Let the Poem

TTR2.1COVERBLACK-232x300I published a poem this month! It’s the first one that formally drops me into the professional category because they paid me. You can read it for free online here by clicking on the cover image. The journal also has a Mini Contest for each issue – you can vote for your favorite in each category.

For most of my usual blog readers, a literary journal is probably a bit of a foreign artifact. The first time I published in an ungrad journal I didn’t even show my mother a copy because the cover was a horrifying piece of Chucky-style doll art. And even my poem in this particular journal is very different from the kind of things I write about here – basically my kids these days. But there is a method to this seemingly bi-polar writing style and basically it has to do with being better at all of it.

What we love about good actors is that they can portray dissimilar characters with ease. My daughter Ada has been mourning the loss of Professor Snape while I grieve for Colonel Brandon. I’d like my work as a writer to have a similar scope – which means I hope to be read by more than one kind of reader. A poetry mentor of mine believed the healthiest writers could write in more than one genre.

In case you are hoping I’ll tell you what “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture” is about, prepare to be disapponted. I won’t tell you because that would be like telling you reading one person’s movie review was as good as watching the movie yourself. A poem is a very different thing from an essay or a work of fiction. It’s probably as far from a blog post as two pieces of writing could be.

A poem is a carefully crafted piece of fiction, even if it is based on a real-life experience. This is the single piece of writing pedagogy that opened me up to the possibility of becoming a poet. In the process of writing, the poem becomes a new thing. Even if it started from something that actually happened, once it is on the page the poem is then crafted into whatever it wants to be as a piece of art. Every word, syllable, and line is re-arranged, edited, re-created.

In the case of “At the Nadia Bolz-Weber Lecture,” the speaker of the poem wasn’t even me anymore. As a writer, I had been constrained by telling the truth as I knew it and that limited me from exploring the many ways a moment could be experienced by myself or by others. This poem is how I imagined a person could have experienced that lecture, those words.

When you read a poem, keep those things in mind:

Remember the poet is not necessarily the speaker.

Remember the poem is always about more than what happened. The poem is how the poet tells you it happened, every word, space, and line break. The poem is the experience of reading the poem, hearing each word break through your conscious and unconscious mind.

This is, not incidentally, what I think makes some people love poetry and others hate it. You don’t get to “torture a confession out of” a poem (as Billy Collins brilliantly remarks). You only get to read it, hear it, feel it.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love to tease meaning out of a poem! And I’d love for you do to that with mine. I love a poem that captures my imagination with language, rhythm, or sound but isn’t clear immediately to my mind. I love re-reading it, studying each line and word choice, and eventually making connections that add up to a sense of meaning. You can read my personal anthology of favorites here.

You just shouldn’t try to make a poem something that it isn’t: an essay, for example, or a blog post. Let the poem be a poem. Who knows what all goes into one person preferring Professor Snape to Colonel Brandon … but they are both brilliant, aren’t they? Suited to different tastes and purposes perhaps, but created by the same person (with obvious direction and inspiration from outside sources, which is another discussion entirely).

Happy reading – whatever you choose!

She Looks Just Right

When I take a photo like this, I know Dan is going to lean over my shoulder as I’m posting it to Instagram and say something like, “She looks way too old in this pic.” And I’m probably going to smile and say, “I know.”

I see it on your Facebook photos, too. If our kids aren’t looking too old, they’re growing to fast. “SOMEONE STOP TIME!” you type under the adorable photos of your infant with one of those clever __ months old stickers on her chest. (I got married AND had children pre-Pinterest. What a waste.)

But you know what I’ve been thinking lately? Nope, it’s all just right. This age at this speed. It’s all just right. It’s good to appreciate the brevity of life. I think that’s a smart way to live. But I wonder sometimes if we subconsciously amp ourselves up like the mice I read about once in a book. Researchers put a group of regular, healthy mice into a cage with a group of mice who were totally hopped up on amphetamines. Within minutes the normal, healthy mice were spinning and jumping and gagging just like the methed-out mice. I start feeling a bit like that when I scroll through photo after photo in my social media feeds with these kinds of comments about everything happening too fast. I start believing it is all happening too fast.

