In the everyday

Poetry lives in the everyday, I tell my young students. In what you feel, what you see, and what you say. They want to be poetic, and so they’ll use words like regret and sorrow. They’ll force rhymes and take a brooding tone. At just 10 to 13 years old, they believe — like many adults — that poetry is a string of forlorn verse.

But I take the Naomi Shihab Nye perspective. Nye, an Arab-American poet living in Texas, has been called “a champion of the literature of encouragement and heart” (by William Stafford, another great poet and an Oregon icon).

Nye believes poetry resides in the little things, the big things, and in the ordinary spaces inbetween. In Valentine for Ernest Mann, she writes:

. . . So I'll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them . . .

And so, with Nye as an example, my young charges and I look for poetry in shadows and shoes. We take walks to experience ordinary life with fresh eyes. We gather words and sounds and listen for poetry in traffic and horns, in shouts and silence.

A few weeks ago, I shared Nye’s collection, A Maze Me: Poems for Girls with my 10 year-old niece. Kimberly is a bright and curious girl who loves nature and science. Within 10 minutes of cracking the book, she was inspired to pen her own poem. Now, that’s the poetry spirit!

The sun is high
The moon is low
The day is bright
And the night is cold
The stars are my nightlights
so I don’t get scared
My father said, don’t burn
out the lights
so that is why I
use the sky.

I love this piece. It’s fresh and unaffected. It doesn’t try too hard. Kimberly saw poetry in light and stitched words from the sky — and we can too. When we pay attention and write from everyday experience, we're all poets, at any age.


Simple beauty, well told

Oh, My Love

Nizar Qabbani

Oh, my love
If you were at the level of my madness,
You would cast away your jewelry,
Sell all your bracelets,
And sleep in my eyes


What does it mean?

How does a poem arrive? Develop? And what does the string of words -- placed this way and that --- mean, anyway?

I don’t know. Again and again, I don’t know.

And sometimes, even as the author, I don’t know what a poem means. Often the tone, the mood, is more important than the meaning. And sometimes meaning surfaces long after the pen rests and the page turns.

I wrote this poem over a year ago, but it is only now — as I experience friends and family in the throes of pain – that I understand what's been said.

Wounds that Bind
for Cindi

The hand that feeds the fire has no recipe.
You don't know what you're fighting so you
fan out      like a surgeon, mend endlessly,
step across hard shadows to stitch the awkward girl
in the corner.

Awake for days, walking through meals,
the moon births new     chaos
You hear lullabies.
You, baby flame, extract conscience
but mandate sedation
You know the price of wide awake.


Words rise

We’re in a bout of sadness. Loss swirls around our house, hits family and friends and turns a breezy summer into a deep, dark season of sorrow.

In the midst of beach vacations and late-night parties, sorrow seeps into happy occasions and my mind worries on the recent string of life-changing events. Just one is devastating enough but this time they come in a clutch, one tragic turn after the next: a young girl raped, a teenager killed, a trio of youngsters taken in a fire, mothers mourning, fathers angry.

In this conflicted season, I am out of words that will assuage events that make no sense, that break rules and wreck lives. And so my mind can only pick words from stilted air, settle on sounds that will describe what my spirit is too heavy too hold.

Words rise, not in a string of sense but in single sounds: tragic, inconsolable, broken. I’m collecting words and applying them like a balm, a gentle rub to every aching thought.

It’s not the direct hit that hurts but the inability to make things better for those I love.

Once, when I was distraught with slow change and my powerlessness to do anything of immediate value, a friend offered a simple solution: Be present, she said.

It seemed so simple. Too simple. But it was the best and most I could offer. I was present. I showed up. I paid attention. It showed dedication and interest. And it worked. And soon, being present turned into being useful.

I don’t know what to do now with the grief that consumes my family and friends, my heart. I’m standing here, waiting for words and action to rise again.


Sea lions, starfish and silence


Simon & Garfunkel sang its praises and Ode magazine devoted an entire issue to its value. As an introvert who has learned to turn ‘on’ when required, I’ve always felt most at home in quiet.

Last week, as I made a mad dash to attend the Pacific Northwest Writers Association Conference in Seattle (Prizes and Surprises! For all the juicy details, click on Poetry at right) I was reminded of the solace that silence brings.

Mad dash, in this case, meant a two-hour drive to a small airport that took me to a bigger airport that took me to an even bigger airport.

It had been a full week with a houseful of loving, enthusiastic family who were visiting the Oregon Coast for the first time. Our happy band enjoyed a full week of lighthouses, beaches, kayaks, forests, bayfronts, sea lions and starfish.

In the midst of all the fun, I got a bout of the stomach flu and spent 24 hours queasy and weak.

By the time I raced to attend the conference, I was spent. When you live a quiet life — as I now realize I clearly do — it’s not obvious until you experience unquiet.

I often rail that our (the collective our meaning, I suppose, everyone else and sometimes me) fascination with connection has made us chatty but no more connected. Cell phones, email, and yes, even blogs like this, contribute to the white noise of our lives. We’re all talk and not much listen. We’re screaming to be heard.

But when no one listens, the noise level must increase until the racket is just normal. When we are — miraculously — faced with silence, fear takes the place of noise. We don’t know what to do with our minds, so full of banter and chatter. We feel a need to fill the space and so we reach for the ipod, turn to the computer, turn up the tv. It’s too much to hear our own still voice.

And what a loss, this quiet erased.

How did silence become so scary? I’m tempted to say this is a generational issue but that’s too easy a dismissal and inaccurate, too. I know many people my age, and older, who feel edgy in the empty spaces.

Of course, silence is far from empty. Even the quiet is alive with sound — hums and buzzes prevail. Nature, so seemingly serene, is — when you really listen — bursting with sound.

In silence — when the mind is quiet, receptive and at rest — words rise, songs take shape, paintings form. Inspiration is surely rooted in quiet, in a willingness to be, not do.

I am lucky. I have always considered quiet an ally. Just as a cell phone needs a battery charge to take the next call, I need quiet to replenish my mind and body. I need the equilibrium silence provides.

And so, my two-hour drive to the airport was wonderfully silent. No radio or cd. No cell phone. No last-minute plans and worries. I crawled into silence and clung to its comfort.

When I arrived, my head was clear, my body rested, and my enthusiasm restored. Even my voice, when I spoke again, was hesitant and thin, as if it too had needed the rest.

Talk less. Listen more. I’ve always appreciated the sentiment but today I appreciate it even more. When we value the restorative power of silence, we don’t see the adage as an admonition but as a coveted invitation.