“I would like to invite you to be one of our guest poets here at The Center, where we have a lively visiting author program.” Here was the email I’d been expecting since a friend had told me she’d recommended me as a visiting poet. “We have hosted poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, Martín Espada, Junot Díaz, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, and many more.” “Wow,” I thought, and “Yes,” I said.
The Care Center is an educational program in Holyoke, MA for pregnant and parenting teens who have dropped out of school. After studying the country’s most successful prep schools to learn what creates motivated and successful learners, The Care Center developed a curriculum that encompasses the arts, humanities and athletics and provides ongoing support for students. GED plus plus. The program works, with up to 85% of graduates going on to college.
A very popular component of the curriculum is the poetry program. “Care Center students soon discover that poetry is a kind of self-expression that can take many forms. The most important thing is that it express something authentic about the writer’s life, perspective, or perceptions.” The visiting poet is a popular part of that program and that was me on Tuesday.
The students had studied The Truth About Death before my visit and were ready, after my reading, with insightful and direct questions which led to the liveliest post reading discussion I’ve ever experienced. “You have a poem called ‘Drugs.’ What kind of drugs were you doing when you wrote this book?” “In the poem ‘Sex’ you walk miles out into the woods to get it on. Why would you do that outside?” “How did you chose the art for the cover?” “You said you were possessed by a demon while writing the book. What did the demon feel like?”
I answered as honestly and directly as their questions, and there was laughter and a lot of knowing nods. The straight forward story of grief, confusion, struggle and a yearning to stay connected to a meaningful life that The Truth About Death tells was a story these young women could understand. It was a powerful morning of connection, and a reminder to me of how effective poetry can be in keeping us grounded in what is most essential in life — truth, honesty, and a willingness to risk expressing whatever is inside. And it was great fun.
I love snow, and woke to a world full of it this morning, snow piled to the railings on the back deck, a huge white hood covering the grill. Sitting by the wood stove with my cup of coffee, the kindling I’d set on the coals flicked into flame, a burst of light through the glass door. The blush of color ringing the dawn horizon deepened and caught fire also.
All the snow in the past few weeks, the storms and the skiing, and my obsessive checking of weather forecasts, reminds me of so many winters, so many treks through deep snow, so many outdoor adventures reveling in the way a great storm transforms the fields and forests into a cross-country skiing paradise.
In the year after Eric died, I couldn’t bring myself to ski or enjoy winter. Snow storms made me sad. Skiing had been such a part of our lives together, it didn’t feel right to ski without Eric. I spent that first winter watching storms, rather than celebrating them.
Recognizing how far I’ve moved from that place of paralyzed grief, I remembered this poem from The Truth About Death, which I wrote just about exactly 8 years ago. Eric would be happy knowing I’m back to celebrating explosions of snow like the storm that rode through New Hampshire yesterday. He would have loved this winter. Let it snow.
The first real storm washes out the little color
in the landscape, the barn and shed and silo
weathered to the gray of a cut snow bank.
Sparrows peck in the perennial bed, tall stems
and seed heads clustered through snow. Small storms
of snow blow up off the roof of the hay shed,
sweep past. We would ski at midnight to catch
the pure snow before the storm slipped over to sleet.
So much happens every day, I need a wagon to hold
the hole. Last night I lay on the kitchen floor,
where our cat slept for her last year, her old body
bony, weightless. I noticed the narrow maple
floor boards running under the hutch, thinking
the world is flat even as I know it is round.
The intention David and I continued into this new year, of getting above tree line once a month, or hiking to at least a 180 degree view, was doubled for February. Not only did we hike to a view two days in a row, we got above a rainbow.
On Saturday we drove a steadily climbing and seriously winding dirt road into the Appalachian Mountains between Knoxville and Asheville to a short trail up Max Patch, a bald mountain top along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. We were taking a side trip from our Knoxville vacation to visit friends in Asheville, and a detour through the mountains seemed like the perfect route. It was.
Originally cleared in the 1800’s for pasture land, and kept open ever since, Max Patch has incredible views of the Smoky Mountains to the south and the Black Mountains to the east. We started off on a trail around a grand slope of dried grasses, then followed the white blazes of the AT up to the summit. We were surrounded by mountain ridges drawing a horizon in every direction.
On Sunday we drove back to Knoxville through Smoky Mountain National Park, and met up with Sam and a friend at Newfound Gap. There we followed the AT once again, this time for a few miles to a trail to Jumpoff, a spur of ridge that ends in steep, brush covered cliffs with a view of mountains to the north. As we ate some snacks at the edge of the ridge, the clouds that had been blocking the sun off and on all day rolled into the ravine below us. Now instead of forested mountain sides, we were looking down into a sheets of mist. Which suddenly picked up enough light to create a circle of rainbow below us.
There is no tree line in the southern Appalachian mountains — trees grow right to the peaks, even though many of them are higher than the mountains in New Hampshire. So instead of getting above tree line this month, we got above a rainbow. I’ll take it.
Knoxville is gray and cool today, but not cold and snowy like what we flew away from. Sam lives in North Knoxville now, a neighborhood that straddles a hill between First and Second Creeks. The streets are lined with historic houses in Folk Victorian, Queen Anne, Eastlake and Craftsman Bungalow styles, front porches set up to be three season rooms, with homes at every level of repair and restoration and dilapidation represented. It’s an interesting area for walking, and a far departure from our usual few miles down Canterbury Road and into the woods at home.
Though this certainly isn’t a tropical beach relaxation retreat, this is a vacation, even if mini. We’re away from our ordinary routines, which opens up the days to exploration and enjoyment of the neighborhood, the fantastically-serious-about-it-all-and-getting-it-just-right K Brew coffee shop two blocks away, our books, my poetry, David’s sketching and painting, studying maps to find hikes and then hiking, yoga with a teacher who can transition from downward dog to easy seated pose by jumping and swinging her legs under her body and through her arms as she crosses her ankles in front before lowering to her sitz bones, and downtown lights glittering last night across the river from Sam’s friend’s condo on a bluff.
Now muted sunlight is making shadows on the hardwood floors of the apartment. Time for another walk.
Beethoven: A State of Wonder. Amazement too, which is what I felt last night after attending the second of nine planned concerts, over 2 and 1/2 years, in which Gregg Pauley will play all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. I’m not a musician or well-schooled in music so I don’t fully grasp the feat it is to perform all 32 sonatas, but I’ve been told the hiking equivalent would be to climb Mt. Everest. I don’t think there’s any writing equivalent, because writers don’t perform in the same way and don’t use their bodies with fierce intensity and focus to create a world of beauty in front of an audience. This concert series fascinates me, this State of Wonder, exactly because of the intensity and focus that’s so evident in what Gregg Pauley has undertaken, and what he’s accomplishing. Not only is it incredible to experience Beethoven’s sonatas, and be bathed in the brilliance of his compositions, it’s incredible to witness an artist achieving a masterpiece of performance. I’m not a performer, but I have a fierce passion for creation, and being in the presence of someone realizing a passionate ambition is thrilling.