Local Laureate

So last Tuesday, one of my lesbian friends, who teaches 5th grade science at a nearby school, texted me for a poem that she could read at the school assembly. They have been doing a poem a week, and she had asked if she could do something for Pride, which has just kicked off in Boston. I said sure.

I spent two days writing, working on a sestina, my favorite form, since it would give me a way to look at the idea of pride over the years, which would be educational and supportive for the kids, and also reflect some things I’ve been learning from my friends and other queer role models from over the years.

So this is what I wrote.

What We Mean, Now, By Pride

a sestina

 

Years ago, people always said that pride

Was bad, that it and humility were night and day,

That proud people thought only of themselves.

Being proud meant being vain, and that was a no-no.

It meant that you loved only the person in the mirror.

For centuries, folks used “pride” in that sense.

 

And if you think about it, that probably made sense.

Ancient Greek playwrights warned of the perils of pride,

How heroes saw themselves as gods in their mirrors

And overestimated themselves on the day

Of battle. That’s a good way to get killed, no

Doubt about it. Heroes need to know themselves

 

Accurately, what they can do and be. Knowing yourself

Can be difficult. We change as we grow, gaining a sense

Of who we are and who we might become. To know

Who you are is wisdom. To accept who you are is pride,

The good kind of pride, the one that says, “Today

I will be myself in earnest! When I look in the mirror

 

I will see the good I can do, and those who see me will mirror

That goodness back.” Sometimes we change one self

For another, learning to be better and love better every day.

And it’s true: there will be dark, rainy days. There’s no sense

Denying that. There will always be days it’s hard to feel pride

Or joy or accomplishment: this is a fact we know.

 

So we must stand up, let the rain run off us, take no

Notice of those who cannot see us as we see ourselves mirrored

Back. We stand tall, proud of our good selves and our good pride,

Proud to be who we are, love who we love, and accept the self

That God or the universe gave us, with a clear sense

That we will give our gifts to the world, now and someday

 

In the future, when we’ve dreamed and worked our way to a day

When everyone is accepted for who they are, with no

Exceptions. This is not a utopian dream in any sense.

Change happens; the world expands, and then mirrors

Become kinder to those who look at themselves

And smile because they finally know this pride.

 

Let us begin this work today, start by looking in the mirror

Accepting what we know, accepting our truest self

And our sense, finally, of deep and lasting pride.

 

I sent it to my friend and she expressed shock that I had written the poem. She had expected me to send her some good gay poem I knew about or found online. But because I knew that she had read my poetry in the past, it never occurred to me that she had meant anything other than that I should write one.

Today was the assembly. Afterwards she sent me a text saying, “I want to thank you for putting the time in and writing that beautiful poem about Pride. It was a huge success….! I even heard there were some tears.”

Success.

Happy Pride Month!

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The Power of Collaboration

I often tell my writing students that we all write alone but we shouldn’t always write alone. What I usually mean by this that nobody can adequately read their own writing much of the time, so we need someone else—or better yet, a few someone elses—to give us feedback.

But recently I got the opportunity to work with a new friend on a new creative endeavor. Although we are both teachers, we are also artists: she, a photographer, and me, a poet. I have frequently caught my breath when seeing her photographs of the city. Sometimes they are simply (“simply”) from an unusual angle—from the ground looking down the trolley tracks, or from the top of a spiraling stairway. Sometimes it’s the filter she uses: a street corner with all the colors but blue drained away, for example. It reminds me of M.C. Escher or Georgia O’Keeffe. And of course, that’s what artists do: find some lens that stops us in our tracks and forces us to look, to actually see what is in front of us.

We were discussing this over sushi and beer on St. Patrick’s Day (because, duh, sushi on St. Patrick’s Day) and decided to set up on Instagram account to present pairs of our work. She would send me a photo and I would write a poem.

So we set it up. (Okay, TBH she set it up and I nodded and gave opinions when she asked me about choices. I did mention that I’m the poet here.) Over the second beer, we came up with the description of the project @vertexekphrases:

“Our project: creating common endpoints of two rays, where lines meet and act as a rhetorical device where one medium of art works to relate to another.”

We liked the image of the vertex, since the two rays are always at the same angle to each other, no matter how far out the rays go, so even when our two art forms are very different, we can still be in conversation with each other, or the art we make can be.

