That’s not how love works, redux.

I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter …

Yes, almost half a month into epistolary poems. I haven’t reached that crossover point, the moment that happens a lot of the time in April when I suddenly realize I’m enjoying working with the form, even when I have so much still to learn and work through. I’m no longer feeling as if I’m in a pitched battle with the form, and that seems like for-real progress.


Unscarred, Not Unscathed
Twenty-five, power and control

I want to sit with you
on the train ride home after the first date.
Could I warn you,
convince you?
I want to say
stop, sweet girl.
That man will hurt you.
Not with his hands —
he will never strike you.
But you will be years recovering.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you
and tell you the sick you feel in your gut
isn’t a giddy tickle of new love.
That’s your fear response,
your body sensing a predator,
just as he scented prey
the first time you smiled at him.
I am still recovering.

I want to say
you deserve so much better
than his shaming, his belittling, his insults.
He is the story you’ll never tell anyone.
He is every cruel question,
every angry blame you’ll hurl at yourself.
I want to shield you
call out his lies.
I know you learn so much in these two years,
but your soft heart shouldn’t bear the cost.
I am still recovering.

I want to sit with you,
I want to say you are strong.
I know you will resist him,
won’t give over the total control he’ll demand,
you’ll stand and walk away when you finally see him.
And that will save your life.
I am still grateful.


It’s National Poetry Month!

As I have done for the last forever, I’ve chosen a poetic form, and I’m going to try to write a poem in that form every day for the month of April. I don’t always succeed, but I always give it my best shot. This year, the form I’ve chosen is the epistolary poem — poems written in the form of an epistle or letter. They are also called verse letters and letter poems. I’ve also chosen a theme for the month. Each “letter” is going to be written to a younger me: 12-year-old me on the first day of junior high, 5-year-old me navigating the overt racism of her kindergarten class, etc.

National-Poetry-Month-2020

Ages and Stages

It’s April first, the start of National Poetry Month … and of National Poetry Writing Month. I’ve decided not to keep going with the pantoum, not to keep breaking my heart with #SayHerName poems. I’m not saying I’ll never go back to one, the other, both. This isn’t that year, though. Today, in our time of pandemic, I’m choosing not to sink myself into such a deeply painful place.

I looked at a lot of poetry forms and narrowed my choices down to three and sort of had my eye very particularly on one. And then last weekend I went to a poetry salon, and the homework assignment we were given was exactly that same particularly form. And then I opened today’s prompt for Souleika Jaouad’s “The Isolation Journals,” and it was talking about the same thing. And so here I am, with epistolary poems.

It’s hardly surprising, right? We’re all cut off from one another. It seems only natural that we’d be craving comforting contact, comforting forms of contact. So of course: letter writing. When we first went on lockdown, I made a list of people who are far from me and decided to write a letter a week. And I’m certainly not alone. I’ve read so many posts about letter-writing in the last few weeks. So, to have my salon homework be writing an epistolary poem, to have Souleika Jaouad’s first prompt be to write a journal entry that’s a letter … well, it all just fits. This is where we are. This is where we’re going to be for some time.

In the salon, we were asked to write a to a past self, to pick an age and focus on who we were then, and write to that someone. I’ve had that prompt before, writing a letter to my child self. It always appeals to me. And it appeals to me now.

And that’s my challenge for April: to write an epistolary poem to long (and not-so-long) ago versions of myself. Maybe I’ll play around with meter or rhyme scheme, maybe not. I’m not going to bother with chronological order. I’ll just pick whatever age calls my name each day. And maybe there will be more than one poem for certain ages. I mean, God knows some years are so full or so butt-kicking that they’ll demand more than one poem.

And so, we begin. Happy poetry month, y’all!


Stitched into Silence
First day, junior high

Do you remember those jeans you embroidered?
You worked so hard, spent weeks getting them right.
You covered that denim in flower-power and peace signs
stitched S.W.A.K. over your right ass cheek,
a Black Power fist across the left.

You wore them once.

Do you remember? You worked so hard,
stitching, stitching, stitching long into those late-summer nights.
You couldn’t wait for school to start.
You couldn’t wait to be seen.

Junior High!
And weren’t you practically grown?
You’d had your first kiss,
you’d read Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
          (though not yet The Bluest Eye.)

