The suggestion from Napowrimo today is to write a sijo, a traditional Korean form. It’s like a haiku, only wider. It’s a wide-load haiku. Lines can be as long as about 16 syllables. And it has a kind of magical relationship with the sonnet, I’m told, in that it’s kind of a discussion with twist at the end. I don’t know why I chose this photo to accompany the poem. I felt like the tone was correct even though the subject matter is unrelated. There are some cool images on the new “free image” library in WordPress. News to me. Enjoy!
Poem for April 20
Three quarters of the way through, eight months of staring at a screen.
It feels like I have been talking to myself all year long.
My students, like ghosts; I see their shadows and sometimes hear their voices.
This morning I got up to find a comment posted to one of my blog entries! How exciting is that? I will tell you. It’s pretty exciting. It’s rare, these days–it’s rare in general, but it seems more rare these days–in part, I know, because I have not been writing. Guess what the blog entry was about–the one that received a comment? “Stop the Block by Writing About the Block: A Resolution.” It was published on the blog site a year ago, right after Christmas, 2019. Curious about what I had to say about writer’s block a year ago, because, as I stand here with my coffee after sorting the laundry on this bleak, wet, Saturday morning, I am fully aware that I have hardly written a word since September, I re-read my blog entry. In the first paragraph, I confess, “Inexplicably (or not), I have hardly written a word since September.” Hmm. I sense a pattern. I wonder if I went back another year I would find a similar confession. I think it’s true, generally speaking, that the time between September and January seems to be a creatively dark time for yours truly, inexplicably (or not). Mostly I think it’s explicable. Let me explicate.
I blame the beginning of the new academic school year. Getting the ball rolling in a public high school and in my own realm as a classroom English teacher, is always a monumental undertaking. Even though, most often, everything is already in place in terms of planning and curriculum, there is just something pretty exhausting about the first few months of a new school year. But this year–oh my–this year was an entirely new jarful of bees. Is that a thing? I was going for a colloquial metaphor there, and I think I may have missed the mark. Bucket of rats? Nest of wasps? Barrel of monkeys? No, none of those are good. Let me just say that it was terrible. This fall we had the monumental undertaking of reimagining everything we do for the virtual-world classroom, for distance learning. That means that every single lesson had to be re-written, re-formatted, transformed into some interactive slide-show. Curriculum had to be condensed. Time had new meaning. The school day itself, reinvented. Suddenly, we relied on help from our colleagues more than ever before and we were feeling blessed and lucky if we had a strong team. The boundary between work and home became completely blurry. I found myself grading or planning until 7 or 8 o’clock at night and receiving text notifications that Johnny had finally turned in his essay at 1 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.
Needless to say, it was difficult, if not impossible, to write a poem, a story, or work on my memoir, or record a song, or read a book for pleasure. This is how I explain the lack of creative productivity from Autumn to Winter, especially this year. And while this transition or transformation from the school house to the virtual google classroom was, in itself and by necessity, a creative act–it did not satisfy the soul in the same way as writing what you think might be a pretty good poem.
So, how do we get started again in this new year, a year that promises to be a continuation of the pandemic nightmare of the last nine months–with the optimism added to the mix of a couple of vaccines and a new administration? If I look again at last year’s resolution blog entry, I find that I had set myself a number of goals and even went so far as to design a kind of checklist to track my progress–inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s virtue checklist from his autobiography. And just like Franklin admits about his project, mine, while it yielded early results, ultimately failed–but not in its entirety. Write a thing a week? I think I was able to do that, or close to it, at least until September. Read for pleasure more often? Not nearly as much as I would have liked. I did not, for example, read a book a month. Write an album’s worth of songs? Nope. However–music was made this year in small increments and in some new collaborations. Close, but no cigar. Make arrangements to speak to people who will help me? No, I did not do that. This one rankles, perhaps, more than the others. Why is it that the things we know are necessary are sometimes the hardest things to do? I’m no psychologist. Meditate more often? Well, no. In fact, while I didn’t give it up and maintained a loose practice of meditation, I jettisoned altogether the tracking of stats on my Insight Timer. Spent some time, instead, with Sam Harris on his Wake Up app–which yielded some good results, but still, was insufficient on its own. I’ve never quite gotten used to the idea that someone should be talking at me while I’m trying to meditate, even if it’s Sam Harris. And lumped into the goals about seeking the help of others and a stronger meditation practice was some totally sincere and earnest stuff about better general health. This didn’t work out too well, either. I don’t think I’m alone when I admit that I do not think the isolation during the COVID 19 pandemic has done a single bit of good for my health–except for the fact that I have not contracted COVID-19.
