In the last year, we have all practiced the art of losing: we have lost being with family and friends, lost a bit of our independence, lost time. We’ve become pretty good at it, actually. I’ve been reflecting a lot on the last year as I recently celebrated my second Pandemic Birthday. Soon, my wife and I will celebrate our second Pandemic Anniversary.
April is National Poetry Month, so I’ve been revisiting a lot of poetry – Elizabeth Bishop is a favorite, and I’ve always loved “One Art.” From the relative safety of our homes, it’s been hard to watch so much disaster all around us while we lived happily during the pandemic – I’m borrowing from Ilya Kaminsky here and his poem “We Lived Happily During the War.” (By the way, Ilya Kaminsky will be our featured poet at the 13th annual Blackbird Poetry Festival later this month.) It is true though – my wife and I have been more or less content during the pandemic. We have each other, and work keeps us busy; I’ve practiced guitar a lot. We’ve read and re-read books. Netflix has kept us pretty entertained – we resisted Tiger King but watched every bit of Bridgerton, rewatched all of The Office. Our dogs love having us constantly with them, especially our senior chihuahua who takes up his perch every day on the couch in my wife’s office while she teleworks, unwitting guest star of all her virtual meetings. We miss our friends, but we have done Zoom happy hours (which got old fast), we’ve missed our families, we’ve missed baseball games and theater and going out to a nice dinner inside a restaurant. But none of this has been a disaster; I think that is because we knew that staying home, practicing social distancing (avoiding the politics of it all and following the science), and waiting for and then taking the vaccine as soon as it was ready was the only way to get back to normal again. And normal is worth waiting for.
I’ve also reflected a lot on what I cannot bear to lose and who cannot bear to lose me. I cannot bear to lose my wife, so it was kind of an emotional thing to get our vaccines together and know that we’ve done what we can do. I cannot bear to lose my family, so I pray every day for their safety. Same with my friends – I rejoice every time I see those updates that another one has gotten the vaccine – I high-five the air. I miss my students and my campus and can’t wait to walk across the quad again, write on a whiteboard, see a student in office hours. I feel hope’s feathers growing inside me a bit more every day.
There is another side of this too. I have no intent to be lost; I have a responsibility not to be lost. I know that my wife cannot bear to lose me – having lost her parents already, I cannot leave her alone in this life, so there was no question at all that I would get the vaccine immediately. No question that until it was available I would do anything and everything I could to make her feel safe. I don’t think my mom could bear to lose me either – having lost one child already, this would be a disaster. There isn’t much – there isn’t anything – that isn’t worth delaying to keep them from feeling that loss.
A year ago, I wrote a blog post on my birthday, and 1001 American lives had been lost to COVID on that day. Just over a year later, that number is an astonishing 553,000 and counting. That really is unbelievable except that we’ve been watching it unfold day by day. It’s hard to emotionally, mentally fight against all of this loss – but we have to. We all have people who can’t bear to lose us. Spring feels so much different this year than last. Renewal seems possible, but only if we act on our intent not to be lost. I can’t wait to see you all again someday soon.
I know this blog is a bit later than the first Friday, but I was asked to write a guest post for HoCoPoLitSo (Howard County Poetry and Literature Society) to mark LGBTQ History Month, and I wanted to let that post get published first there before I published a slightly different version of it here – so much has happened since I submitted the blog to them, and I kept thinking/writing. Now that it’s up there, here it is. You can also check it out on HoCoPoLitSo’s blog.
October is LGBTQ History Month. When I think about LGBTQ history, I am of two minds and the poems included in the LGBTQ collection on Poets.org perfectly reflect that split. Some of the poems are so absolutely ordinary in their subjects, like the poem, “our happiness” by Eileen Miles, and on one hand, I think, that’s progress: the lives of LGBTQ people are written and expressed in the same way as other lives. That’s equality, right? Being a gay poet doesn’t mean that you have to write every poem about the experience of being gay. Not every aspect, every moment of my life is about that, but my experience is most definitely shaped by it and so is my view of history.
