Happy thoughts: poetry on today’s menu

Today I didn’t think I would have time to work on my poetry book “Happy”. I had surrendered to that fact. I had breakfast with colleagues and went home to teach the online academic writing course I’m responsible for this semester.
A student had posted a reflective summary on Carol Dweck’s work on the growth versus fixed mindset. Dweck tells the story of not assigning a failing grade, but about assigning a “not yet” instead. I like this idea and I wrote the student a poem of thanks for her post.

Perhaps all of life is “not yet”

Not yet,

holds hope

it does not close 

nor chide, nor criticize, 

not yet

says:  I am a child learning to walk,

I am a singer learning to sing

and every master began like I 

shy, stumbling, sometimes rejoicing,

falling (there is no ‘failing’) 

and getting up again

tuning in again

confronting and 

opening always

to the ‘not yet’.

Later in the day, I received the obituary of a colleague’s partner and in the email, the colleague tells in three lines how he is doing. He knew this day would come, but it affects him tremendously. The house has suddenly become so quiet, he writes.

The death announcement is beautifully worded; it lacks sentimentality which to me respects the vocation of both partners: university professor and painter. It is a gift to the reader. To have written “my condolences” in response would be trite and clichéd; any reply would require time and have to be a poem.

There is a rule about being a poet in any event: you don’t write or say words you don’t mean. And if something comes out of your mouth or pen that doesn’t hit the right note, you revise. This is maybe why writers correct what their friends say; it’s not them being arrogant or patronizing, they are simply in training all the time.

The title of the poem is a translation from the death announcement. 

The painting was not yet done, but his breath was

Silence pervades the farm house

he had prepared himself

but nothing prepares you

The poem will appear in “Happy” as well. Sharing grief is a special form of intimacy and I felt grateful for the opportunity to respond. I shed tears as I wrote; I imagined what our friend must be feeling.

Later that afternoon, I saw that my daughter had created a new piece of art. She is in the process of moving to a new apartment. These happenings also became a poem. 

While my daughter paints

I write,

While she opens her new home

I clean mine

arranging bed covers

doing dishes

and setting aside a lamp,

nesting tables

and for her new beginnings

her father’s yellow dishes.

As I said, I did not think I would have time to write today. Later in the evening, I was reading student pieces again from my Narrative Possibilities course and a student talked about the practice of teaching this type of writing. What are some of the important things to remember when you’re working with another’s stories? I was asked this in an interview recently as well.

1. Do not try to ‘fix’ (no one needs fixing and if anything like ‘fixing’ – healing/integration – is to happen, students will write themselves towards it)

2. Focus on the text and the words a student uses; these are significant. Comment wherever possible on the text.

3. Care. Teach with presence of heart.

Aren’t these also just instructions for living? They can be translated into rules about how to treat others. 

1. Do not try to fix
2. Listen deeply
3. Care

And these can also be ways of being kind towards yourself: 

Do not try to fix you. You need no fixing
Listen deeply to you. You can hear many things that others can’t.
Care about you. In the ordinary, daily ways. It is an act of loving.

Did you notice that these poems that respond to: the fear of learning, the reality of death, and the joy of new beginnings are all expressions of “Happy”? No exceptions.