Saturday, April 26, 2014

Make It Thinking

"Describe a small town in Arizona," I write on the board as a journal prompt.  Immediately an uproar.

"Ms., what do you mean by small?"

"Does it have to be in Arizona?"

"But I've never been to Arizona."

"I know a small town in Minnesota."

"What exactly is a small town?"

I tell them to trust their imaginations. There is no right or wrong.  Seventeen-year-old smart-asses, "Is New York a small town?"  I say no.  "Then there is a right or wrong."

I grin at the banter.  "Explore the spectrum closer to small."

"How much do we have to write?"

"A paragraph.  Like we always do -- five to eight sentences."

"But what if we use semicolons?"

"Yeah, the independent clauses could be sentences.  So, then would we only have to write three?"

"What if it's commands?  Stop.  Go. Stop. Go. Stop.  There's my five sentences."

" You write five lines with letters the size of 10 pitch Times New Roman."

It quiets down though it is never completely silent.  Then my coteacher asks them to share out.  Flat.  But wait I think there're mountains in Arizona.  It might be in the mountains.  Dust.  Hot.  Everyone knows everybody.  It's not on the map like the big cities are (this from the one troubled by the size of small).  It doesn't have a star.  Shops and stores. Swimming pools.  Racism.  Native American reservations.  Those bricks that are made out of mud.  Adobe.  Aliens.  Oh wait, that might be New Mexico.  Dust storms.  Illegal activities.  You're thinking of Breaking Bad.  That's in New Mexico.  Mines. Root beer. Tumble weeds.  Single corporation economy. Everyone depends on that one corporation for jobs.  Mexicans.  Palm trees.  No water.   Beige, yellow, red, brown.  Maybe green if there is water.  But that's only where the rich people are.  Coyotes. Lizards.  Snakes.  Critters.  Donkeys. Empty spaces.

Tapping in to background knowledge.  Exposure to vocabulary.    Ready to start reading Animal Dreams.  Love these kids.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

No Matter What

"No matter what you may lose, it is possible to respond with tenderness." -- Mark Doty

I sing in a community choir.  It is something I struggle with:  I give energy to teaching, to my sons, my poetry group, the music parent organization, classes I'm taking.  Is it selfish to sing instead of attending to the monsters of clutter on the kitchen table, the hutch, the coffee table, and the piano bench?  Instead of helping my mom, instead of driving down to see me dad?  I also grapple with singing because, although I perform every day in the classroom, or reading my poems, singing unlocks an intense vulnerability.  More than any other time, when singing I doubt I am good enough.  Maybe it is the mystery of the choir that draws me back.  We have to trust almost strangers with our fears in order to make music.  So I go back every week and add my voice.

It happens that our director, Mark Stamper, built our next concert around the theme of American Landscapes.  We are singing Frostiana, a choral work based on several poems by Frost.  This is one of those serendipitous moments when two or more of my worlds touch.  He had the idea to weave poetry throughout the program.  Several members had seen an article in the local paper about my poetry group, The Gamuts, and mentioned I knew poems.  So Mark is trusting me to choose poems that complement the pieces we are singing.  I am thrilled to have an excuse to read poetry.   My teacher-pulse speeds up:  we can show how music carries meaning and words carry music -- these are the beams and nails of us.  I blow dust off of books, start digging.

In the back of my mind, I am remembering.  A while ago, maybe five years past, my father took me to the airport.  Just before we reached the drop-off, looking at the road with tears in his eyes, he said, "I don't want to lose my memory; I don't want this to happen."  I hugged him best I could while he was driving and assured him we would travel this road together, he wasn't doing it alone and we would be there with him and for him.

Just after Christmas this year, Dad was kicked out of the memory unit he was in because he was being aggressive.  There were alarms and bells going off all the time. Residents had figured out they could open the fire door and knew that pushing a doorbell had something to do with the door being opened to the outside.  If you figure -- someone is agitated because he can't tell people what he wants, and there are bells and screeches all the time. He will become even more agitated. He is a person who always DID something.  His mantra was, "I can't solve the world's problems, but I can get up and go to work."  He always went to work.  Even as his language and cognitive pathways dissolved, he would get up and go do something.  He can't stay at home anymore because he paces day and night, opens doors if they're not dead-bolted.  Mom could not sleep and she was afraid he would fall down the stairs in the dark.  She called the doctor and they adjusted his meds.  As his dementia progresses, he has less control overall.  He needs structure built from the outside because he does not have the brain structures inside. But he still has the drive to DO something.