If we’re really talking about history, the conversation is incomplete unless we acknowledge that nothing is really the same. Some might say, hey, you won the right to get married, so what are you complaining about? That reminds me of the poem, “On Marriage” by Marilyn Hacker where the poet talks about the way in which LGBTQ people “must choose, and choose, and choose / momently, daily” to affirm their commitment to one another, “Call it anything we want” when society doesn’t quite know how to accept or handle this kind of “covenant.” We talk a lot about “White Privilege” in cultural discourse, but we don’t talk a lot about “Mainstream Heterosexual Cisgender Privilege.” It exists. MHCP allows folks to do very ordinary things like hold hands in public without having to do a quick check of their surroundings. MHCP allows you to use whatever bathroom you want without being harassed or shamed or threatened. It allows you to feel “normal” out in the world. Put it this way: there are times when showing affection to my wife in public – just a peck on the cheek – feels like a dangerous political act.
It hasn’t always been this way for me. In fact, I enjoyed MHCP for most of my life. I went to a conservative Christian high school, and though there were probably gay people around me (I’m pretty sure a few of my teachers were/are), since none of them were out, I feel as though I didn’t meet a gay person until I went to college. Riding through my high school years and my twenties as an MHCP was easy. Being white made it even easier. Realizing I was gay later in life when I care less what the world thinks has made the sting of discrimination sting a little less. Still, it was surprising to realize that the world had changed. Is it weird to say that I want to have it both ways? As Uncle Walt says, “Very well then I contradict myself, / I am large, I contain multitudes.” I want everyone in the world to see LGBTQ people as just normal, and I want everyone to know that our experience is different.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that being an LGBTQ person is a unique and still unequal experience in this country. There are subtle and unsubtle ways that society is set up to exclude and marginalize us. And some of the poems I browsed on Poets.org do address that fact. I find myself drawn more powerfully to these poems because I do want to acknowledge the difference that exits. A great example of this is “A Woman Is Talking to Death” by Judy Grahn. The poem was written in 1940, and the lines that jump out to me are:
“this woman is a lesbian, be careful.
When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: don’t anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.
No one will ever speak to me again.”
LGBTQ history is a history of fraught silence. A friend of mine, Rob, hid the fact that he was gay the entire time he was in the Navy – it wasn’t just that he feared for his job, he also feared for his life, that other soldiers might threaten or harass him for being openly gay. He hid it until he completed his tour of duty, and then he came out to all of his friends. You might think that passing a law abolishing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would end this discrimination, but you would be wrong. This discrimination still exists in the military – though now the target has shifted from being gay or lesbian to being transgender. Grahn’s poem was written in 1940; it is 77 years later, and we are not there yet. And because we live in the age of vindictive executive orders, we are too afraid that the next step in the movement will be a step backward.
If we’re talking about history, we have to acknowledge that we’re still in the middle of the story right now. What started with Alan Turing, Barbara Gittings, Christine Jorgenson, Alan Ginsberg, Walt Whitman, the Stonewall riots, James Baldwin, and Harvey Milk has led us to the defeat of DOMA, the rejection of Proposition 8, the victory of Edith Windsor, the success of Tammy Baldwin. But this complicated history also continues with events like the shooting in the Pulse nightclub and pronouncements that threaten the rights of transgender soldiers and that reinterpret Civil Rights laws to exclude protections for
LGBTQ employees. For all the poems that are out there, some things about the LGBTQ experience just defy expression. Not everything is just about the right to get married or or what sports we can play or what bathroom we’re allowed to use – those things are important, but there are even heavier questions on our minds than whether you see us as equal – like whether you see us as human. We’ve seen in the last week or so of our history that LGBTQ youth are not safe on college campuses around the country. At Cleveland State University in Cleveland, Ohio, flyers have appeared encouraging LGBTQ students to commit suicide, taunting them with the statistics that mock the loneliness and desperation that LGBTQ people feel with the disgusting tag “Fascist Solutions.” There is no poem that expresses what I want to say to the monsters that distributed these flyers. There is no poem that says want I want to say to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer, the men who have given these monsters a voice in our society. This history is so raw, so painful, so new. Current events are going to write these poems, and I want to read those poems too, not just the ones that try to normalize our experience.
