Every Child Is Born a Poet*

love rejected
hurts so much more
than love rejecting;
they act like they don’t love their country
no
what it is
is they found out
their country don’t love them

— Lucille Clifton

__________

I used to write poetry all the time, had this idea that I was a poet.  A couple of my poems won some competition when I was in junior high.  They weren’t all that, but at the time, I was pretty happy with them.  I wrote mostly greeting-card-style poems: lots of nice, sing-song-rhythm rhymes, lots of pretty sentiments.  The poems got less sweet and sappy, less rhyme-y, in high school when my family started falling apart and I had a breakdown.  The writing still wasn’t great, but it was a lot closer to being good than the earlier work.

I went off to college with the thought I’d ‘hone my craft’ and become a ‘real’ writer.  I don’t know if the system still works this way, but when I got to Sarah Lawrence, students interviewed the professors in order to choose classes.  It was an interesting idea, sure, but not so workable in practice for me.   At 17, I wouldn’t have known how to interview prospective newspaper delivery kids, let alone my teachers.  I was completely intimidated by a man who probably would have been a fine poetry instructor, and went instead with a kindly-seeming woman who wound up shutting me down entirely.

That ‘kindly-seeming woman’ was poet Patricia Goedicke.  Forgive me, but I am going to speak ill of the dead here.  Ms. Goedicke may have presented as warm and kind in our interview, but she wasn’t particularly either in our workshop.  There was one student in the class whose work she very much liked, and she did not hesitate to make sure the rest of us knew that, didn’t hold back from saying that we couldn’t hold a candle to that student and that our inferiority even stripped us of our right to offer critiques of anyone’s writing.  And then there were my one-on-one conferences with her.

When the year ended, I put down my pen and called it quits on writing.  It was clear to me that I wasn’t a writer, that I’d never been a writer and that there was no chance of me ever being a writer.

Three years passed.   My last year in college, a friend told me that if I didn’t write a story and show it to someone she would stop speaking to me.  She bullied me into setting up a meeting with one of the fiction instructors, and once I had that deadline, I sat down and wrote a story.  The instructor I met with was Grace Paley.  And she was completely lovely with me.  Our 30-minute meeting stretched to an hour, and I left kicking myself for not having signed up for a fiction workshop freshman year instead of poetry, for not having walked away from Goedicke’s class after the first insult, for having doubted my ability to write because of one person’s unkindness.

I wrote like crazy after that, but I didn’t write poetry.  That was a room I wasn’t allowed to enter.  Poetry was for other people, people with more talent, people who knew or understood more … about language, about life, about … I don’t know what, but something that I didn’t know and understand.

When I started teaching adult literacy classes, I found my way back to poetry.  I couldn’t make my students try to write poems and not try right alongside them.  And I wrote bad poems, but I liked them, so I kept writing.  But that was just messing around.  It didn’t make me A POET.

Obviously, I’m still writing poems.  Last spring, I turned out almost five dozen tanka, for goodness sake.  I’m definitely still writing poems.  I don’t always love them, but I do like them, like that I’m writing them.  But calling myself a poet?  Can’t quite get there yet.  Still feel like that’s a room I’m not allowed in.  Still letting one person (who’s been dead nearly four years, I find) dictate how I can and can’t think of myself as a writer.  Almost let that old hurt keep me from attending the Sonia Sanchez workshop two weeks ago.  I’ve got some work to do.

Taking one more chance,
spreading my ribs to reveal
the whole of my heart in one glance.
What will it cost to feel
that raw, that vulnerable, to reel
back from the door-closing “We regret to inform,”
that luke-warm “No” harsh as an ice-storm?

_____

*  Thank you, Piri Thomas.

Did an angel whisper in your ear?

As far as I know, Mildred never found a reason to get back to Lake Charles despite having been born there.  From the moment I heard Lucinda Williams’ song, however, it was connected in my mind to my aunt.

There is so much about her that I never knew, that I am learning now that she is gone.  I learned that she was able to convince someone at the all-white University of Texas School of Medicine to let her all-black high school science club tour the school and see the labs.  Now see, I might have tried to arrange such a trip, but I would have relied on a strategically batted eye or a coy smile, this warm musical voice that everyone always comments on.  But Mildred was never a sweet-talker, so I’d love to know how she worked that one out.

I learned that she was in Boston during the time of the Boston Strangler (yikes!), casually staying out late at night doing her lab work.

Mildred taught for 25 years in Texas and another 20 in New York and worked summers as a camp counselor for 30.  People from all those classes and all those wonderful summers in the nature room have all kinds of stories about her, too.  Fox had the excellent idea of putting up a rememberance blog and inviting people to share their stories and photos.  Here are a couple of the lovely notes that have been posted:

I am so glad she was able to share in the joy of the Inauguration.  She was a delightful friend to me when I was a new counselor and Nurse at Treetops, starting in 92.  She had a sweet way of making me feel special and that meant a lot since she was such an extraordinary woman herself. I worked with her in the last years of her tenure at Treetops and I definitely consider it to be a privilege.

I was one of Millie’s campers for many years at Camp Treetops.  My years in Junior Camp seldom found me far from her nature room.  I remember vividly the terrariums, the incubating eggs, the live off the land trips, the blueberry fritters (which make my mouth water just thinking about them), the annual dinner (which a few of us were lucky enough to be invited to from senior camp) and most of all, I remember her warmth and love.  She deeply loved all her campers and opened up worlds of possibilities to us (stinging nettle soup, anyone?).  A deep part of my feelings about the natural world and human kindness I trace back to Millie and every year, when I return to NCS, I always expect to see her, spectacles half way down her nose, arms full of flowers and plants, leading a troop of eager young campers back to the nature room.

I always think “Millie,” as she told her campers, as I was in the 80s, to call her, when I see purslane, stinging nettles, and other “weeds” on city menus. Or when I tell someone about eating milkweed pods collected in an old graveyard, where she had us notice the artistic details and records of lives lived among the old stones, as well as how the dead fed the plants that gave us food. Or her beaming smile and enthusiastic participation when playing the piano during square dances or when we sang, “All God’s Creatures Got a Place In the Choir,” a song I still associate with her. That she provided a shelter, in the Nature Shop, for so many odd ducks, animal and human (among whom I’d count myself), was consistent with the generosity and curiosity she tried to impart to us. Better than almost anyone I’ve known, Millie taught us that the things we take for granted all around us contain hidden value and purpose, and that there’s a place for and dignity to everyone and everything in this mysterious cosmos.  She was a truly lovely human being, who helped so many people in her long life.

I arrived at Camp Treetops not knowing anyone, to work as the camp nurse, and very quickly upon meeting Mildred decided that this must be a pretty good place. Her love for teaching the children about the wonders of the natural world gave the basement of junior camp a bit of a magical feeling. For my children,  and for so many others, the nature shop in junior camp was a little quiet sanctuary where there were so many things to do and learn , but more importantly it was a place to receive a little Mildred  love and care. Mildred will always be present at Treetops for everyone who knew her there.

mildred_at_camp_1981_001

Here she is at Camp.  She’s almost 70 in this photo, if you can believe that.  I love knowing that she touched so many other people, that our tiny family isn’t alone in seeing and appreciating what a true gem she was and how lucky we were to have her.

_____

And here’s Lucinda: