Waves

“I watched as my grandmother let down her pinned-up hair to brush it out… I brushed my grandmother’s hair, which extended long past her waist.”

It comes on the invitation of this image Joy Harjo drops into her recent work, Poet Warrior, one among the many that drift in mind as I pick up these pages bound together by living again and again.

It is the summer that we cannot spend as always we have done, leaving the city behind, at our family home on the Oregon Coast. An earthquake in Alaska has unleashed waves far away, rattling the land where our house sits on a cliff overlooking Miss Pacific. It is 1964; I am 13.

When all settles, there is a crack in the foundation of the “new addition,” and this extension to the original house has fallen away. It will take most of the summer to reunite the pieces of our home. So my mother packs four of the six of us that still spend summers in blissful idleness without summer jobs into the station wagon and takes us inland to join our cousins.

This is new for us, family together in summer. My grandmother has her own cabin, and if I’m honest, I don’t know her nearly as well as my cousins do. This is their yearly retreat together; they head to the mountains and the Metolius River away from the coast. My aunt and uncle rent one cabin, my grandmother another. Their days smell of pine and pitch and a raft floating on the calm surface of a dammed creek.

I love this heat, this opportunity to ride horses and swim, my cousins at the ready for whatever adventure, everyone coming together for dinner at the lodge. After one dinner when my grandmother has begged off, my mom asks me to go check on her, take her some food perhaps, even though each cabin has a small kitchen.

Her cabin is tucked away beneath the shade of towering pines. Juniper surrounds the back and fills the air as the day’s warmth departs. I do not want to disturb her—our relationship is a tentative one—and what if she is resting?

I gently push the door open, the room shadowed except, as I lift my eyes to the one pool of light, I see her, seated before a dressing table, her back to me. While she might be aware of me, I am held captive by her hair, a wavy silver cascade down her back, thinner near the end where strands meet her waist. I have never seen her like this, undone.

My grandmother is a formal person, a woman mysterious to me when fully clothed and readied for the day. She carries the time before my time with reserve, with dignity. But in the moment she catches my eye in the mirror, she says, “Come here, Patricia. Would you help me brush my hair?”

I tiptoe across the wood floor, reaching for the brush she hands me, the plate abandoned on a side table. And I begin. I have never seen her this way. We have never shared any moment like this. I am careful—this ritual bears no resemblance to my mother wrangling with my tangles to tame them into a braid.

My memory stops there, the strokes, the dim room, the softly closed eyes of my grandmother, her neck tipped back to me, as I guide the brush through all that silver.

(Thanks to Poet Laureate Joy Harjo for sharing ways of being in this world.)

500 Characters

Remember when essay requirements included word counts. Now it’s characters, and I think that’s better. Should “I” count as equal to identity? I don’t think so. What I have discovered is that putting boundaries on writing ups my game; there’s great power in small, in succinct, in the struggle to economize—at least for me.

“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

― Mark Twain

Mark Twain was right! So when I apply for the NCTE scholarship offered to members wishing to attend the Homecoming conference in Louisville this July, I know that the 500 characters must be well-chosen—they come at a cost.

This meeting is the first in-person event NCTE has offered since the world stuttered to a stop in March 2020. Yes, the organization has continued to offer high-quality professional development, to leverage the power of virtual engagement, but …if you have ever attended an in-person conference, then you are aware of the difference (and at this point, we all are).

This will be my first “Affiliate Leadership Meeting.” I’m new to leadership, and frankly, new to this state and its branch—OCTE. But I am president-elect, and “programs” chair. Through the pandemic I have worked with our amazing OCTE president to learn the ropes, make some connections, and coordinate efforts for online conferences and book clubs. It has forced me to grow.

This marks a giant step outside my comfort zone. Louisville will challenge me in new ways. And because I am being sponsored by OCTE, I feel added weight, so when I get the chance to contribute, I take it; the scholarship application grants me 500 characters to plead my case. These are the ones that make the cut:

On Friday I learn that I have received the scholarship! Does it pay for ridiculously high airfare? No. Does it defray hotel expenses? No. It does, however, pay for my registration and two meals. Most importantly, it proves that the right characters, those small marks that embody thoughts, can make a difference.

