Category Archives: Poetry

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!

The best part of my job teaching high school English is that I am forced to reread a handful of classic books every year. Without this incentive, I would rarely re-read the old favorites–with so many new books on the must-read list, who has the time? Fortunately, it’s part of my job to make the time for revisiting a few. Recently, my 9th graders finished Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. 

I first read this play in Mrs. Bye’s 8th grade English class. I still have my copy of the text from that unit, complete with mundane annotations in bright purple ink, but I’m afraid that the only instruction I can remember is an embarrassing conversation about how we mustn’t think that Romeo was up to no good when he wakes up in Juliet’s chamber in Act III scene v, because he did marry Juliet properly, even though that part happened off-stage. Overall, though, my first impression of this tragedy was dominated by a profound sense of doom. Those two kids had so much working against them: they didn’t stand a chance!

I encountered the play a second time just after the end of my sophomore year of high school. Taking the advice of a beloved history teacher, who swore by the mystical power of “Shakespeare Dates” to revive the magic in romantic relationships, my boyfriend and I went to a production of R&J performed in St. Louis’ Forest Park. The plan backfired, though. When faced with Juliet’s heart-rending display of devotion, I admitted to myself that I would NOT  commit suicide out of despair if my boyfriend died. Acknowledging that my feelings for him would never measure up to that tragic standard convinced me that the relationship was going nowhere. I dumped him after the show. (It would be some time before I understood that killing oneself is not, in fact, the ultimate display of affection.)

That was over ten years ago–(which means that my 10th high school reunion will be NEXT YEAR! So stressful!)–and I managed to avoid a serious rereading of the play until this recent unit. What a difference 10 years can make! My perspective on these characters has altered dramatically, as well as my understanding of Shakespeare’s overall message. Romeo and Juliet aren’t doomed:  they are agents of their own fates just as much as the rest of us. And the point isn’t that this tragedy was unavoidable and necessary for reconciliation between the Capulets and the Montagues; No, the point is that it COULD have and SHOULD have been prevented, and only a series of consciously wrong choices allowed it to happen.

Both Romeo and Juliet experience moments of foreboding and voice their concerns that “Gee, I get the feeling that if I crash this party/drink this sleeping potion, something really bad is going to happen.”  But they do it anyway! And did I mention that these star-crossed lovers spend a grand total of 20 minutes together before vowing eternal devotion and sneaking off to marry each other? An impulsive, rebellious  marriage smacking of a rebound (remember Rosaline, Romeo??) carefully orchestrated by the well-intentioned Friar who excuses multiple deceptions because he just wants everyone to get along: Can this be true love?

As an eighth grader, I found their declarations beautiful and inspiring. Ten years later, I find myself shaking my head and sighing “Oh, children…” as they cavalierly offer to strip themselves of their very names if only they can be together. Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy, all right, but for completely different reasons than I originally thought. I’d love to juxtapose this unit with The Crucible and assign a comparative essay on the significance of names.

How have your re-reading experiences altered your thinking about a certain novel or play?

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by | 01/31/2012 · 9:38 am

Recent Reads

‘Tis the season for listing books, or so my friends at Ignatius and CeilingFlickers would have us believe. Books we’ve read, books we want to read, the best books ever—all excellent lists. And since I’m a bit behind on reviewing the books I’ve been reading (instead of blogging) over the past few months, here’s a list of my own. In no particular order, I present:

Some Books I’ve Read Somewhat Recently

1) Helmet for My Pillow, by Robert Leckie: This memoir, written by a surprisingly articulate and engaging reporter-turned-marine-turned reporter, recounts the story of the 1st Marines in the Pacific theater in WWII. I picked it up at the library after Zach and I watched Tom Hank’s mini-series The Pacific. Leckie’s style is thoroughly enjoyable–his sense of decency, of what is “fit to print” in the 1950s, leads him to compose more…delicate versions of the stories than HBO delivered, but he communicates the heart of the matter powerfully despite this restraint. I’m looking forward to reading With the Old Breed, by Eugene Sledge (the other primary source text for the miniseries) sometime soon. Having spent so much time with my nose in a novel lately, this brief foray into non-fiction was especially refreshing!