I have to remind myself that nothing actually happens sooner than it happens. And there must be a rhythm to this system of growing and changing that makes sense for our species, for our hearts. As the beautiful song from the movie About Time says, “there’s gold in them hills.” The hills of two year-olds and tweens, infants and young adults.

In the hills of third grade and eight years old, I’m going to remind myself she doesn’t look too old, she looks just right.

At the End of the World

In a movie I watched recently, two strangers face the literal end of the world together. It was quite beautiful, really. And it got me thinking about what I would do if in the news today we were informed that an asteroid was on-pace to impact the earth with certain annihilation in the next 24 hours. What would I want to do?

I knew right away I wouldn’t want to be at my computer writing, which surprised me in some ways since writing is sort of one of my things. I also knew I wouldn’t care about searching for a great job anymore. I wouldn’t care about solving the many social issues that weigh heavy on my conscience almost constantly, because I’d know there wouldn’t really be much I could do in that amount of time. My goals would be much smaller, much simpler.

What would I want to do with the last 24 hours of our collective lives here on earth? I made a quick list of 5 things.

1. I’d want to walk my kids to school through my neighborhood. I mark my days by this walk. Or walk them home — in September when the air is still warm but the nights are cool enough to trick the trees into changing costumes from green to ruddy oranges, golden, and crimson. The sun would slant through the branches and between the two-story houses. The breeze would clear the uneven sidewalks of slowly dropping leaves. The girls’ voices would fall and rise, interrupting each other in the excitement over their days – tales of playground triumphs, classroom pedagogy, and lunchtime disappointments.

2. I’d want to sit at a football game. High school. Also in September, or maybe October when a mid-weight jacket is still enough but claps are muted by gloves. The band would play and the teams would battle. We’d eat stadium food and catch up with our neighbors. We’d laugh and cheer and groan. The photo above is from a baseball game – it doesn’t quite take me to the same happy place but close.

3. I’d want to be on a road trip with my husband. The sun would be shining in our windows and he’d be playing his latest musical find. We’d be talking about the future – or, considering the asteroid, maybe we’d be talking about our shared past. We’d be holding hands and maybe snacking. We’d have a long way to go but it would feel like we were almost there.

4. I’d want to nap with a newborn on my chest. Almost anywhere, but a padded porch swing might be perfect.

5. I’d want to visit the ocean. Or a sea. Not on a crowded sandy beach but on an island in Sweden where smooth boulders meet the salt water and an ancient fortress overlooks a storybook village. I’d want to fika there with every person I have ever liked or loved.

What do I notice about this list, the list that jumped first into my mind? It’s really not so much a wish list of things I’d like to do but a celebration of things I’ve already done. Things I know I love. Not a list of longing for unfulfilled desires (although I have some of those) but a list of beautiful moments I’d like to savor again. I wonder what this says about me?

But I think I’m glad.

How about you? What would be on your quick list? (Try to think of this as a rhetorical exercise and not a literal apocalyptic scenario. Otherwise things are going to get a little too intense.)

 

Trust the Process

When we’re parenting it’s easy to get stuck in a moment, to think this or that characteristic about our child may never change. Our picky eater will die of adult-onset malnutrition. Our hot-tempered toddler will have no friends. Our hygiene resistant tween will never find love.

But here’s the good news we often forget: Most of us were picky-eating, hot-tempered, hygiene-resistant kids. We played games, flirted with too many boys, and wasted hours at the pool. But look at us now! Grown-ups with jobs! We’re feeding our children, putting money in the bank. We actually make good choices 80% of the time (give or take a few misguided relational connections and various fad diets).

I’m learning to trust the process of growing up that got us from there to here and not freak out while we’re in the still-forming middle of it all.

