For Your Grandma

“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra

Dear Reader,

Have you ever come to a fork in the road?  Have you wondered if they would lead you to the same place? How do you know which one to take?

Alice Walker has this story called “Everyday Use.”  It’s a fantastic story that I teach almost every semester.  It’s a story about a mom and her two girls, told from the perspective of the mother.  The two daughters are as different as they can be.  One is called Maggie, and she is not terribly sophisticated, and maybe she has passed up some opportunities to get herself farther ahead in life.  But she did that so she could stay with her mom. Maggie is a good person, genuine. The other is named Dee – actually she has changed her name to Wangero. The change is symbolic of her new, better life. She left home, went to college.  She has become her own person.

So there’s an interesting thing that always happens when my students and I talk about this story.  No one really likes Dee.  They think she has appropriated her culture for selfish reasons, they think she is out of touch with what matters, they think she should appreciate her “old” life more than she seems to.  They think Maggie is “nice” because she stayed with her mother.  They think Maggie has missed out on a lot, but her choices somehow seem easier to live with.  These are all true observations.  Here’s the interesting part: they like Maggie, but they don’t want to be her.  They’d rather be Dee.

This story means something to me because sometimes I feel like the outlier in my family.  I moved out on my own after high school.  I stayed behind in Maryland when my family moved on to Pennsylvania so I could start my own life, be independent. I wanted to be “more” – always have.  I have remained in Maryland as my family has come full circle and returned to Tennessee.  I put myself through college.  I think differently. I do feel like I have chosen a different kind of life.  Not a better life, but a different life.

There are things about my southern heritage that I really miss, and I acutely feel like I am not part of them at times.  There is a line in Walker’s story where Dee wants these quilts that are family heirlooms – she wants to display them as art, which in its own way is a way to honor them, but not quite the right way maybe.  After some argument about them, the mother says that Maggie can make more – she knows how to quilt.  The implicit statement is that Maggie is part of the culture and Dee is not.  I think about this a lot lately.  The fork looms – what will make the difference?  This is the difficult choice so often in life.  Both options seem to have their advantages, but is there real difference in choosing one path over the other? Are we destined to be who we will be no matter what? Would Dee be a “better” person if she had stayed close, learned to quilt?

I have always wondered about this.  It has been looming larger lately as I contemplate what the next phase of my life will be.  I have accomplished many personal and professional goals, so naturally I am thinking about what is next.  In this mindset, I recalled a poem I wrote in 1999 when I was a sophomore at the University of Baltimore.  Just a month after I wrote it, my great-grandmother died, and I read it as part of her eulogy at her funeral.  It was a way to honor her memory and what she meant to our family.  Just this year, the Blackbird Poetry Festival ran with the theme of “Histories and HerStories,” and I decided to revise it to read it at the festival, this time thinking of all my grandmothers and how there is this legacy that maybe… the thought is hard to finish.  It may be true that you can never go home again.  Or maybe it’s not.  I don’t know.  Grandmothers seem to be the key to memory somehow, they are the stuff the tapestry is woven from. Maybe it’s that we all revolve around them  – they are the center of the universe for big occasions, like Christmas morning. Or maybe it’s the food – the smell, the taste, the good feeling. At any rate, here is the poem, and of course it has to do with food. 

“For Your Grandma”

 

On her pale, wrinkled hands, each line a dozen stories

Of days spent combing the hair of her grandchildren,

Pulling out splinters, washing out scratches, and wiping away tears.

Rough, scaly hands riddled with scars of picking, pickling, and canning,

Purple fingers, purple hands, stained from beating the beets,

The evidence of a life spent reaping the fruit needed for living, every day.

I watched her sometimes while she cooked.

Her fingers, long probing rods, kneaded the bread,

And her flour-covered hands tossed, slapped, and shaped sticky globs

That were thrown onto the biscuit pan

And shoved with purpose into the hot oven.

In a strange, wordless language, she smacked the helpless

Dough into perfect submission.

If you are from The South, you’d better be able to make biscuits.

They should be made of lard and flour, laced with butter, milk, and salt.

They must rise, golden and perfect.

They better not be made with Bisquick.

Otherwise, you might as well live in Maryland.

In my grandmother’s house, biscuits were a form of currency,

Good as money, the bread of life.

The oven timer was a siren call to the breakfast table,

A starting gun for the day, a blessing, a prayer.

I am a long way from that Tennessee kitchen, and

I hope she does not hear this: but I cannot remember

How to make biscuits the way she did.

I do remember her hands.

Wherever she is now,

I want her to see: my mother, my sister, me:

We have risen, we are golden, we are delicious.

