{The Love Song Of} 2 & 33

 

I owe a lot to T.S. Eliot and Taylor Swift for these lines, composed on a walk today with Luci. I’m emulating another favorite, Billy Collins, master of the birthday poem. It was a poetic day, rich and splendid, worth sharing.

 

Let us go then, you and me,

where the autumn blazes bright for all to see,

and metallic color fades from tree to tree,

of royal golden robes,

the spiderwebs a silver filigree.

 

Let us roll your three wheels,

Two stuffed bears riding on the rails,

walk the paved path,

not the trails,

the path of bikes and grandmas,

moms and babes,

the path that hugs the valley like a veil.

 

Let us point out all the colors,

all the trees,

let us sing made-up songs into the breeze,

of being two and being out with Mom and bears,

of being thirty-three with all its joys and cares.

 

This feels like the perfect morn,

for donning plaid and sweaters cozy-warm,

for rolling through the fields,

naming trees and grass and birds,

for naming all the names,

now that we know the words.

 

And it’s true today, I don’t feel twenty-two,

And that’s fine right here,

Today, with you.

You know about me:

today I’m thirty-three.

And everything will still be right,

will still be rich and good and free,

as we walk and talk and live and be,

Two, thirty-three,

you and me.

 

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#Vanlife, Real Life and Roads {Taken and Not}

Spring in the Black Forest

Oh I kept the first for another day!

But knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

Robert Frost, from “Road Not Taken”

A few weeks ago I taught Robert Frost’s “Road Not Taken” to my class of juniors. It went predictably, a conversation that I’ve had every year for a while.

Me: What do you think this poem is about?

Students: About doing the risky thing! Doing something that no one else does! Taking the “road less travelled.”

Me: No. Wrong. We need to read it again.

I directed them to a few salient lines, pointing out that one road was “just as fair” as the other and “both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black.” This poem is about someone who examines two equally worn paths and chooses one, then later in life tells everyone he took the less travelled one, bragging about the difference it made. He’s only half right; the roads were equally untravelled, but it did make all the difference. It had to.

“And what’s the poem called?” I asked my class.

“The Road Less Travelled,” someone said confidently.

“Check the title,” I recommend.

“Road Not Taken!” another student read. “Ohhh!”

It’s a poem about what we didn’t do. The lives we don’t lead, those other lives. I never really hear regret; the speaker is matter-of-fact, not mournful. But still, he’s aware that the crossroads meant something. Choosing one road, he left another behind. A road not taken.

Out for a walk in the forest!

Today, it’s snowing when I look up from the New Yorker article I’ve been reading. If I hadn’t gone outside today, I might assume that the air is swirling with flower petals or those fuzzy pollens that look like something out of a Zyrtec commercial, but we walked to the store earlier in a similar flurry, so I know that those are straight-up snowflakes. In April. Spring break snow.

“Reading an article” these days is stretching the phrase a bit. The article–in this case a long piece called “#Vanlife, The Bohemian Social Media Movement”–sits open on my laptop on the counter and I return to it to nibble off paragraphs in quiet moments. Sometimes I read an article in a sitting, but mostly I consume them like guilty cookies, a crumb at a time. An article like this, one that possesses the magic combination of being super interesting but not important at all, takes even longer, sentences stolen a few at a time.

Still, when I get around to it I learn about the eponymous “van life movement,” which is essentially what it sounds like: people who live in vans. The article focuses on the experience of a young couple, who’ve spent the last four years traveling the highways of North America in a Volkswagen camper van, working off a cell phone signal and chasing scenery, whimsy and an elusive sense of freedom that comes with owning little. I open a new tab to peruse their Instagram, and through its square panes I glimpse sunshine, dusty roads, oceans, forests, and steaming cups of campfire coffee. Their life, it seems, is an endless summer road trip.

Beware the seduction of Instagram! I’ve preached this to many a teenager, but still I find myself scrolling over this window a bit longingly. I imagine the lightness of traveling, just the three of us, in a van of our own, possessions kept to a minimum, without the any of the grimy details like taxes and toilets. (Because Van Life includes none of those things, at least in Instagram form.) That ocean looks so blue, those skies so perfectly stormy, the road temptingly untravelled.

