Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | July 3, 2020

Labyrinthine

We circle and circle these days, back to where we’ve been, each stuck in our own version of “Groundhog Day.”  Even on a hot and sunny July morning, it’s hard to feel the cheerful promise of what life might hold by day’s end.

My son wants me to reassure him almost daily that yes, one day, probably next year, we will get to Phase 5, and everything will be normal again.  His autism makes him a trouper with the new homebody routine, but his anxiety keeps him from wanting to wear a mask.  So he stays away from places where people are.  I don’t have the heart yet to tell him that even in Phase 5, we might need to keep wearing the masks, just to be on the safe side.  He’s had pneumonia 3 times in his 29 years.  His lungs likely wouldn’t handle Covid-19 very well without the treatments our medical experts have yet to devise or discover.

Source: Urban Hawks

Only the cycles of nature are keeping us grounded in real time, it seems. Like every spring in the last 20 years, I’ve been entertained recently by watching (and listening to) the fledgling red-tailed hawk trying to figure out how to scope out food sources while being barraged by black birds and jays. The usual pair of hummingbirds flit about the feeder, families of robins and sparrows splash about in the bird bath, and goldfinches dart in and out for thistle seeds. They provide my daily, much-needed, mindfulness meditation.

I only wish everyone had the time, the opportunity, and the luxury to join me in these simple but necessary moments of calm.

 

 

Labyrinth

 

Thick fog filters the morning light,

obscuring the new-leafed maple out back.

Even a second cup of coffee can’t bring clarity

to what I should worry most about. I drift

 

 

4054093512_1630930b20_o

back to the jigsaw on the table where

each piece has its place in the scene:

oak tree, butterfly, field of white daisies.

In the dimness, no pieces seem to fit.

 

We are told that in their labs, scientists work

all night to puzzle out the virus’s secrets,

perhaps soon to discover a hidden message

or the perfect symmetry of a Nautilus.

 

Again I am called to the wooded path,

looping around the pond in an easy rhythm

to lose myself in time. The fog thins, stirring

robins to call their mates. A vee of geese

 

descends to the pond’s center, rippling the water

in ever-widening circles around them.

Planes are still absent in the skies overhead.

I keep walking as the fog lifts. Sunlight bathes

 

the grass, and sparrows twitter in the trees.

I have read that the Buddha once gave

a silent sermon, where he mused upon

a single flower in his outstretched hand –

 

the hand, the flower, the awesome mysteries

of airways and blood, filaments and nectar,

complexities evolved from ages ago and

still as fragile in an unpredictable world.

 

The ripples in the pond now lap at the shore

near the path. I walk on. Two chickadees

begin their call-and-response in the trees high above,

using a language only they can know.

 

 

 

Puzzle Photo credit:  Electric Eye

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | April 9, 2020

Afterward

If you’re like me, you’ve been thinking that on some day in the near future – May 15, maybe, or June 1 – the governors will yell “Unfreeze!” and we’ll resume our normal running around to the usual places. But it’s dawning on us that this is not a game of freeze tag, and we’re not going back to our usual lives. Likely ever.

I’ve been one of the very fortunate whose life has not been turned upside-down in the last 3 weeks. I can’t begin to imagine what some are going through — the sudden loss of jobs, caring for those afflicted, exposure to the virus, or the horrific loss of loved ones with no ability to be present with them or with others in their grieving. What unthinkable agonies.

While we’re in the depths of this strange, scary new world of isolation, some talk is resurfacing of the Great Shifting. Some signs have pointed this way for several years, going back to the 1960’s “dawning of the Age of Aquarius,” but especially since the recession of 2008 and the rise of the 1%/99% split — with the Occupy Movement, Black Lives Matter, Women’s March, #MeToo, and climate change protests. Particularly among Millennials and Gen-Z, there’s been a shifting away from materialism and consumerism, toward a place of collective caring and responsibility — for each other, the animal kingdom, and the planet.

But at the same time, others fear a darker Great Shifting, toward oligarchy or technocracy, run by the powerful few (Bezos, Gates, Musk?) who will track and monetize our every move and turn the planet into one big Consumer State. Ironically, this would likely be embraced by many who have shuddered at the thought of socialism, yet it would have many eerie similarities. Some hail the rollout of 5G as revolutionary, while others fear it as another giant step toward the loss of individual rights and freedoms.

