26 July 2017

riffing on these lines from William Wordsworth’s”Tintern Abbey,” used in a Tweetspeak Poetry prompt:

Therefore am I still
A lover of the meadows and the woods
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye, and ear,—both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
(That’s Wordsworth, composed 1798)
Therefore are we still
Lovers of US Highway 83 South
And the bit near Leakey; and where it plunges
From what we thought was flat; now a flat top
Of hills and valleys,—both steep as the West
And we adjust; well pleased to recognize,
In ebb and the flow of the earth
The topography of our very soul, the geography,
The geology, the aqualogy of our heart, and mind,
Up and down, round and round, over and over and over again.
(That’s me, composed 2017, after a few trips to and from the H.E.B. Foundation camp. That aerial view in the video is what I’m attempting to describe.)

Alabanza a ‘In the Heights’

 

We took my dad to see “In the Heights” at the Zach Theatre in Austin, Texas, for Father’s Day. He loved it. We loved it. But best of all, this musical about a New York City neighborhood I’ve never seen gave me back my mom, both while I was at the show and each time I’ve listened to the soundtrack thereafter.

I can’t believe Lin-Manuel Miranda started writing this when he was in college. Doesn’t that mean it should hit the three Ds: dark, disturbed, and depressing? But “In the Heights” is none of those. We get “Paciencia Y Fe,” patience and faith. Also love and a profound sweetness.

How did he write Nina’s parents so well before he became a parent? My husband teared up at Kevin Rosario’s “Inútil,” the lament of every father watching a daughter grow up. And Camila Rosario’s “Enough” — don’t you think Linda Loman from “Death of a Salesman” seriously needs to sing along?

The character Miranda plays, Usnavi, is not the hot guy. (That’s Benny.) Usnavi is a little awkward— he can’t even open a bottle of champagne. But his love for Abuela Claudia, the neighborhood grandmother, causes the neighborhood to sing one of the most lovely songs I’ve ever heard, “Alabanza.”

Because my Spanish-speaking mama raised me, I think alabanza sounds prettier than “praise.” “Sunrise” is nice, but amanecer sounds musical, especially when Nina and Benny sing it as a duet. Even no me diga, as compared to “you don’t say” or “don’t tell me” is, well, mejor.

Ever since my mom died seven years ago, hearing Spanish or someone speaking with some sort of Spanish accent undoes me. (And I live in Texas, so it happens a lot.) Spanish means she’s here.

That’s because Merry Nell Drummond often spoke Spanish. She learned it during the summer she spent in Mexico City after high school, and she learned more when she met my father on a University of Texas student exchange trip to Chile a few years later. In the 39 years I knew her she was always happy to translate for anyone who needed a little help navigating a grocery store counter or a doctor’s office or what have you. When my parents wanted to say something they didn’t want me to hear — often something lovey-dovey — they spoke Spanish.

As I listened to “Breathe,” I felt like my mom was singing to me along with the community singing to Nina. She doesn’t anyone to know she’s dropped out of Stanford because she doesn’t want to let them down, especially not her parents. But while she’s singing this gorgeous, heartfelt ballad, the community shares their love and support:

Sigue andando el camino por toda su vida [Continue walking the path all your life]

Respira [Breathe]

Y si pierdes mis huellas que Dios te bendiga [And if you lose the way God gave/blessed you]

Respira [Breathe]

There was a note on Genius.com about that third line, that the traditional way to say “God bless you” is Dios te bendiga, so the line could read, “And if you lose the way, God bless you.” I like that. Because I did lose my way for a while when my mom died. The word huellas literally means “footprints,” and I can say that with Mom’s footprints gone, mine were no longer as steady. So I wrote 72 poems about her, and eventually I was able to continue walking on the path. I guess I’ll keep walking it for the rest of my life.

I’ve said here that the reason I wrote The Joy of Poetry was because I was asked to do so. But the process of writing it turned into an alabanza, a praise of my mother.

Alabanza means to raise this
Thing to God’s face
And to sing, quite literally: “Praise to this.”

from “Alabanza

So, yes. Alabanza a Merry Nell Drummond. Like Doña Claudia, “she was just here.” And alabanza a “In the Heights.”

Respira. Breathe.

