Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dickinson's "I Never Saw a Moor"

“I never saw a moor. I never saw the sea.” - E. Dickinson

I was out the other night, walking, thinking, standing under the lights wondering. People all around me, throngs rushing, busy movement, faces passing, no one stopping.
“Yet know I how the heather looks, and what a wave must be.” - E. Dickinson

I saw someone I knew, an old acquaintance here in Taiwan. The person didn't see me, surrounded by others, quite attached and distracted. That's fine. If I had said hello, it would have been an awkward conversation. Rather, I just watched, watched this world, this little snow globe of hubbub, pass by. We hadn't spoken since this summer when I was in Europe, walking through the Vatican and marveling at Michelangelo.
“I never spoke with God, nor visited in heaven.” -E. Dickinson

As this person passed, whom once we hade been reasonably close, I started looking after that, it's not hard to do, just paying attention to all the little splendid atomies around me. The man standing under the lights, the woman with child slurping noodles on the back of a motor scooter. The black sky hiding the stars under grime and city gleam... knowing that there is so much to the world that is speaking to me, I just have to listen.
“Yet certain am I of the spot as if the chart were given.” –E. Dickinson

It came up in class later that week, Dickinson's I never Saw a Moor. I love that poem, this shy woman, this shut in, who lost her heart to a married man when he rejected her, and went inside and locked the door and the world away, opting to write poetry instead. She understood. Oh yes, Emily understood, that God is always talking to us. Even though sometimes we haven't the strength to answer, that there in the seas and fields and stars... God is talking. Yeah... I hear ya grumblin'. Maybe you're not listening at in that famous Sistine Chapel I walked beneath this summer. White bearded God riding on a cloud reaching down at Adam, who lazily lifts a finger without a care...You know, you don't have to travel to exotic places and amazing locations to see God. The fact is, that God is all around us. The burning sunset, the intricacies of science, the complexities of sound and emotional connection, the geometry of space- even the little things we take for granted... like old friends passing by us in the night. Peole we once knew so dear. All of it, all of the emotion and logic and beauty and explanation and design no matter the size, is God, whatever God is, speaking to us. I love that idea. So thanks for the poem, Emily... and you poets, keep writing. I'm listening. My strength lies in you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

To An American Painter Departing For Europe, by William Cullen Bryant

"Thine eys shall see the light of distant skies...
A living image of our own bright land,
Such as upon thy glorious canvass lies..." -W.C. Bryant

I wish that I could tell you all that I know, all that I see, all that happens to me from day to day.
"Lone lakes- savannahs where the bison roves..." -W.C. Bryant

All the times I fail, all the times I am cheated, all the times that life breaks with such beauty like the world cracking in splendor before me.
"Rocks rich with summer garlands - solemn streams..." -W.C. Bryant

The things I see in the night. The touch of the world upon me.
"Skies, where the desert eagle wheels and screams..." -W.C. Bryant

The soft echo I hear, reverberating, the secret it whispers to me in the dark.
"Spring bloom and autumn blaze of boundless groves..." -W.C. Bryant

I would tell you these things, if I had the mind to, the light to cast the right shadows for you to run from. I would. But all my truest confidants have departed, slipped away through the twines of time.
"Fair scenes shall gree thee where thou goest...fair..." -W.C. Bryant

There is this poem I teach, this young painter named Thomas Cole, a scrawler of landscapes, leaves to wander through Europe to paint and love and live. His friend, the anthology dog-earred thrice named William Cullen Bryant composes a sonnet for him, back when words between friends matterered, sonnet... telling to remain true to his American vision of nature.
"But different... everywhere the trace of men... paths, homes, graves, ruins from the lowest glen..." -W.C. Bryant

I've always liked that... an American vision. While the world doubts and decieves, cheats and mares, blames and pokes fun, there are some of us who are true.
"Gaze upon them, till the tears shall dim thy sight..." -W.C. Bryant

It's not an American vision any more than it is an Argentine or Ethiopian, but that the soul who one encounters remains true, that's what I met tonight.
"But keep that earlier, wilder image bright." -W.C. Bryant

So to my new friend, fragile and sweet, who sees the world so differently than I... stay true. If so, no matter how far you are from home, you are blessed to never be alone.

