SOLS: How Are You?

I was in the small grocery store across from my school yesterday when I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in years, a friend whose son had run around the kindergarten playground with my girls years ago.

“How are you?” she said. “What are you up to these days?”

I paused; I hesitated.

One of my epiphanies lately has been how often, in the past few years, I would have answered that question with a quick, “Good! How are you?” turning the attention back to the other person and avoiding talking about myself. How often, in general, I’ve deflected attention from myself, my feelings and my needs, and tried instead to keep my head down, working as hard as I can to push forward. It’s made me wonder if this is why when I do exhibit some stress, so often people say to me, “Oh, you’ll be fine! You’ll work it out!” Do we not want to engage further, or is it because I so rarely talk openly about what isn’t fine, what isn’t working out so well?

In the past few months, that’s changed, and instead of my usual answer, I told her exactly how I was, and what I’ve been up to, and what it’s meant for me. And a quick superficial conversation never happened, and instead, we laughed and shared and hugged there, in the aisle of the grocery store, while other shoppers came and went, and my friend balanced a heavy cut of meat in one hand and told tales of life and wisdom as I nodded and felt heard, understood.

Does this sound familiar to you? Do you work hard to keep a glossy false surface on your life?

Think about how you are, how you’re really doing. Be honest with yourself. Show that openness, that wound or pain, to the people around you. You may be surprised, like I have been, at how much they will embrace you.

I Wait, I Wait, I Wait

I’m waiting right now to hear the results of an important question, a question that would determine a big part of the next year of my life. I’ve done everything I can do (I think), I’ve put myself in the best position for success that I could (I hope), and now I’m waiting to see if I’ll get the object of my dreams and hopes.

It’s terrible.

I did the best I could to distract myself this weekend and find some sources of joy and comfort: I met a friend for dinner, went dancing with another friend, shopped for spring flowers with my sister, saw our spring play here at school, went for a sunrise five-mile walk with a third friend, and had lunch with a fourth! It was definitely the most socializing I’ve done in a compressed span of time in many months, and all of it fed my soul in different ways…….but I’m still waiting. Still no news. Hoping to hear today or tomorrow. No guarantee.

Keep your fingers crossed for me?

SOLS: Nuggets

I’ve always been a salty girl:
the golden crunch of chips,
the crisped chicken-skin that leaves
glimmer-grease on my fingertips,
chunky sourdough pretzels,
cylindrical cured meat.
I’d say they were my guilty pleasures,
but I’d be lying;
I rejoice in the ocean of their taste.

At the end of a long day,
a fresh paycheck’s worth of cash
snuggled cozily in my bank account,
I know they’re waiting for me.
Juicy round nuggets,
waffle-cut fries;
sometimes, that’s all
that gets me from 6 am to 6 pm,
knowing I’ll be sliding
into a booth and biting
down and sighing with relief
and joy, the flavor of my life
both salty and sweet.

Come join me and share slices of your life!

Dear Adrienne

As promised, this is the model letter I wrote for my students to have as a mentor text while they work on their Dear Poet letters. We read the poem together, then read my letter aloud and discussed what they noticed and how it could serve as a model. I was surprised at how vulnerable I felt sharing my work with them–a good reminder for why it’s important to share our writing with students, and a nudge to myself to make more opportunities to do so. Feel free to use in your own classes, alongside Diving Into the Wreck, if you are doing this or a similar project in your classes.

Dear Adrienne,

I met you once, years before your death, when you came to speak at the girls’ school in Baltimore where you were educated as a young woman. I sat in the dark theater and looked up at you, glowing with a fierce passion on the stage, and I clutched a copy of one of your books and felt amazed and grateful to be in your presence. Later I stood in line to have you sign that book, and I babbled something incomprehensible, trying to express what your work has meant to me.

Now I teach in that school, helping to educate bright young women who might someday grow up to govern or influence our world, and from time to time I drop poems of yours into their laps like gifts. A friend asked me recently what poems I would share with her so she could pass them onto her daughter, another bright young woman, feeling downtrodden by the world and its misery and in need of some inspiration. I thought immediately of Diving into the Wreck and the solace and sustenance it has given me over the years.

“I have to learn alone to turn my body without force in the deep element”: in the course of the poem, this element is the sea, blue and black and wide, but so often, I’ve felt this in the stream of my own life. The lesson of navigating the waves of our lives, how to bend and not be broken, is one we can only learn alone, isn’t it? And it’s a sad loneliness, but a strong one, and a necessary one. And it requires so much force to learn, but so much softness and turning to achieve.

“I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail”: how brave we need to be to dive into the wreckage of our lives and our world and look fearlessly at the damage there. Or are we fearless, or maybe the more brave because we tremble as we look? And it is only by looking that we can see the “threadbare beauty,” only by diving that we can be “the mermaid whose dark hair streams black.”