One of the happiest days in my life was November 6th, 2012. That was the day that voters in my home state of Maryland affirmed the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry, and I knew that I would marry my wife. Then, on June 26th, 2015, the United States Supreme Court ruled that we should be seen as equal under the law. In a stunning closing paragraph, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” To read
that, you’d think that we are living in a new era, but in reality, it isn’t quite true. We are living in a time that feels, in some ways, more dangerous than ever. In “Love Song for Love Songs,” Rafael Campo writes that it is “A golden age of love songs and we still / can’t get it right.” That’s what I think: If we’re going to talk about LGBTQ history and celebrate equality, we have to admit that, despite so much progress in the last few years, the last ten months have shown us that we still have so far to go. Sharpen your pencils.
I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.
It has not been easy to resist the tone. It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom. How does one teach in the time of Trump? It’s not easy. First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum. Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there. Nothing feels quite normal to students these days. They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression. We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.
One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.” In current political discourse, this is what is known as “Alternative Facts.” In plain truth, alternative facts are lies. One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential. Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best. That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream. Is chocolate ice cream the best? Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream. Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument. But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference. It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument. It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true. There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.
As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.” Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it. The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.
When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster. The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding. He looks for a place to belong. But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others. Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature. The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated. This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated. At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm. Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.
But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character. Their resistance is shown in small and big ways. For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena. He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game. Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts. It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate. In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue. When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone. Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity. What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.
When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.
The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try? Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is. Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try.Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it. Try compassion. Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.
This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” – Yogi Berra
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:
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
Mix dry ingredients and sift into mixing bowl, then cut in lard until the mixture resembles a coarse meal.
Stir in buttermilk until it is incorporated with the flour mixture. The dough will be kind of wet and very sticky.
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.
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.
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.
Brush tops of biscuits with melted butter. Enjoy the awesome.
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.
This I Believe: To Believe in God is to Believe in People
When we study literature, especially poetry, I always teach my students about denotation and connotation. The denotation of the word is what it actually means-if you look it up in the dictionary, you will find a precise definition of the word along with where it came from and other uses. The connotation of a word is what it actually means to us. The connotation of the word evolves and is defined over time through usage and through cultural applications of the word. Normally, the connotation of a word allows for a lot more possibility than the original definition. For example, “gay” used to just mean happy – now it has a different meaning for most people, one that encompasses a lot more. For me, “Christian” is a word that has evolved quite a bit.
I grew up with very religious (Southern Baptist) grandparents, and my first understanding of what it meant to be a Christian came from them. My mom was not too strict about taking us to church, but whenever we stayed with my mom’s parents, we did the whole thing: Sunday School, morning worship, Sunday evening services, and Wednesday night prayer services. Mostly being a good Christian meant being still and quiet in church so my grandmother didn’t get upset. My grandfather sang in the choir, so he didn’t really sit with us. If we were good, we could have gum. I never really considered church that much when I wasn’t with my grandparents – until high school. When I was in 8th grade, my stepfather got assigned to Andrews Air Force Base in Camp Springs, Maryland. After learning that the schools in Prince George’s County weren’t too highly regarded, our parents decided to put us in private school, a religious school. Having gone to public school all my life, it was quite an adjustment.
Since I was a small child when I went to church with my grandparents, I really learned what Christianity was about in high school. Through a consistent Bible-tinted filter, we were taught basic subjects and how we were supposed to view the world. We attended chapel sermons a few times a week. We had an active youth group, and we were strongly encouraged to attend church every Sunday. I did go to church – first at my school and then at another church down the road. Initially, I was drawn to the compassionate message of Christianity: that God is love, that he made the world for us, that he died for us – and that we should spread that message to others. I loved coming together to worship. But we were also inundated with the messages that hell awaits us with fire and suffering. There is no such thing as a good person, only sinners who need redemption. Nothing you can do in this life is good enough to save your soul. And weirdly, it is a sin to vote for the wrong person. The longer I was involved, the more I began to notice that in church people judged other people based on their clothes and other superficial things. I learned that it was important to have the right costume, say the right things – as if being a good Christian was like acting a part in a play. I was totally immersed, and it gave me a somewhat hard view of the world – so much of the dialogue in church was “us against them” and what base creatures we humans are and what judgment awaits the world. But I was a full participant. I passed out literature to strangers in shopping malls inviting them to “Consider Eternity” and things like that. I shared my testimony with others, implored them to accept Jesus, and I even told people that I believed they would go to hell if they didn’t.
