Archive for the ‘Autoethnography’ Category

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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

 

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Losing What Can’t Be Found

January 2, 2012

I have nobody in my life where I can say, “Remember when. . .” • Joan Rivers

I think we dream so we don’t have to be apart so long. If we’re in each others’ dreams, we can play together all night. • Bill Watterson, Calvin & Hobbes

My youngest brother died in 1988 and I’ve only dreamed about him once. I still remember talking to him, walking as we did so many times, to Norm’s to share a hot fudge sundae. I didn’t record this dream and although it happened many years ago, I can still recall my disappointment when I awoke. Most dreams are forgotten unless they’re written down, but some dreams are remembered even though we long to forget them.

I had such a dream last night. I do not think I will forget this one either. My Aunt Mildred had died and I was packing up her house. I felt the pain of her death as I worked. My mother and my cousin Sugar—Sugar somehow mobile after many bedridden years—were taking boxes to their cars after I packed them. I never saw either of them, but I could hear their voices, laughing and arguing about what would fit where, reminiscing about my aunt—mom’s sister and Sugar’s mother—telling stories about her life. I shouted to them, but they didn’t answer.

The house was strange, circular with narrow corridors walled yet open at the top so I could hear the other two, yet never see them. The walls were always between us and their voices were always around the endless corner in the endless corridor. I walked toward the voices, hoping to catch the two, but their voices receded as I got closer. I wanted to see Sugar walking and laughing. I wanted to see my mother’s face. I wanted to touch her hand. Talk to them. Hug them. I remember being frustrated but hopeful, sure that I would eventually catch up with them. But I never did.

And I never will. They are all dead: my mother a year ago this month, Sugar in September, Aunt Mildred several years ago, and even in my dreams I cannot find them. Once we were The Four Musketeers and now I am the only one left to remember the fun we had in our matching black watch plaid jumpers and purple shoes. I am the only one who can picture the four of us in gingerbread man bathing suits with ruffled bottoms. The only one who knows about the gardenias we bought at Union Station. Holidays are fraught with memories of what once was and will never be again and it is easy to be sad. But this morning shortly after I awoke, while I was feeling sad and looking for work to distract me, I found this quotation from Patsy Cline in my mother’s handwriting: “You don’t get anywhere wallerin’ in misery.” And that’s the message I’ll remember when I think of this dream.

What have you lost? What have you found?

Pain comes like the weather, but joy is a choice. • Rodney Crowell

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I Am Motherwise; I Cannot Be Otherwise

May 8, 2011

There is an alchemy in sorrow. It can be transmuted into wisdom, which, if it does not bring joy, can yet bring happiness. • Pearl S. Buck

It is Mother’s Day, my first Mother’s Day without a mother to call, to get a card for, to send something special that would tell her that I see her as a human being, know her as a person, hope to make her happy because I understand how impossible it is to feel that your work as a mother is ever enough. But she is gone and instead I celebrate the wisdom that permeates my being.

I was looking for examples of my educational philosophy to include with materials for Humanizing Instruction, a course I’ll be teaching this summer, and I came across a speech I gave several years ago for a local alternative school’s graduation. As I reread what I shared, I thought of the words of Pericles who wrote, “What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.” My mother’s wisdom is woven into the fabric of my teaching life:

Congratulations. I am honored to be part of this celebration. I was also daunted when I tried to think of what to say to you. As most of you can imagine, no matter how many times you speak in front of an audience, it’s challenging. And on an important occasion like this it’s particularly challenging. What can I say that won’t sound like a bad Hallmark card or a particularly cheesy self-help book? What wisdom can I share that will be memorable in any way?

At first, I was going to speak about the importance of alternatives in education. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know from our own lives how important it is for schools to value each human being for whom she or he is. But I can’t bring myself to talk about systems today, regardless of how meaningful they are. Instead, I hope to talk with you about things that matter as you continue on into the rest of your life.