 

When Good Parenting Means Doing Less

I write about parenting as an art because that’s the metaphor that makes sense to me. Art is first about skill and basic principles, but it’s also about taste and preference. Too often I assume what is working for me would work for everyone. Not so. Heck, as they say, what works for one of my kids doesn’t even necessarily work for the other three! I say that to make sure you know that when I share about my parenting philosophy practice I’m mostly just trying to share about what’s working for me. I’m not trying to tell you how to do it. (You already have plenty of people in your life doing that, and I might change my mind next month anyway.)

Claire is in summer school this month. I know, mean ol’ me forcing Claire to miss out on the traditional joys of a care-free summer break! To be fair, this program is more of a transition jump-start than remedial academic help. The students go on “missions” in which they have to follow clues to find designated spots in different classrooms and other school spaces (call this interactive tours for 100 kids in their new middle school that will eventually be crammed with 700+). They have relay races in which teams stand in front of lockers and take turns working the combinations (and apparently Claire is far from being the only incoming 7th grader who hasn’t quite mastered this skill yet).

Biggest challenge: she’s riding the bus for the first time. I know, the bus! What am I thinking?! First I put her in public school and now I put her on the bus?! Now you know I’ve lost it.

Here’s what I was thinking. Pick-up at her elementary school was the most difficult concern for Claire on almost any day. She would make trips to the nurse at 10 a.m. because she got herself so worked up about whether or not I’d be standing at the right door after school at 4 p.m. Some mornings she was already crying before school thinking about the afternoon plan. We tried different approaches – from ignoring her to arriving 15+ minutes early to be sure she could see us from the classroom window – but none of it was fail proof emotionally.

So when the middle school open house presentation said bus service would be available for summer school, I thought we had nothing to lose. The grandmothers might have panicked a little (although they are good at playing it cool), but I thought we had to try something different from what we had done so far, especially since middle school parent pick-up is a much more congested and chaotic process than elementary school pick-up. This year Jesse weaved his own way through bus lines, rowdy students, and a busy parking lot to get to wherever I had found an open parking space. I couldn’t see that same scenario working for Claire.

I also thought Claire might see the bus as a fixture of transportation reliability. What is always there when you walk out of school? The school bus line. What isn’t always there when you walk out of school? Your parent (NOTE: We were late or not within sight a total of three times the entire year, but it left a mark).

On her first morning, she trooped up those tall bus steps and never looked back. Even when her driver needed a sub this week and the bus was late at school, Claire was fine. I asked her what they did while they waited. “We just sat together on the grass. Mr. Cody has our names on his clip board, so he called the bus.”

(It’s not hard to make people feel safe. I was surprised by how much it meant to Claire that her bus driver and the school security officer knew her by name and kept track of whether or not she was on the bus. That’s all she needed to feel covered.)

This week I watched her bus driver move a kid to a different seat so that Claire could have the one in the very front. I didn’t ask her to do that, but I was very pleased to see it happen. Can being a public school bus driver be a gift to the world? I think, yes! The bus stop is just a block from our home; from it she can see our van in its parking space. She’s currently working up the bravery to walk home on her own. She’s just waiting for me to get her a key to the front door. (WHAT?!)  And I’m so proud of her. Since she’s started summer school, it’s been like watching her grow-up through that iPhone super speed filter.

What I’m doing, in some ways, is setting her up to not need me. It would have been easier in a lot of ways to drive her to and from summer school. But learning to ride a bus is making her braver. I’ve read stories about New York kids who take the subways to and from dentist appointments in the middle of the school days.The SUBWAY!

What if learning to ride the bus gives Claire a freedom she might not otherwise have? Can I overcome my own fears so that she can enjoy that? I’m not sure either of us has the nerve for her to get her driver’s license. A school bus today could be the city bus tomorrow. She could learn to ride to high school, work maybe. I don’t know what her future looks like. I just don’t want to get in the way. If I truly want her to be brave when facing the world, I probably need to start by being brave myself, which sometimes means doing less so that she can do more.

