Frodo and Gandalf and COVID-19

This seems like a good time to reread The Lord of the Rings. I don’t know what the next few weeks (or maybe next few months) will really look like, but with time at home and string of rainy days in the immediate future, the idea of an inspirational tale of reluctant heroes doing their best against a faceless villain seems more than a little appealing.

It’s week three away from school and my days are filling up with preparations to push learning online. I know from my role of dad of two, a high school freshman and a sixth grader, how welcome that tether to some kind of normal is for parents, and I can see in my own kids the stress of missing school, not just the classes, but friends, lunches, and activities. …and classes too.

So, like Frodo looking down at that magical ring, we’re all coming to grips with the new reality, a reality that we’ll be living with for a while, and like Frodo, we recognize that this isn’t what we expected. As the young hobbit says to the old wizard in the first book of the epic:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

So too for us.

Like Frodo and the gang, we’re looking out at the hills ahead, pushed to put our pleasant Shire aside (at least for a while) and preparing to take our first steps into an unknown world that spreads out before us. Crisis pushes us forward, and we hope (and have to believe) that we’re up to the challenges this adventure will bring.

I think we are, particularly at our little school, so filled with creative spirit and artistic souls.

Truth be told, as stressful as all this is, and it would be a fib to say it isn’t stressful, I’m looking forward to what our teachers will come up with. They’re planning now, and knowing the creativity that fills that group of wizards and elves, I’ll wager that there will be a bit of fun to this whole enterprise. 

And how will the students respond? I’m guessing with all the artistic, creative, and delightfully clever energy they bring to school every day.

How I miss that energy. The halls of ACMA are filled with magic. We’re not perfect, no place is, but this time away has me longing to be back on campus with the amazing students and staff who make our school what it is.

IMG_3980

That’s not to say that going online is how any of us want to do this. We recognize the challenges, particularly those for whom internet connectivity is difficult, students who have needs hard to meet remotely, and students whose homes may not provide the same space to learn as a classroom or library.

We understand as well that going to school means more than going to classes. Part of the joy of ACMA, a big part, are the students who fill our hallways, acting out scenes in theater class, filming and photographing, hurrying to dance class. From the opening music of the morning to the bustle of lunch, seeing students building our community one interaction at a time, often with applause, is a joy I think all of us are missing. At ACMA there is always artwork on the walls and we’re never more than a few days away from a concert, a performance, or an open mic night.

Right now, as we shelter in place, at hundreds of different places, we know that we’re more than a few days away from any of that. I know that for me that feeling of missing the students and adults of our ACMA family is profound. And…

The day will come when we’re together again.

When? Not soon enough, but then again, we weren’t asked if we wanted a pandemic. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

My vote that we do all that we do with patience, kindness, and creativity. We’ll know more when we know more. Like Frodo, we can imagine our quest’s end, even if we don’t know all the pitfalls and surprises along the way.

And like that Fellowship of the Ring, we can embark with hope, cautious optimism, and the belief that together we’ll live up to the challenge we’ve been called to face.

Breboac! Karrak!: Jack Kerouac

IMG_4153San Francisco Blues is a 1954 fever dream of a chapbook by beat writer Jack Kerouac. Its tiny pages, mimicking, he explains the “small page of the breastpocket notebook” are filled with images and half thoughts, observations and miscellany, fragments of dialogue and the occasional nonsense he experienced on the streets of the City by the Bay in the middle of the last century.

Divided into eighty “choruses,” San Francisco Blues feels immediate and unfiltered. Kerouac’s stream of consciousness puts readers on the street alongside the characters who populate his version of San Francisco.

There’s no telling
What’s on the mind
Of the bony
Character in plaid
Workcoat & glasses
Carrying lunch
Stalking and bouncing
Slowly to his job”

Those characters “stalk and bounce” the streets of the city, some:

Become respectable
In San Francisco
Carrying newspapers
Of culture burden
And packages of need
Walk sadly reluctant
To work in dawn
Stalking with not care
In the feel of their stride
Touching to hide the sidewalk,
Blackshiny lastnight parlor
Shoes hitting the slippery
With hard slicky heels
To slide & Fall:
Breboac! Karrak!”

Breboac? Karrak? Kerouac being Keroauc.

