Saturday, May 16, 2020

Cain Removes His Mask in Public

When we first decided to stay in our homes in order to protect each other from the unmitigated spread of Covid19, there was a sense of solidarity, a sense each and every one of us carried some of the responsibility of keeping each other safe. We were—briefly--like a big, global family. There were, of course, outliers (the toddlers of the family) who didn’t quite seem to understand the basic principles behind the stay-at-home orders, but for the most part, that came across as whiny and lacking self-discipline or as a lack of understanding and access to reliable information.

Two months later, the atmosphere has changed, but, given that over 88,000 people have died of Covid19 as of May 15, not in the way that I would have predicted. Two months ago, 88,000 deaths and counting would have scared the shit out of almost everyone. We’re still losing 1,500 Americans every day to the virus, but the prevailing attitude is not one of fear and caution but of belligerence.

Before I go further, I should acknowledge that I am speaking from a position of safety and privilege. Yes, I am working many hours a day in front of a computer doing a fairly frustrating, nebulous task. But I am doing it from a comfortable home in which each of the four of us who live here can be in a separate room. We each have devices that connect to the internet, which falters surprisingly infrequently given its heavy use. We have enough food. We have paychecks and health insurance. We are fine.

That said, most of the people in my immediate daily circle who are complaining about being “done” with this for a variety of reasons also live in comfortable homes with internet and food and one or two paychecks. People are just growing anxious about the uncertainty, about the inconvenience, about the stress of seeing the same people constantly for two months. We miss our luxuries, our routines, our friends and our families. I get that.

What I do NOT get is that we seem to have shifted from a society that was collectively alarmed at the prospect of 100,000 deaths (almost a certainty at this point) and resolute in its determination to keep that number as low as possible to a society that is angry that it is being asked to save each other’s lives. People are showing anger that in order to get back the things they miss—opening the shops, visiting friends and family, getting back to the business of daily life—they will have to wear masks. They are furious that the government suggests that we could return to a more normal and productive version of society if people agree to be tested for a potentially lethal illness, have their movements tracked and then agree not to spread a potentially deadly disease if they have been exposed to it. People are waving guns at the people trying to make sure as many of us live through this as possible. It’s weird. They’re posting false news articles about the government stealing children away from parents and about masks causing carbon-dioxide poisoning. They’re taking assault rifles into government buildings. They’re hero-worshipping those who actively flaunt recommendations for NOT KILLING people. Why? Because they are being asked to stand six feet away from each other and wear masks to save others’ lives, and they are disgusted with this mandate to really try not to kill each other. THAT I do not understand.

In thinking about this shift in attitude, I suddenly thought about the story of Cain and Abel and Cain’s question to God: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Essentially, that’s what people are asking now, the Biblical question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Is it MY job to keep HIM safe?

The context of this question in its original story, though, provides the answer. When Cain asks this question of God, it isn’t a lament. It’s a response to God asking him about Abel, which was an invitation to confess and beg forgiveness. It’s a response uttered even though Cain knew he’d killed Abel. He knew God knew he’d killed Abel, and he knew God knew he knew God knew. In essence, it was a ridiculous, peevish, childish, selfish, unGodly thing to say. Not only does the context imply that yes, at the very least you ARE responsible for not killing your brother, it points out that even asking the question is a decidedly jerky move.

We could, of course, follow the line of questions and answers into the New Testament. Well, who is my neighbor that I’m supposed to “love?” I’m sure Jesus doesn’t roll his eyes any more than God does in the Old Testament, but his answer also makes clear that the question itself is absurd. Answer: even the people you don’t like, even your “enemies.” Everyone. You don’t get to only love the people you already love. And then there’s the rich young man who asks what else he can do, thinking he’s done it all, but walks away sad when Jesus tells him to sell everything he has, give the profits to the poor, and follow Jesus. The answer is always going to be to wear a face covering if that will save someone else’s life.

We can hide behind our cries of “freedom” and “rights” and “not my problem,” but somehow I’m pretty sure that if I can see that these lines are petty, childish cries of “but I shouldn’t have to not kill my brother! You’re violating my freedom to kill my brother!” then God isn’t fooled either, as God never has been.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Immortal Poems of the English Language

