In Thanks For Teachers Who Start the New School Year with Smiling Faces and Open Hearts

This morning I had the great pleasure to spend 45 minutes with some of the best folks in town–a small dedicated group of teachers at St. Joseph School where my sister is principal. I have a long history with this little school I attended from 5th through 8th grade. It’s where I and my children learned to laugh and write and share and reason and love, and my grandchildren will know many of these same special people, walk these same wide and welcoming hallways.

I’ve written here before about two of my favorite authors, Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Brian Doyle, and how both died this year way too early. I remain shocked and saddened by the loss–for their families and for the world at large. We need their big love, their creative gifting, their exuberance and unbridled joy now more than ever before.

Earlier this summer, I shared a couple of Prayers for Ordinary Things that my friend, Julie and I wrote one morning in a coffee shop. We modeled our prayers on the delightful, funny, heartfelt prayers Doyle wrote and collected in A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary. Reading Doyle’s prayers and then writing my own lifted my heart still smarting not only from the disastrous election but from the rise of intolerance and hate. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember how lovely the world remains. It’s called cultivating gratitude, and it’s an essential practice for me these days.

So when my sister asked me if I would lead the teachers in writing their own prayers of gratitude as they enter the new school year, I said, “Yes,” even though I knew it would require me to stand up in front of people and admit, even espouse how much I love writing and reading and poetry. Why is this so hard?

It’s vulnerability, of course. Still at 50 years old, I don’t want to be seen as a dorky poetry geek, even though I am indeed a dorky poetry geek and not the least bit cool. It’s hard to share our hearts with others. And yet, it is the most important thing we can do. This morning those teachers and their writing blew the top of my head right off. They wrote the most beautiful poems/prayers and they read them with laughter and tears and a little shyness and tremendous vulnerability.

So as school resumes, I give thanks for teachers who start the new school year with smiling faces and open hearts, who will spend the next several months wiping noses and calling out bad behavior and shining light on good deeds and listening to ridiculous and silly stories; who will walk the perimeters of playgrounds holding small gloved hands; who will chase loiterers out of bathrooms and rouse sleepers at their desks; who will stay up late grading papers and creating accessible lessons and tests and assignments that will not only stimulate eager minds but also open them to bigger and wider possibilities; who will make the hardest tasks fun and the funnest activities meaningful; who will laugh with and cry over and sometimes yell the tiniest bit at the students who have burrowed their way like small wiggly worms into their unsuspecting hearts; who will foster friendships and cultivate collegiality and model restraint and passion and goodwill and hope and joy; who are the bravest of the brave for the love they offer again and again and again against all odds to our lucky children entrusted to their great and devoted care.

In Gratitude to Brian Doyle–Prayers for Ordinary Things

Brian Doyle, who penned two of my all-time favorite essays, Joyas Voladorousa tribute to the beating heart, and Leap, died at the end of May. I love Brian’s writing, especially his essays–they are exuberant and joyful and magnanimous and funny and thoughtful and always probing into the workings of what it means to be human in a world both bewildering and beautiful.

Brian Doyle wrote about being Catholic in a way that made me glad to be Catholic. His writing helps me appreciate both the mess and the glory of the church, makes me glad for the sacraments and the ritual, prods me to hold more than one truth in my trembling hands.

Brian Doyle wrote so many things in his way-too-short life–essays, fiction, poems, and prayers–oh how dearly I love his prayers. In fact, since his death, I have taken to carrying around a small but powerful book, A Book of Uncommon Prayer: 100 Celebrations of the Miracle & Muddle of the Ordinary. This little book, published in 2014, is a miracle in itself–a reminder to cultivate gratitude. The titles of the small prayers are reason enough to pick it up. Here are a few:

Prayer in Thanks for Decent Shoes

Prayers for Cashiers and Checkout-Counter Folks

Prayer for Women Named Ethel and men Named Elmer, for We Wiill Not See Their Likes Again

Prayer of Thanks for Hoes & Scythes & Spatulas & Toothbrushes & Binoculars & the Myriad Other Tools & Instruments That Fit Our Hands So Gracefully & Allow Us to Work with a Semblance of Deftitude

