When I was a kid, my family moved a lot. We went from a trailer to a house in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then onto Jamestown, New York, where we made stops at an apartment, a small house, then a medium house, then a spacious, if ramshackle, house, all in different neighborhoods, the blocks of the city like squares on a checkerboard, leaped without consideration of likely outcomes, our game of pausing, starting over, landing, and picking up haphazardly played. If the game involved strategy, it came down to one principle: bigger was better, even if the bigger house came with a rougher neighborhood. I suppose we got something out of these moves, but I’m not sure what. Pieces—toys, a favorite lilac bush, friends, a stamp collection, schools, a cat’s pawprints memorialized in the concrete of a sidewalk—were lost along the way. [Read more…]
Ask me again what I offered as a sacrifice to the rooster crowing his betrayal of morning. Forgiveness, what a sharp blade I press my body hard against.”
—Marci Callabretta Cancio-Bello’s “In the Animal Garden of My Body” from the Poem-a-Day series, Academy of American Poets
I’ve been thinking about these last two lines of Cancio-Bello’s poem, mulling forgiveness and the sacrifice it entails—the relinquishment of pride, anger, righteous suffering—and reflecting on forgiveness and pain, that “sharp blade” that so often is a twofold ache, a recollection of the initial external hurt (whatever action entailed forgiveness in the first place) combined with the agony wrought by bringing oneself to forgive.
Forgiveness is hard. About her own poem, Cancio-Bello said, “I have spent a lifetime studying forgiveness and am constantly humbled by how complicated, impossible, and necessary it is to every memory.” [Read more…]
I taught eleventh and twelfth grade English for eleven years. People would often say to me, “Wow, you must really like kids.”
Well, I do like kids. In fact, I have two of my own!
But I didn’t go into teaching because I adored teenagers and wanted to spend hours and hours (AND HOURS) in their company. I did it because, as a student, I loved the classroom, especially the language arts classroom, a world alive with stories and emotions, discussions and investigations. It seemed as close to a utopia as I was likely to get. In that environment, I could exercise my passion for reading and writing, think hard about difficult subjects, dwell on the human condition, and wade into the subtleties of literature. Heaven! [Read more…]
I spent the first years of my life in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and most of what I remember about that time involves me playing in the dirt like a hen taking a dust bath—digging in my mom’s vegetable garden, rolling around in the driveway, and stuffing gravel and clumps of soil into my baby brother’s cloth diaper, which was already sadly, er…full. I have photographs to corroborate some of my filth-related memories, though not, thankfully, of that last one, which requires no visual reminders, as the incident is seared into my brain on account of the spanking the deed earned me.
We were dirt poor, so I guess it made sense that dirt was my preferred medium. Plus, we lived in the middle of nowhere. Dirt was plentiful; friends, not so much. Fortunately, there was Lisa: She was around my age and lived close enough to join me in mudpie-making and puddle-jumping. Our other nearest neighbors were a houseful of rough and rowdy boys. They liked to boast, bray, swear, and swagger, and (similar to my brother’s diaper that one afternoon) they were full of shit, lying readily, frequently, and extravagantly.
One of their tall tales became legendary in my family. I don’t know much about the story, only that it had to do with a chicken farm (an enterprise my family, later, in private, agreed probably never existed). What I do know, however, is, not long after sharing their chicken farm story, the boys told another tale, but this one didn’t mesh with the details of the earlier account. When my parents called them out on the discrepancy, one of the brothers hesitated, then said, “Well, that was before the chicken farm.”
As I write this September post, August still surrounds me—a humming time. Cicadas drone during the day; katydids chirr after dark. And in the morning, if I move very quietly outside by the Rose-of-Sharons and hollyhocks, a hummingbird will eventually whip past me to dive in and out of the flowers for their nectar, treading air with rapid wings that make a wonderful whir.
My kids’ voices join the late-summer chorus, an under-the-breath murmuring as they add narratives to their play. In the basement, tense Star Wars crises accompany the Lego building. In the living room, plastic ponies, colorful and sweet-faced, argue viciously, make up, then go on journeys to the ocean of the couch or the desert of the coffee table.
But my house will sound empty soon.
School is around the corner. My kids dread it, the sitting for hours, the tests, tests, tests—math tests, social studies exams, spelling quizzes, the horrible looming specter of the state assessments, and the daily trials that come with human interactions. And then there’s homework, that hard-consonant-ending word, punitive and harsh. Oh, how they despise all homework—or think they do. [Read more…]
Light splashed this morning
on the shell-pink anemones
swaying on their tall stems;
down blue-spiked veronica
light flowed in rivulets
over the humps of the honeybees;
this morning I saw light kiss
the silk of the roses
in their second flowering,
my late bloomers
flushed with their brandy.
A curious gladness shook me. [Read more…]
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweeping of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
—William Butler Yeats, from The Circus Animals’ Desertion
My grandmother worked in a rag shop. That’s what the family called it, and as a child, I understood it to mean precisely what it sounded like: a business in our hometown of Jamestown, New York, where rags were made. According to Grandma, the Salvation Army provided her employer with the raw materials, donating the clothes the thrift shop couldn’t sell. I used to picture Grandma sitting ramrod straight among coworkers, ripping shirts, pants, skirts, and dresses into pieces, while she told her ribald stories, making people laugh and laughing along with them. [Read more…]
I recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water. In the beginning of her book, L’Engle shares a wonderful quotation by Jean Rhys: “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”
What a gorgeous piece of wisdom. Rhys does more than simply meditate on her craft or her role as a writer. She celebrates the creative community. Eloquent, evocative, inspiring, reassuring, this quotation speaks to me.
The opening is a command: “Listen to me.” Rhys has something important to tell us, a special knowledge learned through hard work and experience or perhaps through epiphany. But before she shares it, she wants to make sure we’re paying attention. [Read more…]
Late yesterday afternoon, the kids and I walked around our property. The daffodils are blooming. Their yellow heads, like cheerful bonnets, fringe the house, dot the meadow out front, and form bright clumps along the thicket. In the woods, I spied my first trout-lily of the season. The hyacinths are also opening, but that’s pretty much it. It’s too early for the tulips, forsythia, and violets and too late for the pussy willows. Thinking I might cut some willow branches for the house, I trudged over to the ditch where the scrubby trees grow, but their silvery catkins had already puffed into yellow balls. [Read more…]
I’m keeping the teacher’s name to myself, but I’ll tell you this: I liked him. We all liked him. Cheerful, energetic, creative, funny, kind: there was a lot to like.
But on one particular day, our teacher did not like us.
I don’t remember the season, the time of the school day, or what grade I was in, though I think it was seventh. I don’t even remember the subject. But I remember, on this unfortunate occasion, how displeasure reddened the teacher’s face. He paced in front of our neat rows of desks, papers scrunched in his fist at his side. Those papers were our tests, the examination we’d all—every single one of us—bombed.
He halted and whirled around to fix his frustrated gaze on a kid in the front. “Did you study?”
“Um…no,” the student mumbled.
“What about you?” he barked at the next student. “Did you study?” [Read more…]