Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | September 21, 2014

The Circus in Your Hand

Quill-Pen-425x282-300x199I’m not a Luddite. I have this blog, don’t I? And a facebook page! I text a little (albeit slowly) on my flip phone. I read books on a Nook now and then. My school Wikispace is 8 years old and going strong, and many of the young teachers I work with have even used it. This summer, I taught on online course for a local university and had a pretty good time doing it.

So why am I so opposed to getting a smart phone? And why does my school-issued ipad sit at the bottom of my desk drawer, unused and ignored? There’s no GPS on my dashboard, no ipod in a dock in my office or bedroom. I’ve never seen a Twitter post or learned how hash tags work.

Portable-AM-FM-Radio-Mp3-CD-Player_20090808412I wish I knew why I’ve stalled this way. I’ve yet to read any statistics or studies about people like me, a surely ever-shrinking group of hold-outs who make do with a “dumb phone” and a desktop computer – those of us who have ventured out only partway into the eddying waters of hypertech while keeping one foot firmly on the island of disconnectedness. We listen to radios rather than streaming, watch movies on DVDs, and still prefer a paper map.  It’s like I’m stuck in 2002.

It’s all accelerated so fast in the last 10 years, I can’t keep up. I stopped trying when it became clear that I was a slow adapter, and that innovation was not going to put on the brakes just for me. By the time I’ve mastered a new system or gadget, the thing has already become obsolete. Everyone else has moved 3 steps beyond me.

jetIt’s not just because I’m a “certain age.” Many of my high school students share my sentiments, while many people older than I am have run gleefully to the Apple Store each time a new igadget comes out. If you’re like my Aunt Janette, you pick up 3 of them at once.

Perhaps I harbor a deep-seated mistrust of wirelessness. The whole world could be at my fingertips, but I find that overwhelming and a little bit scary. It makes me mentally exhausted to think about the endless places I could go on that tiny screen. And I feel spiritually violated when I consider the myriad ways people and advertisers could send me messages and track my every move, should I decide to succumb to hypertech. Just scrolling through my Facebook feed makes me feel bombarded with stimulus. I can only take so much.

CIA-spy02It’s not a fear of the technology itself but of the people who use it — a mistrust of faceless corporations who might try to take advantage of me.  At present, my only retail membership card is for Barnes & Noble, since I naively think that a purveyor of books will not try anything nasty with my information. In my way of thinking, the dollar or two I don’t save with each purchase at Pet Smart or Hallmark is the price I am willing to pay for my privacy. Each time a clerk asks for my phone number and I say “I’d rather not tell you,” I’m taking a stand for personal freedom. Lately, I’ve begun to feel like a bit of an anarchist.

hut on islandWill the world allow people like me to continue living in this slowed, semi-connected, alternative universe? In a few years, will it be impossible to access money or prove my identity without my fingerprints and smart phone trail on the grid? Can I survive my final four years of teaching without being forced to move all my lessons to the ipad?  Will my non-Tweeting habits put me in peril, as I miss out on the Emergency Twitter Alert System?

I guess I’ll find out.  The Wikispace I mentioned above is considered ancient by today’s educational standards. We’ve gone through 3 classroom platforms since Wiki’s first came out, yet I’ve pushed back against the need to change mine solely for the sake of changing it. The Wiki does the job. Why put in hundreds of hours to create a Google or Schoology site when I don’t have to? I lack that drive to innovate for the sake of innovation.

circusThe phrase “Stop the world – I want to get off!” was coined nearly 50 years ago as the title of a musical set against the backdrop of a circus. How quaint to think that in 1966, someone felt things were moving way too fast. Now, most people have a miniature circus right in the palms of their hands.

Some of us, I guess, have always felt the continual need to shut down the circus, unwind, and escape to the woods where we can sit quietly and look at the trees.

So don’t bother sending me a text while I’m out there. I’m not bringing my phone.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 16, 2014

August — light, trees, memory

summer treesWhen nature stirs, we notice. Changes of season make me feel alive – as if the world around me is packing up to move and perhaps I should, too.

