My friend the media specialist (we used to call them librarians) gifted me this morning a prompt for a poem.
My friend the media specialist says the word “precarity” might make a good subject. “Precarity,” I say. “Is that like the feeling or state of precariousness?”
My friend the media specialist says, “Yes, precarious, uncertain, tentative, vulnerable, transitory, dependent on chance.”
My friend the media specialist and I talk for awhile about the way precarity, especially now, seems ever present. Hasn’t it always been this way? Maybe, but it feels to be more so now.
My friend the media specialist and I are both living through moments of great shifting, personally, and our community, the country, too, and even the world seem to be on the verge of a precarity of seismic proportions.
“And yet,” my friend the media specialist says, “here we are, doing our thing, living our lives, moving forward, holding on or holding steady, somehow hopeful, perhaps, that our own precarious states may not end disastrously. Isn’t that something?”
My friend the media specialist goes back to her work and I go back to mine, but then, on this day, not an hour later, my work day takes a precarious turn in a classroom activity that goes awry. Everything hinged for a moment on one very tense and difficult exchange; the whole thing broke down around me.
My friend the media specialist has no idea how prescient was her visit, no idea how absolutely essential was her gift of the prompt for a poem. And yet, again, here we are, holding on and holding steady, in precarity.
Three different spoons came out of the silverware drawer this morning before I remembered that I had forgotten I already had a spoon. Yesterday in front of a group of students I could not think of the word “phonetic”– What’s that word, I asked, the word we use when we talk about spelling a word the way it sounds? I came up with “phonically” and a 16 year old boy corrected me.
What, me worry?
I have always been somewhat absent-minded– the wallet, the keys, the shoes go missing and it’s rarely the dog’s fault. I’ve lost my glasses while I was wearing them. But words–no. I can’t be forgetting words or reversing words. To lose words is to lose everything. So, because the alternative is terrifying, I chalk it up to an extension of my natural absent-mindedness, a brain that is full too often with too many simultaneous things, like all those hundreds of things I find teaching about crazy.
Dear readers, fellow bloggers and poets, friends, Romans, countrymen,
Lend me your ears and eyes, if you would. Every year there is a dry spell, a fallow period for yours truly in which almost nothing gets written. The last time I posted, it was December, 2021. This year that fallow period was way longer than I would like, three full months–but just as I might be able to predict a period of non-productivity every year, usually during those winter months, I can also bet that spell will be broken by the advent of National Poetry Writing Month, where I have vowed now for almost a decade running, almost religiously, to write a poem every day for the month of April.
I apologize for my absence to anyone out there who misses my presence. Mostly, I think, it’s a self-apology. I’m really, I think, the only one holding his breath to see when this Michael Jarmer guy will post a blog or a poem or a podcast. To self and others who care: I vow to be more present and productive, and I am pretty certain this is a vow that I will be able to keep–for reasons I hope to go into in the not-so-distant future.
Meanwhile, I have written three new poems and have posted them here for days one and two, respectively, of National Poetry Writing Month. Today’s poem was inspired by the always helpful, always edifying, always playful NaPoWriMo website, which I highly recommend. Every day there’s a prompt there–and I find myself visiting it every day of the month to see if the prompt excites something creative in me. Maybe, about half the time, I find that it does. Otherwise, I rely on my own interests and obsessions and find some way, by hook or by crook, to squeeze out a poem. On the first day of National Poetry Month, I used my classroom practice to generate poetry, as I was leading students through an introductory lesson on a poetry unit by having them write erasure poems, or “blackout poems,” a kind of found poem in which a text is redacted to reveal a new thing. It was super fun to “write” along with them. And it was super fun and naughty to direct students to write inside books and cut pages out with scissors. As I’ve got two more periods of sophomores with which to write erasure poems on Monday, day four of NaPoWriMo might find two more of these.
If you’re reading this, thank you! I hope you enjoy this journey with me, and I hope you’re doing your own writing along the way. And for podcast listeners: hang in there with me. I will return to that venue as well, and soon!
Here are some details about a typical Saturday over the last month or so: I’ll have a leisurely morning, drink coffee, eat a light breakfast, walk the dogs, make plans for the yard, eat a heavier lunch, drop off cans at the bottle drop, buy records at the curbside of Music Millennium, dog bones at the pet store, beer at the liquor store, liquor at the beer store (yes, I started drinking again), briquettes for the Egg at the pool store, listen to my boy gush about his drum lesson while he shows me some new rudimental licks on the practice pad, listen to several records start to finish all in a row while drinking beer: Japanese Breakfast, Crowded House, Cheap Trick, Steven Wilson. Maybe later: Gary Numan or Kansas. Maybe later: digging into to The Mare of Easttown or The Outsider or Bo Burnham’s Inside.