This spring break, usually a time for trains and planes to take us to fresh horizons, has been a quiet one. It has been full of peace and beauty and the daily excitement of watching a person discover the world, but a time of stillness, not movement. It’s afforded me opportunities to reflect, to remember, and to realize that somehow, sometime, the nomadic life that brought me here–a backpack and violin and a teaching certificate–has turned into something far more rooted. I know these hills, these paths, the path that the sun takes across the sky and the likely behavior of the clouds on the horizon. I’ve seen these seasons six times now, and have favorite trees, hilltops and valleys to visit in each one. And I love this place dearly, even more so now that I can show it to my daughter.

The article brings me back to earth. The writer travelled with the couple for a week, and spends ample time on the less romantic aspects of Van Life: the lack of space and the conflicts it causes, endless mechanical difficulties and–biggest bubble-burster of all–the pressure of social media itself, through which they fund their endeavors through sponsored photos of products. It’s easy to post only beautiful pictures, to write only wise, measured words; the real life behind #vanlife is less shiny.

And real life, much maligned by the van lifers, is pretty excellent in itself. My untaken roads melt into the background, lost in the goodness of this one, a family in a green valley in Germany. Looking up from the article, I see Luci crawl up onto the couch, reach for a book from the bookshelf and snuggle herself into a pile of blankets. She opens the book, a vintage German copy of Maurice Sendak’s Little Bear, and turns the pages slowly. With each page, she says “Bear! …Bear!” softly, and points. The fresh horizons are Luci’s today, with a sunny-snowy April day, and a book full of bears.

 

Windowsill

WindowsillCompared to a handful of brilliant students and colleagues, I write poetry with neither frequency nor remarkable talent. Still, sometimes, every other year or so, it happens. Because sometimes prose would take too long, and there are moments that require only a few words, written over and over again. This week has elicited many moments like that, but I’ve chosen to write only about this one.

 

Windowsill

Standing by the windowsill you wave your arms,

your strong voice shrill.

And “Up!” you cry and turn around,

your small feet anchored to the ground.

And you learn day by day that you’re not so tall,

like the rest of us,

though you’re by far the best of us,

you see less than us

because you’re only what? Two feet?

Maybe three, but no more. So you’re little, my dear,

and you can’t see so far.

You can’t see it all, and it frustrates you,

the all of it, the too small of it,

not tall enough to see what you want,

what you don’t even know you’re missing,

just that something’s missing

and you’re wishing that somehow, anyhow,

you were able to fit in, to see out,

to peek over the walls of your too-small world.

 

You always wanted to be bigger,

before you could sit up you’d figure

out how to roll side to side,

craning your neck to catch wide-angle view of the floor,

trying to score an extra few centimeters of sight.

Back then the flat of your head met the floor,

perfect fit, but you weren’t having it.

You wanted a round head and a round world

to explore on two feet. Now you’re two feet tall,

but still too small to see all you want,

because windowsills are still too high

and since walking wasn’t hard once you tried,

you wonder if you’ll learn to fly someday.

So you stomp your feet, toddler tantrum style,

the dance of mile after mile of tiny pants and open hands waving,

paving the way for your exploration.

You’re mad because you can’t see,

can’t be all you want to be, so you pout,

“Up!” you shout. I want to look out.

 

It’s not new, little seer,

feeling freer by the minute

as you look into the future

and out of the window.

Your tantrum is not one of a kind,

it comes from a mind that knows you well,

a mind that can tell of when I was younger,

biting my lips in anger,

laughing off danger and wanting whatever I wanted,

no matter how forbidden, no forest too haunted

for me to explore it. And the anger is quieter now,

as I bide my time and keep my own mind,

but it’s there all the same,

a layer of pain, a curtain of rage that’s softened with age,

into quiet breaking and a heart cracked and aching

for a glimpse of a world I’m still too small to see,

a place still beyond this world of you and me.

I still wave and cry “Up!” for a place to stand a see,

a windowsill to show what it means to be free,

to see orphans beloved, and refugees home,

to see wars all resolved and forests full-grown.

 

I stoop to lift you up to look,

your sticky hands splayed on the pane,

your nose pressed flat as I explain

the winter sunset and the snow,

the pastel pink and white below, our home.

I pick you up to see this place,

to let the sunset stain your face a shade of gold,

so we can hold this minute together,

the windowsill, the village cold and dim and still.

And I’m taller than you, but still small enough

that I wish for height, a wider view, a clearer sight

of beauty just above, beyond,

the hard hearts and closed eyes,

past shattered homes and quick goodbyes.