August starts the slow move toward summer’s end, accentuated by the start of school. The sunlight changes, becoming almost syrupy, and everything green begins to fade and harden. A few leaves flutter down. Grasshoppers and cicadas are full-chorus all afternoon and evening, giving way to the gentle rhythms of crickets at night. The breeze from the windows turns cool as we sleep.

cottonwoodsI’ve decided that my favorite sound is that of the wind through the trees, and I go seek it out this time of year in a stand of cottonwoods at the edge of a clearing nearby. Poets can no longer write odes to trees – it having become cliche – but an ode to this elegant giant would be warranted. While its fluffy shedding is annoying early in the summer, it towers above most other trees in the Midwest, with its huge, post-like trunk of deeply-ridged, vertical bark that draws your eye upward to a narrow, dappled canopy. Its fan-shaped leaves with serrated edges are dense, hardened almost to plastic by August, and in a breeze they sound like great flocks of birds gently lifting into the air.

COTTONWOOD2_leavesI can only hope no scourge comes to the cottonwoods in the way other diseases have killed our elms and ashes over the years. The beautiful white birch that shades my patio is infected with the insatiable ash borer; it will be cut down next spring, I’m told. I’ve already begun to mourn its passing.

Recently, an old photograph prompted this poem – about light, trees, summer’s end, memory, family, identity.

—–

Light in August

 

In August in Mississippi there’s a few days somewhere about the middle of the month when suddenly there’s a foretaste of fall, it’s cool, there’s a lambence, a soft, a luminous quality to the light, as though it came not from just today but from back in the old classic times.      

          – William Faulkner, on titling his 1932 novel, Light in August

 

On the patio in the sighing afternoon light,

I page through an old photo album.

Cicadas begin their chorus; black and white

gives way to kodachrome as I grow up.

 

There, at the top of a page, is a photoLynwood-Gold-Forsythia

I’d forgotten, when my new Instamatic

was still finding delight in the ordinary –

August, 1974 – forty years today, perhaps:

 

Mom and Dad kneeling by the forsythia

in the back yard, pruning it together under

the branches of the Russian olive tree. I am

on the patio, just fourteen, eyeing my world,

 

watching as Mom reaches to show Dad

a branch that needs a trim — their black hair,

their sturdy young backs, Dad’s murmured

reply, his hands as they grip the shears.White-Birch-Tree-321549

 

Now the warm August sun radiates

through the ash tree, throwing shadows

onto the picture where the same sun had played

through tree branches over the three of us,

 

when I held the camera with raw autonomy –

my third eye – opening to life, opening

to love, opening like an early aster to the

enduring sunlight of August afternoons.

FN7PS3SFJ0O3Y2J.MEDIUM

—–

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Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 5, 2014

Finding Inspiration in the News

weird_news_photos_01Writers need look no further than the headlines to find enough fodder for a lifetime of stories and poems. Best-selling author T. C. Boyle claims he’s gotten all his ideas this way – as seen in his stories about kidnappings, liver transplants, cloned dogs, brush fires, racist neighbors, and whether evolution should be taught in schools.

This year, writer and editor Robbi Nestor of Lummox Press in California published an entire book of poetry called The Liberal Media Made Me Do It! The collection contains 85 poems inspired by pieces heard on NPR and PBS.

Nestor told me he he was inundated by responses.

LiberalMediaCoverFinalOver the years I’ve assigned my students to write poems based on news stories, so I’d already written several, but Nestor was asking for pieces that could be traced to particular public TV and radio stories, so I began paying closer attention to NPR each morning. In just a few days I knew I’d found my inspiration.

The story, airing on the morning of December 31 last year, asked the question: Would you want to know the exact date of your own death? And if so, would you live more fully and joyfully? Maybe we’d like to think we would. However, the research shows very mixed results.

 

—-

Here is the poem I composed about the Tikker watch, a device designed by a Swedish inventor that can be set to count down to your death date (based upon an algorithm comprised of data about you and your personal habits). Many of the details in the poem were taken directly from the story.

 

Strap a Tikker Onto Your Wrist, Stretch Your Arm To Heaven

Tikker_death_watch

Nothing focuses the mind like the ultimate deadline.

 

Set the “happiness watch” for twenty years – long enough

to have a new career, write a book, run for mayor. Ten years –

travel the world, keep a photo blog, grow herbs, learn to cook.

Five years – two – ditch the diet, skydive into Malibu. Leave a

giant footprint, donate blood. Go see everyone you’ve ever loved.

