Some say kisses are the flowers of affection, Adding delicate details to your world of love, Bright colors and showy plumes calling Attention to your love like bouquet centerpieces; They adorn the tables at the wedding banquet, And the guests ooh and ahh at first, Then push them aside For obstructing the view and hindering Conversation.
The flowers are lovely, but never forget the roots. Keep them well watered if you want your love to flow.
I’ve known rivers: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I have read this poem many times over the years. It is in the American literature textbook I use with the juniors. I’ve always thought that it’s a good poem; there are plenty of poetic elements within its lines which the kids like to point out, and they generally like Langston Hughes, so teaching it usually meets with at least mild enthusiasm. But, it’s never been my favorite Hughes poem.
I don’t know why, but today it hit me more deeply. This morning was the second time I was teaching this poem this week. Yesterday, we read, answered questions, and discussed. It went well. But today, for some reason, the depth of the poem finally opened itself up to me. While the students were reading the poem for the first time (at least first time with me) and taking notes about what they understood, what they didn’t, what they noticed as important, I scribbled some new notes for myself, thinking again about what I wanted them to notice on this journey through the poem.
First, I wanted them to see the repetition. He writes, “I’ve known rivers” three times and the word rivers six times. But why? That’s always the difficulty–getting the students to move from pointing out to analyzing. Why should we care that the word rivers is there so often in a short poem? “It’s important.” Well, yes, but again, why? What is important about the rivers? Ultimately, the rivers are a metaphor, but for what? We’ll get to that later.
Next, I decided that the words “ancient” and “older” in the first line deserved attention. Whether due to the size of the page or an editor’s decision, the first line in our textbook is broken into two to look like this: I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. For me, this draws attention to “ancient” and “older” as well as mimics the meandering flow of a river. Additionally, that setting off of “flow of human blood in human veins” draws attention to it as well. Here the repetition of “human” also carries weight. Where else would human blood flow but in human veins? What other kind of blood but human would flow in human veins (Captain Marvell excepted)? Why the repetition? The rivers are not only “ancient” and old; they are older than humanity. They have been around in a sense forever. And anyone who has watched or read any vampire tale knows, the eternal know things.
And then the punch: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”
What finally dawned on me today is that this speaker is an old soul, a person wise beyond his years. He knows things, like the rivers do.
Then we get the section with the references to the great rivers of the world: the Euphrates which fertilized the Earth for early man; the Congo which birthed African nations; the Nile which delivered the prosperity and stability that leads to creative accomplishments; and the Mississippi which was once sullied with the slave trade but became clear as the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s conversion to abolitionism, or so the legend goes that after watching a slave auction in New Orleans, Lincoln became convinced that slavery needed to be stopped. Man’s growth, particularly Black man’s growth, is symbolized by the rivers of the world, these “dusky rivers” that flow through Asia, Africa, and North America.
“My soul has grown deep like the rivers”
Here, “deep” connotes understanding, thoughtfulness, knowledge, and perhaps also something unfathomable. How deep does one’s soul go? Back to the cradle of humanity. Back to the beginning “when dawns were young.”
This realization of the speaker’s old soul led me to research when Hughes wrote the poem, or at least published it. June 1921 in The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. He was 19 years old. An old soul indeed.
Three days ago, poet Taylor Mali posted on FB some new metaphors made up of words from some of his favorite metaphors by other poets and invited his followers to add a second line. I added a third as well:
“The soft cat feet of the heart” Pad over the spot you left vacant Trying to knead it back into shape.
His metaphor dice, now customizable, are great fun. They are a great way to kickstart your creative juices! Now we just need an online version for remote learning. Maybe a set of virtual spinning wheels?
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth. Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate, Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
Today, one day after domestic terrorists stormed the Capitol building in Washington DC as Congress met to certify the electoral votes from this past November’s election, my students and I read and reflected on this poem written by Claude McKay, an African American poet of the early 20th century. My first thought upon reading this poem was to wonder why he loves America so much even though she “feeds [him] bread of bitterness” (l. 1). What is it about this nation that inspires such love even from those she oppresses? And do the terrorists of yesterday, who call themselves patriots, feel this love for our country? I would guess that they say they do, but I’d also argue that it is not in the same way that I or McKay does.