 

And because you can’t talk about biscuits without really wanting one, here is a recipe for biscuits like my Grandma Odum used to make – they really are the best.  The key is the lard:

Ingredients

2 1/4 cups of all-purpose flour

1 tspn salt

1/3 tspn baking soda

5 tbspns of lard

2 tspns of baking powder

1 cup of buttermilk

1/4 cup or so of melted salted butter

  1. Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
  2. Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
  3. Flour your hands and turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll the dough in the flour just enough to make it workable – you don’t want it to stick to your hands too much, but don’t work in too much extra flour either or the biscuits will be heavy and taste of raw flour.
  4. For each biscuit, pinch off a piece of dough about the size of a large egg or a small lemon and pat out in the un-greased pan with your hands. You don’t want it to be really flat, just pat it down a bit so it’s relatively biscuit-shaped and about 1 inch high.
  5. Bake at 475 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes until the tops are golden brown. Keep your eye on them while they’re in the oven so they don’t burn.
  6. Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter.  Enjoy the awesome.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Losing Saint Ricky

This week – from the archives: a story about my father.  This week marked the twenty-third anniversary of my brother’s death.  Next month will be the thirty-fifth anniversary of my father’s death.  They died of the same thing, shared the same affliction: alcoholism. When I was eight, it was a hard thing to understand.  This is how I remember it.

Ricky
Ricky Odum, @ 1971, entering the Air Force
When I think of my father, many different images come to mind. For me, he is mostly a series of pictures like a confused, silent home movie—but in Technicolor, not the standard black and white that home movies usually suggest. I see him in a red and black flannel shirt standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s small Tennessee house; smiling with his brown golf bag hanging from his shoulder; his jeans and black boots sticking out from under the old blue rambler my mom used to drive, his brown hair sparkling in the sun.

There are other images, more vivid and disturbing. I see him punching my mother. I hear him yelling at my brother and slamming the door as he walks away. I see his rage. These are things that I wish I didn’t remember. In general, my father’s family doesn’t like to remember anything like this either; he was the youngest of five children and my grandmother’s treasure. He was famous for doing things like skipping school to drink with his buddies—on one such occasion, this resulted in his accidentally sinking his car in a lake. These things were somehow easily forgiven and laughed off. So he ruined a car? My grandfather just bought him a new one. His mistakes were never a big deal. He was immature, but he could do no real wrong, even when he was wrong. After he died, he was practically holy: Saint Ricky. Saint Ricky never really made an effort in life to consistently be a better man, but after his death, we all wanted to believe that he could have been.

My father had this charm about him. I guess that’s because when he chose to be good, he was great. He was quick to apologize when he messed up and seemed terribly sincere as he did so. I understand why my mother, his parents and his friends so easily forgave his faults: I forgave them as well. I continue to forgive them. If I were not a part of this family, I couldn’t possibly understand this, but I am; I do. There are only a handful of times that I remember being afraid of my father, but there are more times that I remember that I loved him and he loved us.

I don’t really know what my father did for a living. He never went to college, but somehow he managed to score himself a management job. I know that he wore a suit to work (I specifically remember a brown suit he wore a lot and a tie with brown and white and silver diagonal stripes), and I know that he worked for a company called Hamilton Avnet. I used to have a key chain that was a chopped up $100 bill inside a plastic shell that said “Hamilton Avnet” on it. I used to think it was really worth $100. I prized it. My father brought it back from one of his business trips for me—I guess to make me feel better about the time that he had to be away. He was often away.

 

But this is all that I know. I’m starting to lose even those few things I can still recall. I now remember far less about my father’s life with us than I do about his death. I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive or recall the last thing he may have said to me. But I remember exactly the moment that he died—or at least the moment that his death became real to me. It was late at night, and I think he had been away on a trip. I should have been asleep but wasn’t. Or maybe I was. Or maybe I was caught in that space between sleeping and waking where everything is at the same time vivid and hard to remember at once. Even now, pieces of it come back to me and retreat from me—like when I have a strange dream, and I stand in the shower the next morning trying to fit it all back together while images wash over and off and away from me, out of my reach.

That night in July 1981, the ringing brought all of my senses to attention. This was long before I knew the gravity of a phone call in the middle of the night, but even at eight years old, I knew that no one was supposed to call right then.   The hair on the back of my neck and my arms began to stir. I got up. The padded feet of my pajamas hit the floor. I squished and swished into the dark hall where I heard my mother’s sleepy voice answer the phone. I don’t remember any of the words that she said, but I could hear fear.   The rest was silence. In the dark, I couldn’t see anything. Once my mother stopped talking, the air was still and blank. I would have thought that I was asleep and dreaming except that I could reach out and touch the frame of the doorway that led to my mother’s room. That was when I knew I really was standing in the hall, that the phone really did just ring. All at once, somehow I knew my dad was gone.

