A Frayed Knot: Picking Our Way Through The Need

So this piece of string walks into a bar. (Stop me if you’ve heard this.) Bartender growls, “Hey, you. We don’t serve your kind in here. Beat it.” Hurt and angry, the string heads home to her apartment. There she ties herself into complicated loops, and frizzes her ends till she’s nearly unrecognizable. Then she goes back into the bar and orders a beer.

“Hmmm,” says the bartender suspiciously. “Aren’t you that same piece of string I just threw outa here?”

“Oh, no,” the string says innocently, “I’m a frayed knot.”

Ba-dum-bum.

Not the best bar joke ever…but close!

This joke popped into my head recently after reading these lines from Kim Stafford’s book of post-election poems, The Flavor of Unity,

“By writing, thinking, and talking, clarify your vocation, so you can enter the fray without being frayed.”

Copyright 2017 Kim Stafford. Thanks, Kim!

During the Civil Rights Movement, and more recent movements who use nonviolent resistance, participants had to learn to conquer their fear–of prison, of violence, even of death. The most famous freedom song, We Shall Overcome, contains the lyric, “We are not afraid.” Not being currently on the front lines of any struggle, but instead struggling to choose among the many, many causes calling for support since Trump’s inauguration, being AFRAID is not my issue–but being FRAYED? Yes. ‘Fraid so.

My email box and Facebook feed fills daily with calls to contact my congressional reps about the environment, or health care, or immigration, or…you know. If you’re an American, you’re probably getting the same emails. Sign this. Send money to that. Attend this meeting. Join that march. There is too much need out there to do it all.

Which is why I’m very much looking forward to the online course I’ve signed up for with Quaker writer and teacher Eileen Flanagan, entitled, “We Were Made For This Moment.” The intro to her course reads, 

In this time of tumult, fear, and hatred, the world needs the gifts that you were born to share. You may not be sure where to use them. You may not know how to use them to greatest effect, or even if you can make a difference at all, but you know you need to do something to work for a more just and loving world. You are not alone! The purpose of this online course is to help you to meet this moment.

Finding one’s purpose, to me, means finding my path. This means, of course, choosing some paths NOT to take. It’s never easy; we all want to contribute, be supportive, “be there” for each other, or vulnerable people, or the planet. But when we try to be everywhere, we fray…and–mixed metaphor alert–we burn out.

I want to walk a path and stick to it. I look forward to some guided discernment. I also look forward to hearing how you might have dealt with this same issue. How do you keep yourself in the fray without fraying?

 

 

What Do Writers Make? If We’re Lucky, The Same As Teachers: A Difference

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week! And please be patient…I’ll get to the teacher part of this post by the end. But first…

I’ve discovered a new identity in my post-teaching career: community pro bono writer. What began five years ago as a monthly gig, writing the Spotlight on Lopezians for our lil’ paper, has morphed into being the on-call writer for a large portion of the non-profit groups and events on our island.

For example, in the past year+ I’ve written articles for:

  • Earth Day celebrations
  • a rock concert to benefit our school
  • a presentation on Cuba
  • a concert to benefit our local radio station–no, make that two different concerts for KLOI
  • a presentation on fighting climate change
  • the Home Tour, which benefits our community center
  • a brand-new business (OK, this one wasn’t non-profit, but the article was a feature, not an ad)
  • a community kitchen
  • the winner of the community Spirit Award
  • the Dump
  • the dedication of a plaque honoring the founding of our community garden/Farmers’ Market space

All this while maintaining my pace of 10 Spotlight features/year…and oh, by the way, writing my novel.

And none of this has earned me a dime.

I know some champions of writers, most notably Kristen Lamb, who rail against writers giving their stuff away for free. I appreciate hugely this lobbying effort. But do I feel like a turncoat or a wuss for agreeing to write for nothing?

No, I do not–for several reasons. When I said I haven’t earned a dime, that doesn’t mean I haven’t earned anything. Here’s what I’ve earned:

#1, Boldness. No one tricked me into this. The Spotlight articles paid 10 cents a word up until I took on the “job,” but the paper’s editor informed me up front that they were losing revenue and could no longer afford even that minimal $80 fee. I could take the gig or leave it. And I took it because…

#2, Publicity. My articles have created a much larger audience for me than if I had relied only on the few dozen locals who’ve read my books. So when Book #3 comes out, or if/when I apply for a position where writing counts, my work not only speaks for itself, it speaks to everybody here.

