with no late grading hanging over my head.
Hen of the Woods, Halifax,PA. Altered by Dreamscope.
Where does coyote go to rest in these hills and mountains
cross-hatched by houses and fields of corn and soy?
Where does he lay his head? Where does vixen raise her family?
Where does she hide her young ones?
Where do they find a patch of sun to play in?
Coyote brought us losses. We breathe a sigh in memory
of the soft feathers and sweet cluckings of our little flock.
Perhaps we drew him here with hens, and when they were spent,
he stayed on for fatty groundhog and the tenderness of rabbit.
An we breathe a sigh of gratitude for that.
If only now he brought us rain.
(I’m not sure quite what that is–I think it might work better in a prosey form, but I have become accustomed to lining out my thoughts like poems, considering where I want to breathe in the spaces of the phrase.)
Gratitude List: 1. Sleeping until just minutes before the alarm went off. I think I must have slept even more deeply last night.
2. Watching my children grow and learn and become themselves. Sometimes when they start to talk about what they are learning or thinking about, I find myself watching them from outside myself, marveling at these creatures that I know so intimately and that I do not know at all. Where have they come from?
3. My colleagues. Yesterday after a meeting about our accreditation process, one of the other teachers said to me that he found it interesting that no one in the meeting seemed discouraged or frustrated. Anyone can tell you that the beginning of an accreditation process can seem daunting at best. But he was right–the team seemed cheerful and eager. The administrative folks who are holding us through this and guiding the process are walking with us and brainstorming ways to streamline the process even as we take it seriously and fulfill the work of it thoroughly.
4. This steely grey moment before dawn bounds over the hill, when everything gets just a little quieter, even the crickets, and the trees are silhouetted against the sky.
5. My Book of Days (it sounds better than “bullet journal”) Fishing around inside myself for that fifth point, I keep circling around to my little daybook again, abandoning it because I wrote about it a couple days ago, and picking it up again. I have always had a sort of anxious relationship to calendar-keeping, finding it difficult to conceptualize future time, struggling to commit to future dates because the future is so fluid and I don’t want to nail it down. Somehow the little system that I have begun to use in the last week has helped me to visualize and conceptualize the framework of the future. I feel like I have organized the garage.
Is it cold in the house of the hummingbird,
when raindrops patter softly on the sycamore leaf-roof,
when one small bird has dared the day,
flown upward through sunbeams,
trusting to wings insubstantial as mist?
The other no longer sits more quiet than breath,
but turns her head to the thunder,
hunkers deep into her mattress of cobweb,
waits for her moment to fledge.
Gratitude List: 1. One small hummingbird has dared the day and taken first flight. Safe journeys!
2. Anticipating a weekend and time with friends
3. My wise and earnest colleagues
4. A fine collection of Maine island stones, each with a single white line across, each one a little message about pathways, direction, and destiny, about joining up and making a way where none seems to be
5. English grammar. I happened upon a really fun sentence modeling exercise, which I did with a couple of classes yesterday. One student, who struggles to understand the structure of a complete simple sentence, read out the sentence he’d built, which included carefully placed adverbs and adjectives, two prepositional phrases, an appositive phrase, a subordinate clause, and three absolute phrases. He sounded so elegant and well-spoken, but most delightfully, he sounded proud of himself. Here is an example of a sentence using all of those pieces: In the classroom, one laid-back teenager, a young man who often has no time for grammar, proudly read an elegant sentence from his writing journal as his delighted teacher listened, the words flowing like water, the ideas sparkling in the air, the class electrified by language.
There is such a thing as the Sun. I captured this photo of the elusive creature a couple days ago, so I know it, whether or not you believe me.
Henri Nouwen said:
“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved.’ Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
As much as I want to, I don’t think I will read this quotation in my classes. I think that the specific students to whom I want to give it would only feel a greater burden of guilt because they can’t FEEL Beloved. But it shows me more deeply how the work we need to do, no matter the physical vocation, is to find ways to show people this truth: You are Beloved. To paraphrase I Corinthians 13: If you are a brilliant intellectual or a gifted teacher, but have not love, you are a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. As I strive to improve my skills and knowledge base as an educator, I need to keep this always in my heart.
Gratitude List: 1. I am Beloved. You are Beloved.
2. Working together. Supportive colleagues.
4. Watching a small boy prepare for his dad’s birthday party.
5. Eating ugali. I don’t know why I don’t make it more often. (It’s a thick corn-meal mush, sort of like polenta.)