In the coming “re-opening” of the world, I fear the second scenario is more likely to be the case, as we find many of our favorite shops, restaurants, and artistic venues will remain forever shuttered. We’ve been witnessing homogenization in the retail and restaurant world for decades already. Much more is likely. How many remaining businesses will eventually decide that Zoom works, so why pay rent on office space? Co-worker relationships be damned. Schools were already moving toward an online platform, and now they’ve shown – due to teacher ingenuity – that it can work. So long as those Amazon vans can still get to our homes once a week, we can survive. Over time, will we simply adapt to this as the “new normal,” or will we have the means and the energy to push onward toward a true Age of Aquarius?

Maybe in the end none of this matters. Maybe it’s our privilege that has caused us to be anxious about what we stand to lose, when so many millions of people around the world have never enjoyed the kinds of choices and comforts and pleasures some of us have had. Perhaps all we should hope for is a world where all humans have their basic needs met and can maintain some shred of dignity, whichever Big Brother is running the show, and that those in charge will figure out a way not to completely destroy the planet before our grandchildren grow old.

In the meantime, it’s Spring outside. Our greatest comfort can still be found in watching the great blooming that goes on despite the human struggle. Wishing peace and love to all in the days ahead.

 

Afterward

 

The sun – so reassuringly –

appeared on the horizon

and rose toward its place on high.

 

Birds did their twittering

and south winds blew,

and when I walked out

 

into the tall grass, a cricket

jumped away. You emerged

from your house, too,

 

and we smiled and waved

just like we had every day.

Then we laughed and met

 

for a hug mid-street, all

tears instead of words. This

was how we’d find our way.

–  –  –  –

–  –  –  –

Photo credits (in order): Thomas Schwebel, Flickr; Review of Ophthalmology; EdenBrothers.com; Neighborhood Picnic – Yelp

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | November 26, 2019

3 Erasure Poems from the Newspaper

Sometimes artists just want to improvise — throw convention to the wind, go zig-zagging off somewhere they’ve never been. We can get trapped in a rut of our own making, recycling the same old words, images, tunes. That’s when it’s time to start scatting.

Every week, I spend a good 3-4 days getting through the hundreds of pages of the Sunday New York Times. This week, I let some pages speak to me and channeled some sort of inner jazz tempo to “find” poems in them. Poets call this “erasure” – discovering a poem hiding within a text.  It’s a fun exercise that can shake free the cobwebs, with surprising results. My students used to love it.

A true erasure poem remains on the page with its words highlighted or otherwise set off from the text around it. (See images below, found online.) My poems have been extracted from their texts, but vestiges of their original sources remain.

 

Three Erasure Poems Taken From The New York Times, 11/24/19

 

Original page of text for first poem

 

From “A Honeymoon on a Harley,” an essay by Marcos Villatoro

 

As a child

I came to love

my mother

stitching closed the cloth

across the country

with its elongated words.

 

Gatsby Summer Night by Cathy Dee

When I was

too blind

to worry about

my mother

she worried about

my childhood:

 

A half breed.

A mongrel.

 

Mama told me about

LaSiguanaba

a witch that

ripped out the guts

of bad men.

 

From Snow City by Fred Sasaki (Poetry Foundation)

Hers was a silent warfare

woven into the fabric

of love.

 

 

From “Fathers and Sons,” a review of Tim O’Brien’s Dad’s Maybe Book,

by John Schwartz

 

He wanted to have kids

but he found himself terrified.

His own father had been a mystery.

 

He wrote sentences –

scattershot, cobbled-together defects –

when confronted with his worries.

 

Tom Phillips (Gwarlingo)

He tries to pretend the lasting burdens

of writing are the return to awe –

his unbounded love for his son.

 

 

From “The Mister Rogers No One Saw”

by Jeanne Marie Laskas

 

Deconstruct. Doubt. Distrust

the blank canvas.

Jot down a word.

Enter it. Work for the core

of what you’d like to be.

Carry all the stuff —

filthy, random junk —

a flea market

of the meager and marginalized.