When I first went to a secular college and got out of the Bible Bubble I had lived in during my high school years, it was a culture shock to learn that other people didn’t see the world exactly as I did. I mean, what could they be thinking?? But it helped me to start to consider the things I had been taught and to consider what Christianity looks like from the outside.
Sometimes people ask me if I consider myself a Christian anymore. This is a hard question because of the connotation the word Christian has acquired and how my belief in God has evolved. I still believe in God, but I don’t believe what I grew up believing. My faith has gotten bigger than that. I think God is bigger than that. We are the ones who limit him because we are limited by language. When we can name something we understand it. We want so much to understand.
When it used to thunderstorm outside when I was a kid, my great grandmother said it was God moving furniture in heaven. She could have said that it was the sound made by the electrostatic charge of lightning, but she didn’t have that vocabulary. Instead, it was God moving furniture. It reminds me of Greek Mythology. The Greeks made up myths because myth is what we tell ourselves about our world so that our lives make sense. Rough seas mean Poseidon is restless. Thunder means Zeus is angry, etc. We do that too – we have given God a human face: a large, old white man with a beard. We do that so we can understand him. He’s a father. He cares for us. The Bible itself is full of metaphor – the King James Version of the Bible was transcribed by poets commissioned by King James I of England in 1611. It has come a long way from its original language. It’s fair to think that some things have been lost in those translations. Have you ever played the game of telephone? Whisper a phrase into one person’s ear in a group of people, and by the time it gets whispered around the room, even in a room of people who all speak the same language, it will be a different phrase, maybe even unrecognizable. How can we expect the Bible to remain the same through hundreds and hundreds of years, many different languages, and several translations? How can we cling to every word of it literally when we know poetry isn’t meant to be literal?
Today we have reduced Christianity to a set of political views on what we should be allowed to do with our bodies and our guns. I don’t see those things I was first drawn to: compassion and love. This is what I mean when I say that God is bigger than we have described him. We ourselves have created rules in God’s name, but we ignore some of the logical inconsistencies of those rules. Jesus said help the poor, but many people who claim to be Christians look at the poor as “moochers” who don’t deserve compassion. In the book of Matthew Chapter 7, Jesus said that we should not judge others – we are not worthy to do that, but there is a lot of judgment going around. We have created a framework that we are comfortable in, we use it to hide behind and condemn things (and people) we don’t understand or are afraid of. We have taken the poetry of men and made it our absolute North Star.
The word “Christian” has a decidedly un-poetic connotation now. Too often in today’s society, to be a Christian means to deny, to reject, and even to hate. It means being a part of a narrow political group or being proud of the things we don’t do, what we resist, and who we exclude – that is not something I want to be associated with.The sad thing is, the negativity is the result of the loud mouths of 1% of people who call themselves Christians. There are many Christians who aspire to live a life of love, peace, and tolerance. I know some wonderful Christians who don’t resemble the Mike Huckabee/Pat Robertson/Duggar Family mainstream connotation of that word at all. But their message is not the one that gets played and replayed. I want to be associated with a way of believing that measures goodness by what we embrace, what we create, and who we include.
These days, I guess I prefer to think of myself as a spiritual person. Our faith matters because what we believe is a fundamental part of our identity and self-concept. Our religion is a public profession, a badge of courage that announces what we value and what we live for. I don’t belong to any particular denomination and I accept that there are more possibilities than I was originally taught. To be a spiritual person is to let things into my world, not leave things out. I do believe in God, but this is what I believe: to believe in God is to believe in good. To believe in God is to believe in people, to choose to believe that people have the capacity to do and be good, not believe that people are inherently bad or that those who are different should be feared and shunned. To believe in God is to believe in what is possible. In that way, maybe there is some poetry in the idea if we can, as Emily Dickinson wrote, learn to “dwell in possibility / a fairer house than prose.”
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew:
Nor did I wonder at the lily’s white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight
Drawn after you, – you pattern of all those.