“By cowardice or courage,” wielding our “knife, camera, book of myths in which our names do not appear”: we dwell in the knowledge that we are broken, that we all have the wreckage inside us and live within it at the same time, that we must keep looking and be prepared to face what we find, that we can comfort ourselves with myths even when they do not acknowledge that we exist.

Thank you, for all the words you left the world, for the rays of light that help me see in the darkness, for diving into the wreck and sharing with us all what you found there.

Always,
Jackie

Dear Poet: Rune of the Finland Woman

There are many reasons to love working with projects like Dear Poet, this year’s gift from the Academy of American Poets to those of us teaching poetry units during National Poetry Month. By writing these letters, students have authentic audiences, the chance of publication or recognition, a venue for responding to poetry beyond the traditional explication, and access to a range of wonderful contemporary poets and poetry. As teachers, we have access to curated poems and videos as well as well-structured lesson plans to bring the project into our classrooms. I’m planning to draft an example letter myself to provide them, which poses a neat little challenge for myself as a writer–perhaps I will post the letter here too!

This year, one of the joys for me has been the poems chosen for the project, and specifically, Marilyn Hacker’s Rune of the Finland Woman. It’s a weird and wonderful tribute to a friend of Hacker’s, weaving together fairy tales and personal experiences, and is a great model for students in how poets use repetition and sound to build a reader’s experience. I know several of my students already feel called to write their letters to Hacker, and I’m thrilled to hear what they produce.

SOLS: The Fall

Saturday afternoon: I had just finished doing some very productive Easter Bunny shopping at Target and was headed to my favorite local thrift store to see if I could score any spring/summer pieces.

The sun was out, spring seemed to have finally arrived, and the afternoon was mine to spend how I chose. I walked with purpose down the sidewalk, feeling so satisfied with the day, trotting along at a steady clip.

And then I tripped. My foot caught the uneven edge of the sidewalk, and I went flying. It was so sudden that I reacted with absolutely zero grace. It was the kind of full-on fall toddlers and little kids take all the time, but I hadn’t taken in years.

Flat on the sidewalk went my palms, the rough texture of the concrete making tiny tears. My knees landed, then skidded, ripping a hole in the pair of jeans I’d just bought this fall and sending a searing pain across the skin. Several expletives flew out of my mouth, and I crouched there for a second, twinges of pain and embarrassment signaling shocks through my body.

I picked myself up and stumbled into the shop. I knew instinctively I couldn’t just go back to my car; if I did, I’d sit there in the seat crying, thinking of all the shocks and tumbles I’ve been absorbing lately and wondering when the hits would stop coming. So I kept looking around, picking up a pair of shorts to try on, then gasping at the sight of my right knee in the changing room mirror, then realizing my right thumb was bleeding, seeping out from under the nail. I wrapped a tissue around my thumb, paid for the shorts, and walked slowly, unsteadily, to my car. I drove home, changed into pajamas, and resolved not to leave the house again that day.

The skinned knee is one of those irritating injuries that isn’t that terrible, but poses its own annoying challenges. You bend and flex your knee so often during the day that the skin can take forever to knit itself back together; the motions of daily life mean that the wound is always stretching, hard to close. I keep finding myself holding my knee a little rigid, giving myself a little limp, to avoid that pain, the one that feels like I’m ripping the edges of that tender wound apart.

Why hadn’t I been more careful? I thought, embarrassed by my clumsiness. But no matter how careful you feel you’re being, the world can still rise up and catch you by surprise.

31 Slices: What I Learned

After my first week of the Slice of Life March Challenge, I wrote about seven lessons I learned after the first seven days. Now that the challenge is over, there’s more I can add or expand from that initial list:

  1. While I was initially wary of how I could write so much about my life without revealing too much, I ended up being really pleased with how I managed to discuss my emotions and daily life while still staying true to my own boundaries.
  2. The power of comments is immeasurable: each day, I thrilled to see each new comment on my posts, and challenged myself to try and respond to as many of the comments as I could, even just hitting the “like” button. The expectation to add comments on three fellow slicers’ posts each day is a distinctive and unique part of this challenge, and I felt a responsibility to make sure I added to the conversations too.
  3. The “slice” format is such a powerful yet simple tool; I would not have expected to “know” so many people who were strangers before the 31 days began, but these glimpses into their classrooms, families, habits, thoughts, minds and hearts were perfect examples of how storytelling is connected to identity..
  4. I’m committing myself to several goals moving forward: being an active commenter on the blogs I read regularly, just as I was through the Slice challenge, and adding the Tuesday Slice to my regular blogging routine. I think these two steps will help keep some of the magic of the challenge moving forward for me.
  5. I really enjoyed using some new formats and techniques I usually don’t employ as a blogger, specifically poems and posts inspired by pictures, but also using other blogger’s posts as inspiration and mentor texts. Definitely want to continue this moving forward, either in my Slices or just any time I choose.
  6. In July, this blog will be eight years old, and I think I really needed a jolt of fresh energy to make this a more creative outlet for myself. Especially as my life has gotten more complicated, my posts here really tended towards book reviews and teaching talk–which will still remain big features of my writing here–but why not play around a little more here? Why reserve poetry for off-the-blog? Why limit myself as a writer?
  7. It is possible to produce lines I’m proud of in a compressed time, writing against the clock. It is possible to set myself a challenge and complete it, even during a stressful time in my life. It is possible to surprise myself with my own resilience and creativity.

