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.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

EARCOS 2011 Borneo

If the above photo doesn't look like an attendee at a teacher's conference, prepare to expand your vision. EARCOS= East Asian Regional Council of Overseas Schools, and every spring they put on a teacher conference like no other. From snorkeling to blow darts to technological looks into the classrooms of today and the future, directives on how to outgrow old thinking and gender issues, cultural divides while maintaining room for read alouds and (yes) poetry and performance leading to understanding ourselves and our lessons.

Okay, the snorkeling was a side trip we took because we arrived a couple days early for the conference. But imagine a conference in this setting! Think no one would come to the sessions? Think again. The sessions were overflowing with ideas and participants, lively discussion by teachers from international schools. These schools hold themselves to a very high standard without being tied to "the standards." Here innovation and effective best practices trump scripted lessons. Who benefits? Kids.

Thank you to Dick Krajczar, Bill Oldread, and Elaine Repatacodo for including us and for all their hard work in putting together a spectacular event.