I decided to ask other people what they would say if they were speaking here today. I asked my relatives, my students, other teachers, my son, my husband, and even a couple of people in the checkout line at Target. Some of them told me not to worry, that no one ever remembers what a speaker says anyway. Others offered me the kind of heartfelt sentiments I believe in, things that have been said so many times before to so many people celebrating important milestones that they sound like clichés. But there is truth in clichés, and Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that what is not spoken from the heart will not reach the heart of the listener. These words are from my heart, and I hope they will reach yours.

I’d like to share a story about my mother. She’s 85, and still working as a musician. She’s also filled with wisdom that comes from closely observing the world and thinking about what she sees, hears, and experiences. And that’s my first piece of wisdom. The world is vastly interesting for anyone who really sees it. Don’t be bored. Be interested.

But back to what my mother told me: One of her friends called her in tears, distraught because someone had stolen her purse and was using her driver’s license and her credit cards and even her Social Security number. This friend kept crying to my mother that her identity had been stolen, and this is where my mother shared something with me that I cannot forget.

She said, “Even while I comforted her and told her she would get past this, I couldn’t help thinking that we get very upset about this kind of identity theft, and yet every day we allow other people to steal our personal identity when we compromise who we are or what we want to do or be because of someone else’s expectations or because we’re afraid that they won’t like us or we’re worried that what we want to do will seem silly or impossible to accomplish.” My mother was speaking from her heart. It isn’t easy to grow old in our society, particularly if you are still active and still talented, and still want to share your talents with the world.

There are times when it seems that you are always too something: too young or too old or too inexperienced or too unrealistic about your hopes and dreams for your life. And here’s my second piece of wisdom: Life actually is tough sometimes if you aren’t independently wealthy and you have to pay everyday bills, but that doesn’t mean you have to give up your vision of who you are and what you can be.

I am a poet and an artist and I don’t make money doing those things, but I love them, and they allow me to love my life and stay interested in my own possibilities even though I also have to work for a living. It’s actually not true that any of us can be anything we want to be—the NBA is unlikely to have wanted me no matter how much I wanted it—but each of us can be far more than we imagine if we accept that some of the things we choose to do will feed our souls, but not our pocketbooks. Despite the fact that Mark Twain said that be yourself is the worst advice you can give some people, that’s my third piece of wisdom: Be yourself. Be your best self. Believe in—and live—your possibilities.

Here is my fourth piece of wisdom. It is more challenging to live in personal truth than you might think. No matter how old you are, there are likely to be well-meaning people who think that they know better than you do what you ought to be doing with your life. The late undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau followed his dreams throughout his life, and often faced difficulties. He was asked why he persisted despite them, and he replied: “If we were logical, the future would be bleak indeed. But we are more than logical. We are human beings, and we have faith, and we have hope, and we can work.”

Here’s what I believe to be the true alternative message needed in every student’s education and it’s my final piece of wisdom: You matter. What you do matters. How you live your life matters. Your small acts of kindness and goodness and truth and beauty and hopefulness can change the world. These are all clichés. But they are all true.

If we have lived ordinary lives, it’s difficult to imagine that our passing will matter to anyone except those who knew and loved us, but you do not have to have known my mother to know who she was. Her wisdom lives in me and her influence lives on in every classroom I create. I am motherwise and I cannot be otherwise.

What is your wisdom?

There is a wisdom of the head, and…a wisdom of the heart. • Charles Dickens

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I’m A Grownup And It Makes Me Crazy To Be Treated Like A Child Who Doesn’t Know Who She Is Or What She Wants.*

April 12, 2011

I was the kind of kid that had some talents or ability, but it never came out in school. • Francis Ford Coppola

In my experience, school is mostly about teachers telling students they’re not smart, they can’t learn, or they didn’t do it right, and proving it through tests and dozens of other classroom interactions that show students who’s boss. • Pam Parshall, former community college instructor and student advocate, 2005

My mother loved learning, but she hated school. She read voraciously and kept current on what was happening in the world until her death at age 89. She philosophized and enjoyed talking about big ideas. She was a talented musician who began playing the piano by ear before she started kindergarten, her skill discovered after one of her older sister’s piano lessons when my mother sat at the piano and began to play the exercise her sister Mildred was supposed to be learning, but couldn’t master. My aunt hated piano lessons and quit shortly afterward. My mother became the teacher’s youngest pupil.