Not tall enough to mend or free,

there’s still a glimpse of good for me,

in a sunsets and a sippy cup, a curious toddler, crying “Up!”

For here you are, my windowsill,

my wider view,

my little girl.

 

Hearing The Bells

Christmas TreeI heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

Till, ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
     A voice, a chime,
     A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

“Hey, this is a song!”

I hear it half a dozen times as the eleventh-graders walk into class and pick up today’s reading, Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells.”

“‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day,'” the first student reads aloud, then exclaims with recognition. “Wait, I know this from somewhere…”

“Yes, it’s a song,” I reply. “You know the Casting Crowns version from a couple years ago. But before that, it was a different song, and before that it was a poem by Longfellow. So we’re reading it today.”

We’re using it, actually, to practice poetry analysis. We needed to do this today, because it’s been a month or so of reading only prose, and their semester final is looming. I’d selected “Christmas Bells” because it’s the week before Christmas break and the poet is American. (If I were teaching a different class, you can be sure we’d be reading Christina Rosetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.” But she’s British, so I made a different choice.) Sometimes I’m just a public school teacher thrilled by the little things, like reading a Christmas poem in English class. I’d written the title on the lesson plan, made 31 copies of the poem, and given it little further thought until this morning, confident that any poem of Longfellow’s must count as “literature” and bear some deeper examination.

Today, I share the results of an hour’s research, telling them the story behind the poem. I ask them to look at the poem’s date, 1863, and tell me if it means anything to them. “Um… Civil War?” they murmur with varying degrees of confidence. Then I tell them about Longfellow, widowed father of six, whose oldest son enlisted in the Union Army without telling him. After a series of close shaves, Charles Longfellow was shot in battle in Virginia in late November of 1863. So in December his father and brother set out to Washington, D.C., where young Charles hovered in critical condition, unsure if he’d survive or, if he did, if he’d walk again.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

“So picture him,” I tell my students. “Longfellow sitting in the hospital, hearing these bells on Christmas and waiting to find out if his son would live. That’s the context. And for this poem, it’s important.”

With the setting established, my students get to work reading and rereading the poem, comparing it to their lists of terms and trying to decipher what deeper meaning they can find from the poetic structure of stanza, rhyme and refrain. I wander the room as they work, giving a hint here and there.

When we come back together after ten minutes, my students have answers for me.

“It has a… a refrain? The last line is the same in every stanza. ‘Of peace on earth, good-will to men.’ That’s a refrain, right?”

“Yes,” I answer, nodding. “Yes to the meaning, and yes to the refrain. The meaning comes from the refrain, right? Without the refrain, it’s just someone saying, ‘Yay, it’s Christmas! But I’m sad. But yay!’ The refrain also has another poetic device with it. Starts with an A…”

“Alliteration? Apostrophe? Assonance?” my students read from their lists.

“You know it’s not those ones. Come on, it’s…”

“An allusion?” someone ventures.

“It’s an allusive refrain!” I reply. “Exactly, and you know what it’s alluding to. The angel said this, right?”

For a moment we’re closer to Sunday School than upper-level literature class, but it’s a moment when my Christian-school kids have the upper hand at something, so we savor it. As a group they tell me about a choir of angels and some bedraggled shepherds who receive the best news of their lives. We zoom out and talk about Israel’s state in that moment, occupied by Rome and ruled by a megalomaniacal, insecure king. Israel needed peace, good-will, and here was an angel promising just that, gifts from the Messiah they’d been waiting for.

“And that’s what Longfellow saw, too,” I continue. “America torn apart by the Civil War, families literally killing each other with no end in sight. A world that still needs peace, good-will, a savior. Longfellow saw it, and we see it.”

Do we ever. The ones who pay attention to the news are more specifically worried, but none of them can shut their eyes to the refugees filling Europe, nor the wars ravaging places that my own students have lived or visited. The refrain is important to us as much as it was to the shepherds or to an aging poet and his injured son.

