What I Hope My Students Got

So here is what I put in my Canvas for today, the last day of classes at Northeastern University:

Week 14 Overview

To-Do Date: Apr 19 at 11:59pm

Overview

Welcome to Week 14.  This semester, you learned a lot of things. Some of it I might even have taught you. Some of it your peers taught you. Some, you taught yourself. That is pretty much how life works.

Learning Objectives

What I hope you got from this class:

* We write alone, but we can’t only write alone.

* The world wants to tell you what to think, and sometimes that is a helpful shortcut, but when it isn’t helpful, you don’t have to let it.

* Writing can be hard, frustrating, and boring, but it doesn’t have to be.

* You are not always in control of your writing tasks (assignments, audiences, etc.) but you are in control of your writing process.

* Don’t write to make enemies or to change anyone’s entrenched ideas. Write to make allies.

* Write to make the world a better place. You might have to make yourself a better person first. The work is worth doing.

* Much of what you got through your education will prove useful. Reject anything that doesn’t help you repair the world.

* Who you are will always inform your writing, but you are in control of which bits to put in and which to leave out.

* We are firmly integrated in the material world, for better and for worse. We can try to make it more better and less worse.

* Thinking about the language you use, and being more intentional about choosing words and guiding metaphors, will improve your precision and persuasiveness.

* Also, ethos, pathos, logos and kairos, because those old Greek guys were hella smart.

*AND FINALLY, sometimes you just have to go into your back yard and spit.* But then put your mask back on.

*This is referencing David Huddle’s amazing essay, “Let’s Say You Wrote Badly This Morning.” 10/10. Highly recommend.

It Would Have Been Enough

This week, and really so much of January so far, has felt a lot like Passover, the Angel of Death passing over us and letting us live. Especially after the January 6 Insurrection, fittingly falling on the Christian feast of Epiphany (manifestation: the three kings recognized Jesus as God) just in time to manifest and show us the worst of our nation’s history, it has been a fraught few weeks. And so on Wednesday when I heard sane, rational people speaking in whole grammatical sentences, I keep feeling that, really, that would have been enough. After the last traumatic four years and four months, when we’ve been repeatedly battered by Tweetstorms, shitstorms, and the nuclear dumpster fire that was 2020, I really wasn’t expecting much or hoping for much.

This brings me to the Jewish Passover song Dayenu, It Would Have Been Enough. There are fifteen stanzas describing all the things God did for the Jews, freeing them from slavery, doing miracles and staying close to them, and at the end of each one, everyone sings, Dayenu.

From Wikipedia:

Five Stanzas of Leaving Slavery

1) If He had brought us out of Egypt.
2) If He had executed justice upon the Egyptians.
3) If He had executed justice upon their gods.
4) If He had slain their first-born.
5) If He had given to us their health and wealth.

Five Stanzas of Miracles

6) If He had split the sea for us.
7) If He had led us through on dry land.
8) If He had drowned our oppressors.
9) If He had provided for our needs in the wilderness for 40 years.
10) If He had fed us manna.

Five Stanzas of Being With God

11) If He had given us Shabbat.
12) If He had led us to Mount Sinai.
13) If He had given us the Torah.
14) If He had brought us into the Land of Israel.
15) If He built the Temple for us.

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu

Dayenu.

No Grading Will Occur Today

I don’t cry.

Twenty years of therapy and I still don’t cry too often, and I can pretty much tell you the day, month and year of the last few times I cried in the last 25 years. Late August 2008. Early December 1993. A few other times.

And then Eleven-Seven/Twenty-Twenty happened.

I am the Eighth Dwarf: Call me Weepy.

Before this, I have lived through a few Major Historical Moments.

I was just short of two years old when American astronauts landed on the moon. My father tried to convince me that it was happening in honor of my birthday, and even at one year and change, I was pretty sure he was putting me on.

On Nine-Eleven, I was arriving at work at MIT and my colleagues were completely freaking out and we went across the hall to the ESL professor’s office, because she had a television, and we watched the playback of the New York attacks and heard the rumors of the attack on the Pentagon. Then we heard about Flight 93, and the passengers who gave their lives to ensure that the hijackers would not do even graver damage, and crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. MIT did not immediately cancel classes, but my boss sent us home. On my way home, I saw an airplane pass behind a skyscraper and held my breath until it came out the other side.

I have never since assumed that airplanes would necessarily pass behind skyscrapers.

