Thoughts on the Recursive. And Thank You.

© 2010 David Parker

Apparently, with no focal point (like a sun or a star or a you or a me), and with every intention to walk in a straight line, people walk around in circles. But, whether we’re blindfolded or just stumbling through the thick pitch of night, while we’re doing all of that wandering, we think we’re walking in a straight line. Without that external corrective, something inside of us, something about the way our atoms fit together, something about our biology, will not stay straight. I think part of what Souman’s study might reveal is that the human journey is not the shortest distance between two points. Rather, it seems to be the circle that connects one point back to itself.

This resonates with me. Maybe even validates my very existence. Because I do things, the same things, over and over, expecting different results. Someone once told me that this is the mark of insanity, but now I’m thinking maybe it’s the mark of humanity. Because don’t we all fall into patterns of behavior, patterns of thinking, rhythms of the everyday that are impossible to break? At least, they seem impossible to break. Especially without some kind of focal point like a person or a plan.

There are certain places in the geography of my life that I have been circling for the past five years–one of those places is the beginning of my teaching career. Another might be the day I met Ruthie. Another might be my divorce. Another might be the death of my grandfather. Another might be who I am in my family and who I am for real. And we all have these events, these anchors. Like the novelist Darin Strauss , who ran over a teenager when he was a just a teenager and wrote about it in fiction without knowing he was writing about it. (Now he’s finally written about it on purpose in a memoir called Half a Life.) And the only way that I’ve found to move past these events (or move through them the way one might move through a forest with trees thick as thieves and no light of day) is to write about them. With intention. The story of the event becomes my focal point, the external corrective to my inner recursive nature. And the sifting through those events reveals more and more of who I am. And that reveal is such a relief. Because for too long I’ve wandered around with these stories, these fragile stories, that I had to guard and protect and wear wrapped around my face. And now, here they are. Public and unapologetic: my stories.

And STORY is what carries us back to ourselves. Odysseus receives his ship home in return for a story. He tells a story in exchange for a ship that will (finally) take him back to where he came from, where his identity began. And I think it’s important that he tells his story. He doesn’t get the ship home in exchange for thinking of his story, but in exchange for sharing his story. And in telling my stories, I feel like I’m kind of giving myself back to myself. Owning not only the parts that are uncomfortable and awkward, but especially the parts that I’m proud of, the parts that were hard, the parts where I became. That ownership comes from sharing, and with each sharing, I’m peeling away pieces of my blindfold that hide me from my home.

All this is to say thank you. Thank you for reading and for watching me walk blindly in circles. I’d have no hope of home or a ship to carry me there were it not for your listening, allowing me to share. Just. Thank you.

Advertisements

Waving and Thankful

© 2010 David Parker

All my life people have been trying to save me. My grandmother, many of my friends in high schools and college, my family, but especially my grandmother. And they all say the same things: that God is working on my heart and that they are praying for me. All my life, I assumed that these people who wanted to save me were acting from some personal conviction that either they were better than me or I was doing something terribly wrong, or both. Today I saw two people who have been praying for me for a long time: my grandmother and a very dear, beautiful friend whom I’ve known since I was in kindergarten.

This morning, we visited my grandmother in the nursing home. She was dozing on the couch in the common room when we got there and it took her a few seconds for her face to register that she saw us. Ruthie came skipping in with me and all the old ladies sitting in heaps around the room turned toward Ruthie like flowers toward the sun. Terribly unsettling and sad. And so we sat there, Grandmother and I, on the badly upholstered sofa, while Ruthie flip-flopped like a fish out of water. She was so taken with Ruthie and how big she’s gotten. I was so taken by the fact that she’d evidently had her toenails painted a deep shade of red (I later learned that they offer manicure/pedicures at the home). When I left she said that next time I came home, she’d take me shopping and assured me that she had been praying for me. There was something about the way she said these last two things that made my chest hurt.

On the way out, I checked the time. We’d been there maybe 40 minutes. It occurred to me that she’s there all day. More chest hurting.

At 1:00, I picked up my friend for lunch. 45 minutes later, I was crying into my white truffle chicken salad. We talked a lot mostly about how we thought things would be much easier, how we only wanted these small things. And then she started talking about hope and what her hope is in. I’ve never understood hope, and, when I have allowed myself to hope, I have been generally disappointed. My friend has also been disappointed, but she hopes anyways. And she hopes for me. And prays for me. And I am so deeply, wonderfully grateful.

Grateful because both of these women were offering me their hopes and their prayers the way you would offer anyone you love a cup of tea with honey at the end of a long shitty day. No judgement, just a desire to share something that has made their hearts lighter.

It’s strange how heavy thankfulness can feel. It’s much easier to shrug off other people’s hopes and prayers, even get pissed off at them, get all Who does she think she is praying for me. Because to accept their hopes, their prayers, is also to admit that you need them (even if you don’t understand them). And gratitude, real gratitude, is humbling. And humility is rather uncomfortable.