Paddington Lives

In 1958, Michael Bond published A Bear Called Paddington. In 1996, I used Bond’s bear as the theme for our firstborn son’s room. Paddington wasn’t exactly a hot item — he wouldn’t get his own movie until 2014. But I knew I had the right bear when I saw the Paddington Bear Baby Book with these words inscribed on the cover: “Please Look After This Baby. Thank You.” So much like the label Paddington wears, “Please Look After This Bear. Thank you.”

Bond purchased the original bear at Selfridges department store. Once he started writing, he pictured the bear with his blue duffle coat and red hat and brown suitcase looking like the London children who were evacuated during the Blitz. Paddington arrives at Paddington Station from “Darkest Peru,” sent by his Aunt Lucy, who can no longer care for him because she has to go into a home for retired bears.

“I hope I’ve done the right thing,” she said when she arrived back at the home. “It feels as though I’ve lost a part of myself.”  (from Love from Paddington)

In “A Bear Called Paddington,” the Brown family discovers the bear at the train station while picking up their daughter for summer holidays. Bond wrote many more Paddington books, the latest of which, Paddington’s Finest Hour, was published in April.

Guess what? Even though Paddington was my nursery theme, I never read a single one of Bond’s books to my son. I read him plenty of other children’s books by British authors. I read A.A. Milne. I read Beatrix Potter. I read Kenneth Grahame. Why not Paddington?

Because I doubted myself. Was a refugee bear really the best choice for a baby? Was I even fit to be a mother anyway?

The day the news broke about the death of Michael Bond was my son’s birthday. I got out the Paddington baby book and reread the whole thing. Then I read Bond’s obituary and several tribute articles. This sentence caught my eye: “Paddington is eternally optimistic and always comes back for more, no matter how many times his hopes are dashed.”

There still was hope for me and my relationship with this bear. I headed to the library.

Our library is a bit like a garage sale — you never know what you’ll find. I arrived during the summer storytime. A man was doing a demonstration with a live python. Mr. Bond, you died too soon. You could have written “Paddington Meets a Python.” Pity.

I grabbed every Paddington book off the shelf and sat in a high-backed chair to read and take notes. The first was Paddington Bear and the Christmas Surprise. My son would have been 1 year old when it was published. In the story Paddington surprises his adopted family with a trip to see Santa and ride a winter wonderland ride at a department store called Barkridges. Disappointments ensue, but Paddington saves the day because, as he says, “Bears are good at mending things.”

The other four Paddington books were learning books: a counting book, an alphabet book, a book to teach colors, and one to teach opposites. As I read them, I had a surprise: I owned these books. My son and I read them together.

Suddenly I remembered. Someone gave us the set, probably a neighbor friend who was a retired teacher. I don’t remember if those four books came with a label, but if they had, it should have read, “Please Look After These Books. Thank you.”

As I reread them it all came back. Seventeen jam tarts. An open suitcase filled with jars of marmalade contrasted with a closed suitcase. The color book uses pictures to illustrate how red and white combine to make pink — when Paddington uses the washing machine. And in the alphabet book L stands for “label.” Of course it does.

So my son must have thought that Paddington was a bear who taught concepts like numbers and letters. Which is not untrue. But by skipping the stories I failed to show him that Paddington is also a bear who teaches about optimism, politeness, and generosity.

Despite bragging that I don’t throw out children’s books, I no longer own those four. At some point I must have given them away, probably to the annual book sale put on by the Friends of the Waco-McLennan County Library. But here were those same four books, in a library 180 miles away, on my son’s birthday, the day after Michael Bond passed away. How does that happen?

Well, when you cast a bear on an ocean liner, in a lifeboat, with a note from a loved one, somehow he finds his way to a safe place, even if that place is very, very far away.

 

“But what are you going to do now?” said Mr. Brown. “You can’t just sit in Paddington Station, waiting for something to happen.”

“Oh, I shall be all right . . . I expect.”  The bear bent down to do up its case again. As he did so, Mrs. Brown caught a glimpse of the writing on the label. It said simply, “PLEASE LOOK AFTER THIS BEAR, THANK YOU.”

