Audacity To Hope

campus-protest

Face to face. One on one. Human to human. I begin every class I teach by stopping at each desk and asking students individually, “How are you today?”

I usually get a thumbs up, or two thumbs up on really good days. Thumbs down appear in the midst of midterms. Sometimes I get shrugs, or horizontally wavering thumbs.

Today, in two classes of 36 students representing a variety of majors and grade levels, I hesitated when I walked in and saw:
Tears.
Faces flushed with anger.
Shoulders shuddering with sobs.
Faces drawn pale white in anger.
Terse lips.
One girl holding her head in her hands.

“How are you?” I asked, in a more gentle voice than usual. Thumbs were replaced by words:
“Confused.”
“Confused.”
“Sad.”
“Angry.”
“Brokenhearted.”
“Confused.”
“Mad.”
“I feel like I need to apologize and hug people who look different from me.”
“I’m energized.”
“Hopeful.”

For the first time in 16 semesters, I almost didn’t go to school today. I wasn’t sure I could be professional, be worth whatever bits of $48,310 annual tuition students pay for one of my 50-minute classes about writing. Yet it seemed exceedingly important that I honor my commitment to be present.

I didn’t teach to the syllabus. Instead, I offered students the chance to leave without penalty, or to stay and process the election together. Four of 36 walked out the door. The rest sat in a circle and we listened to teach other.

Several cried.

One told of a grandmother with illegal status who woke up this morning afraid to leave the house.

One wondered how pundits could get the outcome so wrong.

Another said that she, as a Muslim, felt a new responsibility to be a model of love.

Many said that they felt numerically overpowered by older voters who didn’t know what they were doing.

“I hear you all,” I said. Then I read to them from this piece I wrote in a hurry before I left home:

I have no words for you today.

I have no words because to me today marks the beginning of a new time when words seemingly don’t matter.

How can I teach you that knowledge of rhetoric can create equal power, can create equal active agency, can level the playing field of your ability to be heard when, in the end, words cannot overcome the truth that at any time we may discover, in the darkest recesses of our hearts, our capacity to be a scared, angry, vindictive, hateful, selfish people.

This is not the time to be hateful and vindictive.

For me, today is a day for sadness.

I mourn the seemingly acceptable loss of civil discourse.

I mourn the gains of hate speech as tolerable public conversation by a presidential             candidate who has now become our president-elect.

I mourn the rise of hatred and suspicion for those who are different from us, and I             remember whoever we are, there are always “those who are different from us.”

I mourn the seeming stumble of progress toward hope for a fair, just and equal             country.

I mourn the forgetfulness that none of us can have everything we want, and the reality that we must be willing to compromise so those who have less than we do have a chance to earn a living wage.

I mourn the memory of a time when we felt united in our sincere work to bring             “liberty and justice for all.”

I mourn the victory of the bully. I mourn the silent.

Let yourself feel sad. Or glad. But let yourself feel. Then gather your energy.

Harvest the skills that uplift humanity: rigorous thinking, deep inquiry, articulate communication, respect for differences of opinion, of perspectives, of points of view, the deepest well of patience you’ve ever imagined.

This class is called Composing Self: How and why writers create a self for rhetorical purposes.

What is your purpose beyond your self?

Today is an open gate. Ask yourselves: What passes through? What will we shut out? How, in the end, will we decide to respond to uncertainty?

I paused to turn on music.

What kind of world do you want? Say anything. “World” by Five For Fighting filled the space. It was a cheesy choice, I know, but the best I could do in my mourning state.

I asked the students to answer that question. What kind of world do you want?  I listened to the tip-tap of keyboards, then gave everyone a chance to speak their vision:

“Acceptance of all races.”
“Economic opportunity to work and make a living wage.”
“Acceptance of all religions and sexual identities.”
“Polite disagreement.”
“More listening.”
“Optimism.”

“What can you do today to call that forth?” I challenged them, warning that it might take them out of their comfort zone. “This kind of conversation takes me out of my comfort zone,” I admitted.

“I’m on much more solid ground talking about rhetorical discourse and ways for you to improve your writing rather than improve the world. But I think this is the conversation we needed to have today.”

Class ended and I gathered my things, sending them out with one final directive.
“Talk to each other, especially someone with different views. Listen to each other. Hear.”