A mass of blankets was lying on the living room floor; my mother wanted us to feel safe, so she herded us together. My brother and sister and I were still trying to grasp ideas of “tragic” and “gone” and “heaven” and things like that that everyone kept repeating. In the hours since the phone had rung, I was aware of people coming and going and crying. My mother’s eyes were wild and red. I could not understand then her fear of being suddenly a widow at the age of 26 with three small children, a part-time job as a waitress and no high school diploma.

A few days later, I remember this beige building with a black railing along a walkway out front. The place was called Laycock Funeral Home. I kept going out to the railing to escape the sobbing, sniffing people dressed in black who all seemed to want to hug me. I was afraid of them, but I was more afraid to go into the other rooms in that place. I was afraid that there would be more dead people in them. There was only one room that was safe. It was a tiny room in the back, with a sink and a counter and a little soda machine. For a quarter you could buy a coca-cola in the little old-fashioned glass bottles. It was the only room where I couldn’t hear the tinny, hollow organ music—that music made me feel as though I was floating around outside of my body, not even really there.

The room my father’s body and family were in was a lot different. There was a bronze coffin. His body was inside of it. I can say his body was inside of it and not that he was inside, because what lay within that bronze coffin was definitely not my father. His hair was all wrong. It wasn’t combed the way he usually combed it. It wasn’t brown and sparkly like it was when we were out in the sun. And it wasn’t soft. I touched it. It felt hard–like fishing line. I put my face close so that I could smell it. My father usually smelled like oil and sweat and suntan lotion. Not only didn’t it smell like him, it didn’t smell like any person I had ever smelled in my life. He smelled like Vaseline and rubbing alcohol. His face was kind of puffy and he wasn’t smiling. He wasn’t frowning either. So often when he came home from work I could tell whether we would play or if I should run by the look on this face, but now this face said nothing to me. His eyes didn’t have those lines at the corners that he always got when he squinted. I remember that he squinted a lot. And this was the worst thing of all: there was a little trickle of dry blood on his ear. If that had been my father, I would have wiped that off of there. But I was certain that this was not him.

There were yellow roses on top of the bronze coffin. They added to the overpowering smell of flowers in that place. I can never drive by Laycock without remembering that smell. I can’t smell flowers without remembering that place, this day, bronze coffin, my father, yellow roses and the American flag. My uncle, Eddie, was a soldier. My father was a soldier too—before I was born. I have seen faded, cracked pictures of my father in green pants and a green shirt polishing his boots or standing next to a plane. He has really short hair in all of those pictures. There is one that my mother is in. She is standing next to him in his tan dress uniform and she is wearing a really short white dress. Since my father was a soldier, my uncle the soldier is there to honor him. But I am not noticing all of this entirely. All the things that he said about my father I have long forgotten. Out of the funeral home and on the cemetery hillside, what I notice now is the bright, blue sky, the heat of the sun, and the green tent that we are sitting under, how it is flapping loudly in the breath of God. The overwhelming smell of flowers is replaced by the smell of cut grass. The sound of hollow organ music gives way to the sounds of cars passing by, people crying softly, and my uncle whispering something into my mother’s ear. He placed a carefully folded flag (with the white stars showing) into my mother’s lap and saluted her; I didn’t know what any of it meant.

I lost that $100 key chain long ago, and I now understand that the broken, fragmented pieces inside it had no real value, just imagined worth. I lost my father long ago as well, but the disjointed images of him, both great and terrible, are all that I have left, and now I realize that they are worth everything to me. It’s taken me many years to understand that when someone dies, we don’t lose them all at once. It seems like that initially of course because their physical presence vanishes so suddenly. But in truth, pieces of them linger for years after. Despite his many faults – even the ones that really hurt our family, I’ve found that I most often tell the good stories about Saint Ricky because I want others to meet and know and love the man I think I knew.

There is a picture of my father on his tombstone. He is outside, smiling in the sun in a faded denim jacket in front of the house where we used to live before he died. For me, he will always be frozen in this moment, with this smile. I remember so much, but there are some things that I am beginning to forget. Every day, parts of him are slipping away. I can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore. I can play the tape recorder in my head and recall actual words that he said, but the sound, the tone, that ineffable thing that made it his voice, is gone. I’ll never get it back. I am losing him finally in parts, and I feel it so much more than when I thought I lost him all at once.

 

© Ryna May 2016

Serially Obsessed

Dear Reader,

Last year, a podcast called Serial gripped the nation.  It was the story of a Baltimore-area high school honors student named Adnan Syed who was convicted in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.  This story has the stuff of great mystery: romance, possible love-triangle, shady characters, murder, and a cover-up – all told beautifully by Serial’s host, Sarah Koenig. If you have never listed to season one of the Serial podcast, you should. And also this post will mean nothing to you unless you have. But if you did, you likely had all of the same questions I did at the end. Like many other listeners, I could not let the story go once the podcast was over – there was just too much that didn’t seem right, too many unknowns.