On the night of the 2016 election, November 8, I was sitting in one of Boston’s last gay bars, with about twenty or so lesbians in a space big enough for eight or nine (because lesbians, like atoms, can squeeze down to fit into whatever space they are given; it’s science). And we were anticipating that the Woman in the Pantsuitä, Hillary Clinton, would wipe the national floor with DJ Trump’s racist, sexist, homophobic, failed businessman (etc., etc.)’s fat orange ass. And we watched as the TVs around the bar showed the map of the United States turning… redder… and redder… and redder…

And I watched a hundred or more gay folks as their body language got smaller and smaller.

And we realized… that the worst had happened. I saw people weeping in small groups. I saw young lesbians crying and older gay men telling them, “Well, we survived Reagan in the 80s and AIDS. We’ll survive this too.” And I didn’t believe them, because I knew that a lot of people had not in fact survived that, and that a lot of us wouldn’t survive this.

And here we are, four years later, with 235,000 or so Americans dead from Covid-19, in part because of the astonishing lack of leadership and reliance on science from this so-called administration.

I wasn’t wrong, alas.

But then… even though many of us were expecting a Blue Tsunami, repudiating 44.25’s hatred, etc., we waited and waited and waited. We persisted.

And we prevailed.

But I am having trouble processing it. I keep seeing memes and video clips from movies, relabeled with the names of politicians and with “mail-in votes” and I end up weeping. I went grocery shopping in Brookline, MA, which had 5% more votes for Biden/Harris than Boston did, and families with children are standing with signs saying, “Honk4Biden” and cars are honking and I am weeping into my mask.

And I thought I could get started on grading my students’ fourth paper of the semester, but, just, yeah, no.

So here it is. I don’t cry.

And yet.

No grading will occur today on account of how I keep seeing post-election memes and weeping. That is all.

For the notorious RBG

I needed this poem by our friend at the Flannel Files.

The Flannel Files

I dreamt I saw RBG in the grocery store

pushing a cart
down the canned food aisle
in a black Adidas tracksuit
Her crocheted collar
a white flower
blooming in her chest

I told her I was sorry 
we had asked her to hold on
for so long

She smiled and nodded
then went back to work
filling her cart
applesauce
sardines
blackberry jam

#RIPRBG

View original post

Wherein I Find a Metaphor on My Walk and Have to Go Lie Down

So, after a few decades as an English teacher, and a few more as a serious reader, I am pretty blind. My glasses, which started out as readers, and then added distance, are now trifocals, with the middle range for the computer. And normally that’s just fine, although whenever I get a slightly stronger prescription, I have to be really careful (or just take them off) while going down stairs for a few weeks–because that can get wonky.

But yesterday, on my second day of exercisanity walking while wearing a bandana, I found myself 1) fogging my glasses and 2) having my glasses rise over the bandana, putting the mid/low bit of the lenses in front of me as I tried to walk on uneven Boston sidewalks. At first the problem was simply tripping slightly. But then I started to get eyestrain. Then nauseated. Then– Yeah, I cut my walk short so I wouldn’t throw up on the side of the street. Yes, Covid-19 is a respiratory disease, but vomit on a sidewalk in your neighborhood is just never a good look.

But the metaphor holds. My attempts at personal safety and at protecting others made it kinda hard to see clearly. It made me self-isolate even though I really felt the need for exercise.

I’m not sure what else I can get from that, but it seemed worth thinking through.

Keep Calm, Stay Well, Keep Writing.

IMG_0768

Love in the Time of Plague

I got an email from Kickstarter a few days ago that spoke to the current moment:

“In times of crisis, some might feel selfish pursuing creative work. It might be hard to imagine why your art matters in the midst of a pandemic. But think of the book that shaped your childhood; the movie you watch whenever you feel sad. Creative work transports us. It recharges and renews us. And in order to experience it, someone needs to make it—to get that strange, unprecedented idea out into the world.” (No author cited)

But a few hours earlier, for the first time in a long damn time I started writing a poem, which I will find tomorrow and finish and post here. But in the meantime I wrote this for a prompt on one of my Facebook groups. It is dedicated to Musashi, who is now the Teaching Assistant for my now-online classes.

 

Love in the time of plague is this black cat

walking over my keyboard because he knows

attention is love, attention to what your loved one

attends to is love, and also when she doesn’t yell at you

for making all the M’s run across the screen

that reticence, the soft voice calling you

a goober, that most of all is also love.

IMG_0673

And yes. That is my rollbook he’s sitting on.

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!

61989205_10217289933872102_2720903151140995072_o

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!