Yet seem’d it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
Poetry or Baseball: an impossible choice to make for this April post. So I decided not to choose. In honor of National Poetry Month, baseball season, and the fact that I am an avid baseball fan, this post is dedicated to things I love in equal measure: baseball and poetry. I have missed baseball. Even though I play with its shadows all year ‘round (the Hot Stove season, filled with trade rumors and free agent watching, has plenty of intrigue to keep me going), there is nothing quite like watching actual games. Bring on the peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and beer! My soul is trapped in winter without my Bronx Bombers. (Yes, if somehow you missed it, I am a Yankees fan. You are allowed to despise me now.)
The New York Yankees are the most storied franchise in the history of sports. Even if you hate them (which many of you do), you have to grudgingly admit that the Yankees have set the standard for excellence in team sports. Here is a bit of trivia: did you know that Yankee Stadium was the first baseball venue in the United States to be called a stadium? Not a park or a yard or a field. A stadium. Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, closed in 2008, re-opened in 2009, and the name has never been changed. It has never been sold to be PNC or M&T Stadium. The word stadium means the same in Greek and Roman languages – it is a unit of measurement. It was also used to describe a tiered structure with seats for spectators surrounding an ancient Greek running track. And perhaps, more interestingly, the word means a stage in a life history.
The Yankees have won 27 world championships. No other franchise in any other sport comes close to that. The Yankees also boast so many great players – players who haunt the history of the game like Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Mattingly, Jackson, Rivera, and yes, even Derek Jeter. Someone recently wrote about all of the numbers that have been retired by the Yankees. Pretty soon, they could run out of eligible jersey numbers, as Jeter’s number 2 will surely never be worn by anyone in pinstripes ever again. In fact, no one will ever wear the numbers 1-10 again for the Yankees. That is unprecedented, but not unreasonable given the players we’re talking about here. The true greats are honored with plaques in Monument Park, a sort of mini-hall of fame for Yankees legends. The plaques reside now in a special hall enclosed in the new Yankee Stadium that opened in 2009. The purpose of a monument is that it stands to commemorate historical significance or importance: in this case, the greatest players of the greatest team. I visited Monument Park the first time I visited the old stadium in 2006.
In old Yankee Stadium, Monument Park used to be in the middle of left field. Before the stadium was remodeled in the 1970s, the monuments were even in play – quite a hazard for the left-fielders to navigate. The monuments were approximately 460 feet from home plate, so it wasn’t everyday that a ball would get lost out there, but it did happen. Eventually, Monument Park was moved beyond the left-field fence, and for any true baseball fan, a visit to Monument Park is a pilgrimage worth making. My first visit to Monument Park got me thinking about my brother – we were both big fans of baseball. Someone recently asked me about my brother because I referred to him as I was telling a story about our youth. The friend I was speaking to didn’t know I had a brother because I seldom do refer to him. That is not because I don’t love him or think of him, but because he died 22 years ago.
I have told this story before. I first brought this story to Journal Club in 2001. But now that I am blogging, I will tell it again because I want the record to show this story. It is kind of an origin story for me. It is also a tribute to my brother, Bryan. In “Sonnet 18,” Shakespeare wrote, “So long lives this and this gives life to thee.” He was talking about how his sonnet was a monument to the person he loved. Just like the Yankees have Monument Park to commemorate their great players, in the stadium of my mind, this story about Bryan stands to honor him. You know how in the movie Field of Dreams, they say: “If you build it, he will come?” Yes, I thought: “If I write this, he will be remembered.” Though I have worked on this story for many years trying, without success, to perfect it, the title has never changed. I thought I’d share the very first version of it I ever wrote because somehow it seems the purest.
“Seasons of Perfection”
I have grown to love baseball because every boy always told me that I couldn’t play it. There’s a secret here that boys don’t want girls to know: they can play it, and they can be a lot better than the boys are. My brother Bryan and I played baseball together in little league. He didn’t want me to play because I was a year younger than he was, and way better, and oh yeah, I’m a girl. So my mom thought it would be a good idea if we played on different teams – he for the McMinn County Reds and me for the McMinn County Astros. In high school Bryan worked hard at it, and soon baseball was my brother’s best sport – it was the only sport that he was better at than me, and just barely. In his senior year of high school, he got on base every single time that he came to the plate – not all hits, but still: a perfect season. I really admired that, but I never told him. It’s against the code of sibling rivalry to congratulate one another for anything at all – a stupid code I now think. It’s not the only thing I never praised him for. There is a litany of silences that I regret now in the way that you can only regret things you will never get to do. After my brother died in 1993, my mother asked me if there were any of his things that I wanted. Of all his things, the only thing I really wanted to take was his baseball jersey. The way that I remember him now in this jersey, in his life, is spotless. It’s a trick of the memory to clothe people in their best possible robes after they are gone, like a jersey worn in a season of perfection.
