Working in a Gold Mine

This past week I’ve been mining for gold. And by gold, I mean golden nuggets of wisdom. And by mining for wisdom, I mean rereading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a genre-bending novel with elements of magical realism, fantasy, coming-of-age, surrealism, and crime fiction. This week’s classroom reading: The Prologue titled “A Boy Named Crow” and Chapters 1-7. While introducing the book, I said, “Murakami is really good at directly stating themes, and the AP test always asks about character complexity. So as you read, look for those two things: What makes the narrator complex? And theme.”

Together we read the four-page prologue accompanied by audio. The truth is—if I assign the reading and walk away, some students will never read. The audio is my new teaching strategy for making them read. Some only listen. Then I tell them to discuss with their neighbors. Some don’t, so then we discuss as a whole class. Some things are out of my control. Some things are in.

As a theme, students identify the line, “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions” (5). We talk about the sandstorm as a metaphor or a symbol for break-ups and death, illness and accidents. We speak of foreshadowing and a shifting point of view. We discuss how the entire plot is revealed in the prologue: “On my fifteenth birthday I’ll run away from home, journey to a far-off town, and live in the corner of a small library” (6). Finally, they write in blue books for about twelve minutes. We are practicing literary analysis.

For homework this past week and through the weekend, students are reading Chapters 1-7. I am, too. Chapter 1 reveals how the narrator’s mother took his older sister and left ten years earlier. He has no memories of them, only a photo. His father threw the rest away. Just past midnight on his fifteenth birthday, our narrator boards a night bus leaving Tokyo and believes an omen is with him, “like a shadow” (12). For now, this omen is a mystery, foreshadowing an Oedipal curse to be revealed. The book was published in 2002. Most of the story takes place in modern day.

The narrative shifts to another point of view in even chapters. Chapters 2 and 4 include U.S. military intelligence reports and investigations of an incident involving sixteen Japanese school children. The students mysteriously fall unconscious during a field trip on November 7, 1944. This mystery depicts the backstory of Nakata who sustains a coma due to the event and foreshadows an alternating storyline to come.

In Chapter 3, our narrator meets an older girl on the bus and speculates if she could be his sister. In Chapter 5, he tells her his name, Kafka Tamura. Her name is Sakura, not his sister’s name, but he thinks about how names can be easily changed, especially when running away. Kafka, a pseudonym, arrives at his destination Takamatsu, 450 miles away from home, and Sakura gives him her phone number. That day, he kills time at the library. “Some wealthy man from an old family in the suburbs had renovated his personal library into a private library open to the public” (34). At the library, Kafka meets Oshima who works behind the desk. They discuss the ancient Greek philosophy of Aristophanes (scroll to end of page for details). Oshima advises Kafka to take a tour lead by the library curator, the sophisticated Miss Saeki. Kafka thinks how it would “be great if this were [his] mother” (40). His abandonment issues are real. He seems to be on a quest for family while running away from his father. Later that day, Kafka checks himself into a second-rate hotel.

In Chapter 6, we meet Nakata, who cannot read or write since the mysterious coma in his youth, but he can communicate with cats. This is where the novel takes a silly turn. A pet detective of sorts, Nakata searches for lost cats and speaks with them for clues. One cat explains some common knowledge to Nakata—that “cats are creatures of habit…unless something extraordinary happens they generally try to keep to their routine. What might disrupt this is either sex or an accident” (49). The cat explains sex to Nakata and concludes, “There are all kinds of people in the world, and all kinds of cats” (50). Nakata agrees with the cat yet claims to be dumb due to an accident. He tells the cat how the accident made his mother cry and his father angry. He explains how his parents are dead, so his father doesn’t hit him anymore, and his mother doesn’t cry, and he lives on a government “sub city” (51). There’s so much truth in this seemingly absurd conversation. Sex and accidents also disrupt the lives of humans. I would add illness to this statement. Because there are “all kinds of people in the world,” we have varying reactions to situations, especially the ones out of our control. The cat also notices that Nakata’s shadow is faint, a motif that connects back to Kafka’s omen following him like a shadow. The cat says, “You should give up looking for lost cats and start searching for the other half of your shadow” (52). The scene parallels what Oshima tells Kafka in the previous chapter about Aristophanes and how we all search for our other halves.