I saw Dad two weeks ago in the new care facility.  He sat with his neighbors watching a demonstration of how to make guacamole.  All the residents got a cup with chips and dip.  One woman asked if it was ice cream.  Dad ate only the chips. I tried to rub his shoulders.  He was so tense it was like trying to rub a table top.  He spun around and glared at me. He was unshaven.  (He ALWAYS shaved.)  His razor was missing. Hair uncombed. His glasses were missing.  The caregivers said it took four to dress him; he had fought with them.  No one seemed to know if he had slept the night before.   Most of his clothes have gone missing.  Mom wonders if this is the right thing.  But what else can she do?  She needs knee replacement.  Her dog had a seizure last week.

I wonder about what I told my dad in the car that day.  Are we supporting him?  Are we there for him?   What has his life become?  I ponder this a lot.  I know my mom and my brothers do as well.  There are many who believe that when a loved one can no longer live at home, it is a sign of weakness or abandonment to take them to a care facility.  Those people have not yet traveled this road. Dementia is a long walk through the landscape of loss.  Drawn out and painful.   What has his life become?  We are all trying to figure this out.  It seems no one has the answers.

I need a poem to introduce the whole concert.  Something big and grand (and American and accessible) to tie the heavens to humanity, like "At the Earth's Imagined Corners." I grab Bill Moyers' anthology Fooling with Words from my shelf.  I used it when I taught Intro to Creative Writing at CU.  Thumbing through, I come upon Mark Doty's poem about a community choir singing Handel.  The next poem is about losing his partner to complications from AIDS.  Reading through the interview with Moyers, there is Doty's statement:  "No matter what you may lose, it is possible to respond with tenderness."  In my greater searching, this is what I have been looking for.  As my father slips away, I can still show him tenderness.  I can learn that.  That is what I promised him before his foundations twisted.

Tenderness is built on vulnerability -- the very vulnerability I struggle with when I sing.  This is why I must sing, to learn the humility of imperfection.  To figure out how to be in this world.  Singing shows how to create from vulnerability and trust.  It is the tenderness that is born from them.  This tenderness -- sometimes the only response that remains.

Monday, January 6, 2014


When the black dog dips her nose and looks at the ground. When babies babble, coo, and cry.  A tea kettle screeches and dribbles over in its excitement.  A goose (matching the fog) calls out.  No answer.  Calls.  Nothing.  Calls.  These all have their significance. Maybe the context of sound or company or lack creates meaning.  We build connections where they may not be to build ourselves.  Pushing against what we know and what we do not, we establish the table because of the chair. Blindness means sight. Duchamp made a fountain because we piss.   We use language to trace our thoughts and tantalize them.  Saussure and the Structuralists used all these segments to explain.  But what happens when the ties between the twig drawings on the walls do not exist?  When there may or may not be a subjective or temporal relation between "Jesus Christ!" and "He...uh," and "Yeah!" or "No!" What happens when things are deconstructed, not because it is a fun postmodern game to play, not because the absurd extracts truth, but because my father's frontal temporal lobes no longer function?  As a high school teacher, I have learned to hear what my students mean to say and pick with them as they uncover the best way to say it.  Here is an obscurity I cannot mark.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Memory Markers

     To destinations.  We rush or lurch to focus points, there to begin.  As if the setting must be achieved before the story. These highway lines the repetition between two points.  Habitualized by tar and rubber:  automatons with alarms, in automobiles.  We speed like two ton machines of metal, impervious before and after the sun in slush, giggling at a dj's disrespect, glancing at the flash of a text.  The guy in the gray sedan next lane pretends invisible and picks his nose. Yawn.  And brake.  Reach out and scrape the ice forgotten on the mirror.  Cradle the phone and cuss the coffee cold with half and hour left to go.  Shit!  When is this asshole going to let me in?  Now the traffic stops again.  I've only made it to the Terrell Constantine In Loving Memory Don't Drink and Drive sign.  There are new pink plastic flowers holding grey snow.  Someone tied packages and ribbons to the post.  A blink of stuffed animal in plastic then the white van with ladders on top starts to move again.  A couple of feet. It stops.  A new blue sign below the Verizon billboard.  In Loving Memory Ami Alonzega and Krista Marie Campos Don't Drink and Drive.  That little spot of land has become sacred in its insistence that we notice there were lives that have gone.  In Bolivia there are wooden crosses along the carretera where people have died and you cross yourself and kiss your fingers as you pass.  Acknowledgement of the holy.  And I wonder about the dirt beneath the concrete.  How many crosses fall and are not replaced?  Before there were highways, who died on this spot two hundred years ago?  Was the sign placed exactly where they died?  They couldn't put it in the middle of the road.  Any given dot on this blue dot could be where someone died.  Or where someone was born.  Maybe all Earth has been consecrated. We cannot read the memory of the soil:  where it was brought from, where it has blown.  Sometimes, only, when we stop so we can see.