Poetry, Readings/Events, teaching

“The Poet’s Dream:” The 2020 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival (October 22-November 1)

In October 1986, I was a high school student in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, and attended the first Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in the village of Waterloo.

My family lived in Cherry Hill for two years when my dad was stationed at the Naval shipyard in Philadelphia. It was difficult time for teenage me, a time of struggle and growth. I was caught shoplifting. I smoked pot for the first time. We were renting a house in a neighborhood that wasn’t really accustomed to welcoming “new folks,” and for most of my first months of school at Cherry Hill High School East, nobody at the bus stop would talk to me. And I was too shy to talk to them. I was used to living either on a Navy base or in a neighborhood near enough to a large enough Navy base that there were lots of new kids every year, and we just kind of knew how to be with one another.

But eventually, at this supremely well-resourced public school, I found teachers and peers who were “my people.” Miss Beck and Mr. LaVoie, in particular, and the students I met in their English and Creative Writing classes, were, finally, such a source of connection. I also found a weekend program, the New Jersey School of the Arts, hosted at the then Glassboro State College, where I connected pretty intensely with three other young writers.

That first Friday of the Festival was specifically organized for students and teachers, and free to attend — and that access to poetry and its communities has always been a part of the Festival’s ethos and mission. It continues this year — you can get a free all-access pass if you are a student or educator. They are also offering their standard all-access pass as “pay-what-you-can,” and a free version for live-streaming and discussion groups only. I’m hoping to encourage some of the writing students I’m currently working with to register and attend.

Looking at this year’s amazing Festival schedule, I see so many poets whose work I love and admire, I see old friends and acquaintances and teachers from various parts of my poetry life. I see necessary themes and conversations.

Access to programs and events like the Dodge Festival, the NJ School of the Arts, and others really shaped and helped me, especially during certain periods of my life. Now, in 2020, access online to an overwhelming variety of readings and talks has been, for me, another nourishing source of connection and hope and help. I am so grateful the Dodge Festival endures, and if you can, I encourage you to join me in financially supporting this work. If the financial support isn’t an option, consider spreading the word and, of course, participating in the Festival.

If it’s back in person next year for the 35th (contingent upon so many other urgent “ifs”), I might have to head down there, as I can imagine the Festival serving as a good emerging-from-pandemic-isolation (please please please) experience. A poet can dream.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Practice/Versions/Revisions/Rehearsals

I often think of and describe my dad as a “poster child” for a conventional/idealized U.S. middle-to-upper-middle class vision of retirement for his cohort — the “silent generation.” After thirty years in the Navy, which included a tour in Vietnam, unaccompanied deployment with the Seabees, and running the Public Works Center at the Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines, he was able to retire. He and my mom moved back to Washington State, where he had worked to help build the Bangor Trident Submarine Base on the Hood Canal — we lived there for three years when I was in elementary school. They liked the area, and had retired Navy friends there, and so they made one last cross-country move and landed outside of Poulsbo, right up the Hood Canal from the sub base, on a piece of land where my dad designed and supervised the construction of the last house he’d ever live in, after a life of moving every one to three years, due not only to his own itinerant military career, but also to his father’s thirty years in the Navy.

My dad’s birthday is coming up in early October, and then, the fifth anniversary of his death at the very beginning of November. I have, in my adult life, resisted anniversaries of all kinds, have been skeptical and even cynical about them, not sure why, but a part of me also enjoys certain rituals and traditions. The approaching of the fifth year “mark” of my dad’s sudden and unexpected death is on my mind. I wonder if my urge to commemorate is related to the pandemic, to the way the pandemic has altered — is altering –my relationship to time, to the passing of it, the measuring and marking of it, its role in how I try to live and comprehend my life. Many usual markers — many having to do with work, but also having to do with the rhythms of social and personal life — are radically altered or gone. So maybe how I feel about the role of ritual, of the intentional marking of time, which used to seem to mark itself (?), is changed and changing.

I opened this piece by asserting that my dad was a retirement “poster child” because he was such a good hobbyist. He Kept Busy. He made artful, precise scratch- and kit-built model ships. He took up the Appalachian mountain dulcimer. And he took up watercolor painting. Or, more precisely, in retirement he was able to dedicate himself more fully to even deeper pursuit and practice of these avocations to which he had been called, to varying degrees, before he actually retired.

I am interested in this turn of phrase, to “take” something “up.” I picture a person gathering something into their arms, maybe lifting it a bit? To take something “on” is to “begin to do” something, according to etymonline.com. I can’t find an entry there for “take up” but it feels to me like a step past “taking on.” In this thread, “take on” is described as more “burdensome,” hinting at an obligation, a challenge, or maybe at something adversarial, whereas “take up” is more of a free choice, maybe a chance at pleasure?

Now that I think about it more, I’d say my dad took on “taking up” as a retiree, for sure. As if it was his obligation (his new “job?”) to “pursue interests.” His obligation to enjoy them deeply. To not squander his opportunity. He probably wouldn’t have called it privilege, but it sure seems like privilege, that leisure.

My dad was not a mere dabbler in any of these three major avocations. He took them on and up with a patient seriousness of purpose, such a long-game for learning. He was a faithful practitioner, a “practicer.” My dad believed, I think, in mastery, but also, I think, he was patient about not achieving it. Especially with the painting, he put in the process and practice work. I wonder if this is related at all to the fact that both his sister and his mother were accomplished, “professional” artists. When he died, I already had a framed painting of his — my favorite from among a half-dozen or so from which he asked me to choose — hanging in my house in New Hampshire. (Also on the wall, a painting by my grandmother, and one by my aunt.)

But when my mom asked if I wanted any of the … dozens? hundreds? of stiff sheets of watercolor work he’d left behind, I didn’t look for another finished piece to hang on my wall. I was mostly drawn instead to the artifacts of his process, his practice.