In Chapter 7, Kafka goes to the front desk at his hotel to negotiate the price of his room, explaining how he is a student on a budget, collecting materials from the Komura Memorial Library for his graduation paper. Negotiation is a life skill, and Kafka is now fending for himself. He notices the girl behind the desk is about the same age as his sister. He finds a public gym and works out, then goes to the library like the day before. Each morning, like a cat, Kafka sticks to the same routine, working out at the gym, showering, eating, then feeding his brain. At the library he reads the Burton edition of Arabian Nights. “They’re full of obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes…crazy, preposterous stories of a thousand years ago” (57). I’m curious about these stories. All I know is the Disney version of Aladdin.

I search for more information on Burton’s translation (1885-88) and find that it remains the most complete version of One Thousand and One Nights in English and was also criticized for its use of archaic language and excessive erotic detail (Wikipedia). I also find a PDF from the Trinity College Library, Toronto. I download the first volume and skim. It begins with an Arab proverb: “To the pure all things are pure.” I skim further—erotic detail, page six.

Arabian Nights stands as a solid metaphor for Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Murakami also fills his storyline with obscene, violent, sexual, basically outrageous scenes and crazy, preposterous stories. As for Kafka, “on the evening of the eighth day—as had to happen sooner or later—[his] simple, centripetal life is blown to bits” (60). I suppose whatever happened is fate. Cliffhanger.

That’s the Week One reading. I look up centripetal. Sir Isaac Newton describes it as “A force by which bodies are drawn or impelled towards a point as to a center” (Wikipedia). As Kafka inwardly searches for his own answers, something happens beyond his control.

I can’t stop reading. In Chapter 9, Kafka wakes up on the ground in thick brush near a shrine he doesn’t recognize. He is covered in blood. His shoulder hurts. Yet another piece to this puzzle.

Okay, I admit—Kafka on the Shore is not for everyone, but it will leave you thinking, and I feel richer for reading.

Prologue Gold:

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts….Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away….This storm is you. Something inside you.”

Page 5

Chapter 3 Gold:

“In traveling, a companion, in life, compassion.”

Page 23

Chapter 5 Gold:

“According to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, in the ancient world of myth there were three types of people….In ancient times people weren’t just male or female, but one of three types: male/male, male/female, or female/female. In other words, each person was made out of the components of two people. Everyone was happy with this arrangement and never really gave it much thought. But then God took a knife and cut everybody in half, right down the middle. So after that the world was divided just into male and female, the upshot being that people spend their time running around trying to locate their missing other half.”

Page 39

“There are many things we only see clearly in retrospect.”

Page 42

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

Thanksgiving in School

‘Twas Wednesday the week before Thanksgiving. An English IV student volunteered to read Gwendolyn Brooks 1959 poem…

We Real Cool

THE POOL PLAYERS. 
                   SEVEN AT THE GOLDEN SHOVEL.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

(Courtesy of poets.org)

“What do you notice?” I say.

Crickets.

“What makes this a poem?”

Here they speak of the rhymes, the structure, the alliteration, the repetition of “we.”

“Who is the ‘we’?”

They speculate.

“Why do they think they’re cool?”

They provide examples from the text. 

When there’s not much more to say, we read Andrew Spacey’s article, “Analysis of Poem ‘We Real Cool’ by Gwendolyn Brooks.” Spacey takes some of our beginning ideas about the poem to the next level with sophisticated sounding words about the enjambment, ambiguity, and monosyllables along with insight on the anti-establishment and a miniature tragedy in eight-lines.

“I would love to see you all write like this,” I say. But on this day, I don’t make them write. Instead, we listen to an audio of Gwendolyn Brooks explaining her inspiration behind this poem and giving a reading. The words from her mouth and rhythms of her speech sound different than how my student had read.

Then we watch a video. Same poem another person’s thoughts. The ending goes straight to my heart. I might have seen students wiping their eyes. Students in a class later that day laughed, a contagious laugh. I’ve learned I can’t control anyone else’s reactions, only my own. 

