Archive for March, 2012


Once You’re Out Of The Business Of Daily Public Writing, It’s Hard To Remember How You Ever Did It. Or Why. Or Even If You Could Ever Do It Again Because Where Did That Time Come From And Where Does It Go Now?

March 11, 2012

The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium. • Norbet Platt

I miss my daily writer self—the one who blogged every day for an academic year, putting the words out there, good and bad, and moving on without regret or revisiting to correct, expand, or edit. What I wrote that year is a treasure trove from which I can draw gems to polish and use in further iterations of thought. There are plenty of clunkers too, but I’ve always been a treasure hunter, a woman of the “sharp eye,” the eye that my Grandpa Wilkins used to tell me to use during our weekly visits to the dump and to the Shantytown that surrounded it where his best friend Whitey lived. I found lots of useful trashy treasures there.

I have other blogs now and usually write once a week on at least one of them. I post occasional pairs of breast quotations and related thoughts. I just began dog8, a place where I’ll post alternative “homework” assignments. I have a blog devoted to autobibliographical musings and another that focuses on the use of quotations as inspiration. Insights into the various Collectorys that define my professional and artistic life can be found in my blogs and my posts. But what I miss is the regularity and inevitability of that daily public commitment. It’s different if I don’t have to do it.

If I don’t have to do it, I usually don’t post because nothing feels significant enough. Why bother? But as I reread my work from those months of dailies, I realize that significance sometimes arises from the seemingly insignificant. Thought is complicated and thinking my way into meaning often takes time. There are seeds planted in one post that reappear as delicate and tender shoots in another, get nurtured to sturdiness in still another, and blossom months later online or elsewhere in my life. Meaning is hard to make and significance accrues. Some people blog to see how many followers they can acquire. Although I know that this would be satisfying, I can’t bring myself to care. I write because I want to remember what I’m thinking, and while I entertain the fantasy that some of my words might mean something to someone else, my first audience is me: are my words true and meaning•full?

I toyed with the idea of making a new year’s resolution to post every day for an entire year. I know myself well enough not to engage in this foolish failure set-up. I do write every day, but I don’t write finished pieces daily. And I want to write poetry. And make art. And do research. And plan classes that will be fun and entertaining and significant. I want to put together the perfect outfit with seven varieties of leopard print or one that mixes and matches eleven different patterns in a fiesta of subtle and harmonious clashery. I want to find a place for the latest mask I found at the Goodwill. I want to read. I want to stay connected to countless people and things and places. And I want to take a walk. I want to take a walk to the Goodwill and look for more masks and leopard print and plaids and books and all the other realia that enchants me and makes me smile. And I want to sit and do nothing. And think. I really like to think and record my thoughts. That’s why you’ll see some of them here.

What words are true and meaningful for you? What thoughts do you record?

I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of hunger for life that gnaws in us all. • Richard Wright, American Hunger, 1977


Save A Hard Copy Of Everything That Might Be Important To You. This Does Not Mean You Should Keep Everything, But Some Day You’ll Be Glad You Did Some Selective, Creative Savery.

March 10, 2012

And bring me a hard copy of the Internet so I can do some serious surfing • Scott Adams, Dilbert

During the latter part of the twentieth century (golly, that sounds self-important!), I taught in a high school dropout prevention program. I often recorded my students’ words so I would remember them. Years later, I’ve forgotten most of those words, but I can revisit them because I have that written record. Now that I teach teachers, I’m especially glad I saved so many things that help me be first person present in my high school teaching past. I’m also glad that I have hard copies of my related reflections. I am both amused and saddened when students tell me that they have electronic copies of materials and don’t need hard copies, dismissing my pleas to print and file. Today’s computer is tomorrow’s obsolete, toxic landfiller. And all those electronic files you saved on your Apple IIe? G-O-N-E!

I’m especially happy that I saved what follows here. When teachers are frustrated by their students’ behavior, it’s easy to forget that what we want them to do may matter very little in the bigger picture of their lives. Sometimes acknowledging those realities is a first step toward helping students engage in the kinds of empowering educational experiences that really do change lives, or at least change perceptions about possibilities. In the quotation/reflection that follows, students’ comments are in italics, interspersed with my own reflective thoughts:

Always the Same • Always Different

So I sit and listen and again I am overwhelmed by all I cannot do, a thousand problems that I cannot solve, the pain I can’t prevent, the angry lives unfolding opening sharing revealing more than I want to know because I’m only one and I’m carrying this invisible sack of worry and troubles of my own, the one that’s hidden from them behind my sunny smiles, the smiles they crave like candy or even some kind of drug, smiles withheld so often in so many places that when they get one, they cannot get enough.

