life, teaching, Uncategorized

The Value and Relevance of Home

EmilyHouseIf you have been following this blog for the last few days (or longer), you know about my campaign to help save one of my brightest students and her mom from the homeless shelter this holiday season. In running this one-man show, I have had to give a lot of thought to the psychology and meaning that the word “home” generates.

After all, we are in the midst of a holiday season rife with songs about the joys and pleasures of being at home, whether it’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas” or “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays.” In our greatest literature, home is portrayed as that point of both psychological and physical relief: When a character is at home, he or she is at rest, completely at ease, and ideally, right with the world.

Of course, there are plenty of homes in literature where the above is not true, whether it’s in short stories like Aryn Kyle’s “Allegiance,” or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” or whether it’s in longer novels (see multiple works by Stephen King or any other author who capitalizes on family dysfunction).

But even when an author or character comes from a home with “chronic angers” (Hayden) or faults and fissures (Poe), home as a concept still resonates with the expectation of peace. When that expectation is unfulfilled, conflict results.

But what about the nomad? The archetypal wanderer may fill our minds with romantic notions, but in reality, the soul without a home is oppressed. Such is the case with my student and her mother. Life at the shelter is not so different from jail: No visitors beyond the lobby, curfew is 6 p.m., and countless other restrictions give families the impression that they are not so much being housed as confined. That’s no way to spend Christmas.

As our minds fill with warm images and remembrances of home, may we all realize in this season that there are many wonderful, intelligent, and moral people without such a place. Let us give so that others may know the comfort and joy that our seasonal carols promise. Once again, here’s the link to donate:

https://www.gofundme.com/save-my-student-from-homelessness

 

 

life, Uncategorized

A Plea for a Deserving Student

homeless.jpg

Dear Follower:

One of my brightest and best students is homeless. I am working as hard as I can to get her out of the homeless shelter by Christmas. She and her family are earnestly good people who have simply faced a series of unfortunate coincidences that left them without a roof over their head.

At this time of year when finances are tighter than usual, I hesitate to ask anyone for money. But this wonderful young lady is very deserving of a good home, a hot meal, and the comforts of this holy season. Please give to the GoFundMe that I have set up for this family:  https://www.gofundme.com/save-my-student-from-homelessness

I thank you in advance, and certainly, this family is deeply grateful for any generosity you can show them. These people are responsible, ethical, hard-working, and resourceful individuals who have unfortunately faced an unusually hard time in their life. Please assist — I thank you for anything you can spare.

In return for your donation, I’d like to send you a signed copy of any of my three books you’d like: Hard Inheritance, Middle Class American Proverb, The Boys of Men, or Growing Moon, Growing Soil: Poems of my Native Land. This is the least I can do in return for your much-needed assistance. Thank you again for your generosity.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Belligerent Merry Christmas

Ho-ho-hold your horses there, buster. 

 

Allow me to begin this semi-controversial post with two disclaimers, or what my logic and rhetoric professors would have called “assumptions:” For the remainder of this reading, please assume that I am a Christian (as I am), and that I am both a poet and language arts educator (which I also am). This means two things — 1. I have no problem saying Merry Christmas to anyone, and often do so both publicly and privately, and 2. I spend a lot of time thinking about the way words are constructed, their connotations, and their overall impression upon audience.

All these assumptions lead us to the real meat of this post: People who angrily insist upon “Merry Christmas” when shopping, on the phone, or in the public forum at large. Yes, I’d like to see everyone wishing everyone else a Merry Christmas, but here’s the thing — God-fearing Christian folks, when you’re in line at the grocery store/Wal-Mart/Target, and the already overburdened clerk says “Happy Holidays,” then and there is not the time to launch into a political and dogmatic soapbox about the use of Merry Christmas. People have families to get home to, dinners to prepare, cards or invitations to send out, and frankly, your high-minded and heavy-handed semantics are only making the season slower and worse for everyone in line behind you.

If you’re that concerned about conveying Jesus to the world, perhaps a better tactic would be to show grace, love, and a touch of holiday empathy to that already overworked person in the store uniform who’s helping you. Look around — everyone knows it’s not just “the holidays” — manger scenes, stars of Bethlehem, advent calendars, and a whole host of heavenly hosts can be found all around you. Yes, there are also snowmen and Santas and all the gaudy lights that Charlie Brown abhorred, but there, in the midst of all that commercialism, is Luke Two, also.

From a strictly academic standpoint, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is more vague and, although alliterative, bland to the point of being trite. Maybe it is this linguistic homogeneity that is the source of conflict — it’s not the lack of Merry Christmas, it’s that the alternative sounds so generic and impersonal. We like people that are regularly in contact with us to know our names, and a little of our likes and dislikes. When we’re confronted with the ho-hum Happy Holidays, we feel like we’ve been shortchanged in some way. That much is understandable.