Others appear as groups, as in the 73rd Chorus.

Bakeries gladly bright
Filled with dour girls
Buying golden pies
For sullen brooding boys”

Chorus after chorus Kerouac provides snippets that stick. “Youth is worried,” he tells us in Chorus 9, and in Chorus 65: “The neons redly twangle / Twinkle cute & clean.”

And sometimes the images are just weird:

A young woman flees an old man,
Mohammedan Prophecy:
And she got avocados
Anyhow.”

But then again, for anyone who has spent some time there (in 1954 or today), sometimes San Francisco is just weird. That’s not a bad thing; it’s just a San Francisco thing.

San Francisco Blues is a photograph of a very specific place by a very specific eye at a very specific point in time. The eighty choruses are worth reading, both to see a poet making magic with words and as a window into a world now gone.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with The Wellspring by Sharon Olds.

The Art Goes On…

Leave it to the filmmakers. Quietly, cleverly, consistently they chronicle life at ACMA and celebrate the imagination (sometimes both at once). They hammer out a steady drumbeat of creativity, make original content that captures our school and our world, and at the same time they are some of the kindest and most generous people I know. Today, sitting at home in week two of “social isolation” I had three reminders of how this group of artists will help us all through these uncertain times.

I sat down at my computer (my cats reminding me that I now share an office with them) and pulled up a video that ACMA students made for our ACMA Spectacular this winter. It was designed to show the transition from our original campus in the CE Mason Elementary building on Center Street, which was demolished over the summer to make way for our new campus on the same site, to our temporary home at the empty building that will be Timberland Middle School. Death and resurrection, ends and beginnings, it’s a soulful celebration of the creative spirit that lives in our school …not in our building, but in our students and staff, the real ACMA.

That video speaks to more than just CE Mason or Timberland these days. Watching it again I was struck by the message of resilience and optimism.

Screen Shot 2020-03-26 at 9.38.47 AM

As I did, I noticed that I’d been tagged in an instagram post by one of my filmmakers. “When the only thing to do during #quarantine is photoshop my principal @bjornpaige #ACMAzing,” he wrote alongside a flattering poster that I wish with all my heart was produced without irony; I do want so much to promote HOPE, particularly right now.

IMG_4155And then, still smiling from Efrem’s post, I opened an email from my film teacher. Thinking about the remote learning that is to come, he was already designing assignments the students could do at home. He wrote from the heart about supporting the kids, and ended with the beautiful closing: “Hope you, the fam, the dog and cats are well. The art goes on…”

And I thought, all of this before nine in the morning, that all will be well. I don’t yet know what the next few weeks or even months will look like, but I believe in the ACMA filmmakers’ vision of rebirth, I know that even in our relative isolation we can and will make art, and I join the creative souls that make up our school family in knowing that it is up to all of us to help provide the world and each other with hope.

Swirl in the Flow: Gary Snyder

In his introduction to Turtle Island Gary Snyder tells his readers that his “poems speak of place, and the energy-pathways that sustain life. Each living being is a swirl in the flow, a formal turbulence, a ‘song.’”

Snyder is a poet of purpose, a dreamer, a magic maker, a weaver of words, and a storyteller. He harbors an optimism, albeit guarded at times and tempered by reality at others, that humans and the natural world can thrive together …if we do our part, show our respect, and care for this planet we share with so many other living things.

turtle islandHe is also a poet with a clear voice and a strong point of view, the kind of writer whose work makes a good companion on a backpacking trip or weekend of rain at home.

I grew up in Oregon and have spent most of my adult life on the west coast; the landscapes and details of much of Snyder’s poetry are as familiar to me as they are to many who live this side of the Rocky Mountains. I’ve seen the forests he brings to life in poems like “Pine Tree Tops.”

in the blue night
frost haze, the sky glows
with the moon
pine tree tops
bend snow-blue, fade
into sky, frost, starlight.
the creak of boots.
rabbit tracks, deer tracks,
what do we know.”

I’ve driven behind the log trucks he mentions, and have met people like the old men he describes in “Two Immortals” a prose poem that isn’t above sneaking in some sly internal rhyme as Snyder introduces us to the ex-con and his traveling companion.