Both vaccinations? Check–for both my wife and I, as of the end of March. The resident teenager acquires his second vaccination at the beginning of June. Check. And finally, the arrival of the end of the weirdest school year in the history of school years. Double check.
Over the last quarter of the school year, after three quarters of teaching online only, I was able to be with a little less than half of the students enrolled in my classes–in person, in the flesh. While the rest of my students chose to stay at home, we happy few were together in a room, masked, over the course of fourteen 90 minute periods between April and June. The microphone set up we were supposed to have in our rooms–so that hard of hearing students could hear us better and so that our voices would last the period–never materialized. And it was strange, uncomfortable, to deliver instruction through a mask. Projecting, as teachers must do, was difficult with one’s mouth and nose covered, had the effect, as they say, of taking away the breath–like–you know–it became sometimes literally hard to breathe. I never passed out, but I did find myself dizzy on several occasions. Thank goodness: holding forth for 90 minutes was never an expectation. In fact, we did considerably less teaching, less teacher talk, than we have ever done or had to do. Our role was primarily supportive–supplemental: here’s the thing we did yesterday in the google meet presented in a slightly different way, or in a way that is conducive to conversation, and here’s a supplemental thing that might make these concepts more vivid, and here’s some materials to make something creative, and here’s a chunk of time to get done what you otherwise would have had to carve out your own time for. You’re welcome. I think this last bit, that gift of time, is the thing that students and teachers found most valuable about hybrid learning. I had very few students signed up for in-person classes who sat and did nothing for 7 weeks. I could count them on a single hand.
As a result of teaching online for an entire year under a protocol that did not require students to enable their microphones or their video feeds, and an in-person experience with only half of them in that last quarter, I feel this year that I know my students less well than any group of students I have ever taught. Paradoxically, though, there is a kind of warm regard, a deep appreciation, an enormous well of gratitude, even a love for these kids I am seeing for the last time today, that I have not necessarily experienced before. First, there was this feeling all the way through of solidarity, the sense that we were in something together, something new, something challenging, something that would demand the better angels. I found students this year to be more appreciative, more kind, more thoughtful, more patient, and less behaviorally challenging than any group of students I’ve ever had. For the most part, students rose to the occasion. As weird as it was, as awkward, as limiting, and as isolating–we managed still to form something like a functional and positive learning community. Today, saying goodbye to my students for the year, some of whom I have never seen in person, I got me some serious feels. It almost brought me tears when one student, in our last google meet synchronous session of the school year, opened up her microphone to publicly thank me and share her appreciation for the work I had done. Amazing. So, there you go. An historic school year ending on the highest possible note.
In other news:
Yesterday I got my haircut. It was maybe the fourth time over the last year that I’ve seen this particular stylist (a new person for me)–but until this last time, I had never seen the bottom half of her face. It’s amazing how much the bottom half of a face contributes to the experience of the whole. You really do not know what someone looks like until you have seen their whole face. That seems kind of like a ridiculous thing to say–but there it is. It had never really occurred to me before, and thus, when I saw her whole face, both of us having been fully vaxxed, it was a revelation.
Live music returns! It looks like, beginning July, this will be a summer for drumming. I’ve got gigs booked. It’s time to start shedding. Across the country, Stephen Colbert returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater in front of a fully vaccinated live audience to do The Late Show. Things are opening up all over. Oregon is on it’s way to having 70% of adults with at least one shot–and then, our governor says, we will open up completely. We’re just above 50% now, above the national average, but still–no cigar. Nevertheless, it’s becoming clear that after 14 months of quarantine, a return to normalcy is within view! That, perhaps, will become the theme of the end of 2021 and into 2022–a return to normalcy. It’s fun to see folks celebrating the new White House behavior as absolutely mundane and boring–you know, the kind of behavior you would expect from politicians just kind of doing their jobs. There’s still all of this residual ugliness, though, in our political landscape. Exhibit A: the government passes a law to make Juneteenth a national holiday while simultaneously politicians all over the country try to make the teaching of Critical Race Theory against the law. WTF. There’s still plenty of WTF to go around. Soon, perhaps, as we recover from this crazy last year and people find themselves in less desperate situations, things might start to even out, cool down, liberalize–if you will. 2022 could be a pivotal year. Another one? I know. I’m hopeful it will be for the good.
So 8 p.m. rolls around and I’m suddenly apoplectic: I haven’t written a poem! My god, I haven’t written a poem! Fortunately, no one witnesses this tizzy. My wife and son are at rehearsal. I’m home alone. Only the dogs see the tantrum. I feverishly check the Napowrimo site. Nope. I’m not doing that. Expediency is the operative word tonight. Oh, happy day, short-term memory kicks back in and I realize that yesterday, after I had written volume 2 of the vaccination poem, I had a leisurely Sunday afternoon to get started on something new–something that I had saved as a draft even. All is not lost.