I think it is the ideals that this nation is built upon that inspire such strong feelings: “that all men are created equal…[with the right] to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence). This proclamation of equality coupled with the ideal of freedom is enticing, enchanting even.
Now many may argue that when Thomas Jefferson wrote those words, even then, they were not true. He himself was a slave owner; how could he write such a line and still claim ownership of another person? But he did give us this line, this whole document as a foundation for our nation, and as we have grown in social consciousness, we’ve been able to realize more and more what it means.
But it’s not enough. We still have a long way to go.
Freedom and Equality are heavy words that I don’t think we truly understand yet. If we add in the French fraternite, or Brotherhood, we have a Trinity that may be as mysterious as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, or perhaps more so because we think we understand these words, but we don’t, not in their boundlessness and interconnectedness. Indeed, for some freedom and equality have become contradictory. The idea of “my freedom” negates the possiblity of equality if that personal freedom takes away the freedom of another. That is the “cultural hell” (McKay l. 4) we live in today. Yesterday’s events at the Capitol building: the breaching of walls, the destruction of federal property, the desecration of the seat of our government by terrorists who call themselves protestors, spotlight the dissonance between freedom and equality. They were “protesting” the legitimate loss of an election, claiming that the votes of the people who do not agree with them are not valid, are not equal to theirs. They want to use their freedom to assemble, a governmentally granted right, to topple the democracy, the right of every ctizen to have his or her vote count equally, of that same government.
Yet, McKay, a man subject to segregation and discrimination throughout his life, still loved America. I still love America. Why? McKay notes that America’s “vigor flows like tides into my blood/Giving me strength erect against her hate” (ll. 5-6). These ideals that America is built on fuel us, make us strong so that we can stand up against the failure in practice of those ideals. I can only hope that we can hold onto some of that love for the greatness that America could be, an America truly built on freedom and equality “with not a shred/Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer” (McKay ll. 9-10).
Yesterday proves that we are not there yet, nor is the path there easy, so “Darkly, I gaze into the days ahead” (McKay l. 11) hoping not to see America’s promise “Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand” (McKay l. 14).
I told my students that in times like these we turn to literature. We read to help us make sense of our feelings. We write to express them. And hopefully, by sharing our perspectives in poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, we move America closer to understanding and equality, which is true freedom.
Are you a journaler? I’ve tried to be, several times, but it never quite seems to take. Much like this blog, I start out strong and then taper off, then start again, and taper, and so on. I’m always a little in awe of those who journal regularly. I do, however, have a little addiction to buying blank books. Every gift shop has the most appealing blank books calling out to me, yearning to be filled.
My most successful attempts at journaling have always been while traveling. I’m definitely more dedicated to, if not daily at least regular, musings. Of course, some of these are rather mundane accounts of where I went, what I saw, and what I ate, but others are more historical and philosophical as I reflect on the days events. The best travel journal I ever kept, however, I didn’t keep at all. Instead of recording my thoughts in a charming blank book, I wrote letters to my mother and posted them from Europe on a regular basis. Talking to someone else, rather than myself in a journal, inspired me. My mother could tell that this was my journal of sorts, but they were also missives to her, detailed and chatty.
Lately, I’ve been doing a different kind of journaling, well different from the above at least; I do this kind of journaling, it seems, at the beginning of every school year. Once a week, I give my students a prompt. In exchange for not having to worry about grammar, spelling, and punctuation, they have to write non-stop for ten minutes. I want them to expand their thinking and free their writing; I want them to go beyond the quick two sentence answer to the question. I want them to see that they can write more. And then, I show them how it’s done. I write with them.
The funny thing is that I write in response to that same prompt four times over the course of the week, two one day two the next, as I present it to four different classes. Sometimes I just keep going, picking up where I left off in the last class; other times, I go off on tangents. This week we were responding to Vijay Seshadri’s “Memoir,”particularly the lines that “the real story of a life is the story of its/humiliations.” The students were asked to agree or disagree. I began my scribblings only to find myself off on a tangent about the book I’m currently reading (Foursome: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Strand, and Rebecca Salsbury by Carolyn Burke) and what those people might think about humiliations which naturally led to musings about whether they could be humiliated at all to Burke’s writing style to…to…to… You see how it goes. And honestly, if my students go off on tangents like this, I don’t mind–as long as they keep writing for the full ten minutes. Follow the thoughts where they flow.
