Saturday, April 25, 2015

Inch Sixty (Five Feet!): Sticking a Net Into Time

Sometimes there are too many topics, potential blog posts all, rushing through my head. There are only six days of National Poetry Month left, counting today, and I spend a great deal of time mentally and physically selecting my favorite poems to offer on Facebook.

What an idea! My favorite poems? I might as well walk outside at night, stare up at the sky, and select my favorite stars. Or stand under the Bradford pear in the backyard and choose my favorite blossom of the hundreds on the tree.

But the stars and the blossoms: there's the thread on which I will hang today's post.

I have noticed a difference in recent months. I have an increased awareness of time slipping through my fingers. I am like a child trying to grasp a handful of water or sand, unable to stop its draining out no matter how tight I hold my fist.

Ben and Alise and Ramona gave me the gift of writing this past Chirstmas: a box of notecards, a Decomposition book, and a bound journal with a magnetic clasp and a silvery, ornate cover. Recently I started using the journal. I am not journaling in the traditional sense of noting my thoughts or the events of the day. Instead, I find myself writing observations of the outdoors: the thin, silvery sliver of a new moon, the icy coating on a rudbeckia leaf when it frosted earlier this week,  a chilly morning walk yesterday and gazing at the sky so intensely blue that it hurt my heart to look at it. This is what I am capturing in my journal: the small moments of time and the world.

Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, wrote "I want to stick my net into time and say 'now' as men plant flags on the ice and snow and say 'here.'" I have been carrying that quote around with me for almost three decades.

My journal notes are my net and my "now." They are my flag and my "here."

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Inch Fifty-Nine: On Poetry

April is National Poetry Month and I am sad to see the end of it coming ever closer. In past Aprils, I have called attention to NPM in this blog and one year I even went out on a limb (a very long and shaky one) to post poems of my own in celebration.

This year I am celebrating by posting a poem or poem fragment a day on Facebook. Some days are dedicated to friends and family: "The Art of Disappearing" by Naomi Shihab Nye for my friend Margo, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" by John Keats for my friend David, "Arithmetic" by Carl Sandburg for Sam, "in Just-" by E. E. Cummings for Ben. And some days I have posted advertising campaigns that used poetry excerpts brilliantly: this one by AIG (T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock") and this one by Xbox One ("Invictus" by William Ernest Henley).

So many poems, so little time.

I am married to a poetry adverse individual, a pronounced flaw in an otherwise wonderful man. It is one I am willing to overlook because Warren and I are so well-suited in so many other fundamental and essential ways, but I look at him and wonder "what teacher at what grade did you in?" (Listening to his recitation of English teachers from junior high on, I'm pretty sure I know who the culprit was.)

Poetry, like music, like art, is in fair danger of disappearing entirely from our schools. While Ohio's Model Learning Standards for Language Arts pay lip service to poetry, the reality is that poetry is being eradicated line by line from many school curriculums, not by choice but out of necessity. There is no time or place for the luxury of poetry. It is a frill that does not fit neatly into our standardized test world of modern education, and, as students, parents, and teachers alike will confirm, we are teaching to the test. Small wonder that when a number of teenagers broke into and vandalized Robert Frost's farmhouse in December, 2007, few of the offenders knew who Robert Frost was.

The Gradgrinds of the world would approve of eliminating poetry in its entirety. They adopt as their mission their founder's famous words: "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else...Stick to Facts, Sir!"

It is that kind of inside-the-very-narrow-box thinking that I rebel against. It is that attitude that makes me look forward to every April, when thousands of us across the land wave the bright flag of Poetry wide and high. (Thank you, Robert Hunter, poet deluxe.)

A world without poetry would be an empty and bleak world indeed. Warren may say he disagrees, but when the poetry goes, so do the song lyrics, including his beloved Emerson Lake & Palmer.

The Academy of American Poets (the driving force behind National Poetry Month) has designated this April 30 as Poem in Your Pocket Day. (The day varies each year, but not the sentiment behind it.) Mark it on your calendar now so you don't miss it.

