Homes

Years from now they’ll sift the top layers

Of our homes and separate us into the communal-loving

Apartment dwellers and the staunch people

Of the stucco mansions.

 

We will be reconstructed as always-at-war

And they will decide that

That is the reason for our so many miniature tanks.

 

We will be found to have littered the earth

With our disposables and yet walked upright,

Some of us, like giants or ants-on-fire

Never far from the earth and with our palms

 

Always curled up in defense. There will be no need

To track our existence by the stars

Or the one great dawn lifting up our oceans.

They will lift the ground of our souls out of us like you

Would lift, with one hand, a hollow skull.

Your Children are Watching

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down?

I was only 12, but I remember lying on my stomach on our living room floor, watching it on TV. My parents let me stay up late for the images and the commentary, or maybe they just weren’t paying attention. I remember so vividly the joy–the young people leaping up on top of the wall, bringing hammers down, hugging their East German neighbors! I don’t exactly remember this, but I like to imagine my dad or mom saying, “wow” in an awed voice. What I do remember, clearly, is the feeling that the world could be an inspiring place. Shit. Even today I can’t listen to the Scorpion’s schlocky Wind of Change without tearing up a little.

That hope has been a hard feeling to hold on to lately. Of course, I cried with joy and frank astonishment when Barack Obama became the first African-American president. And I felt a cautious sort of happiness as I followed the brief Arab Spring. However, I also witnessed 9/11, the wars in Iraq, and police brutality in my own backyard.

Do you know, after 9/11, I imagined for weeks what I would do if anything happened in my office, in my school? Did we all do that?

I wonder what particularly-imaginative young people today will remember when they think back on the ubiquitous images of their childhood. I wonder how much the constant exposure to screens will affect the way kids perceive this presidential election, or the protests flaring up in nearly every big city. I mean, you don’t have to be a media specialist to understand the power of images. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that our earliest memories shape us in ways we can’t always predict.

I was an 80s kid who “was born in a house with the television always on.” From age 3 to puberty I absorbed the Reagan years. While my family was religious, it was also liberal. (I know that seems rare among the white middle-class of the Midwest, but it’s the truth.) I must have overheard comments from my parents as I watched the evening news. And I must have somehow processed them! As a grammar school kiddo, I voted Dukakis in our mock election! So I was surprised one night when I was scolded for badmouthing Republicans.

Reagan was on TV giving some speech and I, trying out a new word I’d overheard, said, “What a jerk-off!” My dad immediately scolded me. “I don’t care whether you agree with him or not – he’s still our president!” His words surprised me then, and they surprise me even more now. Especially when I hear from other, younger Midwestern friends who talk about the hateful things fired, nonstop, at the Clintons in their households.

I don’t think I have to remind you of the hateful things shouted across America’s Great Ideological Divide today. It’s hard for me to imagine a right-leaning parent admonishing a child to respect a candidate on the other team. It makes me admire my father even more, and it makes me listen even more closely to what my students are saying about politics …

My students, like most teenagers, are master hypocrisy spotters. They also thrive on images and sarcasm. Maybe that’s the reason we live, increasingly, in a meme society, in which snarky sound-and-picture bites take the place of thoughtful, well-researched news. Some of our more discerning journalists have identified the problem: In a Trump era, feelings are the same as truth; facts change depending on the source; insults and vague insinuations equal sound political strategy; reality is nothing more than solipsism.

What a time to be alive.

I teach in St. Louis, and before the Michael Brown verdict came out, we gathered the kids in the cafeteria to talk to them. These 8th and 9th graders were allowed to ask questions or make comments. Among them:

Why do white cops hate us?

Why does it always have to be a black and white thing?

I feel like I live in a war zone.  

I turned away from the kids to hide my emotion, and I thought to myself: What else are they seeing and hearing? How will they process and remember these things? What will they be like when they grow up?

I don’t intend for this to be a defeatist piece. I’m a firm believer that “the kids are alright.” My students, at least, are observant and savvy, and they have more of a voice than I ever did at age 14. I do, however, want to echo what Hillary Clinton has already stated in a pretty sharp ad: “your children are watching.”

Anyone who’s ever been around kids knows that’s true.

I believe they’re watching, and I believe they’re listening to us as we watch. And as we react.

Soft Skills: A Thank You Note for Wayne Zade

In 1995 I wore long shorts and a class ring and I stepped into your office with a handful of poems.

By 1999 I was a traveler and a deconstructionist and I returned to your office to sit, embraced by your walls of books, and hear the jazz.

You told me about Rilke, Ashbury, and Coltrane. We listened to Seamus Heaney, to Quincy Troupe, to Ornette Coleman. And I kept coming back—

From New York to Iowa—by way of Norman Dubie, Murakami, Lady Day—From here to there! New poem to another new poem. You told me, without telling me, how to keep your calling close, like a halo of lamplight around the fragilist part of you.

In 2002 I was mountaining and floundering and businessing and marrying. But I didn’t forget.

In 2006 I was a poet and it was because of you.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I thought life was breaking me—But then I remembered that, once, you said my poetry reminded you of Chet Baker. So I came back.

In 2014 an 8th grader bested the high schoolers in a Poetry Slam that made my whole body smile and I—I was his teacher!

In 2015 I brought my own students with me and sat beside you at a classroom table and talked about books again.

Though I still hope I’ll be remembered for my angel-throated words, my revolutionary, post-punk ideas, I realize it will really be because of the artists I teach from my own life-crafted room.