Show the ghosts at the lectern

what God looks like.

 

  *   *   *   *   *

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | August 17, 2019

Those Huddled Masses

But they are not “masses.” They are individual human beings, each with a heart that beats and a soul that I’d imagine is yearning for a bit of peace. Millions of individuals on our planet today desire what they do not have:  a safe place to call home.

By no right can any ancestor of immigrants in America deny to new immigrants the same opportunities their family had. And just as our ancestors needed time and help to become self-sufficient, so do today’s seekers.

All statistics show recent immigrants to be, on average, more consistently reliable employees and more law-abiding than U. S. citizens. The income taxes they pay more than offset the money they receive in public aid — which they need largely because their unskilled jobs pay such low wages. Yet stereotypes abound of “lazy slackers who are gaming the system” – stereotypes that make it easier to scapegoat and hate.

Time Magazine photo

Recent immigrants each have names, families, dreams and ambitions, skills and ideas to offer, and the right to a decent life alongside us.

 

 

 

 

The Mowers

 

They pull in at 7 a.m. sharp on Thursday

as they have every week since April,

every summer for the last 15 years.

The pick-up truck and trailer are nestled

at the curb, cones placed at the front

and back. Three men in orange shirts

and yellow vests unload the machines,

start the engines. Two mowers and

a trimmer wind around the circle of lawns

in the gathering summer heat. By nine

they’re done, packed up and headed out.

 

These men, whose names I do not know,

may or may not be the same who came

last week, last year, or a decade ago.

Black-haired and brown-skinned, they tend

to our yards while we sleep or watch

from windows, sipping our cups of coffee.

Our homeowner’s fees pay their wages,

these men who push mowers all summer,

then snow plows in the cold, plus who knows

what else in between to make ends meet.

 

Some days I step out for the newspaper

and wave hello, exchanging smiles as they

NYTCREDIT: Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos

pull their machines down the wooden ramp.

Self-conscious in my slippers, I wonder

what they think of my clothes or my car,

then remember I am as much of a nobody

to them as they are to me. We go about

our business. Our selves and our plans,

our losses and loves, remain shrouded

from each other as weeks and years go by –

the easy invisibility my privilege affords me

and their need demands of them.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | April 6, 2019

The Boxes in the Attic

Our kids won’t want our stuff.  This is what we’ve been reading in the myriad pieces written about Millennials — they are not accumulators.  Marie Kondo’s advice, then, must omit that secondary question many of us were asking:  Will it spark joy one day for my son or granddaughter?  No, dear friends, it will not.  To the curb it goes.  Or to Goodwill or Craig’s List if it has any value at all.  And yet…. maybe not everything.

I’ve been the happy recipient this month of 2 boxes stashed in my sister’s attic for nearly 30 years, the contents of which have not been eyed for even longer. They came to me since I’m the one “who keeps things” — scrapbook maker and photograph archiver of my generation.  Even my siblings don’t want my mother’s stuff.  But as I sift through the crumbling treasures, my mother comes to life before me and infuses me in new ways.  Buried here are relics I’ve never seen — papers she wrote in college, wedding cake topper, lesson plans from her brief time as a 4th-grade teacher, letters she wrote us when we were small, and stacks upon stacks of medical and insurance records from her years on home dialysis.

My siblings and I had just become adults when we lost our mom, so we never had the chance to befriend her as fellow adults.  The items in the attic boxes have, in some small but poignant way, allowed me to see her afresh, through the eyes of a woman 10 years older than she ever was.

Before we Kondo-ize our own attics, we might re-consider throwing everything away.  Our kids and grandkids may not want the china or silverware, or any of our old costume jewelry.  But they may one day, especially after we’re gone, enjoy peeking into our lives through those mementos that were most dear to us and show our innermost selves.  Even the least sentimental among us can’t help but wonder at the ways our ancestors’ blood flows through us.

I’m writing a series of poems about my mother using what I’ve discovered in the boxes.  Here is one.