The Best Thing

The best thing I saw yesterday on a classroom wall

“What’s the best thing to happen to you today?” Austin Kleon poses this as an alternative invitation to the customary, “What happened yesterday?” and contends that our minds naturally go to the negative. But, by simply altering the expectation, we search for the good. (He rightly acknowledges that sometimes he’s got nothing—no toxic positivity spread by him!)

I begin my days early, and today is no exception. I have to deny requests to substitute on this, the last day of school, because of a scheduled dental appointment. That process starts at 5:30 a.m. Before me lies the prospect of writing this Tuesday post, I have yet to break my commitment made in March at the end of the Challenge, making reservations for NCTE’s Homecoming event, the first in person for affiliates, and dealing with a bill I received yesterday for an eye appointment test that should’ve (at least I think) been paid.

Already a “best thing” has happened: two phone employees made my day!

First I struggled with the hotel reservation for my conference. A glitch—maybe on me—wouldn’t allow me to add my state to the registration. I tried several approaches to get the green, instead of the red, “error” box, to no avail. I called the reservation contact number and met Stephanie who calmly responded, “I can help you with that.” And she did!

Next I contacted my insurance company and worked with Jamie. It wasn’t easy to sort through the problem, but step-by-step we did, and it involved a bit of collaboration and patience. When it came to the survey, something I usually complete when it involves positive personnel feedback, I gave her highest ratings and commented, “If cloning were possible, I’d recommend Jamie as a candidate.”

I have written much about gratitude toward dedicated workers who can change my mood in a heartbeat and restore eroded faith. They can also make my day—and finding the “best thing” easy to do—even at 7 a.m.

The Magic Three

“What verbs control your life?” Pádraig Ó Tuama asks this during his introduction to “My Therapist Wants to Know about My Relationship to Work,” from Tiana Clark’s poem featured on a recent episode of Poetry Unbound. (It’s worth a listen—if only to hear Pádraig.)

MY VERBS

READ: I am a reader and have been since I first learned. My two older siblings dangled that key before me, already school age, me pining from my four-years-away-still perspective. But at five, that door unlocked for me, and ironically the first book I read from JK Gill’s was It Happened One Day!

TEACH: My next-favorite way to fill those rainy Portland afternoons was playing school with my siblings—I’ve written about teaching so often here already, after all this enterprise is sponsored by Two Writing Teachers, so…enough said. I continue to engage with my profession wholeheartedly: I am a professional development junkie!

MOVE: I never want to slow down even though I see it happening with each year. Despite my best intentions with my Fitbit’s haptic alerts, the time I spend reading increases while the time I spend walking, hiking, practicing yoga, swimming diminishes. I tend to castigate myself for this (as my husband can attest—so sorry, honey) and mourn the loss of my stamina after a day spent mostly afoot as a substitute. It takes me longer to recover from a three-day stint than it used to take for five!

LEARN: I only hope I never stop this; I am curious by nature, and the world offers so many opportunities! Just this morning I watched an Op-Docs feature at the New York Times, “Five Days of Fear” that reinforced how shared our humanity is, whether Polish or American, we are global residents—and caring, wondering, living humans first.

Those verbs say it all: CARE, WONDER, LIVE—the magic three!

Any Other Friday

“I’m tired of moments of silence.” Steve Kerr, coach Golden State Warriors

I wish I could “write light” today, and even as I coin that phrase, I realize at least two of its meanings. The first one signals my original thought, to write a “fun” post, and I have one—about my cat and his attraction to the television—all ready to go. The second is an abstraction that escapes me: write something that brings illumination, positivity, a smile.