The world needs every poem it can get.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Inch Fifty-Eight: A Place at the Table

Monday night I attended a seder, the Jewish ritual meal for Passover, at Ohio Wesleyan, our local college. It was not a traditional seder, nor even a full seder, but it had the structure of a seder and that was a good start. The OWU seder is offered in part for its very small Jewish student population and in part for non-Jewish members of the greater Delaware community who wish to experience a seder.

It was the first time I had been at a seder in 27 or 28 years.

The first person I met when I arrived was Jessica, the associate chaplain and rabbinic student, who was the driving force behind the event. We'd exchanged emails prior to the seder but nothing prepared me to come face to face with someone in my age bracket.

Students drifted in, along with a lot of adults from the community. None of the adults were Jewish (I knew all but one, and I ended up sitting next to her at the seder, so got to know her religious beliefs early on). Of the students, I would estimate perhaps a third to half were Jewish, with the rest coming from the campus Interfaith House or just coming along out of curiosity or friendship.

It was so odd to be outnumbered at a seder by the non-Jews.

Since I last attended a seder, there have been new additions to the seder ceremony. (By "new," I mean changes that I had never experienced, although the changes date back almost 30 years themselves.) A seder table always has a filled wine cup for Elijah the Prophet. Our table also contained an empty wineglass for Miriam the Prophetess. The glass was passed along the table and each of us emptied a teaspoon of water into the glass to honor Miriam and her well, which miraculously accompanied the Jewish people during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. And the seder plate, which holds ritual objects (a roasted lamb shank, maror (bitter herbs), haroset, matzoh), also now holds an orange. The orange was introduced to recognize and include the Jewish LGBT community. Both of these changes resonated with me.

I had forgotten the flavors of a seder. There were bowls of haroset every three to four plates. Haroset is a mixture of chopped apples and chopped nuts, flavored with cinnamon and bound together with grape juice or, more traditionally, kosher grape (sweet) wine. Haroset symbolizes the mortar the Jews made bricks with when they were slaves in Egypt.  In the course of the seder, you not only eat the haroset, but you also eat a Hillel sandwich, which is haroset and maror (traditionally horseradish) between two pieces of matzoh.

I had forgotten the sting and sweetness of the Hillel sandwich. And I had forgotten how addicting haroset is. I wasn't the only one who felt that way. The young woman next to me and I kept returning to the haroset bowl, which she had moved to be between the two of us. "I love haroset," she said, smiling as she spooned some more onto her plate. "It's my favorite food at seder."

Passover is the festival of freedom. The intertwined issues of slavery and freedom have always played the key role in the haggadah, the text followed during the seder. Now issues of social justice—poverty, hunger, inequality, homelessness, modern slavery—also are part of the telling. We did not use printed haggadahs, but instead had readings that took us through the order of a seder.  As Jessica explained, Jews are supposed to tell the Passover story as if it is happening now, not just reciting something that happened long ago. I am eager to participate in a modern seder that contains this new overlay.

After the seder concluded, I talked with Jessica for several minutes, long enough for us to say we had to stay in touch. Her immediate recognition of the All-of-a-Kind Family books ("Of course I read them! I'm 50!") made for a quick bond, one which we hope to grow over coffee and conversation in the coming weeks.

Warren asked me when I came home if I had a good seder experience. "It was more of a seder outline," I said, but added that I was satisfied. For the first time back at the table, it was a sweet reunion.

You traditionally end a seder with the words "next year in Jerusalem," an element that was omitted Monday night. I already know what I want next year. Next year I want to attend a full blown seder or even host one myself. I want to make the haroset, I want to bring the desserts.

Next year in Jerusalem. Next year a seder. Next year a place at the table.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Inch Fifty-Six: Break

I have the next three days off from Juvenile Court, a prospect so glorious I glow just writing that sentence.

Don't get me wrong. I love my job. I'm just tired. A significant part of my job is mediating truancy matters in our county and city school districts, and this is a busy time. "Truancy season," I call it. March is typically the most grueling month of the season and this March has been no exception. This year, the four different districts are holding their spring breaks over three different weeks, and the only days I could squeeze some time out of without throwing my mediation calendar into total disarray are the next three.