2) Cautionary Tales for Children by Hillaire Belloc, illustrated by Edward Gorey: Sam and I spend a lot of time “reading” Sandra Boyton’s books and enjoying the tactile sensations in each of Marley’s adventures, but this little gem is destined to become a favorite in the Good Children’s Library. A gift from Sam’s lovely godmother, Amy, these tales seek to frighten children into obedience (in the most amusing manner, of course). Instead of a description, a single chapter title will suffice: “Matilda, Who Told Lies and Was Burned To Death”.  Oh, okay, ONE more: there’s also the tale of “Algernon, Who Played With a Loaded Gun, and, On Missing His Sister, Was Reprimanded By His Father.”

3) Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: I first encountered this instruction manual for writers when I was in high school. I read the first few chapters, realized it was primarily for fiction writers, and never looked at it again. Until this Christmas, that is, when my dear friend Allison (over at RhetoricalExpressions) placed it back into my hands. Lamott’s advice is so encouraging. Beyond any bit of technical wisdom she offers (and there are many such bits), she frees her students to write by admitting that EVERYone writes crappy first drafts, and most people who write for fun or a living are mildly insane, and should embrace that fact. You can thank (or blame) her and Allison for my attempt to revive this blog.

4) Beowulf, by Anon, translated by Seamus Heany: This was my second year teaching Beowulf, and it is proving to be one of my favorite units. The story is so simple, so raw, and yet provokes such nuanced questions about justice and heroes and the monsters inside of us all. Nineth graders respond well to the combination of mythical creatures, family feuds, and gory battles. I hope Sam is a fan of this one someday. It’s a quick read: return to it through Heany’s masterful translation.

5) Almost All of The Books That Michael O’Brien Has Written: I’m presently about 50 pages from the end of A Cry of Stone, which is the last in his “Children of the Last Days” series. I’ve also read Theophilos and The Father’s Tale is beckoning me from under the Christmas tree. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, you simply MUST. I cannot recommend them highly enough. However, I will attempt to do so in greater detail in a future post.

But enough about me. What have YOU been reading? And what should I add to my list?

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Filed under Poetry, Reading, Teaching

I Grow Old…

…I grow old…

I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

We’re all used to thinking of ourselves in a certain way, right? We rely on our relationships or our jobs or our personal stereotypes or our notions of what other people think of us to develop a framework for self-perception. We progress through the segmented identities of the school years to defining ourselves by majors or sports in our college years. And after the easy classification of the university ends, we find our places in the world as athletic stockbrokers, latte-sipping librarians, and amature skiers who wait tables on the side.

Some of the fortunate few manage to develop a realistic picture of themselves in relation to God and the world, acquiring what my husband would call “accurate self-esteem” and what others might call a healthy humility. These wise ones understand their place on the Great Chain of Being. The rest of us waver between abject self-loathing and delusions of grandeur on any given day. And sometimes, well, we’re forced to face the truth about ourselves and our station in life, whether we like it or not.

Last night, I realized that I’ve been clinging to a self-image that expired 3 years ago.

You see, my first year as a single working girl was a pretty tough time of transition, but by my SECOND year, I hit my stride.

The good life of a single working girl in Colorado Springs looks something like this: living with a handful of fabulous and fun-loving college friends in a gorgeous downtown apartment that was high-heeled walking distance from at least 17 bars; working a full-time job that paid the (ridiculously low) rent and proffered all the perks of an academic schedule; maintaining a relatively rigorous work-out schedule and keeping up with the latest fashion trends.   You know these girls: they’re cute, well-dressed, and will eagerly make the drive to Denver to try a new martini. They are, in a nutshell, Whoo Girls.

Later on, the good life got even better: me and my single friends gradually found our prince charmings (not one of them was discovered at any of the 17 bars, by the way); then came the season of wedding-planning when we all learned that grown-up life is very expensive; then the season of weddings and honeymoons. And, immediately following that: pregnancy! (But that last one was just me).

