Barrow Street

fall winter 2012 074Lazy days. School doesn’t begin for another week and we’re in serious vacation mode here. Seeing friends, eating the cookies left over from Christmas. Playing Life. Finally making the Gingerbread House that no one could find time for earler.

The new copy of Barrow Street arrived in my mail just the other day. It includes my poem, “Vows,” and a host of other poems that play with language, like this one by Bertha Rogers:


This owl raptured after this muskrat,
seized, ripped off, this bony November day,
the water rat’s greasy head.

And did the rat grasp what great angel
had taken his body up
eyes riding past hooked blue beak,
beneath roof arched like a church’s,
and down mortality’s red craw?

A car, wheeling south, completed the act,
ravished the owl right out of light.

Better than sex, this aborted hunt,
more satisfying than owning the wish, granted love
the diurnal abuses wrecked upon each other.
Better than mercy better, balancing all,
this blinding end, glinting, quick death.

I suppose what I love here is the “roof arched like a church’s,” the “red craw” and that luminous last line. Another poem, “Pigs” by Brian Barker, has an opening image I love enough to steal: “jigsaw puzzles for the damned.” Like the jigsaw puzzle on our table, which is not for the damned (I hope) but only for those on holiday break.

“Make good choices!”

cabin1As my daughters go out the door, I often call to them, “Make good choices!”

Small, good choices add up when you’re trying to accomplish a goal. I find in fact that they are the only way I ever accomplish anything. It helps to be a little single-minded. When my goal was to get ready for Christmas, I had to write a list. I had to go shopping. I had to stock up on wrapping paper and bows. When my goal is to go to the gym, I need to put on my gym clothes, even if I’m not sure when I’ll get there. If I want to do laundry, it helps to be in the laundry room.

Same with my writing goals — the primary one being, right now, to finish the novel rewrite. Being in my writing cabin is a good first step. But being in my cabin isn’t enough. I can’t check my email, pick up a book, write aimlessly in a journal, write a blog post. I have to actually have the novel on my lap. I have to have my eyes on the words. It helps to read aloud. It helps to have a pen in my hand.

Lately, it hasn’t been going so well. I haven’t been making those small, good choices. I haven’t been single-minded. But I keep showing up, and I keep picking up the notebook. I’m having dinner with a friend tonight who just finished rereading the first fifty pages. That’s a good choice. It will help to have some conversation around what she noticed. She’s a screenwriter and she helps me to see the scenes in a way I don’t quite see them on my own. It will help, tonight, to not watch four hours of Veronica Mars before bedtime. It will help to go to bed early. It will help to get up early.

“I’d love to lose 20 pounds,” one of my daughters said to me today. This was just after eating licorice rope and a candy bar. To lose weight, you have to make small, good choices. To write a novel, or a short story, or a poem, small good choices are the only path.

The Letter

P1040143I received an amazing gift today. I didn’t want to drop by my office at all — with my grades posted, all I wanted was to stay far away! But I needed some materials for an off-campus meeting with a colleague, so here I am. On my office chair, I found a letter from a student.

First, perhaps I should admit that while students have the most difficult time in the world learning how to write good compositions (at least, many of them take about 12 years to learn, and then do only a half-hearted job), a very large percentage of students write knock-down-dead, great letters. At the end of every quarter, I ask all of my students to write a letter reflecting not on me (there’s an evaluation process for that), but on their own learning. And they write the most entertaining letters. If I were grading them on the letters alone, they would all get A’s. Not that they’ve nailed the grammar!

What they excel in is telling me what a fantastic class this has been, how MUCH they learned. Do they write the same, basic letter to any teacher who asks? Okay, so I try to take whatever they say with a grain of salt. (“This is the greatest English class I have ever had.”) But sometimes there’s something so personal, so heartening about the letters. The letter I found today was like that.

And it wasn’t about me or my class at all, not entirely anyway. It was about a journalism teacher who saved this student back in Freshman year of high school. “I wasn’t attending classes. I didn’t care. I was failing.” But she bumped into a teacher who recognized her potential, her hunger for a good story (that’s my interpretation) and she became engaged in the process of her own education. I feel honored to have been compared to that teacher.

The tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut have drawn my P1040211attention to them, as they have everyone else’s. I’m so grateful for my kids, who are healthy and safe — or were the last time I saw them. (My children who were once six and seven and eight, so small and so vulnerable.) My heart breaks for the families who have to muddle through the holidays after this horrific loss. I grieve for our broken nation, even for the wounded people who think that rushing out to buy another weapon is the right response. I hope that in 2013 far fewer of our children will be killed by bullets. Many stories will emerge from this (just as with Columbine). I hope one of the stories will be about being kind to one another. I once read, it may have been in a book by Gil Blaisie: “Retaliation is effective only when the goal is to prolong the violence.” I hope that someone will re-introduce into the national conversation the Amish response to similar, recent events.

I think of the teachers who gave their lives for their students. I have never been asked to do such a thing. But I’m thankful for my student’s journalism teacher from high school. I’m thankful for my teachers who nurtured in me a love of story.

I have been thinking about retiring from teaching, but right now, with this letter on my desk, I’m thankful that I can matter to my students, even in my small way.


Facts about the Moon

winter-solsticeIt’s a dark time of year, especially this year, and it strikes me that one of our questions right now — as a people, I mean, as human beings in this shared endeavor — has to be how to heal a broken world. The picture, from, made me think of Dorianne Laux’s poetry book, Facts about the Moon.  Here’s one of the shorter poems in the collection, though I would like to recommend the entire book. It’s about grief, which as I heard a writer somewhere say today, is research into how to be fully human.

Moon in the Window

I wish I could say I was the kind of child
who watched the moon from her window,
would turn toward it and wonder.
I never wondered. I read. Dark signs
that crawled toward the edge of the page.
It took me years to grow a heart
from paper and glue. All I had
was a flashlight, bright as the moon,
a white hole blazing beneath the sheets.

Dorianne Laux

What Clutter Does

image184I had a very cool experience yesterday evening, reading poems with Holly Hughes and a few of her poetry students — including my friend Shana — at Edmonds Community College. Also eating chocolate cake. One of the many things we talked about was publication.

I’m tired of sending this poem out and having it rejected. I think it’s pretty good. And now my poetry file feels a little less cluttered.

The picture is of me and my sibs (not necessarily the children in the poem) after our church Christmas play (notice the tree in the background). I was a nurse. Not sure what Kathy was supposed to be.


Clutter must be a metaphor, not for things kept,
an idea you love, but for the lack of order
you’ve lived with all your life, things unkept,
like the pickle jars full of marbles that, for a dollar,
you never could guess the number of,
all the raffles entered and all the marbles lost
through knotholes and behind porch steps,
all the spelling bees you had to drop from
in the second round, not because you couldn’t spell
but because you couldn’t concentrate
(the clutter of so much noise). Clutter could stand
for Sunday School prizes for “most visitors brought”
when you couldn’t bring any, your parents’
Buick stationwagon with the flip-up jumpseat
already full of people related to you, as if that
was fair, your messy sisters scrubbing down
the crayons to dull thumbs. In your heart
of hearts there’s a shelf with nothing on it,
a cleared space where you sit prim as a knick knack
(that dusty, that quiet), whenever and wherever
the busy world is too much for you, moves
too fast and dishes out one too many details.
When emptiness is all the clutter you can stand.