Poem a Day: 22

The prompts today were Quirk and Earth–lovely little sound play there! This happened while I was out walking:

Sentience
by Beth Weaver-Kreider

What is this being human,
but the quirk of birth
into this form of organism
here on Earth? Are you
more person than the plants
who daily give you grateful breath,
receiving yours in sacred
reciprocity? Am I more being
than the stones made
of the minerals that map
my own bones and blood?

What is sentience,
but knowing oneself
within one’s place? And
that flat rock up on the hillside
does it with much more grace
than either you or I.
Rocks and rivers, ibises
and spiders, fish and fox—
all inhabit their beingness
with as much instinct and
awareness as you or I
could hope to muster.

What is the human drive
to settle always at the top,
to strive for dominance,
defining us as something
always more complete,
more comprehensive,
more masterfully apt,
than ape or aster?

Hasn’t this been the root
of our disaster, the lines
we draw between ourselves
and the living, breathing
world around us? Thus
we place ourselves
outside of place, when we refuse
to acknowledge other knowing,
other forms of growing
into personhood and being.

Better we should recognize
the neighborhood of beings
who surround us, each
with their own song and story,
each with their own wisdom,
if we knew only how to notice.

Poem a Day: 19

One of today’s Prompts is Month. The other is to use these six words in a sentence: bump, embrace, fixture, howl, lonely, resolve (all created by Shakespeare).

Song for a New Way
a sestina of Shakespearean words
by Beth Weaver-Kreider

Coyote is something of a fixture
in the myth of the landscape, a lonely
figure trotting atop the ridge. A howl
echoes into the hollow, an embrace
of wildness and winsome, where we bump
against our own internal resolve

to enter wildness, our stout resolve
to live less burdened by the fixtures
of modern existence, in the bump
and whirl of the rat race, this lonely
place in the crowd. Today we embrace
our freedom from form with a wild howl.

Set free from the commute, the howl
of the markets that weakened our resolve
to fight the forces that tempted us to embrace
acquisition and consumerism, that fixture
of capitalism that is the root of our lonely
longing for stuff that stops us, a bump

on the road to enlightenment. We bump
into the stuff, the stuff, the stuff. We howl
with the frustration, knowing we’d be less lonely
if we could only find our inner resolve
and let our inner existence be the fixture
that would lead us to a stronger embrace

of what matters. For example, we would embrace
kindness and empathy, the places where we bump
against each other would be the fixture
of our ideals. We’d learn to how to howl
our deep longings and we would resolve
to make each other less lonely.

Only in the search for connection will our lonely
lust for power be ended. When we embrace
all beings as siblings, and resolve
to avoid the stumble and bump
of collecting more trophies. The howl
of lost enchantment no longer a fixture.

We can resolve that we will no longer be lonely.
The fixture of our new story will be the embrace.
We’ll bump fists and hips, and howl.

Themself

Is this a blog entry about petting cats or about getting used to themself?

The problem with writing a blog of random musings is that, over time, a writer is bound to repeat themself.

Here is a little metacognition moment: I woke up this morning with Thor-the-cat butting his head into my hand for a head scratch, and I started ruminating on that idea of the sweet pleasure relationship between human beings and the animals that live with us, how scientists believe the cats and wolves came to live with us because we were a stable food source, and we let them come because they helped us to deal with rodents who ate our own food. How that certainly explains the exchange of energy in a certain way, but how it doesn’t explain the pleasure exchange, how we humans get such pleasure from the feel of fur, and from the sensation of the animal’s pleasure. How my distant cousin David Kline writes in his book Scratching the Woodchuck of encountering a groundhog sleeping in the sun, how he reached out his walking stick to gently touch it, how it leaned into the scratch, how satisfying it was to him. How I saw an online video yesterday of a goose tickling a puppy with its beak: Everyone wants to pet the puppy.

But I am pretty sure I have written that before, and then I started writing it anyway, and I came upon that perfect opportunity to practice the singular “they.” (There’s where the metacognition begins.) So today’s musing is not really about the mutual pleasure cycle between humans and animals, after all, but about the process of shifting their (one’s/our) language to include alien-seeming ideas and structures.