Through all that, it didn’t seem like much had changed. Sure, we made the transition from crazy margarita/pinata/oops, the-cops-are-coming parties to smaller, more intimate dinner parties. And, honestly, the downtown club scene lost a lot of appeal when I took a nine-month hiatus from alcohol. But young, hip, married couples aren’t too far from young, hip singles, right?

Wrong.

Last night Zach and I took Sam to a birthday party for one of Zach’s young, hip, single friends. This fellow was turning twenty-five (Happy Birthday, Brad!) and celebrating with a barbeque that would transition into a roaring house party as the night rolled on. The guys had a fridge specifically designated for beer, and a suspicious looking machine serving “Sneaky Punch” on tap.

Our little family showed up around 5pm for burgers and beer. Sam, who has yet to develop most social graces, slept the whole time. For a while, all was well: we ate and talked like normal people at a normal party. But then a strange thing happened. The next door neighbors arrived.

The neighbors were curious creatures: impossibly slender young women wearing clothing so fashionable that I momentarily wondered if it was a costume party.

 

Seriously: this qualifies as "clothes"?

Don’t get me wrong: these girls were perfectly nice young women. They just seemed a little too young for a party with Sneaky Punch. And a little too cute in their sun dresses and jumpsuits. And can anyone really be that excited about putting up streamers?

I pondered these things for a little while when I took Sam downstairs to nurse after dinner. As the two of us sat in a bachelor’s basement listening to the party up above, it occurred to me that perhaps my choice of maternity jeans, flats, and last year’s cardigan was frumpy party-attire. Not much fits well twelve days after giving birth, though. But, true, I hadn’t even taken the time to do my hair before we left (how could I? Sam had to eat).  Was it possible that I no longer cared about presentation? Was it possible that…?

Shortly thereafter, we took our leave. It wasn’t even 8 o’clock.

As we carried Sam’s car seat inside, my ever-observant husband noticed my “about to burst into irrational tears” sniffle and asked, “Honey, what’s wrong?”

The only response I could articulate at the time was, “I just…I feel like such a MOM!”

But what I really meant and mean, is that I’m coming to grips with the fact that I’m not the cute young thing I used to be and am, instead, in the process of receiving the cumbersome blessing of motherhood, and it’s a little more than I feel ready to handle most days.

But there will be time…for visions and revisions…

…and I guess I’ve got some revising to do.

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Filed under Domesticity, Marriage, Mothering, Poetry

Quadragesima

Zach and I celebrated Shrove Tuesday Denny’s style last night: my reward for grading that batch of tests was a decadent platter of French toast at 8pm. It was a good end to Ordinary Time.

Today, as you know, begins the forty days of Lent. I was going to go all English-Teacher on you and write about T.S. Eliot’s lovely Ash Wednesday poem, but since Dr. Birzer has already done a beautiful job of it over here, I’ll let well enough alone. (I do encourage you, though, to take some time over the next few weeks to read through Eliot’s  piece: it’s as much prayer as it is poem.)

This is the first year that I’ve wondered why these forty days are called “Lent” and the only reason I wondered is because I was trying to come up with a play on words for the title of this post. Unable to make any connection between the past tense of lend and fasting, I found the following explanation on ye olde world wide web:

“Lent was originally known by the Latin term “quadragesima”, which translated means the fortieth. This relates to the fortieth day before Easter and the forty days of fasting to come.It was during the Middle Ages, when sermons were no longer given in Latin that the English term “Lent” was adopted. Lent is derived from the Germanic name for Spring “Lencten” and the Anglo-Saxon name for March “Lenct”. “Lencten” comes from the Germanic root for “long” as Spring is the time of year when the days become longer.”

There you go: as Anglo-Saxon as can be.

You Latin lovers can give up some indulgence for Quadragesima if you like.