There was even more of this stuff — and I took more than I’ve pictured here. His careful study documented. His practice, his learning, his trying, preserved here in these patches of color, these “tests.” And there were also a few starts or “drafts” I snagged. Though I guess I have no business saying what part of his process they represent or occupy.

Here’s my dad’s finished painting on my wall, the one I chose when he asked me to choose:

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In the work he left behind, I found two versions — shall I call them sketches? attempts? perhaps rehearsals? — of the same scene. I am fascinated by them. I look and look at them.

It’s like seeing a little bit through his eyes, or so I tell myself, in this moment, trying that notion out in these words, this draft of an idea. A version. Not a commitment, even though putting the words into the white void sometimes can feel like signing a contract. Not so, not so. There are more words, different shades of the same idea, different ideas. Time passes through ideas/ideas pass through time.

Here are the two versions/drafts of the painting:

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I look at these and I think: rehearsal. Practice. Getting to know the materials. Getting to know one’s own vision as enacted by brush strokes, color choices, quantity of water.

How do you rehearse for the “final version?” When do you know the final is the final? Is the version on my wall “finished” because it is framed, because it’s displayed? My dad is the one who decreed it finished, who had it framed as a gift for me. Also — he was finished — is forever finished — painting versions of the work. There will be no further work. So, in some literal sense, this is the “final” in a series. But I guess I’m asking, wondering, why even care about “finality?” I’m not sure.

These questions are ones I ask myself from time to time, and which I encourage my writing students to ask themselves and one another. They are sort of unanswerable. I try to talk with students sometimes about the difference between BEING finished WITH something (for now?) and a THING being FINISHED, though is that even a real distinction? And of course for writers I work with in university classes, the constraints of a “semester” which ENDS (and then a new one begins!) influence the pace and timing of composing, reflecting, and revising.

If to begin a thing is to “take it up,” might “finishing” be an act of “putting down?” (Sometimes we describe acts of writing as “putting (something) down” on paper. We also sometimes use the expression, “to write down,” not just “to write.” “Write down these instructions.” What is “up” in that figuring?)

What shall I do with these versions of revision? These versions of my dad’s vision? These transcripts of his trying? These archived attempts? What story of painting, of learning, of testing materials and gestures, do I want them to serve? What story of my father do I want them to serve?

It must be a kind of revision when I write about my dad in certain ways, certain genres, on certain days. Re-vision as I re-member him when he is dead and I am fifty, as opposed to when I was thirty and he was still living. Revision if I make it past the age he was when he died a few years ago to remember him again, remember him differently. I am thinking again, still, of time — how my thinking about my father recently is connected to the time of year, to the passage of time, to the commemorations of “birthday” and “day of death.” To my own aging. And so I think also of how re-vision feels connected to the passages of time, the duration and pace (of the poem, of the world swirling around the poem, of the before-poem and during-poem and after-poem), the shapes and textures we call time, those marks of it we make. Marks like clock numbers, like brush strokes, like words.

I wish he were here to ask; I’m sure he’d have things to say about the flaws of the versions of his painting — their failures, their incompleteness. And yet, the materials and technique — watercolor — he uses in this painting feel so….resistant to completeness. The painting edges up into what feels to me like a kind of minimalism when I imagine practicing what I see as a skilled kind of restraint. What I mean is, the few times I’ve tried seriously to draw or paint, I think my fatal flaw is not stopping soon enough. I was told this once (kindly, I think) by an art teacher. I look at the framed painting and wonder if the reason he framed it, named it finished, and not the others, is his feeling that he stopped painting at just the right moment? I don’t know. Probably if I’d found all three versions in the huge stack of his work, I wouldn’t be so certain which was the “final draft.” Which one I would have chosen to have professionally framed, which two relegate to the closet archives?

For the most part, I save no such archives myself — most of my versions disappear in the wake of revision — my rehearsals in the form of sequences of drafts are mostly ephemeral. There are exceptions, but most of the saved work is printed out and annotated, and is in a folder of “unfinished” stuff I mean to get back to.

Except that some poems I write are of course revisions/versions of poems I’ve already “finished,” or of “a poem” I keep writing and (re) writing and may never finish. And so maybe some poems are rehearsals only I don’t know they are rehearsals.

Or maybe many or maybe all my poems are rehearsals of some kind.

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Thinking about the “Backchannel”

Was in Zoom webinar conversation yesterday with faculty and staff colleagues about the “chat” function in Zoom being a kind of backchanneling that some folks found great/helpful/fun and others found overwhelming/distracting/not fun. We had a general conversation of different kinds of “backchanneling,” like, for instance, live-tweeting a conference presentation or class or other live/f2f event. We talked about access, distraction, engagement, etc.

We were asked to actually take a VOTE about whether we wanted to continue (in our synchronous/Zoom professional development sessions) to keep the Zoom chat live/open, or to have a separate (on Microsoft Teams) backchannel. We were also, of course, and more importantly, asked to think about this stuff with respect to the university courses we would be teaching in online and hybrid formats in the fall. We ran out of talking time, but were invited to reflect further. So I did.

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In our conversation, I mentioned being reminded of Robert Brooke’s notion of “underlife” in the writing classroom. Here’s a wee summary, and here’s a link to the original scholarship (man, that was a long time ago!).

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Channels are interesting to think about metaphorically. I think of water flowing – how a river might split into smaller channels and then rejoin. The English Channel (swim it! put a chunnel under it!).

A channel can be a (alternative? unplanned? VERY planned?) way of getting somewhere AND a channel can be a barrier. Channeling is also what a medium does, to speak to (and for) the Spirits.

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Backchannel implies front channel. The river is the front channel, and when it hits the delta, it splits into multiple (subsidiary? smaller? less powerful? unnamed? seasonal? unmapped?) “back” (side?) channels.

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Regarding the Zoom backchannels as I have experienced them – I have mixed feelings for sure. I like that the backchannel might “capture” something (a question, an idea) that might otherwise be “lost” (or never…exist?)