If I were to set goals for myself again for 2021, they would look almost identical to these. But we all know instinctively or intuitively, and the research bears this out, that resolutions often fail. I know I’ve written about this before. We also know, though, and teach our younglings, that goal setting is somewhat paramount to self-improvement, yes? So what’s the mystery? What’s the key? I think it is possible, and advisable, to go ahead and make the goals. Yeah, write them down. Revisit them often to remind yourself about what it is that you want. But ultimately, you must be kind to yourself, you must be forgiving, you cannot beat yourself up, wring your hands, gnash your teeth. And you have to accept the fact that certain things may happen that are completely out of your control, things that may wreak havoc on your best laid plans: a pandemic comes to mind. 330,000 American casualties. The death of a mother-in-law. The dire cancer diagnosis of a brother-in-law. Another dire cancer diagnosis for a friend. Wildfires. A democratic society on the brink of dictatorship. An election year fraught with danger and divisiveness unlike anything most of us have ever seen, an election that feels to everyone of all political stripes to be of monumental, earth-shattering, history-making, dire consequence. The continued violence against black and brown Americans in the streets of our country and a justice system that repeatedly fails to do the right thing. We’ve had a lot this year to take us away from our goals, to make us feel pretty sheepish, frankly, about self-improvement, especially when and if we have been lucky and/or privileged, as I know I have been.
Meanwhile, it helps to find things and people that inspire you and move yourself in those directions. Even during the pandemic, when attendance at a yearly writers conference was impossible, we found a way to conduct a mini-conference through zoom. I participated in a manuscript exchange with some friends from the Warren Wilson MFA program, and this weekend, on the first and second day of the new year, we have organized a virtual reading for poets and fiction writers from that same program. We are finding ways to connect to the tribe. And these things, just over the last couple of days, plus this lovely comment that I found this morning on last year’s blog entry, have put a charge in my creative reservoir. Lo and behold. I have written almost 1500 words.
So, finally, happy new year to you, readers, friends, family. Let’s hope 2021 is less of a shit show. I’m guardedly optimistic about that, but the bar is pretty low, isn’t it? Nevertheless, we have lots to be hopeful about. I wish you the best of luck with your goals for the new year. May you tap into your own creative impulses, whatever they may be, in order to experience a rich, productive, life-giving new year. Cheers!
Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.
So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.
The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.
Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.
As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.
I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.
And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.
I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.
It’s been almost two full months since my last entry in A Journal of the Plague Year, although, as part of National Poetry Writing Month I wrote 30 poems, many of which were, by their nature and subject matter, a continuation of the journal in another form. During the month of May I took a little bit of a hiatus, posting to the blog just a couple of times, both times, not about living through a pandemic, but about music, one of the key components of my survival during this, and other, difficult times in life. My last post was on May 11th, and on May 25th George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis. Since then, words are difficult things to manage, and rather than writing, I have been reading and listening to the words of others, the words of people who are far better prepared or who can articulate the tragedy of our time more effectively than I ever could.
But today there is much to say, and I resume A Journal of the Plague Year in prose. There are things I would like to share, like the fact that I got a haircut this week, or that I’ve had a meal in a restaurant for the first time in almost three months, or that I’ve mowed the lawn a bunch of times now with my new Electric Mower, but all of this feels absolutely stupid and inconsequential. I mean, even if I had the most adorable puppy or kitten video ever known to humankind, I’d feel stupid about posting it now.
Even my recent facebook series of posting my most influential records from the turn of the 21st century onward, seems insignificant, superfluous, slight, insensitive. Except that: I am discovering that the music of the 21st century that has been most influential to me was often made by artists of color and by women. And that seems significant. As a child, and in my formative years, I listened to and enjoyed black music I heard on the radio, had tremendous respect for the black musicians who backed up Zappa’s band, and as a teenager and in my 20’s there were a handful of women who completely rocked my world, but it probably wasn’t until the 90’s, when I heard Fishbone and Rage Against the Machine for the first time and was exposed to the fierceness of Tori Amos, P.J. Harvey, and Liz Phair, that my record collection and musical proclivities began to diversify. My list of influential 21st century artists includes Brittany Howard, Janelle Monae, Anderson Paak, Childish Gambino, Mitski Miyawaki, Thao Nguyen, Neko Case, and Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent. All of these artists are making music, I think, that I find challenging, beautiful, content-rich, music that expands the head and the heart, music that has taught me, I think, a lot about the world from perspectives that are radically different from my own. I am listening.
