Friday, December 02, 2011

Seeing Stars

 The fall of 2011.
 And then . . . Singapore, Beijing, Newark, Mantua, Chicago, D.C.
 Because travel is part of the job of a self-employed writer, busted pelvis or no.
Last night I was walking the three dogs and took one untangled moment to smile up at the broad panorama of stars visible through stripped trees, waving in the breeze, beckoning winter.  I was suddenly aware, I was almost not limping.  That it was high time to finally put the “fall” behind me, just as it began – seeing stars.
In my own defense, the railroad tracks were sticking up higher than the road.  On that misty Sunday morning, August 21st one track grabbed my bike wheel and threw me to the ground, so quickly I didn’t know what happened until I blinked my eyes open to a sideways world.  That unfortunate encounter with irregular railroad tracks led to the dent in my helmet, the ambulance, the wheelchair, the walker, the cane, the promise to myself that I would get on that plane on September 15.  More stars as we flew from Cleveland through Moscow to Singapore.

Three word-filled weeks with the eighth grade, seeing more stars as kids wrote and performed their poems. 

Michael and I made so many new friends – I remember the faces and lines from poems. 

A stand out for all time: Respect does not make shadow puppets in another person’s spotlight.”  But the good lines were flying around and so fast, it is hard to name a favorite.  It makes me giggly to hear that the poetry writing has continued and the poetic spirit has grown at Singapore American School after our visit.

Nancy Johnson was the impetus behind this visit, enriching us personally and professionally by introducing us to her colleagues Bryan, Scott, Rebecca, Crystal and Brenda.  Belated thanks and hugs to all. 

Here is an observation that is a metaphor for something(not sure what), during the precise times that I was actually composing poetry with students, I don’t remember experiencing any pain.  Adrenaline or the healing powers of poetry?  Unfortunately that reprieve did not extend beyond the actual writing experiences, so we were not able to take in many of the cool things to see and do around Singapore with me hobbling around with a cane.  The cane is one I picked up in Korea, thinking it was a cool walking stick, NEVER dreaming I would actually have to use the thing.  I hope to return one day as Jane Kenyon would say, “on two strong legs.”  (Check out her poem Otherwise, available on line).

We did manage an evening boat cruise with Kate Brundage and Maggie Mutsch, friends we made through AIE and TARA in Bahrain, who have now landed in Singapore.  Small world.  A global community of educators – how lucky we are to connect and reconnect.  This picture is of a hotel, about the hugest hotel you could imagine.  I don't think that hugest is a word, but this thing is so big, it invites descriptors thought its mere existence.  And the picture below is of a museum.  Something to see on the next trip.

AND more stars in Beijing!
Well, to tell the truth, it was hard to see the sky most days we were there.  Note the haze in the photo below.  That was a pretty typical day.  And here we are, on the map in Beijing, touring with our new friend (we were old friends by the time we left, but here we were new friends) Trish McNair. 

But one night, the moon was shining so brightly Michael tried to comment on it to the taxi driver.  He got all flustered and thought we wanted to go someplace else and pulled over.  Michael whipped out his IPad and called up a picture of the moon, which made us all laugh, images pulling us past language barriers. That taxi driver is not to be confused with the drunk in the orange juice can on wheels we took back from the Wall.  That experience can be read about on Michael’s blog, check out “near death experiences.”

Hardly any city on the planet can match Beijing in terms of history.  If Williamsburg is a glimpse of the past, Beijing is looking through a telescope backwards.  Thousands of years, walls, dynasties, stories, wars, movements have all sprung from this place and to visit for a mere two weeks is only a taste of history. 

Entering the Forbidden City.

Tienanmen Square.

Chairlift up to the Great Wall.

Beijing itself is huge, 20 million humans. To put that in perspective, the population of Canada is only 34 million, and by size, Canada is the third largest country in the world. Another star to mention, the anonymous guy who caught me when I did a trust fall into his arms diving from this thing on one leg waving my cane around like I was angry with the birds.

You have heard the Great Wall is big?  You have no idea until you have tried to climb the height of it on one good leg.  But knowing the thousands of years and feet that had passed up these stairs was inspiration.