But to turn a well-wish into an open wound of ill-perceived malice and religious persecution is to defeat the spirit of the season entirely. What makes you so special that you MUST receive a Merry Christmas over any other type of parting exchange? Would you be so offended by the nonseasonal “Have a Nice Day?” How about “Take care now?”

Listen: I make my living from words and their direct and indirect meanings. If anyone should have a beef about what language is used when and how, it should be me. But I’m not going to lambaste the poor soul who wishes me a happy holiday, a good evening, or even a (gasp) Happy Hanukkah. I may return their good tidings with a Merry Christmas of my own, or I might simply say thank you. But to use my faith as a weapon of ridicule? No thanks.

Lighten up, ye merry gentlemen. Let nothing you dismay, including what the tattooed kid at the cash register says. May your days be merry and bright. Enjoy this Christmas season and all its glorious traditions with family, friends, and others. Let us keep the good cheer through civility, respectful discourse, and that most universal of all greetings: an honest smile. Merry Christmas to all, and to all, a good night.

 

poetry, Uncategorized

Christmas Remembrances — Friend or Foe?

Pull-up-Christmas-Tree-with-LightsOne of the best things about being a poet around the holidays is the reflection that generates so many great memories. Ideas spurred on by recollections of past Christmases or realizations that take place here in the present are equally powerful motivations to write.

The one cautionary admonition I would issue to my fellow writers, however, falls into that dreadful category of avoiding bathos — that ripe sentimentality (see prior posts) which lessens the power of our words. Holidays become great cliche fodder; all the old pieces of language from carols and cards come flooding back to our brains, and if we aren’t careful, they’ll seep their way into our writing and stink it up like expired egg nog.   

With that word of sufficient warning, allow me to make one slight allowance — writing work that alludes to Christmas carols or other seasonal cultural icons is entirely different. Starting a poem with “Silent Night, Holy Night” and then altering it to convey a completely different message than the old hymn is  okay. Moreover, it’s a world apart from describing one’s past family celebrations as “holly jolly” or simply “merry.” Yuck!

The challenge for writers of all genres is finding new ways to express the oldest of great notions. When Dickens penned A Christmas Carol so long ago, you can bet that he knew his message was not novel — “greed bad, generosity good” had been a maxim for generations before Ebenezer Scrooge existed. But through memorable characterization, engaging dialogue (who doesn’t know “Bah! Humbug!”) and other tools of the trade, Dickens was able to render a masterpiece that has been adapted and enjoyed for more than a century.

As writers, the greatest gift we can give ourselves this season is new perspective. Let’s leave the old wrapping paper of holiday hackney in the dark recesses of our mental attics, and erect the fresh green boughs of our modern perceptions and expressions. As our memories and our current situations blend warmly in the glow of the holidays, let us task ourselves with the duty of renewal and re-purpose. The ghost of Christmas yet to come will thank us for it.

poetry, Uncategorized

The Poet’s Black Friday Wish List

 Poets have slightly different holiday tastes than do Average Joe and Plain Jane. On my list this year, I have all sorts of things that the “normal” folks probably would not think to ask for, but then, eccentricity becomes an expectation once you’ve told people that you’re a writer. For better or worse, here’s a list of a few things I’d like to get, and probably, some of your writer friends would like also:

1. The Best American Poetry 2012: This year’s collection, compiled and edited with the help of Mark Doty, has quite a few poets I admire personally, including my own writing mentor, Erica Dawson. Reading good work often leads to writing good work.

2. The 6.5 Habits of Moderately Successful Poets. This is another book in the category of “things I’ve been meaning to read, but haven’t.”  After reading the reviews, I’m pretty convinced I should at least familiarize myself with it.

3. Cool new bookends. I have this affinity for bookends — there’s a certain stability and finality that they convey, I suppose. Antique stores and online vendors alike offer great opportunities to pick up a piece of history while keeping one’s texts ship-shape. There’s also this air of refinement that bookends offer, and I suppose that’s another draw for me. I like classy touches, and bookends fall into that category often.

4. Fine writing instruments. My all-time favorite vendor for Waterman pens has to be Levenger. I don’t usually plug businesses here, but over the years, Levenger has provided me with reliable, aesthetically pleasing fountain pens and a plethora of cool “writer toys” that remain meaningful even today. The pen I typically use to start drafts (a Waterman Phileas) came from there probably about ten years ago, and the briefcase I use for all things writing-related is also a Levenger product. If you haven’t paid them a visit yet, I highly recommend it. The writer in your life will thank you.

5. Gift card #1: Staples. If you’ve been a regular reader of mine, you probably know by now about my unhealthy obsession with office supplies. My favorite store is definitely our local Staples. From paper clips to printer cartidges, Staples allows me to feed my fetish for writerly goods.