For more than two decades, I’ve been asking people when learning was fun for them, and here’s what my mother told me in 2001 when I asked her:

I just survived school. It had nothing whatsoever to do with who I wanted to be. My life in school was always about who and what I should be and keeping me pointed in that direction. You’re young and you don’t know better, so you buy into it, and even though you’re doing well, you know in your heart you’re not making the grade.

She went on to describe how little recognition her years in school provided for the things she had talents for or was interested in and how much of her time was focused instead on what she didn’t do well, but would need, teachers told her, in some ill-defined future that didn’t bear any resemblance to what she envisioned for her life. “I struggled with many traditional school subjects, always being told I would need those things to be successful in life, but I never did,” she said.

Throughout the Second World War she supported herself with her music. As a single mother after her first divorce, she supported the two of us with her music. Her music allowed her to remain in her dream house after she and my stepfather divorced. It was her music that kept her moving forward many months after doctors predicted she would be dead. It was her music that was her gift to the world, that brought her a lifetime of joy. “This is something I do well. I know my music touches people,” she told me as she shared stories of people she’d connected with because of her talent.

My mother could never understand how I could go back to school again and again as an adult. “I’d never survive,” she told me. Sometimes I’m surprised I survived it too. Sometimes I’m not sure that I did. It is hard to stay grounded in the possibility of what school can be when you are surrounded by messages of multiple kinds communicating what it is not.

I was recently in a meeting where one of the values I didn’t check on a “good work”-related list was honesty. In the subsequent conversation, I realized why. I do value honesty—although not the for-your-own-good-and-needlessly-cruel-kind—but when it comes to school, I am often not honest. I have more often been compliant, my smiling acquiescence masking an unruly brain trying to figure out how to bend the system to engage my interests. This is not always possible, and as a teacher I appreciate the difficulties inherent in truly addressing the idiosyncratic needs of individual students, so I do not fault my own teachers.

When you’re an adult and you go back to school, your expectations are colored by the years you’ve previously spent in classrooms. If those experiences were positive, or if you’re a person who doesn’t really mind being part of a system—“just tell me what to do and I’ll do it”—perhaps you don’t mind being an adult student in systems often designed primarily for those who transition seamlessly from high school to college. But if you’ve had some life experience, if you’ve discovered for yourself that some of what you were told by your teachers about “real life” is actually myth, if you previously resented being cooped up in a classroom where your interests were seldom considered, you may be disappointed, disheartened, resentful, and recalcitrant when you encounter more of the same.

You may want to know why you should put up with more of what you know will likely prove to be myth as well. You may believe that this time—when you’re paying—the experience should help you become what you want to be, not what a system thinks you should be. You may want to focus on what you’ve discovered interests you. You may actually believe that you know what is best for you.

I am a teacher. I love my work. I believe in the possibilities of school. I believe in the power of education to change people’s lives. I cherish every educator I know who longs for her or his classroom to offer opportunities for true intellectual engagement coupled with recognition of individual interests and talents. But sometimes I am reminded of how much there is to do to achieve this dream in every classroom and how inadequate I am, even in my own. I want to make a difference, but I am overwhelmed by how much I cannot do. If she were reading this, my mother would tell me that it doesn’t matter what I cannot do. What matters is that I keep doing what I can, no matter how imperfect.

What difference do you want to make? What keeps you motivated to keep trying?

School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible. • E.M. Forster, British author whose epigraph to his 1910 novel, Howard’s End, is “Only connect.”

In total, I can say that I learned nothing in any school that I attended and see no point in mentioning places where my body sat at a desk and my soul was elsewhere. I wrote some poems in high school but stopped when my mother suggested that I had plagiarized them. • Anne Sexton, from her “Resume 1965,” found among her papers by her daughter

School, I never truly got the knack of. I could never focus on things I didn’t want to learn. • Leonardo DiCaprio

* The title quotation is from an adult student who asked to remain anonymous, commenting on her experiences in college and being told by her advisor that he knew what was best for her, 2009.

