Here is a poem I wrote several years ago. I have always enjoyed the rhyme in this poem because I seldom rely on rhyme as much as I have here. I was steeped in Irish poetry when I wrote this. The green grass that has erupted on our lawns this past week brings hope, and when I feel hope, I always realize the cradling hands of faith. These are religious words that have been misused and sometimes overused to the point that we often ask ourselves in our most challenging moments: What do they really mean? What does it mean to have faith? Sometimes I write poetry to try to explain that to myself and for myself.
It is a beautiful nourishment to see neighbors, friends, and even strangers act in faith.
God loves those who hang by a thread
over fallen lights, whose grip on the slim
of the unknown is a slice, who hang on,
but do not have words for it. God sees
the articulation of that resolute silence,
that beautiful thing, as a drop on a sliver
of green, just eyes averting to the blue upward,
just a heave of nothing but the upturn of a lip
that can’t sing. God listens anyway
though no one else does to the rhythm of a dangling
silk on the sleeve of a dream and He calls that
a faith, the faith of a seed in a famine of noise,
a posture of white knuckled, no-matter-what
holding on–tendering abandonment to soft string.
-Kerri Vinson Snell
I briefly homeschooled two of my four children (who are now adults) for different reasons, with each homeschooling stint lasting an academic grade for each child. Each time I homeschooled I received amazing support from our local school district and local homeschooling community so I was never alone in the endeavor. As someone who has always had an interest in homeschooling, the idea wasn’t thrust upon me as the only option, which is what many parents today are facing. I had already read many books about homeschooling and had sort of settled on my educational approaches (Montessori and Unschooling were my philosophical methods choices). I hope you are receiving good support from your school districts wherever you are.
I felt no qualms about teaching physical education, history, literature, writing and reading; however, math and science were another matter. For math and science, I needed HELP. My hope with this blog post is to provide parents who feel as though you are floundering with writing assignments with some ideas and options.
- Writing during times of national and personal trauma (i.e. a pandemic) will be like no other time. It’s difficult to be creative when you are in the midst of “fight-or-flight” responses. Rather than assign writing in the traditional way with a single, large project looming over your child’s little stressed out brain, provide prompts for “free-writing.” Let them write without worrying about punctuation, spelling, and grammar. Teach them that this is what real writers in the real world do. We write our first drafts with reckless abandon. This is first-draft writing. No censor. No right-and-wrong response. No worry about when to break a paragraph or how neat the penmanship is. Refrain from marking all the mistakes with a red pen. Let the student keep a folder of these first drafts. After there is a good selection in the folder, have your student pick her favorite. From here you will teach the slower, more tedious process of revision.
- And a word about revision. Most writers wait days/weeks/months before we are able to look at a first draft with the fresh eyes of an editor. Give your writer time and space before you expect them to know how to make the first drafts better.
- Always have several prompts prepared for each writing activity. Most students need a narrowed and creative approach (prompt) which provides them the structure they need to walk through the writing door. You can always instruct students that it is fine for them to write from their own ideas if they choose.
- You want to challenge your student writer without too much frustration. Remember, to prize the IDEAS over perfect spelling, grammar, topic sentences, etc. I teach college writing and I can’t emphasize enough that critical thinking is developed through freedom of expression and love of learning, not diagramming sentences and perfect subject-verb agreement. Teach your student how to correct spelling and revise paragraph order as REVISION work, not as the thing which qualifies them as a creative thinker and writer. The goal here is to develop a love of writing. The rest will come.
- Let your student experiment with writing nonfiction, fiction, poetry and hybrid forms. When I was a young child, I wrote poetry to understand my own questions and previous knowledge about subjects I was learning in school. The child who hates essay-writing may adore the ABC-derian poem.
- Develop writing assignments that provide students with a built-in audience. Write letters to nursing home residents. Let them keep a blog about this time of quarantine. Let them create a Book of Questions as they watch current events unfold before their eyes. Let them draw more and write less if they prefer. Let them listen to music if they find this helpful.
- If giving them a page limit is causing frustration, let them write to a timer. 15 minutes of writing without stopping for any reason followed by a 3-5 minute break. The Pomodoro method works for writers of all ages and abilities.
- Be sure the student has had an adequate amount of exercise/play before writing class begins. I have developed the ability to sit for 4-6 hours at a time and write if need be, but not until I have completed an hour of high intensity exercise.
- Finally, write with your child and always include a time to share writing with one another.
Parents across the country find yourselves joining the words “home” and “school” as a real thing in your lives for the first time. If that seems like a bad joke or an oxymoron (the way #alonetogether does), you may be scrambling for resources–something to accomplish after your kiddos complete their toilet paper roll art projects.
Here is a writing project for you.
An Aubade is a poem or song that welcomes the dawn or laments the ending of night (or both). An Aubade can also be a song. According a March 12, 2018 explanation in the New York Times, the word was first used in 1678 and was adopted by the French from the Spanish word “alba,” meaning sunrise.