 

Reach for what matters, the watch reminds you again and again.

 

Or instead, you may become paralyzed with fear. Begin to hate

your neighbors, be annoyed by every lame-brained driver and

rainy day, find doctors worthless, books a total waste of time.

That dark underbelly – anxiety – casts a shadow on any

glory you felt when the chains of time first fell away.

 

Hurl the thing at the wall – convince yourself you’re still immortal.

 

And why not? No inventor has the goods on you! Better to stay

numb, race toward the weekend, watch TV. Believe in exercise,

wine, the need for more vitamin D. Read more Deepak and Peale,

then cradle your inner child. You’d rather be the poor schmuck

who gets hit next week by a bus and goes down smiling, oblivious.

 

Would you want to wear a Tikker? If you had one, do you think you’d respond like the people in stanza 1 or stanza 2? I’m sure I’d be much more likely to freak out, or worse, develop total ennui. No Tikker for me, thank you. I’ll take my chances with the bus. (Which may remind you of another work that deals with this topic, the brilliant film “Stranger Than Fiction,” starring Will Ferrell in his most serious role to date.)

MPW-22952

The link to the original NPR story on the Tikker (by Lulu Miller) is included in Nestor’s book:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/12/31/256596253/nothing-focuses-the-mind-like-the-ultimate-deadline-death

 

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Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 25, 2014

Nailing the Narrative Voice

storyteller_by_andrianart-d49dxywDo you prefer your story narrators to be truthful and frank, like a best friend? Or do you prefer them snarky and sarcastic? Maybe a whimsical and flighty tone is your preference. Or perhaps poetic, or melodramatic, or simple and matter-of-fact.

Nailing the narrative voice – that’s the issue.

At the moment, it’s the issue that’s keeping me awake at night.

I don’t have this problem when I write poetry. Each poem is its own little package, and each one comes to me with a pretty clear point of view and narrative tone, tending toward the serious.

But writing memoir stories – this is a whole different animal.

—–

bill-cosby-himselfMy prose voice tends to be more down-to-earth and literal, with plenty of humor sprinkled in. Storytelling, for me, is always easier when I can find the humor of the situation. My natural voice when writing prose tends toward lightness. This is most likely because storytelling is most often an oral exercise, a social past time, and more entertaining when it evokes laughter.

—–

8 Renoir-woman-readingMy poetic voice tends to be much more introspective, lyrical, metaphoric, and serious. Maybe that’s because I know my poems – if they are read at all – are likely to be read quietly and individually than spoken aloud in a group. People who read poetry tend to enjoy thoughtfulness and don’t mind looking at the world seriously for the short time it takes them to read a poem.

—–

But memoir writers really need to find a way to relay the serious and the humorous in the same situation – often. So how does one balance the tone in such a voice?

It’s not enough to simply alternate between serious and humorous from memory to memory. That would come off to the reader as jarring, sounding like two different books.

No, what I’m seeking is a way to fully blend the two styles into one true, authentic voice that can handle both the heavy, philosophical ruminations AND the more light-hearted or outright funny stuff – all in the same story. Sometimes in the same paragraph. Or sentence.

—–

article-1371582-0B6C7D3A00000578-942_634x420Even a tragic story or one with high drama needs some levity here and there. When you read Dickens, you find yourself laughing on one page and crying on the next. Even Hamlet jokes around a lot in between his thoughts of suicide and murder. All the best storytellers have figured this out.

—–

And that’s why they’re our best storytellers. It takes incredible skill – that magic touch, if you will – to pull it off.

—–

I’m working on it. I will write and write and write and write . . . and if I’m lucky, I’ll figure it out before my brain turns to mush or my hands are too shriveled to hold the pen.

6024586-pair-of-hands-in-prayer-an-old-woman-on-her-knees

—–

Photo credits:

Storyteller:  andrianart.com

Bill Cosby: public domain

Painting, “Woman Reading”:  Renoir, public domain

Nicholas Cage in “Nicholas Nickleby”: The Daily Mail

—–

 

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 6, 2014

Deer Watching

young deer

Our neighborhood has a resident lone deer this summer, most likely one of little guys I watched with his mother two years ago many mornings as they made their way toward the retention pond over by the ball fields.

Last week after a rain storm, he walked right out into the cul-de-sac and moseyed through my neighbors’ back yards toward the creek beyond.