6. Gift card #2: B&N. Sorry, other booksellers. I’m a fan of Barnes and Noble’s brick-and-mortar establishments. Somehow, they’ve managed to preserve that certain air of old-school bookstores while staying current with technology and trends. And before my writer friends get upset with me for not patronizing my local small, independent bookstore, allow me to say that here in my location, we unfortunately don’t have such an animal. To use an old football idiom, here in my town you have to “go big or go home.” It’s BAMM or B&N, and the people under the green awning have better customer service skills and actual knowledge of their wares.

7. Gift card #3:   Apple. I love my iPad. I like my apps, my games, my music, and my movies. I try not to write using my iPad, simply because it’s so recreational — there are too many distractions there. But for everything else in my life, the iPad is a wonderful tool. I use it in the classroom, at home, on vacations, and in workshops, seminars, and classes. For everything that’s NOT writing-related in my life, my iPad is the perfect companion. (No, I was not compensated for saying this — it’s just true).

8. Vinyl records: I love the sound of music on vinyl. There’s such a history and an art that goes with listening to an honest-to-goodness record. Mostly, I use my record player for classical music. I have all my other media players for more contemporary stuff — PC, iPad, etc. do a perfectly good job with modern music, but for Handel’s Messiah and Arthur Fiedler’s Boston Pops, I gotta have my vinyls. Call me antiquated if you will.

9. Coffee. Not the stuff in a blue can from the grocery store, the good stuff. Yes, I grind my own beans. And yes, I do have three separate coffeemakers in my house: French press, percolater (percolator?), and finally, Keurig single-serve. I typically use the big French press for company, the percolator for Sunday mornings when everyone is having coffee, and the Keurig for everyday, nothing-special single cups. That hackneyed expression about “a little blood in my caffeine stream” holds true here. Coffee is my gasoline.

10. Gift subscriptions to my favorite magazines. By keeping in touch with what’s happening on the literary front, I’m better equipped when sending out submissions and manuscripts. The great thing about getting subscriptions for Christmas is that the gift is enduring — every time a new issue arrives, I’m reminded of the person who kindly thought of me and my ambitions.

So, there you have it — one Florida poet’s guide to giving for the coming holiday season. If you’re out fighting the insane crowds today, good luck. And here’s hoping that you get everything on your wish list, as well.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Southern Thanksgiving Poem

“Thanksgiving in the woods” has been a family tradition of ours for generations.

In just two more days, one of my family’s favorite holidays will finally be here. Thanksgiving is probably the second-most American holiday right after the Fourth of July. Recently, a couple of journals have published my piece “Family Gathering”: The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature ran it first, with Deep South Magazine following suit just the other day. For my readers’ enjoyment, I am posting a copy of the piece here, since it has found a home twice now. Happy Thanksgiving everyone, and God bless you and yours on this fabulous, historic holiday! 

 

 

 

 

Family Gathering

Dedicated to all my country cousins

 

In those Thanksgiving woods we were grateful
by nature, we were farm kids – mud-made
battle plans detailed our attack:

Mounting our gallant oak-limb steed,
we hurled barrages of pine-cone grenades
followed by Sabal Palm frond spears,
then went hand-to-hand with sword sticks
in the friendly fire of safe conflict.

Wounded, the unnamed invisible invaders
cowardly crossed the creek, high-tailed
into town, where all of our dangers went
to regroup and plot their revenge against
us, the adults of tomorrow.

poetry, Uncategorized

A Poem for Halloween

I don’t usually publish my work on this blog unless it’s been accepted somewhere else, but for this particular holiday, I felt inspired to post the following for all the parents of trick-or-treaters out there like me:

 

 

 

 

 

Spirit Encounter

 

I could have worried that cold Hallows Eve
when we made it home from trick-or-treating
and there was that owl: unafraid, peering
from my dark study’s square window ledge.
I didn’t though. He was small, not at all

like those somber-faced great horned harbingers
of storybook lore – all death and wisdom –
more like a clay pot waiting for flowers,
an earthen vessel sheltered and shrouded
by warm bricks, mortar holding frosted glass.

Crouching like pranksters, slow-creeping as frightened field mice, we inched toward him.
Whispering, pointing, my two sons –
zombie and doctor – wanted him to fly.
He didn’t though. His nocturnal eyes turned

toward us, pleading, it seemed, to remain
in that safe alcove on the cusp between
thoughts and a threatening night.
We headed inside with our pumpkins full
of treasure from our neighborhood.

His silhouette stayed, backlit in yellow
shining streetlamp shades – a happy shadow
sighing, cooing: soothing us into
deepest contented-dream slumber where we
could not worry until All Saints’ morning.