We do it all the time, unconsciously or semi-consciously: pick up new words and phrases and ways of saying things. Teenagers do it at such an alarming pace that sometimes they seem to be speaking another language, and those of us whose synapses are getting hard and calcified find it challenging to keep up, to interpret the cant and the jargon. But we do it too. There’s that but at the beginning of the last sentence. “Never,” my teachers told me, “put a but at the beginning of a sentence.” But I do it all the time now. Too often perhaps. It expresses a sense of the fragmentary thought, how my brain experiments with holding an idea, and then skitters over to its complement or opposite. New words and linguistic patterns have a way of seeping in to enhance and brighten our communication.

The injunction against singular they, however, seems to have a particular staying power. My starting sentence up there feels clunky and awkward to me, not just in the fact that its using a “plural” pronoun to refer to a singular human, but because it actually singularizes the plural: themself. Because I identify as female, it would have been perfectly logical for me to use herself in that sentence. Were I someone who identified as male, however, to use the masculine pronoun in a sentence about a generic human being would have taken on political meaning, a sense of masculine as default.

As a teenager, I took the common practice of identifying every generic human in my writing as the “default” he/him, trying to believe that it meant people of any gender, no matter that I saw a distinctly male person in my mind when I tried to picture the sentence. As my consciousness shifted, I rejected the male default, and began to use he or she for a time, or he/she, or s/he, and there’s a certain satisfaction in that, but it does get clunky in the speaking, especially when you start tossing in the him or her. For a while, I tried the pompous-sounding one, but those sentences can get laborious and babbly and, as I said, pompous.

To return to both the meaning and the revelation of that first sentence, I think that along with writing previously about petting puppies and kittens, I have written about singular they before. Shakespeare did it. According to this Oxford English Dictionary blog entry (click the link), we’ve been doing it since at least the 1300s. They (generic use–I don’t know who I am referring to) discuss the attempts by grammatical structuralists in the 18th century to eliminate the use of singular they. But hey, if it was good enough for Shakespeare, it’s good enough for me, and he occasionally began a sentence with he, and finished off using they for the exact same antecedent. If he’s allowed to be so messy, I’m just going to wade right in.

There is plenty of reason to challenge my discomfort, besides my own feminist consciousness. Sure, I can sprinkle lots of generic she into my writing to startle and inspire, but singular they has become a fight for recognition of identity. As we welcome the blooming sense of personal identity and power that non-binary folx are expressing, it’s important for those of us who identify comfortably (say: privilege) on the binary to let ourselves get a little unsettled in the linguistic world, and then to embrace new forms and structures. Embracing new ways of using pronouns is a way to embrace the people who use them.

That first sentence is awkward in my ear. I am comfortable with singular they in many flowing contexts, but that one up there stopped me. Even Shakespeare didn’t use it so jarringly. But why should I try to rephrase it to make it gentler and more flowing to our ears? Instead, I am going to leave it there, to give us both a chance to begin exploring the possibility of new ways of using singular they. We can handle it. In recent years we’ve absorbed so many new words and ways of putting them together, and we’ve hardly looked up from our screens long enough to ponder the significance of all the changes. We can let themself slip in, too.

One way to make non-binary folx in a room feel more embraced and included is to put our own pronouns on our nametags, so they’re not the only ones with the burden. Another is to start using the pronouns in new and creative, and sometimes jarring (deliciously jarring) ways.


Gratitude List:
1. Expanding the brain by using words in new ways
2. Soft fur and purring
3. Vs of geese enlivening the sky
4. Getting the work done. I began to see the light at the end of the tunnel
5. So far, I seem to be holding this cold slightly at bay. Lots of zinc, lots of elderberry

May we walk in Beauty! (And good health.)

Stories Will Save Us

These days, I am immersed in several pieces of literature, three of which have uncanny connections to the current socio-political atmosphere.

