Category Archives: Poetry

Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Time On Our Side?

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Synchronicity, as Jung described it, is a meaningful coincidence, an “acausal connecting principal.” Things happen back to back that seem to be meaningfully related; even though the first thing could not be said to have caused the second thing, we still feel the buzz or the chill of revelation, usually in a thrilling and positive way. We’ve all experienced these, but some of us experience them more often than others, some of us perhaps experience them all the time. I tend, when I am feeling inspired or especially creative, on the cusp of the next big idea for writing or teaching, or in the company of inspiring friends, to experience synchronicity in pretty heavy doses. Like now.

Last week, wrapping up my study with 9th graders of e. e. cummings, I shared with them a poem I wrote a couple of years ago about time, or rather, how we live within it, and whether or not, as cummings is constantly asking, we are being or unbeing in our experience of time. Today, at my bi-weekly meditation group meeting, time was the subject and the theme, our relationship to our past and future selves and the way in which we might have dialogue with those selves on our way to a spiritual goal. Then I got in the car to drive home, turned on NPR, and began listening to the TED Radio Hour, and guess what the topic was at noon? Time. I’ve been writing a blog series titled “Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year.” There have been two penultimate years now in a row, hence the “Redux” in the current title. Both the words “penultimate” and “redux” are inextricably time-tied words. I don’t know how many more years will be penultimate ones, but it strikes me now more than ever that I am increasingly aware of keeping track, counting up, remembering, thinking about, appreciating, and playing with TIME. I don’t know that I have anything wise to say about it. Let’s find out.

The current wisdom, one that I aspire to and espouse, is that one should try to live in the moment, to be fully present, but one of the Ted Talk Time Theorists was saying that this is a mistake, that only the past and future are real, that the present is illusory, that each moment is behind us in the instant we give thought to it. Maybe that is true, but I still think there are huge qualitative differences in the way of being present in the present–as everyone knows who has ever tried to have a meaningful exchange with someone who is looking at a smart phone, or has ever failed at a task in the moment because of anxiety about something in the future or in the past. I meditate, in large part, to mediate distraction, to ground myself in the moment, to have 15 or 20 minutes a day when my only concern is the breath going in and the breath going out. And while I say that, I know how sometimes excruciatingly bad I am at this–even in silent meditation, my mind is alway teetering between the past and the present, remembering and planning, remembering and planning. So, here are a few more takeaways about time that I gleaned from today’s meditation and today’s TED Radio Hour:

  • People tend to think of themselves as having “arrived” in the current moment–to see themselves in the present as the best yet version of themselves.
  • We feel gratitude toward our past selves, even if he or she was an asshole.
  • Our future self is very encouraging to us, mostly telling us to keep doing what we’re doing, that everything’s going to work out for the best.
  • There’s something really weird, special, and ubiquitous about 4 in the morning.
  • Our memory of our past is not very good–we should make some kind of record of it.
  • Time can make us simultaneously happy and sad: Exhibit A–finding yourself in tears when you look at a picture of your kid from four years ago. Exhibit B: being so happy in the presence of a beloved friend that you want to cry and often do.
  • Time is experienced differently by young people than it is by older people, creating the illusion that it passes more slowly for children and more quickly for adults. That’s because the older you are the more understanding you have of your own mortality.
  • We don’t know if time existed before the Big Bang. The universe is expanding at an ever increasing rate. The universe is a big place and it’s not the only one. We are hurling through space.
  • Time will tell.
  • Time after time.
  • It takes time. These things.
  • Time is probably not on my side.
  • And a joke I saw on Facebook today: What did Dickens have in his spice rack? The best of thyme, the worst of thyme.

In the not so distant future, I will write a poem every day in the month of April for the 7th year in a row. In this way, I will make a record of the time. I’ll close with a blast from the past, my 264th blog poem, the poem I shared with my students last week inspired by e. e. cummings and a prompt from the napowrimo website to compose a thing called a “bop.”  

#264: to be anywhereish

(a bop inspired by e.e. cummings)

to be anywhereish and everywhereish
all at once is to be at the mercy of somewhereishness,
and that’s a huge, unmindfulish problem.
someplace else is really no place and you
wander about sheepfully looking for anywhere
but where you are in the nano of the moment.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

you may have holdings in the future tense.
you may have findings in the yesteryearly nest.
but the problem is still that there is no now here
and there is not even there anymore, besides.
don’t look at me like that, you goat, not when,
not where. you sit there in your forward engine
and you, clueless, mathless, autocorrect yourself
until the starstuff between your ears spills outwardly.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

i think there’s an unsolution. Look deeplyish
at the center of anything and do what no one ever
tells you to do: that’s right, don’t eat that peach.
a friend of mine around sunday kept naming
a tangerine a nectarine. so in the now he forgot
everything, even names. Somewhere in there: that’s it.

time is not on your side; no it ain’t.