Junior high.
And you’d be ready that first day,
your jeans and their story,
jeans that would announce your arrival,
jeans that would wink and wave as you left.

You wore them once.

Because your sleepy, backward town couldn’t see you,
wasn’t ready to know you,
was so stuck in its 1950s timewarp
it had no place for your flower-child fantasy.

Even your friends laughed.
Even your friends.
At the end of the day, you took off the jeans,
folded and hid them in the back of your closet,
folded and hid all those possibilities,
stitched yourself into the background, into silence.

I’m here to tell you that those jeans were fire.
They were all the things you believed them to be —
cute, flirty, smart, funny
and that ivy down the side made your legs look so long.
I want to go back to that day in September
to say you were right and your friends were all wrong.

Grab those jeans from the closet, hop on your bike.
Ride down Westcott singing at the top of your lungs.
Who cares if your friends laugh —
who are they to judge you?
Stand up on the pedals, flash that fist in the air.
You are magic. You are magic. You are magic.


National-Poetry-Month-2020

Who’s Zoomin’ Who?

More Zoom adventures. Last night it was storytelling, today it was poetry. I have been a sometimes-member of a poetry salon since the summer of 2014 when I had the good fortune to meet the creator of the salon when I was in Berkeley for my third VONA. The salon is a monthly gathering. Our excellent host invites a featured poet who leads a generative workshop, then the featured artist gives a reading, and then there’s an open mic.

It’s always wonderful. I’ve met so many amazing people through the salon. I was hesitant about going at first because I’m not a poet, but a) no one cared whether or not I was poet, b) who says I’m not a poet, c) the prompts and discussion can fuel many kinds of writing, not just poetry, d) could I please just get out of my way and let myself do things I enjoy already?

Today, we had the salon over Zoom. This meant the salon was much bigger than usual. We usually meet in someone’s home and the size of the gathering is dictated by how people can be comfortably seated in that person’s living room. But a virtual gathering allows for different options, and there were more than 60 people at the salon today!

And it was great. Some interesting writing came out of me today, and I may have an idea for my April 30/30. So, you know, super successful day for me.

And … I got to learn a little more about Zoom. Because there were so many of us, our host put us into breakout rooms so we could share and talk about the writing we’d done with a smaller, more manageable group.

Zoom is one of the tools we’ve suggested our instructor try as they offer their classes online during our locked-down semester. One of the reasons we’ve suggested Zoom (and Blackboard) is the breakout room feature, but I’d never actually tried it.

I like it. There are still some things I want to figure out about it, but it worked well, and it’s easy to set up. Having such a large group could have erased the intimacy I’ve come to expect from the salon, but the small groups let us have that. Getting to talk to just three other people, however, made it possible to share work that was entirely rough and raw.

We had talked about incorporating the breakout rooms in last night’s storytelling, but we didn’t do it. Now I’m thinking about how we might use it next month, how I might use it in the big meeting I have on Tuesday.

 

While Apocalypse-World means I should focus on relearning the homesteading skills I knew as a child, some tech savvy will surely come in handy, too …


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Fleshing Out the Five: Baby, You Can Drive My Car

Some more oversharing! I’m still working my way through the five random facts about me that I shared in my Counting to Five post. The second item on the list was the fact that I don’t have a driver’s license.

I am most assuredly not the only adult in the America without a license, and yet people are always shocked when they discover that I don’t drive.

I learned to drive in high school, the way most people do. My parents taught me, and I took driver’s ed. My parents were both good drivers — unflappable, good parallel parkers, at home with speed — and learning from them meant I took on some of those qualities, too. I was pretty comfortable driving … too comfortable, as it turned out. When I took my road test, I was a little too casual about a stop sign. As soon as I slid past it with the barest of pauses, the examiner told me I’d failed. “You’re a good driver,” she said, but you need to follow the rules.”

Not getting my license didn’t mean I didn’t drive, however. I knew how, and I knew I was good at it, so I drove when I had to. I took a friend’s keys and drove us home when he got ridiculously drunk at a party he’d invited me to. Drove a carload of us home in the wee small hours of a foggy spring night from somewhere in southern New Jersey after we’d played groupies and driven down to DC to follow a band we were all crushing on. I drove when I needed to. And certainly that wasn’t smart, but it also turned out okay. I’m not such a risk taker today, however. For all kinds of reasons.

