Category Archives: spring

Rhythms and Anchors: life truth from young adult literature

I’ve been reading up a storm lately, but you couldn’t tell by looking here.   I recently finished Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rivka Brunt and reread Crank by Ellen Hopkins with my students.  I  also reread the young adult Tales of the Madman Underground by John Barnes for my graduate class and loved it just as much the second time around.  It is set in a small Ohio town in 1973 and the Karl, the high school senior protagonist has been a part of a therapy group at school since elementary school.  They dubbed themselves the Madman Underground, since they know everything about each other’s lives, but generally stick to their own social circles outside of therapy.  Karl’s dad passed away and his cat-hoarding mother drinks her nights away and steals Karl’s money to pay for it.

This calendar year has felt like a whirlwind to me: planning a wedding, moving to a new (fixer upper) apartment, and going back to graduate school on top of grading essays and state tests has left me feeling scattered and in survival mode–I’ve spent quite a bit of my walking time getting from one place to the next dreaming about getting upstate with some English breakfast tea, hiking boots and a pile of books.  In the midst of the crazy, I came across this passage from Madman from a scene when Karl feels exhausted and overwhelmed and looks over to a list of household projects and chores that his dad made for him before he died:

Dad had left me a list, month by month and week by week, when to do all the stuff he’d shown me how to do.  I couldn’t always keep up with it, between Mom and the cats. I knew it would all fall to shit the minute I left for the army.  Still, mostly I kept it up.  Nights when I couldn’t sleep, I’d just turn on my desk lamp, point it at the wall, and read that list to myself til I knew where I was in the world again (110).

I actually teared up thinking about Karl re-grounding himself in rhythms that were passed down to him by his father and the way that rereading them enabled him to remember his true identity.  This is the piece that I have often gone without this year–I have kept going and going and the easiest things to let go of were the rhythms and anchors that remind me of who I am–be it through writing, running in the park, cooking a meal.  We are also in the midst of our final unit: studying Coming-of-Age literature and thinking about what it means to grow up, and this wisdom from Karl is some of the best advice I could ever give a teenager, and also helps put their lives and craziness into perspective.
There was a crazy day last week when I didn’t have time to cook but couldn’t bear to order in food that wouldn’t feel good to my body.  So I decided to make a meal that would take the longest to make, of course: risotto with spring vegetables.  I was filled with anxiety and my mind was looming with deadlines, but decided that it was worth it to walk to a grocery store much further than the two closest to me to get higher quality vegetables.  Within a block of walking I was so taken by the late spring evening light and my neighborhood’s energy that I was able to completely reset my mindset.  It was a mental miracle.  

So.  I realized that I needed to build in some time for anchoring myself just like Karl did.  This week I started reading Brene Brown’s The Gift of Imperfection with a friend of mine (after seeing her game changing Ted Talks last fall and being blown away).  One of the first things she talks about is recognizing the moments when you feel yourself becoming depleted and to do something about it in the moment–remembering your anchors and truths.  This past week I’ve been able to climb out of the craziness bit by bit and breathe.

It also helps that summer is so close.

Under the Magnolia.

I came across this poem this morning while reading one of my favorite blogs.  It was timely because in my graduate class this week we were discussing poetry and I realized how much I had been missing it lately.  There is no other form that can capture so much with so little and, like the nerdy English teacher that I am, it hurts my soul that it is such a misunderstood genre.  I try to teach my students that poetry is one of the most powerful ways to share their voice–it distills the most power and leaves out the unnecessary that clogs so many texts.  

I’ve been talking with some people lately–and even in my last post–about living thankfully and gratefully, especially for the intangible.  This poem made me stop and think and breathe.  And it makes me want to write.  

Under the Magnolia by Carolyn Miller

I give thanks because I do not have
a great sorrow. My village has not
burned, my child has not died, my body
is not ravaged. I sit here on the ground
lucky, lucky. Somewhere, villages are burning,
somewhere, not too far away, children
are dying; in this great urban park
painstakingly constructed over sand dunes,
people live in the flowering bushes. But
just here, in front of me, is a bride and groom;
here is a child running with
a red ball; another child is rolling on
the grass. All I have to do is to decide
how much fear to let inside my heart
in this fragile, created place, this bowl of grass
surrounded by palms and cypresses and
shaggy-barked cedars and trees
whose names I do not know, long fronds
falling, clusters of lilac fruits depending like
bouquets. All we can do is trust
that we belong here with the flowers: white
iris and Iceland poppies, a blur
of primroses, beds where flowers are
a crowd of color, where they close in the dark,
where the first light finds them starred
with dew. The trees seem to know
what I do not know; even the cultivated grass
understands some chain of being I can only
guess at, whether it is God’s mind, or
the erotic body of the Goddess, or some
abstract kind of love, or
some longing for existence that includes
the fern trees, the new buds of cones on the
conifers, the white butterflies, the skating boys,
the hooked new buds of the magnolia
that look like claws holding on
to life, the curved thick petals of magnolia
in the grass, some gone to rust, some creased,
some streaked, others freckled, others magenta
at the curved stem end, others cracked,
all lined with long veins branching out
to the petal’s edge.