And the wall goes on and on.  A huge concrete snake that follows a mountainous path over 1300 miles.  I have heard it is the only manmade structure that can be seen from space, and it was before space exploration was even a dream.  They don't call it great for nothin'.

Other stars to mention, Alex the owner of The Bookworm, Karen and Kevin who took us shopping.  You would think that all we did was tour, but not so.  We wrote, performed and listened to poems of all shapes and sizes by poets who fit the same description.

We started with a quick two day visit with the elementary students at Western Academy of Beijing.  Elementary Librarian John Byrne lent an able and cheerful hand in making the drive-by visit to the elementary a success.

Poetry is conversational.

Sometimes poetry is emotional.

Then we moved on to the International School of Beijing where we met with upper school students.

At ISB we focused entirely on writing workshops, where students discussed, wrote, discussed, wrote and totally impressed themselves and their classmates with the quality of their creativity and eye for detail. 

For second language learners especially it helps to talk through the writing before committing pen to paper.

Sharing poetry helps us as writers and as human beings.

See the blur in the background (a teacher moving in to help another pair of writers) and the laptop open to the world?  And in the midst of all the motion, two girls sharing poetry?  This is the place we need to find -- the I need to find -- a quiet place for thought in a crazy busy world.  I don't think this challenge, finding space to think, is any worse in a city the size of Beijing than it is in my little suburb of Cleveland. A universal challenge.

Big thanks to Nadine Rosevear for the gazillion arrangement emails (by exact count) and warm reception upon arrival at ISB.  Thank you!

After our visit to ISB, we were back to Western Academy of Beijing to speak to the middle school students. On the last day of our visit, WAB was hosting an international day, a day to further understanding of other cultures and countries.  Here kids are streaming over the bridge between the upper and lower schools.

Trish, as many international teachers, has worked in schools around the globe.  She was kind enough to lend me an abaya so that we could be international queens for a day.  Can you tell who is who?

Most poets dream of reading their poems to admiring audiences.  Depending on how shy the poet and how flexible the school is, this can be a far off dream.  Luckily, Western Academy set up a mic so that students could share poetry with one another at an after school coffeehouse.

Here (to the students' delight,) a teacher and non other than the Vice Principal also came to read poetry. 

Poetry brings us together.

Michael and I were also caught reading into a microphone over the weekend at the Bookworm where we joined a Polish troupe of poets.  Talk about an international experience, the Polish poets performed in Polish with translations of their poetry projected behind them in English and Chinese.  Michael and I just did our thing in English, additional language challenged Americans that we are.

The cities, the poems and the friends.  So many images crowding my memory, jamming to get to the front like a Beijing driver.  Hard to sum up in one blog and my new year's resolution is that I will be more on top of my writing about the day to day.  Now that I look back on this past fall, I wish I had documented every moment.  I'm not sure if I was woefully behind or busily engaged.

Michael took this last photo of a man touring the Forbidden City.

A man this age in China has seen so much, revolution, famine, skyscrapers and donkey carts.  His eyes only glance over his shoulder, though.  He was touring the historical landmark, not texting or updating, but looking and learning.  As people, we have so much to learn from one another.
And, of course, Mou Mou. 
I am not doing justice to the exquisite tapestry of experience that was this past fall.  Making new year’s promises in advance to be better with documenting experiences here on my blog.

Thursday, September 08, 2011


On Sunday Michael and I, along with 3 other Cleveland poets will be honored to read poems of our choosing at a Cleveland Orchestra Concert commemorating 9/11. The poems I chose were Jerusalem by Naomi Shihab Nye and Reality Demands by Wislawa Szymborska and a sonnet of my own. I am posting the poems by the other poets here because they are available elsewhere on the net. It promises to be a solemn event, but also uplifting.

BY Naomi Shihab Nye

"Let's be the same wound if we must bleed.
Let's fight side by side, even if the enemy
is ourselves: I am yours, you are mine."
-Tommy Olofsson, Sweden

I'm not interested in
Who suffered the most.
I'm interested in
People getting over it.