Prayer of Bemused Appreciation for Handheld Mobile Devices

Prayer of Thanks for Suntan Lotion

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Last Wednesday I visited my good friend and walking and writing partner, Julie, in New Harmony, Indiana where she was attending the West of the Moon Creative Retreat led by the equally fantastic Terry Price and Dave DeGolyer (known in literary circles as Lafayette Wattles). If you haven’t visited New Harmony, you are missing out. Lucky for me, I live an hour up the road, so when Julie invited me to visit, I said, “Hells Yes!”

I arrived in New Harmony in time for the West of the Moon Reading at Sara’s Harmony Way. The abundance of talent, spirit, and soul in that room blew me away. I love readings and the chance to hear original poetry, fiction, and essays in a small venue. Dave and Terry have created something spirited and soul-tending in their creative retreat.

After the reading, Julie and I got a bite to eat, and then we went back to the hotel where we started pulling books out of our bags, and guess what–we were both carrying the little book of prayers by Brian Doyle. It shouldn’t have surprised me as this sort of thing happens all the time with Julie–we are forever reading the same book at the same time without knowing it. We often have the same books in our to-read piles. Just two weeks ago, Julie sent me a book I had been wanting to read but had yet to buy.

We laughed sitting there in the small room holding the same small book in our hands.

The next morning, as we drank coffee and tea back at Sara’s Harmony Way, we decided to write our own little odes to Brian Doyle’s uncommon prayers. I thought I would share the exercise and our prayers here. It’s fun. If you give it a try and would like me to post your prayers, I would be delighted. I plan to write a few more myself.

Here are the instructions for writing Prayers in Thanks of Ordinary Objects:

  1. Set your timer for five minutes jot down a list of ordinary objects.
  2. Look over your list and choose one.
  3. Set your timer for ten minutes or as long as you like and write a prayer of thanks.

 

Here are the prayers we wrote that morning:

A Prayer of Gratitude for Cloth Napkins by Julie Stewart

Thank you for cloth napkins, the washed softness of them on my cheek when I wipe away the errant dab of mayo. For providing a home for my daughter’s outgrown calico dresses, so that each time I pick you up from your place at the table, I touch her childhood again, what she was wearing when we sat outside on a blanket sharing a bowl of popcorn and a grape popsicle, the meal that consoled us earlier that day I had thrown a sippy cup at the wall and popped off the top and spilled grape juice, staining the white wall purple. Thank you for being small enough that I could salvage the section of fabric that remained unstained. Thank you for folding yourself up, crisply ironed, so that each time I retrieve you, it is like starting again, a new day, a change to nourish myself and clean my face of any messes I leave behind. Thank you for nestling the knife and spoon, waiting to meet the fork that stands guard on the left. Thank you for being square, for having sharp edges and straight lines, when so much of life is complicated, for being able to be folded in half once and then again to make a neat rectangle, but when life gets fancy, for being able to become a flower or fan, for being both beautiful and useful, the true measure of thing’s value. Thank you for coming back to the table again and again, never letting yourself be tossed away because life got a little messy.

A Prayer in Thanks of Spoons by me

Thank you for spoons, for their slightly ovally cupping. For their perfection in soup and sauces, for the way they make tasting easy, the way they hold liquids aloft and towards your lips, for their scooping and stirring and scraping. For big spoons and wooden spoons and plastic spoons, for those tiny spoons covered in a soft material that changes colors when the food is too hot—imagine a chubby baby without a spoon in his little curled up fist–eyes poked out, food not eaten if there were no spoons. Wait, imagine ice cream, yogurt, creamy tomato soup, oatmeal, milk shakes, banana pudding without a spoon, imagine iced tea in need of a little sweetening without a long handled spoon. Think of hot gravy, steaming in its boat on Thanksgiving without a sweet ladle to puddle it onto mashed potatoes and corn. Oh good glory to spoons and the way they feed us. The way we take their image into our beds, the way we shape our bodies in their likeness to hold each other close. Oh spoons.