The Last Leaf by Oliver Wendell Holmes

“I saw him once before,
As he passed by the door,
And again
The pavement stones resound,
As he totters o’er the ground
With his cane.” -Last Leaf by O.W. Holmes

For nearly all of his eighty-five years, Oliver Wendell Holmes lived in Cambridge and was an authentic New England Brahmin.
“They say that in his prime,
Ere the pruning-knife of time
Cut him down
Not a better man was found
Through the town. –Last Leaf by O.W.Holmes

Called the “most intelligent man in New England,” he was professor of anatomy at Harvard Medical School and a poet.
“The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.” -Last Leaf by O.W. Holmes

He was also a rationalist who held skeptical contempt for what he saw as humanity’s crippling submission to traditions, particularly Puritan Calvinism. Stick that in your Pilgrim’s Hat and smoke it!
“But now his nose is thin,
And it rests upon his chin
Like a staff,
And a crook is in his back,
And a melancholy crack
In his laugh.” -Last Leaf by O.W. Holmes

My favorite quote: “I never read a novel on Sunday until after sundown.”
“And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.” -Last Leaf by O.W. Holmes

On a break today I left the books open on the desk and the papers held by an old coffee mug beside the window in the floating lilies of light and walked down the canal beside the park. I have a red pen, a pocket knife, two sticks of gum, and three dollars in change in my pocket. Inside the anthology under my arm I keep a picture of some favorite day long ago, and I climbed on one of the lean sycamores beside the temple. No one is there as I step higher into the shaded cover. There in the cloak of leaves, I read poety and carve my name in the bark. No one knows I am there, until now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Xian Playing Piano

video Yeah, just messing around while I was washing dishes... she's getting pretty good.

Because I Could Not Stop For Death...

"Because I could not stop for death- He kindly stopped for me..." Emily Dickinson

The reason she was crying is because you called her a "Slut!" Don't you get that? That's why she locked herself in the stall and wouldn't return to your class.
"The Carriage held but just Ourselves- And Immortality..." -Emily D.

And yeah, nobody cares if you can speak Chinese or if you were born into this culture or you grew up in L.A. and now you've returned to change the world...
"Since then- 'tis Centuries- and yet- Feels shorter than a Day..." -Emily D.

Nobody cares how you twisted and lied and manipulated your way into the center of the school admin staff in just your first year... because every time you throw a book at a kid, or offer personal money for them to rat out their friends who talk behind your back, or record them on your iPod misbehaving and then take the evidence to the principal... nobody got it?
"I first surmised the Horse's Heads- Were toward Eternity-" -Emily D.

Because today you made one of my favorite kids in the whole school cry... for nothing. Thanks, pal. Job well done.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Away in a Manger

“Away in a manger, no crib for his bed. The little Lord Jesus, laid down his sweet head.”
It's not quite heading out into the snow to cut down a tree and carry it back on the sleigh, but yeah... I went into the balcony closet this afternoon and pulled out the fake metal tree with the built in bulbs and set it into place today.
“The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, the little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.”
The girls were bouncing off the walls with excitement. We played some Christmas music, "O Holy Night," and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!" There is nothing better than Christmas music. I could listen to it every day of the year.
“The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.”
Stringing up Christmas lights, doing homemade ornaments, coloring Santa pictures with pastels, it's cool spending such awesome times with my daughters all wrapped up in pajamas and hot cocoa.
“I love thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky, and stay by my side, till morning is nigh.”
We've got this "Twas the Night Before Christmas" book that my mom recorded her voice reading, the girls listen to it over and over.
“Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay, close by me forever, and love me I pray.”
A lot of my Taiwanese students ask about Christmas, they are not sure what it is about. The know it's not the holiday with the eggs and bunnies or the one with ghosts and pumpkins, but that's about it. In fact, usually Christmas is a working day here.
“Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there.”
I take my time explaining, try to sing some carols, explain the notions of gifts and the different versions of Santa around the world... I save the real meaning for after all that, when the pictures are drawn on the chalkboard and all the videos are shown, then I whisper it to them, how this little baby came into the world with a gift and a destiny. How it's not about the shiny lights or the fancy ribbons, how it's about love, the beginning of love introduced into the world. I think, in the end, that's what we all need, still.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

William Burroughs Thanksgiving Day Prayer

(To John Dillinger and hope he is still alive. Thanksgiving Day November 28 1986)

Thanks for the wild turkey and the passenger pigeons, destined to be shat out through wholesome American guts.
Thanks for a continent to despoil and poison. Thanks for Indians to provide a modicum of challenge and danger. Thanks for vast herds of bison to kill and skin leaving the carcasses to rot. Thanks for bounties on wolves and coyotes.
Thanks for the American dream, To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through. Thanks for the KKK. For nigger-killin' lawmen, feelin' their notches. For decent church-goin' women, with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.
Thanks for "Kill a Queer for Christ" stickers. Thanks for laboratory AIDS. Thanks for Prohibition and the war against drugs. Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind the own business. Thanks for a nation of finks.
Yes, thanks for all the memories-- all right let's see your arms! You always were a headache and you always were a bore. Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams.

Snow in Taiwan

When I was a kid I used to wake up to these magical mornings in the country, in the Colton house where it had snowed through the night and now when my eyes opened the world was covered in this silver sparkling white, this gleaming madness of powder blanketing the trees and the fields, the fence posts and the creek, the mountains and the rolling sky itself, in this perfect expanse of milky white.
You come to know it as a kid by the light through the window. It's the first thing you see. Warm on the inside, the heater turned up on high, and the cold air of the outside world creating this fog, this oven mist, calling to you, whispering that there would be no school today, no way to pass on the roads, a child's day for bundling in warm scarves and mittens, sleds hanging in the garage, rubber boots shaking in anticipation by the rickety back porch door.
I woke up this morning thinking about snow... Mom said it snowed this week out in Colton and the joy of that news just filled me with this sense of awe and sweetness. My mom is a baker of the highest quality, and so with snow comes chocolate fudge and marshmellows melting in cocoa mugs, and pies like...well, only appear in Disney movies, piping hot out of the stove with little birds crossing the crusts and leaving foot-tracks as if trailing off in the snow.
I sit in the light and read Billy Collins... he's sort of ridiculous in these moments, sipping coffee with my sweatshirt hood up over my ears like a little boy of years gone by. But there is no snow on the ground. No frosty flakes falling, no silver sweetness to salute my saliva as I catch it dropping form the sky.
But memory is strong, isn't it? I'm someone with a powerful memory, and I live in those moments as much as I can. I don't forget anything...and someday I'll have snow in the morning again. Someday, but not today.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thank You Everyone. Thank You.

You came at me today. You came at me with cards and emails and flowers and hugs.

You came at me with phone calls and texts and pictures and letters.
You came at me with drob-bys and well wishes and sit-downs and handshakes.

You called me into meetings and apologized and explained. You pulled me aside and gave me the big picture.

You brought your whole class down and gave me the love letters. You called me your hero. You said I was the best you’d ever seen. You said I was your favorite. You wrote that without me you'd leave, you’d die. You said I gave you your best day ever, that I was the reason you'd changed, that I was the reason you'd begun to share things, open yourself. You moved me. You said without me, you'd quit. You asked me not to quit too.

You took the time, you gave me the words, you let me see it in your smiles and your eyes and your hugs. You’re right. I’m not a quitter.

Today was the nicest day that I’ve had in Taiwan, and it is because of you.