Today’s poem was inspired by a former student of mine, who is now an English teacher in my district, a human being that I am super proud of, but who posted a joke on Facebook the other day somewhat at my expense. That deserves a poem:
Poem on April 5
A former student of mine who is now a friend on Facebook, posts a question in which I am tagged: Is Jarmer still ghosting students in the comment section of the report card?
Apparently, John, (we will call him “John”) is sore, some twenty plus years later, feels slighted because, despite the ‘A’ and no tardiness or absences in my class, I select not one comment about him for his report card, not even #8: a pleasure to have in class.
I’m sure he thought it would be a fun little post and that I’d be a good sport about it–and it was, and I am., especially because in the end he compliments me, is probably not really at all butt-hurt by my neglect. However, I feel somewhat called out, because, yes, I’m still ghosting students in the comment section of their report cards. He is correct, this “John.”
I would like to go on record as saying that John was a pleasure to have in class. And most every single one of those students earning A’s were a pleasure, even if I never said so, never filled in the bubble for #8, or now, selected it from a drop-down menu. #8 has always been #8.
And it’s not that only ‘A’ students are a pleasure to have in class. I am pleased to have any kid in class so long as they can be nice, and most kids know how to do this. So then you end up saying that everyone is a pleasure to have in class and you might as well say nothing at all.
And ultimately, students know, don’t they, if they are a pleasure or a pain, and nobody needs to tell them that. Even their parents, especially their parents, already know. So the only comments I give are the ones that explain the low grade or the failing grade because this might be useful information. #52: Assignments are missing. #47: Absences have effected work/grade. #57: Student does not complete assignments. Nevertheless, they were all a pleasure to have in class.
It’s May 8.
I sleep in an extra hour.
I make myself a kick-ass scrambler.
I pick my brother up
at 9 and we drive toward
I-84. There’s a bunch
of teachers on an overpass
wearing red and hanging
their banners and I honk
at them. My brother and I
make our way to the Gorge
to visit the retreat center
I have chosen for some
fall Courage work.
Afterwards, we drive
to the Vista House, and
yes, by god, it’s a vista
all right. On the way
home we stop at Edgefield
for burgers, beer, bourbon.
This day is for the kids.
My t-shirt says that I stand
for students. And I do. No doubt
about it. But I’m also struck
by the notion, the conviction,
that teachers can’t take care
of students if no one
is taking care of teachers.
I’ve had to practice self-care;
additionally, I’ve tried self-medication,
but I find I have to balance the two,
which is hard. I try to err
on the side of care.
So much about what happened
today I find totally inspiring,
all my colleagues out there in their
red shirts holding their signs,
thousands of them. But it’s also
exceedingly sad. It’s like if firefighters
had a massive demonstration to call
public attention to the dangers of fire.
People don’t understand in the way
they understand that fire can kill you
that ignorance and stupidity and poor
mental, physical, and emotional health
are just as deadly–even though it’s staring them
down every single day in the person of the
president of the United States.
Democracy is at stake and we are
well on the way to losing ours,
and losing our souls into the bargain.
Souls need tending,
They whisper their sweet nothings
into our ears, and if we can’t listen to that,
we are doomed. Soul, Jarmer, what are you
talking about? Parker J. Palmer tells us
that it doesn’t matter what we call it
as long as we call it something, as all the
great traditions have: the great mystery,
the spark of the divine, big self, true self,
inner light, inner teacher,
“the being in human being,”
the wild animal in us all, resourceful,
resilient, strong, yet shy–and in need
of the greatest respect and care.
You do that for teachers by making
the conditions of their work
as humane as you possibly can make them,
and give them not lists of standards
and administrative hoops of fire
to jump through and an impossible
student load, but the appropriate
space and time and creative freedom
to cultivate the minds, the bodies, and the
souls of their students, together.
I checked out the setting today for
some October soul work in the Columbia Gorge,
I spent time with my brother,
I took a nap, I had pizza with my family,
and I wrote this poem.
This is the best I can do.
Made a single cup;
fuel needed after waking
at 4 in the morning.
There’s a bottle of balsamic
on the table, waiting to be
drizzled over someone’s
leftovers for lunch.
Here’s a copy of
Billboard’s Hottest Hot 100 Hits, a gift to
the staff lounge
from an intern of mine
from two years ago.
His name was Chuck.
In an era that finds
the textbook mostly
obsolete, several choices
are on display on a table
in the staff lounge.
Chips, candy, and soda.
Only one sugarless choice:
seltzer. These machines
There’s some crap in here
no one uses and no one wants:
desk organizers, empty binders,
old VHS tapes that Melanie left,
a 2016 copy of U.S. News &
World Report, the “Find the Best
Colleges for You” edition.
Who will throw out the crap?
Who will clean the microwave?
It belongs to nobody.
It’s nobody’s business.