(from A Bear Called Paddington)

 

 

 

‘Miss Rumphius,’ story and pictures by Barbara Cooney

My friend Sharon Gibbs recommended this book to me, and L.L. Barkat recommended it to her. I’m always up for a good picture book — one whose words and pictures work together to tell the story. This one was published in 1982 and won the American Book Award. The Lupine Award, presented by the Maine Library Association, got its name from this very book.

The fictional story — which feels real — is about the Lupine Lady, a little girl named Alice who, over the course of her life, finds a way to take her grandfather’s advice: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.” That something has a lot to do with lupines.

After working as a librarian, Miss Rumphius travels the world. When she goes to the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, the text says, “and there, getting off a camel, she hurt her back.” In the picture, she’s pressing her hand into her back while she rides the camel sidesaddle.

Two pages later, she is bedridden. She looks terrible. There is a cane beside her bed, a cane which we won’t see again until the end of the book, when she’s not just old but “very old.” The picture shows Miss Rumphius alone in bed with her cat and a book she is not reading. She stares straight ahead, but we’re told she notices the colorful lupines outside her window. She says, “I wish I could plant more seeds this summer so that I could have still more flowers next year.” The next sentence is, “But she was not able to.”

By my math, she’s down for an entire year: from spring, through summer, then “a hard winter.” Then spring comes again, and “Miss Rumphius was feeling much better.” That’s a long time to be in bed, girlfriend.

Even though this story is fiction, I don’t believe this narrative choice is careless. Barbara Cooney illustrates this page meticulously, and the words she chooses to describe Miss Rumphius’s state are “not very well,” as in “The next spring Miss Rumphius was not very well.” Wait, don’t you mean “not feeling very well”? Nope, that is not what Cooney says. She says, “not very well.” That’s not a feeling; that’s a diagnosis.

I started Googling, to find out if anyone else out there had questions about Miss Rumphius and her back. I found a curriculum enrichment guide that asked, “Why do you think Miss Rumphius’ back stopped hurting? (She became excited and involved in the flower project.)”

Wait, what? We’re not talking about a little twinge eased away with over-the-counter meds and tea. We’re talking a solid year in bed. If your back is hurting for that long then either a) your back needs surgery or major physical therapy, or b) something in your heart and mind and soul is “not very well.”

I don’t think it’s answer A. If it were, Miss Rumphius would be unable in the next few pages to “take walks again,” to “go up and over the hill,” to wander “over field and headlands,” and to ride a bike. The text tells us, “Her back didn’t hurt her any more at all.” That’s wonderful. The lupines she scatters are lovely.

But what do we miss when we skip ahead to the flowers?

We miss the pain of a year in bed. We miss the agony of the page before the year in bed, when Miss Rumphius buys her long-dreamt-of house by the sea and declares herself “almost perfectly happy” (italics in the text). I think her almost-happiness is about more than finding a way to fulfill her grandfather’s admonition to fill the world with beauty. I think she is lonely.

The second to last page shows Miss Rumphius in her house again. Now she is very old and needs that cane. But she is not in bed. She’s in a chair in her living room, surrounded by ten children, two cats, and a cockatoo. The children are eating tea and cookies (there was no food in the bed rest picture). Her hand rests on the head of her great-niece and namesake, Alice. Just as Miss Rumphius once sat on her grandfather’s knee “and listened to his stories of faraway places, now little Alice says, “Often she [Miss Rumphius] tells us stories of faraway places.”

On the last page little Alice is running away from the other children, her arms full of lupines. She wants to go to faraway places and then live by the sea, like her great-aunt, the Lupine Lady. Miss Rumphius passes along her grandfather’s advice of a third thing she must do: “You must do something to make the world more beautiful.”

But, oh, Alice, there is one thing more. You must let people in. You may hurt your back or your foot or your elbow in the course of your adventures, but please, dear girl, don’t hurt your heart so badly that you are unable to move for a year. Let your home by the sea be filled with children and critters. Serve cookies and tea. Tell your stories.

 

 

14 June 2017

(I wrote this in the Thursday morning poetry group, which has been meeting for more than 25 years, but which I only attend occasionally. The first line is something the host actually said.)