BUT

maybe not everything needs to be “captured?” What is the function of the ephemeral? The advantage of forgetting?

I sometimes find the backchannel distracting – I distract myself with it and am distracted by it.

When I am grumpiest about it, the backchannel/backchatter that happens during a presentation makes me think about the times at poetry open mics when a poet gets up to the mic, midway through the reading, and says, “I just wrote this here tonight,” which my internal grump-translator translates into “I am only here for you to listen to me, I am to busy with myself/my own work to bother listening to YOU.”

I occasionally imagine I am better at multi-channeling than I actually am – but mostly I know I am NOT good at focusing on more than one thing/thread/stream at once.

I occasionally use the backchannel to indulge in unnecessary chatter. Sometimes snarky, sometimes not.

BUT

such small talk might be “signs of life” in a class community? (or signs of “underlife?”) Which could be helpful for all to see?

I think the backchannel worked pretty well in the Advanced Poetry Workshop this spring, and has worked well in Zoom poetry readings I’ve attended – it’s a space where folks can emphasize lines/images they liked, during the reading, kind of like at an actual poetry slam (or some readings) – you know, that little sound you or someone might make when you hear a really AFFECTING line? In the poetry workshop, I think students appreciated being able to go back through the chat (alongside the written feedback they received AND the spoken feedback in the live zooming) as part of the overall experience.

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When are the “distractions” worth the reward? Maybe we can’t always anticipate the reward, and therefore can’t plan for it.

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Could the chat be used/function like a “fishbowl” discussion? Like, assign some folks to the chat to describe/comment on the spoken activity/conversation? This sort of….un-backs the backchannel, or, like, brings into alignment with the main channel.

Maybe there’s room for both – moments when the backchannel is (necessarily, unavoidably, helpfully) subsersive/counter/”back”, and other moments when the backchannel is harnessed (?) or serving (??) the main channel.

Or should the backchannel be left entirely to its wild, unbroken, un-harnessable ways? I don’t know! (Maybe the real backchannel is never for me — the teacher — to see?)

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Can backchannel reinforce “clicqueiness?” Battle it?

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Backchanneling can be a way IN and/or a way OUT. And a way…alongside?

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That’s all I wrote. (in my notebook, I mean. Like, my paper notebook. And now here.)

rumination, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Uncomfortable Habits

For the Cluster Pedagogy Learning Community at Plymouth State University, which I’ve committed to participate in this school year, we’ve been asked to do lots of different work so far, and to do it on various channels, publicly if possible/desirable. I have mostly kept my work to the semi-privacy of the Teams site associated with my cohort in this program. I started trying to show/share some of my teaching work in the spring, but my efforts there were stymied by the pandemic.

One of our recent prompts was to “write (and share if you feel comfortable doing so) a self-assessment on your own development of the Habits of Mind and pay particular attention to the signposts on the benchmarks for the level of achievement you believe you have attained. How do you demonstrate that level of achievement? What behaviors do you exhibit for each of the signposts?” (The Habits of Mind are a part of our General Education program.)

I don’t feel particularly comfortable sharing this publicly. But I have seen others in my cohort step out into a wider public with their work, and have been grateful and impressed. I am also interested in spending some more time in that feeling — discomfort (shorthand for fears & anxieties) as I consider what it might mean to teach in the fall, with/in the pandemic (and beyond, if there is a beyond), with a heightened awareness of the trauma that infuses nearly everything right now — the trauma that feels new to some of us, and which is familiar — if perhaps amplified — for others of us, students, faculty, and staff, friends and families.

This discomfort (showing my written reflection, my writing-to-think) is something many of my students experience regularly when I ask them to share their work, which may feel to them similarly unformed, and which may spark fears and anxieties similar to the ones I am feeling just now — around sharing this particular (not very high stakes) reflection, but also more generally, around teaching, the university, trauma, access, (in)humanity, and more. I want to both explore the “early” (?) sharing of thinking-in-process as part of thinking-in-process, AND I want to push back against pressures towards concluding, asserting, completing. Push back against the “process” as some kind of byproduct of product. (This is connected to some of my questions about the “summit,” I think.)

Anyhow, here’s what I shared in that more private space on Tuesday morning, which I’ll share now on Sunday in this less private space. I have resisted the urge to edit it. For now.

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(WARNING — This is a straight-up FREEWRITE. Also, I am surely not doing this prompt correctly. ALSO I am not asserting any truths or conclusions here! I would not normally share this work, but, welp, here we go. I am engaged!)

The question, “How do you demonstrate that level of achievement” is interesting to me because of how it immediately makes me wonder: demonstrate to WHOM? When? How often? And maybe even WHY “demonstrate?” Maybe that verb is giving me pause. How about “enact” or “practice” or “employ?” “Demonstrate” makes me think about showing or “proving” (with evidence!) what I know, what I can do. But also maybe of a teaching-related activity. All of which makes me think of schooling. Also “exhibit” makes me think of evidence — also of a museum, a sideshow, symptoms of disease. “Exhibiting behaviors” also sounds a little clinical, a little pathological. (This is not me critiquing the assignment language, this is me rolling around in it, as I do, to find/make meaning) “Level of achievement.” Are these levels stable? Linear? Is “summit” more aspirational than actual? That’s how it often feels to me. But even if it’s actual, doesn’t our sense of “summit” change over time? Like, anybody else have the experience of being certain you were at a “summit” (for years, maybe) but then you realize (how? through more living/learning, I guess) there is actually more climbing for you than you’d realized. More climbing than you could see (were able/ready to see?) before. Hm.

PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICATION — as a writer, I suppose I’m good enough at this? I will never be at the “summit,” as I believe no “summit” actually exists? I’m certainly beyond basecamp. I’m climbing. Sometimes I write to find/discover/create my writing purpose, though, which is a purposeful activity. 
“To be effective, messages must engage the perspectives of others and foster dialog among individuals and the community.” ALL messages must do all of this all the time? Is drafting a poem sort of communicating with myself?  
Is this, right now, messaging? I have a purpose — to write-to-know, to use writing as a way to create/come to understanding or clarity (or purpose). But, like, is this a message for an audience beyond myself? What purposes might such learning-in-public serve? To document a process? And why do that? It feels very vulnerable to potentially do this work in front of others, before I have arrived at my Purposes. 