Watching the news of the protests, this incredible convulsion in our country, my emotions have been all over the map. I am outraged. I am disgusted. I am worried. I am terrified. I am inspired. I am hopeful. Yesterday, I was reading about the action in Washington D.C., that on the 9th day of protests, the largest crowd had assembled and the police had essentially disappeared. Something is shifting and I felt a tremendous surge of hope and tears welled up in my eyes. I believe this nation is at a crossroads and a turning point. Politically speaking, it has been the most devastating three and a half years of my life time, and it culminates with this pandemic, 100,000 American deaths and counting, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, the catalysts perhaps for what looks like might be a long overdue reckoning in this country with systemic racism and the overt oppression of people of color. We cannot go back. There is only forward. I am learning how to be an anti-racist. I am trying to find the best way to be an ally. It is perhaps, one more good reason not to retire from teaching.
In other Plague Year News: we are moving into the last week of the school year, and the 8th or 9th week of distance teaching and learning. It has been the most paradoxical of times. My seniors gone, having been cut loose almost immediately after the closure on March 13, and the gift of having an exceptionally capable and caring student teacher taking over my sophomores, I have had some time on my hands, the understatement of the year. I have counseled my intern to the best of my ability, I have participated in staff meetings and department meetings and professional learning communities, I have recorded a whole slew of poetry for the pandemic, I have immersed myself again in Neruda, I have helped advise the roll-out of a district on-line literary magazine, I have read some, and I have written a lot: 18 Journals of the Plague Year, 30 poems, a couple of music blogs, and I’ve been working somewhat in earnest on the draft of a new book, a memoir in micro chapters about religion and the lack thereof. I realize that I have been exceedingly lucky in all of this. Dickens said it best in the first sentence of A Tale of Two Cities. I don’t even have to quote it.
I wish you all health and safety. As has been customary at the conclusion of each journal in this series, I would like to leave you with a poem, one that seems appropriate for the moment, as much so now as when it was published in 1921. “America,” by Claude McKay.
My sophomores, under the gentle tutelage of a wonderfully gifted student teacher, are distance learning about imagery, beyond the sort of rudimentary understanding that imagery is language that appeals to the senses, into a deeper knowledge that imagery plays on both the intellect and the emotions, that it is associative, that it often works best in juxtaposition to other images. So she’s having them write haiku. In my earlier experiences as a poet, a had a tendency to poo-poo the haiku, but in recent years I’ve come to a new appreciation, in part, because of a late, very late understanding of what we’re introducing to these 15 and 16 years olds now. So, ignoring the Napowrimo prompt for today, and ignoring, as Robert Hass gives us permission to do, the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, I give you: haiku.
Hummingbird makes a nest
in the tree above my hammock.
Ignores the feeder.
Hummingbird makes a
loud clicking sound;
wakes me from napping.
Birds chirp, warble, coo
in the back yard.
The Hummer has no song
but buzz and click.
At my brother’s house,
a red-headed hummingbird
accompanies our reunion.
nothing nor cares about
our troubles with Covid-19.
I saw this mother bird
fight off a finch;
the nest, safekeeping.
at the end
of the second
week in history
and I’m not
going to write
a poem about
a piece of fruit.
In my resistance
to writing about
fruit, in addition
to a number
today, I almost
neglected to write
a poem at all.
today was to make
music, and I
fumbled my way
through that and
had some fun and
almost wrote a song.
That felt good.
a song today
felt better than
a class, which I
was a great distance
and this, almost
writing a poem
about not wanting
to write a poem
that feels pretty
Our principal postponed
the official and virtual staff meeting
until Thursday, expecting new
information about distance
learning to come in after our
regularly scheduled Tuesday
morning Hangout. He held the
Tuesday meeting open, though,
made it voluntary, invited us
to attend for mostly social reasons.
I’m guessing about 30 of us
showed up at that virtual meeting.
We talked about grocery shopping,
the best place, the best time,
gardening, home projects, children,
dogs, better lighting for video posts,
how to view everyone in a grid,
Jack’s mustache, my disco hoodie,
and the virtual cornhole competition.
My friend Drew said the other day,
or maybe he posted it, that he
held a little bit at arm’s length
the sentimentality with which we
sometimes view our teaching
community–until now. 30 of
us sat together this morning,
looking at tiny little moving pictures
of each other scattered across
a slightly less tiny computer screen,
and we talked about nothing,
we talked about everything,
and sometimes, we all sat there
for a moment or two in silence,
which is fine by me, just looking
at one another, smiling, laughing,
almost as if we were in the same
room at the same time.
This poem would like to avoid
a sloppy ending; I feel it, under
my fingers as I type this, resisting
that sentimental slide. But there’s really no
other way to say that I love the
people I work with, and while I’d
much rather see them up close,
this odd, awkward, cold way
of being with them is way better
than nothing, and I am grateful
for every minute of it.