 

 

 

 

 

Times They Are A’Changing

It’s true what they say–the less you write, the harder it is to write. It’s been a month since I’ve written here, and I suppose it’s about time.

The past month has been one of enormous change. But aren’t they all? We like to think we’ve got a handle on living, a sense of what’s coming, a method for navigating our particular circumstances, but that’s an illusion–or at least I think it is. Things are changing all the time. Things are enormously changing all the time, but mostly we don’t notice.

Take Peanut for instance.

In the last month, Peanut graduated from high school, enrolled in college, and flew off to New York for a quick five day trip with her lucky mama–that’s me. I hadn’t spent that much alone time with my girl since those first almost three years of her life–her older siblings were in school every day and her little brother hadn’t been born yet.

Peanut was not what you’d call a “good” baby. She cried a lot. She wanted to be held non-stop. But I had time, so I carried her with me everywhere, and I taught her to love the up and down motion that occurs when your mother is doing squats while holding you. This turned out to be a pain in the ass–MINE–pun intended.

But you know what else those early years with children taught me?

You never get it right.

Babies and toddlers are constantly reminding us that we have to go with the flow. And things are always flowing with those tiny growing beings. Just when I thought I had Peanut on a sleep schedule, she got a cold and the sleep schedule went out the window. Just when I thought I had a pretty good meal plan going for Sheldon, her little brother, he tossed his chopped broccoli sopping in butter to the floor and has not since eaten a green thing.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun, in one of her many books or interviews or online classes says that change is always occurring–at the cellular level. IN other words, there is no stasis. (Forget for a moment that I did not direct you to the quote or section in her work and decide for yourself that you will look her up, order one of her books, listen to one of her many teachings on the Internet, and you will be forever changed although according to Pema, you already are.)

We cannot stop the march of time.

Cells reproduce and die, neurons snap, wounds heal and reopen and heal again. Children throw gloriously ridiculous purple faced fits and then sit calmly for hours. Hawks hatch from big hawk eggs in a nest down the street and fly away before you can zoom your binoculars in to get a look. Bird shit is washed away in the next rain and you’ll never find that nest again. This is the way it goes.

I fight change all the time. And fighting change is a hopeless endeavor, a losing battle.

I tell myself all the time–you’ll never get it right. I know it sounds pessimistic, but it’s actually pretty damned freeing.

A long time ago, when my two oldest children were toddlers only 15 months apart, Anne Lamott told me (no, not directly, but I like to pretend we are friends) that I was going to fuck up. It was a revelation to me. I remember nodding my head in wonder and relief because I was an uptight little mother worried about every tantrum, every banana not eaten, nap missed, watering eye, runny nose, all the scabs and bruises and those breathless NOs screamed with a demonic ferocity before red-faced and tightfisted my child collapsed into a writhing mess on the dirty vinyl floor.

I’m gonna fuck up, I thought. And everything changed. If I was going to fuck up, I might be able to just enjoy this glorious mess we call life.

Of course, I never remember this, but I’m a wee bit lucky because my kids and my husband are experts at reminding me that we all fuck up.

I hope they never stop because when I stop worrying about fucking up, I start looking around, amazed and awed by the ever-changing landscape that is life.

 

Kindness for Easter

I haven’t posted a poem here for a couple of days. Because life.

But I have been thinking a lot about mercy (thanks to Anne Lamott) and what it means to be kind. It’s hard work, harder than being angry, harder than hating. It’s work that I must do, but I have to tell you that lately it’s been more difficult that usual.

It feels like we, as a country, are hurtling towards destruction tossed about by a mad tweeter whose decision-making process is commandeered by a narcissistic devotion to good polls.

It’s fucking scary–there are bombs involved, big-ass bombs.

And yet, the dogwood trees bloom, and a single chipmunk runs beneath the just-about-to-bloom lilac bushes in the back yard. My grandkids come over and swing high on our wobbly old swing set. Old friends send pictures of their reunion, my daughter brings sushi home, and for the first time in 26 years, we do not hide eggs in the back yard.

