Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | June 6, 2021

We Are What We Keep

Like lots of folks my age, I’ve been clearing out my stuff lately, realizing I don’t need much of it and don’t want the burden to fall on family members after I’m gone. My son Ramon, now 30, still lives with me, but I long ago stopped asking him to cull his supply of books and movies. (See the poem below for that story.)

Some have a much harder time getting rid of their possessions, I know. I’ve written before of my mom, who stockpiled food and other items almost obsessively, probably due to a childhood in the ‘30s and ‘40s where many siblings had to share what they had. She died at 46, before much was known about obsessive-compulsive disorder, but we think now that she probably struggled with that, too. 

Reading about the psychology behind hoarding is sometimes fascinating and sometimes sad. According to multiple sources, around five percent of people struggle with it at a clinical level, and it’s usually attributed to a condition such as OCD, anxiety, or depression. Signs of a tendency to hoard often show up in adolescence and can lead to isolation and a growing fear or anxiety about self-protection. In a few cases, people even describe an irrational fear that their possessions will be despondent if they are thrown away or given away.

For my son, who has autism, his accumulation of possessions is driven by something a little different. Yes, he does deal with high levels of anxiety and OCD. Yet he also has what I call a “videographic memory” – an uncanny ability to recall people, places, dates, and episodes from his life going far back into early childhood. I joke that Ramon collects people. He never lets them go from his mind as the years go by, including a substitute teacher he may have had for two days in second grade or a restaurant worker who served him a few times when he was 12.

Another huge part of Ray’s early and ongoing life experience involves the stories he’s grown up with in books, films, and videogames. This is where the hoarding tendency comes in. Without the typical ability to imagine stories of his own making, Ray has always over-identified with fictional characters he likes. We all do this to a certain extent, but I believe for him, the “friends” he makes in fictional tales are more real than for most of us. He revisits some of his favorites again and again, running along with Woody and Buzz on their way to Pizza Planet, or with Anne of Green Gables as she chases the neighbor’s errant cow, or with Forrest Gump as he outruns the bullies and lets his leg braces fall away.

For most of us, Winnie-the-Pooh or young Laura Ingalls become faded memories as we grow up, leaving only a vague imprint on our identities. For Ramon, these characters continue to surround him, reassuring him of his identity and self-worth, his past, and his hope that things will always work out alright in the end. Nothing made this clearer to me than this past year, when so much uncertainty filled our lives and I wasn’t able to give him definitive answers about when he would be able to go back to grocery stores or stop wearing his mask. In his screen world of Scooby-Doo and Arthur the Aardvark, the demons and bullies are always defeated.

Child is Father to the Mom

Jewelry rained down around me

and a second later, my jewelry box.

I startled and looked up to see my son

on the stairway landing, smiling.

There was then yelling, questioning,

a forced picking up, a forced apology,

early to bed, talk of a better tomorrow.

Later, on hands and knees, I sought

the last missing pieces – and answers.

Autism keeps Ramon from telling me

what he’s feeling, so I can only guess.

Was it still last year’s divorce and

the move? Was I on the phone too long

that day? Did he eat something odd,

see something he shouldn’t have seen?

As earring sparkled by the door,

next to the box I’d filled to take

to Good Will: clothes, tableware,

a few of Ramon’s oldest videos.

He’d watched as I’d taken them

from his shelves, listened as I told him

that at age 8, he needed to let them go.

He hadn’t argued. But my jewelry

landed just feet from this box.

In the morning, Ray woke to my

tearful apology, my promise, and

his tapes returned to his shelves.

Now at 30, he’s curated crates full

of books and movies – a collection

that grows as an extension of him,

a constant reminder of who he is and

who he’s been. Long after I am gone,

he will still be surrounded by them.




Photo credits (in order):

The Spruce, Oriental Trading Company, Etsy, Kate Hutchinson (photo of some of Ray’s shelves)

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | March 13, 2021

Taking Stock: 1 Year Later

March 12 is a date many of us will now always remember, like December 7 or September 11. It seems like five years ago, not just one, when many of us closed our front doors for good, peering out into the scary world with wide eyes. While millions risked their lives to keep the world turning and to treat the sick, many of us became hermits, glued to our TVs and devices for news updates. We learned a whole new vocabulary and developed new ways of being.

I’ll add to the one-year anniversary of the lockdown by offering an abecedarian poem that crams it all in — literally Covid-19 from A to Z. I’ve only written a few abecedarians, but for the purposes of a “list poem,” the alphabet can come in handy and actually be fun. Word geek that I am, I spend lots of time with dictionaries and thesauruses. A new book on my long list of must-reads includes A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order by Judith Flanders. I’d never even considered that at some point, some smart person trying to organize things decided that the alphabet could be a handy tool! Samuel Pepys and George Washington were early adopters, it seems. Now, we couldn’t function without it.