I don't mind. I'll take them. Gladly. March has been a hard haul on top of it being the core of truancy season. There have been concerts, there have been rehearsals. There are oncology issues. There is the special court project I am contract advisor to, which I am finalizing for submission to the Ohio Supreme Court for its blessing. There are pressing legal clinic matters.

There have been too many too long days and I need a break.

Spring is struggling to gain a toehold around here.  Some spring flowers, frost-burnt on the tips, are trying to bud. The brutal cold of this year appears to have killed off this year's forsythia and we will have to wait to see that burst of yellow come again. My good friend Judy reports that the bamboo in her yard is dead and will need to be cut down to regenerate. After hearing that, I came home and looked in the kitchen garden, where we'd planted some late summer purchases to winter over. I feared the worst and was heartened to see green shoots coming up where we'd heeled in the plants last September. I am looking forward to walking around town over the next few days and seeing just where the season stands.

I wrote this post Tuesday night after a 9 hour day at work, after scheduling another nine truancy mediations after scheduling another six or seven just days before. A small bread pudding was baking, one made frugally from the stub ends of a loaf of Italian bread and one lone biscuit. I had a new book opened on my lap, The Selected Letters of Langston Hughes, a favorite poet of mine. I was meeting a friend for coffee in the morning, and the rest of Wednesday, indeed, the next three days, stretched out luxuriously in front of me.

It is early Wednesday afternoon as I type this. The bread pudding was delicious, the letters are engaging, my friend and I talked long and laughed a lot. I may take a walk after I post this and just savor the time. The sun is shining, National Poetry month is upon us, I have a break, and all's right in the world.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Inch Fifty-Five: Cousins

My sons' cousin Eric, who on the paternal side of their family tree is the closest in age to them, has been in Portland with his wife and little daughter for a few days this week. Frida is about nine or ten months younger than Ramona and the two of them have had a lot of time together judging by what I see on Facebook.

Eric is about 18 months older than Ben, and they had their cousin moments when they were little. It warms my heart to see their daughters now starting down the path of cousin bonding. I made copies of the Facebook photos and sent them to my dear friend Coco (Eric's mother) with a note about how thrilled I was to see our grandchildren coming together.

Like fathers...

On my mom's side of the family, there were 27 or 28 first cousins, my brothers and I being among the youngest of the brood. (In fact, my two younger brothers and I are the youngest, and have cousins whose children are closer in age to us.) On my dad's side, there are no first cousins (his sole sibling had no children) but dad had a generous handful of cousins whose ages ranged from older than him to about my age, and children of those cousins who were my age and younger.


I was awash in cousins. At reunions and other gatherings of all kinds, we cousins would come together in clumps, the younger ones playing together outdoors or at the creek or climbing trees or just running in circles making up wild games. The older ones who were not yet adults would stand around swilling pop (soda to all you others out there), cracking jokes and avoiding the elders. There were good times and rich memories.

Cousins are the ornamentation—the braided trim, the novelty buttons—on the family fabric. Cousins are Sandra Kay recounting 50 years later that my brother Mark spit up all over her the first time she held him as a baby. Cousins are Brent telling me about the dead silence in the room when my parents came home after eloping and made their announcement to my mom's father.

When my boys were little, they too were immersed in cousins at the Sanchez gatherings and I got to see a lot of their own cousin moments. Cousins are Eric and Ben poring over an electronic game. Cousins are Ben (not yet four then) dancing at his cousin Coquis's wedding. Cousins are Sam being dared by George to eat a Tommy's pepper as a Los Angeles rite of male passage and receiving a glass of milk and a hearty slap on the back for downing the fiery thing. daughters. 

Frida and Ramona will not likely remember their early days other than seeing a picture someday in the future. But they are already adding trimmings and notions—a sparkly button here, an embroidered patch there—to the vast family fabric.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Inch Fifty-Four: Leaving the Woods

Naturalist and essayist Henry Thoreau famously left his home in Concord, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1845, built a small cottage on the banks of Walden Pond, which was a little more than a mile away from the village, and lived there for the next two years. He went to the woods as an experiment, because he "wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach." Thoreau did not want to reach the end of his life and discover he "had not lived." His book Walden details his experiment.