Snippets from Slices

With 31 slice of life posts in the month of March, surely there are some lines and phrases I’m proud to have written, right? Here are the snippets from my slices that looking back, I’m pleased have emerged from what felt like a writing marathon at times:

Slicing is about stealing a few minutes between classes to capture that nagging sensation that finally floated into your mind, fully articulated, at the most inconvenient time of day.

Everyone is fed. Everyone will be fine.

the baking cupcakes perfume the whole house, her pride knows no bounds.

Much must be risked in order to forge a new life.

the family constellation that lives inside it now will scatter, spinning light and explosions across the sky of their lives.

this girl and her mother, they will stay constant, certain as the arc of the sun, steady as the tides, connected as a tree to its deep strong roots.

also in the authenticity of the love depicted in Neruda’s sonnets, in darker shades and passionate tones, with unflinching resonance.

so much of the “great” literature we assign in schools is heartbreaking and depressing–beautiful, yes, important, yes, but not always joyful or uplifting. Literature can gladden your heart too

Homemade chocolate croissants and croque-monsieurs.

she has a rich life, one anyone would be lucky to be invited into, and that’s what I’m striving to create for myself.

dancing in my kitchen while I make dinner

in this season of my life, in many ways, I’m finding myself having to develop new strengths

It was impossible to think about anything but my hands, the clay, the wheel, impossible to let any of the uncertainty in my life invade the studio space.

I see how much of the comedy comes from a group of people, sitting in a room, with amazing chemistry and great writing, bouncing lines off each other like sparks.

I feel like my writing voice is limber again in a way it hasn’t been for a few years. I’m feeling confident enough to stretch even further.

pop music is capable of creating anthems, songs full of heart and passion that are not afraid to be bold, to push a clear positive message right at you

You are more delicious
because you are
grotesque, gorgeous.

Carrying the weight is easier when you realize just how supported you are.

Challenging myself to keep pushing my somnolent students this morning and persevering until we had accomplished my pedagogical goals reminded me how much of teaching is about the triumph of our will over theirs

it felt so magical, that I could crave a particular dish and be able to create it exactly, with my own two hands.

The best way to write more is to write more, without waiting for inspiration or the perfect writing conditions

we remember that our voices have value and that the world might miss us if we fall silent.

we have to take these massive leaps into uncertain futures without knowing where we land, and sometimes, we’re taking that leap and dragging along people we love so dearly

Not polished, not sparkling, but a little slice of how I’m feeling, in a hushed snow-globe kind of day.

Bonasera’s voice boomed out into our living room, and the light went up on his dark face, and I knew I was in the presence of greatness.

A warm cotton cocoon to wrap around myself as I evolve and discover what lies within me.

The look I get after that question probably doesn’t need to be described if you’ve ever had contact with almost-teenage girls.

I love you so much I’m willing to make you unhappy with me to help you learn these bigger lessons, ones that will stay with you long past order of operations and the friar’s speech.

SOLS: Not A Bang, But A Whimper

This is the way the challenge ends
This is the way the challenge ends
This is the way the challenge ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper

I had hoped to write such a lovely post today, as a farewell to this month full of riches and growth and community, but instead, I’m looking at a day where I have two conferences for my own kids, classes to teach, tests to grade, comments to write, and grades to enter before the 8 AM deadline tomorrow morning. I’m so irritated with myself for not clearing this grading off my plate so I could have been more reflective today, but then, I guess, that’s not always what Slicing is about.

Slicing is about stealing a few minutes in the hushed silence of a house that hasn’t woken up yet while your fingers tap tap tap at the keys before they start to ask about breakfast and lunch and two dollars for walking club and sign this test please and where are my sneakers? Slicing is about stealing a few minutes between classes to capture that nagging sensation that finally floated into your mind, fully articulated, at the most inconvenient time of day. Slicing is about making sure to leave comments on all the new blogs you’ve followed in the past month, the writers who just retired or are waving goodbye to their toddlers in the morning, the writers who are inspiring kids in their classrooms and collapsing at the end of busy schooldays. Slicing is about finding that last drop of inspiration when you thought there was simply nothing left. Slicing is about putting something on the “page” and feeling free to take a risk because everyone knows slices don’t have to be revised or polished before they enter the greater conversation.

I’m hoping to have more time tomorrow to reflect and write about all that this month of writing has given me–but not today. Today is just for limping (or whimpering) over the finish line, feeling hollow and wobbly, knowing I have much ahead of me today, and feeling grateful for everyone out there who’s convinced me I have something valuable to say. Thank you all so much for this month full of challenge–it’s meant more to me than I can express (right now, at least, but maybe even at all).