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Overcoming Writer’s Block: A Favorite Hint From The Ex-Lax® Of Writing Teachers (That Would Be Me!)

April 6, 2011


I asked Ring Lardner the other day how he writes his short stories, and he said he wrote a few widely separated words or phrases on a piece of paper and then went back and filled in the spaces. • Harold Ross

A student once called me “the Ex-Lax® of writing teachers” and I know what you might be thinking. However, this title was not bestowed because my assignments encouraged students to produce nothing but crap. (I do not censor this word here because it got me into trouble several times as a high school teacher, as did the word piss. There are some people who consider these words swearing, but my Grandma Wilkins, an extremely religious woman who said “hmmmm” instead of hell, used these particular vulgarities all the time, so I am inured to their power to shock.) No. I got the laxative title because the alternative school students with whom I was working were producing writing—lots of it—much of it coming from angry adolescents whose reluctance to put pen to paper had caused them to fail previous classes.

I am trained as a secondary English teacher. This means that I know the conventions of writing and I am also overly familiar with the conventional ways to approach writing as a task in school. And that’s the problem. Writing can be fun, but writing that’s always bounded by rules and prescriptions of properness is seldom fun for anyone. Because I made my living with words, often writing under deadline, before going back to school to become a teacher, and because I have been a lifelong researcher of creativity, I know that much of what I was supposed to be teaching about the processes of writing was also crap. I am definitely in favor of eventual correctness and I am not suggesting opening the gates and letting all manner of misspellings and grammatical incorrectness run rampant over the world’s pristine white pages. I am suggesting that an initial focus on these things can stop writers before they begin. I am also suggesting—No, wait! I’m asserting!—that the process of writing is highly idiosyncratic and that processes designed to help student writers may actually hinder some of them.

Some creative people approach writing tasks in well-mannered ways. They are organized and they know where they are going before they begin. I admire them. Surely this is some species of magic. There are writing teachers in this group. Other writing teachers—or teachers who require writing in their courses—are not writers themselves beyond having written the requisite papers or theses or dissertations for the courses they took along the way to getting their degrees. They muddled through these tasks and are sure that if they recommend the magic of well-ordered writing to their students, it will work for these others in ways that it did—or didn’t—work for them.

These teachers can be dangerous. They require standardized pre-writing and brainstorming. They require students to provide carefully detailed outlines before beginning papers. They require well-organized rough drafts that must be approved before an actual paper is written. They require perfectly stated theses and perfect paragraphs from the start. There is a correctness at the heart of their approach and all things must be done properly and in the proper order. These teachers require. They require. And they require some more. And they constipate those of us who have our own processes, whose writing emerges from the chaos of ideas.

I have long admired the work of Peter Elbow who reflects in his 1973 book, Writing without Teachers, on his own experiences as someone who wanted to be a teacher but struggled with writing. Elbow’s theories of composition are autoethnographic, and emerged from his life. Mine have as well. My favorite writing laxative comes from his book, Writing with Power: Techniques for Mastering the Writing Process (1981, 1998). It can be found in Section II: “More Ways of Getting Words on Paper,” where Elbow describes “first thoughts,” saying that this activity asks the writer to just dump* out what s/he is thinking about the topic, acknowledging that these initial ideas are “not good thoughts or true thoughts—just first thoughts” (p. 61). This initial dumping reduces the pressure of initial significance and organization that often causes writers to procrastinate. Once students have something, they can begin to find directions for potential exploration.

Elbow’s idea is related to Ken Macrorie’s (1970, 1976), “I-Search” processes detailed in Telling Writing. To begin an I-Search project, the researcher asks questions:

• What do I want to learn more about? Why am I interested in this?

• What do I already know about this subject?

• What do I need to learn about this subject?