Serial spawned several other podcasts, most notably Undisclosed and Truth & Justice (formerly known as Serial Dynasty). These podcasts picked up the story where Serial left it.  The Undisclosed team consists of three lawyers: Susan Simpson, Colin Miller, and Rabia Chaudry, a lifelong friend of Adnan Syed who has made it her personal mission to seek a new trial in this case. The lawyers have meticulously gone through testimony, tapes, files, and the timeline of events to give a more complete picture of the Hae Min Lee murder case. Truth and Justice is a podcast created by Bob Ruff, a former fire chief and investigator. Initially, Ruff’s podcast was a forum for fan theories, but he soon put his investigative skills to work in pulling on different threads of the case to see where they went. Some of the revelations have been surprising. It would likely take you weeks to binge-listen to all of the first seasons of Undisclosed and Truth and Justice, but it’s well worth it.

There were several puzzles that Serial left us with, but I’m going to focus on what I think are the 5 big ones.  Over the past year and a half since season one of Serial wrapped, much more information has been revealed, and thanks to Undisclosed, Truth and Justice, and Adnan’s post-conviction appeal hearing, we know much, much more. There is no easy or quick way to summarize it all, but here is a pass at some of the key points. Once again, if you are familiar with the case and the podcast, this will make a lot more sense to you.

Number 1: The Nisha Call & Leakin Park Pings

There are two things that Sarah Koenig really could not reconcile at the end of the first season of Serial. One was why there is a call to a girl named Nisha on Adnan’s call record for 3:32pm on January 13, 1999 that lasted 2 minutes and 22 seconds. According to Adnan, he was at track at that time and Jay still had his cell phone. Jay says that Adnan had already killed Hae, been picked up by Jay, and that they were riding around in the car together at this time. Jay did not know Nisha and would have no reason to call her.  According to Jay, he and Adnan both talked to Nisha during the call.

So this looks bad for Adnan, but it is entirely possible that the Nisha call was a butt-dial that was never answered. Nisha testified that she did not have voicemail, so the call would have continued to ring if she was not available to pick it up. She also did not recall talking to Adnan and Jay during the day, but she did remember talking to both Jay and Adnan once on a call that came in the evening when Jay was at work.  It’s easy to date the call Nisha remembers because Jay was at work at an adult video store, a detail Nisha remembers about the call – a job he did not have in January of 1999.  But back to the 3:32 call on January 13th – because of the duration of the call, if it did ring for over 2 minutes, it is entirely plausible that AT&T billed Adnan for the call – the Undisclosed team was able to learn that similar AT&T subscriber contracts

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 9.58.00 PM.png
Adnan’s Call Log (from the Serial Website)
from that time show that AT&T had a policy of billing subscribers for calls over a minute whether they were answered or not.

The Serial team also could not explain the Leakin Park Pings. According to Jay, he and Adnan buried the body in Leakin Park sometime after 7pm on January 13th. There are two incoming calls to Adnan’s phone – one at 7:09pm and the other at 7:16pm – that “ping” a cell phone tower near Leakin Park, suggesting that, if nothing else, the cellphone is located nearby.

There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: when the prosecutors requested Adnan’s phone records from AT&T, the phone company provided those records along with a fax cover sheet that clearly stated that incoming calls are not reliable location indicators. In other words, in 1999 AT&T itself declared that incoming calls could not reliably indicate location. For example, in Adnan’s recent appeal hearing, Adnan’s attorney Justin Brown pointed to 2 calls on the log: 1 pinged a tower in DuPont Circle in Washington DC, and the other pinged a tower in Baltimore less than a half an hour later. Anyone who lives in this area will tell you that the laws of physics don’t even allow you to get out of DuPont Circle in 30 minutes, let alone get to Baltimore. This is the perfect illustration of unreliable. There are complicated reasons for this that are explained in detail by Susan Simpson in episode 8 of Undisclosed. The reason the defense never brought this up at trial was that Adnan’s attorney, Christina Gutierrez, never received that information from the prosecutor even though the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, received it from AT&T. The failure to disclose this information is what is called a “Brady Violation” – it means that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence from the defense. That alone should have been enough to grant Adnan a new trial. In fact, the prosecution’s cellphone expert witness, Abraham Waranowitz, was not shown the cover sheet either before he testified for the state. He now says that if he had known that, he would not have testified as he did. So, yeah, that was kind of an important detail. So these 2 things that stumped the Serial team, the Nisha Call and the Leakin Park Pings, are not really rock-solid evidence. They are shockingly explainable given the information we have now.