Once when my father was a boy
A stone hit him on the head.
Hair would never grow there.
Our fingers found the tender spot
and its riddle: the boy who has fallen
stands up. A bucket of pears
in his mother's doorway welcomes him home.
The pears are not crying.
Later his friend who threw the stone
says he was aiming at a bird.
And my father starts growing wings.

Each carries a tender spot:
something our lives forgot to give us.
A man builds a house and says,
"I am native now."
A woman speaks to a tree in place
of her son. And olives come.
A child's poem says,
"I don't like wars,
they end up with monuments."
He's painting a bird with wings
wide enough to cover two roofs at once.

Why are we so monumentally slow?
Soldiers stalk a pharmacy:
big guns, little pills.
If you tilt your head just slightly
it's ridiculous.

There's a place in my brain
Where hate won't grow.
I touch its riddle: wind, and seeds.
Something pokes us as we sleep.

It's late but everything comes next.

BY Wislawa Szymborska

Reality demands
that we also mention this:
Life goes on.
It continues at Cannae and Borodino,
at Kosovo Polje and Guernica.

There is a gas station
on a little square in Jericho,
and wet paint
on park benches in Bila Hora.
Letters fly back and forth
between Pearl Harbor and Hastings,
a moving van passes
beneath the eye of the lion at Cheronea,
and the blooming orchards near Verdun
cannot escape
the approaching atmospheric front.

There is so much of Everything
that Nothing is hidden quite nicely.
Music pours
from the yachts moored at Actium
and couples dance on their sunlit decks.

So much is always going on,
that it must be going on all over.
Where not a stone still stands
you see the Ice Cream Man
besieged by children.
Where Hiroshima had been
Hiroshima is again
producing many products
for everyday use.

This terrifying world is not devoid of charms
of the mornings
that make waking up worthwhile.
The grass is green
on Maciejowice’s fields,
and it is studded with dew,
as is normal with grass.

Perhaps all fields are battlefields,
all grounds are battlegrounds,
those we remember
and those that are forgotten:
the birch, cedar, and fir forests, the white snow,
the yellow sands, gray gravel, the iridescent swamps,
the canyons of black defeat,
where in times of crisis,
you can cower under a bush.

BY Sara Holbrook

The charred remains of one more bombed out bus.
A swat team storms, a hostage sits alone.
Another hidden camera shot of thugs.
Amber Alert! A child’s been snatched from home.

Some loner kid went postal up in Maine.
Explosive vests? Is everyone extreme?
Death threat! A woman’s clinic up in flames.
More bad news from the flat screen fear machine.

How many died from that last IED?
I can’t take more. I mean it. I am done.
The information age is killing me.
I leave to take a shower of pure sun.
Oblivious, some bird with open throat
starts up a symphony of joy and hope.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A Bunionectomy when the Pain is Just too Much

There's nothing poetical about getting your feet cut -- voluntarily. The pain really has to be too much before you present yourself at the hospital, turn over all your worldly possessions, and naked under one of those drafty robes say just do it. My pain hit that tipping point coming out of Melbourne at 4:36AM last March. Add to this the fact that like many I have had to make compromises on health insurance (a $5000 deductible). BIG decision.

Since many have asked, here's how it has gone so far:

Operation day starts at 4:30 AM. The choice between "twilight sleep" and total anesthesia is easy, KNOCK ME OUT. I don't remember waking up, Michael driving me home, or how I got into the house. Total blackout. So far so good.

First couple days: Ice bags and keeping my feet elevated above my heart keeps swelling down. Where is the throbbing pain, say pain like I had on the airplane last March? This pain is tender when touched. When I leave the toes alone, no problem. I use a borrowed walker to get back and forth to the bathroom in my stylish black surgical shoes. A word about the shoes -- they set me back in a couple of ways. They cost $60 each (not covered by insurance) and they are designed to throw me back on my heels when I stand. Michael brings me all meals and I watch waaaay too much television. Pain is about 4 on a 10 point scale. I only use the prescription pain killers at night to sleep, mostly they make me nauseous. Have to use a shower hose to wash while sitting on a shower chair, my feet wrapped up in plastic bags with rubber bands.