 

If the plumber shows up, just keep writing

If the birds preen and beckon, just keep writing

If the graduates graduate without pomp and circumstance, just keep writing

If the Zoom chat zags, just keep writing

If the translator takes off for Moscow, just keep writing

If the tiger escapes his tidy sanctuary, just keep writing

If the deluxe model is less than delightful, just keep writing

If the passengers pressure you to revolt, just keep writing

If the family’s attempt at vacation fails, just keep writing

And if the day is long and lonely, filled with irresponsible promises flapping like tired pied pipers,

dear Writer

you know what to do.

 

‘The Happiness Dare’ by Jennifer Dukes Lee

I’m late to the party that is The Happiness Dare by Jennifer Dukes Lee. It released last summer, but I saved it to kick off this summer.

As I read it, I found myself wishing it had come out not one year ago but three or four, when I was profoundly unhappy. But maybe it worked out better this way. Lee mentions that “in one skinny minute, a crisis can grow out of nowhere to devour your happiness.”

Yes, sometimes it’s a crisis. Sometimes it’s more like a cancer growing in secret for a long time.

I was a little like Beth in chapter 13, “My first thought is that happiness is a three-syllable word, and some days that just feels like too much. It’s hard to live, and it’s too big of a word to say.”

Actually, I’m more than a little like Beth. Beth is me. I said those words in a voice message to Jennifer Dukes Lee while sitting in one of my happy places, under the enormous oak tree at my church. It’s so big it has stone benches underneath it.

At some point in my journey, I found myself asking the same question Lee did that led to the dare that then became the book: “God, do you want me to be happy?” The answer, I was certain, was no. With this big a loss? With this much collateral damage? Being happy felt more than a dare — it felt like a betrayal. As in, How dare I be happy after This.

So it’s no wonder that I so greatly appreciated the story Lee shared of another Jennifer, one who “fought for happiness.” She experienced a greater loss than I can imagine, and she responded, “I had to move from darkness to light. I had to.”

So did I.

So I did.

Something remarkable happened along the way: I found new ways to be happy. Most weren’t big. But I built so many of them into my day, like a shield of tiny pebbles to handle the inevitable ongoing disappointments and conflicts. Soon those small happinesses were all over the place. I wasn’t Happy, but I was experiencing a hundred happy moments each day.

Things like tea blended with local lavender from the farmers market, reading a novel on my turquoise bench, a bike ride on my favorite route after the bridge was finally fixed, writing up a to-do list, watching a storm come in, visiting with my husband, listening to a new playlist on Spotify, inviting friends over for dinner and planning and cooking.

I cultivated small happinesses because I had to. I didn’t know what my happiness style was and didn’t care. Just knew I needed to fight for it. When I finally took the happiness assessment in Lee’s book, my scores were remarkably similar. Four of them differed by only one point, and the leader wasn’t that far ahead of the pack. In short, I had been forced to diversify my happiness.

And guess what? I got happier. Not big, giant Happy but a hundred small happys. Happy enough.

 

If, like me, you’re late to the dare, no worries. I have a copy to give away! Leave a comment, and I’ll draw a name. 

How Many People Does It Take to Change Three Light Bulbs?

The light bulbs in question comprise the third brake light on my husband’s pickup truck, so normally this is a job he would do. But I had the truck that day so our daughter could take her driving test. Although she’d done most of her practicing in a friend’s Volkswagen Jetta, she was taking the test in the truck because the truck is an automatic. (My car is a standard.)

We’d already struck out on the first try — my fault, not hers. Our small town DMV, which never used to take appointments, now did. Oops. Also we needed a one more piece of identification verifying residence. This was harder than usual because we moved in April, after my daughter got her W-2. We did have a bank statement with the new address, but her school transcript wouldn’t fly. Thankfully, I had needed her fancy schmancy birth certificate from the Bureau of Vital Statistics for her passport, and that official document was sent to the new address. The State of Texas taketh away and the State of Texas giveth.

We had an appointment at the DMV in the next town. Two tall dudes joshed around with the clerk. This time, paperwork: good. Then my daughter and the driving instructor climbed in the truck and discovered that the third brake light was out: bad. She couldn’t take the driving test until it got fixed.

It was 9:30 a.m. I’d been awake since 4:30, more nervous than my daughter. The DMV folks said if we could get the light fixed by 11, she could still take the driving test that day. So we headed to Walmart.