Thoreau did not stay exclusively at the pond, but often walked the short distance back to Concord to visit family and friends. Finally, he left the woods permanently in 1847 and moved back to town. He writes of his decision eloquently: "I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there. Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one."

I always had a strong fondness for Thoreau, although I was well into adulthood before I read Walden cover to cover. (For a long time, I liked the idea of reading Walden better than actually reading it.) Once I made it through the book, it became one of those I returned to and reread every few years, well, at least up until I lent my copy to someone and never saw it again.

Walden is on my mind because I just came out of the woods myself.

Nine and a half years ago, I placed my Ohio license to practice law on inactive status. I'd just undergone a tandem stem cell transplant and I was in no condition to return to my office, let alone advise anyone. By moving my license to inactive status, I gave up the right to practice law, but left the door open should I change my mind.

I have never regretted that decision. While I generally enjoyed practicing law in those town, leaving all of that behind was easy. I was done being a lawyer.

So why did I recently reactivate my license?

A couple of reasons, the primary one being that I am working on another special court project for my good friend and former employer, Judge David Sunderman of the Delaware Municipal Court. (This is in addition to my position as a mediator with our county Juvenile Court, at which I recently passed my fourth anniversary as a staff member.) I am creating a new treatment court, and as I draft the foundational documents of the court, I felt that I was practicing law, especially once I started working closely on procedural matters with the new court coordinator. Practicing law was a luxury denied me with an inactive license and the Ohio Supremes tend to frown on that.

A murkier reason for reactivating my license is that we have changed administrations at our Juvenile Court. We have a newly elected judge, a generation plus younger than the previous one. (Ohio has mandatory retirement for judges: they may not run for reelection after they turn 70.) There is the dazzling potential for transforming the court in new and positive ways. Some court staffers, Machiavellian to the core, have been trying to position themselves in the new era, working harder to position themselves than any small town political boss ever did. My license is both a sword and a shield to keep me out of the internal politics.

I am not returning ever to the practice of law. (For those local friends reading this, read that sentence again. I am not practicing law again, period.) I love working at Juvenile Court, especially the aspects of my job that allow me to work with juveniles, and my only unmet goals at Court involve creating new programs that may never see the light of day, let alone come to fruition.

But I have left the woods for the same reason Thoreau gave 168 years ago. I could not spare any more time to keep the license shelved, and it seemed to me that I still have several more lives to live.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Inch Fifty-Three: Back

It is raining as I pen these words late Friday afternoon. It has been raining since early afternoon and the day is gray and wet. The tree branches are dripping, puddles are spreading across the sidewalk.

After bemoaning our horrific winter and doubting that spring would ever come, I was cautiously optimistic when the vicious cold suddenly broke earlier this week. Sun and rain and temperatures in the 50s have filled the creeks and rivers and melted much of the snow. The large bulldozed piles in parking lots and the smaller shoveled piles lining driveways still remain, but yards and fields are emerging everywhere.

I hung suet blocks in the dogwood tree out back earlier this winter, but until this week, the blocks were untouched, frozen solid. I don't know how the birds survived this winter. Many days were still and silent without any indication that there was a bird left alive in the bleak landscape. Now when I step outside in the morning, I hear a flurry of birds calling and singing. Today's rain has quieted some of that chorus, but there is no doubt the birds are out there.

As I sit here writing, I see a downy woodpecker working over the suet cake. Downies are small birds, mostly black and white. I like to watch them after they finish eating, as they often jump or fly to the tree trunk and then hop their way to the top before flying away.

The dogwood tree is right outside the kitchen. Washing dishes yesterday, I looked up to see a downy finish its meal and hop up the tree, only to be replaced at the suet feeder by a red-bellied woodpecker. I watched them, all thoughts of dishes temporarily set aside, until the downy had hopped up out of sight and the other had flown away.

There is something timeless about standing at a sink with your hands in the dishpan, watching spring return to the backyard.

Later last evening, I met up with a friend and took a walk, my first local walk of 2015 that was more than just hurrying from the car to a building or back again. We were deep in conversation when I suddenly stopped listening to my friend's voice and listened to the sky. A skein of geese was veeing to the north and the faraway sound of honking caught my ear and my attention.

The birds are back.