Having just finished analyzing To Kill a Mockingbird with my English 101s, I am struck again by Lee’s portrayal of a culture on the cusp of change, of the willful ignorance of a people deeply entrenched in their own social privilege and power. I want to keep aware of the book’s faults when it comes to teaching a diverse body of students in the 2000s: Atticus as the white savior, the fact that it’s yet another white child’s coming of age story, the use of the n-word (even in the context of the story). Still, I think it’s a powerful tool for helping 14- and 15-year-olds understand not only the history of systemic racism in our country, but also the social context, of how people deliberately ignore the imbalances of privilege and power. I want them to make the connection to ourselves, to explore how systems of privilege and power still affect the ways in which we see ourselves and others today. Sometimes I feel as though I am teaching three books at once: it’s literature, it’s history, it’s social commentary.

In another class, we’re finishing up an exploration of Julius Caesar. Again, I keep feeling an uncanny connection to the politics of today–not the assassination bit, of course, but the ways in which the powerful act for their own ambition while saying they work for the good of the country, the ways in which the mob can be manipulated to do the will of those who have power.

At home, we are reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We just read the bit about the Death Eaters who attacked and terrified and mortified a family of Muggles after the Quidditch World Cup. All I could see, as the boys and I were talking about it, was young men marching through Charlottesville with torches. It’s the same story, really, about people dehumanizing those who are not like them, drunk on their own social power, using fear and threats to intimidate. Each time I re-read her books, I am more deeply aware of how Rowling understands social systems, how she portrays systemic injustices even as she’s creating a magical world. I’ve often thought that young people ought to be required to read Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The student resistance at Hogwarts resembles the European resistance movements in World War II. What do you do when your own governing structures have been infiltrated by Death Eaters? I am more aware than ever now how Rowling began setting up the complex social and political systems even in the early books.

Stories will save us, if we let them. We choose the stories we follow, like we choose the voices we listen to. Of course, stories can be misused, if we abdicate our responsibility to think and question and process because we rely on the tired plots we know, if we simply let the old stories keep telling us, if we refuse to participate in the creation of the new story. Still, stories can be dangerous to the status quo, making us question our roles, helping us to identify more clearly who we want to be in the current plot, offering us maps and possibilities so that we can take the current where it serves us.


Satuday’s Musings:

“In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” —Phil Ochs
***
“The sense-making in poetry is about getting behind the brain. A poem is a door. Sometimes poets make sturdy, locked, exclusive club doors that you can only enter if you are one of ‘us,’ or if your can speak (or pretend to know) the password. A really good and satisfying poem is an open and inviting doorway that frames the view in a particularly compelling way. ‘Look!’ it says. ‘Stand and stare. Take a deep breath. Then tell me what you see.’

“Good poetry, I think, holds a paradoxical perspective on language itself: it acknowledges the inadequacy of words to completely map an inner geography, and it also steps with reverence and awe into the sacred space that language creates between writer and reader. Words are both inadequate and holy.” —Beth Weaver-Kreider, 2014
***
“Where does despair fit in? Why is our pain for the world so important? Because these responses manifest our interconnectedness. Our feelings of social and planetary distress serve as a doorway to systemic social consciousness. To use another metaphor, they are like a “shadow limb.” Just as an amputee continues to feel twinges in the severed limb, so in a sense do we experience, in anguish for homeless people or hunted whales, pain that belongs to a separated part of our body—a larger body than we thought we had, unbounded by our skin. Through the systemic currents of knowing that interweave our world, each of us can be the catalyst or “tipping point” by which new forms of behavior can spread. There are as many different ways of being responsive as there are different gifts we possess. For some of us it can be through study or conversation, for others theater or public office, for still others civil disobedience and imprisonment. But the diversities of our gifts interweave richly when we recognize the larger web within which we act. We begin in this web and, at the same time, journey toward it. We are making it conscious.” —Joanna Macy
***
Why Are Your Poems So Dark?
by Linda Pastan

Isn’t the moon dark too,
most of the time?
And doesn’t the white page
seem unfinished
without the dark stain
of alphabets?
When God demanded light,
he didn’t banish darkness.
Instead he invented
ebony and crows
and that small mole
on your left cheekbone.
Or did you mean to ask
“Why are you sad so often?”
Ask the moon.
Ask what it has witnessed.


Gratitude List:
1. Sunshine
2. Story
3. Sleep
4. A clean house
5. A blue true dream of sky

May we walk in Radiant Beauty!