     His friend, in a red and black buffalo check jacket stuck his hand out, under my nose, missing the forefinger. “How’d I lose that!” “How?” “An axe!”
Texas Slim said “I’m just giving him a ride. Last year his wife died.” The two ambled off, chuckling, as Kai and Gen came running back up from the banks of the Rogue River, hands full of round river stones.”

That those people and places can be so perfectly captured in Turtle Song strikes me as something pretty magical. I wonder if readers beyond these rain soaked climes feel the same sense of place I do. I suppose some must; Turtle Song won Snyder the 1975 Pulitzer Prize. Still, it feels  personal when I read poems like “Dusty Braces” with its catalogue of “punchers, miners, dirt farmers, railroad-men” and the poem’s narrator, a “tree hearted son.”

There is a sense of purpose to Snyder’s poetry. In poems like “For the Children.”

The rising hills, the slopes,
of statistics
lie before us.
The steep climb
of everything, going up,
up, as we all
go down.

In the next century
or the one beyond that,
they say,
are valley, pastures,
we can meet there in peace
if we make it.

To climb these coming crests
one word to you, to
you and your children:

stay together
learn the flowers
go light”

And there is also a streak of something close to resignation. Addressing his readers at the end of “The Call of the Wild” (a poem that shares its title with the classic Jack London novel, and knows it, but takes as its subject something more human than London’s dog story) Snyder writes: “I’d like to say / Coyote is forever / Inside you. / But it’s not true.” I suppose the line would feel cynical if it weren’t true, but Snyder’s collection reminds us over and over that our human lives are, by our own choosing, at odds with nature. That we might overcome those choices always lurks nearby, but Turtle Island is a reminder that we aren’t living the clean life yet.

In “By Frazier Creek Falls” Snyder allows himself a painterly touch to the description of nature around him.

Standing up on lifted, folded rock
looking out and down—

The creek falls to a far valley.
hills beyond that
facing, half-forested, dry
—clear sky
strong wind in the
stiff glittering needle clusters
of the pine—their brown
round trunk bodies
straight, still;
rustling trembling limbs and twigs

listen.

This living flowing land
is all there is, forever

We are it
it sings through us—

We could live on this Earth
without clothes or tools!”

Sure criticisms about the veracity of those last two lines come to mind, but the sentiment, the same sentiment that led so many “back to the land” in the 1970s, carries with it a sense of belonging and a belief in the holiness of nature.

Snyder, incorporating Native American imagery, catalogues of animals and geographical features, and helping of Zen, describes our natural world and our human place in it (sometimes aspirationally) in a way that resonated in the mid 1970s and I suspect might resonate with a new generation of youth who look around and see a planet, as Snyder describes it: “Turtle Island.”

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with San Francisco Blues by Jack Kerouac.

Dog Days

IMG_4008At least the dogs are happy. That seems the most universal silver lining when I talk with friends. People home from work and school, walks a joy (for homebound humans as well as four legged bundles of fur clad love), the COVID-19 induced time at home means that while many of us wrestle with uncertainty, anxiety, and a dollop of boredom, the pups are active, appreciated, and bounding into what mother nature tells them is spring. They are angels, and perfect reminders that there is still much that is right in the world.

But that world.

Today, in addition to a video conference on how our district might facilitate online learning and how we can support our soon to be graduating seniors, I spent two hours back on campus to allow teachers and counselors time to come in and collect plants, files, and anything they need before we’re away from campus for a spell. (I’d say until April 28, the governor’s latest return date for schools, but the world seems to change every morning when I get up and a date like that could seem antiquated before anyone reads this post).

It was wonderful (and a little surreal) to see the adults I work with coming back to campus during the allotted window, even if we all kept a sensible distance between us and weren’t quite sure what to say (“See you soon?”) as each person left the building.

We’re all trying to figure out what happens next, both as an education system and each of the individuals who make up our school. I know students are feeling the strangeness of it all; I’ve gotten concerned emails from some and marvelous emails from a few others, sharing the art and music they’re making and ideas for when we get back.

I got another email from a teacher who had driven by our old campus, soon to be our new campus as they build a new building that we’ll move into in the fall of 2021. “Sun is out,” he wrote. “Weather nice. Construction going well. Even though we are all stuck things are moving forward. Thanks for all you do. See ya soon.” He threw in a few photos of our building rising up against a beautiful blue sky, and I could believe that all will be well.

Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 6.54.40 AM

The first full week without students, teachers, and staff is finishing with a sense of the unknown looming over all of us. We’re about to go into what would have been our spring break, a week usually filled with renewal and maybe an adventure or two. 

We’re all on a huge collective adventure instead, maybe one navigated primarily from our living rooms and shared over Zoom. Heading into week two my thoughts go out to all those whose situations are filled with much more stress than my own. They are many, and need all of us to show kindness, patience, and support.

I wish I had answers to the questions people are asking me as a principal. (When will we be back? What will it look like when we are? Why can we just switch to online learning now?) But the truth is that while I’m fortunate to have lots of autonomy in my building, the answers to all those questions are beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. I know that our district is at work on what it can address equitably and thoroughly, and the state is assessing things every day. So, I believe the answers will come, some we like, some that may frustrate us, but those will take time.

Time that my dog tells me would be well spent on a walk.

Making Eye Contact with Pain: Fatimah Asghar

If+They+Come+for+Us+cover“Every year I manage to live on earth,” writes Fatimah Ashgar, “I collect more questions than answers.” In her collection If They Come For Us, a powerful first volume of poetry that stretches the definition of poetry to encompass word heavy images that are much more than simply clever, Ashgar presents history, both her own and that of a greater world, and her work inspires “more questions than answers.” Movingly so. 

If They Come For Us opens with a note of explanation of the Partition, an event that looms over many of the poems throughout the collection. Explaining to any in her audience who do not know, “at least 14 million people were forced into migration as they fled the ethnic cleansings and retributive genocides that consumed South Asia during the India / Pakistan Partition.” But those are the facts, the poems that follow tell what happened.

In poems like the dense, haunting “Partition” Asghar writes of belonging and the lack of belonging. 

you’re kashmiri until they burn your home. take your orchards. stake a
different flag. until no one remembers the road that brings you back.”

The poem, the first of several simply titled “Partition”, continues with descriptions and reversals, ending in a new country:

…you’re muslim
until it’s too dangerous. you’re safe until you’re alone. you’re american
until the towers fall. until there’s a border on your back.”

That border on her back is just one of the poetic ways Asghar describes her history and her family’s history, which she tells readers “violence [is] not an over there but a memory lurking / in our blood, waiting to rise.”

Asghar uses her poetry deftly to illustrate those memories lurking in blood. In another “Partition” poem, this beginning with the line “1945: my grandfather steps / off a train in Jammu & Kashmir” she takes readers through more than a half century and back. It is brutal, beautiful, and encompasses volumes through couplets and short stanzas.

But these are not only political poems, or verse written on the subject of nations. If They Come For Us is just as insightful when Asghar turns intimate and accessible.

In “Map Home”, a poem disguised as a crossword puzzle, she writes “but still you insist on making eye contact with pain.” Asghar does just that over and over, sometimes breaking our hearts, as in “The Last Summer of Innocence” when she puts us in the shoes of a Muslim child in the United States “the summer after the towers fell or were blown down / or up & I watched the TV over & over.” Identity, puberty, belonging, and a thousand emotions universal to humans coalesce in two pages of raw poetry. Asghar is masterful at creating a world her readers (independent of their backgrounds or experiences) can inhabit with her.

Sometimes confessional, as in “My Love for Nature,” when she writes: 

…My love
for nature is like my love for most things:
fickle & theoretical. Too many bugs
& I want a divorce.”

And sometimes clever, as when the “Old Country” of one poem’s title turns out to be Old Country Buffet and the poem surprises with the topic of family not nation, at least not until later in the poem when Asghar, as she does so well, widens our eyes a little more and balances the universality of family and childhood insecurity with the sobering specificity she can see because she has had the courage, to quote from a later poem, to “pluck my ancestors eyes / from their faces / & fasten them to mine.”

Fatimah Asghar is a poet to celebrate, a poet to introduce to others, a poet to read and re-read. My “Year of Poetry” has brought me in contact with some old favorites and some voices less familiar. Reading If They Come For Us, I can say that Fatimah Asghar belongs in first category. Her work is really, really good.