This was one of those rare days when I had trouble reaching my husband by text or by, you know, actually calling. I wanted to know 1) Did he know the light was out? 2) Was it just a bulb or was there a more severe problem? and 3) Really? They won’t let you take the test with a bulb out? Answer to 1) Yes, 2) Probably just a bulb, 3) Really?

The line in the auto care center at Walmart was long, at least an hour. We walked over to the SmartStyle so my daughter could get a haircut. My husband assured me that I could do this myself. All I needed to do was buy a screwdriver, take off the bulb cover, take out the bulbs, bring them inside and find new ones or get someone to help me find new ones, repeat in reverse.

That makes my husband person No. 1 who helped me change a light bulb.

Person No. 2 was Cooper, the man working the self-check kiosk at Walmart next to the SmartStyle. He’d been chatting with my daughter and I while we waited for it to open. Cooper went to college for a while, dropped out to care for both of his parents, then went back. He eventually got a master’s in physics and chemistry and worked for the U.S. Defense Department. He helped develop some kind of bomb that sounded like it was a plot point in a spy movie. He seemed to know everyone walking in to and out of the store.

Cooper found out that my daughter had just graduated from high school and would be heading to Boston for college. He knew the area and had advice for her: “Women are superior to men — remember that.” He had advice for me too, when I told him our dilemma and my husband’s solution. “You can do it,” he said. “They’re understaffed in auto. No one wants to work there.”

No one in auto had gotten to the truck yet. I checked to see what kind of screwdriver was needed (Phillips, and that’s the entire extent of my tool knowledge), and I went inside to buy a set. Checked out. Cooper showed me how to unscrew the screwdrivers from their protective case meant to protect them from thievery. Out to the truck. Unscrewed the brake light cover. Removed the three burnt bulbs, and took them inside.

Let’s just say I’m not familiar with the auto parts section of Walmart. Looking at the merchandise did not help. I read the signs on the shelves, saying things like “wireless accessories” or “motor oil.” I needed a sign with flashing neon bulbs to say “third brake lights for 2001 F-150.”

No such sign appeared. But I did spot the two dudes from the DMV.

“Hey,” I said, “I saw y’all at the DMV. My third brake light is out, so my daughter can’t take her test. Can you help me find the right bulbs?” I pulled out the bulbs in their blackened glory.

The DMV dudes were numbers 3 and 4 on the help list. One walked me over to where the lights were, and then he and his buddy compared and contrasted them — too big (*&@$%), too small (*&@$%), just right (*&@$%!) — until they found the bulbs I needed. On the top shelf. Over a foot above little old me.

I thanked the dudes and added, “I hope that someday a stranger does a favor for you.”

And then, ladies and gentleman, I replaced three light bulbs. By myself. “I did it!” I texted my husband.

He sent back a thumbs-up emoji and a smiley face with sunglasses.

“I am ridiculously proud of myself,” I wrote back.

I reached SmartStyle just as my daughter was finishing, and I thanked Cooper for his help. He told her, “I wish you all of the luck.” We reached the DMV before our 11 a.m. deadline. She got her license.

Sometimes you need more people to change a light bulb than you have light bulbs in need of changing. Installing three 912 bulbs by Sylvania took five people: my husband, Cooper, the two DMV dudes, and me. As my daughter goes to college this fall — far, far away, driver’s license in hand — she’ll need all of the luck. Some of it will still come from her father and me. Some will come from strangers. Some she will make herself and feel ridiculously proud.

The Secret to a Happy Marriage Is Not What I Thought it Was

In July, John and I will celebrate our 25th anniversary. I have sworn that the secret to a happy marriage is separate bathrooms. Really and truly, that’s the only advice I’ve ever shared with newlyweds.

But to be frank, for all but our first three years as a married couple, we maintained separate bathrooms. (Why did we share during those first three years? Was it wedded bliss? No, it was that our first two apartments had only one bathroom.)

As soon as we moved into a place with two bathrooms, I took over one of them. And thus it has stayed — through moves, through pregnancies, through children, through two houses with tiny master bathrooms, the kind we could only share if one person stood at the sink and one sat on the toilet. There is such a thing as too much togetherness.

And then we bought a new house. Built in 1999, this one is the newest we’ve owned. This master bathroom is, in a word, vast. There are two sinks (please applaud). Not only could one person stand and the other sit, but one person could do a cartwheel while the other shaves. Have I tested this theory? Has my husband done a cartwheel while I shaved my legs?

What happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom.

One month into this new level of cohabitation we’re doing well. We’ve lived together long enough and endured sufficient crises to rise to meet this new challenge. Okay, it might be that after 25 years we’re set in our ways. We shower at different times — him, before work; me, after exercising. The only time we get ready simultaneously occurs before church.

Although, to be fair, I have discovered a privacy option: a walk-in closet.

This is another luxury we have not had previously, except during our first year of marriage, when the only apartment available was a unit built for wheelchair accessibility. But this closet dwarfs that one. It’s so big we moved in our dresser. Because we could, that’s why.

One of the dogs claimed the corner under the built-ins as her den. Heck, both dogs could co-camp in our closet. They’re only terriers, after all. But I bet we could get two Labs in this closet. But then there would be no room for our shoes. However, if we had Labs, they’d eat all our shoes, so there you have it. No Labs, safe shoes, happy terriers.

I have seen bathrooms and closets bigger than ours in the pages of the WACOAN magazine. I have interviewed homeowners for those pages with grander porcelain palaces. Some have not only two sinks, a shower, a toilet, and space for cartwheeling, but also a tub.

Our master bathroom lacks this amenity. If I want to take a bath, I have to walk to the other side of the house, to the guest bathroom. In which I have already taken over a drawer and most of a cabinet. Because some days, even in the midst of halcyon marital harmony, you need your own bathroom.

Poetry Club, day 20

(Originally, this was the beginning of The Joy of Poetry. It’s now the last day of our poetry club.)

 

On New Year’s Eve, I was feeling down. Okay, that’s a lie. I was in utter despair. I had no desire to celebrate the new year. I didn’t even want it to come. At 9:40 p.m., I officially gave up. I knelt by the couch to kiss my husband, John, goodnight.

“The earlier I go to bed, the sooner this year will be over,” I said.

John nodded. It had been an awful year. He kissed me gently. Then he said, “Let’s get drunk.”

I’ve known John for 25 years. He’s never had a drink in his life. He doesn’t even like alcohol.

“How about you get me a six-pack of wine coolers?” he said.

I laughed. I hadn’t laughed in months. “Wine coolers come in packs of four.”

He said, “Then you’d better go. I bet the gas station closes at 10.”

I was already in my nightgown, but I changed clothes and jumped in the car. The nearest gas station was already locked, presumably to provide its employees with a couple extra celebratory hours. So I headed to the grocery store.

There were three of us there at 10 p.m. that New Year’s Eve. One was buying six 12-packs of Dos Equis and several bottles of champagne. The other was buying PowerAde and orange juice, for a celebration of another kind, I guess. And then there was me, with my $3.85 four-pack of Seagram’s Classic Lime Margarita. I picked that one because when John has occasionally sipped my margarita, he said it kind of tasted like limeade, only limeade tasted better.

I returned home, triumphant and, to be honest, a little nervous. He opened a wine cooler, and I poured a glass of shiraz. We clinked drinking implements and said, “Salud.”

“Aren’t you supposed to eat when you drink?” John asked.

“Only if you don’t want to get drunk,” I said.

He looked through the pantry. “Fritos!” he announced. “Fritos and wine coolers. Happy New Year’s Eve!” In a few minutes he eyed me as he opened a second wine cooler. “You’re not drinking yours fast enough.”

“I can’t drink fast. That’s not what I do,” I said.

“Do you want some Fritos?”

I made a face, and he laughed. I couldn’t remember the last time he laughed, either.

College football was on. I was not paying attention to the game, but sitting there, stunned that my until-then-tetotalling husband was enjoying a drink made for teenagers. John was on his third wine cooler and, thanks to the 3.8 percent alcohol in those suckers, still completely sober. The whole thing was crazy. Good crazy.

When the game ended, we still had an hour to go before midnight. John said, “Let’s go to bed.” So we did, and not because we were sad. Neither of us cared that we wouldn’t see the new year until the next morning.

When I awoke, there was an email waiting for me from L.L. Barkat, asking if she could publish one of my poems, oh, and by the way, would I like to write a book? This book. She already had a title and a cover and everything. Maybe the new year wouldn’t be so bad.