“First thoughts” and “I-Search” beginnings are kinds of brainstorming, another piece of writing theory that has become formulaic and patterned, with well-meaning teachers requiring students to draw circles and lines and make Venn diagrams and engage in multiple kinds of teacher-directed pre-writing activities with colored pencils and Post-It® notes and other aids to creation. However, as the writer Jessamyn West said in an interview in September 1957 in the Saturday Review,There is no royal path to good writing; and such paths as do exist do not lead through neat critical gardens, various as they are, but through the jungles of self, the world, and of craft.” I heartily agree. I am a list maker, a card collector, a file creator, and a bitpiecer. This means that I write my way into projects bits and pieces at a time—a paragraph here, a phrase there, a page or two in the morning when I awake—filing it all away until the deadline looms and I have to piece together the wordy mosaic of thought and bring order to the chaos.

There is a time for editing and proofreading and making sure that writing is ready to be read. There is a time to consider audience. There is a time to adhere to accepted conventions, particularly in an academic context. That time is not at the beginning of a writing task when writers must mindfully make meaning through an activity as personal as expressing voice on paper. I’ll end with a lengthy quotation from Writing with Power. If you want to be Ex-Lax® for your students, consider his words:

“Perhaps my general point would be clearer if I called this section ‘More Ways of Producing a First Draft,’ but I want to emphasize the fact that first-stage writing need not take the form of a draft. That is, it need not be a single connected piece of writing. There is no good reason why you must try to produce something in your first cycle of writing that resembles the form of what you want to end up with, Of course, if you have a vision of how your piece ought to be structured, yes, by all means do your raw writing in the form of a draft. But if you only have the hint of a hunch or some initial thoughts or incidents or images and you can’t see how they should be shaped, it’s usually best to go ahead all the same and plunge into what I call raw writing. Instead of a draft you will be producing a pile of rough ingredients. The fact is that you usually get more and better visions for how to shape these ingredients by starting to write them out however they happen to come off the pencil than by waiting till you get the so-called ‘right’ structure. Any structure that you dream up before actually getting your hands dirty in the writing itself is apt to be like a plan you work out for travel in an unfamiliar country: it usually has to be changed once you get there and see how things really work” (p. 47).

What do you do to overcome writer’s block? How do you begin a new writing project?

The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself; the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anticlimax. • Alfred Kazin, Think, February 1963 [Or herself. Sigh.]

* I trust that you are applauding my restraint as I pass up the opportunity to indulge in some verbal pun-ishment here.

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What Do You Say When You Can’t Say Anything And There’s Too Much Left To Say?

March 31, 2011


I want to say something important to you, but all I can think of is, “Arthur, take a piece of toast.” • Mother (Marsha Hunt) to son (Brandon De Wilde) as he takes off after his pregnant girlfriend in 1959’s Blue Denim, a movie I recently watched again. I never resonated with this line during previous viewings, but this time, I understood.

The last time I saw my mother, I knew her death was close. I knew that we would never again go anywhere together, not to Disneyland nor to a movie nor on the bus to downtown Los Angeles to visit Clifton’s, Olvera Street, and Union Station. I knew that we wouldn’t share another order of onion rings or split a combination plate—the cheese enchilada for her, the chile relleno for me. We weren’t going to sit companionably and watch an old movie. I wasn’t going to hear her play the piano or sing my favorite songs. I would never again get her phone calls wishing me happy birthday or happy anniversary or brightening my Saturday morning with her mother’s interest in my life.

As I knelt beside her bed the last time I saw her, countless never-agains swirled around me and I groped for meaningful words to hurl into the forever that would soon separate us. I couldn’t find them. They were hidden behind the façade of normalcy we’d complicitly erected in the months leading us to this moment.

My mother was hopeful throughout her illness. Her faith sustained her, and infused her life with a possibility that made it impossible to talk about the other what if, the unvoiced possibility of her death. This silence overshadowed our last good-bye as it had our conversations in the months preceding it. In those final months, hope seemed the least that I could give her, the most that we could share. I said good-bye the last time I saw her, of course, but it was little different from any other parting we’d had. I’d be back in a week, I said and I would see her again, I pretended, hiding my tears and smiling widely. And I hoped I was telling the truth. But I lied. She died while I was on the way back to see her, still hoping we’d have a chance to say those truly final words.

