A Little World Made Cunningly

April, with with his shoures soote, is National Poetry Month, and in this increasingly complicated world that’s as good an excuse as any to spend some time away from the prose of contemporary events in the company of a little verse.

Whether it’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Dickinson’s Final Harvest, there is room for everyone in the house of poetry, Plath and Hughes, Bishop, Pope, and even some Leonard Cohen.

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That 18th century philosopher (that some kids today know only as Mary Shelley’s mom) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.”

How I hope that isn’t true.

…but if it is, how nice that April, to some the cruelest month, has arrived with the inspiration to pick up a sonnet or ballad, a daring sestina or bit of free verse.

Across the US, librarians are sharing poems this month, English teachers are reciting poetry aloud, and a few of us who no longer fit either of these categories are making the time to dip into volumes of Stafford, Sexton, Rumi, and Walker. Some of us are looking for a new quotation from Mary Oliver, hoping for a little inspiration, or allowing ourselves an afternoon with old friends like Keats, Atwood, or Borges.

IMG_6437As a fellow who has made a professional life out of working with young people, I know the possibilities that exist if we can get past the prosaic hang ups of everyday life and, to steal a line from Blake, break free of our mind-forged manacles to see the world as it is, infinite. Young students can do this, particularly before they’ve been conditioned to “do school” adeptly, leaving learning as a kind of bonus.

So as April encourages each of us to wander lonely as a cloud, I hope that in addition to finding some poetry we might enjoy reading (Leaves of Grass, Nine Horses, or Where the Sidewalk Ends), we might also try our own hands at jotting out some well chosen words on a page. This doesn’t have to be Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen; maybe it’s a haiku, one of those little ditties just three lines long.

Just five-seven-five
a haiku is as easy
as tapping out words”

…at least a simple one.

Or if that isn’t your answer, I’d challenge anyone still reading this post about poetry to defy the marvelous Mary Wollstonecraft and choose to use this month when “proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” as a catalyst to see and feel poetically.

One of my favorite Oregonian poets (not born here, but damp and moss covered in spirit …in a good way!) Floyd Skloot wrote:

Without speaking, moving together,
we power ourselves out of the calmer dark
and stroke hard for the water’s bright center
where the spring tide will carry us back upriver.”

Like the kayakers in Skloot’s poem, many of us leave winter a little downstream of where we’d like to be, and it is with April’s emerging sun, celebrated in the chorus of poets from across the ages, that we can dip our proverbial paddles into the water and find that magical balance and sense of hope that so often comes with spring.

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Fallow Field

photo 1 (7)…I see the evergreen
looming on the next ridge.
I see them fade south
until they merge
with the morning sky.

-Floyd Skloot, “In the Coast Range”

My first thoughts returning to Oregon after an absence I understand now was far, far too long, was how much things had changed. After four days of hiking in the forests around the Columbia River Gorge I realize that while my initial reaction wasn’t untrue, it was also, like so many first reactions, incomplete.

Sure the area around Powell’s Books has been polished by the gentrifying brush of time, and yes, when my wife and I visited our alma mater they’d picked up and moved the historical chapel where we’d gotten married to make room for a new library, but at its core Powell’s still sells used books and the nostalgia of being on Pacific University’s campus with my wife still quickened my pulse.

Things change, and that’s a truth that we’re wise to accept, but it’s not something to be afraid of, nor is it the complete story.

Because at the same time buildings get fresh paint or even new locations, so very much of the world moves at a different speed. Oregon reminded me of that this week.

photoOn our first day in the Gorge we hiked through the verdant forests near Cascade Locks. I may have been fooling myself, fools like me sometimes do, but I swear I remember some of the same majestic trees and rock formations along the trail, their moss as familiar as it was when my wife and I lived in Hood River two decades ago and hiked these same trails religiously.

In the past twenty years, a geological blip, the landscape seemed to have inhaled once and exhaled once again, but not much more. In that time I’ve become a father, moved from teacher to principal, gained cats, lost hair, and only vaguely resemble the twenty five year old I was when I last hiked here.

Nature sees time differently, on its own terms. Always changing, it appears not to change. Fellows like me, not so.

This lesson in perspective was helpful for me as an educator; mine is a profession where the immediate can present itself as more important than the longer term. As a principal it’s all too easy to see how a simple appeasal might make for a smoother afternoon, though it could mean the mistake of ignoring the compass that will guide us where we need to go.

photo 4 (3)Tromping these trails, a speck beneath the soaring conifers, no more significant to Mt. Hood than a deer, or a squirrel, or a stone, reminded me that the most meaningful realities aren’t realized in a moment, or a day, or a year. Our decisions matter, and matter profoundly, but our strength comes from seeing our work in the broader scope.

For me this means thinking about what’s good for students now, students next year, and our school farther into the future.

It means building programs, nurturing culture, and planting the seeds of ideas with the resources of today and the vision for tomorrow.

The lesson isn’t new, or particular to education.

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Hanging in our living room is a painting by an Oregonian artist, Beverly Hallberg. Titled “Fallow Field,” the image shows a landscape familiar to the rural sensibility of my youth. We bought the painting a lifetime ago, moved by the colors and feeling, and the painting’s ability to capture the spirit of a particular time and place. In that painting is a reminder that wise farmer’s knew that managing their land meant leaving fields fallow for a season, creating the opportunity for a richer harvest in the long term.

Where to plant and where to allow a fallow field is a part of every principal’s work, a lesson brought home by this week of spending so much time in nature. I’ll think about that perspective as I return to my office in the next few days, the memory of hiking amid the trees “looming on the next ridge” fresh in my mind. And in the hurly burly of the school year, I’ll strive to balance the moment’s immediate needs with the greater, grander perspective.