And so I sit and listen and begin to understand that this always comes first. This dreadful torrent that pools in front around among us—each story adding to the waters that swirl with blended colors of our private agony. We stir the waters, salty with our tears, seeing each other with eyes washed clean. Every year the same. Every year different. Games and names and sharing our shallowest safest memories until we cross this bridge over our waters into another world. A place that’s real. Circled round, lounging on floor and couches, waiting for someone else to trust. Open. I’ve seen this many times, but I always wonder if. If the time will come when ones together become us, when we see the sameness underneath the difference, when what matters less is overwhelmed by what matters more. And so it begins.

My stepdad says I can’t go nowhere in the house. Just stay in the garage he says and if I want to be there I got to pay rent.

He stops.

There’s a freezer out there, but they got a big ole lock on it so I can’t get in. The only bathroom I got is in this trailer my grandma left in the yard, but it don’t work so I go in the yard at night if I have to and just cover it up.

He stops again. We wait. He doesn’t sa anything else. No one says anything. He’s hanging out there. Naked. Me? I want to jump in and say something. Offer something. But it’s not my tie. Another voice, so quiet we can hardly hear begins.

We sold our Levis yesterday. We were holding on to those, my mom and me. We like them a lot, but they wouldn’t give us anything for our Wranglers. My mom is gonna get a job pretty soon. Waitin’ for a call. I wrote a poem about being homeless. Wanna hear?

She pulls a piece of paper from her backpack—her new backpack—we can still do that much around here—supplies and backpacks and winter coats and PE clothes and bread and peanut butter and Ramen noodles and sometimes milk and even juice. She reads her words about doing homework by the glow of a cigarette lighter and dreaming of the better life she’ll have if she can only graduate.

And I wonder. What the hell am I doing? What am I promising? Acting as if this place we sit ifs the gateway to some promised land that offers all the things they’ve never had and maybe never will. We sit surrounded by pictures of their dreams and homes and happiness, cars and children, freedom to be to do to have to dream and have it all come true. I lose sight of why I’m here. What I can do. It gets lost in the sea of what I can’t. But still I, still we, listen.

I’m pregnant. Again. You’re gonna know soon enough so I might as well tell you. This time, it’s twins.

Period. We wait, but she just sits and glares. Folded arms and I know she’s just waiting for the word—any word—a wrong word—so she can up and bolt and leave this place and run to get the only piece of love that life has given her. Pick him up from daycare. Go to the park. Push him on the swing. Imagine that the life he’ll have is different form her own. Now this. And what’s it going to mean? We wait. Staring into space. Avoiding eye contact. Is it safe? Will it stay here? Will he be broken never to be fixed if we remove these masks, dismantle the facades, discover we are all in places we would never choose?

So I’m sleepy, you know. And you all poke me when I drift off and yell in my ear and I jump and you think it’s pretty funny, don’t you. Well, I’ll tell you this and you can see how funny you think it is. My dad left and he isn’t coming back and I’m working now ‘cause my mom’s two jobs just don’t cut it any more, not with five kids. I’m the oldest, man of the house now, my mom says. I work till four every morning and damn straight I’m tired. So leave me the hell alone, okay?

He slouches back and closes his eyes. We wait some more. And so it goes.

There are many spaces we inhabit that are filled with adolescent or adult angst and challenges, but often we don’t know our students or our friends or our colleagues or co-workers well enough to know what kinds of difficulties they may be grappling with. Sometimes we don’t even know these things about our families. As you go through your day, I hope you’ll take care of yourself, of course, but I also hope you’ll be charitable and kind, knowing that you don’t truly know what kind of burdens may be weighing down the others you encounter.

I also hope you’ll keep a hard copy of important information you may want to revisit some day!

What is it about today that you may want to remember tomorrow? How do you plan to do it?