I move on to another poet for comparison, United States poet laureate Joy Harjo. We read an NPR article: “In ‘An American Sunrise,’ Joy Harjo Speaks With A Timeless Compassion.” The article reviews Harjo’s 2019 poetry collection. Then we read along to Joy Harjo’s audio of “An American Sunrise,” a poem within the collection of the same name.

An American Sunrise

We were running out of breath, as we ran out to meet ourselves. We

were surfacing the edge of our ancestors’ fights, and ready to strike.

It was difficult to lose days in the Indian bar if you were straight.

Easy if you played pool and drank to remember to forget. We

made plans to be professional — and did. And some of us could sing

so we drummed a fire-lit pathway up to those starry stars. Sin

was invented by the Christians, as was the Devil, we sang. We

were the heathens, but needed to be saved from them — thin

chance. We knew we were all related in this story, a little gin

will clarify the dark and make us all feel like dancing. We

had something to do with the origins of blues and jazz

I argued with a Pueblo as I filled the jukebox with dimes in June,

forty years later and we still want justice. We are still America. We

know the rumors of our demise. We spit them out. They die

soon.

 

(Courtesy of poetryfoundation.org)

 

We speak of the first Thanksgiving and how the Native Americans were later robbed. The lesson is heavy, but thought-provoking, and the students quite like the two poems side-by-side. I’m posting from my phone today and unable to format this poem as intended. Otherwise, you would clearly see that each line ends with the following words consecutively: We strike straight. We sing Sin We thin gin We Jazz June, We die soon). The students minds are blown.

“Now I want you to create something as a celebration of Thanksgiving—maybe a poem, a song, or art—and give a mini presentation. This is how it works. You entertain me, and I give you a 100. I would be so happy if someone would sing me a song. You have thirty minutes. Go.”

5th period dances to “Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes,” also known as the Grandma Thanksgiving Rap.
These images include endangered species. The text says, “To all animals and plants: Thank you for your time spent on this earth. From all humanity: our condolences and apologies for what has been brought upon this earth. May your spirits find a peaceful life after they leave this one. To all humanity: The time has passed to repair for our crimes. Now we are obligated to make the earth comfortable in these times of strife, conflict, loss, and change.
Thanksgiving, a day we spend with family

We eat and munch like an abnormality

We sit around and argue with each other

It never stops, but we love one another.

—1st Period Mariachi

Let’s Have Fun with Jane Eyre

I teach high school English. Can I say how much I hate multiple-choice tests over literature? I never took a multiple-choice test in my college English classes. Instead, I wrote.

In a perfect world, I would teach books I love, and the kids would experience the love of story and language. Then again, the world isn’t perfect. Students have obligations and jobs, and I would be naïve to believe they’re all reading. Let me take a stab and say 50% of them, give or take, are not. Most classic pieces of literature have been made into movies. Take for instance, Jane Eyre. How many of my students watched the movie and called  it a day? Should I give up on the classics? Should I give up on reading checks?

I’m locked into this year’s general plan, but I’m rethinking for next year, my how and my what. Meanwhile, I endeavor to pull my students through a novel I love. In my classroom, I have seven table groups of four or five, thirty-two students total in my largest classes. I have a few go-to activities for literature re-cap: reader’s theatre (students act out a chapter or passage with books in hand, narrating and acting out the dialogue) and ShrinkLits (shrinking the literature or a chapter down to a rhyming summary, a concept developed by Maurice Sagoff in a book by the same title). Of course, there are times I assign specific passages to be read (hopefully re-read) closely for discussion and analysis. And of course, there are writing assignments, too. For the activities, I assign table groups  a specific chapter, as a summary (or a preview for those who have fallen behind), and they present to the class. At a performing and visual arts high school, they take their acting seriously. Our reader’s theatre was quite outstanding. However, as with anything, overdoing it loses the magic. This year when I had used all my best tricks for Jane Eyre, I confessed: “I’m out of ideas. I’m going to give your table a chapter, and you can decide how to present it. You have thirty minutes.”  