If you haven’t yet read If They Come For Us, hurry to the bookshop. Asghar has collected questions and some answers (she tells us in a poem: “I collect words where I find them”) and her words are worth finding.

 

Continuing this year of poetry next week with Turtle Island by Gary Snyder.

Cut Flowers and Spring

It snowed on the first day of the extra week of spring break brought to the kids by the COVID-19 Coronavirus, a strange day after the strange day on which we found out that schools were closing for two weeks and middle school boys everywhere rejoiced in the idea of a fortnight of Fortnite. For the rest of us, particularly the adults who now are puzzling over how to navigate kids and social distancing, Friday was the start of an uncertain time. 

By the time I sat down to write this post on Sunday night more and more restrictions had come into play and others still were being mulled over by folks in government who mull over such things. I keep waiting for the centipede of uncertainty’s next shoe to drop.

That uncertainty, coupled with the challenge of being a principal on the edge of school closures beyond my control but within my responsibility to communicate has put this blog on hold for a week or so, and even now I wasn’t sure what I could say; anything newsworthy would seem to be outdated by the time I hit “post.” So…

I use this blog to tell stories, stories of pirates, and port-a-potties, and pies in the face, and while I might not have the answers right now, I thought I could at least tell two and a half stories of life on the ground here at school, and then end with a line from Neruda and I hope a pinch of hope.

Story 1: I was walking down the hallway Friday morning with one of my math teachers. A senior hurried alongside us and asked: “What are we doing today in statistics?” The teacher didn’t break stride. “Statistics,” he said with a smile.

Story 2: A mom, whose middle school son had been out with a cold, asked if she could come in and pick up some of his books from his locker before the school closed down for two weeks of spring break. I walked her down to his locker and as she tumbled the books, notebooks, and stray papers into a grocery bag the sliver of a note fluttered to the bottom of the locker. She picked it up and glanced at it to see if she ought to stuff it in with the rest. Then she paused, her mother’s eyes deciphering the writing. “This says ‘smooching,’” she said, looking up at me. I thought it was something like a surprised smile that crossed her face. “You could always leave it in the locker,” I suggested. This time the smile was apparent. “Oh no, this one’s going home.”

Story 2½: I waved goodbye to the mom and her note, thinking that the day couldn’t get much stranger, and looked down to realize that I was wearing a lab coat. About a thousand years ago, when I was an English teacher at a small school in Oregon, a good friend and I started “Lab Coat Mondays.” It must have begun when I was teaching Frankenstein or some such thing; costumes were always a part of my repertoire as a teacher, and once I realized the fun (and ample pockets) of a lab coat it was something too great not to do once a week. I’d mentioned Lab Coat Mondays to some colleagues here at ACMA and, with a wit and sense of whimsy that I’ve found to be a part of who we are as a school, it wasn’t long before a host of teachers were wearing lab coats once a week (we opted for Friday). While many of them chose a sleek black look, my old standby is a well worn white lab coat, and I wondered: did that mom think I was wearing this because of COVID-19?

IMG_9523

These are light and cough free stories of the Coronavirus and the weird whirlwind of closing school unexpectedly. I know that there are serious stories of hardship and illness out there as well, and that over the next few days and weeks we could see things turn again and again.

Our present reality caught us mid stride, and while we would like to keep doing what we’re doing (statistics or otherwise) and while we know that life goes on (smooching included, even if we know it could be a bad idea) those ways of being in the world that started with the best of intentions (lab coats on Friday, for instance) could need a bit of modification to make sense today.

There’s a line by Pablo Neruda that came to my mind as information continued to unfold: “You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep spring from coming.” Canceled classes, postponed events, and even stores without toilet paper and canned beans may make us feel like all of the flowers have been cut down, but spring will come, and as we support one another through these uncertain times, I believe that there are brighter days ahead. Even if we’re surprised by a snowy March morning or two.

Noun and Story: Jane Hirshfield

beautyThe Beauty, a 2015 collection by Jane Hirshfield, is filled with the kind of carefully crafted verse that has earned the poet a mantle of awards and acclaim rare amongst contemporary poets. In a year when I’ve spent week after week reading poets from across years and continents, The Beauty felt like the kind of book that should itself inspire such an endeavor. 