Life, no living is a beautiful thing.

This big-hearted love for the world always brings me to poetry where I can find that love distilled. This morning, I am sharing with you a few lines from Naomi Shihab Nye‘s poem,  Kindness. I hope you will follow the link and read the rest of the poem. Happy Easter, friends.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Connection: Anne Lamott and Naomi Shihab Nye

Last night, alone in the king-sized bed I was lucky enough to crawl into after traveling with my parents to St. Louis for an early morning doctor’s appointment, I opened Anne Lamott’s newest book, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering MercyIn order to understand just how freaking delighted I was, you have to know that I love Anne Lamott. I have loved her for years. When I am down, I go to my Anne Lamott shelf and read from one of her many books. I love her so much that this shelf is in constant need of replenishment because I am constantly giving Anne’s books away (this might be a theme with me).

Often, if I need a hit of Anne, I go to the Salon archives of the columns Anne has written for Salon.com over the years, or I check out her FB page on which she shares what it means to be human. I need that so much–that sharing of what it means to be human–that when a new Anne Lamott book is released, I await its arrival with a greedy giddiness that I typically save for a glass of red wine after a long day.

I was greedy, giddy, and tired last night when I opened that beautiful new book. Goddess, there is something beautiful about a small book, isn’t there. The way it feels in the hands–compact and dense. The way the heavy paper feels against the fingertips. The slight give of the spine when you begin to read. Yes, I was greedy, giddy, and tired last night, but grateful too. Grateful to have a few moments with a new book before slipping into sleep in preparation for an early morning.

I was unprepared for the epigraph–Famous–a poem by the wonderful Naomi Shihab Nye, another writer I would follow into the dark. (an interesting tidbit–Nye was born in St. Louis, MO) A good poem can make me cry. I cried last night because I felt connected–that is what poetry does–it connects us. And that’s why I’m sharing a few lines of the poem here even though I said I would try to share poems only from the public domain.   I encourage you to follow the link so you can read the entire poem.

a few lines from Famous

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.

And if you love this one–you will–read more poems.

And check out Hallelujah Anyway too–you won’t regret it!

 

Emily Dickinson and Miss AKR

It’s National Poetry Month, and in celebration of poems, I am going to attempt (yes attempt–no promises) to post a poem a day–only poems in the public domain unless I get permission of the author to post.

But before I post a poem, I want to announce the winners of the Amy Krouse Rosenthal drawing. I did say WINNERS because I drew twice. I couldn’t help myself. I not only love to buy books for myself, but apparently I love to buy them for others. I think I just like to buy, read, mark in, carry-around, sleep with, spill coffee on, take a bath with (you get the picture) books. So I decided to hold two drawings–one for Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life and Textbook Amy Krouse Rosenthal and one for Little Pea and The OK Book. So we have two lucky winners.

Karen Zuber is the winner of Encyclopedia and Textbook

Lauren McClain is the winner of Little Pea and The OK Book

The books are on the way ladies, I will message you when I have them in my hot little hands, and we can arrange a drop off or a pick up!

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And here’s your poem for today–a great reminder for me today to not take myself so damned seriously!

I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)
Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

National Poetry Month

National Poetry Month begins on April 1 2017. I’ve been thinking a lot about poetry and its place in a country that seeks to denigrate and eliminate the arts. Poetry has the power to bring us together as well as the power to speak truth to power. In anticipation of the upcoming monthlong celebration of poetry, I thought I would take the time to post a few of my favorite poems.  I’m going to start with a long time favorite by the brilliant, late, Adrienne Rich who would have much to say about the state of politics today.

Here are the first few lines

Song

You’re wondering if I’m lonely:
OK then, yes, I’m lonely
as a plane rides lonely and level
on its radio beam, aiming
across the Rockies
for the blue-strung aisles
of an airfield on the ocean.

(read the rest of this poem, here)

 

I’ll be posting links to some of my favorite poems and poets during April. I hope that you will share with me your favorite poems and poets too!