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
     “For hate is strong,
     And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” 

We return to the theme, the meaning they decided on and I wrote on the board in red ink. “Hope in the midst of difficult times.” At the beginning of the school year we spent some time talking about the definition of “literature,” the criteria by which we set it apart from other written words. One of them was that literature had to be concerned with “ideas of permanent and universal interest.” In the midst of global crises and turmoil, talking with young adults about the hope they cling to as they come of age in a chaotic world, this concept has never been more relevant.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
     The Wrong shall fail,
     The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

As we wrap up the last stanza, I’m thinking of a Bible class I visited a few weeks ago, a tenth-grade class just starting their study of Revelation. It’s a weird book, the teacher told them, full of maybe-symbols and numbers and disaster, but the important point is that in the end, Jesus wins. That’s the takeaway, he said. Just remember.

Like marginalized shepherds, low on the socioeconomic ladder, burdened by layers of oppression as they waited for a savior. Like Longfellow, at a hospital in the war-torn U.S. capitol, waiting for his son to wake. Like all of us, worried or wandering, heartbroken or homeless, in these dark days. We remember, we grasp with outstretched fingers for the promise of our Savior, who has already conquered the darkness.

The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.

Weight, Wait

Ponderously pregnant at 39 weeks (and 3 days!), posing with future Aunt Holly

I’m a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.

from “Metaphors,” Sylvia Plath

It’s one of those poems that I have almost memorized by accident, Plath’s “Metaphors,” a “riddle in nine syllables” I’ve set to many classes of eleventh graders. “What is she talking about?” I’ll ask them, and then sit back to watch their too-cool faces screw up into concentration, as if these exaggerated frowns and squints will somehow figure it out for them. It’s a lesson in metaphors, in tone, in scansion. Someone will interpret a metaphor, someone else will count the nine syllables and nine lines, a perfect square of a poem. If circumstances become desperate, I’ll draw the “melon strolling on two tendrils”–a droll, cartoonish image–on the white board, and let them interpret it. It’s all such fun, and eventually someone has an epiphany.

“She’s pregnant!” he’ll cry confidently, only seconds later starting to doubt. “I mean, right?”

Yet though I’ve taught it dozens of times, I’ve only lived it this once, and I identify more than I thought I would. Not with the last few lines, where the tone shifts from ambivalence (“a means, a stage, a cow in calf”) to dread (“Boarded the train there’s no getting off.”), but to the first few amusing images: the melon, the elephant, the house.

It’s the “ponderous house” that resonates now, just a few days before my daughter’s due date. That word, ponderous, means “heavy and clumsy,” but also faintly echoes its sibling, ponder, both descended a Latin word for “weight.” (This Latin root also gives us pound… I could follow words all day.) How appropriate both are at the moment, when I’m feeling both literally heavy and clumsy, but also thoughtful, prone to pondering the nature of the world I inhabit and compare it to her tiny world, this “house” I’ve become for her these last few months.

We’re waiting for snow up here at Snoqualmie Pass, a maddeningly too-low place where the temperature hovers at 33˚ F, and we alternate between rain and snow daily in this late-autumn season. Everything that can change or die has done so, leaving the forest a familiar dark-green and light-brown, waiting for winter’s transformation. Possibly snow tonight, the weather report says. Probably Monday. Rain again Tuesday. 10 inches of snow Wednesday. We’ll see.

So I find myself again identifying with a forest, as I did six months ago in the Black Forest of southwestern Germany. Then we were waiting, the forest and I, for green-leafed spring and the internal and external signs of life after a tiring first trimester of pregnancy. Now we’re waiting for new seasons. For the clean, cold monochrome of winter, for the sleepless love of new parenting. For this little person I’ve gotten to know by touch to introduce herself to my other senses, and to everyone else. We wait, sometimes patiently, for snow and for her.

I know I’m not the only one waiting, and feel fortunate to have the joy of waiting for something so beautiful. The events of the last 24 hours–Paris filled with terror, death and loss–remind me that we’re all still waiting for peace. Across the world, I have students who cross daily from Germany back to France, the country they call home, and others who’ve spent portions of their childhoods in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and now watch those places crumbling behind them. And millions of people I don’t know but have seen in countless photos, still walk and sail north and west, fleeing war and devastation, searching for home and safety. We’re waiting. For joy, for peace, for hope. For light.

Advent begins soon, another season of waiting. Never has the prophet Isaiah seemed more accurate, his promises more hopeful. Because we are a people walking in darkness, and we have seen a great light. A light that’s already conquered the darkness, though we can’t always tell. We wait expectantly for a Savior who’s already come, who reminds us that He brings peace on earth, good will toward men.