More on why I love poetry, and/or: I told my students I’d write a poem.

ELA State Test=done. Winter=over.

It. is. time. to. teach. [and live in] poetry.

I realized that I haven’t written poetry on this blog in a long time.  (It typically comes up a lot, mine or someone else’s.) I think that poetry’s disappearance aligns with winter and state tests and the process of moving or any of the other crazy things that have stolen my time.  If you’ve been reading lately, I’m finally beginning to notice beauty and the small details again, which is perfect for teaching this unit and what drives my own poetic voice: I just want to uncover what we miss way too often, and I love how poetry can capture teeny, fleeting moments that would otherwise disappear. I love how the choice and arrangement of words can so much more than lengthy prose can sometimes.

Roberto Bolano has become one of my favorite authors. He considered himself a poet before a novelist and I love the way he describes what can be attained in the shortest kind of literature: “The novel is an imperfect art. It may be the most imperfect of all literary arts. And the more pages you write, the more possibility there is of revealing imperfections…It isn’t the same to build a house as it is to build a skyscraper…” Bolano knew the precision and control that could go into a poem; but, as with any piece of art, the control only exists until you hand it over to a reader.

Anyway. I’ll probably be writing much more on poetry in the weeks to come. And please, don’t judge too hard: it is almost my bedtime and this one hasn’t been through a proper round of revision…and oh, how I believe in revision (and writing first drafts in near-prose and whittling away).

smashed in the swinging bathroom door,
one could feel my pulse
in the square centimeter of
my middle finger’s nail.

sometimes I wish the rest of the hurt
could feel so pronounced and even
so nearly vomit inducing

after some ice from the school nurse
and just an hour or so
it all went away and i forgot
it ever happened.

Finally beginning to feel at home.

Let us look for secret things
somewhere in the world,
on the blue shore of silence
or where the storm has passed,
rampaging like a train.
-Pablo Neruda, from “Forget About Me”

It’s funny how life changes affect your ordinary rhythms of life. I started selling my furniture on craigslist in mid February, and since then I have felt like a bit of a nomad. As much as I think I would sometimes like to be a wandering traveler, the truth is that the concept of home is one of my anchors in life: whether it is the house I grew up in and its Bradford Pear trees and hill in the front, or my family’s weekend rituals Saturday eggs and toast and newspaper reading, or my need to have a space carved out in my apartment that reminds me of the things I love and who I am.

It took me a full two years of living in New York City to feel ready to commit to it as home; to stop thinking about where I was going to be the next year and to let some of my newer roots reach out and grasp onto life here.  The trouble is that I’m living in my 5th apartment in New York, my second in Brooklyn.  Each time I’ve moved, I have attempted to make my new space feel like home as quickly as possible, my current studio is no different. Today is the first weekend morning where I have sat down to engage in my old rhythms that make me feel at home: making tea, listening to good music, reading and writing.  It’s funny how it makes me feel like a person again and how these small little things finally make me feel at home.

I wrote about this nearly a month ago: looking forward to when I would be able to start the rhythms that keep me sane anew.  This week I made it to Prospect Park a few times in the evening to “look for the secret things in the world,” as Neruda would say, to find the things that move my heart.   Because sometimes it feels like a storm has passed and nothing of beauty avails, but. When I open my eyes and breathe and look for the secret things, I find them. And breathe deeply.

Hope during an extra rainy weekend.

I have finished a couple of books in the past few weeks, but haven’t had more than 30 minutes of free time. So. Next weekend maybe you’ll read about Lost Illusions and Special. Until then, I decided it was a priority to recognize my favorite day of the year: Daylight savings’ spring forward (haters, a day of feeling tired is so worth it to have days that last longer than 6 pm).  For my philosophical musings on Daylight Savings and the mental miracle that it is, please see last year’s post.  

Today I have a bit of a different take on this glorious day (though, that being said, spring forward was ushered in with a vengeance this year  in New York City by 4 day rainfall that left umbrella corpses strewn about the streets…glorious in it’s symbolism, I should say.)

It is a good thing I believe in grace and new beginnings because it seems like I take almost every opportunity I’m given to celebrate them: a new school year, the calendar new year and the beginning of spring.  It seems as though in the winter I forget the rhythms that breathe goodness into my life and instead spend 3-4 months with my shoulders clenched and my face contorted against the cold. In a few weeks I am moving to a new apartment that is only a block away from Prospect Park and I’ve realized that I can pick up on rituals I’ve left behind for many winters and years.  Every other place I’ve ever lived in New York, I walked to a park nearly every night, carrying tea and my ipod, sometimes a book, sometimes a notebook: the bridle path and reservoir at Central Park, the boat basin and 91st Street Garden at Riverside, the promenade in Battery Park City.

All this to say: I will take my extra hour of daylight, weather that invites me into it and let the winter and all it stands for in my mind melt away. Happy Daylight Savings.