Our Favorite Teachers

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Last Thursday was the last day of elementary school in our city, and my first-grade daughter alternated between summer-fun-anticipation and heartbreak about no longer seeing her adored teacher every day. I picked her up from school, and seeing all the teachers waving goodbye to the kids as we passed was more than we could take. By the time we made it to the car, my daughter was crying, I started crying because she was crying, and my other daughter started crying as well. Her last day was doubly poignant since she will be starting at a new elementary school next year – in our city, kindergarteners and first graders attend a separate school – so that will be a big change.

Happily, when we unpacked her backpack several hours later, we found a sheet with the teacher’s home address, with the suggestion that students become her penpals. My daughter got immediately to work on a letter, which said simply, “I miss you SO MUCH!!!” I’m sure her teacher will be impressed by the depth of her feelings, particularly when she had left her class only four hours earlier. :)

Although I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers, I felt particularly fond of, and changed by, my third grade teacher; most people seem to have such memories of a special elementary school teacher. There is something about the relationship between student and teacher in the early years that is particularly moving and powerful. Perhaps it is our first major exposure to a real authority figure other than our parents, someone who is not just babysitting; someone responsible for both our academic and social development and able, even in a packed classroom, to make us feel special and unique. Someone who – unlike a parent – is able to see our strengths and weaknesses in a more objective way. Someone who helps us find our footing in the world outside of our family, who shows us the many possible paths.

My daughter’s first grade teacher was such a teacher, and I think that’s why I was crying harder than my daughter: I know that her next teacher may not connect with her in the same way.  When we send our children off to school, we want them to receive something like the love they feel at home; we want them to be accepted, encouraged, hugged, high-fived for even those small successes. When a teacher is able to do that – while also juggling the tasks of classroom life, and the similar needs of other children – it is nothing less than miraculous.

I wanted to share an excerpt from my poem, “Children,” which describes how our children bloom as they encounter new worlds:

Spring, and I watch you from my chair,
streaming electric, gathering gravity
around you like permanent planets.

I imagine the thread of your roots
wrapping this garden up tight -

each segment in the darkness
a maze of one world
finding another.

The Basket of Curiosities

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I have trouble getting anything done when there is visible clutter. This morning, the house was overrun with scattered toys, cuttings from various papers, books, and game pieces. So I spent twenty minutes getting everything back to its container and shelf. Unfortunately, there are always items that defy classification, don’t really have a place: kid’s meal toys that must be kept until they are forgotten about (for us, about a week); pieces large or small from games that are temporarily missing; “prizes” obtained from school – like decorative erasers – that must be kept but aren’t useful; bottles of soap bubbles. I guess everyone needs a junk drawer for all these things, so that the house doesn’t resemble the Island of Misfit Toys, and I found a deep basket to accommodate all these random shapes and sizes.

In one’s life, there are many such junk drawers. I have a writing binder – containing failed poems, interesting lines I’ve written but never used and probably won’t, heartening letters from mentors – that although I rarely look at it, would never throw away. The kitchen cabinet with rarely-used appliances reminds me on the bleakest days that I can whip up a Margarita in just moments. These stashes are different from the photo boxes or love letter bundles that are irreplaceable; they contain objects of often irrational desire, rather than things we solidly love or need.  Similarly, I find I get antsy when I don’t have enough incoming randomness in my life, whether it is a new friend, book, or image that pops out from nowhere – a junk drawer of the mind, so to speak.

I love Radmilla Lazic’s poem “Anthropomorphic Wardrobe” (translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic) for its interesting take on the objects in our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s no more room. We are full.
Everything we stored, layer by layer
Folded, packed in as if bandaging wounds…

Forgotten. Taken down in a hurry.
Thrown in the corner: Turned inside out.
What is indispensable and what is less so
Thrown on top of each other.
Once made to measure, then grown short,
Grown too tight, faded or shiny — it’s all here.

Adam’s little broken rib.
The plucked angel’s wing.
Venus’s fur and love-stain.
Rings. Combs. Ghosts. Moths.
No one can find anything here.
Where is it? Turn it upside down! Rummage!
Lost, then found again.
Rejected, then cherished again.
Cobwebs sway. The mouse gnaws.
The butterfly spreads its wings.