#3, Friends. My articles have been a great doorway to meeting new people and learning their back story.

#4, Warm Fuzzies. Pro bono writing for good causes feels good. I struggle sometimes to fit in all the community involvement I feel called to. Driving places, phone-calling…those are harder for me. But writing? Easy as pie–and keep in mind, I’m really good at pie.

All of which brings me back to teachers. All teachers eventually get sent this wonderful spoken word piece by (former) teacher Taylor Mali, “What Teachers Make.” It used to speak to me as a teacher. Now, I’m finding that it speaks to me as a writer as well.

So I’ll say it again: Happy Teacher Appreciation Week. If my little articles can make a portion of the difference I once made in people’s lives as a teacher…I’ll take that proudly.

Sometimes All You Need is To Be Smacked Upside the Head by a Golden Eagle

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m a “mentor” of a little girl. Just after that post, I attended a meeting for mentors, where we were asked to share something we appreciated about our “mentee.” One fellow mentor said he loved that his kid “gets me out of my head.”

Anyone relate to that?

For those of us without small children or even pets around the house, getting out of our heads can become a strangely invisible challenge: we aren’t aware of how badly we needed to do it until something flies by and–aaahh…That’s better. Perspective restored.

Today I was running along my usual gorgeous route, which just happens to pass through the scenery depicted on this blog’s cover photo. No slouch, as scenery goes. But was I digging those craggy rocks, that deep blue ocean? Ha. Not a whit. I was stuck deeply in my own head.

Rehearsal schedule. Grocery planning. When am I going to get my garden going? Three pieces to edit–not including my own. Article to write. Need to catch up on sleep from three 3 a.m. bakery get-ups in a row. Time with Mate–when’s THAT supposed to happen? And am I going to have time to practice my subjunctive before the next Spanish class?

Then a golden eagle flew over my head. Followed by another golden eagle.

Imagine two. (orig. image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

I’ll admit–several dozen bald eagles might’ve flown over, unnoticed, as I ran along–and good job, baldies, getting so common after nearly going extinct and all. But goldies? They stopped me in my tracks.

I’m sorry that’s what it took, but it did the job. Aaahh…That’s better. Thankyouthankyouthankyou. Perspective restored.

Care to share a similar getting-out-of-your-head experience? Child, animal, plant–or something not of nature? I would love to hear.

Have a John Keats Autumn: Notice What You Notice

Here at the brink of the Autumnal Equinox, I went looking for a poem for autumn. I didn’t have to look far. According to The Guardian, John Keats’s “To Autumn” is “the most anthologized poem” by an English poet. I’ll let Mr. Keats himself tell you why:

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For Summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twinéd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barréd clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

(courtesy Wikimedia)

(courtesy Wikimedia)

As my former students would have said, “I know, right?”

This season, harvest season, reminds me of life’s cyclical nature more than Spring does. Both focus our attention on change. But I was a teacher for 20 years, and even six years past the classroom, fall still means school to me. And school means poetry. Sooner or later, no matter the class–Sophomore English, Junior English, American Studies, AP Literature–we “did poetry.” Or, as I liked to say, we exercised our Noticing Muscles.

My brand of poetry analysis? Read the poem. Notice what you notice. Notice what it makes you think about. Write about how the poet’s tools (words, images, sounds, etc.) make you think that.

My favorite question: “Did the poet really mean whatever I think he means?”

My favorite answer: “Intention is not the same as effect. You can’t know intention unless the poet tells you. Most don’t. So focus on effect.”

I won’t presume now to take Keats’s beautiful ode apart and tell you about its effect on this reader. Instead I’ll leave you with the thought of Noticing Muscles, the poem itself, and the hope that you’ll spend some time this slower season noticing what you notice. Happy Fall!

Igneous, Sedimentary & Metamorphic Rock: Why Grand Canyon Offers The Best Metaphor For Love & Marriage

I adore geology metaphors. Plate tectonics, uplift, magma–are you kidding me? In Grand Canyon last year, even before this trip, I was struck by the way the three types of rock symbolize the growth of a long-term relationship. So struck, in fact, that I wrote a song about it. I’ll let the lyrics explain themselves, ok? It’s called…

Rocks of Ages 

When I first met you, I couldn’t get you

Into my arms fast enough

You said you adored me, you melted down for me

Hot lava lava lava love                  

Two igneous kids, swimming in bliss,

That’s what we were at the start

Now that we’re older, the magma’s grown colder

But we’re still rock solid down deep in our hearts.