Two of my favorite Aubade poems (for older students) are “Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong and “Aubade Ending with the Death of a Mosquito” by Tarfia Faizullah https://poetrysociety.org/features/in-their-own-words/tarfia-faizullah-on-aubade-ending-with-the-death-of-a-mosquito.
For younger students, here is an example of an Aubade poem that I composed with you in mind this morning, using Prompt #3 below. I have bolded the words which answer the questions in Prompt #3:
The sun rises in the east to the sound of a drip–
black coffee and oatmeal on my spoon–
I talk to myself stringing thoughts together
like tiny daisies on black silk pajamas.
I could still sleep to this light.
Writing Prompts: Listen to the following “Morning Song” and watch the video footage of a sunrise as you listen.
- Write down the words that come to your mind as you watch and listen. Use these words to write a poem that welcomes the dawn or laments the end of night (or both).
- Are you a morning person? A night owl? Write about yourself and the ways that you either celebrate the morning or lament the end of sleep.
- Write down 3-5 words taken from your morning routine. What kind of toothpaste do you use? What do you usually eat for breakfast? Who is the first person you usually talk to in the morning? What patterns are on your favorite pajamas? You can devise your own questions about morning to answer and use in this prompt.
- (More challenging) Write an Aubade poem in which a sunrise is a symbol for the end of one season of your life and the beginning of a new phase (graduating high school or college, ending a relationship, living after loss of a loved one, the end of your school year and beginning of home education, for example).
I keep coming back to you–tired, weak, huddled–in desperate need of an encounter with God, with unrealistic expectations about your sound system, your music, your expository sermons.
I hate name tags even as I struggle to remember new names.
Communion sometimes feels like blind taste test. My soul often feels looked over as though a grander bird is stealing all the sunlight from my measly wing span. The only solution I hear from you is to fly, fly, fly…keep flying…soar like an eagle even though I am not an eagle at all. I get the feeling as I flutter that the WWJD answer is not what we are always being told. I think Jesus himself would find a safe place to land.
I am more of a sparrow, one whose active parenting duties spanned 33 years. I have half my kidney function and a full-time job. I have partnered with God to climb some enormous private mountains, ending family cycles of dysfunction as I mothered without a mother of my own. The buck stopped with me and God taught me how to detonate the grenade that lived inside of me so that I could move forward in forgiveness. Perhaps this is why I don’t feel particularly guilty when I tell people NO.
I am officially bake-sale’d out. I don’t want to paint the church on Saturday. I don’t want to sit around and hear happy-ending testimonies that skip all the moments. I don’t want to hold other peoples’ babies. I don’t want to serve coffee or operate a flannel board or endure patronizing changes of tone when male elders talk down to me.
I just want to be able to bring myself to the altar of worship. The real me with the 150 pages of essays I haven’t graded, with the deep love and commitment I have for my own family, all the pictures of my Cavapoo, the stories of my grandsons, my addiction to caffeine and the secret wish to be out on a trail running somewhere rather than sitting in a pew. I want to open a Bible that isn’t an app on my phone and sit in uncomfortable silence so that my mind and body can remember the boon of reflection. I want to hear God whisper to me, Daughter, I know you are trying to manage so much without taking synthetic hormones. I know your ovaries are gone. I know it all really has to be in your head now, which is difficult because you have no time to think. I know your faithfulness and faithlessness and it all hangs on the Cross the same.
What if God is calling the 50-somethings in the church to put the atlas of the world down and stretch our hamstrings a bit?
My thoughts after reading that elitist college entry requirements were designed as a means of protecting the privileged are: What if we all just stop wanting what they have? What if celebrity status and zip code were one thing and character and work ethic and integrity were something to be prized far above a life of air-brushed insta-identities? What if we learned, again, to listen with discernment at content over packaging? What if how a person lived out his or her life were the measure of grace instead of where? What if trendiness were once again viewed with a certain skepticism, and ideas were required, once again, to stand the test of time? What if we woke up one morning and reserved judgement of all persons we came in contact with until we watched and listened? What if incongruities between words and actions were not so easily dismissed by self-promotion on social media and other types of spin. What if we looked at our own histories and used that light to illuminate how a champion is never born in the present tense, how “greatness” gets decided in the way of rivers–meandering, sometimes negative growth that steps forward and sometimes works against the current. Often unrecognized.
Privilege is its own vast continent. Those of us who even aspire to perfect eyebrows, envying those with ivy league associations, are already blessed beyond what we can obviously comprehend. I, for one, feel privileged to live in Kansas and to teach at a small college that is only on the radar of the few, relatively speaking. I get to invest my time and talents in hard-working, aspiring students from all over the world and from different backgrounds, many of whom are first-generation college students, as they quite daily pare down their priorities to the nitty gritty of higher education. There are no buy-outs and pay-offs here. But we do have one thing, and that is the ability to teach ourselves how to define success democratically and individually for ourselves. Like a song of ourselves. Like Whitman. It’s a privilege that those parents, who “traded-up” on behalf of their children, have forever excluded their children from. It’s a privilege to fail. It’s a privilege to lack some things. It’s a privilege to be loved and accepted unconditionally. It’s a privilege to learn in a heterogenous environment that includes and yet goes deeper than skin. It’s a privilege to have space for an invisible, inner life. I am not sure how to esteem any institution of higher learning that doesn’t protect all the privileges that money can’t buy over the counterfeits that it can.