En-Couraging

screechowl

Gratitude List:
1. Golden morning moonset, and a russet sunrise.
2. Introducing my students to Shakespearean insults.
3. People rising to the occasion.
4. Grace and civility and kindness are not dead. (I know that seems like the total antithesis of number 2, but it just all fits.)
5. Voice Class recital for Chapel this morning. I am en-couraged by the courage of those young folks taking the stage and taking risks. And the music was sublime.

May we walk in Beauty!

Stretching

2013 August 175
This is a firebird in a campfire, but it feels like it belongs with the sunset thunderbird story.

Gratitude List:
1. Thunderbird Firebird Sunset: Can we do another sunset here?  It’s just that last night’s sunset was so much like a portent, like a message.  The sky behind was shading to tender aquamarine, the way it gets lighter and brighter before it darkens into night.  The clouds in front, layered lines of tufty fluff, were tinged with magenta on the bottom, with the realest indigo above, and true violet between.  The sky where the sun had just been was the glowing orange of coals.  But the most striking thing about it all was that in the space where the orange was, there was the clearly delineated shape of a thunderbird, like the ones carved by the Susquehannock people in the rocks of the River.  It was rising up out of the earth into the sky, a bird of flame.
2. An empty box: Last night, I picked up an empty cardboard box to take upstairs (we store the strongest ones in the attic).  I noticed that it was the box where I had kept the notes from my first teaching job, at Butler County Community College.  I had brought it down to put my papers in the recycling bin, and they went off in the truck early this morning.  And there’s an odd weight lifted from my shoulders.  Getting rid of my old notes and papers (which I never look at) means that I can now completely trust my own inner resources and my ability to find answers in the present day.  I can believe that what I learned in the past is part of me today, and I don’t have to keep papers as a link to my past to remind myself of what I might have forgotten.
3. I’ve got this: That’s my mantra for the time being.  I realized that although I think of myself as a fairly positive person, I have been continually feeding myself shameful messages about how I never seem to be able to stay organized and on top of things.  At the same time, I would set unrealistic goals about what I might be able to get done in any given amount of time.  In this coming season of my life, I will be setting realistic goals, and I will feed myself the message that I can do it.  Talking to a colleague yesterday, I mentioned that I am trying to keep my messages to myself positive, and without knowing my mantra, she said, “You’ve got this!”  Yes, yes, I believe I do.
4. Shakespeare and teenagers: We’re studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English 9 right now.  Yesterday one girl came to me after class and said, “I thought this Shakespeare stuff would be boring because it’s so old and hard to understand, but I really love this story!”  This is why I became a teacher.  Those words are a bright, bright, shiny stone that I will carry around with me for a long time.
5. Why am I at a loss to find the fifth today?  There are so many, many things that I am grateful for, but nothing seems to be quite the one that finishes this list.  Stretching.  That’s it.  Stretching.  Slow, careful, breath-infused stretching.  Yes, and that means more than it means.

May we walk in Beauty!

Awash

Today’s prompt is to write an across the sea poem.  Here’s a haiku:

Alas!  I’m awash
in this sea of a season.
I’ll drown in that green.

Gratitude List:
1. Ferns unfurling
2. YWCA and its anti-racism work.  I was proud to support it by joining the Race today.
3. Shakespeare.  I am awash in his poetry.
4. The way the streetlight turned the new leaves on those trees by the Rutt building to a fairy golden.
5. Reading books with the kids in the new fort that Jon built out by the United Melvin Hall.

May we walk in Beauty!

The Trees Are Blooming

Gratitude List:
1.  Hello Dogwoods.  Hello Willows.  Greetings to the Impossibly Pink Thing whose name I do not know.  Hello Cherry, and tiny green leaves on the Gingko.
2.  Weaving stories and poems with people.
3.  Meeting someone in person whom I have only known on Facebook.  It’s so exciting to meet someone you already know and care about.  What a brave new world we live in!
4.  Reading poetry with Ellis.  He is getting ready for Poem-in-your-pocket day next week.  I read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 to him and choked on my tears on the last two lines.  So beautiful.  Ellis ended up writing his own poem.
5.  The way the round green hill of Sam Lewis Park rises to meet a bright blue sky dusted with white clouds.  Satisfying.

May we walk in beauty.