End of first week, Michael takes me to visit the Dr., in a wheelchair. He rewraps the feet and I get a peek. Black and blue with a red tinge gets rewrapped in an ace bandage. Still using the walker for getting around. Michael still preparing all meals.

Second week -- I start to get out -- in a wheel chair, using it kind of like a toddler does a walker. I try out the electric cart at Costco and the grocery. I learn that when you are in a wheel chair, people don't make eye contact. They come at you, catch the wheelchair in their peripheral and then purposefully look away. It is an amazing insight. I promise myself to say hello to every person in a wheelchair from now on. I can fix a quick meal (toast or chopped fruit in yogurt). Elevate, elevate, elevate. Ibuprofen for pain, which is a little uncomfortable but no where near the pain I felt before the surgery.

Third week -- Back to the dr. for exam and Xrays. No wheelchair. He says I don't need the throw back shoes any more and rewraps the feet in new tube ace bandages and gives me new black velcro shoes with flat bottoms. Three and a half weeks, I fly to San Antonio for a three day workshop. I have no trouble standing to teach for 1 hour at a time. Walking slowly through airports and of course the flying causes extra swelling. The new shoes give me blisters, so I switch to sandals with velcro, adjustable straps. Hardest challenge is descending stairs because it hurts for my feet to bend. Good news! It's okay to bathe. Feet are peeling like crazy for whatever dumb reason.

Fourth week -- Freedom! I can drive an automatic car easily, but using a clutch is tricky because I have to use my arches instead of the ball of the foot. Manage to teach two full 8 hour days, but the result is some pretty significant swelling. Incisions are completely closed and scabs mostly gone.

Fifth week -- first attempt to ride a bike goes well. Wearing hiking sandals. Descending stairs still requires thought and care, but am able to navigate the grocery and a short hike in the woods with the grandkids. Still walking stiffly and slightly reminiscent of a duck. Basically off of Ibuprofen. Incisions are smooth. Feet still too puffy to wear sneakers easily.

A friend of mine had this surgery last December and told me that she just ran a 5K. I'm not sure this will turn me into a runner, since I never was before, but hopefully in 6 months I will be free to walk in sensible shoes. Generous, heartfelt thanks to Michael for feeding and support, grudging thanks for ordering me to sit down and put my feet up.

Everyday is better than the last. Glad I got both feet done at the same time.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Memoir from Reading on the River

Sometimes writing by assignment can bring some surprising results, This morning Michael led the teachers in his memoir activity. In my brainstorm I felt compelled to write down "prom dress." I started to censor myself. Prom dress? Birds. Lice. Prom dress? But I just decided to go with it. Then Michael said we had to use all the details in the brainstorm. And the memoir had to start with a line chosen by my listening partner. 10 minutes to write. (prom dress?) mmm . . .

I tried to be a good Samaritan and got lice.

Lake Erie was tossing under the shy April sun that afternoon as I raked up the previous autumn’s leaves under the singing pine in the backyard. The muffled groans of lawnmowers echoed from house to house, the giving, soft earth embraced my feet. This time of year sweatshirts replace down coats and the Indians kick off another losing season.

A naked baby bird wiggled on the pine needled ground, mouth upturned and gaping.
I picked the bird up and stretched to put it back in its nest and continued raking.
Again, I replaced it in the nest.
I must have put it back four times.
A warm feeling on my arm made me lift the cuff of my sweatshirt and there it was, a cloud of lice moving up my arm.

I darted like a deer into the kitchen to scrub them off with a brush from under the sink.

Which is all to say, when you see a bird colorfully dressed this summer, it’s like a teenager in a prom dress. There’s a lot going on under there.

I did not get lice in my hair.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Love and Joy

It happened again. This time a young woman. College aged. She came up to me after our recent poetry reading at Bowling Green University Firelands campus.

"Do you believe?"
"Religion. You know, Jesus. Are a believer?"
"I believe in poetry."
"That's it?"
"That's it."

It's true. I'm not particularly a prayerful person in the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John sense of the word.

