Sunday, December 18, 2016

Why Poets Should Negotiate Peace Treaties or The Power of a Clump of Words

In the fall after Patrick was diagnosed with leukemia - Fall 2002 - 
I was making lunch for Patrick and listening to CNN.

I heard a lively anchor share a news story in an upbeat voice...
she had something great to share...
and I needed great...
so I listened.

I paused my lunch making and listened:

"The latest research shows that if your child is in day care, 
they have less chance of developing leukemia."

Shit, really?

You mean, if Patrick had been in day care we could have avoided all this?


I rewound the past few years of Patrick's baby life.
His birth.
His instant diagnosis of Down Syndrome...
not even a single day of life free from that label...

another diagnosis that took only a few days of life: a heart defect.
In need of open heart surgery at nine weeks old...

coming home from the hospital and just wanting to love my baby...
and somehow, some way, tend to my other kids...

day care was last on my list.

Now, just a mere two years later, the leukemia diagnosis and the Three Year Protocol - always sated with capital letters - and the big unknowns...
Life...what does it look like three years from now?
Health? Is that possible three years from now?
Family? What does that feel like three years after this?

Just hours after that CNN report, in the dark of night as I am not sleeping, 
I watch Bill Moyers interview a poet, a Palestinian-American poet,
Naomi Shihab Nye,
and I hear her voice read a poem...
this poem...
and it changes my life.

I'm instantly different because of the words.

I gift them to you, right here:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.


Those words made everything in my world make sense.
I clung to them.
Sorrow became a tattoo that I could locate on others...
which allowed me to locate the kindness.

I wish I could convey the depth of those words in the engraving on my heart...

...but as life likes to do,
I moved on.
Patrick survived - truthfully, thrived - through the Three Year Protocol.
I stumbled and bumbled through it...with plenty of bad attitude and crushing worry.

2005 happened and our family cheered.
We snuck away from blood counts and chemo...
we hid from conversations about blood cancer...
and we got away with it.

No one came looking.

2006 arrived and brought its amazing grace, sweet baby Caroline, and life got busy...
with the regular things...
school lunches, soccer practice, homework...

Naomi's poem hibernated within my heart.

2016 arrived with election insanity...
meanness as an accepted way to live in our world...
shutting our collective eyes to refugees...
so, so, so, so many of them...
plugging our ears to the din of the poor, the overlooked, the desperately lonely...
and along comes Naomi Shihab Nye - chosen as the UC Davis School of Education's 
Author in Residence and Words Take Wing Author.

Something within me, sleepy from slumber, awakened.
She will be my

I couldn't fathom the good fortune.
Couldn't take it.
Kept shoving it down...
and then it happened.

December 13th, 2016 Naomi Shihab Nye was hanging out in Davis and our worlds collided.

I first got to hear her speak to student teachers...a room full of worn out beginning vulnerable and shy...about 40 of them.
Do you know what she tells them?
First thing.
I know because I took copious notes the entire time she was around...
like a stenographer on steroids...
she said:

"I congratulate you on your life choice to go into teaching and knowing that teaching is the center of where it happens."


You may not hang out with beginning teachers...or any teachers...but I want to stop here and point out how incredibly UNcommon this gift was that she gave the student teachers...why? 
Well, virtually NO ONE congratulates someone on going into teaching.
They get the constant refrain of one of these reactions:
A) Well, you get your summers off, that's awesome!
B) Yeah, I thought of teaching too... (as if it is the best second place option around)
C) Are you sure? You make so little money. 

It's hard work to become a teacher - really hard - and to be met with those three reactions wears even the most optimistic, badass beginning teacher down.

So, to have a world-renown, award-winning poet come in an begin with a congratulations...well, it was a gift. 
A genuine gift. And we could all feel it.


She reads an excerpt from a book called, News of the World:
"Maybe life is just carrying the news...surviving to carry the news...maybe we just have one message, it is delivered to us the day we are born..."

And then she asks us to think about our message.
What is it?

She asks us to write it down.
And she says:
I'm not going to ask you to read this, it's just for you to hold.

She reminds the teachers that
"Creative writing needs to be an ongoing practice - not saved for the last weeks of May."
[Beth, are you listening??]

She makes writing accessible to each of us...
shows the teachers how to help their students write with their hearts...
makes it seem effortless...
like, of course, I could write a poem...
she shares the poems of 6 year olds and Palestinians...
she reminds us that we are Living in a Poem...
and touches us with the beauty of a lemon, a walk with a friend, a note of hope.

Her gift is helping all of us see poetry.

Like hieroglyphics, we all think it's cool. 
We feel a kinship.
We want to know what it means.

Naomi, shows us what poetry is...
and helps us to feel that it is essential.
Like oxygen.


After school, Naomi does another session for the Resident Teachers that host our student teachers.

Her energy is palpable.
Her reverence for the teachers is a gift she bestows on them...
like one of the Three Kings.

She's a bright light.

Spoiler alert: we shared starlight...big time.

She shows us our humanity and the thread that binds us.
Holds it up and then weaves it...
reminds us of our connection...
our beauty...
our messages and stories that we each MUST share.

She reads us poem after poem - of other poets -
friends of hers, mentors.

She shares the story of Juan Felipe Herrera - our nation's current Poet Laureate - how when he was in school, he said no words out loud, tried to disappear -
embarrassed by his inability to speak English - he hid behind a bush and sang a song that his mother and grandmother sang to him during lunch...passing on the other side of the bush, Juan Felipe's 3rd grade teacher...she stopped to listen.

Juan Felipe tells the story that after lunch, his teacher asked him to come to the front of the classroom and sing. He was shocked! Afraid! Disoriented...but his teacher had asked and so he did.
The classmates applauded and the teacher said the words that changed his life.
Five words.
"You have a beautiful voice."

With that little bit of encouragement, Juan Felipe began raising his hand, began seeing himself as a student, began to believe in himself and share his voice.

Sprinkling that story on the teachers, Naomi reminded them that they too,
have a beautiful voice...and beautiful profession...
a noble duty.
A sacred calling. 
She gifted them a chance to see the beauty in their work.
The importance of their influence.
Pausing and reminding them that they change lives.

She had us write "clumps of words" and used those clumps to help us write poems.
We shared them in this small group at 5 o'clock at night...
watching the twilight...
feeling connected.

This Palestinian American poet brought with her a cloud of grace...
and it was then that I wanted to be in charge of the world.

I wanted to be able to appoint peace negotiators...
what if we had a Palestinian poet, an Israeli poet and a Palestinian-American poet all gather and forge out some peace with a few "clumps of words".

It might only take five words, like it did for Juan Felipe.
It might take twenty five...but we know poets are known for their choosy, careful way with words...we can be sure that unnecessary phrases would be absent. 
No posturing.
No facades.
No misleading text...

everything cut away to just a few words:

Thank you, Naomi Shihab Nye for your heroic ability to 
step out of your line and draw a larger circle.
Thank you for reminding me of the power of a clump of words...
the beauty in Kindness...
the love of the ordinary...
and the gift of a few clumps of words.

My circle is larger thanks to you.

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