A few days ago, he ended up very near to me as I took a walk down the path that runs across town on a greenbelt under the high-tension wires.  This poem emerged — a simple one from a mother’s perspective.  Who knows if mother deer feel the same way?

Young Buck

 

You burst out of the hedge

into the open greenway—

fur of nutmeg velveteen

and mossy stubs of antlers

hinting at their coming hulk.

 

1004445831_ac2c9d2c7b

Out of one dark eye

you see me—stopped

on the path to watch you—

and your head snaps up,

more curious than alarmed.

 

Tail twitching, you stare

at me momentarily,

then sensing no threat,

lean your long neck down

for a taste of dewy meadow.

 

From ten yards away

I watch you, sense in your

stance part bravado,

part wariness—not unlike

your human counterparts.

 

skateboarder

What young boy can resist

a high slide at first recess,

the apple picked by climbing?

And that first jaunt at the wheel—

the asphalt-stripe horizon?

 

All sinew and strength,

you skip ahead toward

the thicket, eyeing clover to

claim for yourself, I fading

in your background tableau.

Photo credits:  deer close-up by Camden Hackworth (Flickr); skateboarder by Daily Herald

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 22, 2014

Finding the Weave

earth spinningI often hear people remark that they don’t believe in coincidences. I don’t either, but I don’t attribute uncanny timing to fate or God. I think it’s a matter of mindfulness.  Amidst all the whirling of the universe, there are patterns of causality that we can notice (sometimes long afterward), and that we can influence (sometimes subconsciously). The older we get, the more attuned we can become to the weave of our lives – those threads and patterns that make up all we experience. When we are paying attention, it seems that more unusual and meaningful things occur.

 

zero pointMy week among memoir writers at the Writers-By-the-Lake retreat at U-W Madison helped me to gain clarity on this idea. Our instructor, Julie Tallard Johnson, a gifted therapist and writer, had us focus on “pivotal moments” in our lives. I quickly recognized that if we connect the dots of these moments, we see our life’s narrative arc – the rise and fall of big events that have made us who we are. To explore these events is to become, using Julie’s term, a “meaning maker.” We construct the meaning of our lives and of the world as we see it. No one can do this for us, since no one has experienced life exactly as we have. If you agree with the old saying that “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it,” then you’ll agree with this point about unique construction of meaning.

 

3 - John waiting (2)Our pivotal moments are often related to trauma and triumph, but they may also involve powerful things we witness around us. They may be any experiences that teach us about what it means to be human or how the world works. Significant illnesses and losses in our lives or big milestones and accomplishments are obvious examples, but pivotal moments might also include a time we witnessed one classmate bullying another, or saw lightning strike a tree, or heard a haunting ballad on the radio at just the right time, or watched the sun rise at the Grand Canyon, or read a story (or saw a film) about someone who was persecuted for simply being who he or she was. (That’s my nephew John to the right, at the Canyon’s north rim in 2008.)

 

Looking back on our lives, we all can recognize pivotal moments that we have internalized – moments that have clarified for us who we are, what is important to us, and where we stand in relation to the world around us. Collectively, this set of key moments makes us unique.

 

The-Tigre-river-in-the-Am-001Who we are determines which experiences become pivotal in our lives and how they do this. Nature and nurture are involved into this process. We may be wired to be more or less sensitive than the next person, or more optimistic, or more of a risk-taker. Our parents and role models, along with the media, play a huge role in guiding our outside interests and passions. But might there be a third factor at work? Might it have to do with our ability to recognize and reflect upon our lives in order to consciously make meaning from our experiences? And can this ability be learned? I suppose the entire field of psychology hinges upon it.

 

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????What I’ve begun to explore is the possibility that our internal growth might cause a shift in what we consider to be pivotal moments. As I mature and become more “awake” to life, might I begin to re-interpret moments as being more or less pivotal than I once believed? Or might I begin to see certain events yet to come as pivotal that I might not have had I stayed asleep? If I develop a broader notion of beauty, might my recognition of kindness or joy change? If I develop a deeper sense of empathy and forgiveness, might my understanding of pain or trauma change? Might I notice small acts or moments that I never would have seen at all just a few years ago?  Understanding how these shifts within us color the way we see the world – this is what is most important in developing a true sense of our ever-emerging self.