But I struggle to do either. Last Friday I substitute-taught at the local high school in my rural district. I don’t know what I expected—increased security, a hushed restraint, but no, nothing like that. Because lives go on, for the most part. It’s almost time for graduation here, so the chatter revolves around the senior prank, its whimsy obvious as I stare out the classroom window into the student parking lot. Cars display minds of their own, parked in a jumble, ignoring all those orderly white lines.

The seniors in period three proudly explain about the group chat that “led to this mayhem,” but really, mayhem has been redefined, and random parking hardly qualifies. I do not bring up the events in Uvalde (nor any of the many others), but wonder what our complicit silence says.

It is the last period of the day when a class of sophomores straggles in, many late, most desultory. They get their assignments; they work quietly. I circulate, offering to help, encountering only a series of head shakes. At last one young man waves me over. “Ms. Emerson,” he whispers, “there’s a lockdown at Salem high school. What do you think?”

What do I think? I tell him not to spread this news. Let’s wait and see. Salem is a safe distance from here. But he is no longer with us, his eyes phone-lit and far away.

Into the Bound Blue Yonder

If I tell you that, after today, I will not write about Wordle again, I might be lying. Granted, I don’t know that I’m lying…yet.

In that spirit, I’m jumping to lines from William Wordworth’s sonnet, that affirms what I’ve found to be true for many of my students “with their pensive citadels…who have felt the weight of too much liberty” when it comes to poetry writing.

Nuns fret not at their Convent’s narrow room;
And Hermits are contented with their Cells;
And Students with their pensive Citadels;

Ourselves, no prison is: and hence for me,
In sundry moods, ’twas pastime to be bound
Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground;
Pleased if some Souls (for such there needs must be)
Who have felt the weight of too much liberty,
Should find brief solace there, as I have found.

Now some soar, unfettered, into the wanton freedom of an invitation, but for others, the confines are what make them shine:”…’twas pastime to be bound/Within the Sonnet’s scanty plot of ground.”

Wordle is a bounded experience; its appearance affirms it. As I’ve explained before, I have become addicted and even use the five-letter dictate as a means of finding sleep when it escapes me.

As I was substitute teaching the other day, wandering up and down the rows (yes, still rows) as eighth graders completed an assignment on their devices, I discovered three of my charges working on Wordle.

I ambled to the front of the room and asked, “How many of you play Wordle?” Hands popped up everywhere. The few who didn’t listened as classmates explained their fascination.

Now, I do what is asked of me as a sub, but this was an advanced Language Arts bunch. Their assignment would get done, so I posed that we create Wordle poems, an experiment with constrained freedom.

  • only five-letter words
  • play with punctuation
  • no more than five words per line
  • Title may break the five-letter word rule
  • says something 😉

We discussed and brainstormed, putting up five-letter words, dividing them into groups, nouns, verbs, adjectives… Then they went to work. And considering how little enthusiasm they often display, the level of engagement was a win!

Today

grief,

world bound round.

Dream , reach

alive!

It may not be Ada Limon ,”…the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf/unfurling like a fist to an open palm,” but “I’ll take it all.” (from “Instructions on Not Giving Up”)

Lucky Guess

Wordle, just like the game craze Words with Friends, had passed me by. I am surrounded by game-players, those who love Bananagrams and Scrabble, and cards, who generally love to play. However, I am not that girl.

I am a sore loser, aware of it, embarrassed by it, but boggled by changing it. I know I don’t have a monopoly on poor sportsmanship; my husband is quick to tell anyone who suggests a game, that playing with me is a risk. He swears that we almost divorced over a game of Probe.

But I gave Wordle a try, a toe-in-the-water, perhaps because no one had to know. I could let the tiles fall where they may, and only I would be the wiser. And I liked it! No purist, I used a pad and pencil and pondered. When I admitted that I had started playing, I owned up to my tactics. My son shared that the guy who invented the game, Josh Wardle, recommends my old-fashioned strategy, so…

I have embraced it so wholeheartedly now, after 14 days, that it is what I use to lull myself to sleep when I’ve awakened in the middle of the night. Conjuring five-letter words that might be the perfect start to next day’s Wordle is better than counting sheep!