In our last minutes together, I told her I loved her, that she was a good mother, that I knew she did her best, that I was sorry for all the things I did or didn’t do that might have given her pain. I told her I delighted in all the fun we had. I told her that I’d stored up hundreds of sweet memories. But I wanted more. More said. More heard. She was too tired to talk by then—perhaps too tired to mother me through the emotional labor of her impending death. She labored to bring me into the world and I felt compelled to ease her exit from it more than I wanted something more.

And still, this failure haunts me. But how can you speak when love stills your tongue?

What failures haunt your life? What might help ease their pain?

Odd how much it hurts when a friend moves away—and leaves behind only silence. • Pam Brown

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Poetry Is Just The Evidence Of Life. If Your Life Is Burning Well, Poetry Is Just The Ash.*

March 5, 2011


The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse. The one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. • Aristotle, On Poetics

In The Sole Survivor, Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1983) said that “[a] poet’s autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote.” Although music was her passion, my mother’s poetry was, she believed, her gift from a God she spoke with often, providing her with what she called pure moments of truth that she was always looking for, but seldom found.

Her poems represented this voice of God in her life, evidence of her strong faith, their words at the heart of her mission on earth. They provided her with transcendent purpose. The poetry in her head came, she told me, at times when she needed epiphany, bringing her grace and sustenance for life’s difficult times. She wrote “Home at Last,” the poem we read at her funeral, more than forty years ago, standing at the stove, my youngest brother a toddler pulling at her skirt. The poem “appeared all at once, a voice talking to me as clear as can be, as clearly as you are talking to me now.” It was this way with all her poetry.

Home at Last

by Eunice Wilkins Stukan; professional name, Carol Daye

If I should die, don’t weep for me!

For I’ll be where you’d like to be;

Away from all the pain and strife

That ever haunts us in this life.

I’d like no mourning at my shroud;

A sign to say – – – “No tears allowed

For she has gone to Heaven’s Gate,

And though you tarry she will wait.”

Time flies so fast, the years go soon,

Some lives are short, from morn till noon,

While others their full course do run,

And tarry yet when day is done.

This life is good – – – though oft’ too late

We learn this lesson, for we wait,

For things of greatness to impart – –

And pass an understanding heart,

Without a pause, and ne’er a glance;

The piper plays and off we dance.

We passed a tree – – – no time to look,

Or maybe ‘twas a babbling brook;

Perhaps a child with word and smile

We thought a nuisance all the while.

Yes, shed no tears for I have passed

To claim a perfect life at last.

You knew my faults, at least in part,

You knew my independent heart.

No, shed no tears, for there I’ll be

With friends who’ve gone ahead of me.

And when they ask of you, I’ll say,

“They’ll be along another day.”

No, don’t feel sad, I’m home at last!

My tears and trials are in the past.

Help finish what I’ve left undone,

It seems – – – so much – – – I’d just begun.

So, bow your head, in prayer rejoice,

In hymns of praise life up your voice

And thank the Lord for wondrous grace,

That gave me entrance to this place.

Yes, I’ll be waiting at the gate – – –

No, don’t be sad – – – you come, I’ll wait.

In the decades after mom wrote this poem, she shared it with thousands of people. I’ve been given copies by people who had no idea that my mother had written it. In the letters she left behind are many from people comforted by the words she gave them along with pots of spaghetti, boxes of homemade fudge, and, finally, when she was too tired to cook, half-pound boxes of Mrs. See’s Candies.

There are people to whom others gravitate and open their hearts, knowing that they have found a safe harbor. My mother was one of them.

What is the poetry—and purpose—of your life?

Your prayer can be poetry, and poetry can be your prayer. • Terri Guillemets

I don’t create poetry. I create myself. For me, my poems are a way to me. • Edith Sodergran

* Thanks to Leonard Cohen for the title wisdom.