Even as a well-acknowledged nerdy English teacher, I can probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of people I know who regularly read poetry and who would claim that they really "get" it. I used to want to be one of those people. I just...wasn't (with the notable exception of Shel Silverstein, whom I loved and who, I thought, didn't count.) In high school, I decided to change that by reading poetry anyway. When, on a road trip, my parents offered to buy me any book in the bookstore to entertain me (before cars had TVs and any of us had cell phones) I reluctantly turned away from the novels I could have polished off in a few hours and bought Immortal Poems of the English Language. It seemed reasonable to start with the best, right?
It's arranged chronologically, which means that the first poems were written by "anonymous." Shakespeare didn’t appear on the scene for over seventy pages. Truth: I had no idea what I was reading. I didn't like it. But for some reason that, many years later, I must confess that I admire about myself, I kept going. I read/skimmed/looked at the whole damned boring book. Hundreds of pages of poems I didn’t really understand. I could read all the words, but I felt like I was missing something--the thing that makes poetry worthwhile. There were a few spots around the romantics that made me pause, although I really only READ the shorter poems. (I still prefer a poem to be under two pages, honestly.) There were several that seemed not worth rereading just then, but maybe turning down the corner of the page to read later. Every now and then, I'd go back to Immortal Poems of the English Language and read a bit. I still didn't love poetry, but sometimes, for a second or two, it sort of meant something to me.
I took the book with me to college. I wanted to want to read it.
One very cold night when my roommate was off-campus and my heart was broken and I couldn't sleep, I remembered one of those poems. I REMEMBERED a poem I hadn't realized I'd learned in the first place. I got up and turned the light back on and flipped through The Immortal Poems of the English Language, looking for it. But while I looked for it, another poem caught my eye, and I read that. Huh. I still didn’t fully understand it, I still felt like I was missing something that I didn’t know how to truly see, but even so, I FELT the poem. It clicked. It spoke to me. It went beyond liking.
Heart pounding, I kept looking for the poem I thought I remembered. I read a few other poems along the way. I felt a couple of those two. Awed, I read the poem I had wanted to find. I was lonely and heartbroken and trapped in a small room at 2 am, and the poem said what I needed it to say exactly the way I needed it to say it. It dropped a little something solid into what felt like a deep, howling, swirling hole in my center. 
I turned the light back off, opened the curtains, and stared out into the sub-zero night through the crystals that had formed on my window. I repeated the words of the poem. I felt like I was really seeing nighttime for the first time. I felt like I was seeing ice for the first time. My life simultaneously zoomed out into a long, still-empty mystery and focused in on that particular, specific, fully-known moment: that particular scene, those particular words. That was the first moment when I felt both deep gratitude and yearning hunger for the right words.
I’d say I still don’t “get” more poems than I do “get,” but that energizing mix of gratitude and hunger for poetry has become regular and familiar, if no less comfortable than that first night I felt it. Every year when I take a deep, trembling breath and try to teach poetry to teenagers, I start by telling this story and showing them my now tattered copy of Immortal Poems of the English Language. It’s one book I never loan out, partly because it means so much to me and partly because it’s actually kind of a dumb place to start reading poetry. 

Immortal poems of the English language (1952 edition) | Open Library

Monday, May 4, 2020

The magnificence of small

I had a low-electronics high-outside weekend. It meant I had to stay up to midnight last night getting things ready for this morning and that I woke up with a decent (but subsiding, so no worries) headache. I actually feel really good about how much better I've gotten over the past six weeks at riding the waves of living. Granted, the waves right now are small in my little world. Manageable. There are really big tsunami-sized waves in the bigger world that aren't really my job other than to be ready to deal with the impact when/if they arrive in my own little life. But learning to accept my little waves is a good start at being ready for any waves, right?
I was thinking, on a bike ride, about how when I was young, I assumed my life was going to be big. I guess I thought I would be "important" in one way or another. Then the reality is that while I am very important to a smallish number of people in a local sort of way, you could also turn that around and say that I'm just your ordinary suburban English teacher--sort of a nobody from nowhere.
And then I look at trees budding and ride my bike in the slanting late afternoon sunshine and notice the day on which both the spring frogs and the summer frogs are making their music. There is a moment when my daughter panics because Mother's Day is so close and a moment when my son waits for everyone to finish their s'mores before he goes inside to retrieve a sweatshirt so that he can put away the marshmallows at the same time. 
I reworded my vision for myself this weekend. My life might be smaller than I thought it would be, but it's also more precise. The moments are tiny, but they are like those teeny pictures painted on grains of rice or like snowflakes or butterfly wings when you magnify them: small enough to throw away, to miss entirely but, if you look closely, every bit as beautiful and miraculous as anything else in the world.
Small, I decided, is also OK. No, more than that. Small is also valuable. Worth slowing down to look at closely. Worthy of reverence and gratitude and awe. My existence looks and feels smaller than I had dreamed, but if examined carefully, if magnified and admired with a sense of appreciation for the endless capacity for life to be more and more magnificent and complex the closer one gets to the details that make up reality, scale reveals itself as irrelevant. 
I was reminded of an idea I read in an L. M. Montgomery book (I believe it’s Rilla of Ingleside, if you’re looking for a good piece of historical fiction): in order to be infinitely great, God must also be infinitely small. A God that sees only mountains and celebrities is limited. A truly infinitely large, omnipresent God must also know the microscopic organisms that live in streams, must see the trajectory of every single rain drop, must care as deeply for a fragile baby (even one born in a barn, an expendable subject in a mighty empire?) as for world leaders and sports stars. A truly infinite God must, it seems, care deeply about even the small ripples of my life. And so shall I.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