Number 2: Where Was Hae Going That Day?

The popular narrative for Hae’s day is that she needed to rush out of school to pick up her cousin and then had to go to a wrestling match – she was the team manager. But Undisclosed was able to look through school records to show that there was no wrestling match that day – which means that many people who were interviewed about where Hae was headed that day were remembering the wrong day. In fact, Hae was supposed to work that evening at LensCrafters in Owings Mills, and then she was supposed to have a date with her new boyfriend, Don. She never made it to pick up her cousin, or to work, or to her date.

One person has a clear memory of talking to Hae at the end of the day: a friend of hers named Debbie. Debbie was interviewed by police and said that Hae told her she was in a hurry to leave school on January 13th, 1999 because she was going to see Don. Because several other witnesses mentioned the wrestling match, Debbie’s recollection seemed like the outlier, but given that the wrestling match everyone else remembers was not on that day, it is more likely the truth. If that is the truth, it’s an important detail to examine.

Number 3: Jay’s Stories

Jay Wilds is perhaps the biggest enigma in this case. Given all of the new evidence, it is more than likely that he knew nothing at all about what happened to Hae but rather made up a story to please the police. Why would someone do that? Many rumors have abounded – such as the one where Jay was jealous of Adnan’s friendship with his girlfriend, Stephanie. The two were close and in the magnate program together at Woodlawn High School. One is that Jay was afraid of the police because he was dealing pot and didn’t want to get locked up for that. Jay himself has cited this as the reason he decided to talk to the police.

Two other ideas have emerged from the work of the Undisclosed team and Bob Ruff at Truth and Justice. The first is that Jay did it for money. In Episode 10 of Undisclosed, we learn that Metro Crime Stoppers paid about $3K to an informant in this case. Per the rules for paying out these rewards, the informant can only get the money if the information leads to arrest and conviction. There is only one witness for the prosecution that gave that kind of information: Jay. And, the police would have to authorize the payment. The second idea is that the police threatened Jay – told him that he would be charged in this crime and that they would seek the death penalty against him. So to get off the hook, Jay agreed to help them tap-tap-tap together a narrative against Adnan – that is who the police really wanted to charge anyway.

One thing is for certain – years after this and the multiple versions of events that Jay related to the police in interviews and at trial, Jay’s story continues to change. In an interview Jay gave to The Intercept in December of 2014, he told yet another version of the story. Where Jay is concerned, there is no truth.

Number 4: Asia McClain

We have all wondered why Asia never testified in Adnan’s trial. She claims to have seen him in the library at the same time the state says he was strangling Hae in the parking lot of Best Buy. Why didn’t Gutierrez call Asia to the stand? There are 2 possible explanations for this. The first is that the Undisclosed team discovered that Asia’s name was misprinted in Gutierrez’s records as Aisha, not Asia, in a critical place that included notes about the alibi. Aisha is a real person – Hae’s best friend. Gutierrez may well have dismissed it based on this. The second is that Gutierrez just forgot to follow up on it.  She seemed to have a lot going on at the time, and as we now know, her health was really deteriorating, and she was not able to perform her job at a high level.  Things got missed.

The prosecution also said that Asia recanted her affidavit, but this is not true. When Asia testified at Adnan’s appeal hearing in February, she maintained the same version of events that she told in 1999. She also testified that the prosecutor, Kevin Urick, misrepresented their conversation and even discouraged her from testifying in the first appeal, saying that they had overwhelming evidence against Adnan. Asia’s testimony would force the state to come up with a totally new timeline for the murder – one they probably could not put together successfully or coherently given the giant holes in Jay’s stories. From an evidence standpoint, it’s the whole ballgame.

Number 5: Don

If you had a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend and she/he failed to show up, would you call her/him? Would you want to know why you were stood up? Apparently, Hae’s boyfried Don was not concerned when A) his girlfriend didn’t show up for her shift at the place where they both worked, B) stood him up for a date, and C) seemed to disappear altogether with no phone call, no email, no anything.

In addition, Bob Ruff was able to learn that Don falsified his timesheet and created a (false) alibi immediately when Hae disappeared – even thought he reportedly told police that he thought she must have run off to California. Why would he need a false alibi then? Don’s mother, the general manager of LensCrafters, doctored a time sheet to attempt to place him at work the day Hae vanished. That’s not shady at all. For some reason, the police never aggressively investigated Don or his alibi, even when they could not locate/talk to him until 1am the day/evening of her abduction. This does not mean that Don killed Hae, but Don was never subjected to the level of scrutiny or investigation that Adnan was, and he really should have been.  But once the police decided to pursue Adnan as a suspect, they let go of every other thread in the case.  They stopped pulling.