One of the best moments in a teacher’s life is the one where you walk into the only half-filled classroom (yay…less grading!) and you meet yourself, that student who is avoiding her homework because of the overwhelming compulsion to write. That student for whom a brain is like a boxcar for every emotion she has experienced. Half-full of pre-memories and stalled on the tracks blocking a line of cars on Main Street. Fragmented like these last two sentences.
She is that student who is not only willing to enter the timeless zone, she has already, against all advice, set up permanent residency there. She knows an MFA is impractical, that she’ll probably teach, but for now the thrill of creating keeps her listening in the dead, winter air for those premises and prompts that illuminate somewhere behind the blackest part of her eyes, urging her, driving her to write, to create.
I don’t want her to ever lose that.
Starting up this blog about My Writing Life feels like reconnecting with an old friend, perhaps someone I once labeled as “best” in some way when I was a girl, someone with whom secrets were shared. Now there is a vacuous space between us. This opening sentence actually reminds me of someone–my only sister–and in all honestly revisiting my blog feels like a hospitable pursuit as compared to attempting to mend burned relationship bridges because even if I have not written here, in this particular space, I have written somewhere.
My Writing Life has morphed most days into My Teaching Life. While some inklings of drafts have abetted my belief that a second manuscript could be forthcoming, most of My Writing Life and that newness I seek as a writer has come to me in the form of new courses, new books, new plans, new faces, and new writing opportunities that, behind the scenes, I have helped to make happen for my students. Teaching is such a reward, yet it is exhausting in ways that don’t always keep the flame inside my mind constant and ready to pursue my own projects.
I am attempting to do something about that this semester. Mondays during my office hours will be reading days, and by reading I mean reading for my own pleasure/inspiration. My brain needs nutrition and Ann Fadiman again. This blog will become my place for regular writing again. I can’t tell you the thrill of anticipation: the unknown, the blank, the sprite uncontrolled, the exploration, the atmosphere. The open page.
“I Carry It With Me” a poem that is softly spoken and quietly reverent about a personal memory of mine has been named a finalist in the Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize by Ruminate Magazine. I write with many tones and can project a variety of personas, but this voice is truest to my own. So…it feels especially validating that this poem has been noticed by others.
Here is something (or perhaps here are somethings) I have learned (rather I haven’t learned but that I keep learning anew over and over again: writers are weird. Writers in all of our weirdness-glory are simultaneously excruciatingly ordinary and singularly misfitted in that “All happy families…” Tolstoy-an kind of way. It’s a matter of perspective and understanding and it’s often a matter of choice for the writer and for the audience-spouse-friends-church-acquaintance-reader-reviewer-editor of the writer.
I was reminded of this recently. It’s not so much that I am clinically manic (I’m not) so much as it is I am constantly butting up against people who aren’t interested in the complications associated with peeling the layers of getting to know the artsy-creative-type. When you write, you specialize in the nurture of listening, really listening. Listening to subjects and eliminating objects of all kinds. Listening to self. To silence.
The act of writing an unshared poem is an act that 100 percent of the time will upset the internal equilibrium of the writer even if the writer is the only person who ever imagines/reads the work. The act of writing a poem and sharing a poem contains every emotional, psychological, creative, political component of revolution (albeit once-removed) whether the poem is political or seemingly refreshingly simple and pastoral. Poems are box-cutters. I wrote my first one at the age of six. I’ve been bouncing out of others’ boxes ever since. This has been my life. I think it is probably everyone’s life, even those unaware of it (which is the majority of people I believe).
Here is why publication of one of my poems matters so much to me. Not the positive affirmations, though pleasant enough. Not the fact that a publication means even four people are ever going to seriously read and consider my poem. Not the money…ahem. Publication validates me as I continue to bust through confining boxes. I can cut the tape, chew the cardboard and spit it out. I can dust off my dirty feet and move on. I can stop listening to what bores me. I can fiercely flee ideas and the speakers of those ideas when the ideas seek to silence my voice. Poetry as an end can’t seek to categorize, rate, demonize or prioritize any experience. Poetry can only re-enact, bring forth a separate and more distant beauty that compares in some intangible way with the emotion of the experience it seeks to render. A poem is word married to wordlessness.
The reader leafs through the pages and sometimes finds the love-child. The writer remembers vividly the conception. Listening, always listening, home is constructed with what might compare to this–the work, the sacrifice, the willingness to hold.