When Force Becomes Gift: Teaching During the First National Quarantine

Yesterday was stressful. I worked for 13 ½ hours (minus lunch and dinner breaks, which I didn’t time) on getting e-learning up and running. Mid-morning, after my team-teacher and I had worked for quite a while on how we could break the summative-grade project we had planned to do next into manageable pieces that could be accomplished at home by our students, we learned that we shouldn’t really be grading during these “Act of God” (I kid you not: this is the terminology used by the State of Illinois) days. I had a LOT Of angst about whether we are going the right thing. We have an impromptu unit in mind: “What does America do in a time of crisis.” We’re really excited about it. But, as I said, we worked for 13 ½ hours (and then she went and did her own homework for her master’s degree class,) and we couldn’t pull together a new unit at the last minute. I felt despair settle in. What if we are doing all of this work at our computers every day, and kids don’t even DO the work?

Then something interesting happened. Lessons each day need to be posted by 9am for that day. I posted my Tuesday lessons Monday evening. They were done, so why not? I went downstairs in my own home to find my 15-year-old son starting his school work. Huh. I went back up to my computer, and a dozen students had not only already completed my SEL/team-building activity, but they had made comments in the post about how it was “going to be epic” and how they had been worried that we wouldn’t keep up that routine. To the question “What is your favorite social distancing activity so far?” one student wrote, “I actually really like what we’re doing right here.”

When everything is normal, my students procrastinate. They complain. (Some of them.) I get frustrated that they act like getting an education is something forced on them that they try like anything to get out of. It turns out, though, that in times like these, our thinking shifts. What was once a barely tolerable routine becomes a privilege. When all you are allowed to do is…well, nothing, the “force” becomes a gift. In a time of uncertainty and fear, the old routines become sacred and beloved.

I’ll be honest. I’m terrified about the potential consequences of this virus. (Disclaimer: I’ve been pretty paranoid about illnesses for my whole life, so this is pretty much my second-worst nightmare coming true. I used to teach The Hot Zone if you’re looking for a worst case scenario.) I’ve spent a very uncomfortably large amount of time in the last few days trying to tamp down a lot of anxiety, and the people who usually are my ballast, my students and colleagues, are not with me. I need them. I’m not sure, then, why I’m so surprised to find out how much they need me. How much we all need each other. It’s one thing to be able to say that, and it’s another thing to see it unfolding in front of me. We are not there in the building for each other. I can’t say, exactly, “I’m here for you.” But if we are not exactly “here” for each other, clearly were are still somewhere for each other, separated in space but drawn together by a new appreciation for what we already had.

Saturday, November 23, 2019

The one in which both of my kids beat me in a 5K

Tonight my kids and I ran a 5K at Mooseheart (in the dark because it showcases their holiday lights display.) I haven't run much the last three weeks because of my hamstring, and it's back to not feeling good after going from stand-still to somewhat race pace. I finished in 25:37, which in a small race was good enough for 6th place woman. I am grateful that I can do that and grateful that instead of beating myself up over how I'm slower than I once was, I can be grateful that I'm faster than I was more recently. It's a respectable time. But what I'm more grateful for is when we were walking to the starting line, and my kids walked off together to start near the front of the pack, talking, looking strong and fast and completely in control of the situation. (As it turns out, they were and they weren't. Neither had run since the end of their respective seasons, which was almost a month ago for Adam and almost two months ago for Gretchen, so neither ran as well as they thought they would. Afterward, Adam said that if this had been at the end of the cc season, he could have won. He got 6th. G did, actually, win 1st girl in the 12 and under category and was 4th woman overall. At the end of her season, she still would have been 3rd, though.) Both kids beat me. This is beautiful to me not because they are stand-outs--they aren't--but because they are just good enough to feel empowered to walk up to the front of a race, to run until they hurt (G was hurting pretty badly), and to see themselves as runners. I feel, perhaps foolishly, that identifying themselves as runners will, to some degree, innoculate them from some dumb decisions in their teen years. Not all, of course. But if you see your body as a thing that runs, you don't put really bad stuff in it. If you see your body as a thing that runs, it doesn't matter what the opposite sex says of it. If you see yourself as part of a team, it doesn't matter if there are other crowds you aren't part of. I am also grateful that running brings them closer together.

Both of my kids can run faster than I can. Tonight I'm grateful for my own running, but I'm just as grateful for theirs. 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

One run

 I am so very grateful for my run today and for being well enough to run again and for what running has been and is in my life. 