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#318: Ode to Boredom and Non-Snow

Non-Snow

It’s 5:30 in the evening,
my son is playing video games
and my wife is napping
and I’ve poured myself a brandy
after hemming and hawing almost
all day long about what to do with myself.
I did four productive things:
I picked up a ball of cotton stuffing
from an eviscerated dog toy;
earlier, I drove cans and bottles
to the recycling center;
back home, I listened to bonus
recordings in my Kate Bush box set;
and a little while ago I swept
up a pile of dirt and dog hair,
sucked it up with the vacuum.
I’ve felt happy most of the day
despite the weather. We were
supposed to have had the winter
storm to end all winter storms,
people in grocery stores yesterday
behaving as if the world was about
to end, but today, while 30 minutes this way
or 30 minutes that way as the mallard
flies, in slightly higher elevations,
people saw 2 to 6 inches of powder
on their lawns and the roads
were made dangerous, in my
neighborhood we got next to
nothing. A flurry. A dusting.
In an hour it was gone.
I was bored. I thought about
driving to a local wine bar to
drink a beer where a former
student of mine has been
making soup and posting pictures
of his soup. I even went so far
as to put my keys in my pocket
and my notebook in the car.
I’ll write a poem by hand at
the wine bar, I thought to myself,
but it was cold and the dog
needed to go outside and my hair
was a mess and I’m unshaven and
it was getting dark so I decided against it.
I told a student of mine on
Friday who was complaining
of being bored that it’s good
to be bored, healthy to be bored.
It’s an opportunity for creativity,
I told him. He did not believe me.
So here I am proving him wrong:
instead of traveling to a wine bar
to occupy and inspire myself,
I am staying home with a brandy
and I am writing a poem about
boredom and the snow that refuses to fall.

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#317: On Not Being Able to Remember a Student’s Name

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She sat right in front of me, in the first row, as it were, and I called her by name, the wrong name. She looked at me. She said, “Who?” And I thought, and maybe I said out loud, “Oh my god.” And even while I knew it was the wrong name, for the life of me, I could not remember the correct one. She took it in stride, even laughed about it, which, of course, set me a little bit at ease. Other students in the room, though, a couple of dudes, thought they’d have a little fun with their teacher by pressing him for the right name. “What’s her name, Jarmer?” To be sure, an asshole move. But still, her name would not come. One of my boys, when the girl stepped out to use the restroom or for some other business, kindly whispered the name to me. There it was. The name I knew but for some reason in those moments could not recall. One worries about the mind. And one makes up explanations for the lapse. She does not look like, exactly, but shares some of the characteristics of the girl in my other class whose name I called her. Yeah, that’s it. Or I was tired this morning (true). Or I was flustered that so few students were prepared with the reading done (true). Or I was further stymied by the boys who decided in that moment to be cruel to their teacher, and maybe to a degree, to the girl whose name I had forgotten (true). No matter. Whether the mind is faltering or not, whether it was just one of those things or not, and while no real harm was done, it still is, and I confessed this to all of them, one of a teacher’s worst nightmares to forget the name of a student three months into the semester.

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Diary of an English Teacher in His Penultimate Year, Redux: Michael Reads Rumi

Here we go. Another shot at the video blog. This little thing has little to offer in the way of “diary” and nothing to do with an English teacher’s penultimate year, but I found this Rumi poem that I just had to read. Took a few takes at this, the first time through, wrestling with glasses and a book I ended up making some terrible microphone noises that I just could not live with, even though that first take was probably better than what I ended up with. Flying by the seat of my pants does indeed seem to be the way to get the best performance. I’m kind of that way in the music studio as well: the more times I play it, the worse it gets. This turned out nicely, I think, but it’s in two chunks because I made a mistake reading the poem but liked the intro thing and didn’t want to do the whole deal again. Enjoy. Rumi, by way of Coleman Barks.

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#316: Chakras and Chi Balls (the Last Poem of April)