And so today I’m thankful for white board space and students with ideas. Some students presented in news reporting format, others did interviews, one group played charades, which actually happens in the novel, and my dancers danced to Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” for Chapter XVI, where Mr. Rochester tries to make Jane jealous through a feigned relationship with Blanche Ingram. (The lyrics go like this: “Hey, Hey, hey, you, you, I don’t like your girlfriend / No way, no way, I think you need a new one / Hey, hey, you, you, I could be your girlfriend…)

And you know what? Some of my students love Jane Eyre as much as I do. That makes me happy.

Year 21

I’m from wide open spaces, endless horizons, and Oklahoma skies. I grew up dancing in studios on Main Street and dreaming of city lights and bigger audiences. A performing arts high school was beyond my wildest possibilities. There was no such thing in the rectangular strip of Oklahoma called The Panhandle, but never mind all that.

This coming fall I begin a new chapter, post grad school, and an exciting upcoming job. 1) I’ll be teaching seniors at a performing and visual arts high school downtown. 2) In twenty years of teaching, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach whatever I want. Until now.

Back in May, I received an e-mail from my new department chair. He asked me for my book list. The PTO would be ordering the following week. I had no time to lose. I scrambled to put my list together. I chose some texts that have worked for me in the past and some I haven’t taught before but LOVE. In my experience, if I love it, the majority won’t hate it. I’m determined to make readers out of non-readers this year. Some of my choices are edgy. I’ll need to prepare for alternatives. We’ll see how it goes.

During July, I must go about deciding exactly how I will go about teaching my anchor texts, and so here I brainstorm. With my AP Literature and Composition classes, we’ll begin with a mix of short stories and poetry before they tackle Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The novel will pair well with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” probably William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” I’ll have to think more on poetry, but Mary Oliver’s “The Journey” should work along with Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise.”

Published in 1847 under the male pseudonym Currer Bell, Jane Eyre is gothic, while  contemporary and feminist. As for Jane herself, she was orphaned and outcast her whole young life. Despite it all, she makes her way in the world and finds love. Granted, the love she finds has major issues, and so Jane picks herself up and moves on. There are some big plot twists here that make this novel oh, so worthy of reading and, of course, a classic.

My English IV students will also begin with short stories and poetry that transition to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. I see opportunities for more Dunbar, more Angelou, some Langston Hughes, maybe “Theme for English B,” Alice Walker’s “The Flowers,” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” That should work. I need a calendar.

Both classes will end the fall semester with Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel begins with the story of Kya, a young girl whose mother walks out on the family, leaving the children to fend for themselves at home in the North Carolina marshes with an alcoholic father. Kya’s siblings flee, her father is mostly absent. He eventually never returns. Kya must learn to care for herself. With gorgeous prose, a dual timeline, and the suspense of a murder mystery, Kya’s story is one of resilience. The same could be said of the stories of Jane Eyre and Maya Angelou. I may have stumbled onto a theme for first semester. Resilience. I know I’ll need some beginning a brand-new job, and I know my seniors will, too, as they prepare for their lives post high school.      

After the winter break, both classes will read Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth. In medieval Scotland, three witches appear to Macbeth and prophesy that he will be king, except there is already a king. Lady Macbeth convinces her husband to kill the king, and this murder causes Macbeth some post-traumatic stress. The witches return with another prophecy—Macbeth has a friend named Banquo, and Banquo’s son will become king. To keep his title, Macbeth hires assassins to kill Banquo and his son, but the son escapes. At this point Macbeth goes mad. Macbeth returns to the witches one more time. Their third prophecy is more bad news for Macbeth. Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out—” works well here.