The principal before
the one before the one
we have now, maybe
15 years ago, bought
two burgundy love seats,
a matching chair, and
a coffee table that looks
like a box in order to
beautify the lounge
and make it more
Dr. Rex Putnam Award
Candidate summaries. Please,
DO NOT REMOVE.
We Love You
in gigantic letters
taped up on the wall
from last year’s teacher
maybe even from the
year before. It’s so hard
to keep track of the love.
We have to remind ourselves
by looking at this wall
The natives are restless, the 9th graders are rowdy, won’t stop talking, interrupt almost every teacher phrase with chatter, and because my intern has the class, I am completely unruffled. It’s the penultimate day of National Poetry Month and this is my penultimate poem in prose in the April of my potentially penultimate school year as a classroom English teacher.
Over the last three days, I wrote three poems, each about travel, each ending with the same sentence. You are here. I’m reminded of that saying, wherever you go, there you are. Or the Player’s line in the Stoppard play, something like, every exit is an entrance somewhere else. Coming and going, with perfect equanimity, you are always, and I am always, right here.
After next school year, in this moment, I am almost certain that I will not be here. But uncertainty is a constant companion. I said, it feels like jumping off a cliff. Or standing on a cliff, and maybe I’m looking down at a precipitous drop or looking out on some astounding vista. It really depends on the moment. I prefer vistas to drop-offs. In this moment, I choose vistas.
I notice what this poem is doing. Without my being conscious of it, paragraphs are landing in this draft in nearly identical chunks of five lines, four that move all the way to the end of the margin, and one, the last line–two, three, and then four words long. Now, I am conscious of a pattern, and I am planning to end this stanza in prose with a short line of five carefully chosen words.
It all depends on the margins. Type this poem up in a Word document, or publish it on your blog, and things will shift. Our margins shift like this. The only margin that doesn’t shift is the first one–our births are non-negotiable; on this day, December 4, 1964, you were born. Our careers begin somewhere in the squishy regions of early adulthood, and, if we are lucky, very lucky, they end 30-some years later.
My brother worked over 40 years at a job he didn’t really like. His retirement at 62 or thereabouts was an escape. He said good riddance and walked away. And he walked away so late because there were no other options. Again, I have been stupidly lucky. Luckier, and not so lucky, as my father, who retired, like I hope to, at 55. He had full health care from the moment he left work.
But I have loved my job, and I don’t know that my father loved his. He never spoke about it. I could hardly even tell you now what it was that he did for a living. It was a government job and he worked downtown and once he took a computer class and brought home a bunch of punch cards. My son knows what I do simply by virtue of his being a student in a public school classroom. What your teacher does–that’s your Dad.
God, look at all of these books, file cabinets full of 30-years worth of handouts, lesson plans, readings, exams; check out all of this student generated art that I’ve never tossed, that quilt for The Color Purple, the portraits of the family from Geek Love, portraits of Virginia Woolf, the beautiful and huge broadside of William Stafford’s “Your Life”-the treasured haul of an English teacher’s career.
If I take all of this home my wife will murder me. Health care will no longer be an issue, ironically.
I don’t know who made this. A team of students. Circa 1995ish?
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.
Apparently, for $16.36, you can buy a tub of communion wafers from Amazon. And I know this because a student of mine came to class the other day with a tub of communion wafers. He was passing them out. Snacks for his classmates. At first, I was just sort of dumbfounded. It was a brand new what-the-hell classroom moment, one that I admitted was a career first. In 30 years, no student has ever brought a tub of communion wafers to class. He offered me one, as he offered one to anybody in the room who was interested. I declined. Still in disbelief, I asked to look at the plastic tub: Cavanagh Altar Bread, 1 and 1/8 inches, white, made from only flour and water following historical liturgical guidelines in a gas fire oven, a thousand pieces. He bought them, I’m sure, because he could. It could have been worse. He could have pretended to be a priest, moving around the room from student to student, offering up a wafer to each tongue, speaking “the body of Christ,” to which each tongue would reply, “amen,” before taking the wafer fully into the mouth, chewing it or allowing it to dissolve before swallowing. He didn’t do that, (I want to say) thank God. I assumed the boy was not Catholic. His friend knew a little about the tradition, what it meant, its symbolic significance, the notion of transubstantiation, maybe he even said something like, “You’re eating Jesus, man.” I just remembered my childhood. 18 years of Catholic mass every Sunday whether I wanted it or not, a ritual about which I have since decided, not. And yet, there is still a Catholic roaming around inside of my bones, my heart, and my brain, and part of me was, or knew that I should be, deeply offended. And I knew, also, that there would be students in the room who would be, and would have every right to be, deeply offended. So, the party ended shortly after it began, maybe the whole thing lasted less time than it would take a person to read this paragraph out loud, and I said, “Put them away,” and a student in the back row looked at me; she nodded in approval.