Then I made tea (Wuyi oolong), and I read a poem. Because that’s what I do every morning before I write — drink tea and read a poem.

 

The Year

What can be said in New Year rhymes,

That’s not been said a thousand times?

 

The new years come, the old years go,

We know we dream, we dream we know.

 

We rise up laughing with the light,

We lie down weeping with the night.

 

We hug the world until it stings,

We curse it then and sigh for wings.

 

We live, we love, we woo, we wed,

We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.

 

We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,

And that’s the burden of the year.

 

Ella Wheeler Wilcox

 

Your turn, poetry peeps. Thanks again for joining me this month with your thoughts and observations. May the rest of your year be filled with poetry. And tea.

Poetry Club, day 19

For our penultimate meeting of the poetry club, I’m posting not a poem but something about poetry by that oh so wise bear, Winnie-the-Pooh.

 

“When you are reciting poetry, which is a thing we never do, you find sometimes, just as you are beginning, that Uncle John is still telling Aunt Rose that if he can’t find his spectacles he won’t be able to hear properly, and does she know where they are; and by the time everybody has stopped looking for them, you are at the last verse, and in another minute they will be saying, ‘Thank-you, thank-you,’ without really knowing what it was all about.”

~ from the introduction to Now We Are Six, by A.A. Milne

Isn’t that the standard reaction to poetry (if you can get anyone to listen at all) — “Thank-you, thank-you,” with absolutely no comprehension. Perhaps, like dear Uncle John, we need spectacles to hear properly.

Yes, that’s supposed to be a joke, but it’s also true. We can’t read poetry the same way we read a novel. Poetry is like wine. You don’t chug wine, do you? Do you? I hope not.

Poetry is more like tea. You need time to sip and savor, to smell as well as taste. You need the sort of spectacles that allow you to not only read the words but hear them too. Poetry has rhythm and sometimes rhyme. Don’t chug it. Grab your reading glasses and turn up the volume.

If you’re going to love poetry, you might as well start with A.A. Milne. I did. Now We Are Six is the first book of poetry I ever read by myself — a gift from my mother on my sixth birthday. Milne’s other children’s poetry book is When We Were Very Young.

In fact, if you are looking for some spectacles to hear properly, it’s best to start with Pooh, someone who spent a great deal of time writing poetry and hums. Pooh’s hums are actually songs, but since Milne didn’t include musical notes, let’s just call them what they are: poems.

Turn with me to The House at Pooh Corner, to the story “In Which Eeyore Finds the Wolery and Owl Moves Into It.” It contains some of the best poetry advice ever. The story includes Pooh’s longest hum — with seven verses — to commemorate Piglet’s brave deed in the previous story. It took Pooh a while to create this hum because poetry, as he admits, “it isn’t easy.”

“Because Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.”

True, Pooh. You can’t rush poetry.

“Well,” said Pooh after a long wait, “I shall begin ‘Here lies a tree’ because it does, and then I’ll see what happens.”

A very good place to start. Then he composes.

“So there it is,” said Pooh, when he had sung this to himself three times. “It’s come different from what I thought it would, but it’s come.”

Poems often come differently from what you thought, and those are usually the best poems. A good poem often surprises the reader. In this case, the reader is Piglet.

 So Pooh hummed it to him, all the seven verses and Piglet said nothing, but just stood and glowed.

Never before had anyone sung ho for Piglet (PIGLET) ho all by himself. When it was over, he wanted to ask for one of the verses over again, but didn’t quite like to. It was the verse beginning “O gallant Piglet,” and it seemed to him a very thoughtful way of beginning a piece of poetry.

Yes, it was thoughtful, wasn’t it? That line is actually the beginning of verse 5, so you see, sometimes you have to work your way up to something as grand as O gallant Piglet (PIGLET)! Ho!”

But gallant Piglet soon spies a problem in this seven-verse hum. He was there, after all, and it didn’t all happen exactly like Pooh said. Piglet asks the eternal question: Should poems tell the truth? Or, as he puts it,

 “Did I really do all that?” he said at last.

Pooh has the best answer on truth in poetry that I’ve ever heard.

“Well,” said Pooh, “in poetry — in a piece of poetry — well, you did it, Piglet, because the poetry says you did. And that’s how people know.”

There you have it. It’s true because the poetry says so.