I’m thinking this semester will be loosely connected to avoiding traps. I have some related short stories. “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” by Joyce Carol Oates is dedicated to Bob Dylan and influenced by his song “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” Hopefully, I can squeeze them in along with Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

After Macbeth, my AP Lit students will read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Did I mention edgy? I’ll probably need a Plan B here. This seems like a good time for a movie—Oedipus the King. Maybe my Plan B is the Oedipus Trilogy by Sophocles. (That just sounds mean. This is supposed to be a brainstorm.) In the novel, fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away to escape his father’s house and an Oedipal prophecy and to search for his long-lost mother and sister. His name isn’t Kafka, by the way. (We should probably discuss the real Kafka). Anyway, our protagonist travels incognito. Kafka’s story alternates with a man named Nakata. After a childhood accident, this sixtyish-year-old simpleton lives on a government subsidy and communicates with cats, literally. Add in fish and leeches raining from the sky, Johnnie Walker—collector of cat souls, Colonel Sanders—a seedy pimp, and some graphic sex scenes, and well, that’s Kafka on the Shore. It’s a surreal story within a story within a story, laden with purposeful references to pop culture and literature, music and history. No one is who they seem. Most detail serves a metaphorical purpose. Jewels of wisdom abound. In my eyes, the novel is a guide to life. I’m thinking my English IV classes will read a book of choice during this time, which gives me the opportunity to recommend a plethora.

Both of my classes will end the year with Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, 2018, it’s the story of a failed failing novelist turning fifty. Unable to accept the invitation to his former long-term lover’s wedding, Less tours the world in the name of literature and grapples with aging, loneliness, creativity, grief, self-pity and more. It’s a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time, the human heart, and our shared human comedy.  

These are the books I’ve chosen to reread with students, and they have been ordered. Of course, I’m nervous about how the ones I haven’t taught before will resonate. Now what’s left is my mission to make Year 21 the best one ever—for me and my fellow creatives. I’m guided by this thought: The kids won’t care what I know until they know I care, and I do. That usually takes care of the rest. 

Come What May

I awoke to May raindrops falling outside my window and Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman singing in my head: “Come what may / Come what may / I will love you / Until my dying day.” I’m a sucker for a love story, and their song comes from one of my favorites, Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

But I was stuck on the words of the title “Come What May.” Maybe because May is here. Maybe because I’m entering a transitional time and have no idea what may come. Did you know the phrase comes from Shakespeare’s Macbeth? In medieval Scotland, the three witches have just told Macbeth that he will become king. Macbeth can hardly believe the news because Scotland has a king, and Macbeth isn’t in direct line to the throne. He says, “Come what come may / Time and the hour runs through the roughest day.” He means whatever will come will come. Enter Lady Macbeth. She convinces him to murder the king.

And so this May. I will try to just be. Be present. Be myself. Be patient and kind. I won’t try to manipulate fate like Macbeth did. Instead, I’ll trust that everything will be okay come what may.

I Awoke to the Moon

The Waning Gibbous Phase

I awoke to the moon shining through the trees and studied it with delight in the cool Sunday morning breeze. I felt God with me. My mother and my dog Rain, too. No longer here. But vividly here. In my heart.

Great are the works of the Lord;
They are studied by all who delight in them.
Psalm 111:2

The Lord created the world. That thought alone boggles the mind. His works are great. I will study and delight in them.

This spring semester, I’m studying William Wordsworth’s epic poem, The Prelude. According to my syllabus, “it is often said that The Prelude represents the true beginning of modern literature.” Book One depicts the poet from his youth, studying and delighting in the works of the Lord. Wordsworth never directly credits God, but he contemplates nature—the time of year, the warmth of the day, the placement of the sun in the sky, the color of the clouds, the illumination of the ground, and the peace of his surroundings—in connection to his own place in the world.

‘Twas Autumn, and a calm and placid day,
With warmth as much as needed from a sun
Two hours declined towards the west, a day
With silver clouds, and sunshine on the grass,
And, in the sheltered grove where I was couched
A perfect stillness. On the ground I lay
Passing through many thoughts, yet mainly such
As to myself pertained…(74-81).

Wordsworth provides a basic lesson of gratitude in his appreciation of small pleasures, and in this case, the world’s beauty. God resides in His creation, and like Wordsworth, we can find God’s peace if only we stop long enough to see and breathe in His presence in the world. Through a meditative pause and an eye on divine creation, Wordsworth found inspiration, hope, and a soothing balance in his life, and so will we.