These facts give us a more complete picture than we had when Serial ended. Adnan was given a chance to appeal in a post-conviction hearing in February of this year.  The case is currently in the hands of Judge Welch, who previously ruled against Adnan in an earlier appeal. But the evidence appears overwhelming: Adnan should get a chance at a new trial.

Why is this story so compelling?  I’ve wondered that.  I don’t even really like crime shows.  Maybe it’s because I’m from the Baltimore area, so to me, the places in the story are not abstract – I used to drive past the infamous Best Buy all the time when I worked in that area.  Maybe it’s because I work with honors students and I can’t imagine any of them in this scenario.  But I think it’s also because, as someone who teaches and studies Ethics, I am troubled by the idea that the police might seek convictions and not truth.  We also see this in the popular Netflix documentary Making a Murderer.  (That’s a whole other topic for another time.) One of the pillars of our social contract is that our police and prosecutors should seek justice, not simply seek to win cases.  The truth matters – the truth is what compelled Asia to come forward after all this time. What troubles me about Adnan’s case is that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to anyone.  It could happen to you.  Like Adnan, you might never see it coming.

 

PS – If you want to hear more from Adnan himself, you can preorder Adnan’s Story, written by Rabia Chaudry.

© Ryna May 2016

Understanding Poetry

Dear Reader,

April is National Poetry Month, and whatever else that means, it means that we should pay attention to poetry.  At Howard Community College, that means it’s time for the annual Blackbird Poetry Festival.  Blackbird was inspired by a visit to the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2008. I saw Billy Collins, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, and many other wonderful poets.  In 2010, I saw Michael Cirelli, and the next year, we had Michael at Blackbird.  His poem, “Troubador,” is still one of my favorite poems to teach or talk about with students.

The name of the Blackbird festival comes from the Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  This poem was an inscrutable poem that I first read as a junior in college, and I had a professor who liked to start every class with us reciting this poem in different ways.  Over time, I began to see it as a celebration of the many ways that poetry helps us see the extraordinary in the ordinary.  So it was natural that this humble festival would take the name of that poem.  Although, over time and due largely to a wonderful partnership with HoCoPoLitSo, the Blackbird festival has welcomed not just Cirelli, but also amazing poets like Martin Espada, Taylor Mali, Rives, Kim Addonizio, and even Billy Collins.

The real goal of the festival, for me, has always been to give students a different experience with poetry.  Most students only experience poetry on the page in an academic setting.  My first real experience with reading poetry was in 9th grade.  My teacher at my private, religious high school allowed us to read some of the Romantic poets – mostly Blake and Wordsworth.  One of our major assignments of the semester was to memorize and recite a poem to the rest of the class.  I chose “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth.  I still remember the entire poem even now.  But I didn’t really understand the poem until years later when I walked by a row of daffodils with my dog, Oberon.  It was only when I took the poem off the page that it started to mean anything to me.

I teach poetry now, and I normally start teaching poetry with 2 poems from Billy Collins: “Introduction to Poetry” and “The Lanyard” because both of the poems make the principal arguments I hope to advance in teaching poetry to my students.  1: The meaning of poetry is not fixed and is entirely dependent on how the reader experiences it – so I don’t want them to get too caught up in the “real” meaning or the technical aspects of it.  Some of the least inspiring poetry teachers I have had beat me over the head with rhyme and meter definitions – as if those things would unlock the wonder and mystery of poetry. 2: Images are everything in poetry because they are full of possibility – see William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson for more on this.  Reading poetry should be an exercise in active interpretation, and images allow us to engage in that.

I love the scene in Dead Poets Society when Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the students turn to the section called “Understanding Poetry” in their textbooks.  In leading them through the ridiculous assessment of the technical and historical wonders of poems, Keating’s larger point is that understanding poetry is synonymous with experiencing poetry.  When the class is over, I don’t know that many students will recall the technical parameters of a villanelle, but I hope they do remember what it means to rage against the dying of the light – whatever that might mean to them. I want them to remember that poetry can be “a place for the genuine.”  In recent years, poetry has been declared all but dead in the cultural conversation – an archaic art form that might as well be hieroglyphics, but I would argue against that.  Poetry is all around us in our song lyrics, in movies, in political protest, in festivals, and yes, even in academia.  For one month, we get to remind ourselves of it.

© Ryna May 2016

 

FrankenTrump

“I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks.” – Mary Shelley

Today’s Republican party has created what you might call the abominable candidate, Donald Trump.  In the tradition of Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, this primary frontrunner is a conglomerate of the worst possible parts of a person – racism, xenophobia, willful ignorance, entitlement, and bravado all wrapped up in one very ugly bully.