 

Those of us who want our lives to have richness and meaning come to the search in a variety of ways. And those of us who love words enjoy nothing more than sharing those most important stories.

 

weave

Photo of the earth from “Sound of the Earth Whirling”

Photo of the Tigris River from the Guardian

Last photo from Weavolution

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 25, 2014

The Rocky Transition to Summer

????????????????????????????????????????The final weeks of each school year are an emotional roller coaster for all of us, full of projects, tests, grades, and sometimes shenanigans and meltdowns.  Summer, no doubt, is a respite from stress, a retreat to calm after the storm.  But for teachers it’s also a letting go of another year — and a sudden departure from groups of students we’ve nurtured for many months.  We will never see many of these students again; we can only hope we’ve contributed in some way to their growth, but we’ll never know for sure.  Few ever come back to visit or drop us a note, even if they’ve simply moved up to the next grade in the building.

paper-pileSo for some teachers, the door slam of transition can be unnerving.  Two of my closest colleagues, both near my age, shared with me last week that they also struggle with it.  Navigating the whirlwind of duties, obligations, and emotions is exhausting; we’ve each experienced some tears and sleepless nights in the last few weeks.  In fact, it was 15 years ago this month that I suffered a mild breakdown that required several months of healing and re-calibration.  That year, layered on top of everything else, I’d faced a divorce and a move, the death of my grandmother, and a scary bout of pneumonia in my son.  It was simply too much to bear.

For those of us who feel things more deeply or who struggle with insecurities, anxieties, or depression, all transitions — whether welcome or unwelcome — create instability that can keep us from feeling fully grounded.  And now here is where my son’s insistence upon routine has been a huge help:  Ramon’s Summer Schedule to the rescue!  All winter, he plans short trips for us to take throughout the summer, to new grocery stores (his lifelong obsession), parks, or malls . . . or to simply follow some road to its end.

mapThese little jaunts are just what we both need to give our otherwise untethered summer a little structure.  Not that teachers’ summers are wide-open expanses of free time — far from it.  We spend many days in workshops, working on curriculum on our own time, or teaching or taking classes.  But the pace is slower, and hopefully we have a couple of weeks to get away, physically or mentally.

???????????????????????????????Memorial Day weekend begins our “Summer Trips” calendar.  So, yesterday, with our favorite Vonda Shepherd CD playing and car windows open to the sunshine, we were off to our first destination — a new Mariano’s — and then a garden shop to buy flowers.  Because, as we all know, an equally great way to calm the nerves and welcome summer is to dig around in the dirt.  This year I opted for marigolds in order to thwart the ground squirrels.

Here is my poem about Ramon’s summer trips.  It placed 2nd in the Northwest Cultural Council’s annual contest this year, which made me very happy.

 

Map Making

ue3

He wants to know where every road ends,

needs to fill with a crayon’s candor

the white limbo all around him.

 

So in June when long light beckons,

we follow one blue line a day, his eyes

hungry beside me as he catalogs each

 

new world, its carpet of storefronts,

billboard clusters and train-car bungalows,Chicago Style Bungalow

coloring in the map lines in his mind.

 

What trick of a synapse can spark such desire?

A curiosity as eager as any, driven outward

in one dimension – the mastery of the earth

 

he walks upon – when it cannot turn inward

or beyond itself to wonder why or how.mini mall

Like a tiny figure trapped in a snow globe,

 

he stretches his arms wide to trace patterns

along the glass, those blue lines bound by

the atlas edge, each journey bound by a day.

 

One spring we’ll choose a road that carves

the continent in two, and he’ll see everything—228788-M

how mountains rise from wheat fields

 

and bridges leap great ravines, how

small towns and cities alike may teem

with easy kindness. We’ll lose count

 

of redi-marts, be dizzied by a million fleeting

milepost signs, let infinite sky and whirring

wheels fill and fill his maps like daffodilsdaffodils-scot

 

blooming across a glen. And when at last we

reach the sea and turn to come back home, may he

understand that this brimming road belongs to him.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 17, 2014

A Fan of The Sun (magazine)

the sunAnyone who has a little of the hippie inside should know about The Sun, a progressive lit. mag. founded in the ’70’s by a guy in his tiny apartment in Chapel Hill.  It’s still going strong and still ad-free . . . and it’s now also online (thesunmagazine.org).   Only a few pieces are included in the online version, though, so to get it in all its black-and-white glory, full of photos, stories, essays, poems, and interviews, you must subscribe.  I’ve pared down my subscriptions to print magazines lately, but I’ll not give up The Sun.  I pass them along to my dad when I’m finished and have asked him to pass them on to someone else.  As a matter of fact, I first learned about The Sun years ago when my aunt passed a bunch of hers on to me.