…Thus long I lay
Cheared by the genial pillow of the earth
Beneath my head, soothed by a sense of touch
From the warm ground, that balanced me…(87-90).
Taste and see that the Lord is good; 
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him…
Psalm 34:8

Here Is Where We Meet

When my mother tested positive for COVID-19 before Thanksgiving, I was winding down my fall semester. On the last Sunday of November, she left the nursing home via ambulance to the hospital. On December 7th, she returned to her home of forty-five years for hospice care. My dad, my sister Liz, my brother Scott, and I were all there to hold her hand and love on her some more. Somehow, I believe, my mother orchestrated all of it and brought her family together for our goodbyes. Meanwhile, in the final weeks of my mother’s life, John Berger’s novel Here Is Where We Meet spoke directly to me, and I had a final paper to write. This post is an excerpt. In a fusion of fiction and autobiography, Berger weaves separate and seemingly unrelated threads of memories and experience and time and space to depict the interconnectedness of life and death.

The novel begins in Lisboa with the narrator, an author named John, ruminating on his dreams. In John’s dreams his parents are alive, and he phones them for various reasons, forgetting they are dead (2-3). When the Lisboa scene resumes, John’s mother takes his arm, they cross the street, and she says, “John…The thing you should know is this: the dead don’t stay where they are buried” (3). A person who continues to live in the hearts and minds of others can never truly be dead. We carry the dead with us wherever we go, whether we are awake or asleep. John goes to Lisboa and meets his long-dead mother there.

In her farewell to John, Mother shares a final philosophy on life and some motherly advice, which shapes the course of the novel. She says, “we are here to repair a little of what was broken” (51) and “we come to the eternal conundrum of making something out of nothing” (53). She advises her son, the writer, to “Just write down what you find…and do us the courtesy of noticing us” (53). For the rest of the novel, John does his mother the courtesy of practicing her advice, noticing the dead, and writing down his memories of them. Perhaps the narrator John and the author John Berger are one in the same, and in writing this book, perhaps both Johns repair a little of what was broken.

John, the narrator, spends the rest of the book traveling throughout Europe, from Lisboa to Genève to Kraków to Islington to Le Pont d’Arc to Madrid and to the Polish village of Górecko, as if travel is one of life’s secrets. He moves fluidly between settings, the past and present, the living and the dead. His travels reveal the most important people, places, and experiences of his life. John Berger published Here Is Where We Meet at age 79, probably when he considered the influences and interconnections of life and death more than ever before. 

John Berger’s eight chapters conclude with chapter 8 ½, a one-page dialogue scene with his mother that ends where the novel begins and connects it all together. Mother repeats her earlier advice, “Just write down what you find” (237). Perhaps life ends in the same way—we remember our loved ones and their words and connect all the pieces. John’s mother returns to her point in the way that people do when they want to make sure their audience has heard the message. Yet, even after eight chapters depicting the courtesy of noticing and writing it down, John responds by saying, “I’ll never know what I’ve found.” He doubts what he knows as we all tend to do, but in truth, John has found more than he realizes, making something out of nothing.

My mother passed at home on Christmas Eve, surrounded by her family. She is no longer here, yet she is vividly here. In my mind, my beautiful Mama radiates the sheer joy of her prime and laughs a sparkling twenty-year-old laugh. She lives on through my family, in our hearts and minds, and in the countless number of trees she planted around my hometown. I can only hope to do my mother the courtesy of continuing to notice, to write down what I find, and to repair a little of what was broken..

Hidden Valley Road

The Galvin family, Air Force photo, 1961.

My heart hurts. I just finished Hidden Valley Road. Then again, my adult son has paranoid schizophrenia. Our ten-year journey toward help has been rocky and torturous. My heart often hurts.  

Award winning journalist Robert Kolker combines an examination of twentieth century mental health treatment and the components of schizophrenia with the narrative of the Galvin family. Between 1945 and 1965, Don and Mimi Galvin had twelve children, ten boys and two girls. By the mid-1970s, six of the brothers had developed schizophrenia.

The Galvin family became one of the first to contribute to the genetic studies of the National Institute of Mental Health, and for their donation to the body of research, I am grateful. I will continue to keep the remaining family in my thoughts. Part of my sadness lies in the continued wait for a scientific breakthrough.