You told me jokes and let me laugh, you listened to my stories and you laughed too. You let me back in, when I almost gave up.

Thank you. You gave me something today I thought I had lost. You showed me something that I thought was gone. Thank you, friends.

Turtle Fur (龟皮) and Pen 15

I don’t mind getting taken by students, I think it’s funny if the joke’s on me. The thing is, you have to get me though. If you can’t get me, or come at me in some lame way, I’ll never let you hear the end of it.
I’ve been a part of some great high school pranks over the years: hijacking rolling administrator chairs for drag races in the hall, pulling tires off rival teacher's cars, re-assembling entire classrooms out in the hallway, impromptu teacher serenades, look… school can be a monotonous place, you’ve got to lighten things up.
Pranking teachers here in Taiwan is not a good idea. Well, at least I tried a couple of times and I failed miserably. Last year, my 9th graders pranked their homeroom teacher, a thirty-year vet they affectionately called “Octopus Lips,” by sticking cell phones in the ceiling tiles of the room and vibrating them all throughout class. (Thank you, it was my idea) Of course, poor Octopus Lips is so hard of hearing that prank went over like…well, a muffled vibrating phone stuffed in asbestos… next time… we’ll stick with a tack on the chair.
Other times I’ve pranked my colleagues but that failed too. I had the kids hide in the hallway once and jump out to sing Happy Birthday, but the homeroom teacher just frowned and said something about not reminding her how old she was… total fail!
Another time we hid in the ping pong room waiting to jump out and scare the vice principal, but he never walked by, and we got scolded instead creeping back to class… epic fail!
No wonder these kids would just rather study… it’s easier.
You’d think pranking foreign teachers would be a breeze, but they take it personal too. Who knew breaking apart a motor scooter and reassembling it in the school elevator would cause such a ruckus? Or photoshopping a co-workers face onto Mao Tse Dong’s body would create a nuclear winter? Really, can’t anybody take a joke?
One of the best pranks a kid every got me on back home was just a simple phrase he conned me into writing on the board. We were in World Lit playing some game and I was dividing the class into teams: Okay, you guys on the right are one squad; you on the left are another. Now come up with a team name.
Oh… kids come up with pretty stupid team names, and that’s kind of the point: “Chocolate Lovers” and “Obama’s Kids,” it’s nothing personal, just funny names to get you through class. But this one time, a smarmy jock named “Spang” (Sorry, Sean… you’re not really smarmy!) got me to write down his suggestion for a team name: “Pen 15”
At first I thought nothing of it… “Pen 15” seamed harmless enough, but as the entire class began to collectively giggle and guffaw, I suddenly realized my mistake. Add a “dotted” hat to the top of that “one” and you’ve got… well… a pretty good joke. Well played, Mr. Spang!
The only reason I mention this is because the kids got me good this week, and I didn’t even see it coming. It all started with a plant I was given for my birthday… a little bamboo plant I keep on my desk that I wanted to give a Chinese name. Now the Taiwanese are terrible at naming things… they get a dog and think, “Hmmmm…. I will call him… dog,” or that get a black dog and think, “Hmmmm… I will call him… black dog.” So I wasn’t holding my breath… but that morning the kids came into class furious and upset and explained to me that their teacher had just harshly criticized them for not passing a crucial test. She is "Turtle Fur" they said. (龟皮)
Now, I’ve learned some pretty good Chinese from my students… words like “motorcycle” or (机车) to describe an annoying teacher who blathers on and on (no, they are not talking about me!)… or “White Wood” (白木) which describes somebody who is so stupefied that their eyes are like white wood… but I’d never heard of “Turtle Fur” before… so I thought, okay, that’s cool, let’s call the plant “Turtle Fur” in honor of NOT being harshly criticized.
Oh yeah… come to find out that Turtle Fur means… well… another kind of fuzzy stuff around the shell. Hahaha… you got me… AND yes… I am now looking for a new name for my pant. Perhaps I should just call him… Bamboo. (竹)