[igneous, ok? Plenty of that around Lava Falls in the lower half of the river]

Hot lava lava lava love

Hot lava lava lava love

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[That’s just the chorus. Now for the sedimentary, the layered stuff:]

Albums in piles, stretching for miles

Children and homes and careers

Stacking our cares and blessings in layers

Years upon years upon years

Life’s mighty stratified, but I’m nothing but satisfied

Let’s go ahead and grow old

Call us sedimentary, we must have been meant to be

‘Cause the age that we’re heading for is looking like gold.

Call us sedimentary...

Call us sedimentary…

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

Life is what happens while you make other plans

After so many changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

[here comes the bridge…] 

Who could have seen us, all that passion between us

Living those promises of sickness and health?

I’d like to say I knew, when we said “I do,”

But you know I’d really just be fooling myself.

[and now, finally–metamorphic. Rock whose chemical structure’s been changed by pressure, heat and time. That’s marriage for ya!]

After so long, feelings so strong

Generate forces so vast.

Family pressures, too strong to measure

Uplift a life that will last.

We didn’t plan it, but our love is granite—

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts.

Love in our souls like diamonds from coal

Gives us riches to live on till death do us part.

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

Yeah, we got metamorph hearts

[my beloved Vishnu Schist!]

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Rocks of ages, counting the stages

We entered into with those golden bands

After all of our changes, the only thing strange is

How the earth still moves when you take my hand.

Yeah, the earth still mooooves when you take my hand.                                 G. Wing, April 2015

See what I mean? 

Oh, want to hear what the song sounds like? Copy & paste the following URL into your browser (sorry, couldn’t get it to work as a link):

C:\Users\Gretchen\Documents\songs\RocksOfAges.MP3

Or maybe you want to share your favorite geology metaphor? Please, rock on!

 

Schist Happens: How I Fell In Love With A Bunch of Rock

It’s called Vishnu Schist. It’s estimated at 1.8-2.2 BILLION years old. It was waiting for me at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

So....black...

So….black…

It’s black–black as tar-covered ravens in a coal mine at midnight. It’s shiny. At river’s edge, it’s fluted into perforated columns I wanted to climb into.

So....shiny....

So….shiny….

This was, of course, impossible, because A) I was paddling past the schist with 6 other people, and B) since the air temperature was around 115 degrees, the schist would have branded me all over.

Still, what a way to go.

Know what else is amazing about schist, aside from its age and its looks? It’s made from metamorphosed limestone. Think about it: WHITE rock created from the bodies of once-LIVING sea creatures turns, with enough time and heat and pressure, into this:

There's even a word for that shine: "schistocity."

There’s even a word for that shine: “schistocity.”

Talk about a metaphor that rocks!

There are other rocks in Grand Canyon to love, and I will write more about them in the coming days. But right now I’m still reveling in the memories of that sleek, black, geological poetry.

Starting My Day The Thoughtful Way: A Poem To Keep The Buzz At Bay

I have more than one friend who has made the commitment to disengage from social media and screens last thing in the evening and first thing in the morning. While I admire the impulse, I found myself unwilling to make the same commitment, but feeling vaguely uneasy about my resistance. This internal conversation followed:
Me: Well, why shouldn’t I check email or Facebook before I go to bed? They connect me to people I love!
Myself: Yeah, but they also connect us to outside currents like ads and political struggles. Or they focus us way too much on the details of certain commitments, like articles we have to write or trips we’re planning. Is that really what we want to be thinking about while heading for bed, or clearing our mind from sleep?
Me: Nothing wrong with staying current, or being focused. But yeah, it’s true, I do get easily entwined in details–work and personal–at the expense of contemplation. So maybe what I need is not less social media, but more contemplative time.
Myself: Aha! And since we’re automatically drawn to the screen with that first cup of tea, why not make the screen our portal to deeper thought?
So that’s when I put Poetry Daily on my Favorites bar. Note: I did NOT subscribe, because then I’d only access it via email and distract myself again. These days email takes a back seat to poetry.
So now, I read the day’s poem. I think about it, and I think about what it makes me think about. As I used to tell my students to do, I notice what I notice. Sometimes I like the poem, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I send it to a friend, or my mom. Sometimes the poem disturbs me. Sometimes I think about their images or themes along my whole dark, hour-long ride to work.
Today’s poem, which I read on Memorial Day, made me think of the first time I visited the Vietnam War memorial in D.C.
Memorial from a Park Bench

Here’s an opened book.
Stranger you greet like a friend
with reciprocated kiss.
Here, touch is required.