Maybe my attention span is attracted to shortened lines more than chapters and verse numbers. Or maybe I just like the divergence of thought. But in poetry you can find all the best of the spiritual world. The 800 section in the library reads like a Bible in thousands of volumes (only a small fraction of which is available on your Kindle, sorry to say). A good day for me and all too rare are afternoons lost in places like the poetry section in the Oberlin Library or some used bookstore, pawing through poetry looking for . . .

Read Poe and you hear the cynical voice that proclaims from joy are born all sorrows. Adopt a philosophy of life like that and you can see why it was hard for the man to pull on his pants and face the day. And yet, that sentiment is true and it invades us all from time to time. In the reading is the realization that our dark selves are not operating in isolation. Somewhat of a consolation, I suppose.

But I don't find myself reaching for cynics in dark times. Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath -- they may all have some insights to share, but not at times when your head is already halfway in the oven. Not much to hang onto there. In dark times we want words that help us through.

I have a friend who is very ill. Within her shines a light that has illuminated classrooms and hearts of teachers, her friends, desk clerks and porters worldwide. She is that kind of person. Bonnie Campbell Hill.

Her family has kindly set up one of those Caring Bridge sites to keep her world of friends updated. I read the postings of her friends, many of whom are prayerful people, and I'm grateful (envious?) for their postings.

Were you ever out in the great alone when the moon was awful clear? And the icy mountains hemmed you in with a silence you most could hear? Robert Service

Friendship is a bouquet of memories, some primary bright, standouts and dozens stems of green filler. On one of my darkest days ever, Bonnie threw my things into my suitcase, jammed $60 in my hand and put me in a cab to the airport to fly home to my granddaughter Stephie's bedside. Nothing could take away the pain or aloneness I felt traveling that day, but her loving kindness helped me get through it. Smooth and caring. Poetry without words. Prayer in action?

The end of life is a transition we all make alone, ultimately. It's hard to even think in times like this, let alone say (to others or to self) something/anything wise. We are too close up on it, like children sounding out letters, it's hard for us to find the big idea. Wisdom is retrospective.

I first met Rabindranath Tagore at the Erie Street Bookstore on a rainy Saturday afternoon and was almost disappointed to later find out that not only had he won a Nobel Prize in 1913, but some new agey types had rediscovered him and claimed my new friend as their own. Still, even though I didn't exactly discover him, every time I read his work, I find a new discovery.

In his book Sadhana, The Realisation of Life, Tagore uses the words love and joy interchangeably. He quotes the ancient seer-poet who sings, "From love the world is born, by love it is sustained, towards love it moves, and into love it enters." A few pages before that, he quotes the seer as saying, "From joy are born all creatures, by joy they are sustained, towards joy they progress, and into joy they enter." I once used this poem/song for inspiration for a poem for Kelly and Brian's wedding, a day of great joy.

But the meaning of a poem is in great part what we bring to it. And today, I bring my sadness and am reminded that transitions are part of the natural flow of life, even the great transition that each of us is destined to make. Spending too much energy on the seeming unfairness of it obscures our vision of the love and joy that radiates from such a luminary as Bonnie.

Bonnie has a Big Idea. She wants part of her legacy to be libraries in India built through the Room To Read program, for more information go here. She also wants to fund grants for teachers to attend conferences, so many of which have benefited from her presentations.

From love, by love, towards love and into love. The joy that is Bonnie.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Monkey Mind

The next move, Lisa suggests, will help to quiet the monkey mind.

My monkey mind immediately scratches behind my ear, looking for possible escape routes. Orlando? Technology? McCarthy era? A power point show of flashing images Hanoi, Hong Kong, Bali, the garden. Make a note of Pickway, OH. The carpet in the bedroom is beyond salvage. Cleaning out Max’s room. . .what to save? Less clutter. The closet. The laundry room.

The monkey scrambles over to my purse and starts pawing through the broken pens, gum wrappers and wadded receipts to fling out zippered bags full of lipstick, hairclips and lint. Is it time to downsize? We’re away so much anyway. How long would it take to clean out the house? Starting in the attic or basement? Could enough money be raised from a yard sale to fix the guest bathroom? Have the floors refinished?