PROBLEM-SOLVING
I think poetry writing and much art making is actually problem-solving in some sense. (It is many other things, too.) According to the definition we’re using, problem-solving includes the “ability to think creatively, adapt and extend one’s thinking, acknowledge different contexts and incorporate different perspectives,” — what does it mean to incorporate different perspectives in a piece of art? For how many artists might art making be primarily about discovering/shaping/rendering their PARTICULAR perspective? Owning that? NOT “incorporating” others in the “solving” of the “problem” of the individual painting or song or poem? The language, “embrace flexibility, consider potential implications, determine courses of action, persist and adapt despite failure, and reflect on the results” is all very much in line, I think, with how I teach writing. And how I compose and revise poems. As to other kinds of problems — and a more general assessment — I find I am not as adaptable/creative as one might imagine a poet should be. I get stuck sometimes in old/established ways of thinking — I get in my own way with some stubbornness. I think I am better at spending time sussing out what a problem actually IS — like, describing/comprehending it. I think I resist “solutionism.” I think I privilege experimentation over problem-solving, though experiments are frequently part of a problem-solving process. But….does a poem or painting even need/want to solve anything? Useful, perhaps, to distinguish imaginative writing from expository/more utilitarian (UGH UGH UGH) writing here. Maybe. The composition essay as a problem to be solved? The QUESTION or WONDERING behind the composition essay as a problem (such a negative connotation!) to be solved (must it be? What if we were allowed to remain in the unsolvedness? Can solving ever be the wrong thing to do with/to a problem? Freewriting is fun.

INTEGRATED PERSPECTIVE
“the recognition that individual beliefs, ideas, and values are influenced by personal experience as well as multiple contextual factors—cultural, historical, political, etc.” I think I know this. I achieve this. I think this is partly from growing up a military brat and moving every 2-3 years, living overseas, etc. I think also my discipline (English/literary and cultural studies/creative writing) also relies in large part on these notions — that contexts and subjectivities are FUNDAMENTAL, not just, considerations alongside or after the fact. I think I “demonstrate” good “climbing” here by owning my perspectives AS perspectives, by using tools I’ve accumulated (self-reflection, pausing and listening, stepping outside myself as much as such a thing is remotely possible to imagine empathetically other perspectives, language and theory around words like “other,” etc.) to examine my own assumptions as such. “Students will acknowledge the limitations of singular points of view and recognize the benefits of engaging with and learning from others in order to integrate multiple perspectives for effective communication, problem-solving, and collaboration.” We face interesting challenges these days from those who use this kind of language alongside “just my opinion” and “free speech” to recast, say, SCIENCE as a matter of “perspective,” which, yes, of course it is, and is also multiple/variant/evolving/WRONG sometimes — but — I’ve seen a careless and cruel version of “relativism” in the media/culture lately, a “both-sides-ism” that feels like a crude (mis)casting of “limitations of singular points of view.” BUT THAT’S JUST MY OPINION, MKAY? 

SELF-REGULATED LEARNING
I wish I were less responsive to extrinsic motivators — praise, badges, desire to be connected with others in certain ways. I mean, I read, I am curious, I write, I learn — do I set “goals” for learning? Not always, or if so, I just am not thinking consciously about it. Right now I have some goals — around learning how to build community online, how to act against the racist white-supremacist impulses of an institution I am a part of/complicit with. I feel DESPERATE to learn how to be in higher education while transforming (I mean in much more serious ways, not task forces and mitigation and lawsuit-proofing and placating) higher education. What is UP with that desperation, though? Partly it’s that I no longer trust higher ed (which is partly no longer trusting MYSELF) to see/do the work required. And yet, so much of what I have been reading and thinking about — so many sources — come from or are attached to or are VISIBLE through structures of higher ed. So. Where was I? Self-regulation. I desire to learn, but also must deal with the institution inside me — the institution that is me, that part of me — no small part — that relishes the familiarity and comfort and peace of the status quo in so many ways. UGH. Why would I (or my students or anybody) want to learn about how wrong we were/are about so much, how the strong and embedded and often invisible (to some) forces of status quo (within and without) continue to be. Am I taking intellectual risks? What would the evidence or “demonstration” of such risk be? Is there an “is it worth it” rubric for risk/reward? I think I am decent at metacognition, but also believe it has its limits. There’s only so far “out” of myself I can get, yes?

IN CONCLUSION (lol) I as the student, handing in the homework, am feeling a couple of things: I have been engaged with these concepts. I have not exactly or clearly done the work I was asked to do. I am nervous that I shared too much. I worry what readers will think about me. I hardly know what I think of myself. This is a too-rough draft. I composed it on 750words.com, and work I do there is private/not typically shared. I don’t mean this writing is “disposable,” but, like, with respect to PURPOSEFUL COMMUNICIATION, I worry that this is hardly a “message.” I see how organized and clear Cathie’s is and I compare my work to that and think I should not share it, or I should rewrite before sharing, or I should do it more like Cathie did it. But I’m past 1400 words and have other work I need to get to. Have I spent enough time on this? Does it even make sense? What next? I do not know.

Student writing, teaching

Shifts

MaineVacationJune2007 124When Plymouth State University switched to online learning right after spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my students found themselves thrown into not only the traumatic disruption of their schooling, but into unemployment, extra/new employment, stressful or precarious living situations, housing and food insecurities, stress surrounding seeing (or not being able to see) loved ones, sudden childcare responsibilities, isolation-related mental health struggles, illness or illness of a family member, and/or so many conditions and circumstances that seemed bent on keeping them off-balance, exhausted, pulled in many directions.