So I guess, this is my type of journalling. Forget about what I ate-give me a prompt and set me free. Then, I still have reason to buy those blank books!
I’ve been absent on this page for a couple of months now. I apologize. But I’m sure you all have had your routines and activities change this year. And sometimes it’s even things we love fall by the wayside. In my last post, I addressed the fact that I was not reading as much as I usually do once I started working from home. Following that post, I made more of a concerted effort to read, and I did finish a few really good books. My mother, a couple of friends, and I even started a virtual book club! It still wasn’t as much as I would normally read, but it was more than I had been doing in previous months. And now, I’m back to commuting (more on that in a minute), so I hope to pick up the pace even more. I doubt I’ll make my Goodreads goal for the year, but at least I’ll get closer.
Writing is another love that fell by the wayside as a result of the pandemic. Well, not entirely. But this blog did suffer. During the four months of teaching on a virtual platform last spring, I wrote alongside my students. We were all entering a new edu-verse and needed to explore it together. But that kind of writing is different from my stories, poems, and blog posts. At the end of the school day, which extended quite a bit longer than the normal school day, I was too exhausted to write more. But summer was coming, and by golly I was going to finally finish that novel!
Until I slipped, fell, and broke a rib. Ouch. And more ouch. It really did take two months of not doing much to heal.
But, you might say, you don’t use your rib to write. True enough, but the pain of breathing with a broken rib kidnaps your concentration. And the desk chair seemed suddenly to be made of nothing more than open springs competing to jar my broken body. (Slight hyperbole here, but I like the sentence!)
But now, I’m back, as the title and the song says, “back in the New York groove.” My school is going with the hybrid model for now, so I’m back on trains and subways and commuting into the City every day. The trains are less populated and most people wear masks, but we’re back. And so I’m reading and writing again!
Today I also took my first walk across Central Park in at least six months. That was a treasured part of my afternoon commute which I lost when we started working from home. Today, there were fewer people, and more people felt (foolishly imho) freer to remove their masks, but not so many as to make the trip unpleasant. In fact, the former point is particularly nice when you’re walking through a usually crowded area, like above Strawberry Fields where the John Lennon “Imagine” mosaic is located. I’ve never taken a picture of it before because it is always swamped with tourists.
And as in pre-pandemic times, there is always something interesting going on in Central Park. Maybe this display is a holdover from the virtual New York Fashion Week which ended yesterday. I didn’t go close enough to find out.
All around the park, the flowers were blooming and the lamps were lit though it was just about 3 o’clock. Bethesda Fountain, another popular tourist spot, wasn’t entirely empty, but I still had a pretty clear view for a selfie!
It was a good walk that I look forward to taking many, many times in the future, and maybe even one day, I won’t even need a mask!
While many of my friends made great headway through their TBR stacks during our COVID-19 stay-at-home time, I found it difficult to read for pleasure. My usual reading time is on my commute. Except on rare occasions, I would not do work on the train; rather, I would read a book for pleasure, usually something that I was not even teaching at the time. Staying at home took that time away from me; so, while there is a definite benefit of not traveling an hour to an hour and a half each way to work every day, there is also the loss of that time to sit (or stand) on the train and be transported to another world. A transportation I found refreshing and rejuvenating even in a crowded subway car.
Additionally, there was the transition to working from home. I teach high school English, and my school lost almost no time in the transition from traditional to home-based learning. We dismissed the students after a half-day of classes on Friday, March 13th (so ominous, yet we really had no idea how much so) and proceeded to a faculty meeting to learn how to use Google Meet and other online learning apps. Then we packed up our things expecting to be out of the building for a week or two and headed home. The subway was eerily empty for a Friday at 5pm. Again, we had no idea…
Monday, March 16th dawned a new day in my educational career, and I took it on. I met with each of my classes for an hour and a half once a week (except for AP English Lit which met twice a week), and during those live Meets, I conducted class almost as if we were in the Classroom together. We read stories together, students either volunteering to read a paragraph or two or being called upon when I hadn’t heard from them in a while, and I asked close reading questions both aloud and in writing on the Google Classroom. I tried to keep it as much like our days in the school building as I could. Our daily warm up activities became Classroom assignments during our off days and our Meets were times of close reading and discussion. And it worked.