I’ve engage in ekphrasis for years, usually writing poetry about Japanese woodblock art, as I have written about here before, but also writing about the works of artists such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. But now, I get to write into the works of a contemporary artist. Yay me!

And Speaking of Harry Potter…

So our Blog Buddy, Mike Allegra, is having a contest to give away a copy of Scampers Thinks Like a Scientist. The ballot question is what fictional character would you most want to have as a next-door neighbor. I picked Hermione Granger. We could go to used bookstores together and then come back home and argue about how we are each going to arrange our home library. This isn’t thinking like a scientist, I know. It’s thinking like a humanist.

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Image: “Hermione in the Library” by Pelegrin-tn

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Cover art: Elizabeth Zechel

From the Ashes, a Fire Shall Rise

Spring has arrived. It took about 123 weeks, but it happened. The snowbells are blooming, the sun is shining, the Democrats took back the House, and I think I may be able to write again.

Until the last presidential election here in the US, I had not clearly seen what an act of hope writing is: we hope we figure out our thinking, we hope someone publishes it, we hope someone reads it, we hope it makes a difference. And when your hopes for a better world, or a good world, or at least a world not currently ablaze and flooding at the same time, at a time, I say, when those hopes are dashed not just in the course of an evening as the map of your nation turns red with what isn’t currently blood but could be, but also over the course of day after day, week after week, month after month—

I think you see where I’m going with this. Circumstances like that make it hard to have enough hope to write.

I’ve tried. I’ve started things, short and long, but they never seem to lead anywhere and I can’t see the way forward. So I stopped.

It reminds me a bit of that moment in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry is up in Dumbledore’s office and he sees his professor’s old, sick bird burst into flames and turn into a pile of ash. “Your bird,” says Harry frantically when Dumbledore returns to his office. “I couldn’t do anything—he just caught fire—”

Dumbledore explains, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”

I was thinking of this because of a project I got starting with a friend and the thought that our conversations these past few days got the ashes sparking again. I will be writing about that soon, and hopefully (feathers crossed) often in the coming days. And weeks. And months.

Image: “Phoenix Rising” by Michael Balchan0316-phoenix-rising

Our Pal Dina Honour on Rights & Using Them!

“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” -Donald Trump Last year Colin Kaepernick, an American football player, refused to stand during the American national anthem. Several other high-profile athletes such as US soccer star Megan Rapinnoe followed suit. The backlash was quick. A year later, it hasn’t […]

via What’s the Point of Having Rights if You’re Not Going to Use Them? — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

The Leaves Begin to Fall

I was talking to an MIT senior the other day about her application for a scholarship. In it, she said that life doesn’t have a prescribed arc. Agreeing that this was true, I pointed out that an individual life tends to move in spirals, that the things that were minor interests might a decade or two later become an obsession (a larger loop), and obsessions from one age might become minor background noise many years later (a smaller loop). But we are likely to continue to care about the same or at least similar subjects throughout our lives.

spiral

For example, I have always been more or less religious. I came “this” close to becoming a Roman Catholic nun thirty-some years ago. With friends, I co-founded Middlebury College’s Interfaith Council. After I left the Roman Church and became Episcopalian, I got a Master of Arts in Christian theology. This all happened across twenty-five years.

I have always been a martial artist. I started out in high school doing Aikido, went to college and did Japanese karate. Thirty years later, I practice Chinese kung fu. Although years of therapy have taught me that not all interactions are inherently competitive or combative, I still tend to face the world prepared to do battle. So sue me.

I am a poet, have been since high school. I’ve published in professional journals, was nominated once for the Pushcart Prize, and have taught in university night school. I write (sorta! sometimes!) this blog. I see the world in pictures and turns of phrase.

I have in other places described these patterns as being my watermark: the Battling Bard of Boston, who wrestles with God and man. Yeah, it’s a little over the top, but it works for me.

The point is that these pieces of my identity are always going to be the first I will draw on when I am faced with troubling times.

And, let’s face it, children: these are troubling times indeed.

When tiki torches are not being used to lend a quiet glow to gatherings of families and friends, but to lend the element of fire to make an American Nazi rally more terrifying, we’re doing something wrong.