And whenever I think I don’t need mentors anymore because I have become one, I realize that the soft skills in my life originated in your lamp-lit office. And I’ll always want to come back.

What Teaching in St. Louis Means to Me

This morning, as I grabbed a quick coffee before meeting the onslaught of student needs that seems to greet me as soon as I walk in the door, I experienced something that first cheered — and then disturbed me.

My school, a refurbished bank building from the 1930s, sits next to a paint store, a dollar store, and — perhaps incongruously — a St. Louis Bread Company.  If you’re not familiar with St. Louis Bread Co., it’s sometimes called Panera and it’s one of those high-dollar coffee shops that serves pastries and sandwiches, and is usually filled with businessmen and women or grad students on laptops.

I hadn’t had my dose of liquid energy that morning, so I walked in, in a rush, and ran into a group of students that were probably mine. Since it’s the first week of school, I’m still getting to know the young people I’ll be spending time with this year. But they knew me, and they smiled and waved as we passed one another.

I continued to watch them through the plate-glass window as they jostled one another and giggled — God, was I ever that awake at 7 am? — on their way to our building a few doors down.

I should probably mention now that I am white and nearing 40, and I teach mostly African-American teenagers in St. Louis.

As I stood in line with the businessmen and women to get my coffee and blueberry muffin, my kids out the window were clowning.  Two of the girls made those silly duck-lip kissy faces and held up peace signs (held sideways, of course) to take a selfie, as teenagers do.  I watched them hold their phones up to their faces as they walked, and I, predictably, felt very old.

I’m sure I made a face, a fond, “oh, those goofballs” sort of face, as I watched them.  I’m sure I smiled ruefully.  Having grown up in the late 20th century, I didn’t quite understand the millennial urge to document every little walk to school.  But then, I caught eyes with a woman in front of me.  Her expression wasn’t fond, it was hostile.  She met my eye as if to say, “can you believe these kids!?”  Her disgust was unmistakable.  So unnecessarily negative, in fact, that I took a step back.

Now, I’m no angel.  When I’m off work, as my boyfriend will attest, I sometimes do everything I can to avoid the irritating behavior of teenagers.  I’ve grumbled plenty about my students’ narcissism and lack of self-control.  But — that woman’s anger!

I’m sensitive to that kind of prejudice, I guess.

When I taught in Phoenix, I took my students — first and second-generation Mexican immigrants — to a theater performance in Scottsdale, Arizona.  We arrived early, smiling and shaking hands with the volunteers.  But, although the theater was empty, they led us up to the balcony and seated us there.  As I led my eighth graders to their seats and filed in behind them, I exchanged glances with my fellow teachers.  “Can you believe this?” we mouthed at each other, as we watched white children take the front-row seats below us.

How much of this is so ingrained as to be automatic, I wondered.  How is this still happening?

My first few years in St. Louis have been tough.  I fled the Phoenix housing market crash only to arrive in south-side St. Louis right before the summer of protests that followed the death of Michael Brown, a St. Louis teenager who had just graduated from high school.  I remembered supporting my Latino students as they marched against laws (since overturned) that they believed were unfair.  And here I was, a few years later, navigating a brand-new (or, maybe not so new) civil rights uprising — while trying my best to understand and empathize with my students of color who were caught up in the middle of it.

I have a lot to learn.  I’m white, and I grew up in white suburbs, going to mostly white schools.  I am conscious of my difference, of my privilege, of my ignorance.  But I’ve developed enough, over my years of teaching, to feel a righteous sense of anger when I see the kind of reaction I saw in that gentrified coffee shop.  I mulled over it the rest of that day, cheeks burning.

What I should have said was:

How dare you look at children that way?  Don’t — please don’t — don’t be that bigot who makes assumptions about the kids that I teach.

The Way I Feel about James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain”

How should you feel when you learn that someone you love has tried, deliberately, to die? Has nearly died. Has cut himself and taken bottles of pills and waited patiently and hoped he would die.

You can’t feel angry, quite. You can’t feel overly relieved, either, when he fails – and feels the failure as another failure. You can only feel deeply, deeply sad.

This song is wrapped up, for me, in the weather of those few days.

Just before Thanksgiving, the sky was a steel gray that lightened, in the morning, to an enamel white and muted to soggy black in the evening. The trees were bare and seemed to seep ice.

My mother, sister, and I listened to a song about a suicide, driving through ugly Kansas City on an ugly night thinking about a suicide. It’s hard for me to drive through Kansas City now, when it rains. It’s also hard for me to hear this song.

Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around.”

After that night spent waiting at the hospital, we spent some time at home, and then (at night again) drove to visit him in the mental ward. He had jaundice and would barely look at us. Despite his intentions, his stubborn liver had saved him.

He was my little brother. We always were–and still are, I think–very alike. Both intelligent, imaginative, and rather hard-headed.

He’d gone through several phases over the years. A cowboy phase, a criminal phase. He’d lost a fiancée and isolated himself. But he’d call me sometimes, late at night, and we’d talk about our troubled Midwestern family and other, loftier things. He’d tell me he’d been listening to a lot of ‘70s folk music.

Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground

I almost want to thank him now. And, by thank him, I mean fall on my knees and kiss his feet. Because he didn’t die.

He has a month-old son now and a wonderful wife. I get to see the sharp jut of his jaw and hear his wry jokes and know that he’s still with us. Just like on that night, with that sweet lovely song on the radio, we clung to that phrase–he’s still with us–and waited, listening to soft guitar.

Note: working draft from a longer work about music, men, and memory.