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Some people
associate a rainbow of colors with
various parts of their bodies and
they ascribe certain powers
or characteristics of their psycho-emotional
life to these various colors or energies;
Some people think you can concentrate
on a color, say, orange, and a body place,
say, your privates, and that somehow
your relationships will be more intimate,
the sex will be better, and you will
experience a kind of emotional centeredness.
And some people play with imaginary balls,
balls that contain something called Chi,
and that Chi Energy allows one to touch,
warm, or heal someone else
without laying a finger on them
or to feel their energy coming right back.
I held my imaginary Chi ball
and a couple of people moved their
hands around it and I felt pretty silly.
I just wanted to be quiet.
Or I wanted to look at a real thing,
say, my specific thinking about an
issue in my life and in the world,
or I wanted to read a poem
about dirt, or birds, you know,
something like what Mary Oliver would write,
and then just be quiet around that,
and maybe talk a little bit about it
with people who were interested in things.
And I don’t mind checking out someone
else’s energy, but I think I’d do that better
without the use of imaginary balls,
with my eyes open, looking at them,
hearing them talk, listening to their stories,
asking them good questions.
I’m not trying to debunk or
otherwise poke at anyone else’s Chi Balls
or Chakra energies, and I know it’s
wrong of me to call these things
imaginary; I just think I’m in a
different wagon, one that’s lower
to the ground, one that steers
toward the concrete, materialistic
world of stuff and things and the
myriad processes of the heart,
the brain, and all those other organs.
All my invisibles are manifested there.
Sure, it doesn’t hurt to color them up
like a rainbow, and I can imagine the
middle of my forehead as glowing
a deep purple color if I want,
but no matter how many times
I catch myself in the mirror, my
forehead is still going to be the color
of my forehead, and that eye,
the third one, has likely divided
and moved to either side of my head
where it has become ears that listen,
or it has submerged deep inside my head
where I think my thoughts and live my life.

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#315: On the Penultimate Day of April, the English Teacher in his Penultimate Year Writes a Long Rambling Poem Inspired by Sylvia Plath’s Burst of Productivity in the Months Before She Died

I’m not going anywhere,
but (having lost now both mom and dad)
I notice thoughts about mortality
enter the noggin with more frequency
these days. I’m reading, or rather,
listening to Life Reimagined, where
Barbara Bradley Hagerty argues
essentially that there is really no such
thing as a mid-life crisis for most
mid-lifers. Much of that belief is
myth, she says, and she’s beginning
to share a number of conclusions
she’s come to about how to maximize
the middle. And this, from Sylvia
Plath’s “Crossing the Water.”

Black lake, black boat, two black, cut-paper people.
Where do the black trees go that drink here?
Their shadows must cover Canada.

Rosencrantz comes to mind,
who asks, do you think death could
be like a boat? Guildenstern’s reply is
that death is the ultimate negative, that
one could not NOT be on a boat.

Rosencrantz: I’ve often not been on boats.
Guildenstern: No, what you’ve been is not on boats.

While I find these lines hilarious,
don’t ask me to explain what they mean.
I’m on deck, though, with Guildenstern.
Which brings me back to Hagerty’s
meditation on middle age, and back
to Plath, who wrote 67 poems in the last
ten months of her life, some of her best
work, I understand, though I’m no expert.
I love what I’ve read of hers, though,
and I’m sad when I think about her early
death. But she was a force, and I find
this burst of productivity at the end of
her life more inspiring than anything
else, having no reason to expect an
early demise, feeling healthy (give or
take 10 pounds and the discipline
to drink less and exercise more),
and having written 29 poems in
29 days, 315 poems over five years,
in short, I feel hopeful about my middle
and sometimes, manically inspired,
like there’s a bug or a boat or a voice
whose insistent refrain is create, create.
Make poems, make music, tell stories,
read books, walk in the woods, camp
under stars, and stop worrying about
those papers sitting on my desk right
now that need grading. Whether or not
this is in actual fact my penultimate year,
I nevertheless resist working harder
at the finish and instead continuing to
work smarter and better, to ignore the nag,
that other bug, boat, voice, cut-paper
people, those black trees casting a
shadow over all of Canada. I’d like
to go back to Canada. Live there, even.
But that, is truly, a digression.
And I don’t know how to close.
Let’s just optimistically choose
a new color and end with what
Peter Sears called poetry by corruption:

Blue lake, blue boat, three blue, true-blue people.
Why do the blue trees stop to drink here?
Their shadows, blue, sprouting their thick,
green, springtime oak leaves, shout O Canada,
because at the top, Victoria seems only like
a block or two away.

Postscript: Super cool Sylvia Plath website– https://plathpoetryproject.com

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#314: To Whom It May Concern

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To Whom It May Concern
Wherever You Are
City, State, Zip Code

Hello to Whom,

I think this may concern you. I’ve been thinking about you, lately more than usual, I guess, ever since the weather turned. There’s been a disturbance. It’s been too long. That thing people say on postcards: I wish you were here. It’s a true statement. The trees are beautiful and the water is fine. The food is super edible and you should see the horses, all the pretty horses. Goats too. And too many boats to count. Too many boats and goats. Mares eat oats and goats eat oats and little lambs. I’ve always felt sad about that. Hope you are well and that someday you return to us in your customary way–because we like your customary way. Please write. Send words. xoxoxo

Michael

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