So here it is, my compact retrospective of Life With Covid, 1 Year Later — from horrific to hopeful. Perhaps it will prompt you to think about the A to Z of what this time has meant for you.

It All Matters

Antiseptics. Air for our lungs and air hugs for our hearts.

Antiseptics. Air for our lungs and air hugs for our hearts.

Boxes of beans plus blue skies and bikes and bare feet.

Clorox on the shelf along with cat food, chocolates and coffee.

Doctors, yes, and drive-thru windows and drive-by birthdays.

Exercise, elastic waistbands, evergreen trees in the yard.

Facts over falsehoods . . . and Facebook. Food kitchens.

Gloves and newly-gray hair and grandparents on screens.

Hospitals full of heroes plus houseplants and hummingbirds.

IV drips, igloos outside restaurants. Vivid imaginations.

Jeans, jammies, jigsaws, Jeopardy! and Jupiter kissing Saturn.

Keeping our distance but keeping the faith. Kindness.

Libraries, leaves greening then falling on lawns. Love.

Masks and music and movies and mothers and miracles.

Nurses, oh yes. Newspapers and neighbors on the front porch.

Oximeters, ovens full of bread. Open minds, open hearts.

Personal protective equipment. Pets on laps and leashes. Poetry.

Q-tip swabs and questions on quarantining.

Remdesivir plus reading, reading, reading.

Steroids, sourdough starter, and solos on balconies.

Too much toilet paper and TV. Treadmills. Tireless teachers.

Ultraviolet light and unsung unselfishness everywhere.

Ventilators. Vaccines! Vegetables from our own gardens.

Windows kept open and long walks and wine.

X-rays of lungs, experts who temper our expectations.

Yeast and yarn and yoga and yearning for normal.

Zoom gluing us together under zillions of stars.

Posted by: poet kate hutchinson | December 20, 2020

Reflections on Longest Night

Darkness can be a metaphor for so many things – depression, despair, evil, death – none of them positive. But Longest Night reminds us that light (joy, hope, goodness, life) will come again. After all, without darkness, we wouldn’t recognize or appreciate light. Winter Solstice rituals have important for thousands of years, and this year they will be even more meaningful, as we close out one of the worst years the human race has collectively experienced.

What’s so special to me about all the centuries-old Longest Night celebrations is just how universal they are in acknowledging human faith in rebirth and renewal.  Pagan Yuletide, Jewish Hanukkah, Christian Christmas, Chinese Dongzhi Festival, Hopi Soyal – each marks the turning of the planet back toward the sun and the hope this instills in us, that we’ll survive another year.  Now we understand why nights get longer and shorter in regions far from the equator, but it’s fascinating to think about how ancient peoples attributed it to the gods or some intentional force.

This year we’re also being treated to the astronomical rarity of the Jupiter-Saturn “Great Conjunction” – which is truly uncanny in its timing, since we need this phenomenon of bright light more than ever this year. We haven’t witnessed it during night-time hours since 1226!  If anyone believes in miracles or spiritual symbolism, this would be quite the thing to ponder. Some scientists believe this planetary convergence may have been what happened to create the bright “Christmas star” mentioned in the bible that led the wise men to the manger.

My lifelong fascination with the Druids and their henge building is stirred each year as we approach the Solstice. Several years ago I wrote a poem about it, and I had forgotten about the poem until a dear and talented friend shared it with me over the phone the other day. Among the many pieces Paul has chosen to memorize during the Covid lockdown (as a worthwhile mental exercise), he chose this poem of mine. What a beautiful honor! I’ve included the poem here, along with an audio recording of Paul reading it for others to enjoy.

“Winter Solstice” read by Paul Quinn

(Just a note about the opening line of the poem – I hope no one finds it offensive. Sometimes poets choose words and phrases for their sound as much as their meaning, and that’s what I did here. Of course Christians didn’t “steal” the Solstice. They wisely incorporated the powerful metaphors associated with Longest Night into their new message of hope so as to resonate with their followers. But phrasing it that way wouldn’t be nearly as poetic!)

Happy Longest Night, everyone!  May 2021 be a year full of light and love and healing.

Winter Solstice  

Maybe it’s alright that the

Christians stole the Solstice,

carried it off to church and

dressed it up with stars and crosses

and called the Son their own.

Those with ancient blood know

the wreaths and candles and songs

tell a different tale wherein the

promise of the Sun’s rebirth

is powerful enough to bring hope,

and where Elder and Birch are the

wise men who share secrets

with the guardians in their

sacred woodland circles.

Once Earth’s darkness told us

to be still and contemplate her

deep womb from which all

life springs; the ancient tombs

at Maeshowe and Newgrange

glowed with the first rays

of our reinvigored god as

he lit upon the buried cairns

promising life would come again.

So womb gave way to manger

and Earth’s light to holy child, now

called the hope of all mankind. But on

the longest night under the black

dome of ice, Earth whispers still.

Images by: history.com, GroupWorks, CaptureLandscapes

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 | 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

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