 

Attic Boxes

Atop the cake for one day, it was packed

into a box where it lay for over sixty years,

its little tuxedo-clad groom’s thin smile

and dots of rouge on the bride’s cheeks faded,

the arch of plastic pink and white flowers crushed

into a lop-sided square, the white bow at the top

now wilted and flat, angling to one side

as I lift the relic gently from its tissue paper

and imagine my mother’s young eyes, as mine

are now, gazing upon such a sweet confection,

our hearts filling with wonder – hers of what was

yet to come, mine of all she would yet endure.

Yes, I did throw away the cake topper, and many other things that had disintegrated or wouldn’t mean much to anyone.  But I’ve taken a few photos for remembrance.  And I will write the poems.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 9, 2019

Substitute Teaching Odyssey

Next week I’ll be finishing my Substitute Teaching Odyssey — 75 days of subbing to finish my 35th year of service as a public school teacher in Illinois.  Now, finally, bring on the pension!

It’s been an eye-opening experience, and not altogether surprising since I’ve known many wonderful substitutes over the years as colleagues and heard their stories.  Still, standing in those sub shoes at the front of a class is a different kind of trepidation, especially if you’re working in a school where no student knows you or cares a whit about your many years of experience as a teacher.  You’re not THEIR teacher, so you have no currency with them at all.  (Who doesn’t have some fun — and freaky — sub stories from when we were students?)

Fortunately, I was able to do most of my subbing at the school where I had taught for 33 years and still felt part of the school’s family.  But many days found me at other buildings in my high school district, where I may have known a few teachers but absolutely none of the kids.  While it was interesting work because of the novelty of each job, I still had to put up my guard each day, not knowing exactly what I would be walking into.

Looking back over the months I’ve subbed, I have no regrets about the decision I made to “top off” the pension this way.  It’s been, for the most part, fun and fulfilling work, and it’s given me a stepping stone to perch on for a while as I mentally made the adjustment from professional to ex-professional.  It almost felt like a little victory lap through the education field, allowing me a final panoramic view of what it means to be a teacher.

But I know for most substitutes who do this deceptively “simple” job year after year, the low pay and lack of respect can be humbling.  For all the substitutes out there, I salute you!  Your dedication allows schools to keep functioning.  Seeing the job through your eyes helped me to write this poem.

 

Sub  Means  Under

 

subpar     subordinate

 

Their cheers upon seeing you

are not for you

but for the absence of her—

the one with power.

 

substandard     subjective

 

 

No meat in the lesson,

chairs classroom college desks

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

no teeth in non-compliance.

You learn quickly to invest

no angst in the outcome.

 

subversive     subliminal

 

The seating chart is optional

they tell you, and yes

she always lets us

listen to music on our phones.

 

subsistence     insubstantial

 

You can’t live on this paycheck

but can only supplement

another source, so tell yourself

it’s essential public service.

 

subtotal     submit

 

When the bell rings observe:

they are alive and unharmed.

The contract requires nothing

more. Emerge into the light.

– – –

– – –

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 20, 2019

2 Words for Snow

I know some people may have a few choice words to use when describing snow — especially early-morning commuters — but I’m a fan of winter and welcome the snow.  I’m not a skier or hockey player, just a nature lover who enjoys all the seasons and watching them change.  I also love the winter birds that visit my backyard feeders, like the cute little juncos that scratch at the snow for hours to find seeds underneath.

Apparently it really is true that in far-northern regions, people have invented dozens of words for snow and ice.  A Washington Post article from 2013 notes, for example, that the Nunavik north of Canada have 53, including “matsaaruti” for the wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the tiny, crystalline snow that resembles salt.  The Inupiaq have 70 words to describe types of ice, and the Sami at the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia have developed 180 distinct words to describe snow and ice.

Language develops in ways that are practical for people in different regions.  I’m sure desert people have similarly diverse words to describe heat and sand, and that island groups have lots of words for tides and shoreline activities.

Here in the Midwest, it’s enough just to have 2 words for snow:  wet and dry.  Or big and small to describe the flakes.  We aren’t all that imaginative.  Or we only need to describe the type of snow in order to alert folks to how hard the shoveling will be.

Snows

 

There is no subtlety in wet December snow

as it plops onto lawns and driveways like

a late-night sot on a bar stool, lathering it on,

clotting and unbudged by a shovel. By mid-day,

it’s melting into gray pools at the curb,

uncaring as it sloshes onto shoes

and splatters up with every passing car.