Zip! The monkey jumps to the ceiling light and sits picking nits off of a half dead monkey that wasn’t even in my line of vision. “We used to be poets.” How am I getting back to the airport? What time is school on Monday? Need to update my website yesterday. Tax extension. Time to start the lettuce seeds. Urgency. This is insomnia with the lights on.

Unable to be still for more that a nanosecond, the monkey pinches its companion (yelp) before swinging down on one arm to land on an imaginary motor bike. Varoom Varoom. It cartwheels off to dance foot to foot before taking off through an open window. One look over its shoulder. Daring me to follow into the woods.


Lisa Lofthouse is my cousin and a master yoga teacher. Twice a year she conducts a yoga retreat workshop in the sweet sloped outside of Asheville. I went last weekend to try and get my pieces parts back together after a whole lot of travel and probably a little too much street food. For more information about her workshops, go here.

United Nations International School of Hanoi: Poetry Week

When librarian Joyce Miller contacted us about dishing up some poetry at the middle school in Hanoi for April Fool's Day she was not just foolin' around. She not only scheduled assemblies and a seamless week of workshops for both of us, she managed to convince French, Spanish and (gasp) calculus classes to try their hands at poetry.

Here Joyce welcomes students as they begin to filter in for the lunchtime poetry jam. The library is the heart of any school and Joyce proved it here big time as music throbbed drawing kids to words.

The poetry topics could not have been more diverse. One day the eighth grade dropped everything to break into teams to study the pros and cons of a proposed nuclear plant in Vietnam in light of the tragedy in Japan. The dangers were researched and laid out against the dangers of mercury poisoning from coal plants and the feasibility of solar and wind turbines. At the end of the day students participated in a UN style debate. Here I'm talking to one poet who is trying to find just the right word for his fortunately/unfortunately poem on nuclear energy.

But how do I write with the French students when I don't read/write French? Well, we learned together. I showed the a model of our poetry writing strategy in English, they wrote in French. What I learned is that in French, we don't say something "feels like." French don't speak in similies that way -- they go straight to the metaphor. I'm sure this says something about the French, but I'm not sure exactly what. Many thanks to the language teachers for making this a learning experience for us all.

Percentage poems. They're fun. They're specific. I've written them all over the world with kids of all ages. But I never before saw a student turn one into a pie chart in the (no exaggeration) blink of a cursor. UNIS is a one-to-one laptop school which opens up new possibilities for poetry research and composing.

Write what you know, we are told by the wordwise. Personally, I write what I know and what I wonder about. Here's the deal on calculus. I don't even know enough about the subject to wonder about it. As far as I am concerned, calculus is a more exotic language than French. At least I can mispronounce my way through good day and thank you in French, but I'm not even conversant in passing pleasantries in calculus. Besides which, it is hard (not rock hard, calculus hard) for a poet to talk her way into an IB (International Baccalaureate) high school language arts class let alone a maths class. (Yes, they call it maths)

So, I was one thrilled(and, okay, a little bit scared) poet to be invited into Melissa Griffin's 11th and 12th grade maths classes. Not only did I learn something of the language of calculus, (it's curvy), but I wanted to learn more. Isn't' that just like a good teacher, tricking you into wanting learn more. But this post doesn't do justice to our time together. For more in depth understanding of how the language of calculus can curve into poetry, visit Melissa's blog. Prepare to be astounded.

Finally, at the end of the week we relax over tea. Thank you to all the students at UNIS, the involved and engaged faculty and special thanks to Joyce who worked so hard to make it all work, including introducing us to street food dining.

And P.S. don't forget to visit Melissa's blog:

Hanoi! On the move

How does the tourist cross the road? Or. Would you step into this traffic?

On the move.
New friends.
The Dragon Hotel is our home.
Motorbike shops.
Up with construction.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
Open intersections of always,
all ways traffic.
Don’t stop. Don’t run. Don’t hesitate.
Zipper Street.
Bucket Street.
Mosaic Wall.
Steaming pots of pho.
Conical hats.
A laid back dog.
Street-side barber shops.
Broom swept curbs.
Lights reflecting on the lake.
1000 years old.
Colonial remnants.
Silk shops.
New bedspread.
Wires on wires.
Temple of Literature.
shops, mops,
families of four.
All kicking up dust.
On the move.