Today I ran at dusk on a warm(ish) November afternoon. The light was soft and grey to start and faded to softer and greyer until it was almost gone by the end of my run and my path was illumined by streetlights and headlights. I ran on the Fox River trail from St. Charles to Geneva and back up the other side. I was the only one on the trail, and it was silent. There wasn't anyone to respond to or care for or even be polite to. It was just me and the silence and the river. I didn't run fast or far, since it's possible my hamstring is still healing. It was effortless. Like floating, but better, because I was running. It was my body, my breath, my feet making it happen. There was a twinge on the back of my knee on the previously injured leg, and it was just enough to keep me vigilant. My left foot was striking a little differently from my right. It was perfect in its near-miss of perfection. It was like coming home, but better. Like I imagine it will be to rest in heaven. Not boring, like rest. But a full body welcome. The place I was designed to fit. I was grateful for every previous run on that path and for every path that led me to that particular one on this particular day. Everything that ever happened to me brought me to that run, and that run redeemed all of the moments before it. It made everything that happened all day insignificant but also vital. The run would not have been what it was if all of the things that came before weren't exactly what they were. 

There are a few moments in life that I can return to at will, and I will that that run be one of them. That when I am old and can no longer run, I will be able to close my eyes on life and for just a moment relive that run.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Methodology of Hope

This morning I woke up in darkness, as did all of the Methodists I know. But Wednesdays are "hope" day at the school where I work, so I put on my HOPE sweatshirt and showed up in the cold and dark. Just before 7:20 am, my room filled with two dozen teenagers. Without a lot of hope in what would happen next, I put eight poems in front of them and assigned three students to work through each poem from three different literary theories. A wise endeavor on an already dark day? Maybe not. But it was first hour on a Wednesday, and this is what we do.

Then something happened. They started to read the poems out loud. They knew this is what one does with a poem. (That may sound obvious, but believe me, that in itself was something pretty cool to witness.) They started to talk about the poems. I joined the group reading “There are Birds Here,” and we started to notice lines like “how lovely the ruins,/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” “What do we call that?” asked one girl. “Yeah, it’s so cool! Is it antithesis? Can we use that word in poetry?” “And why is the city birdless if he’s talking about there being birds here?” “I noticed that he’s contradicting someone the whole time, but who is he talking to?” We asked the poem questions and asked each other questions and by the end of the conversation, we sat back in our chairs and sighed. The magic had happened.

Then, third hour, the class that is most vocal about its distaste for poetry also sat down in their groups and immediately started reading. What is happening? I thought. A girl summoned me over to the “Richard Cory” group, told her partners to keep reading, and asked me about rhyme scheme. Before I could finish my answer, one of her partners finished reading, half-stood, and pounded his fist into the desk. “This. poem. is. AWESOME!” he shouted. Yes, shouted. “No, seriously!! They’re all like ‘he glittered when he walked,’ like he’s everything they want, and then he goes home and Cobains himself!” All the people around him stopped their own reading and flipped to “Richard Cory.” At the end of the class, he went up to the kid who most vocally hates poetry and said, “No, really, this poem is the bomb! This is the best poem I’ve ever read. Did you read it?” Who knew. Today was the day the magic finally happened.

Fifth hour, my senior jock boys met with me about the cataloging they noticed in Whitman’s poems and another two talked about how the death of Poe’s mother and wife led to him writing really dark stuff. Seventh hour, a kid asked to borrow a highlighter and spread out eight pages of Billy Collins on the floor in front of him, laid on his stomach, and started to read. Eighth hour when my “An American Sunrise” readers saw the connection to “We Real Cool,” they gasped audibly and their mouths dropped open. The “Richard Cory” group was discussing whether or not any of the great industrialists had committed suicide.

Yes, today was the day when the magic happened: the magic that only happens when they’ve already voiced all of their complaints, when they’ve read so many poems that the fear is gone, when they finally suspect that poetry is about real things and they have lots of tools to find those things and that it’s OK to like a poem. It’s been painful getting to this point. It’s been dark. There were days when I thought that since everything else in which I put my trust has slipped into brokenness and darkness and I’ve felt that any attempt at striving toward a better society is futile that maybe this would be the year when poetry wouldn’t work its magic. Instead, poetry reminded me that the methodology of hope is to keep showing up. To wake up in the dark, put on the hope sweatshirt, and say, “Here are eight more poems; see what you can do.”

So on Sunday, we’re going to church. Because that’s what we do on Sundays. And we’re going to ask the church some questions. And we’re going ask each other some questions. “...but they won’t stop saying/ how lovely the ruins/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” No. There ARE birds here. And hope, too. Year after year, poetry teaches me (again, again, again) to just keep showing up. To read it again. To ask another question. Until we figure it out.