“Thank you for doing this,” one student said on her way out.”Yes, thank you,” said another.

“We need each other,” I said as much to myself as to those who pay me to think aloud.

Usually students stream away from the classroom, silently checking their phones. Today they paused outside in the hallway. Some in groups of two, others clusters of three or more. They were talking to each other. Face to face.

I walked outside the building and stumbled onto an impromptu protest. Students holding signs, chanted and marched through campus, then streamed down the streets of Orange toward the small circle in the center of town.

“You do not represent US”
“Not my president.”
“No justice. No peace.”
“Love not hate.”
“We are defined by how we rise.”

I almost stayed home today and missed what’s happening next. And I have a feeling, no, I know, we will all figure out a way to come together and be stronger for it.

Dear Ross

figs

Dear Ross Gay,
I saw you laughing on Saturday. You threw back your head and pierced the cacophony of the giant bookfair at the LA Conventions center with the uninhibited rumble of your joy. I didn’t stop you, and I didn’t introduce myself because there was a small circle around you and I felt like an outsider.

I didn’t even know your name until a few months ago.

I always tell my students, “You’re not born knowing everything, so don’t be ashamed about what you don’t know today. But not knowing isn’t the same as not learning.”

I get so confused about the way I’m learning poems and poets, so slowly it seems to be a drip, and with such wide gaps I feel like an imposter to even call myself a reader of poetry, much less a writer. How do I learn all the good poets in this lifetime?

Who first mentioned your name? I wish I could personally thank that friend, along with you, for writing. You’re hardly an unknown what with that 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Deep congratulations on those recognitions.

And now, thanks to someone I can’t remember, I have your Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, co-written with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudea book I return to often, and gift to friends who are non-poetry readers. I trust they’ll learn to love the form after reading you.

I met your words in 2015, but you’ve said so much before. In conversation with Elizabeth Hoover at the Furious Flower Reading Series, she pointed out that Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude seemed invested in different concerns from your first two books, notably,  “exploring violence and masculinity.” She said your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude “feels like those investments are very much in the background.”

You agreed and reflected on why that might be:

Simply, I’ve been gardening a lot and working on orchards and working with people in community in a place that is…it’s sort of allowed me to think differently.

You’ve allowed me to think differently about trees, and grief, and plums. I wonder though, do you wish us to excavate your past poems to find this present joy? Can we learn how to be this gracefully grateful without living through your violence and pain?  Am I cheating to sing joy with you if I didn’t first hold your sorrow?

For those who haven’t met your words, I give them a taste of fig from your mouth:

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. You can read more about Ross Gay on his website.

Dear Ellen

DSCN2625

Dear Ellen Bass,
I am the woman who passed you in the hallway this morning at the LA Convention Center, and stopped you mid-stride to say thank you.

Yesterday in your talk, “Embracing a Poetics of Joy,” you said many true things.

The world needs poetry, but I don’t think it needs anyone particular person to write it. So if you don’t love it, do something else.

I do love it, the way you love it; the way all the writers I know and admire love it, the way, if we’re lucky enough and work hard enough, we might tweak the world a tiny bit for another and help unfold more tender awareness of each other.

I know it’s not an obscure poem, yet I still meet people who have never read your Gate C22. It’s poem that changed the way I travel through airports watching people walk, holding hands or not holding hands, kissing or not kissing, leaving or returning with joy or regret.

For them, I share your gift of reading that poem aloud.

Yesterday, you also said:

It’s an honor to put my pebble on the altar of poetry. I’m joyful that I still get to walk up to the altar.

Thank you for doing all the hard work that carrying that pebble entails. I’m joyful too that you walk to the poetry altar.

With gratitude,

Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.You can read more about Ellen here: Ellen Bass | Award-winning SantaCruz-Based Poet And Educator

 

Dear Prageeta

Cuke1

Dear Prageeta Sharma,
“Please write your friends poems and write them into poems.”
Do you remember urging us to do that in your your Poetry Foundation blog post, “Dear Reader, There’s a Still Suburb of Friendship, Community, and Poetry & Praise?”

I’m sorry I don’t know you well enough to call you friend, and I wish I could write poems more quickly than I write prose. But I want to tell you that I sat with you yesterday as you spoke about “Reverberant Silence” to the writers gathered at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles.