I finished the paper, but the computer ate it. It’s gone. I have my notes, but nothing else. • Comments I’ve heard countless times during my teaching career, W-OZ



Pondering Poetry’s Persistent Elusiveness

March 8, 2012

I love poetry, just not in the station. • Sacha Baron Cohen as the Station Inspector in Hugo (2011)


May Sarton, poet, memoirist, and novelist, wrote that “[w]hen one’s not writing poems—and I’m not at the moment—you wonder how you ever did it. It’s like another country you can’t reach.” I do not know where poetic inspiration comes from even though I can often identify the origin of my poems. What I don’t know is how to make inspiration arrive on my schedule. I want to reach poetic country when I’m ready to write. I don’t want to have to wait for it to ambush me and carry me off when I’m trying to do something else. I want to board its train of thought and get off at its destination when I have time to take the trip. I admire the discipline of those who approach versifying as daily vocation, but I am often distracted by necessity and duty and even by the bright shininess of other equally-tempting-yet-somehow-more-concrete creativity (yes, even this is that), but as much as I might want it, I do not always have the luxury of contemplative time for the mysterious miracles of poetic coalescence.


Some years ago, well-meaning colleagues told me that I should decide whether I wanted to move ahead in my career or wanted to continue being (or trying to be) a poet and an artist, spare time activities that were perceived to be taking time from other, more traditional, academic pursuits. Please note that I was not poeticizing and artmaking while I ought to have been doing my work. I was doing all my required work and then some. But no one can work all the time. Running, playing soccer, cooking, gardening, watching football or baseball, reading, walking the dog, taking a hike, going to the movie—these pursuits also take time, but bring less criticism. Perhaps it is the intellectual work involved in some pursuits that shifts perception that the brainpower they consume could be put to better—more useful—use. And then, of course, there is the product: visible, useless evidence of my timewastery.


Author Ken Kesey said that “[y]ou don’t lead by pointing and telling people someplace to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” I decided to ignore the well-meaning advice and to instead begin to integrate my passions, taking my inspiration from Mary Catherine Bateson (Composing a Life, 1989) who describes an integrated life as one in which “we are nurtured by our work and combine different kinds of tasks so they feed each other–mostly–instead of competing.” It was not—is not—an easy integration even though my artistic pursuits make a case for it, representing a synthesis of creative and scholarly activities that allows me to combine my vocation as a teacher educator with my creative obsessions, providing visible evidence of what can be accomplished using bits and pieces of time that are all that is sometimes available in a life bounded by personal and professional obligations. But still, why bother? Wouldn’t it be easier—and better—to either relax and do the mindless, or to care about something that matters more and do something that’s visibly—and usefully—productive? Less fecklessly frivolous?


Perhaps. But then there’s this: I use my creative work in my teaching and I think this matters increasingly in a world where data and accountability are watchwords at every level of education and where it is easy to lose sight of why schools matter—really—to the people who attend them. What does it mean to view my work as an educator as driven by more than pragmatic necessity, to see it is an integral part of my creative expressiveness? How does one kind of creativity feed another in a symbiotic dance of significance? The answers are complicated, but the questions are ones I must continue to ask.


And finally, here’s a poem. I know its origin. Although poetry often comes to me while I’m working on the pragmatic realities of my professional life, it’s everywhere and it doesn’t care if you’re looking for it. I found this one when I walked by a building in Chicago labeled “The Poetry Foundation.” I stopped, and as I sat inside surrounded by shelves full of other poets’ work, I wrote this poem:


The Foundation of Poetry

W-OZ, November 2011


It’s silly to be crying.

No one is dead.

I am not sad.

So I suppose that these are tears of joy,


but who cries over poetry

except the poets whose

rhyme or meter or

perfect word won’t come,


or those who find resonance and

sustenance and

comfort in the poet’s lines

that lead to consolation,


or those whose broken hearts

find edges matched

by jagged others’ penning,

inky residue that sticks the

heart in place

and holds it still to

contemplate a future

without pain.




Who would cry in such a place

except the I of lonely

wandering in fields bereft

of poets and their words.


So when I find them here,

so unexpected and so welcoming,

the silly I doth drip.


Poetry inspires. Poetry connects. Poetry instructs. Poetry comforts. Poetry has many purposes. And poetry is elusive. I need it today and cannot find it anywhere.


Whether or not you’re a poet, where do you find the poetry in life?


Poetry is life distilled.• Gwendolyn Brooks