My Top Five Poems about Motherhood

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’m adding to last year’s list of poems that I love about motherhood. Enjoy!

1) From “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakoski (full text here):

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.

When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
past.

2) From “Waterwings” by Cathy Song (full text here):

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

3) From “The Puppet of the Wolf,” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

This is a miracle, there is never
any death:
the wolf comes back whenever
he is called,
unwounded and intact;
piglets jump from my thumbs.

My dying right
hand, which knots and shrinks
drier and more cynical
each year, is immortal,
briefly, and innocent.

Together with my left hand, its
enemy and prey, it chases
my daughter through the warm air,
and muted with soapsuds, lifts her
into the water.

4) From “Taking Notice,” #13, by Marilyn Hacker:

…In
another room, my daughter, home from school,
audibly murmurs “spanking, stupid, angry
voice” — a closet drama where I am
played second-hand to unresisting doll
daughters. Mother and daughter both, I see
myself, the furious and unforgiven;
myself, the terrified and terrible;
the child pushed into autonomy;
the unhealed woman hearing her own voice damn
her to the nightmares of the brooding girl.

5) From “Wanting a Child” by Jorie Graham (full text here):

Sometimes I’ll come this far from home
merely to dip my fingers in this glittering, archaic
sea that renders everything
identical, flesh
where mind and body
blur. The seagulls squeak, ill-fitting
hinges, the beach is thick
with shells. The tide
is always pulsing upward, inland, into the river’s rapid
argument, pushing
with its insistent tragic waves — the living echo,
says my book, of some great storm far out at sea, too far
to be recalled by us
but transferred
whole onto this shore by waves, so that erosion
is its very face.

Kids at poetry readings

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Last night, I took an enormous leap of faith and took my first grader to her first poetry reading. This particular reading – part of the Iota Reading Series curated by Miles David Moore and hosted by Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia – seemed a good fit. I promised her a brownie sundae, and packed a bag of books, paper/crayons, and other items to keep her entertained while I listened. 

Poetry readings can be a wild card: profanity happens, and just about any subject can come up in a poem. When that happened last night (and it was possible to see it coming) I whispered in her ear about what she was writing/drawing/reading to distract her. I suppose at those times we could have taken a bathroom break as well. We hear “adult content” in public places anyway (just take a ride on the Metro to hear plenty of choice words, not redeemed by any possible artistic value). Explanations must be given at some point; she knows that adults sometimes drink different drinks than kids (alcohol, soda with caffeine), and make different choices (in behavior, language), so I felt I could handle whatever questions might emerge.

She loved it, and amazingly, asked when we could go to another one. Part of it was probably the brownie sundae and being out after her usual bedtime, but she also seemed to view other poets as exotic creatures (“Is she a poet? Is he a poet?”) and liked the lit-up stage and the bar stools. She paid more attention to the poetry than I’d anticipated, quoting lines back to me later, and citing particular poems (“I loved the pirate poem where they walked the plank.”). I did miss the usual moments of reflection afterwards; when my mind would normally be buzzing with the energy of the evening, I was bombarded with questions on the way home: “How did they get those lights to work? Can I get some for my room? Can I read up on the stage next time?”

She came out of the reading with a book she had written and illustrated, “Humphrey Saves the Cow,” about a heroic hamster who has to use advanced engineering skills (and tissues, string and rubber bands) to create a parachute for a cow falling from an airplane during a tornado. (Now, there’s a poem.) :)

One of my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath is “Child,” which illustrates the perfect vision that we all begin with:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

Spring Break: heading for the sea

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With my older daughter home from school for the week, my mom and stepdad braved the long car drive down to the Outer Banks with me and the girls, for a few days in a hotel by the beach. Though the girls wanted to spend most of our visit at the indoor pool (and I in the adjoining hot tub), we visited our usual summer haunts: Kelly’s for seafood and warm sweet potato biscuits, Duck’s Cottage for books and coffee, and The Kids’ Store for toys.

I have a love-hate relationship with the beach. When I was growing up, we went to Virginia Beach every summer, and by my teens, I often preferred to read in the hotel room rather than face sunburn and sand-induced itchiness. The idea of the beach was often better than the thing itself. But I always liked the salty smell as our car neared the ocean, and the rush- then-fade of the waves crashing.

This excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” captures the tang and textures of the shore:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
______________________________
…I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Asking for what you want: submissions and gender

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My two daughters – let’s call them OD and YD – resemble me in many predictable ways. Seven-year-old OD has hair that relentlessly tangles in the same spot as mine, loves writing and rhyme, and is a tomboy in the best sense of the word. Three-year-old YD has my oversized cheeks, laid-back manner, and love of animals.

But even at their young ages, they exceed me in confidence and general courageous action. OD is a skilled negotiator; when she encounters a “no,” she rephrases the question again and again, looking for any cracks in my argument, and steadily moves toward a settlement. Younger YD hasn’t this skill yet, and relies on the simple “broken record” method of toddlers, which she knows can’t be ignored.

This week, you may have read this article on the male/female ratios of publication for more influential magazines, inspired by the annual VIDA count.  Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House – one of the few publications that improved its ratio – had this to say about the process of encouraging submissions by women:

“After VIDA’s initial count three years ago,” Spillman said, “you would think others would move toward gender equality, or at least make a gesture toward it. It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out.” So why not?

“We did a thorough analysis of our internal submission numbers and found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts. So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute. We also adjusted our Lost & Found section, which featured short pieces on under-appreciated writers or books. We had been asking 50/50 writers, but the subjects were coming back 80/20 male to female, meaning that both men and women were writing about men versus women writers. We then started asking both male and female writers if there are any women writers they would like to champion. It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance. Again, these are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Spillman’s comments were eye-opening to me; I hadn’t thought much about how “submission behaviors” might be different for women and men. But I do fit into the more submissive group that he describes: when rejected once or twice by a publication, I tend to scratch it off my list and move on – something that the men, at least the ones submitting to prestigious Tin House, tend not to do. Even though I know the primary rule of getting published is “Submit, Submit, Submit,” there is still something in me that has trouble trying again after that initial rejection.

It appears I need to take a page from my daughters’ playbooks: ask, and ask, and ask again. The fourth section of Denise Levertov’s “Matins” reminds us of the importance of “following through:”

iv.

A shadow painted where
yes, a shadow must fall.
The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
words. Yes,
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, zest
to follow through,
follow through,
follow
transformations of day
in its turning, in its becoming.

A season of waiting

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This winter, most of my quests for excitement have collided with a paralyzed will, or body. Yesterday, my mom offered to babysit the girls so Jeff and I could enjoy a kid-free outing. Jeff now has the cold I had a week ago (and older daughter (‘OD’) had a week before that), so we decided to do something that required little walking – a movie and dinner. But upon arriving at our favorite second-run theatre to see “Skyfall,” we learned that we had gotten the show time wrong, so ended up talking in the car for two hours, heading to the grocery store for cough drops and ibuprofen, then getting dinner at one of President Obama’s favorite hamburger spots, Ray’s Hell Burger.

I later realized that this was a perfect afternoon because in everyday life, I rarely get to talk. Both kids talk constantly; they’re full of rhymes, songs, potential projects and fresh observations. They are the texting keyboard to my sticky-keyed manual typewriter. (Knowing that this is temporary and that all too soon they will be shadows passing silently in the hallway, the language stays inside, or hides in my bedside notebook.)

Even as my body begs for more sunlight, I don’t want to let the winter go until we have a good snowstorm, at least enough snow to operate our sled and build a snowman. We may get it on Tuesday night, it seems. Fingers crossed for ending winter with a bang. :)

This time of year, I love Stephen Spender’s poem “Polar Exploration,” for its sense of suspended animation:

With faces swung to their prodigious North
Like compass needles. As clerks in whited banks
Leave bird-claw pen-prints columned on white paper,
On snow we added footprints,
Extensive whiteness drowned
All sense of space. We tramped through
Static, glaring days, Time’s suspended blank.
_______________________________________

I cannot sleep. At night I watch
A clear voice speak with words like drawing.
Its questions are clear rifts:–Was
Ice, our rage, transformed? The raw, the motionless
Skies, were these the Spirit’s hunger?