But. There’s always a “but.” But, most of my students live in busy households with many people trying to work and go to school from home, so most of the time their responses were on the chat or on the Classroom. And, quick, multiple-choice comprehension quiz before discussion became less valid, so more and more of the assignments were writing based. I mean, this is an English class, so many of our assignments were writing based anyway, but now the discussion was too. And class participation became more and more important because I could no longer see who was drifting away from lesson, both figuratively and literally. Most of my students also kept their cameras off, so I was teaching to their avatars. I found that instead of gaining that commuting time to myself, instead it was folded right into my teaching time. I was working longer hours than ever reading their discussion responses and creating lessons for the next day. When two weeks turned into three, into a month, I was recreating the wheel in some cases as I hadn’t brought all my files home with me in March. No one expected then that we would finish out the school year online. It didn’t help matters any that our school servers had been attacked by ransomware earlier in the year. Only now was I realizing what hadn’t been uploaded to Google Drive before that happened.
After a week or two of online teaching, my husband’s job at a local private golf course was suspended. I sequestered myself in the second bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment which had become my classroom and office while he languished in the living room. When I’d emerge, he was more than ready for human interaction. As was I. I love my students, but it was difficult not seeing them nor hearing from them. And some days, I might have only one or no classes, the rest of my time devoted to reading their work and creating new lessons and researching new ways to keep them engaged online. I was more than ready to turn off the computer and spend time with him rather than open a book–or worse because it is another screen, my Kindle. We’d talk, make dinner together, play cards–one very competitive game of Uno went into the wee hours of the morning. And this was good.
Until it wasn’t. I’m not talking about the time with my husband–that was still great, but I was spending too much of my day on schoolwork and not enough on taking care of myself. I was so worried about how my kids were doing that I didn’t stop to think how I was doing. (See my guest post on Norton’s K-12Talk blog about my solution.) So when a friend recommended a book to me, A Discovery of Witches, I decided to download it from the library and give it a go. It seemed right up my alley: witches, vampires, and the Bodleian library in Oxford. Right away I was drawn into the story. I still didn’t take as much time as I should have to just read, almost forgetting how rejuvenating it is to the mind, but I was starting.
Then, the loan ran out and I had to wait for the renewal, but I did. And I renewed again and again till I finished. And I’m glad I did. It is an excellent adventure of witches, vampires, and daemons, and academia, and love, and loving the “right” kind of person. It’s well worth the time. I’m looking forward (with some trepidation thanks to a hint near the end of the book) to volume two. But what I’ve learned through all this is something I’ve innately known, but, having never vocalized it, perhaps didn’t realize soon enough.
Reading is an important part of one’s mental health. I tend to favor fiction, but it doesn’t have to be, though I think perhaps we’ll leave out current events here. Reading allows your mind to take you somewhere else, to set you on experiences you may never have, and to experience dangerous things safely. It is not something to do half-heartedly; to read something, you need to give it your focus and–here’s the mental health angle–let go of your concerns for the time being. Your subconscious mind can keep picking at that knot, but you give your conscious mind a break, and as a result, your anxiety is lifted, maybe before you even knew you had some. And while you may never be a witch or a vampire, your mind still absorbs the way the characters–in this case, for example, different species in an uneasy, deeply suspicious, and ill-informed detente–interact and eventually learn from and about each other, and adds that to your experience of human interaction. The wider our reading, the more open our minds are to the experiences of others. Think about that in this time of racial unrest.
Many people look on reading as frivolous or selfish, but it’s not. It’s as necessary to a healthy mind as exercise is to the body. And to those who say they “don’t like to read,” I say, you just haven’t found the right book yet. Drop your guard, open your mind, and read. You won’t regret it.
Say their names as you scramble your eggs, as you walk to grab your coffee, as you start your work day. Say their names when you hug your mom or your son or your neighbor or your uncle. Say their names as you end your day in bed with your partner. Say their name when you start your car or brush your teeth. When you say your prayers say their names. When you preach. When you teach. When you dance. Or cry. Or talk to your grandmother. Or the cop who pulls you over. Just keep saying their names until this ends and even then chant them out loud. Burn your incense, light your candles, and say their names.
As we let those names linger in our air, let us also remember that, “Since Jan. 1, 2015, 1,252 black people have been shot and killed by police, according to The…