 

family on beach

 

A favorite section in each themed issue is “Readers Write.”  People submit short essays related to the theme, and the Sun editors choose several, filling 5-6 pages in thin columns — pieces widely varying in tone, perspective, and levels of revelation.  Many are printed without names, being so confessional that they may cause problems for the writer should he or she be identified.  Many are submitted by prisoners or others who have had very hard lives.  Some are hilarious, some tragic.  Topics also vary widely, with upcoming issues including Family Vacations, Clothes, First Love, Holding On, and Doors.  Some of these have been repeated over the years because they invite such fascinating responses.

I’ve submitted several pieces over the last few years, and the new June issue contains my second accepted one.  The topic for this issue is Security.  Because tomorrow is my son’s birthday, I’ll post the story here in his honor — though I won’t let him read it.  Be warned:  it’s not hilarious.

This issue includes a long interview with Noam Chomsky and poetry by Wendell Berry.  Go grab a June issue of The Sun and read the rest!  Barnes & Noble carries it, as well as most independent bookstores.

 

Security

man-dark-windowVisions of my son at middle age haunt me. I see him at fifty, paunchy and balding, alone in a little room in some last-chance Medicaid facility after his trust fund has run out. He is alone and confused and sad, both parents gone to a place he can’t grasp. His step-siblings and cousins rarely visit. His life consists of the same movies, TV shows and songs he’s loved since he was a boy. He struggles with numerous physical ailments and pain but can’t express his needs to his over-worked caregivers.

 

 

 

 

???????????????????????????????Today my son is 22, chatty, and charming, but his autism prevents him from driving, maintaining an active social life, or fully understanding how the world works.  No matter how much I love him and care for him while I am alive, and no matter how much money I save for the future, I will never rest easy with the thought that he will be safe or comfortable after I am gone, let alone happy. I can only work to build a network of support for him and hope it holds together. There is currently little to no help for adults with special needs in my state, and many neighborhoods still hold a “not in my back yard” attitude toward housing for the disabled, despite evidence that this special population poses no increased risk of harm to others than does the general citizenry.

 

house in fieldNo parent faces death with the certainty that their children’s lives will go on smoothly after they’ve gone, it’s true. But for those of us whose adult children are incapable of problem-solving or advocating for themselves, the anxiety can be overwhelming.

 

 

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 4, 2014

The Mystery of the Flow

sun in handsWhen was the last time words took your breath away? Stumbling upon a particularly moving poem, or a passage in an essay or story, can feel like being suddenly bathed in a warm light of truth. Yes, you think, this is what life is. This is what it means to be human.

Words spoken in speeches or films can move an entire nation. But when we read quietly, the power of words to move us is much more personal and unique. What moves one person may leave another cold. And perhaps it even depends upon the frame of mind of the reader, or where she is when she is reading, or how alert or open she is to discovery at that moment.

winter nightFor me, the power of words to move and enlighten is one of life’s greatest joys and mysteries. A few of my favorite passages – which can still take my breath away or make me weep – include some that are poignant or thoughtful, like the final passage of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” with the softly-falling snow in the night, or Mary Oliver’s question about our “one wild and precious life” in her poem, “The Summer Day.” Others are tragic and horrifying, like the final scene in Louise Erdrich’s “The Red Convertible,” where the brothers share a final moment by the river, or the gut-wrenching scene at the Idaho crater’s edge in Ben Percy’s powerful story, “Refresh, Refresh.” (Go find these pieces and read them if you haven’t yet!)

old typewriter keysNow I can add another to my list. While perusing this month’s Poets & Writers magazine, I began reading an essay by Canadian writer Maria Mutch called “Ghost in the Machine,” which seemed at first to be another quaint homage to the manual typewriter. She begins the piece by describing her recent hunt for the kind of machine we picture in old noir films – black and bulky, its keys clacking into the smoky air of the detective’s dim office. But on the second page, Mutch begins relating a story about an old friend who once tried to give her a typewriter, a close friend who had just returned from traveling the world. And suddenly, the essay is not about typewriters at all but the haunting ache one feels when a loved one leaves us unexpectedly and we cannot figure out why. Here is the sentence that begins the essay’s transcendence:

She was one of those people who was formed in light, though we were unaware that, like a planet glimpsed from afar, the light we saw was something long past and the core of her was cooling and dying.