I was annoyed to have failed my road test, but it didn’t make much of a difference in my high school life. There wasn’t any chance I was going to get a car. My parents couldn’t have afforded to give me one, and my babysitter pay wasn’t enough to get that job done, either. I could have retested, and I probably planned to do just that. Somehow that never, happened, however. There have been times I’ve regretted not being a legal driver — when my desire to have a motorcycle or learn to drive an 18-wheeler rears its head — but mostly I’m okay, and I’ve been fine relying on mass transit and the kindness of friends with cars and strangers willing to stop for a hitch hiker.¹

I’ve had a permit two times in my adult life, but I’ve never gotten serious about working up to take the test. I got the first permit in my late 20s so I could share the driving the summer some friends and I rented a house in the Hamptons. That was fun, as the car I got to drive was a Chevy Malibu convertible from the 70s! I got the second permit in my late 30s to have as an ID so I could stop carrying my passport around. I’m in my late 50s now (whoa! … that’s the first time I’ve said that!), and I haven’t had a permit in 20 years!

I’ve started thinking about getting a license. There are places I’d like to go (and places I’d like to live after I retire) where having/driving a car would be not only helpful but necessary. Some of the writing residencies I fantasize about applying to are pretty remote, and I’d have to get myself to and from.

So maybe, 40 years after driver’s ed, it’s time to take this driving thing a little more seriously!

__________
¹ Stay calm, my hitching days are long behind me, and I’m right here telling you this story, so you know I survived. It’s all good!


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Se Sentir Bien dans Sa Peau*

In high school, when it was time to pick a language to study, I chose French. I suspect this was out of some misguided notion of French making me more … polished? sophisticated? Something. As a kid, I’d always imagined studying Latin. Who knows where that idea came from, but there was no Latin on offer in my high school. Only French and Spanish. Why didn’t I choose Spanish? It would certainly have served me better in my eventual career. But alas, I chose French.

French class was mostly comical. Talk to my brother about it. French was the only class we were ever in together, and I think it might be one of the things that helped us start being friends after an unfortunate period of sibling disaffection. Tony can still recite the ridiculous dialogue we had to learn in our ridiculous textbook. (Poor little Philippe LeDoux. I wonder if his problems were ever resolved.) French class was also one of the places my school’s single non-English-speaking student was warehoused. That kid needed ESOL instruction … and instead, he was put in French class!**

But I learned a little bit. And I made a yule log one year. And I got a good recipe for beef burgundy that my family enjoyed the hell out of. I got to go to Montreal, which was a great trip. I had fun in French class. I didn’t finish my four years of study with anything even vaguely resembling command of the language, however.

Then I was off to college. No French for me freshman year, but in sophomore year I had a sudden interest in maybe actually learning another language. I was cocky enough to think a strictly-beginners class would be too easy for me … but not cocky enough to think I could find my way through an intermediate class. As luck would have it, there was middle ground available: an advanced beginner class!

Course enrollment at my college included a step that I now find fascinating but which at the time I mostly found intimidating. Students have to interview instructors before they can sign up for a class. This went pretty badly for me every time. I had no idea what I was doing. I remember some of those awful interviews. Ugh. My interview for French class must have included me speaking some French, me forming some opinion of the woman who would be my instructor – other than that she was beautiful and much more stylishly pulled together than any other instructor I’d met. Somehow, we both saw and heard the right things in that initial conversation, and I signed up for the class.

My instructor was Gisele Barrau-Freeman. She was French, and I was surprised to realize that it had never occurred to me how much sense it made to have a native speaker teaching me the language. In high school, my teacher certainly know more French than we did, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Gisele was a great teacher, and I discovered that I liked learning languages. I even got to practice creative writing, working over several weeks on an invented memoir about my childhood (about a childhood, not in any way mine): “Quand J’etais Jeune.”

In the spring semester, two things happened. First, Gisele encouraged me to participate in a theatrical showcase the French club was putting together. This seemed like a crazy idea – act? In French? – but also seemed like it could be a lot of fun. I wound up taking on two parts: a scene from Ionesco’s Rhinoceros (Socrate est un chat.), and a monologue from our textbook, a grande dame talking and talking and talking and revealing herself to be quite ridiculous. Both scenes were funny, so I was taking on comedy in a language I barely understood. Right. Sure. No sweat.