Visitors descend to meet
names arranged in order.
A word loses its ability to conjure
trapped inside a black mirror.

The names could be lines
of poems or a grocery list.
They could be just lines
but even before
you’re close enough to read
you know they are names
because everyone knows
the names.

Here is name
stacked on names stacked
on panels of more.
Here are names and black stone
and your only reflection.

 

BROCK JONES

Cenotaph
The University of Arkansas Press

Each poem might not be "lovely as a tree," but they still make me feel like this.

Each poem might not be “lovely as a tree,” but they still make me feel like this.

Here’s what I noticed especially about Brock Jones’s poem: that last line. Sometimes, in a life full of busy detail, the morning’s poem is my “only reflection.” It is starting to feel as necessary to me as that first cup of Earl Grey.

Does Your Muse Have ADD?

What’s your M.O. when your creative brain refuses to buckle down and do its thing?

Here’s me the other day, arguing with my Muse:

Me: OK, so, Vivian [new character in Book 3] originally was going to ___________, but now I need her to ____________ instead.  [sorry–no spoilers!]

Muse: la, la, la, I can’t hear youuuu….

Me: Help me out here! If Vivian _______ then Jocelyn would have to ___________, and that’s totally out of character.  What should I do?

Muse: Well, I dunno, maybe you could–ooh, shiny! Squirrel! All other indicators that my attention is elsewhere!

Don’t know what you do in this scenario. Me? I took my Muse for a walk in the wind. It took an hour and a half, but when we got back, I had my plot unsnarled, and hey! I got some exercise too.

This has happened to me enough that I even wrote a song about it. Don’t have a recording good enough to share, but all you need are the lyrics:

Muse

My Muse detests the interstate—in fact she hates to drive

But set my bike on a country road and then she might arrive.

My Muse is happiest outdoors; she’s never at the mall

And in a doctor’s waiting room I can’t find her at all.

 

But walk along a windy shore and soon she’s joining me

To whisper, prompt, or point me toward what she needs m to see.

She doesn’t love computer keys, but visits when I think

With notebook full of paper and a pen with real ink.

 

Her favorite drink is Earl Grey—it makes her twirl and leap,

But though wine may make me cheerful, it puts her right to sleep.

She’ll drop in when I exercise; she loves to see me sweat—

Not in a gym all safe and warm, but out in the wind and wet.

 

A nest of pillows on the couch she doesn’t seem to min

But never if there’s company of the distracting kind

Unless it be a small café with loud, generic din

Then she’ll consent to visit me to lay her treasures in.

 

But if I’m stuck inside a car, she’ll trail sadly along

And toss me wisps of poetry to turn into a song.

And though the life I call her to is busy, loud and crude,

She’s granted me these humble lines to show my gratitude.

DSC03360

 

Yeah. So that’s me. What do you do to get your Muse to settle down? Go for a walk, then let me know.

Secret To a Happy Life: Choose Your Parents Wisely

Wish I could take credit for that idea. Wish I could take credit for my own blessed life. But I know better. There’s Providence, luck, fate–and then there are good role models and good genes. My mom gave me both.

Today (June 3) is her 80th birthday. 60 years ago this month she married my dad. I’m blessed to have both parents very vigorously in my life. But today is Mom’s day.

My mom is psyched to turn 80: a new age group for her to dominate in track! Here she is, just a few days ago, getting ready for the 80-and-up mile:

What I want to be when I grow up

What I want to be when I grow up

When she first married my dad back in 1955, Martha Smith was no athlete. The family joke is, she was probably in the worst shape of her life at age 20, and she looked terrific. Raising three kids, starting a farm and co-founding a school toughened her up, but then a new path opened. Some time in the late 1960s, my dad discovered distance running and immersed the whole family in it. And Martha Smith Klopfer discovered a hidden talent.

She was FAST. And tough. And competitive. At age 45, she held the national age group 10k record. But she also excelled at the marathon, with a personal best of 3:07. And she did all this with no team to support her, no coach but her husband, and a full-time job of raising teenagers, running a farm, and helping to guide the school she had helped to found.

Lest you imagine from her athletic creds that my mom’s a driven, Type-A personality–nothing could be further from the truth. More like “Type B…or, no, maybe C…but then again, B is nice, I could see B…” Time has always been a fluid substance for her. When I was in high school, the words, “I’m just going out to the barn for a few minutes,” spoken in late afternoon, became code for, “So someone else might want to think about fixing dinner if you want to eat before eight.”