The snow will fall eventually, and sometime between now and the end of November, Luci will make her appearance. And we’re waiting, all of us, for the light, confident in the strength and love of our Savior.

East

Five years ago, I left the Pacific Northwest. I was alone and excited, seeking adventure and responding to calling on this quest eight thousand miles east. In a few weeks, I’m going back, married and expecting a baby, but with the same sense of calling and adventure as I retrace my steps back to the North Cascades.

 

East

 

This is my letter to the East,

Who always called to me.

 

Driving south were Mickey Mouse,

In-N-Out and Grandma’s house.

North meant order,

Cool green border,

signs in French and ferry rides.

And West was only water.

 

But ghostly East,

You lurked beyond

The penciled hills that hid the dawn.

To lands where anything could come,

Your roads rolled infinitely on.

 

Later you told tales wild,

Of castles fair and colonies,

Battlefields and Bible lands

Were all with you, and always true.

You were real and reeling me

To shores appealing, feeling

I could sail to you,

If only I’d go far enough.

That Narnia and Normandy

Shared some secret, eastern shore.

 

And now I’ve chased you,

Near and far,

From home to home, by

Plane, train, car,

I’ve read a nation backwards,

Halfway, saved the start

For later days, the older part.

I’ve skipped the seas, and skimmed the globe,

A round stone,

Touching down, covering ground,

In shimmering rings and splashing sound.

 

Still, wild East, you call to me:

There’s more to walk, to hear, to see.

In two-named towns and creaking trains,

Find onion domes and Mongol plains.

You tempt me with your grey-green steppes,

That climb forever, back in time,

A curious and endless debt,

Of exploration now is mine.

 

Perhaps—someday—I’ll find you, far,

I’ll recognize your eastern smile.

You’ll tell me that I’ve learned it all,

And let me sit and rest a while.

But now, my East, you’re not a place,

You can’t be found or reached by road.

A mystery that makes me wait,

That pulls me west, and back, and home.

A new adventure, small, not grand,

In a pacific, emerald land,

Where soon I’ll hold a tiny hand.

You draw me back where I’ve begun,

So West is East, your face, my sun.

 

 

Waiting for Spring

Early Spring

Early spring forest

 

This is the spot:—how mildly does the sun
Shine in between the fading leaves! the air
In the habitual silence of this wood
Is more than silent: and this bed of heath,
Where shall we find so sweet a resting-place?

William Wordsworth, from “Traveling”

I walked the woods for months, looking for it. In the delicate, soft browns of the leafless trees. In the pale sky, crisscrossed with branches that let in every diffuse beam of monochrome light. In the damp earth, silent underfoot, without crunch of frost or splash of mud to whisper up from dusty boots. Spring was nowhere to be found, though winter had long ended.

Even back in Seattle days, spring was my least favorite season. I’ve grown fonder of it here, because warmth comes sooner and deciduous trees and wildflowers lend a bookend transformation to the splendor of autumn, but even so it doesn’t come soon enough. I am happy with winter–with real, colorless winters of snow and frost, mornings so cold they take my breath away–but sometime in March I stop wanting it.

I want spring to fall on us suddenly, like a screen at the back of a stage, a change of scene, temperature, everything. I don’t want to linger here, as with autumn, when I cling to the shortening days like the last leaves grasping their branches in a final splash of color. No, I’d like cold to warm, all in one go, please? Not William Carlos Williams’s “sluggish, dazed spring.” I want E.E. Cummings, “puddle-wonderful” and “mud-luscious.”

This March, deep in the frustration of early spring, I found out one morning that I was pregnant. Am pregnant. With the realization came delight and excitement, the new thoughts whirling around Timmy and me, our own little tornado of unfamiliar hopes. We whispered in the pre-dawn dark our prayers for this sesame seed of a person. It was a lovely moment, the first day of our spring.

And after that came the cold and rainy days, outside and inside. The new fears and worries, the sickness and weariness that I’d read about but never truly understood. Many days, it was only this sickness that reminded me something was happening, since there was nothing to see. I felt better when I was outside and moving, so I kept walking through my forests, still bare and bright and leafless.

One day I walked high above our town, to where a particular stand of trees fills a dent in the hilltop and the undergrowth is especially thin. On snowy days it is elegantly striped with white floor and black trunks. In autumn it is a blaze of yellow, top to bottom.