This friend took her own life just two weeks after she’d tried to give away her typewriter. It had been too heavy for Mutch to carry home to her apartment several blocks away, so she did not accept the gift. And this is where the “bottom falls out” of the essay – where we are transported to a place where life becomes momentarily and profoundly illuminated.

rose tunnelSuch writing is uncommon, even for the most talented. It requires the perfect ingredients in one moment: a thoughtful mood, a long period of undisturbed time, and an openness – conscious or unconscious – to the universal dimension of being. No writer can conjure this at will. It happens when we are fortunate enough to be in “the flow,” as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it, or “down the rabbit hole,” other artists like to say.

I’ve not been a serious writer for long and can only devote an hour or two a week to my craft most of the year, so I’ve only experienced this rabbit hole a few times. But I will say that when I look back on those episodes and the writing I was able to produce in those moments, I cannot explain how the words came together. It’s almost as if they were a gift from the Muses, a channeling from the collective unconsciousness of the artistic spirit.

sunlight on green waterIndeed, the poems and essays I have written while in such a state of mind are by far my strongest. They’ve needed the least revision, spilling out onto the page as complete. By comparison, most of my other works take hours and days or even weeks to tweak until I feel they are as good as they will ever be. And in a strange way, I’m kind of glad the mystical experience only happens once in a while. Any beautiful thing becomes more beautiful when we know it is also rare.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 30, 2014

13 Ways of Grading Essays

sea-sun-outside-window-15244348The last day of Spring Break finally brings sun and warmth, after a week of cold and rain.  Of course!  Isn’t it one of nature’s traditions to tease us this way?

So here I sit, with the stack of papers I’ve put off, looking at the bright sunshine through my patio doors.  I’ll escape for a walk, no doubt.  But in the meantime, I must tackle these paragraphs — drafts from my sophomores’ beginnings of research papers.

During the week when I was traveling and then busy with appointments, errands, and outings with family and friends, I knew this day would come.  In anticipation, I had a little fun with a riff on Wallace Stevens’ “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

This one’s for all the English teachers.  Let’s brace ourselves for 4th quarter!

 

coffee spoons mug

Thirteen Ways of Grading High School Essays


I

Drink two cups of coffee –
warrior black –
then wield the purple pen
like a sword.


II

Eyes to the rubric,rubricwrite2
notice shapes, lines,
blocks of words,
commas, periods, and – hopefully –
question marks.


III

Eyes off the rubric,
follow sparkling phrases
to astonishing blazes
of clear thought.


IV

Consider all verbs
as messengers of deepest longing,
nouns as sentries
camouflaged by shiftless adjectives.


V

Withhold judgment.
Picture tender fingers,
white as they grip the pen.paper_airplane

VI

Fold the top corners inward
on the diagonal, creating a point.
Repeat twice.
Lift and toss gently
across the room
toward the corner wastecan.


VII

Read aloud slowly
again and again
while listening to Beethoven’s 7th –
the Pastoral –
and wait for the hidden songs
to emerge.

Three glasses
VIII

Everything depends upon
three glasses of red Merlot
lined up within reach
beyond the stack of white papers
on the desk.


IX

Remember the tree
in its sun-baked splendor.
Let it imbue the page
with dignity.


X

This paper must be read.
This paper cannot be read.

XI

O startling teens –tree
naiads in the woodlands
with eyes like unfolding buds –
must you be so predictable?

XII
In their words I see
their future images of themselves,
brave and successful,
which means they are – as yet –
gloriously ignorant
of all ignorance.

XIII

Save for last

the essay you know will be

brilliant and flawless,

and restore inner peace.

Yet even this one –

if read after ten p.m. –

will put you to sleep.

 

 

harvest moon

 

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