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When a disturbed young man drives an SUV into a crowd at a peaceful protest that he disagrees with, killing a woman, and state legislatures contemplate legislation that will legalize “accidental” death when a car hits people in a road, we’re doing something wrong.

When we see two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks–with more on the way–and dozens of our legislators, who ought to have the education to know better, still deny the existence and increasing power of climate change, we’re doing something wrong.

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So yes, I am deeply troubled, but I am done being troubled and silent about it. I don’t want to spread pain around. That never goes well. But I do want to question power structures that support unegalitarian regimes of social interaction:

  • Confederate statues that lionize the losers of an attack on US unity, for the purpose of making people of color feel attacked;
  • gerrymandering that prioritizes white communities over communities of color in voting–just as they are in environmental and educational justice;
  • and the lag in money for infrastructure in communities of color, compared with affluent white communities.

And don’t even get me started on the whole GOP attack on Obamacare. God knows that American healthcare, while having the potential to be the best in the world, lags sorely in people’s ability to access and pay for it.

Troubling times, in a country whose founding principles call us to do much, much better.

patrick-henry

In 1775, Patrick Henry encouraged the convention in Virginia to allow him to organize a company of volunteer cavalry in every county in Virginia to protect themselves from the attack that he saw soon to come from the British. He said:

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country….  Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it….

“Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne….

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

I am not quite ready to say the same thing, and I hope I never have to. But at times like these, we need to remember that the people of this country have endured times like these before, and like them, we will overcome them if we, like they, stand up.

 

Source: Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World’s Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.

Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa, Mea Maxima Culpa*

So yeah, I have not written much here since December. For the most part, that is because of my distress about the outcome of the US presidential election. I had really believed that the US was moving forward to a time when we were able to protect all our citizens, put in place protections for our land and water, start to get more equitable in behavior between men and women in terms of pay, society and sexual consent, and protect workers rather than corporations… Do I need to go on?

Yeah, I was deluded. I admit it.

As a white, formerly straight, Christian, cis woman, under-descriminated (against) and over-educated, I was blind to the pain that a lot of people are in. I did not realize that white supremacy still put lives of people of color at risk systematically. I did not realize that poor whites would eat up the propaganda of fascists if it made them feel better about our capitalist economy moving their jobs to third world countries where corporations could pay the people there pennies to do work for which Americans would demand dollars. I did not realize that Americans would swallow outright lies if it meant that they didn’t have to face realities they did not want to face.

Climate change.

Wall Street executives gaming the system.

Systematic racism in our society, government, and institutions.

Systematic sexism in our… oh, wait, I’m repeating myself.

44-and-a-quarter, I thought, was clearly a celebrity has-been, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and unprepared for dignified executive power. Hillary Clinton was unarguably the most qualified presidential candidate America has ever seen.

What could possibly go wrong?

Seriously

Um, how about “everything”?

And if I had not always been a student of World War Two, and a student of the Holocaust, I might possibly not blame myself for my short-sightedness.

But I have been.

So I do.

And how can I possibly own my credibility as a writer if I am so blind as a citizen, a historian and a theologian?

(All of this kinda makes my writer’s block a little easier to understand, if I look at it that way. And we all carry this kind of baggage to our writing projects…)

I’ve spent a lot of the last ten months writing fiction, particularly fiction that prioritizes the relationships of queer people despite the prevailing social narrative that marginalizes them, people of color, and others, which the (straight, white) general public doesn’t understand. When I started writing many years ago, I wrote fantasy: reimagining the world the way I wanted it to be.

Seems like three+ decades hasn’t changed much.

Sigh.

But anyway, now that I’ve figured out what my problem has been, I can start to fix it. Or in Christian terms, do penance, from the Latin, paenitentia, regret. So I pray:

 

God of all mercy,

I confess that I have sinned against you,

opposing your will in my life.

 

I have denied your goodness in my neighbors,

in myself, and in the world you have created.

 

I repent of the evil that enslaves me,

the evil I have done,

and the evil done on my behalf.

 

Forgive, restore, and strengthen me

through our Savior Jesus Christ,

that I may abide in your love

and serve only your will.

Amen.

 

Prayer from: Enriching Our Worship. New York: The Church Pension Fund, 1998. 19. (Language changed from first person plural to first person singular. Italics mine.)

Translation of Today’s Blog Title: My fault, my fault, my most grievous fault.

Translation of Amen: Let it be so.