On Sunday morning, day 12, I awakened ready to go. I warmed up to the Wordle with my routine: read emails, write in my notebook, read some articles, listen to Poetry Unbound and The Slowdown. Then it was time. I opened it up, that field of possibility, a bingo-board grid above a keyboard, empty and waiting.

During the night, I had chosen “PROUD” as my starter. As any Wordle pro will tell you, it’s not a great choice: no N,S,T,L,or E, but an “R” and two vowels, and hey, what do I have to lose, really? I typed it in, and before I hit “enter,” I stopped. What made me do it, I can’t tell you. I undid my choice, tile-by-tile, and typed, “M-E-T-A-L.” I don’t know where the word came from. I know it hadn’t been one of my put-me-to-sleep words.

I looked at it, “metal,” with its e and a and t and l, m the only semi-outlier, and I pressed enter—little skill involved. Square-by-square, it came up green. I had gotten the Wordle in one! A rippling “genius” banner flashed across the screen. I felt like I had when I hit my first—and only ever—hole-in-one on the eighth hole during a golf match. I had just hit my Wordle hole-in-one.

The next day, it took me all six tries, and the banner’s “Phew!” said it all.

The Morning After

Writing Our World

“We’ve decided to move the Oregon Writing Festival online in May, ” the program chair announces, and while no one is surprised—it’s November 2021, and Covid continues to ebb and flow—many will be disappointed. Today’s Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) board meeting, too, is on Zoom. This is our reality.

It means that an author once committed to work with the student writers in the high school group will renege, “Zoom-fatigue.” It means volunteers, organizers, teachers, student writers will be attending online sessions. It means a seriously reduced attendance. Zoom-fatigue thrives.

But when I am asked to host the middle school session with Oregon author Rosanne Parry, I eagerly accept. My responsibilities are small: introduce her and monitor the chat, posing questions that the students ask—and I am a fan of Rosanne’s writing. Do you know her books? Since reading Heart of a Shepherd, the first of her many novels, my sincere enthusiasm and respect has only grown. (I honestly don’t know which is my favorite.)

Last Saturday was the day, and a robust 80+ middle school writers showed up, their cameras dark, their microphones muted. I briefly introduced Rosanne and she began. And her subject matter was not what I’d anticipated. She acknowledged that up front with the students, owning that she would be talking about making a living as a writer, the nitty-gritty, how-writers-manage-financial-stability of it.

In the course of her talk she discussed the realities—irregular income, royalties, isolation, rejection, secondary income sources drying up because of unforeseen events (pandemic, school visits etc). Then she said, “It has never been the most talented beginner who succeeds in the end. If you sustain that [writing] practice purposefully, if you don’t give up…the question is: Do you love it enough to do it all the time?” and she concluded, “A life in the arts is not easy, but it’s worth the risk.”

The students were wowed because she spoke to them about the relevant and real world of writing. She respected them, took them seriously. During the Q & A, the questions leaned more toward the ones you might expect—writer’s block, sustaining attention, idea-generation. Then came the final question: “How do I write about a topic that is triggering for me, when there is something I need to write, but I’m not sure I can?”

With the same honesty she said, “I find that that is when other writers you trust can be helpful.” She admitted that not all writing is ready to be shared, even if it is meant to be written, that there are topics that are “too close to the bone” and each writer must protect themself, that stepping away from the writing is always good advice. Time, she suggested, give it time.

Hopefully in May 2023, Portland State University’s campus will be bustling with student writers. They will arrive eager to meet with fellow artists and find their people, a supportive community. But for all who attended this year, the Oregon Writing Festival’s virtual equivalent did the same.

(Thanks to all authors, organizers, teachers, volunteers, and students who helped make this event a success!)