 

But late in January, when polar air thins the breath,

tiny flakes whisk and spin with the grace

of acrobats, alighting on tree limbs and fences

in delicate puffs.  After drifting in frigid night winds,

snow hangs by dawn in swoops and curves

from the roof, beckoning us to stretch upward

to hear the secrets it carries from the stars.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | May 28, 2018

A Retiring Teacher Looks Back

How does anyone sum up a career?  By days at the desk?  Projects completed?  Money earned?  Hairs turned gray?  Lives affected?

I’ve spent the majority of my waking life since age 5 in classrooms, as student and teacher – sometimes both on the same day.  My first teaching job was as a graduate assistant at Northeastern IL University in 1982, where most of my students were from other countries and were older than I was.  Now, I’m about to retire from a 33-year career in District #214, the district I graduated from in 1978….and I’m old enough to be my students’ grandmother.

I could reduce the whole thing to numbers, with some vague approximations:

 

Schools attended, K-U:  8

Schools taught at:  5 (but mainly 1)

Days taught:  6,200

Students taught:  9,000

Courses taught:  35

Pages of student writing graded:  1/4 million

 

And then, probably like most people, there are these numbers:

 

Percentage of fantastic days:  10

Percentage of awful days:  10

Percentage of days when things went just fine:  80

 

But numbers, while eye-opening, don’t add up to much until we think about the arc of time they cover.  I’ve done other work here and there, too, and learned from other people about the kinds of challenges any jobs pose, requiring us to find the motivation and energy to get through each day.  For people who make careers a big part of their lives, staying on the full-time treadmill for 30-40 years, we have to find purpose and dignity in the work if we’re going to have a sense of satisfaction at mid-life.  That’s always been easy for those of us who love what we do and believe our work is important.  It’s going to be harder, I think, to live as purposefully now that I’m leaving the profession behind.  But what a fun challenge it will be, and one with very little stress since it impacts only me.

I’m so lucky and grateful to have had a calling that has rarely wavered since childhood – modeled by my father and so many excellent teachers throughout my life.  Up until my final lesson last week, I found myself up for the challenge of working to make my students’ time in the classroom worthwhile.  But I’m definitely starting to slow down.

Over the last 34 years, teaching (like any other profession) has changed radically.  A tiny sliver of what I do or how I do it in 2018 aligns with what I did in 1985.  But as an English teacher, my goals have always centered around language – voices received and voices expressed.  We do this with thoughtfully-chosen books, essays, poems, stories, and films that hopefully open our students’ minds and hearts to the fullness of their own and others’ humanity.

I’ve been so fortunate in so many ways, from birth onward, in having the choices and opportunities I’ve had, especially in my working life.  I will always appreciate and value my own lifelong education, the schools and communities I have worked in, the many wonderful colleagues I’ve respected and loved, and the thousands of students who have kept me on my toes with their curiosity, enthusiasm, challenges, humor, audacity, gratefulness, and marvelous individuality.

 

classroom lights go out

energy of three decades dissipates

emptiness, fullness, farewell

 

—  —  —

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 10, 2018

A Teacher’s Angst

During my 33 years of teaching high school English in the suburbs of Chicago, I’ve certainly seen trends come and go — in teaching, in parenting, in the national and global mindset about what schools should be and do. But since I first wrote “Welcome to Ms. Hutchinson’s class” on a chalkboard back in the fall of 1985, I have never felt the kinds of stresses and heartaches that I feel right now, in my final year.

A year ago, we were reeling from our White House occupant’s brazen and lawless attempts to close our borders to certain people he deemed “undesirable.” Some of my students belong to families that come from these countries or have friends that do. How could I comfort them?

Next, he broke promises made to many of our country’s young people who — through no decision of their own — are here without legal status but who have made America their home. Many don’t remember living anywhere else.  When I look at my students right now, knowing several are likely caught up in this nightmare, how can I comfort them?

And now, in the last 3 weeks, many have claimed that guns are not only benign but actually belong in the hands of people like me — teachers charged with keeping children safe. Only in a nation that has devolved into total madness would anyone believe that more guns in schools will bring safety.