Boris Karloff in the 1935 film The Bride of Frankenstein, directed by James Whale.
Image from Mother Jones
As horrible as Trump is, he is the fitting harvest of all the acrid seeds sown by the most cynical and opportunistic people in the GOP in the last 50 years or so. Trump was sown by Pat Buchanan, Richard Nixon, Lee Atwater, and Ronald Reagan in their not-so-subtle race baiting that was so genteelly nicknamed the “Southern Strategy.” This strategy helped gradually convert the south to a Republican stronghold, primarily by appealing to deeply held prejudices among voters there through the use of coded language.  If you think that strategy is dead, then ask yourself why Trump had such a hard time rejecting the support of David Duke and the Ku Klux Klan in the days leading up to Super Tuesday when several southern states were about to vote.

 

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Image from The Denver Post
Trump was sown by the Tea Party whose incendiary rhetoric has led to moments like the one where Congressman Joe Wilson, with a stunning lack of decorum, yelled “Liar!” at the President during his State of the Union address.  From the Republicans in Congress, President Obama has faced blatant racism throughout his tenure.  They questioned his legitimacy because of his foreign-sounding name and the fact that he was born in Hawaii.  Yet somehow the party faithful can pretend not to know (or care) that one of the Republicans running now to succeed Obama, Ted Cruz, was actually not born in America, but in Canada.  Where are those “birthers” now? The behavior of these GOP leaders emboldens the members of the base.  Lack of courtesy, lack of respect, lack of decency abounds.  The loudest mouth wins.  Enter Trump.

 

“For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” – Hosea 8:7

Trump was sown by the years and years of lip service the GOP gave to the concerns of religious voters.  In his article “Jesus is not a Republican” from The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2006), Randall Balmer makes the case that Republican politicians have repeatedly disavowed fundamental teachings of Jesus such as helping the poor, the use of torture, and the value of life all while courting religious voters.  The religious political machine has focused more on punishing those who are down on their luck, ridiculing and humiliating them, calling them “moochers” and freeloaders.  The machine has stood by while wars are prosecuted for false reasons and stood behind an administration that believes waterboarding is an ethical interrogation strategy.  Trump has called for a return to the use of torture, even as he has said, “beyond waterboarding,” which is horrible to imagine. That’s not a position consistent with valuing life, and Trump has backpedaled on that position somewhat, but he has also said that we should target the families of our enemies – their wives and children.  That’s something straight out of Macbeth, not the New Testament. We can’t pretend that these are Judaeo Christian values – they just aren’t.  But this is the man who would lead the Republican party.

“When falsehood can look so like the truth, who can assure themselves of certain happiness?” – Mary Shelley

 

lucy-football
Image from Slate.com
The chickens are coming home to roost.  The poor of the country, especially those in the south, are tired of Republican politicians taking their money and their votes and failing to deliver on any of their promises.  The religious right are sick and tired of seeing their social issues used as a political football.  Every four years, like Charlie Brown, they run out onto the pitch where Lucy waits, only to end up flat on their backs.  Good Grief!  Maybe not this year. You can’t blame voters for feeling that enough is enough and looking for an alternative, an outsider, a non-politician.

 

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example” – Mary Shelley

So where does this leave moderate Republican voters?  There are many of them who are people of good will who believe in things like small government at the federal level and a greater role for local governments and who have specific ideas about fiscal policy that don’t include destroying the middle class.  There are many moderate Republican voters who do not hate Mexicans and Muslims and who do believe in the American Dream that so many immigrants come here to find.  But this is not their Republican Party – for some time it has been slipping away. For years they have turned a blind eye while the party grew more and more extreme.  If Mitt Romney’s desperate speech doesn’t tell the truth of it, then I don’t know what else does.  It’s all hitting the fan now.  Fox News viewers can hardly stomach it anymore. The former nominee basically begged voters to go out and vote for anyone but Trump, betting on, hoping for a brokered convention where the delegates can rally together and choose someone more palatable. In doing so, the party will basically slap the face of their own voters, saying, in effect, thanks for voting – that’s cute, but we’ve got this from here. As I wrote a few months ago, this is a crossroads for the GOP as we know it.  Will they be defined by their new standard-bearer, Trump?  Or will they have the courage to watch the thing they gave their lives to, broken, and find a way to build it new? In a surreal moment at the end of the Republican debate in Detroit, after spending 2 hours slamming Trump and declaring him unfit and unqualified to be president, we watched as these same men, Cruz, Rubio, and Kasich, all pledged to rally behind and support the eventual Republican nominee, even if that is Trump.  If that is true, they have no one to blame but themselves.

© Ryna May 2016

Required Reading

Dear Reader,

In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read.  Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.

Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read.  If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations.  Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about.  So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:

1. The Great Gatsby

I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book.  I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.”  An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.

2. Beloved

No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces.  Shivers.  Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.

3. Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece.  It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world.  In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.