Seeing and Believing

Songs in the Key of Life (thanks, Stevie Wonder)

A writing assignment I love, and reprise in various iterations every chance I get to work with fellow writers, is a variation of an idea from the amazing Jim Burke and his brilliant The English Teacher’s Companion. My copy is the early edition and in it, scattered among the gems, is a way of generating a personal essay from an adjective. The example I use most successfully when I write with my people is: “I am lucky.”

My first anecdotal support is always, “I am lucky in love,” and I begin telling the story of meeting, then re-meeting, my husband. I married him after spending maybe 14 days together, hours of expensive phone calls notwithstanding (remember those days when phone time had a real cost attached?). The day I called my parents to tell them we were heading out to a notary public’s office to make it official, I prefaced the announcement by asking my mom, “Do you believe in love at first sight?”

I could almost hear her worry in that, “Oh, Patricia,” but I hurriedly reassured her and off we went. After the brief ceremony, we headed out for a long weekend on Captiva Island, but beforehand we stopped to stock up on some snacks. I was reaching for the passenger side door handle, my new husband almost to the driver’s side when the reality of what we’d done struck. I froze, our eyes met, and he saw that …what? panic, perhaps?

We were 33, two never-been-marrieds, failed-at-relationships, maybe-it’s not-in-the-cards-for-me-and-I’m-okay-with-that types, yet here we were on this boldly bright Miami street—married.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, puzzled, worried, uncertain.

“It’s forever, for the rest of our lives. It’s …”

“But,”and he paused, then spoke, “It happens one day at a time. We can do this.”

And despite the number of times we have had to reassure ourselves, to remind ourselves of the gift of another day and our ability to handle what life brings, we have done this.

Happy Anniversary, Eric, 37 years so far, with a song for every moment. I remain lucky.

San José del Cabo, January 2022

Each Moment

I’m not sure when I first learned of Suleika Jaouad and her pandemic project the “Isolation Journals,” it may have even been here during the March SOL blogging challenge, but I continue to receive her emails and store the gems she offers from a variety of creative souls in an email folder. When this Sunday letter arrives, I read it with amazement and some trepidation.

Suleika is, once again, going through cancer treatment recovery, as she was when I first “met” her and began the “…Journals” journey. When her memoir about survival and thrival, (I know it’s not a word, those red dots underscoring alert me, but if you know her, then survival definitely does not do her justice), Between Two Kingdoms finally was published in book form (the New York Times had been featuring her) I rushed to buy my copy.

In this week’s email subject line, “Reasons to Live through the Apocalypse,” she says, “…small joys have been my sustenance,” followed by, “I do want to make a distinction here between the practice of celebrating small joys and the culture of ‘toxic positivity,’ where we’re told to be ever-grateful, to always search for the silver linings, to put a positive spin on all experiences, even the profoundly tragic…” It’s difficult for me to reconcile what she does with her spirited, loving response to adversity and not view her as a paragon of—living.

This email features, prompt 192, features a poem from Nikita Gill, a list enumerating small joys, all in the dailiness of living, and stops me at every period. Each one takes leads me to a memory.

“Reasons to Live Through the Apocalypse” by Nikita Gill

Sunrises. People you have still to meet and laugh with. Songs about love, peace, anger, and revolution. Walks in the woods. The smile you exchange with a stranger when you experience beauty accidentally together. Butterflies. Seeing your grandparents again. The moon in all her forms, whether half or full. Dogs. Birthdays and half-birthdays. That feeling of floating in love. Watching birds eat from bird feeders. The waves of happiness that follow the end of sadness. Brown eyes. Watching a boat cross an empty sea. Sunsets. Dipping your feet in the river. Balconies. Cake. The wind in your face when you roll the car window down on an open highway. Falling asleep to the sound of a steady heartbeat. Warm cups of tea on cold days. Hugs. Night skies. Art museums. Books filled with everything you do not yet know. Long conversations. Long-lost friends. Poetry.”

Her list invites us to do the same. Where does it take you?

When next Tuesday arrives, National Poetry Month will have ended, but with luck, we will still be here, living, fingers-crossed. Thanks, Suleika, for the reminder.