I imagine that we who heard you speak about the loss of your husband, we who heard you read from the blog post you wrote about that grief, we who listened as read your poems, we don’t know you, but through your words.

Those words made me want to help you hold your pain. I’ll never capture its heft, but maybe I can let you rest for just a moment.

Have you ever seen a wild cucumber? In late winter, its spring green tendrils, kinked as tight as curls, cling to every branch or fence it finds. Its fruit, spring green too, grows quickly into a palm-sized egg shape covered with long sea-urchin like spikes.

Once the growing season is over, the cucumber’s sharpness falls away; the fruit becomes a dry woven cup, often mistaken for a bird nest. Did I tell you the dried wild cucumber looks like lace? A sponge? A wish? If you lift its lightness toward the sun, you can see through the brown husk to sky. This cup looks fragile as a bird egg, but it’s sturdy enough that I use it to hold feathers, anchor a collage or capture hope.

collage.jpg

I want you to know how we who hear you, read you, hold you up even when you need to fall. We are as inadequate and as enough as a husk. I think you were very brave yesterday in your non-silence, reverberant with raw grief.

After meeting you yesterday, I want to read your latest book, Undergloom. And I want to thank you for showing us how to keep living with words.

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is the first in a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.
You can read more about Prageeta Sharma here: Prageeta Sharma: The Poetry Foundation

 

 

Once I found a feather

By Catherine Keefe.

DSCN3800Then everywhere I looked: feathers.

One of my favorite tiny poems, a poem I discovered at Words Without Borders, goes like this.

The Moon and the Feather
by Humberto Ak abal

The moon
gave me a feather.

In my hand
it felt like singing.

The moon laughed
and told me
to learn to sing.

I like the idea that a feather might be a gift from the moon.

August was night dancing under the moon with my husband. And laughing. And feathers and shells and reflecting on my whiteness against a backdrop of darker skin. August was making a daily practice of finding a poem in each day. August was bare feet and figs, jazz and learning to wait for peaches to ripen.

August ends. School begins.

Did you you honor the gifts of August?
Will you sing?
~Catherine

For more “August was…” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community project curated by Susannah Conway, a photographer, author and teacher we greatly admire over here at Backyard Sisters. You can review the month-long photo challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking the more than 19,000 posts at #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

When a door opens…

By Catherine Keefe

door

It was a time of slamming and silence and being shut out. It was when a white, solid wood four-panel face was more familiar than two eyes and a smile. It was me in the hall knocking. Waiting. Asking, “may I come in?”

It was a card for a special day I swore I’d never forget, but I have. Valentine’s Day? My birthday? It was a note, written in my teenage son’s hand that I’ll never forget.

My gift to you is my bedroom door. Open. For one month.

When someone says, “I don’t need anything,” when you ask what they want, they probably really do want something. It’s just not for sale at any store. If you ask what someone wants, you might already know the answer.

Open a door for someone today. It’s never too late to start again.
~Catherine

For more “Door” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 17,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

In the distance

By Catherine Keefe

distance

“…far to the edge of desolation
suspicious of any poetry
even to exchange a hello…”

from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil
Translated from Indonesian by John H. McGlynn

In the distance, on the Bell Canyon Trail, are Santiago and Mojeska peaks. In the distance
of one week’s time two classrooms full of students will look up at me as if
I have something to teach them. In the distance of ancient geology I see
where oceans once covered this land, have now receded. In the distance
of imagination lies my chance to reseed hope, to teach how we might learn
to stop and listen to one another’s stories of our time together on this earth,
a blip. In the distance I see all of us working together as if we are not
each other’s enemy, but all the killing is. In the distance I see lands
without borders between
what it means to be human.

Ideas already freely cross borders. One of my favorite carefully curated online sites for international literature in translation is Words Without Borders, where I found the poem that contains the excerpt which opens this post. I’ll close with the last stanza of the poem

excerpt from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil

my palm resigned to resting
on desire still hopeful

can you only be felt
while taste is the experience of each of us
until you possess a range of understanding
untraceable by any and all senses
with no time limit however brief
then you intentionally slip longing
on each breeze converging
to then pit melancholy ’gainst action
time booked time and time again

Read something in translation today. You can read all of “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil by clicking the hyperlink.

Say hello to someone you don’t know.
In the distance I see us together. What do you see?
~Catherine

For more “In the distance” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 16,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.