4. Hamlet

Of course there is Shakespeare on this list!  My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in.  I have never read another play like it.  Its depths resound.  Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.

5. The Things They Carried

Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to.  Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller.  I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.”  I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch.  If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.

6. 1984

I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary.  It’s scary because it’s so true.  I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come.  When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.”  Not so funny now.  Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.

7. Last but not least, Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries.  The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.

So what do you think?  If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?

 

© Ryna May 2016

Change is Gonna Come

Dear Reader,

Of course, this is the time of year when everyone makes resolutions to make changes in their lives. Most of the time, these changes fall along the lines of losing weight, saving money, getting fit, quitting smoking, etc.  However, as we well know, most of us do not keep those resolutions – why not?  Maybe we think changes are impossible.  Maybe we just aren’t ready for change.  I know it’s a cliche, but the only constant in life is change – so I want to think more about how to embrace it.

Dr. Art Markman, professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, says we don’t keep our resolutions because many of us who make resolutions fail to make a realistic plan to achieve our goals.  Perhaps we believe too much in the magical power of January 1st, as if putting up a new calendar on the wall wipes the slate totally clean.

Dr. Markman recently wrote an article for Time wherein he laid out a few pieces of practical advice for keeping those resolutions.  In summary, here they are:

  1. Prepare before New Year’s Eve.  Oops – too late for us on that one because the new year is already here.  But perhaps the point is to make a decision to start something and not worry about what the calendar says.  As the saying goes, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.”
  2. The only way to really change is to change our habits.  Our lives are governed by routine.  If you want to jumpstart your career, you can’t just binge on Netflix every day – you have to change some behaviors.  You won’t get healthy by ordering pizza every week – you’re going to have to shop and cook.
  3. Focus first on positive goals rather than negative goals – a positive goal is something you want to do whereas a negative goal is something you want to stop.  This is perhaps my favorite bit of Dr. Markman’s advice.  It is much easier to gain some momentum toward things you want to do – such as taking more walks.  I love the idea of creating some success that will give me confidence in tackling some of the more difficult behaviors to change.
  4. Be specific about your plans.  This is also important.  It’s why we have schedules and calendars.  If you want to read more, choose a night that is the night you plan to read and schedule it.  This is how something becomes a routine.
  5. Change your environment to accommodate new habits.  The idea is to make it easy to do desirable things and hard to do undesirable things.  So if your goal is to eat better, don’t buy junk snacks for the house – instead buy, say, apples and carrots.  That way, when you want a snack, the desirable behavior will be easy.
  6. Finally, Dr. Markman advises that you should not be too hard on yourself.  Change is difficult for everyone, so odds are even if you plan well you won’t end up keeping all of those resolutions.  But maybe you achieve one or two of them. It’s best to celebrate the ways in which we are successful rather than beat ourselves up for the times we fall short.

The fact is, whether we resolve it or not, change is going to come in some form to all of us in the coming year.  Some of it will be good and some won’t be.  In looking back over the past year, there were some definite high points and some definite low points, but life is definitely not the same as it was one year ago today.  I was not always ready for change to happen, but we can’t always control things in our lives – change happens whether we like it or not. All we can control is how we react. And when circumstances do change in ways we don’t like, we have the power to decide what we are willing to accept and what we won’t stand for. 

I normally don’t really make New Year’s Resolutions because I think they are destined to fail, but this year I do have some changes I’d like to make.  I’d like to return to health.  This time last year I was training for a half-marathon and running up to six miles at a time.  After the half-marathon

IMG_0564
At the starting line of the Rock N Roll Half Marathon in DC, March 2015
in March, I backed off running to give myself some recovery time, and then I had a freak encounter with a stair that left me with a torn meniscus in my knee.  I have not been able to exercise for months and I don’t feel terribly healthy.  So I’d like to be able to exercise again.  I never thought I’d miss running, but I really do.  I don’t think I’ll ever run a half-marathon again, but I would love to do some more 5ks this year, and I’ve always wanted to do the Warrior Dash.  If I can keep recovering from the knee injury, I would love to do that this year.  I think the Maryland Warrior Dash is in May.  That’s a specific goal I can challenge myself with.  To get there, I have to focus on things other than running for the immediate future so I can start to regain some strength.  Nothing is going to happen overnight, but I have to have some specific plans in order for anything to happen at all.

The other change I want to make this year is to be open to change.  A lot of us have had that feeling in life of being in a rut or staying in a pattern because it’s easy or comfortable.  I don’t want to do that this year.  I want to be more Zen about what has been and let go of regrets and things that disappoint me.  This year, I want to be open to the possibility of new things, even if the new things seem scary. Everything changes eventually: jobs, people, locations, dreams.  As Hamlet said, “the readiness is all.”  This year, I want to be ready.

© Ryna May 2016