When I invited my Composition students to take a pass at writing something about their experiences during the pandemic, if they wanted to, a few took me up on it — “C.S.” not only accepted the prompt, but really ran with it, and kept running. We talked on Zoom a few times in addition to exchanging drafts, talking not only about her writing process, but life at home, the strangeness of physical and social distancing, and what her education was feeling like these days. I share her essay here with her permission, because her voice is important and her story illuminating, one that will resonate with many readers. It’s an essay I’m grateful to read, one I learned from.

SHIFTS

MaineVacationJune2007 124

by C.S.

Spring Break

Being away from home and living on a University campus can sometimes feel like living in a bubble; I say this because my main concerns while living in the bubble are school and social life. The campus bubble is a curious concept, one that both connects and disconnects a person from the world. While I am advancing my studies, making new friends and living on my own, there are a few disconnects as well; for example, I no longer tune into local news on the television or pay too much attention to an ‘outside world’ only what is in the bubble around me.

Spring break was finally here, the second week of March. I was so excited to see friends and family, and it would be a perfect time to pick up a few shifts at the nursing home.  During my junior year of high school, I obtained my Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) license. I have been working as a CNA for almost two years now, so coming home and picking up a few shifts was nothing new to me. Since I no longer watch news broadcasts on the TV, I relied on what I saw on social media, but just a few posts here and there across social media mentioned that Coronavirus was starting to spread and filter around the United States, I did not think it would come to affect the world around me as much as it would.

I decided to pick up a twelve-hour shift on Sunday, March 11th. I can never seem to sleep the night before a long shift. So when my alarm rang at five fifty in the morning, it was not a surprise to me as I was basically already awake. Groggily I put my scrubs on, clipped my badge reel and buckled my watch. I scanned my badge to get into the building and headed up to the assisted living floor. I was the only day shifter to be there on time. The night shift nurses sipped the last of their energy drinks and cold coffee. The halls were still dimmed. I walked over to the nurses’ station and read the staffing clipboard. Call-outs on every floor. Taking my assignment list of residents who I would care for, I read through them and passed by their rooms to see if any of them were starting to wake up.

As the day started to roll and the hallway lights shifted from overnight to daytime bright, all the residents, nurses, and nurses assistants like myself were glancing at the televisions in the halls or listening in as we busily passed by. The virus dubbed Covid-19 was spreading across the United States rapidly. Local, state and federal officials were giving speeches on every news channel. I was assigned to supervise the elders’ breakfast with another nurse. She was the definition of a mom-friend, nurse, and boss lady. I guess one could say I looked up to her. She and I walked around and checked on the residents, but I wasn’t prepared for what the overhead speaker would say next.

The mystery voice announced there would be an emergency supervisors meeting shortly. I looked at her confused. She is a floor supervisor and also one of the nurse educators, so she was required to go. I sat on a rolling stool, watching the news. I collected most of the meal trays and started to help residents pack up, passing back walkers, canes, and pushing those in wheelchairs. I was having a very typical day, nothing was out of the ordinary. Influenza type B was going around the nursing home and that explained a few of the call outs. All and all, it was a very typical day. The overhead speaker came on once again, the disembodied voice said all floors were to host a mini-meeting at the nurses’ station.

This is when things got real. No visitors allowed, No activities for residents, No dining room socials. All residents were to stay in their rooms and were to be limited when visiting each other. All non-essential employees were to be dismissed. We were going into some sort of facility lockdown. The regular seasonal flu itself is enough to knock an Elder down, but this new virus would be fatal.

We talked for fifteen minutes, watched a personal protective equipment donning and doffing example and then reviewed what each level of precaution is and signed inservice papers. Then the conversation we had next scared me and that’s when I realized how real this could be.

The nurse that I trust the most, my mother-like figure at work went on to say that face masks of all sorts would now be limited. Gowns and other personal protective equipment would now be restricted. We were directed to use clear vinyl gloves and leave the blue latex alone. They were cutting and limiting resources to save and store. This left me very uneasy, and I still had seven hours out of my twelve-hour shift left.

After I spent all morning showering, bathing, and assisting my residents to prepare for their day I had to tell them all activities were canceled, and no visitors were allowed at this time. It was very hard to explain to grandmas and grandpas that they were not allowed to have visitors come and on top of that afternoon, coffee social was canceled. Every room on the seventy-bed floor had one news channel on or another. All of us were watching the school closure updates, the social distancing lectures, and being reminded of proper handwashing. Residents became scared and stressed. Family and friends called the nursing station non-stop. I was growing nervous as well. When I went to take my lunch break, I walked by the front lobby and administration offices. Family and friends were arguing with administrators over not being able to see their loved ones. Beautiful bouquets of flowers placed on office desks with well-wishing cards and thinking-of-you notes. My heart started to ache. I went about the rest of my shift as normally as I could.

I will never forget how serious the day turned as things worsened on the news. Being told we had to restrict and minimize personal protective equipment usage to avoid wasting could not be more frightening. Telling residents that their daily activities, like crafting hour or afternoon coffee would be canceled until this is resolved was heartbreaking to me; it was so hard to explain to them what was going on without instilling a panic or fear. Seeing the family members argue with directors and administration, seeing flower bouquets clustered on the secretary desks, seeing the activity ladies pack up and go home without employment; it seemed like something only a movie could portray, yet I just lived through it.

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Second Shift

Originally my scheduler could only give me one twelve-hour shift during my spring break, but once things started to change, so did the staffing plans. I agreed to work the day shift on the Wednesday following that Sunday shift. Two days. Only two days passed in between my last shift and my next one. Two days. Things at my facility have changed drastically. Some staff were so scared they quit, more people than usual called out, residents were sad and fearful. Orange and red signs posted everywhere, No Visitors and No Vendors. Another sign posted, that I wish I never read, said, “No Entry Unless Actively Dying Hospice.” That policy made me wish I never learned to read, something about it shattered my heart and kicked my morale in the teeth. We were required to wear a face mask and gown when providing care to a resident. The gowns make you hot and the mask makes you think that stale hallway air is the purest oxygen you will know. The nurses’ station was clear of coffee and energy drinks. It was the cleanest I’d ever seen. Hallways were empty, any activity or social event for the residents were completely canceled, residents were restricted to what neighbor they could visit and when. Residents were to stay in their rooms.