I hadn’t really come to see these trees on this lackluster spring day. This spot that I loved was simply on the way. Yet when I got there, though the slender trunks stood where they always had, the ground was completely new. Covered in fine green carpet, dotted with white and yellow stars of flowers. A bare forest, but not quite. There was life under my feet, all around me. Somewhere, a single bird was singing.

And I thought, this is me these days. Full of life I can’t see, but life real and important, all the same. Life below the surface, beginning slowly like the first spring days. How much easier to have it all at once. Not a baby right away, perhaps, but maybe a lovely round belly, with feet I can feel stretching inside of me, reminding me with undeniable kicks that something new is coming. Instead I wait, with the practice of thirty springs before now, for the new life I cannot yet see, or often feel.

Now, several weeks later, Kandern is soaked in warm rain, the leaves unfurling their highlighter greens on every branch, as promised. Spring always comes, even when I’m impatient. As for my spring, it’s lime-sized and slower in unfolding, but here with me all the same. Teaching me to wait, to hope, and to thank God for each new day of this new season of our lives.

Later spring

Later spring forest

Places as People

75906_692742706330_1174899592_nAnd having answered so I turn once more to those who
     sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
     and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
     so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
     job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
     little soft cities…

Carl Sandburg, from “Chicago” 

I take the long way to Penny Markt for romaine lettuce and a baguette, back behind the hill and past the dairy farm and Italian villa on the edge of the golf course. I’ve come this way because today is sunny and I’m extraordinarily busy. My day began with a meeting at 8:00 AM, and it won’t really end until my senior small group leaves around 9:00 PM. Or when I finish the mountain of dishes, a good half-hour later. A long Monday, with just this hour for walking and groceries, so I seize it feeling too busy not to go for a walk.

The green hills don’t disappoint, today exploding with apple blossoms that fall in graceful showers around me with each breath of gentle spring breeze. I might be in heaven, I think for a fleeting moment, or I might simply live in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. This, I remind myself for the thousandth time, this is home.

As I walk I’m thinking about the poems my students wrote last week, “city poems” inspired by Carl Sandburg’s 1914 mixed-message ode to his hometown. Sandburg personifies Chicago throughout the poem, creating of his native city a burly, bare-chested young man who is at various times “wicked,” “brutal,” and “crooked,” a “husky, brawling” youth that would frighten as quickly as inspire. Halfway through the poem, however, Sandburg changes his tune. Chicago is all of this, he admits, but look again. Is anyone more alive? A better fighter? Cleverer or with more self-awareness? This is my city, Sandburg seems to claim, all of him.

“And it’s only when you know a place, really know it,” I told my students, “That you can manage this. Places are like people, when you know them.”

I briefly sketched what sort of personifying poem I could write about Paris–having visited for only twelve hours–pouring on details of a baguette-clutching, wine-swilling, haughty mime, bringing shudders from the French students.

“I don’t know Paris,” I admitted. “It’s not a person to me. It’s flat, like a map. No layers. People have layers, and so do places, when you know them. And you know places that most people don’t. Pick a place. Make it a character.”

With a few understanding nods, students began their poems by jotting titles on their pages: “Bishkek,” “Calhoun, Georgia,” “Dubai” and others I’d even heard of. Word by word, people climbed out of the pages. Old and young, rich and poor, naive and threatening, innocent and criminal. Not all of them ended with Sandburg’s defense, but every poem expressed the deep knowing that comes from calling a place home, if only for a little while.

But sometimes knowing is a journey, not a destination. I sit down and reread my poem, “Kandern,” written a few years ago. It’s not wrong, exactly; when I wrote it, this was what I knew of this place I’d come to live. Now I’d write a different poem. “Knowing comes in layers,” I reflected more than four years ago, back at the beginning of this season. I haven’t gotten to the bottom of this place, of any place, just like I haven’t gotten to the bottom of any person. There will always be more to know. There will always be more home to have.

I round the corner behind the dairy farm, still under the canopy of apple trees, and pause. This is a beautiful place, a place I’m just getting to know, even after five years. But there are other places, other years. The journey from home to home, so familiar now, continues again soon, taking us both back and forward.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T.S. Eliot. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” In two months we’ll be in Virginia; in three we’ll be in Washington. Those places where we started.

We’re excited to know them again.

The Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman

WhitmanThe first Monday after Christmas, my students are bent over their textbooks, reading the poetry of Walt Whitman aloud. With no explanation for who Walt Whitman was or how he liked to write, I’ve instructed them to read the selected bits of “Song of Myself”–classroom-appropriate excerpts, though still bizarre and unsettling–back and forth in pairs. When finished, they are to discuss the questions on the overhead:

  1. What stanzas are the most surprising or interesting to you? Why?
  2. What “rules” of poetry is he following? What rules is he breaking?
  3. What kind of person do you imagine him to be?

As I walk around the room, I hear rather more surprised giggles and shudders than I expected. So far it’s been a year of explaining punchlines–spending hours laying foundations for why this book or that poem is important, funny, interesting, ironic–so I’m pleased to see them engaging with something without much introduction.

When we come back together as a class, the first two questions uncover more questions than answers (Why did he write this? What does he mean by “I am the poet of a woman”? What even is poetry? Does this really count?). The third, however, provokes the most interesting images.

“If he walked in here, what would he be like?” I prompt them.

My usually reticent class of juniors erupts with hypotheses:

“He’d be smoking a cigar!”

“He’d be a… what are they called? Oh, he’d be a hippie.”

“He’d be one of those people who really care about a handshake. He’d had a good handshake, I think.”

“He’d definitely be calling everyone ‘son’ or ‘sport,’ or something.”

All this from a few stanzas of an image-rich and narcissistic 19th-century poem. It strikes me once again that teenagers get less credit than they deserve. I had a professor in college who doubted that teenagers could truly study literature (apparently forgetting that half of her students were still teenagers, and a solid third were studying to become teachers), saying with a shrug that maybe books could only be enjoyed, not truly understood by high school students.

Confession: There are days I that wonder. Days that I spend hours dreaming up how to make Hawthorne more interesting or Emerson more transparent, or planning how to introduce The Great Gatsby so that my students give it a chance. Teaching a chronological survey of American Literature, I spend the whole first quarter of each year explaining (and sometimes apologizing for) archaic language. Wouldn’t it be easier to read things they like? Books that are accessible, or poems that have helpful rhyme and easy metaphor. Surely there’s value in that, though not the value of shared tradition or intellectual challenge.

Instead, I teach Walt Whitman to young people who may not understand it, and discover for the thousandth time that understanding can take many forms. They may not be ready to write their doctoral theses on Leaves of Grass, but they know our Walt, walking through the door with a firm handshake and a genial manner.

When they’ve finished with “Song of Myself,” they begin on “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” After most of them have read the eight lines, I hear an exclamation of delight from the front of the room.

“Hey, I actually get that one! I understood a poem!”

“What’s he saying?” I ask him.

“He was in school, listening to a lecture on stars, and he got bored. So he went outside to look at the stars. It’s about, you know, experienceLiving, you know.”

I remember their imaginary friend Walt, their chorus of voices mesmerized by his odd ode to himself. I could have lectured, could have taught the poem. Instead, they read it, looking up at the stars until they understood. Or understood enough for now.

And today it’s the small epiphanies I love.

29: To The Wanderers

A few years ago, I paraphrased some of Jeremiah 29, the oft-quoted letter to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. While no one I know is in literal exile, it occurred to me then that many of my friends and students–all over the world and for a variety of reasons–find themselves in unfamiliar places, and are uncertain of how long they’ll stay. As I spend the summer in Europe, thinking of the weddings, movings, job interviews and freshman years happening in North America, Jeremiah’s words seemed especially relevant. This poem is my prayer for all of us.

 

To the millennial wanderers.

To the graduate students

soldiers

missionaries

residents

spouses

corps members

of all kinds.

 

Sign a lease—

just a year

or two.

Get a cell phone

with a contract.

Frame and hang

pictures—

even shelves.

Buy some plants—try

to keep them alive.

Join a soccer team.

Get a dog—or a cat—

if you must.

Make friends, good ones,

who make you laugh

think

long to live well.

Expand your world;

don’t shrink it.

 

This isn’t forever—none of it.

When it’s time to go,

you’ll know.

But you’re here;

Be here.

 

I haven’t forgotten you:

Believe me.

The plans are brilliant,

Brimming with delight,

Not despair.

Tomorrow will come,

And the day after that.

 

But in this desert

you’re listening

close,

looking at me

like you never have.

As lost as you’ve ever been,

you’ll find me

if you keep looking.

And here’s the magic:

I’ll be found.

And so will you.