So last week, I wrote about “Thanks,” a poem by the new Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin. This poem mesmerized me when I read it the first time or two, but today I felt it in my bone marrow. In the last stanza, he writes

we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

Two things are difficult about these last lines for me: that nobody’s listening and that it’s dark. But it occurs to me that someone is listening: me, the reader. I’m listening to the voices in this poem saying thank you. So maybe not-nobody’s listening to me too. And maybe I’m waving in the dark, but there’s a lot of us here waving in the dark, so maybe we’re not waving at nobody. Even though I can’t always see it or hear it, I believe in the we of this poem. And isn’t that faith?

Rubber Band Writing

© 2010 David Parker

From morning to mid-afternoon, my classes and I brainstormed all of the things you can do with a rubber-band. Inspired by a comment posted here, I decided to try this little exercise with 9th graders, and it was absolutely magical. When they walked in the door, I had a rubber-band waiting for them on each of the desks. They had to divide their paper into three columns and, in the first column, list all of the things they could think to do with a rubber-band. Then we shared (and I wrote our collective list on the board). Then they had to write more things to do with a rubber-band (that we didn’t already have on our list) in the second column. Then we shared and I wrote again. Then they had to do the same thing in the third column. EXHAUSTING! We spent an hour in each class with this activity. And every time, the kids whined about how there was nothing more they could possibly say about rubber-bands. But each column got longer than the one before it. And by the end, I was having to cut them off because we were out of room and out of time.

My favorites:

Take it to Wal-Mart.
Ask it how your butt looks in these pants.
Get mad at it for not talking back.
Lasso a rhinoceros with it.
Put it in your game day pants for good luck.
Insult it.
Measure it.
Forget it.
Tell your mother she can’t have it.

We talked about how our writing should be third-column writing. We figured out that it takes the first and second columns to get to the third, that you can write about anything if you want to (or have to), that you never feel like you have anything to say at the very beginning, that it’s sometimes easier to write if you have someone you can talk to about it.

My neck is sore, my arm feels bruised, and my back is all messed up, but, damn! It was one of those I’m-a-Teacher days, where you know you’ve just blown their minds (and yours). And the kids were buzzing about it in the halls. And, from now on, when they hand in shitty-first-drafts, I can say they need to work it into the third column and they’ll know what I mean and how to do it. But what made the day was that they valued each others as writers and thinkers. It’s not often you see 15-year-olds, or people in general, valuing each other’s ideas.

As Though I Knew What I Was Doing

© 2010 David Parker

The short prose poem of yesterday totally ruined me. I wrote like six of them and they were all pitifully dramatic and try-hard. It made me wonder why I’m doing this whole write-something-everyday-for-a-year thing. I thought by now, it might come easier to me, but it seems to be getting harder and harder. And I think it’s getting harder and harder because I’m kind of still expecting to be struck with the magical Something-to-Say. And today, when I subjected my students to the prose poem assignment, I realized that maybe this task has been so arduous for me because I haven’t been following my own advice.

Two things I always tell my students: writers keep notebooks, and writing is thinking. I haven’t kept a notebook since I started this project and I’ve spent a great deal of time staring at my screen. If I were in my own class, I’d be failing. So when I started today’s Writing Workshop with my students, I followed along with them and probably got more out of it than they did. For instance, the very idea of a prose poem forced us to analyze what makes a poem a poem when there are no line breaks (we came up with concrete imagery that shows an emotion, idea, or experience). Then we started building our poems together. First, choose a major life event that you can remember very clearly. Next, freewrite about a specific moment from that event that captures how you felt and why that moment was important, focusing on the five senses. Then take all that crap you wrote down and find three or four sentences to scrap together.

At the beginning, the kids were reluctant. The thought of writing for five minutes without stopping was unthinkable. But no one was ready to stop when I called time–not one out of nearly 70 kids. And most classes wrote for another ten. Then, because the space was so limited, it forced them to think about all kinds of lovely things like sentence structure and using strong verbs and how to choose an image so that it does something in a poem. They can’t wait to share their stuff with each other tomorrow, and I’m kind of proud of the work that we generated together as well. Win!

So my challenge to each of you readers is to post a three– or four–sentence prose poem here. So we can all see it. I dare you. Here’s mine from today (about my first teaching job):

The room smelled of chalkboards, dust, old papers–like the inside of a drawer that had been shut for years. Empty desks were pushed against the walls as though they’d been in a wreck. Behind the teacher’s desk was an old wooden student chair that looked like it’d been chewed up and spit out whole. I collapsed into the chair and began scratching out lessons as though I knew what I was doing.

Dark Though It Is

© 2010 David Parker

When I have trouble writing, or when I’m having trouble with life in general, poetry seems to always save me. Poetry comforts me the way religion used to. Because it teaches us about who we are and the world we live in. Because it celebrates the beautiful, inglorious condition of being human. Because I don’t read poetry, I swim through it until I break the surface.

So I began this morning with poetry, and I feel better already. I picked up Steve Kowit’s In the Palm of Your Hand, and I’ll be working through it here. Today, I tried my hand at the three– or four–sentence prose poem (p. 26).

I write a poem about eating fruit on Saturday morning, hear it in someone else’s mouth, throw it away. I begin a piece about how nothing is sacred, find myself reading Perez Hilton instead. Every false start feels like a failure–I write anyways.

*I took the title of this post from W.S. Merwin’s poem “Thanks,” which, like so many of the poems I’ve read, I encountered through Emma Bolden (at The Yawp). The poem now resides on my bathroom mirror.