During this shift, residents asked questions and my answers were hard to give. They wondered why they could not have visitors, they wondered how their friends next door were doing, they asked why I was covered with a blue plastic sheet and had a mask covering my smile.

One resident teared up and said to me, “I am not dirty, I am not infected, please let my husband come in.”

It was very hard to answer these questions or respond to their pleas. Each question and person who asked or pleaded with facility policy is burned into my memory. I will not forget how emotionally charged this shift was.

I thought about my residents who have dementia or memory impairments and needed routine, structure, and visitors to help them get by. It made me think about how having a loved one visit, gathering in the main dining room for coffee hour, sitting in your friend’s room and other daily activities were taken away from these residents. It made me think about how stressful, lonely, and challenging it must be for them all. This shift made me realize more than ever how my residents need me; they need a friend, an ear, a caregiver. The nursing staff was not just their caregivers but their family.  I guess I always take my job as a nursing assistant for granted. I always tell myself it’s just a stepping stone for my nursing career and that I just need to do my time in assisted care, but it is times like these where the elders need us more than ever; even to just sit, listen and care for them.

This shift was very hard on me emotionally to get through, the world was changing and a virus was spreading rapidly. The cutback and supply limits frightened not just me but my co-workers who have been in the healthcare game for a while. I watched my co-workers steal boxes of gloves, shove extra facemasks into their purse, build their own first aid kit in the supply closet; all in fear for themselves and their loved ones.

I was the youngest one working, nurses and aides I looked up to were now panicked and worried.

The whole shift was nothing like one I’ve had before. I will never forget these two days.

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Welcome to Zoom University, an Online Learning Experience

By the last day of spring break, my in-person higher education would be switched to online courses for the upcoming two weeks. At this point, my phone buzzed and dinged with calls and texts from friends, family, and the nursing home. The nursing home was short-staffed on every shift basically each day. I had to respond politely that I was no longer on spring break, I was back to school, making me unavailable for shift pickups. It did not take long for the spring semester to be fully transferred online; it was my next learning journey.

With shifting to online courses,  I was presented with another round of challenges. Some of the main challenges included the lack of in-person learning through gaps in communication with some educators, students also lost on-campus utility access like a printer and courses had to abruptly alter syllabi in which corners were cut in education by removing lab work or skipping chapters. As a nursing student, we have labs to take along with lectures. Since we were no longer on campus and class could not be held in the lab, my fellow students and I missed muscle twitch and stimulation projects.

Another issue that arose with shifting into remote learning and the idea that students are being confined to a home, is that some professors have taken this idea as a way to assign or create a heavier course load to keep students engaged or involved under the assumption that students are doing nothing while at home has freed time to complete a different workload and by becoming unsympathetic to the challenges outside of schooling one might face. Some students are more comfortable or even luckier than another student; one may have returned home to an unsteady income and have to enter a job deemed essential during this time to help their families, or someone who now has to take on another role for their siblings as caretakers or early educators,  or even those who might live in a heavily affected area causing them to have more invisible alterations to their life.

Though this shift is flawed, I have noticed some positives as well.  Even though there were significant communication losses, there were some communication gains; some professors were now being more thorough with directions, more timely with email responses and some even lessened required projects. I think this has also been a good way to measure if online courses could be something a student might consider or not in the future.  A more personal positive that was brought to my attention was my ability to have more control over my personal learning and could implement specific learning needs, such as the advantages of  having access to power points or presentations, or having the ability to rewatch or re-listen to lectures that were not recorded before.

Though my focus shifted back into more studious tasks, my nursing home would call; they needed me to come in. I could not pick up shifts, I had Zoom classes to attend, textbook excerpts to memorize and news reports to watch. Learning from home has been an impactful life shift and challenge, not to mention outside factors that may worsen a student’s capability to focus on or complete work, considering the state of the world right now. This has been a challenging learning curve, one that I had never seen coming.

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Guilty and Fearful

I have thought about working every day. I think of my residents. I think of my co-workers. I think about the stress, the fear, the sickness. I have had my facility message me for shift pick-ups nonstop and coworkers messaging me asking why I am not working and how selfish of me it is to stay home.

I have guilt. I think about it constantly. I don’t want to feel this way, but I do. I am an aide, I am a nursing student; I want to help, I want to provide care. I am still a kid, I am still in school. I am conflicted, I have a fall semester to pay for but I am more afraid of getting sick.

Guilty thoughts fill my mind. My facility sent me a letter in the mail, reminding me of my per-diem duties scheduling me for the end of May without my input. It was a threat and served as a reminder not to abandon my commitment to the facility.

Weighing even heavier on my shoulders was fear, the fear of falling ill under the sickly grasp of Covid-19. Throughout my time being quarantined, I have lived in an anxiety-induced state, like many others, over my chronic illness, Asthma. Asthma has plagued my lungs since the day I entered this world. During Flu season, I caught Influenza B, which took a huge toll on my health. This had required me to visit the Health Service office on campus. These visits were daily, as I was subjected to having my breathing monitored. Seeing as a common cold could hit me hard as it could, I can’t imagine putting myself at risk against this all-new virus. This provided me a fork in the road, should I continue feeling guilty and selfish or play it safe and lock myself at home?