Gisele worked with me to help me prepare. I remember her giving me hilarious tips on how to play the grande dame. She did a fabulous impersonation of one of her older relatives to give me the idea of what to aim for. She didn’t have any doubt that I could pull off both performances. She took my success as a given. Remembering that, I realized all of the teachers I’ve written about this week – and the ones I’ll write about for the rest of the week – have this in common. They all believed in me without question. They all took my intelligence/talent/skill/whatever as a given. And that is simple, but it’s also magical, right? I’m sure there are plenty of people who grew up hearing consistently about how skilled and fabulous they are. And then there are the rest of us. Some of us have had some positive reinforcement from time to time. Some have had none. For us, the gift of having someone take your ability as a baseline, the starting fact of who you are, is just about earth shaking.

The performance went off pretty close to perfectly. All the things I’d worried about came to nothing. I remembered my lines, I remembered Gisele’s tips on playing the grande dame. I can’t swear that fund times were had by all, but they were definitely had by me.

The second thing that happened spring semester was that Gisele pushed me to apply for the junior year abroad program in Paris. She’d overheard me talking about wanting to take my junior year off campus. I’d been thinking small and shallow – my college had very few men, and even fewer heterosexual ones, and I wanted a break from all that manlessness, so I’d been looking at colleges that had lots of men, more men than women. Gisele pointed out that there were, in fact, men in Paris.

Applying to a study abroad program would never have entered my mind. Leaving the country? Leaving the country for a year? And, while I was learning French and I wasn’t the worst I could be, I certainly didn’t speak well. How was I supposed to navigate France in French? And how would I ever afford such a thing? My family, by just about every measure, was poor. Unquestionably-poor. Ultra-poor.

Gisele listened to my concerns, but she asked me to set them aside. She assured me that my French was better than I thought. She pointed out that, whatever my French proficiency, there was no better way to improve it than living in France. Money was an issue, yes, but I would still have my scholarships. I wouldn’t have to pay for a year’s worth of expensive room and board at our expensive college, and that would make room and board in Paris affordable. And she reminded me that an application wasn’t a commitment. If I was accepted and couldn’t manage the costs, I wouldn’t go. If I didn’t apply, there were no options at all. She kept encouraging me to apply until I finally did.

For people who’ve read this blog for more than a minute, all my crazy travel stories? They only exist because Gisele talked me into applying for the Paris program. I had never traveled alone, had never thought seriously about going to Europe or anywhere else. My year in France opened something in me, showed me another way of imagining myself, gave me permission to see more possibilities for myself.

In the spring of junior year, Gisele came to Paris and we spent an afternoon together. We had lunch, then poked around the stalls at the Clignancourt flea market. She bought me a pretty scarf and a pair of small chandelier earrings. She called me out a little for hiding behind my baggy, non-descript clothes, wanted to show me I could have another look, could have other looks. It felt too difficult, too scary, to take that on in that moment, but I held onto it – and the scarf and earrings 00 and when I finally decided to stop trying to erase myself, her voice was in my ear, encouraging me to see who she saw, encouraging me to step into the light.

Gisele taught me French, yes. But that was the lesser of the things I learned. She told me what she saw in me: I could be funny, I could take center stage, I could take chances, I could do things no one expected me to do, I could embrace myself. And then she held up a mirror and encouraged me to see myself, too.

As with Mr. DeBlois, I have no idea how she saw what she saw or why she chose to push me. She must have done this for plenty of other students, but I definitely felt she was making a special effort to lift me. And I am grateful for it. Thank you, Gisele. You encouraged me to see a broader world, a broader range of possibilities for myself, a broader version of myself. I was slow to some of those lessons, but I learned them. Thank you.

_______________
* Feeling good about myself
** The insanity of this, boggles my mind to this day. I’m pretty sure my school had no services for non-English speakers. It wouldn’t have occurred to the administration to create such programming. But once they were faced with a student who needed to learn English, how could they ignore that need and schedule him into classes in not one, but two languages he didn’t understand?! Seriously, WTF?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.


It’s Teacher Appreciation Week 2019! I’m going to post each day about teachers who have been influential in my life.

webteacherappreciation