 

 

“…I’m a Lily.”

My husband hosts the 5-in5 Songwriting Challenge every year. It’s for anyone – from artists who have already recorded their own albums to kids still learning their instruments. It’s for any kind of song – from love songs to Jesus songs to very silly songs to instrumentals. You can sing, play, or both. You can record audio through Garage Band or simply hit record on your video device of choice and start singing. It’s an awesome, awesome thing to see people do the work in the first place (because writing is HARD) and then be brave enough to share it with the world.

Every year – especially this year when our own kids are participating like it’s their job (you know, the kind of volunteer job that sucks all your time and energy and offers no monetary reward) – the 5-in-5 Challenge reminds me of this clip from the classic Capra film You Can’t Take it With You. Here you’ll meet Grandpa, the patriarch, who lives life without worrying about traditional societal conventions. This is one of the first scenes; later scenes in their home highlight a delightful chaos of novelists, inventors, and dancers. The plot centers around visitors from the IRS and from the rich family one of the granddaughters is hoping to marry into. (Please watch the whole movie sometime. We quote from it constantly.)

 

 

Sometimes I like to pretend I’m more practical than the eccentric family portrayed in this movie. But then I remember that our family of six lives in a two-bedroom town home so we can be within walking distance of an ice cream shop (among other reasons, I’m pretty sure). I just finished a terminal degree in creative writing, a field that I love but one that will quite possibly never provide me anything like a lot of money. Dan hosts and participates in 5-in-5 because he believes in its merits, despite the fact that he loses hours of sleep designing the blog posts and interacting with the participants while also making sure he’s doing the creative work for his own music (for his own soul).

We might not have a lot of things … but we have our art and we have each other and we have all the little joys that come with living life surrounded by these gifts. “The die is cast …”

A Finish Line: An Update

I used to sit in my office years ago and flip through MFA program packets and dream about having enough money to attend one someday. Then, dutiful first-born that I am, I enrolled in an MA program because it was more “practical.” (This was true in some ways but not in all ways.) Through a series of circumstances, the MA program at Creighton turned out to be my way into an MFA program. And I was offered a fellowship that paid my tuition and enough stipend money to pay the rent.

My MFA fellowship didn’t only gave me time to write. Because I didn’t have to keep a part-time job on the side, I was able to volunteer in the kids’ classrooms, drop them off and pick them up everyday, bring them forgotten gym clothes and permissions slips. It’s been wonderful for us as a family. We made a big transition from split-level suburbia to two-bedroom town home in the heart of Omaha. The kids started attending large public schools. All of it has proved to be a beautiful adventure and rousing success. The timing for an MFA fellowship was perfect.

Now I’m finished! (Jesse took this photo.) I’ve got that terminal degree (meaning I have the correct papers to be a full professor someday, if the literary and professional stars fall into alignment) and without any extra student loan debt.

We celebrated all weekend and put a beautiful seal around the season of study. My biggest lesson from three years of grad school in literature and creative writing? My writing isn’t good enough, but I have plenty of ideas for how it can be better. The goal is beautiful. That’s what I’m working toward.

For the summer I’m scheduled to tutor GED students for about 20 hours a week, leaving some time for pools, flowers, walks, etc. with the kids. Also leaving time for more writing, revising, and submitting.

I had some good great news last week when an editor at a literary mag accepted one of my poems and asked to see four others after I revise them another time. That was a huge boost to my confidence! I’ve only been submitting for a little while, but when the red “declined” response is piling up, it’s nice to see a little green “accepted” in the queue. (That’s Submittable talk.) I’ll share more details when the particulars are in order.

So the plan is to keep up with my online teaching, part-time tutoring, and writing/revising/submitting for publication. (AND the children; I plan to keep up with the parenting of the children.) Of course, generous soul that I am, I am always open to Dickens-style benefactors. Applications welcome and there is no submission fee!