Hirshfield is a Bay Area poet, and having lived in the shadow of Mt. Tam myself a number of years back I like to imagine that I have at least a little understanding of the landscape in which some of her poems take place.

But sense of place in Hirshfield’s poems is hardly geographic. Hers is a world of unexpected focus (or focus on the unexpected) and insightful imagination. In “Quartz Clock” Hirshfield juxtaposes her work as a poet with the labors of a scientist.

The ideas of a physicist
can be turned into useful objects:
a rocket, a quartz clock,
a microwave oven for cooking.
The ideas of poets turn into only themselves,
as the hands of the clock do,
or the face of a person.
It changes, but only more into the person.”

Hirshfield’s musings stuck with me. As much as any single poem, her little insights and turns of phrase echoed in my mind all week. “My eyes went / to the window,” she wrote, “as a cat or dog left alone does.” And “It’s hard to unlatch a day / from noun and story.” And: 

A well runs out of thirst
the way time runs out of a week,
the way a country runs out of its alphabet
or a tree runs out of its height.”

The Beauty presents a series of small “pebbles,” mostly two and three line snippets that feel like Haiku gone wild, or Blakean aphorisms with less sharp teeth. The dozen in the middle of the collection provide a breath before the final batch of verse that encompasses much, nodding to physics and poetics, science and soul. In “Entanglement” she describes relationships in ways that make nature, including human nature, feel almost magical.

No one can explain it.
The strange charm between border collie and sheep,
leaf and wind, the two distant electrons.

There is, too, the matter of a horse race.
Each person shouts for his own horse louder,
confident in the rising din
past whip, past mud,
the horse will hear his own name in his own quickened ear.”

The poem goes on with the story of a woman in Beijing buying a metal turtle for her love. It is a story of infinite regression, or at least the peeling away of layers to the point of a single electron. Hirshfield’s poems do as much, word by word, deeper and deeper, making it impossible to unlatch day “from noun and story.”

This is a beautiful book of poetry.

 
Continuing this year of poetry next week with If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar.

The Thing With Feathers

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
                               Emily Dickinson

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about hope. By February, in climates like mine, the world around us has been gray and rainy for months, car windows need ice scraped off in the dark of morning, and it’s easy to let gloom, or pessimism, or frustration creep in to hearts otherwise open to something more noble. 

The stresses of the workaday world feel more real in February than they do in other months, and this year I’ve written far, far too many condolence cards. The stress of our culture and the very personal stresses of a thousand different origins seem to be on display everywhere. And…

If Emily Dickinson is to be believed, somewhere in our souls perches this thing with feathers whose singing never stops at all. I believe that.

I believe that because I caught a verse of that song when I read something a friend wrote last week, and since then hope has felt more real to me than it has in a long time.

photoHe wrote: “Hope has been a central theme for me these past seven weeks. Hope for a good PET Scan, hope for a negative biopsy, hope that the cancer hasn’t spread, hope that the chemo treatments will kill all the cancer, hope that I can grow old and have grandchildren. I have always loved to hope – whether it is looking forward to a vacation during the summer, or watching my favorite show on TV after a long day of work. Hope to me -means you are still alive and you have a chance to make it better. Hope is a wish and belief in your heart of good things to come. This is what sustains me during all these treatments. I am reading a book now called 50 days of Hope written by a cancer survivor that had a highly aggressive type of cancer and is doing well. This summer after I am done with my chemo treatments my doctor wants me to spend a month at a hospital in LA called “City of Hope” to do a stem cell transfusion. The hope is that this treatment will keep the cancer from reappearing. I need that hope – it keeps me going!”

It is people like my friend who keep me going, and inspire me to believe that as crazy as the world around us can be, as difficult as situations prove (and it’s true that sometimes the difficulty is profound), there is still room for “belief in your heart of good things to come.” I’m inspired by his definition of hope as meaning “you are still alive and you have a chance to make it better.” That notion of giving to others, of making a difference, of improving the world (all hallmarks of my friend) makes the concept of hope active. We are not called on simply to listen to the song of that thing with feathers, but to sing along, to ask ourselves how we can make it better, and then get to work doing just that.