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Concluding Thoughts

Almost two months have passed since that first shift. The world around me has been tested and challenged like never before. My learning has been altered, going to the store to pick up a missing recipe item has now become a second thought, seeing friends and family has been turned virtual. No one could have foreseen such drastic alteration in such a short period of time. Uncertainty, worry and fear are now feelings to be felt more than usual. I harbor guilt, stress for school and often worry of what might happen the next day. This situation is so surreal it almost feels like a sick joke on me and the rest of the world. I still find it hard to believe the world is under lockdown, but I truly believe that if we all work together and stay home, we just might possibly slip through the cracks of Covid-19’s grubby paws.

About Writing, rumination, teaching

Peer Review as an Expression of Hope

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I started out this semester with some big plans for my teaching (and my learning around my teaching), but like so many plans, they have been disrupted by the global pandemic and the physical isolation it has necessitated. (In February, my teaching/plans were also disrupted by a definitely unplanned two-week hospital stay. So it’s been….less than ideal in terms of a semester to be launching into this new/revised pedagogy I’d been into.)

But. And.

While I do NOT believe the remnants of this semester are going to wind up manifesting some kind of “triumph-over-adversity teaching epiphany” narrative, I do think that much of this experience has me not just scrambling/triaging, but actually re-thinking long-standing assumptions and practices (embedded in assignment language and syllabus language, for instance) in ways that will certainly continue post-pandemic.

(What is “post-pandemic?” I have no idea. Maybe there will be no easily discernible “post.” No after. Only next? I’ll say it again — I have no idea. And yes, that makes me anxious.)

I think my hospital stay “disruption” is also informing my thinking about teaching, learning, and the systems that seek to enable those things but which often do just the opposite.

All of this is to say: I just (re)wrote some language around this week’s assignment for my Creative Writing students at Plymouth State University. And I have been glum around not keeping up with the thinking/posting/sharing I had just barely gotten started with around my teaching earlier this semester.

So I thought I’d share my new iteration of this assignment, which I will send out to my students when I send them their peer’s story drafts. Some of this language already existed, but feels different; some of this language is new/emergent. It would likely benefit from some compassionate and inquisitive feedback. Because like writing, and good writerly feedback, teaching is (or can be) a profoundly optimistic,  hopeful, enabling and always-evolving.

Creative Writing, Spring 2020:
Short Story Peer Review Assignment

You have been sent (attached to this email) the short story draft of one of your classmates.

Your task: to offer your thoughts/questions/ideas about what they are working on, and what they might do next.

Another way of thinking about your task: we are all pretty isolated from one another right now. If we were in class, you’d be in small groups sharing this work face to face, and then we’d be talking together as a larger group about questions/struggles/ideas around writing/revising short fiction. Alas, we don’t have those conditions for our work any more.

I believe that our attentive and generous attention to each other’s work at this particular time may be extra important.

Not because creative writing class and short story draft assignments are especially important right now – but because compassion, connection, and creativity are especially important right now. Your reading and thoughtful, hopeful responding to your peer’s story draft can be an enactment of all these things. I say hopeful because good feedback, I think, often gives the writer a sense of possibility, of next. Good constructive feedback, even if the draft under considerations is a gorgeous, difficult, wandering mess, assumes an optimistic posture.

Remember – as always – your job as a draft-reader is to describe what you notice, wonder (ask questions, speculate) about what you see (and don’t see?), and to help the writer keep going. You aren’t “correcting” or “editing,” though editing/pointing out typos or unclear parts can certainly be helpful. But this draft is too new for you to encounter it as something that needs “fixing.” These drafts are still emerging, so keep that exciting and hopeful newness in mind as you read and respond.

You are a human reader; someone who knows what a story is because you have been telling and hearing them all your life. You are a fellow story-teller, a fellow human practicing ways of telling stories. Be with one another in that. Help each other keep going.

Please write up your feedback in at least 250 words and email it back to the author, cc-ing me (eahl at plymouth dot edu), so you can get credit for the assignment. If you have a way to mark up the draft itself and return the marked-up draft along with the 250 words, I’m sure it would be appreciated, but just do the best you can! If you can’t do the markup, don’t sweat it. (I will, of course, also be responding to all drafts!)

It would be ideal for you to submit at the beginning of next week (April 13), so that writers can get it in time to make good use of it, but as with all deadlines before the end of the semester, there is FLEXIBILITY. Just let me know if you need more time, or tech support, or help getting started, or if there are any other obstacles hanging you up on this work. We’ll find a way.

About Writing, Poetry, teaching

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Poetry

Last class we started a conversation about the genre of poetry – what it is, what it isn’t, what our experiences have told/taught us about what makes a poem a poem, or what makes a not-poem not a poem. After generating our own thoughts, we looked at a set of poems and observed how those poems were, by their existence, their formal choices, their shapes and sounds and subject matter, suggesting what a poem does/can do, what a poem is/might be.

The homework was to write a poem and an accompanying author’s note discussing how the poem draft is (trying to be?) a poem, as opposed to a not-poem, what choices or techniques or ideas are at play in the making of a poem or poem-like thing. Students have swapped and are making descriptive comments now about these questions of poem-ness, along with describing the use of concrete, sensory detail. They were even numbered, so I commented on my own draft.

My draft was inspired by an in-class writing exercise we did focusing on a significant place — everyone listed important, meaningful places, then chose one to dig into further. We brainstormed lists of “things” or “stuff” associated with the place, as well as a list of people associated with the place, and then we generated lists for each of the five senses associated with the place. I was inspired mostly by the “things/stuff” portion of the brainstorming, as you can see. Hope to keep working on this draft after a little time away from it.

About Writing, teaching, Writing Tools & Tips

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Second Assignment in Creative Writing

The second assignment in Creative Writing (aside from an in-class freewrite) invites students to practice using concrete imagery — language of the five senses — as well as imaginative associations / associative play to bring an “abstraction” to life. We discuss “showing” and “telling” — NOT merely how you’re supposed to do one and not the other; rather, how the two are different and have different uses/purposes. This exercise and assignment, though, is definitely about using SHOWING. (For a really important perspective/critique on some not-great implications/limitations of a rigidity that privileges “showing” over “telling,” see THIS amazing piece.

This is another “worksheet” brainstorming activity — it doesn’t have to be a worksheet of course, but I’ve found it handy at times. After a conversation and some terms-defining around imagery, figurative language, “connotation” and “denotation,” the function of the five senses, and the concept of the “abstraction,” we each choose one abstraction to take through the exercise.

We spend a little time in class sharing some of the associations/ideas/images we came up with — privileging the strange and surprising ones. The take-home assignment is to create a piece (any genre, any length), preferably titled with the selected abstraction, which creatively uses concrete/sensory detail (imagery) to bring that abstraction to life. I share some samples with students — I’ll admit nearly all of the samples are poems. I need to work on getting more genre variety in there. Here’s my notebook draft, then my typed-up edit with author’s note.

I am reminded every time I use this exercise of a shy and quiet high school student in a summer poetry workshop I taught years ago. He almost never spoke. When the workshop was doing a version of this exercise as a group that summer, we were coming up together with associations for the abstraction, “love.” We had decided that love drives a vintage baby blue VW bug convertible. We were speculating, I think, about where love would drive — and this young man spoke up quietly. I didn’t hear him at first, and asked him, gently, if he could repeat himself. “Love doesn’t have a driver’s license,” he said, dazzling us into appreciative, companionable silence. Everybody in the room that day agreed that love definitely didn’t have a driver’s license. I have never forgotten that!

Poetry, rumination, teaching, Uncategorized

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Getting Started in Creative Writing

It is my habit to start each semester’s (UG sophomore-level) Creative Writing class with a writing exercise/assignment using objects — some common, some strange — distributed at random among students. There’s a multi-step, in-class generative phase, and then at home, students are to draft a piece somehow connected to/inspired by the object. Here are some photos documenting my own brainstorming and drafting — my object was a “T” token.

Step one — the in-class brainstorming part. I keep veering back and forth between just “talking” students through the steps and giving them a handout, which is good for encouraging students to move at their own pace.

I took my “worksheet” home and pounded out this really long, probably needlessly-wordy poem draft (essay draft?). Then, next class, we did a round of feedback, with multiple folks commenting on drafts. My readers were really helpful, and good at describing to me what they noticed and appreciated. And this is only the second day of class!

I’ve already started very minimally tinkering/editing…I’ll probably revisit this draft when we spend a class focusing on “radical” editing and revision skills. We’ll do exercises meant to really “mess up” our drafts, in order to “see them anew.” Until then, I might keep tinkering here and there:

teaching, Uncategorized

List Poems

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This week in the Poetry Workshop, it’s reading and writing list poems.  As you can see, my students did a stellar job of coming up with a huge variety of types of list — so many more than I had thought up on my own.

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I wonder about the list as a structure and a form. A list is certainly a kind of repetition, in the way that rhyme is a repetition, or refrain. As a form a list may set up a clear/particular premise or expectation. Included under the umbrella of “list poem” for me are the techniques of anaphora and epistrophe. One student introduced us to a third — epanalepsis.

It seems to me that writing and reading list poems (or “litanies”) brings to the fore particular poetic concerns, at least for me. List poems make me think more about order and arrangement — does a list escalate? Fork out into tangents? How might juxtaposition of dissimilar items work as a kind of energy in a list poem?

If the list is numbered, what do the numbers bring to the table? When to number, when not?

Also: how do you find a way to END a list poem?

Also: titles seem especially important for list poems, or for certain types of list poems.

Also: how does the nature of a list (different types of lists) affect thinking about lines and stanzas? Line = item on list? Stanza = item on list?

Also: what happens to syntax (verbs, especially) with a list? Some kinds of lists are very noun-y.

Also, how might “listing” and narrative/linearity interplay?

POEM PACKET of examples we read in class:

Christopher Smartt: from Jubilate Agno
Stephanie Lenox, “Rejoice in the Petty Thievery of Office Supplies”
Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses”
danez smith, “alternate names for black boys”
Savannah Sipple, “A List of Times I Thought I Was Gay”
“4 Ways of Throwing Something into the Boston Public Gardens Swan Pond,” “the bullshit,” and “non-hierarchial list of love poem ideas,” all by jamie mortara
“Things I Have Failed At” by Baruch Porras-Hernandez
“Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful” by Gretchen Legler

In different days, those two lists I just wrote — a list of things I’m thinking about with list poems and a list of list poems — would perhaps be combined and expanded into more of a little essay. Alas, these days are filled with so many other lists, which even now are glowering at me as I take time away from to share even these scantest, barely-conceived thoughts.

I’ll end with a VERY OLD list poem I wrote when I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska. It took me a while to remember I had written such a poem — but — here it is.

The Neighbors

The ones you never see.
The ones you always see.

The drunk one who stumbles
up onto your porch
to triangulate his walkie-talkie.

The nosy ones.

The slovenly ones.

The ones who are beautiful.

The muzzled dog that barks
anyway, each time you park
or open your door or sneeze loudly.

The ones who speak no English.
The ones who speak only English.
The ones who don’t speak.

The ones who listen.

The kid, the one who steals
lawn ornaments you never liked anyhow.

The shady one, or the one
with shady friends.

The quiet one.

The hooligan.

The one whose window is always blue
and flickering with TV light.

The ones whose windows
are never open.

The dead ones.

The ones who play guitar.

The yelling guy.

The dancing girls.

The naked one.

The ones who go to church
in the windowless white building
on the corner.

The one who hates you.

The one on public access.

The ones who have
two testy Siamese cats.

The mean one.
The scary ones.

The sweet one.

The one who dreamt
last night of you
but who will never say.

The one you dreamt about.

Those who smoke summer evenings
on porches facing yours.

Those who ride bikes.
Those who fly flags.
Those who do Halloween,
candy, decorations, all of it.

The ones you wonder about.

The ones who know your name
and the ones who don’t,
who have barbecues.

The ones who wonder about you.

 

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