If you have experience with mental health issues, especially schizophrenia, Hidden Valley Road is a must read. If not and you are interested in knowing more, may you find compassion for those who suffer with severe mental illness and their families who are doing the best they can. There must be better help on the horizon.

Come Sit with Maya Angelou

Sometimes I sit with Maya Angelou. Dr. Maya Angelou. I mean, I sit on my couch with my laptop in my lap, my left knee bent, my left heel tucked under my right butt cheek, and Maya Angelou on YouTube (three and a half minutes below). She is probably the wisest, most accessible, most inspirational person I know. God rest her soul.

I discovered Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings maybe just five or six years ago, and this book catapulted into the status of my all-time favorite. Since then, I’ve reread it a few times, as much for Angelou’s style as the strength of her story. The title alludes to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1895 poem “Sympathy.” In Dunbar’s version, “the caged birds sings” as “a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core.” Angelou opens her memoir with herself at age three accompanied by her four-year-old brother Bailey and otherwise unattended on a train from California to live with their Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas. I believe that was 1932. It’s a coming-of-age story of a little black girl growing up in the Jim Crow South. As a child, Angelou faces racism and trauma and the setback of becoming a sixteen-year-old, single black mother in the year 1944. I guarantee you, someone prayed for that little girl from the heart’s deep core. She would go on to thrive against all odds. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings begins Angelou’s seven-volume autobiographical series. I still have four to go.

The Heart of a Woman (1981), fourth in the series, follows Angelou from 1957-1962, from California to New York City, Cairo to Ghana. She arrives in New York as a singer/dancer, joins the Harlem Writers Guild, becomes a civil rights activist, and raises her teenaged son. Angelou is the epitome of determination, only one of the reasons I find myself sitting with her.

Even the Stars Look Lonesome (1997) is a series of essays, a quick little read, published between her fifth and sixth memoirs. She opens up about her marriages, sensuality, sexuality—what it means to be human, American, and a black American. I sit with her in part due to her honesty.

A Song Flung Up to Heaven (2002) is the sixth of the series, and once more the title refers back to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “Sympathy.” This volume begins as Maya Angelou returns from Africa to the US to work with Malcolm X. As she arrives, she learns that Malcom X has been assassinated, and violence in Watts explodes. She meets Martin Luther King, Jr., who asks her to become his coordinator in the north, and then he is assassinated. A Song Flung Up to Heaven ends as Maya Angelou begins to write the first sentences of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. “What you looking at me for. I didn’t come to stay.”

Still on my to-read list:

  • Gather Together in My Name (1974, volume two) follows Maya as a single, teenaged mother sliding down the social ladder into poverty and crime.
  • Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976, volume three) spans the years of 1949-1955, Angelou’s early twenties and her struggles to support her son, form meaningful relationships, and establish herself in the entertainment world.
  • All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes (1986, volume five) recounts Angelou’s years in Accra, Ghana between 1962-1965 and her return to the United States. Racism and the journey continue to be themes.
  • Mom & Me & Mom (2013, volume seven) was published shortly before Angelou’s 85th birthday and focuses on her relationship with her mother Vivian Baxter. In earlier volumes (the ones I’ve read anyway), Baxter remains an enigma of sorts, and this final volume fills some gaps. Even though it’s still on my to-read list, I’m inspired that Angelou continued to write until the end of her life. Maya Angelou died in 2014 at the age of 86.

Are you interested in diversifying your reading experiences? Here’s a list of 10 Black Authors Everyone Should Read. Let’s agree to add Paul Laurence Dunbar and make it eleven. I would love to hear from you in the comments.

Sympathy

BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
    When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;   
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,   
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
    When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,   
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
 
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
    Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;   
For he must fly back to his perch and cling   
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
    And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars   
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
 
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

(This post inspired by my friends Rhonda at Pollyanna’s Path and Greg at A Thousand Miles from Kansas for their kindness in award nominations and their understanding of my Q & A rule breaking. When you have a chance, go check out their awesome blogs.)