With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that my mom’s also a poet. A very good poet. Here’s one of my favorites, written about something that happened between her own mother and the Guatemalan gardener she practically adopted:

 

Little Bird

 

I think I washed the windows too clean.

The little bird saw straight

through the living room and right out

the other side to the sky.

He flew fast, like a pelota, hit the glass,

fell to the ground and was still.

A drop of blood came out near his long beak.

I picked him up. Pobrecito.

He weighed nothing and did not move.

I wish that I had left the window dirty.

 

But I want to do good work for Mrs. Smith.

She is kind to me, tells me to sweep the patio

or trim bushes, even when they don’t need it.

I don’t want her to see this dead bird.

It would make her sad.

Quickly, I get the garden trowel,

dig a small hole under the Pyracantha,

cover the bird with earth and leaves.

I wipe the window clean again.

 

Once my mother came to visit.

Mrs. Smith helped pay for the flight.

She practiced Spanish with my old sick mother,

both of them laughing.

Later, I could not go to Guatemala

to help bury my mother.

My father and brothers had been killed.

The same people also wanted

me in a shallow grave.

 

Mrs. Smith comes out of the house.

“Good job, Manuelito,” she says.

I say, thank you Mom.

She thinks I call her “Ma’am,”

but she is my California mom.

She has made tamale pie for lunch.

She says she likes to cook for me,

though she doesn’t cook much

since Mr. Smith died.

 

We sit down to eat at the patio table.

Something moves under the Pyracantha.

I jump to my feet.

“Look! It’s still alive!”

I tell her how the little bird hit the window,

how I thought it was dead and buried it.

I dig it up and brush it off and lay it in her hand.

 

The little bird blinks and ruffles its feathers.

Mrs. Smith says,

“He was only stunned.

I’ll keep him safe until he can fly again.”

I love that poem. But poetry’s not Mom’s only art. She’s also a weaver. Wish I had a picture of one of her weavings to share, but you’ll have to imagine the gentle interplay of color and shape inspired by natural scenes.

Then there’s Carolina Friends School, about which I’ve written before. Click here to read about how she helped to found North Carolina’s first integrated school.

All in all, my mom has given me a good dozen reasons to look at her as a role model; I’ve only mentioned the most obvious here. But chief among those is Mom As Athlete. I mean, look at those legs! Here she is, biking down a mountainside in Greece at the tender age of 78:

Wheee!

Wheee!

So, to sum up: Character: check. Talent: check. Athleticism: check. Oh, and terrific genes, ’cause did I mention HER mom lived to one hundred and three?

So, yeah. Can I pick a parent or what? Pretty proud of myself for that.

Now’s your chance to brag on your own mom or dad or Significant Elder in your life. I love when you share.

 

Poems as Gifts: The Idea Itself Is a Gift

This past weekend I had a birthday and a concert. My best present: my mom, who flew 3,500 miles, rode a shuttle bus for two hours and a ferry for 45 minutes to attend. But I received another gift, from my writer friend Iris Graville. Actually, Iris gave me two.

Gift #1, this poem. It was written by our local poet John Sangster, who died with tragic suddenness last winter. John was a musician and a writer, like me, and when I first heard “Once More,” I connected instantly. So having it sent to me on the eve of my show AND my book launch felt especially meaningful.

Once More

 

Say you write.

You awake, eager

to return to pen and paper.

Those words that came to you 

last night. A poem?

You read aloud, your ear keen

for each line’s pulse,

for the sound words make

as they bump against each other.

 

Say you play.

You reach for your instrument,

old lover, familiar in your arms.

You tune, fret that first note,

round and golden,

then set to work, metronome slow.

You study your hand,

how the wrist rolls as the pick

pushes through the string.

Later:  melody, pulse –

how do you hear it, 

feel it?

 

What do you want?

Once more, that path to a part of you

you do not know. When what appears

on the pen’s trail surprises you,

when music arrives beyond thought,

when the instrument plays you.

 

Yeah.

"Say you play..."

“Say you play…”

Gift #2 is the idea, which I hope I can internalize, of giving poems as gifts. I have other friends who do that. When my dog died, my friend Lorna sent me a poem, and I was grateful. Now, I’m becoming determined: I’m going to start saving up poems to give as presents when the moment is right. Why wouldn’t I? Look how good it’s made me feel.

Anyone else out there already doing that? Anyone wish to share an especially moving poem you like to give to people, or one you have received?