When I was seven, our father took us to a minor league baseball game to see the Chattanooga Lookouts play. They are named the “Lookouts” because there is a great mountain near Chattanooga called Lookout Mountain. It’s the only really prominent thing in Chattanooga other than the famous choo-choo train, and no team of men wants to be called the “Choo-Choos” I guess. We sat very close on the third base side of Lookout Stadium. My dad told me to bring my glove in case there was a foul ball hit our way. I was seven, but he was certain that I could catch the ball if it came near me. He taught me to play ball before he taught my brother. Bryan wasn’t very coordinated when he was a kid. Dad thought that I was a prodigy. Anyway, this was the first and last game my dad ever took us to, and it seemed like it was going to be perfect. A few innings into the game I got the chance that I had been hoping for: a foul ball was hit my way, but it was coming too fast and I was not ready for it. I was lost in the pink and blue fury of my cotton candy, and even though I did have my glove on, it was whizzing past my right ear and smacking the seat behind me before I could even move the mitt. In a perfect world, I would have gotten that foul ball, but that is not how life goes.
When I was nine and ten and eleven, I spent summers with my grandparents. I remember the summer evenings that stretched out lazily into warm, dark Tennessee nights and the apparition of curtains that advanced and retreated eerily in the soft night breeze, carrying the sweet smell of crab apples and wet grass and wood and coal from the shed on the hill. My Papa Odum, a Yankees fan, was a baseball nut. He watched games all day, every day, whenever they were on, and when he went to bed at night, he listened to the games on the radio. It is this ritual of listening that I remember most clearly, the way the game sounded on the old clock radio. It’s the kind of clock radio with the flip numbers, the kind that growled instead of shrieking, the kind that clicked methodically. The sound on the radio was never good; neither was the reception. But Papa Odum always seemed to be able to find “the ballgame” no matter what. The games were quiet and far away. The announcers droned on over the restless buzzing of the fans: “Two outs now, and Mattingly to the plate with nobody on…he digs in and takes a called strike… 0 and 1 the count now on Mattingly in the top of the fourth….the Yankees trailing 3 to 1…” The windows were always open at night, allowing for the most glorious concert of sounds – the baseball game, but not only that; the baseball game and my grandfather’s heavy sleep-breathing; the baseball game, and sleepy breathing, and creaking of the house, and the mad crickets and the whispering rain…
With its tragic ease, baseball is both dull and wonderful in its perfection; but it’s the imperfections that provide the real opportunities for humor and grace. There is a poetic rhythm to baseball that no other sport can imitate, and this is precisely because baseball is about the so many things in-between, the so many lost moments. Like the way that the crowd lulls in lethargy between pitches, between batters, between innings; like our mistakes of silence – things we don’t say, things we’ll never be able to say.
I love baseball because it reminds me to revere moments of imperfect life and preserve them in perfect memory. For me, baseball is a day at the park with a favorite friend, sitting in the stands with a beer and a hot dog, Cal Ripken breaking the streak, cotton candy stuck to the pocket of my mitt, Mike Schmidt hitting his 500th home run, the foul ball that sails just past my head, Harry Carey calling the game for the Cubs, the organ music – out of tune, Sid Bream, with his leg brace on, sliding home to beat the tag and win the ALCS, the seventh inning stretch, the ground ball dribbling between Bill Buckner’s legs, and Kirk Gibson of the Dodgers hobbling into the batter’s box and hitting the ball clear out of the park in October of 1988 in the World Series. Baseball is the great poem of my life, and baseball is still, for me, about remembered seasons of perfection; they are the stuff that dreams are made on, and so much more: the way that we remember the suddenly ubiquitous smell of grass, the first warm, long evenings, disappointment, childhood, fathers, brothers, and histories.