Pregnancy and the prospect of nursing make traditional fasting rather difficult. (Besides, since I’ve been abstaining from alcohol and coffee for nine months already for the baby’s sake, adding desserts or meat to the list doesn’t wouldn’t seem to carry much spiritual significance.) In past years I’ve given up time wasters like Facebook, or vanities like make-up (remember that spring, Amy? Not a pretty time). And while each demanded some measure of sacrifice, I don’t know that those practices actually contributed to my spiritual growth.

This year will have to be a little different. But I’m not going to bother you with details, lest I become like the Pharisees on the street corners who announce their prayers and fasting with trumpets and thus receive their meager reward in full.

It was a strange experience this evening, going up to receive ashes at Mass. I’m so conscious of life within me these days: I cope with the discomforts of full term pregnancy by trying to focusing on the joyful mystery that is this miracle of life (you know, Gaia-style). Being reminded that I am dust and to dust I shall return was a little shocking. What’s more, it made me realize, for the first time, honestly, that this little baby–truly on the brink of birth, within a few weeks of his first breath–is doomed to dust, as well.

He and I both have a lot of life to live in the interim…but it’s hard to keep in mind that this IS just the interim, you know?

“And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement not be too heavy upon us”

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Filed under Catholicism, Faith, Mothering, Poetry, Reading

Saturday Sampling

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“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

I am comforted this morning by the words of G.K. Chesterton. His biography of Charles Dickens, composed in an easy, tangential style, pauses in its discussion of Dickens’ psychological response to his boyhood trials to remark:
 
“It is currently said that hope goes with youth, and lends to youth its wings of a butterfly; but I fancy that hope is the last gift given to man, and the only gift not given to youth. Youth is preeminently the period in which a man can be lyric, fanatical, poetic; but youth is the period in which a man can be hopeless. The end of every episode is the end of the world. But the power of hoping through everything, the knowledge that the soul survives its adventures, that great inspiration comes to the middle-aged; God has kept that good wine until now. It is from the backs of the elderly gentlemen that the wings of the butterfly should burst. There is nothing that so much mystifies the young as the consistent frivolity of the old. They have discovered their indestructibility. They are in their second and clearer childhood, and there is a meaning in the merriment of their eyes. They have seen the end of the End of the World.”
 
On a morning when medical bills, car troubles, and a slew of unanswered questions about the future are weighing heavily on my heart, these lines reminded me that, yes, I’m still young! I’m not burdened today because I’m moronic, incompetent, or the victim of some vengeful god (and it’s tempting to view all trials as a form of divine punishment). No, I feel discouraged because this is a stage on my journey to maturity. Eventually, I, too, will possess the inspiration of the middle age. I’ll know that the end of the world is an event to anticipate with joy, and not the punched-in-the-gut feeling that accompanies a glance at in-patient hospital fees.
 
Emily Dickenson would have me think of hope as “the thing with feathers / that perches on the soul.” But no feathered inspiration can wing me away from the responsibilities that face me now.As my husband and I venture into the realm of independent adulthood, along a path littered with obstructions, this bird-like virtue, and the lightness of heart it supposedly brings, remain elusive. Chesterton seems to suggest, though, that it won’t always be this way. I’ll trust in that for now, and call the mechanic again.

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Year’s End

When we first moved into our current apartment–a quirky, wall-papered corner of an old Victorian house–my husband and I attempted to make a portion of our kitchen wall (a crumbling, inexplicably varnished cork board) more appealing by covering it with a selection of poems taken from old anthologies. The overall effect pleases me: a little literary shrine of sorts. Some seventy or so poems are thus scattered above our breakfast table, and, though they don’t attract my attention every day, I sometimes find my tea grows cold as I sit transfixed by Frost or Eliot early in the morning.

Today my eyes fell on a poem by Richard Wilbur, one that I’ve never read attentively before. It’s called Year’s End. It’s certainly appropriate to the season. I won’t copy the entire text out here, but the last stanza struck me as particularly fitting. He writes,

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.
I hope that this blog will be a place to pause often this year. More time, more time, indeed.

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