Much of me is sad to be retiring from a long, fulfilling career of teaching. But an equal part is relieved to be walking away from the political quagmire my classroom has become. It makes me weep to think of the students I have not been able to help over the years, especially those in my classes right now whose new kinds of turmoil I will never know. For them, I’ve written this Villanelle.

 

The Weight of Their Backpacks

 

Their backpacks are heavy and weighing them down
as they file off the bus in the dim morning light
with problems too large for the shoulders they own.

How can they possibly sit to focus or learn
when their parents may be missing by bedtime tonight?
Such huge, heavy burdens keep weighing them down.

The chance of a bloodline, of a face deemed too brown
now threatens the home that came by a hard-earned fight.
Such betrayal will not fit on the shoulders they own.

As children they claimed their own voice, found their ground,
and bloomed into youth who reach and dream and strive.
But those backpacks, so heavy, now weigh them back down.

These days they don’t speak, since to make any sound
risks the arrival of uniformed men in the night.
But how should they shoulder such fear on their own?

Their eyes reveal an anxiety deeply profound.
They are starlets whose futures hang on “maybe” or “might.”
We must strip off the huge backpacks weighing them down
and place them firmly upon new shoulders – our own.

 

Illustration of woman and flag:  James Noellert, Detroit Metro Times, 2/2/17

Photo of backpack:  Thinkstock

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | January 30, 2018

Half Angry, Half Exhausted

Most days I believe this polarization is beyond repair.  The divide between blue and red has become an unbridgeable chasm, and our nation may very well be in its death throes.  It’s easy to get caught up in the despair and the rhetoric, the dire predictions for the planet and our species.  Much of the time, that’s where I find myself.

But every so often, I’m reminded of the fact that the great majority of people just want to live their lives in peace.  Most of us are good, decent people — flawed but compassionate, opinionated but full of love — more often concerned about our own small circles of family, friends and jobs and enjoying the day than about the larger problems looming ahead when we bother to look toward the horizon.

And this leads me to believe that perhaps we will all soon reach a point where we are tired of all the screaming and accusations, tired of the whole chaotic mess.  Can we envision a time in the near future when we’re ready to find our way back to having open, honest communication?  If we can envision it, maybe it’s possible.

I used a trusted old technique recently — the abecedarian — to explore what it might take to unwind the tightly-wound top we’ve spun ourselves into.  The alphabet is just as recognizable backward as forward, after all.  Zippers go down as well as up.

If we can envision it, if enough of us want to see it, I have to believe we can make it so.  If we’re going to turn things around in time to secure a future for this world, it’s going to take a collective effort.

Time to turn the alphabet around and see what happens.

 

Rx

 

Awareness of those sneaky

Bogeymen hiding in your

Closets and computers.

Deliberate confrontation when

Evil disguises itself as good.

Fearless speaking of truth –

Girls and gays and all

Human beings marginalized

In the name of security or God.

Justice, justice, justice.

Kingmakers brought to their knees.

Lights beamed behind closed doors:

Menaces and bigots exposed, all their

Nefarious abuses of power with

Obsessing oily hands and mouths.

Print their names in bolded caps.

Quell any pathetic outcry with

Ramrods of legalese.

Shout their names into a million

TV sets and living rooms.

Untie blinders from every eye.

Vanquish the deniers – hypocrites

Who prevaricate & victim-blame.

Expose all excuses as excrement.

You have the power to upend it all – you

Zealous disciples of self-righteousness.

.           .           .           .

Zero sum game, this

Yawning gap between us –

X in the middle, a deep abyss.

Who will extend the first hand,

Vault across with an olive branch,

Utter – plainly and calmly –

Truce?

Speak in the language of humans:

Respectfully.

Quietly.

Palms up, pentitent.

Only then can we begin to

Name truth as truth,

Make a reality from the haze,

Leave lies and myths behind, their un-

Kindest cuts still bleeding,

Join in what we know

In our deepest selves to be the most

Human act:  forgiveness.

Get down on our collective knees,

Fall together in one

Earnest plea for

Deliverance from the dark

Corners we’ve painted ourselves into.

Behold our imperfections. Yet each of us

Altogether capable of humility.  Of love.

 

———-

 

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